Nicholas Stoller is a comedian's best friend. For many years, the director has been a reliable conduit for letting people be funny on the big screen. In his 2007 debut 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall', Stoller validated Jason Segel as a leading man and intelligent writer. He brought Russell Brand extreme notoriety in 'Get Him to the Greek'. He even gave Zac Efron an opportunity to branch away from his teen idol status and make us laugh in his 'Bad Neighbours' series. He has been a great asset for those wanting to make their mark on film or reshape their set persona.
Stoller's newest project, 'Bros', offers a mix of similarities and differences when compared to his previous work. Once more, he is spotlighting a comedian on the rise - this time being the hilarious Billy Eichner. Moreover, like most of Stoller's protagonists, Eichner's role feels authentic to how we know him and is well suited to his sensibilities as a performer. But where 'Bros' diverges from Stoller's past endeavours is that the film is a romantic comedy about two gay men. In fact, it's the first of its kind to ever be released by a major studio.
During his recent promotional tour across Australia, Stoller spoke with me about what he hopes audiences take away from the film, its performance at the US box office, and the many reasons why he loves 'When Harry Met Sally'. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CONNOR DALTON: Throughout your career, you've provided a great spotlight for a lot of brilliant comedians. What excited you about putting Billy Eichner centre stage?
NICHOLAS STOLLER: So I knew him from 'Billy on the Street' and I cast him in 'Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising' and he was funny. Then I cast him in the show that I created with my wife [Francesca Delbanco] called 'Friends from College' that was on Netflix, and he was an excellent actor in that, which I didn't know. Then we screened the first episode in a movie theatre, and every time he was on screen, he destroyed, and I was like, "Oh! He's like a movie star." I knew he had a strong point of view from 'Billy on the Street' and he's just so funny, so I approached him about writing this movie, and he was into it, so we started working on it.
SWITCH: 'BROS' NICHOLAS STOLLER INTERVIEW
DALTON: You wrote the screenplay with Billy. What was that process like? What did you learn from each other?
STOLLER: He'd never written a movie before, so I think he learned a lot about how to write a movie from me just because I've written a lot of movies at this point. And, I mean, obviously, I'm straight; I learned a lot about gay culture and the LGBTQ community, and we were building a movie around him, so it was important that the movie be honest to his experience and to his comedic voice. As a director, I think I'm pretty good at listening. So I think I did a lot of listening and making sure that the film that we made made sense and was honest to his experience.
DALTON: I think it's interesting you brought that up. Was there ever a point where you were trepidatious about making a film about a gay couple being a straight man? Did that impact your approach or directing style?
STOLLER: No. As a director, particularly of comedies, I'm just trying to make something really funny. And the way to do that is to be really honest, and the way to do that is just to listen to what the actor is telling you. That could be a macro thing. It could be something like Billy saying to me, "Oh, this whole plot point doesn't work." And it could be really micro. I've just been working with Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne on a TV show called 'Platonic,' and Rose might be like, "Oh, this scene is a little weird," and then we work on rewriting the script. So you're always listening to what the actors are telling you, and that collaboration between writer and actor - which I love doing - creates really vibrant stuff, I think.
DALTON: A lot of the attention has been centred on Billy, and he is terrific, but I thought Luke Macfarlane was also brilliant. He's a great find. How did he come onto your radar? And how did you know he was the right guy?
STOLLER: He just auditioned. He was one of the first guys who came in, and I wasn't familiar with him, and he blew [Billy and me] out of the water. Instantly we were like, "We're casting this guy." He and Billy had a great chemistry; they're both kind of trying to figure each other out, which I think is a big part of any romantic comedy, and he's just really funny. I also think Billy's really on, he talks a lot, he's very cerebral, and Luke's really good at just being very still and quiet, and he has a knowing look that's really intriguing.
DALTON: There has been some discussion about the film's performance at the US box office. Despite playing in festivals and receiving great reviews, it seems to have struggled to find an audience in the US. What are your thoughts on that?
STOLLER: I mean, obviously, it was a little disappointing, but all the movies I've made - with the exception of 'Bad Neighbours' - at least in the US, did okay in the movie theatre and then eventually they found their audience. It's always something funny where no one remembers the box office except the director [laughs]. [But], you know, the movie is fantastic. It's not just a good movie, it's really entertaining, and I know it's going to find its audience. I think a lot of people are just like, "I'll watch it on streaming, I'll watch it later," which is too bad simply because it's really fun in a movie theatre. But it's happened with all my movies. People eventually find them and watch them later.
DALTON: Jumping off what you said about the big screen, I thought the film looked beautiful. With comedies, that's not always the first thing you notice. So I was wondering, what kind of visual style were you looking for?
STOLLER: Thanks, that means a lot. So I worked with our production designer, Lisa Myers, and Brandon Trost, who I've worked with now a number of times as [my] cinematographer. I did both 'Bad Neighbours' with him and then this movie. We wanted it to be a classic rom-com. That means the camera's not moving too much. There's not much handheld. I wanted it to be lit really warmly. But we wanted it to feel like a slight wish fulfilment world. So it's basically real, but there's a gloss to it, just a little bit of a gloss. We wanted the clubs to feel real and exciting and you want to be there.
So there are a lot of choices there, but the main thing was just keeping the camera pretty still because I think that's like when you watch 'When Harry Met Sally,' which is a beautiful film. Barry Sonnenfeld, who became a big director, was the DP on that. It's beautifully shot. There's long shots that let the characters just talk and exist in the spaces, and that was a big part with this one, too.
DALTON: I should mention when I got home from seeing the film, I looked up your cast and crew and looked through Brandon Trost's credits. I found it interesting he's done a lot of work with you, but he also shot Rob Zombie's 'Halloween II'.
STOLLER: [Laughs] Yeah, he's one of these cinematographers who's on the trajectory to be a big deal, and one day he'll be too busy to work with me [laughs]. But I'm going to keep working with him until that happens. He's brilliant, and his stuff just looks gorgeous, and he always comes at it from a story perspective. He's never trying to move the camera in ways just because he thinks it's cool. He's always like, "I think it should be this and this and this."
DALTON: Another thing I noticed when watching the film was that this is made by someone very passionate about romantic comedies. How much has the genre impacted your work? And what are some of your favourite rom-coms?
STOLLER: I mean, it's probably my favourite genre. I think there's nothing more human and more delightful than watching a really good romantic comedy. There are not that many of them because they're very hard to make [laughs]. I think it's a genre that, weirdly, people diss, but that's mainly because it's just super hard to make a really good one. To me, when they work, they're the movies people watch over and over and over again.
'When Harry Met Sally' I watch once a year. 'Annie Hall' I watch once a year. There are movies like 'Bridget Jones's Diary' [where] when it's on, I just watch the whole thing. So I think it's one of those genres that I certainly watch over and over again. 'Broadcast News' - I love that movie so much. But you have to really delve into the psychology of your characters, and usually, the characters and actors are not too separate, so that's really what it is about.
DALTON: When we talk about character dynamics and chemistry between actors, was that ever challenging to attain or was it just so natural between Billy, Luke, and the supporting cast?
STOLLER: It was years of writing, really. It takes a long time because you're writing. Billy and I were writing towards him. The character Bobby is based on him, certainly. And then, once we had Luke - Aaron is less based on Luke. Luke's a Juilliard-trained actor; he's in touch with his feelings in a way that I think Aaron maybe isn't as much. But we're trying to create this romantic couple; it took years of writing.
We were going to shoot in March of 2020 and got delayed because of COVID, and I think the extra year and a half benefited the script a lot because we kept working on it, and it made it more layered and more complex. But when you look at the great rom-coms - 'When Harry Met Sally' is a good example. [For] that movie, Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner, and Nora Ephron all sat and talked about romance and love. These three brilliant comedic minds were talking about their lives, and that's why that movie is so brilliant. They didn't make it up; it's based on their own kind of stuff.
DALTON: There has been a lot of conversation about this film's importance. Gay romantic comedies in the studio system are few and far between. What do you hope can be taken away from this film?
STOLLER: I just hope when you watch it, you have a blast. When we tested the film, it tested highest among women. It tested high among everyone, but it tested highest among women, and then next was gay men. So I think it really works no matter what. Whether you're gay or straight or whatever, people just enjoy it because I think the more specific the story you're telling, the more relatable and universal it is. That's an old writing adage, and it's true with this, too. So I hope people go and have a lot of fun and laugh a lot. And like I said last night [at the premiere], you're guaranteed to have sex afterwards [laughs].
DALTON: I'm still waiting, but -
STOLLER: Oh, sorry, I'm sorry, oh god, I think I owe you -
DALTON: No, it's fine, it's fine.
STOLLER: Oh, this is an awkward ending.
DALTON: Well, it's been a pleasure!
STOLLER: This is a bummer end. I don't know anyone in Australia. Otherwise, I'd introduce you to people.
DALTON: I'm sure I'm going to be the only one with that response today [laughs]. I'm sure everyone else is going to say, "Yeah, definitely, thank you for that."
STOLLER: [Laughs] Maybe watch it again when it comes out. It'll happen then. It'll happen October 27th.
DALTON: Maybe that's it. Maybe I was watching it wrong.
STOLLER: Yeah, you were watching it wrong [laughs]. Thank you. That was maybe the best ending to an interview I've ever had! [laughs]
'Bros' opens in Australian cinemas on the 27th of October.