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For his directorial debut, Max Joseph wasn’t looking to go big. The “Catfish: The TV Show” co-host and short film director’s first feature outing, “We Are Your Friends,” was originally imagined as a small-scale indie about EDM music, bros being bros and what life is like for ambitious strivers who can’t quite make it over the hump (literal and figurative) between Southern California’s San Fernando Valley and Hollywood proper. Initially slated as a Working Title Films production, once the low-budget film unexpectedly snagged Zac Efron as its leading man, it suddenly became a hot commodity on the studio market.
In November of last year, Warner Bros. purchased the domestic rights to the film for an undisclosed sum, a move that instantly set up the erstwhile indie as a studio picture. This week, it opens under the Warner banner in over 2,300 theaters nationwide.
“This movie was made for little money. It was always supposed to be made for very little money. It didn’t have domestic distribution until after we finished it. And all those things were great, in my mind,” Joseph told Indiewire earlier this month. “We would go, we would make it under the radar, we had a lot of creative freedom because we didn’t cost that much money. It was going to be low-profile.”
And then Efron signed on.
Selling the Sizzle
Despite the heightened profile garnered by the addition of Efron as its leading man, the film was still made outside of the major studio system, with Warner Bros. picking it up after Joseph and his cast and crew had completed filming.
“I think, mostly thanks to Zac, Warner Bros. picked up the movie after we finished it,” Joseph said, “and now it’s coming out wide, which is insane for me and kind of a dream come true, but also frightening at the same time.”
In the film, Efron plays Cole, an aspiring EDM DJ who spends most of his time hanging out with his close-knit group of guy friends, all of whom support his ambition to break through in the music world. When the foursome (including Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez and Alex Shaffer) aren’t bumming around the Valley, they’re watching Cole spin at local clubs. Once he catches the eye of a well-known DJ whose career is on the downswing (Wes Bentley), Cole finally plugs into the glamorous world he’s dreamed about for so long.
So how did Joseph get Efron for his self-confessed “low-profile” debut? Sizzle.
“We just started sending the script out to actors, and I had made like a little sizzle reel. Just a quick visual representation of the movie,” Joseph said. “There is an opening monologue in the film, and on the page, it’s hard to understand what it’s going to be like, especially because I hadn’t made a film that people could see and think, ‘Oh, it will be like that.'”
In order to satisfy naysayers — including even himself — Joseph cut together a version of his vision using clips from other movies. He even performed the monologue.
“We ended up sending that out with the script, and Zac saw that, he didn’t read the script first, but he saw that, and he was intrigued,” Joseph said. “And then we met, and we talked about the character and the world, and I had heard that he really related to the script.”
You Know “These Guys”
Joseph initially suspected that the “High School Musical” and “Hairspray” star was interested in the film’s music bent. “In my mind, not knowing anything about Zac really, except his filmography, I thought he must love the music. But when I met with him, that actually had nothing to do with that,” Joseph said, “He had lived in the Valley for awhile. He had those friends. He really related to being that character within a group of friends.”
The film has already been compared (not always favorably) to “Saturday Night Fever,” thanks to its familiar storyline (both films center on groups of relatively unsuccessful guys whose sense of identity and place in the social hierarchy is rooted in the activities of one member, in this case, Zac Efron’s Cole), but Joseph promises that was entirely intentional.
“I think ‘Saturday Night Fever’ plagiarized us,” Joseph joked. “‘Saturday Night Fever’ has always been a reference point, since the very beginning. The thing I really love about ‘Saturday Night Fever’ is that the movie is a gritty drama. Most people just remember the amazing, whimsical fantasy dance scenes, but then when you watch it again, it’s raw.”
Joseph also identified “Mean Streets” and “Trainspotting” as reference points, mainly due to their takes on the young male experience. “All those movies are kind of about a group of guys from the wrong side of the tracks that aren’t PC, that are just trying to figure out who they are,” Joseph said, “Even bros have depth, complexity and emotion.”
The filmmaker acknowledged that the genre wasn’t entirely fresh. “I feel like there are probably more films about white male friendships than almost any other types of movies,” he said. “I kind of wish, from my personal experience, that I could write about a different type of friendship — but, being a guy, this has been my experience.”
Despite his own life experience being a “guy in a group of guys,” Joseph also found that his best-known gig, as co-host on MTV’s “Catfish: The TV Show,” provided its own wealth of material. “A lot of it comes from ‘Catfish’ in a way,” Joseph said, “I’ve spent the last three years going around the U.S., living for a week in the shoes of a lot of kids, boys and girls in their late teens or early twenties, absorbing and witnessing their situations.”
For Joseph and his partner Nev Schulman, the experience of helping young people find out who they’re really meeting online (and if, in the parlance that Schulman’s movie of the same name popularized, they’re “being catfished”) can often be draining, especially when things don’t turn out well. Still, it allowed Joseph to tap into the emotions of the younger set, real people who inspired the characters that populate “We Are Your Friends.”
“A lot of the film and the characters, and even the line, ‘Don’t bro me if you don’t know me,’ came right out of [‘Catfish’],” Joseph said. “I would go home every day of season two of ‘Catfish’ and work on the script, so things that would happen during the day, I would lift them.”
Joseph, a born-and-bred New Yorker who now lives in Los Angeles, was also able to pull from his own time living in the Hollywood-adjacent suburbs.
“I’d also lived in the Valley for a summer. I’m from New York City, I grew up in the city. Suburban life was very odd to me,” he said. “I went and lived with my friend when I was 19. He and his friends were living this life. They were all promoting at clubs, hitting on every girl that they met. They were charming rogues.”
That summer stuck with Joseph. “I was totally culture shocked,” he said, “and I always wanted to do a movie about it.”
“We Are Your Friends” opens nationwide today.
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