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‘Bros’ Director Nicholas Stoller on 6 Keys to Directing a Successful Rom-Com

The great comedy director behind "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Bros" tells IndieWire how he knew Billy Eichner was a movie star.

"Bros"

“Bros”

Universal Pictures

Surprisingly, the idea to make the first studio LGBTQ romantic comedy did not originally spawn from its gay writer/star Billy Eichner, but rather his co-writer and director Nicholas Stoller. Stoller, who first cast Eichner in “Neighbors 2,” saw the potential early on when he cast him for a second time in his Netflix series “Friends from College.”

“I loved him from from ‘Billy on the Street,’” Stoller said during an interview for IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “And then we screened the first episode of that show in a movie theater and every time he was on screen, the audience exploded with laughter. And I was like, ‘Oh, this guy is like a movie star, which was really exciting.’” Soon after Stoller approach Eichner to see if he’d be willing to collaborate on something bigger. “I said, ‘Would you want ever wanna write a comedy vehicle for you? I think a romantic comedy built around you could be really interesting and funny. And he was into it.”

While Stoller was on the podcast, he talked about how his own writing career led to his directorial debut with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” the many lessons he has learned in his 20 year career making comedies, and what he’s discovered are the keys to making a good rom-com.

You can listen to the entire discussion with Stoller below. Keep reading for transcript excerpts with six key lessons the writer/director shared during the 35-minute discussion.

1. Don’t Pretend To Know Everything

In the excerpt below, Stoller talks about his first day on set shooting his first film “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”

That day it was the outdoor bar scene. It was with Paul Rudd, who did a huge favor for us and flew in the day before to do the movie for like no money, just because he just thought it was fun. He hadn’t figured out the character yet. None of us had figured anything out and that day we started shooting.

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, Mila Kunis, Jason Segel, 2008. ©Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”

Universal/courtesy Everett / Everett Collection

Paul was hilarious, but I just literally didn’t understand that there’s different kinds of coverage — you know, if there’s you and me, there’s coverage between you and me. I mean, this is very obvious, and then if there’s someone next to me and I’m talking to them, there’s coverage between here and here, and I just literally, for whatever reason — I’d worked on a lot of stuff, I don’t know what was wrong with me — I just didn’t get it at all. And I could feel everyone on the set was like, “What is going on?” And I was like, “I’m not gonna pretend to know what I’m talking about at all.” And it’s still something that I never pretend to know. I’m always asking questions, I’m always saying, I don’t know, because there’s always people who know more.

2. Listening and Tone: A Comedy Director’s Biggest Jobs

Your job as a director isn’t to be an expert on every department. It’s to know the tone. And I think that’s why Judd [Apatow] supported me. I’ve honed a similar tone with him, and I shared a tone with Jason [Segel]. And so at the end of the first shooting day on ‘Sarah Marshall,’ I figured it out.

My primary role, weirdly, as a director is listening and being open. Whether that being open in a macro sense to when I was talking to Russell Brand about his addiction issues [on “Get Him to the Greek”] and just listening and not bringing anything to it, to a micro sense on the day we’re shooting a scene. You know the actor might have an issue with literally what’s going on in the scene, and we might have to rewrite it or change the blocking. The collaboration is where the magic happens, you know, and everyone bringing, coming at the craft from a different place.

3. The Bests Rom-Com Are…

I think of [“Bros”] movie as more of a comedy vehicle for Billy Eichner than I think of it as a romantic comedy about two gay men. It’s about Billy. I mean certainly he’s thought a lot about gay life and gay love, and it has all that in it, but it’s his point of view on all of that.

I think there’s a million love stories in the world and there’s a million ways to lead your life, and to fall in love. Or there’s people who don’t need anyone, who never need to be in love.

It was important to both of us that he’d be a proper adult. That there wasn’t this arrested development movie. There’s never gonna be a montage of him cleaning up his apartment, that wasn’t this kind of movie. This was a guy who really has his shit together, and thinks he — and this is true of Billy too I think, and I think he would say it — doesn’t need a guy. He feels very independent. He has a has a career that is satisfying. He has a group of friends that fill out his world.

'The Worst Person in the World' Review: Joachim Trier Spins a Fun Norwegian Riff on 'Frances Ha'

“The Worst Person in the World”

You know, the best rom-coms are about a character’s search for happiness of some kind, you know? Like if you think about – I just saw “The Worst Person in the World,” which is just incredible. And in that, she doesn’t end up in a couple, but that is kind of a romantic comedy, I think. And she ends up content in some way, and that to me is the goal is to try to have a character who’s dealing with something, some sort of problem in their life and then they figure it out by the end.

4. It’s All in the Eyes

[Billy] hasn’t been in a ton of stuff as an actor. I knew that he could be — this is the key to why the movie works — as confident as he wanted to, and explain and explain, and his eyes are sad. And that’s all it is, you see it in the eyes.

His eyes are so expressive and they’re at war with what’s coming out of his mouth, and that’s like what’s funny about it [Laughs]. He can say whatever he wants — and he would wanna explain it in a way that I totally got, and it’s always better to shoot it, but he, as we debated the script and talked about it, he really wanted to explain everything. But I would say to him, it’s gonna all come across in your eyes, you don’t need to worry about it.

I think he really wanted to make sure. I think the industry really didn’t know what to do with him, and he felt he needed to explain himself a lot. And also, it’s just better to explain yourself in a movie — a movie really is characters just explaining themselves over and over again to the audience — but I was never nervous. I was like, “This dude’s a movie star.” It’s gonna work. And I kind of just knew it.

5. A Big Comedy Cast

I love a giant comedy cast, and I think I’ve kind of always had a big comedy cast. It’s always fun to just have lots of different comedy voices because you always have someone new to go to. It makes the movie spicier, and so that was, you know, our goal on this. In order to make it super, super funny, we knew we needed a lot of different comedians.

And then when we decided to cast an entirely LGBTQ cast, it presents us with a gigantic opportunity to have so many funny people from so many different walks of life who have so many different tones to them, you know? And that to me is just what’s fun about, you know, Jonah Hill said something really observant to me, where he was like he knows a movie’s going to be good when every day he shows up and it’s a completely different movie.

And that’s true of this movie too. Like there would be, we’d show up and it’d be the museum board scene, then we’d show up and it’d be like Luke and Billy walking in Provincetown, Luke’s family — every day it was different. There’s always options for jokes and options for comedy.

Bros Director Nicholas Stoller on the set of Bros.

“Bros” Director Nicholas Stoller

Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures

6. Leaning Into Traditional Rom-com Cinematic Language

I knew I wanted to be a classic rom-com in terms of its look. So [cinematographer] Brandon Trost, who I worked with on “Neighbors” — we knew we didn’t want that. “Neighbors,” the whole movie is handheld. It’s very rough. And for this there’s very little handheld, it’s smooth camera movements. There’s a lot of dolly stuff that I don’t normally do. There’s a lot of very like traditional romantic comedy [conventions] in terms of the way we shot it.

And then when we were getting into the score, we wanted it to be clear to the audience that this is a romantic film. You know, as funny as it is, it’s romantic. And at first I was like, “Should the music be inspired by club music?” And then we were like, “No, that’s not this, that’s not this kind of movie.” This is like a traditional romantic comedy that stars to men. And there is a template, not just from Nora Ephron movies, but if you watch “The Apartment,” there’s a certain kind of music that plays there. If you watch Ernst Lubitsch movies there’s a certain kind of music. This is not a new thing. It’s slowly evolved to where we are now. And so I think we wanted to be part of that cinematic history and we wanted to inspire those feelings in the audience.

And you can feel it with the straight audience, particularly. As they sit down and they’re like, “I know I’m gonna laugh at this movie, but I don’t know if I’m gonna feel that much. Like this isn’t my story.” And by the end they’re wiping away a tear. “Oh my God, I’m in love with this couple.” And part of that is — well,  a huge part of is the performances — but it also is the music and how it looks.

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