‘Neighbors’ Writers Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien Talk Sequel, Will Ferrell’s ‘The House,’ Why Zac Efron Is Like Cary Grant

Cohen, who’s shooting his directorial debut from a script he co-wrote with pal O’Brien, also says of the young star, “People … have got six reasons to underestimate him — right below his pecs”

Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien have established themselves as two of the hottest names in comedy after writing Nicholas Stoller‘s “Neighbors” and “Neighbors 2” as well as Jake Szymanski’s upcoming comedy “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” which reunites them with Zac Efron.

Cohen and O’Brien grew up in Scarsdale, New York, where the duo met in middle school and frequently crossed paths while playing sports, though O’Brien (pictured above, left) was considered the better athlete. Two months after graduating from separate colleges, they decided to move to Los Angeles together, packing up Cohen’s Subaru Outback and driving West, with O’Brien’s car arriving weeks later.

Each forged his own path in the industry. Cohen started out working for film and TV lit agents before landing a job as Adrian Lyne’s assistant on “Unfaithful.” Eventually, he used the UTA Job List to land a job with Judd Apatow, including as an assistant on “Anchorman,” which led to associate producer credits on “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Talladega Nights.”

While working on “Virgin,” Cohen arranged a meeting for O’Brien with producer Shauna Robertson. His pal, who was working at a Mexican restaurant in Hermosa Beach at the time, ended up with job and the duo soon started writing together.

The two launched their filmmaking careers with “American Storage,” a charming if dated 2006 short film starring Martin Starr, David Krumholtz and Steve Carell, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Seth Rogen. Cohen directed from O’Brien’s script.

When Cohen asked Apatow if he could approach Carell to be in the short, Apatow agreed, but advised Cohen to ask the “Virgin” star via email “so he can say no easily. Because he will say no.” Fortunately, Carell said yes, and it wasn’t long before they were selling the short to Paramount Vantage as a feature idea.

From there, Cohen and O’Brien went on to write and executive produce “Neighbors,” which grossed $268 million worldwide. With production on “The House” looming, Cohen and O’Brien decided to front-load their work on the “Neighbors” sequel, which as far as they know, will be called “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.”

Cohen is currently in the midst of shooting his feature directorial debut, “The House,” a New Line comedy he co-wrote with O’Brien that stars Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler as suburbanites starting an illegal casino to pay for their daughter’s college tuition. Ferrell and his Gary Sanchez partner Adam McKay are producing the film, which boasts a strong supporting cast including Jason Mantzoukas, Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel, Alison Tolman, Michaela Watkins, Cedric Yarbrough and Ryan Simpkins as Ferrell and Poehler’s daughter.

“I feel like, even genre-wise, this film is a bit of a stretch [for us] because it’s got elements of a gangster movie in it, and experimenting with genre is a lot of fun. It allows you to explore different options,” said Cohen, who helped keep the spirit of R-rated comedies going strong with “Neighbors.” “You’ll see blood on our storyboards for “The House,” so we’re getting an ‘R’ for this one too,” he warned.

Cohen and O’Brien share many of the same comedic influences, from “Saturday Night Live” stars Eddie Murphy and Chevy Chase to John Landis movies such as “Trading Places” and “Coming to America,” both of which were the names of tables at Cohen’s movie-themed bar mitzvah.

Cohen and O’Brien, both 38, sat down with TheWrap at “The House” production office on the Warner Bros. lot to discuss their history, their process and what it’s like to work with all those funny people.

Andrew, when you came out here, did you always want to direct or was the initial goal to write with Brendan?
Andrew Jay Cohen:
I always wanted to direct, but then we started writing together, and after [our 2006 short] “American Storage” we got a job with Doug Wick developing “The Worthy.” We’ve been writing together ever since — some stuff for me to direct, but then other stuff for us to give to other people to make huge and successful.

How does the writing process work between you guys?
Brendan O’Brien:
It kind of depends. A lot of times we’re in the same room but a lot of times, like on first drafts, we’ll split up and write different scenes or chunks of the script. Before we hand it in, we’re in the same room and switching off who’s typing.

Cohen: I’d say the TV is a key component of our jam. One of us is on the computer and we have [connected] an HDMI cable out to a television that the other one’s looking at, so there’s a symbiotic kind of thing where we can finish each other’s sentences as we’re writing. It always helps for us to be able to watch each other.

O’Brien: And not be hanging over somebody’s shoulder.

Cohen: Exactly! We’ve heard stories about Seth [Rogen] hanging over Evan [Goldberg]’s shoulder and breathing heavily. Seth breathes heavily. It’s just a fact, everybody knows that.

O’Brien: Seth is a loud breather.

Cohen: Any technology that can help us to be away from each other, we like.

Where do your ideas generally come from?
O’Brien: We really took a cue from Judd [Apatow], I think. We wanted to create original stuff, which is harder and harder to get away with these days. They really just come from our lives. With “Neighbors,” I had a kid and Andrew was getting married, and we were talking about how we were getting old but we didn’t feel old, and how someone who’s 25 feels 50 years younger than us, even though they’re only 10 years younger. I hate kids in their 20s who are young and look good in their clothes.

Cohen: Once we admitted that truth to ourselves, that you both love them and hate them, that was where the comedy came from. It’s like, “Yeah, you’re old.” You can’t be them anymore.

Do you have a routine in generating ideas?
Cohen: I don’t know if we want to say it, but Factor’s Deli on Pico is a dynamite place to come up with ideas.

O’Brien: The day that we came up with “Neighbors” there, Carl Reiner was sitting in the back and when I went to the bathroom, I saw him and kind of felt like it was somehow comedy-anointed.

Cohen: I thought it was the Russian dressing on my sandwich, but it was Carl Reiner.

O’Brien: It might have been both! There is comedy in the air there, though, and it feels like a very fertile place where you can come up with stuff.

You guys are EPs on the “Neighbors” movies. How important is that credit for writers and for you to stay involved in the projects you’ve written?
It’s very important and the type of comedy we do almost requires it. We were very integral on a day-to-day level on “Neighbors.” We were writing it on set, and even though we had a very, very good script and very, very talented improv actors who could go their own way, there’s a key component which is just, a writer who can write down six jokes on a piece of paper and hand it to a director who can say, “No. 2 and No. 5 are what I had in mind.” It gives the actors more areas to explore and it’s just fun.

I remember Brendan and [director] Nick [Stoller] were upstairs shooting the post-milk scene in “Neighbors” and making all these puns and they were about to finish and I was like, “I have two more!” So I snuck up the stairs and gave Nick a slip of paper and that started a whole second wave of jokes. Like, ‘How much of you felt bad about that? 2 percent?’ If you can work ‘2 percent’ into a joke, it’s funny.

O’Brien: With the EP credit, whatever it really means, it’s just sort of an official symbol that you’re allowed to voice your opinion on certain things. It’s not something that we do on a daily basis, obviously, when we’re working with another director like Nick Stoller or Jake Szymanski, and it’s not like we’re giving our opinion every moment. But it’s nice to know that if we have a strong opinion about casting or something else, we can just say, ‘Hey, we were thinking about this’ and it’s not weird, it’s just part of our job.

Cohen: You feel like part of the creative team. It’s that weird gray area between writer and producer.

Andrew, you’re prepping your feature directorial debut. Where’d the idea come from?
It started as a desire to do a story about middle school kids or high school kids who started a casino in our town. That’s what we were doing back then. I’d go to Todd Kramer’s basement and play high-low poker. It was awesome! It was pre-Texas hold-’em days, so we thought we were super badass listening to Wu-Tang and Biggie Smalls.

O’Brien: I’d just watch him because I didn’t have any money to play.

Cohen: After “Neighbors,” we asked ourselves, “What if they’re adults?” Then we discussed the idea of needing to rough up a cheater. What would you do? If you sat someone down in a chair, “Casino”-style, what would you use, especially if it’s in your house? So the central joke of the movie is “suburban gangster.” It’s like “Casino” in the suburbs. Every other joke is from that. It’s Will and Amy and Jason, who plays their friend who owns the house. He’s a recent divorcee, so his wife has taken most of the nice furniture, and that’s where they put the tables.

O’Brien: Will and Amy’s daughter has gotten into college but they’ve lost the money to send her. Even though it’s a big crazy comedy, it’s just like with “Neighbors,” which was about this couple accepting the fact that they’re parents. In this one, we emotionally hook into like, “Now that you have kids, how far would you really go to take care of them? If you let them down, would you be willing to do something this insane to make it up to them?”

Cohen: And the answer is, we would.

Much has been written about women in comedy of late. You gave Rose Byrne a chance to outshine the guys in “Neighbors,” and it seems like Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza will have equal time with the boys in “Mike and Dave.” How do you write strong scenes for women?
It’s a trial-and-error thing. As we were writing “Neighbors,” we’d constantly write the same scene of Seth hiding everything from his wife. It was just repetitive.

O’Brien: Originally, “Neighbors” was about Seth and his friends fighting the frat. It was amazing we even got to the right place. It took Seth and Evan and Nick saying, “The wife would be way more involved.” And everything just flowed from there.

Cohen: I think Seth’s wife actually said that.

O’Brien: Yeah, Lauren [Miller] said, “Why is the wife on the sideline?”

With “Neighbors,” you showcased a comedic side of Zac Efron. You just worked together again on “Mike and Dave,” and he recently signed on to the “Baywatch” movie, so can you talk about his approach to comedy?
He’s amazing and so earnest. He gives 150 percent to everything he does and there’s something likable and funny about that. Most of the time when he’s funny in “Neighbors,” it’s because he genuinely thought he was going to be friends with Seth, like when he brings over walkie-talkies. His earnestness is part of his secret weapon in comedy. To me, he’s like Cary Grant. He’s the full package and when people underestimate him, it’s because they’ve got six reasons to underestimate him — right below his pecs.

O’Brien: On “Neighbors,” even he would admit he was a little nervous about how he was going to fit in with all these people who were such improv maniacs, but on “Mike and Dave,” he’s playing the sweeter, more straight guy and he’s hilarious.

“Mike and Dave” is based on a pair of real-life brothers from Albany, so how’d the ball get rolling on that project?
We brought the idea to Chernin Entertainment. We thought, “Yeah, that could be a good movie,” or it could be a potentially very bad movie because it’s about two party bros who need to bring dates to their sister’s wedding or else they’ll go crazy. They’re just these stunted dudes who have a very codependent relationship and two girls who are in a codependent relationship as well.

Cohen: Honestly, the breakthrough was: What kind of girls would they end up bringing? It seemed like if they had nightmare dates who were crazier than they were, they’d get what they deserved. There was a cosmic justice aspect of it that really cracked us up.

Did any funny shit go down on set?
Cohen: [nervous laughter] Hawaii’s a fun town!

O’Brien: We originally had the movie set in a winery in Northern California and one day we were talking and saying, “They could potentially make this movie and we could either have to go to Northern California or… we could go to Hawaii.” We ended up in Hawaii all because we just changed the scene. The power of writing!

What did you guys learn from Judd Apatow?
Reality, and how grounding things in reality is funnier than coming up with wacky premises or set-ups or even punchlines. Like, what would really happen? Start there and never break that, because if you break it, you’ve broken this pact. He didn’t quite say those words but…

O’Brien: We used to probably hold on to jokes and then write around scenes so we could keep jokes, but once you work with Judd, you learn you’ve gotta throw away everything that doesn’t work and just make sure there’s a spine that makes sense. You can always make it funnier afterwards, and learning that took a lot of the anxiety out of the whole thing.

Cohen: Honestly, we spent a lot of time where we’d have A and C, and it’d be like, “Fuck, we need B to get us there,” and when you’re working like that, you’re hemming yourself in. It can’t come from logistics, it has to come from an innate sense of where the story needs to go, and unless you’re being truthful, it’s hard to know where it needs to go because you’re just like, “I gotta get to that set piece!”

Regarding improvisation, how do you know when to let actors go and when to rein them back in?
It depends on the actor. Sometimes, someone will really find it if you give them space. Like, Will [Ferrell] will find it if you give him space. You can give him a direction, but he’s very self-reliant in that way. Other people have such crazy ideas, you’re just like, “That will never be in the scene,” but then sometimes it’s fun to let them go. Adam McKay is really good at setting that tone on set, like letting Paul Rudd take off his pants and jump up on an anchor desk for eight minutes and dance around. That’s worth it, even if it isn’t in the movie, but just for like, the day.

How valuable is having a writing partner and having someone to bounce ideas off?
Brendan’s like, “I don’t need one!”

O’Brien: With comedy, it’s hard enough to know what’s funny, so it’s good to have a barometer and another person to bear the load with when things are going off the rails or not working.

Cohen: Even in “The House,” there’s an entire set piece that I was against and Brendan insisted on, and I was like, “I don’t understand why this is in. It doesn’t fit for this reason or that reason.” But it’s literally one of the funniest set pieces in the movie now. When somebody doesn’t let something go, it’s usually the best sense that they’re onto something special. Sometimes one of us doesn’t like something at first, but then we switch. It’s bizarre. We could do an entire therapy session on this.

O’Brien: In Hollywood, you go through so many things. If we didn’t have each other to experience it together, we’d be like, “Did that even happen?”

Virtual reality is gaining momentum in Hollywood. How can comedy take advantage of that immersive experience?
Cohen: I almost take it so seriously that I don’t even want to discuss it. I lament the fact that the only comedy video games were “Leisure Suit Larry” and “South Park,” so the fact that comedy isn’t in those high-tech spaces like VR, I hope changes.