Nicholas Stoller’s Neighbors has already made $213m worldwide. That’s an impressive haul, especially considering it only cost $18m to make. That’s a low number for a studio comedy, and there’s a reason for that. If the film had cost more than that, Stoller and producers Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and James Weaver wouldn’t have been able to make the movie they wanted to make.
They had the opportunity to make Neighbors for $36m, but none of them wanted to see the watered down version. “With Neighbors we kind of stopped,” Rogen said recently at the Produced By Conference. “We played the studio game getting all the notes we were getting. We were waiting for a call one day that was suppose to be the call that we’re making the movie, but instead it was a call with more notes. We had a very real moment and asked, ‘Is this what we want to be doing? Is this the process we want to continue on?’”
The answer was a resounding no.
Rogen, Goldberg and Weaver’s philosophy is to get as much money as they can, but never a cent more if it means less freedom. After 2011’s The Green Hornet, we shouldn’t expect them to. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen on that project, and it showed on-screen. Michel Gondry’s film attempted to be a subversive comic book movie, but too often it felt like the safe superhero movie it was trying to deconstruct.
For Goldberg and Rogen’s directorial debut, This is the End, nobody can watch a demon sexually assault Jonah Hill and mistake it for a studio note. That’s the kind of vision protected by producer Judd Apatow, who gave Rogen and Goldberg their start. Having made a lot more features since their first producing gig, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, those early collaborations with Apatow almost turned bittersweet. “That’s how we thought movies were made: they give you twenty million bucks and let you do your thing,” Rogen laughed, recalling his early experiences on set. “We didn’t know it was in this very protected bubble Judd gave us control of.”
“I didn’t realize the bubble we were in until we weren’t in it,” Goldberg added. “Like, you have to deal with craft services being mad at the medic and then the medic not talking to the line producer. Until then I thought people were really happy on movie sets.”
They learned that on The Green Hornet, of course, but also on The Guilt Trip. While Rogen poked a little fun at that movie, he also shared with the audience an important lesson he gleaned from that picture: work with people you have a shorthand with. The Guilt Trip involved collaborators they had no experience with, and he kind of movie they made was out of their hands. If you’ve seen The Guilt Trip, their lack of input is rather obvious.
That particular middle-of-the-road PG-13 movie isn’t representative of the kind of stories the three panelists want to tell. Still, they recognize not all studios have an appetite for their R-rated comedies, which, for the moment, is the only rating they’re interested in. “There’s nothing worse than being on a set and coming up with a joke that makes you and everyone else laugh really fucking hard and then realizing, ‘Well, we can’t do it, because it’s a PG-13 movie’,” sighed Rogen. “It literally feels like you’re boxing with your arms tied behind your back. There we are conceiving ideas that may make people laugh, but because of some weird ratings structure, we aren’t allowed to do that stuff. Creatively, it’s just devastating to watch a movie and think, ‘That could’ve been funnier, that could’ve been funnier, and that could’ve been funnier.’”
In the case of The Green Hornet they had to find funny PG-13 moments on the set, rather than making an array of R-rated options and figuring out in post-production which take to use. Rogen stressed the importance of coming up with variations to later test for audiences, and it’s difficult to get that many options when they can’t write an R-rated joke on the set. On top of that, it’s just a headache appeasing the MPAA’s inconsistent rules. “The ratings system is so stupid, so why play that game?” asked Rogen. “Why enter a system that arbitrary and stupid? Once it’s R-rated you can pretty much do whatever you want, besides penetration. Once you’re R-rated you’re pretty much left alone.”
Being left to their own devices, both by studios and the MPAA, is certainly their goal. As long as they keep their budgets down, Rogen, Goldberg and Weaver should be able to continue making R-rated comedies of their own invention. Considering their success, it’s hard to fathom them not maintaining their desired level of creative freedom, but don’t expect another tentpole release from them anytime soon.