By Josh Rottenberg
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — When he’s in the middle of making a movie, Seth Rogen doesn’t like to talk about the possibility of a sequel — even in jest. Why jinx things?
“I can’t allow my brain to assume that we’re going to succeed in any way,” the comedic actor, writer, director and producer said last week by phone, letting out his familiar rumbling huh-huh-huh laugh. “I have to be convinced that we’re going to fail. It’s the only thing that keeps me working.”
But in today’s Hollywood, if you deliver a major hit, the prospect of a sequel is bound to arise — whether you’ve planned for one or not.
In 2014, when the bawdy, anarchic R-rated comedy “Neighbors” — the story of a married couple (Rogen and Rose Byrne) who go to war with a neighboring fraternity — proved an outsize smash, grossing more than $270 million worldwide, Universal Pictures quickly ordered a follow-up. Having never seriously considered the possibility of a sequel, Rogen and the film’s director, Nick Stoller, weren’t sure at first where to even start.
“It took us a while to figure it out — it was the most challenging thing I’ve done creatively,” Stoller, whose other films include “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek,” said on a recent afternoon in an edit bay in Los Angeles. “It’s just hard to come up with something that’s as fun and exciting as the first movie, especially with a comedy sequel. The premise — a frat moves in next door — you’ve seen it, you get it. We knew we had to find a new way in.”
Pulling off any successful comedy sequel involves a high degree of difficulty; for every critically acclaimed hit like “22 Jump Street,” there are half a dozen or so forgettable duds like “Zoolander 2.” With “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” which hits theaters Friday, Stoller and Rogen are hoping to defy those odds with a sequel that takes an unexpected tack: flipping the gender dynamics of the original film completely on their head.
In “Neighbors 2,” Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne) — now expecting their second child and still riddled with midlife angst and self-doubt — are trying to sell their house when a fledgling sorority, led by a subversive coed named Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), moves in next door. Initially allying with former frat leader Teddy (a returning Zac Efron), Shelby and her Kappa Kappa Nu sisters soon find themselves in a pitched feud with Mac and Kelly as they fight for their right to party.
Looking to break what many consider the comedy sequel curse, Stoller and Rogen reunited to co-write “Neighbors 2” with Rogen’s producing partner Evan Goldberg, as well as Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien. Together, they set about studying a variety of previously successful sequels, including a few like “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” that were far afield of a randy comedy like “Neighbors.”
“For inspiration, I looked at the ‘Toy Story’ movies,” Stoller said. “The themes are the same, but they each tell a different story as the characters evolve emotionally.” He paused, then added dryly, “I’ve thought about this a lot. I could give a TED Talk about comedy sequels at this point.”
Having been tagged for so long as a purveyor of crude dude humor, Rogen is well aware that he’s not exactly the first person audiences would expect to deliver a thoughtful, enlightened female-oriented comedy. “Oh, I’m sure a lot of people will say we didn’t pull it off,” he said, laughing. “But my mom told me we pulled it off.”
For the “Neighbors” creative team, the key to unlocking the sequel’s story arrived when they learned that the consumption of alcohol is widely banned in sorority houses — a voluntary policy adopted by each of the 26 sororities in the National Panhellenic Conference — even as fraternity brothers generally booze to their hearts’ content. In exploring that double standard, they realized, they could deconstruct the traditional male-oriented frat-comedy tropes — raging keg parties, ritualistic hazing, raunchy jokes — and rework them into a kind of female-empowerment movie.
“That was a game-changing moment for us,” Rogen said. “It gave us an opportunity to re-examine some of the themes of the first movie but through the women’s side of things. That became not only interesting to us on an intellectual level but also provided a lot of opportunities for humor.”
While swapping a sorority for a frat may seem straightforward enough on the surface, Rogen, Stoller and their co-writers realized early on that, as men well beyond college age, they would need some help if they were going to realistically capture the experience and mindset of sorority sisters. So they turned to people closer to that demographic to bounce around ideas, starting with Moretz.
“Seth and the boys called me in and they said they were interested in making a ‘Neighbors 2’ involving sororities,” said Moretz, 19. “They said, ‘As 30-year-old-plus men, we think this is an interesting story, but do you think this is something your generation would want to see?’ And I said, ‘Hell, yeah!’ There aren’t many female-driven stories for 18- to 21-year-olds. They’re mainly for 30-year-olds.”
Though films such as “Bridesmaids,” “Spy” and “Trainwreck” and TV series like “Broad City” and “Girls” have pushed the boundaries in the past few years, the lines for R-rated humor are often still drawn differently for men and women. Some moviegoers who may happily revel in watching frat boys drink, smoke weed and crack sexual jokes might find the same type of behavior off-putting coming from sorority girls — a kind of comedic hypocrisy the film addresses head-on in one scene involving feminine hygiene products.
“Audiences are harder on women — they just are,” Stoller said. “A guy can do something disgusting and people think it’s funny, but when an actress does it, they’re like, ‘That’s gross.’ It’s bonkers, but, I mean, we live in a pretty sexist world. There were a lot of voices being like, ‘That’s unlikable, that’s unrelatable.’ I said, ‘These are kids who want to go crazy, and they have to be as insane as the guys — otherwise we’re not doing the story justice.’”
For Moretz, the film’s message that women can be every bit as flawed, inappropriate and out of control as men is a liberating one. “I think right now in this world, girls are having to push so hard to be perfect,” she said. “We can’t mess up. We can’t do anything wrong. The idea behind this movie is that girls can be just as confused and idiotic as boys, just as vulgar and raunchy. It might not be portrayed in cinema, but it’s happening in real life, and it’s about time that we all clue in.”
Throughout the process, Stoller, Rogen and their collaborators sought out the perspectives of women — including a professor of feminist studies whom Goldberg knew — to make sure the female characters felt authentic.
“We had a giant roundtable of female writers that we’re just huge fans of,” Rogen said. “Then on the set we had two great female writers, Amanda Lund and Maria Blasucci. It’s not like they only gave input into the female scenes, but we knew we didn’t have the insight that two women who went to college would have about these situations.”
Stoller, who has two daughters, says he’s proud to have made the rare studio film that passes what has come to be known as the Bechdel test — are there at least two women in the story who talk to each other about something other than a man? — with flying colors.
“There isn’t one scene I think with any girl talking about a guy at all in a romantic way,” said Stoller, who has also co-directed a very different film, the animated kids movie “Storks,” that will open in September. “At one point we were like, ‘We have Zac Efron and Chloe Grace Moretz — we have to have them have sex.’ But the scene just didn’t work in the movie. It was like the DNA of the movie rejected it.”
Despite his general aversion to counting his chickens, Rogen is feeling good enough about “Neighbors 2” that he’s at least entertained the question — in a joking way — of what a third installment could be.
“When we talk about it, it quickly degenerates into joke conversations about how our characters will move next door to the ‘Fast and Furious’ house,” he said, laughing. “Crossovers are all the rage now, and we’re not ones to buck a trend.”