Andrew J. Cohen ’99 wrote “Neighbors,” the 2014 blockbuster starring Zac Efron and Seth Rogen, and the upcoming “Neighbors 2” and “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.” He recently wrote and directed his first feature film, “The House,” starring Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell. Cohen sat down with WKND to discuss breaking into the industry, his directorial debut and issues of racism and sexism in Hollywood today.
Q: How did you get started in the film industry?
A: I was always interested in making movies. When I was younger I would make home videos. My brother and I would film crazy stuff, like jumping off the roof, but I would do it three times in order to get different angles to cut together. Then at Yale, I was a film production major and I had to make a senior project. It was “The Tell-Tale Heart” but as a romantic comedy. I haven’t even shown it to my wife because it’s so embarrassingly bad.
After college, I was in Japan and I was going to teach English there. Then I just had this sense that I had to go to L.A. I thought, “Everybody else is going to get started while I’m finding myself in Hokkaido.” I called up for a ryokan [a traditional Japanese inn] in Hokkaido, but they were booked so I thought, “I’m going to L.A.” I left that one up to fate.
I went to L.A. and started working at Creative Artists Agency, swimming with the sharks. It was awful but I learned a ton. It’s boot camp. I got so bored at that company that I wrote and directed a spec commercial, which means nobody paid me to write it. It was a cell phone commercial that took place at a funeral. There was the sound of a phone ringing and everyone checked their phones. The priest opens the casket and there’s a ringing cell phone on the dead guy. He answers it and looks up to the heavens and says, “Hello?” The slogan was “Nokia: Take It with You.”
So I made that and then I heard about Adrian Lyne [the director of “Fatal Attraction”] needing an assistant for “Unfaithful.” I heard he was [looking to] mentor someone, so I flew to New York. He heard I shot a commercial and asked if I had it with me and I said, “Yeah, I just so happened to bring it.” He watched it three times and he gave me notes and then hired me. He was awesome. I got to do really cool things on that movie, like help him change the script — I got some jokes in the movie. It was a really cool experience.
Q: How did you eventually transition to writing and producing your own material?
A: At first, I tried to write on my own. I went insane, there was so much pressure. All the studio executives said, “We want to option your script,” and I said, “I don’t have a script.” The really important lesson is that before you get out here, have three scripts in your satchel. Then I worked for Judd Apatow. I went from his assistant on “Anchorman” to producing the DVD for “Freaks and Geeks.” I never wanted to produce DVDs at all. I wanted to write and direct movies. But by producing DVDs, you learn backwards, so you see how they put together the show: just getting different lessons along the way and adding it up to something bigger. Then, he let me be an associate producer on “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Talladega Nights.”
Q: What exactly is an associate producer?
A: A lot of it is being a liaison between the director and all the departments. You’re helping oversee every aspect of production, but you don’t have actual power. You can’t be held responsible for any of the mistakes, but you don’t get the glory of a higher-up producer.
But, I really wanted to be a director. So I wrote something on spec. I needed to direct something, and nobody ever lets you direct anything, so I knew I had to write it. In “The House,” Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler can’t afford college for their daughter so they start an underground casino. It starts out like “Step Brothers” and ends up like “Goodfellas.” I was able to pitch that script and pitch myself as the director. I had to do a presentation where I put Will’s face on Robert De Niro’s face in “Casino.” When Will saw it, he was in.
Previously, my partner and I had a great success getting Seth Rogen for “Neighbors.” I knew Seth from “Freaks and Geeks” and we kept pitching the idea that it was him against his neighbor who’s this young kid and he’s hot. We thought, “What if it’s Zac Efron?”
Seth said, “Should we just call Zac Efron?”
I said, “Yeah, you can call him.”
Literally the next day, Zac is in the trailer and we’re pitching to Zac. Seth is on one side of the table and Zac is on the other and it was super clear what the movie was. We had great success in attaching people beforehand and then selling it to the town. But the writing was a means to an end. It’s weird. I started out at an agency and then became an associate producer and then a co-producer. I knew I had to write in order to direct. You never know what skill you’ll have to learn or break out first.
Q: How was directing your first feature film?
A: I loved it! There’s an energy that is on set that is infectious. When you know you have to do it now, it frees people in the coolest way. People working together and making those split-second decisions is really fun. I like solving those kinds of problems. Because I had to write the screenplay on spec and pitch myself as the director, it forced me to previsualize and justify why I was the guy for the job. You have to put your money where your mouth is.
I had always directed along the way, but I had to put in my own money. That was one obstacle: no one wants to give you money to direct, so you have to invest. From a producer’s perspective, you’re the gatekeeper and you don’t want to put together a package that looks amateur or untested. You want that proven name. This is why Hollywood has a problem with sexism and racism. Everyone is going with who’s proven, and not who we should take a chance on. That’s the unfortunate aspect of Hollywood. Good producers, like Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, find the young, untapped writers who are trying to break in and then help them. Now, I’m seeking other directors to work with. People think that unless you’ve [directed], you can’t do it. There’s that mentality and it affects everybody. It certainly affects people of color and women.
Q: How do you think you or others in the film industry can help to change the lack of diversity?
A: As far as mentoring people, I think Judd made a conscious move and found female voices to sponsor. That’s a very cool thing to do. It moves the industry forward and it moves storytelling forward. There are so many other stories out there, and if other people are not seeing that, then the rest of us will go find those stories and find the people who know how to tell them. Film can be a very open process that welcomes a lot of voices. It welcomes chaos. Shaking things up is the point.
With “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” the title of the movie is sort of a joke. The wedding dates, Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza, are the funny part of the movie. I think exploring complicated people is very fun and funny. People’s contradictions are what I really enjoy. I think comedy is speaking truth to power. And it’s funnier to be true. That’s the whole point of this. Adam McKay can make “Anchorman 2” and then make “The Big Short.” He was telling truth the whole time; he was just hiding it in buffoonery. Every one of those movies has a point.
I’m reading a lot of scripts, seeing who has what skills and who I would want to collaborate with. Developing movies usually takes at least a year to get your footing, so you just have to throw every ball in the air and juggle. I watched Judd do it and didn’t understand how he did it, but now I’m learning. I think the number one thing is to hire good people. Then you don’t have to worry. There’s a guy I’m working with now [whom] I literally met through Twitter. We realized we went to the same school, and I got to know him and a character he created. It’s fun to find people through strange channels because there’s a ton of stories out there. I’m also reaching out to people I admire and have wanted to work with.
Q: What kind of projects are you looking to do going forward?
A: I realized I really like doing suburban crime movies. “Neighbors” is vigilante justice. “The House” is starting an underground casino. I grew up in the suburbs, and I think I just keep going back to that well. I like David Lynch, so the corruption of innocence is an irresistible story. And it’s funny too, but in a sick way. That’s happening so much nowadays, it’s kind of the story we’re telling. If the world is falling apart, and the suburbs were supposed to be an answer, what happens when that falls apart?