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Seth Rogen on sneaky feminism, pot jokes in an age of legalization, and acting with toddlers

The Neighbors 2 star also tells us his idea for Neighbors 3.

Rogen, pursued by Kappa Nu.
Rogen, pursued by Kappa Nu.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Somehow the Neighbors films have become the best comedy franchise of the decade. The premise — loud frat boys (led by an impressively funny Zac Efron) move in next to new parents who worry they're getting boring — is as old as storytelling itself, and yet the first film (released in 2014) was a terrific look at generational anxiety and fears about aging.

Now Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, which reunites everybody from Neighbors' main cast and director Nicholas Stoller, is somehow even better, turning the very sequel-y premise of "maybe this time a sorority moves in next door?" into a movie that functions as a weird rumination on parental fears about their children, sexist double standards in the US Greek system, and mid-20s anomie. It's an impressively balanced, beautifully made film, with crisp rhythms and great jokes.

Seth Rogen has been central to both of these films. Yes, he stars in them as Mac, the 30-something dad who worries about losing his edge, but he's also a producer on the franchise and, as of Neighbors 2, one of its writers. Rogen has always been an open, gregarious presence onscreen, and his movies generally inspire a huge amount of empathy for every character in them, no matter how despicable.

Neighbors 2 continues that trend, which is why I wanted to ask Rogen about making a sequel for a movie that didn't seem to need one, both films' sneaky feminism, and what you should do if you ever need to act in a movie opposite a toddler.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Neighbors 2
Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) meet up with their former frat boy neighbor, Teddy (Zac Efron), in Neighbors 2.

Todd VanDerWerff: What I'm most impressed by in the two Neighbors movies is I guess what I'd call their generosity of spirit. All the characters have believable motivations and personalities. How much work is it to make sure every character gets a fair shake?

Seth Rogen: It requires a lot of thought and a lot of writers. [Laughs.] A lot of conversations. It is a lot of people, and you want each one to have a comedic perspective and to understand where they're coming from, so you can sympathize with them and relate to them and root for them.

The unifying theme was growing up, and that was something where once you identify that, it makes it much easier. We can really just inject the stuff that we want to talk about or that we're experiencing. A lot of our friends are parents, and they're worried that they're bad ones. A lot of people were lost in their 20s, like Zac's character. A lot of people in college are trying to find what they believe in and stand for.

Once we identified the major stories and themes we wanted to hit, it really simplified all that, because we could then lump the characters into little motivational groups.

TV: Today people talk way more openly about marijuana use than they did even 10 years ago, when it was a little more wink-wink. Is that something you've noticed in notes from the studio or anything like that?

SR: I think what it's lost in overall taboo-ness, it's gained in popularity. Fewer people think it's taboo, but more people like it because it's more accepted and a bigger part of the culture.

I think it's probably balanced itself out. We've actually thought that. We obviously go to that joke a lot, but we're very aware that it's probably more than we should. I remember [in] This Is the End, we were worried. There's a shot where I have a bunch of joints on the table waiting for Jay, and people literally cheer when they see it. I remember going, "They still like weed!"

And in this movie, there's a garbage bag full of weed, and when I'm trying to smell the weed, you realize, nope, they still like weed. We had to make it more weed. A whole garbage bag full of it. That's how we balanced it out. We'll have to move on to harder drugs, I think. [Laughs.]

TV: Neighbors was not a movie that necessarily suggested a sequel.

SR: No! [Laughs.]

TV: How did you figure out what this movie would look like, then?

SR: It was just through really looking at what would be the next thing that we as the filmmakers would want to talk about. Mac and Kelly really aren't wanting to party anymore [in the first film], and neither are we, and that's done. But the next thing that happens is you've been parents for a while, and you start to wonder, am I good at it? Will I alienate my kids one day? Will they hate me one day?

We came up with those ideas first. Those were the ideas that made us think there's enough to write a movie basically.

Neighbors 2
Mac goes on the run.

TV: These are probably more guy-centric comedies, with the sorts of jokes you might expect, but they have these feminist themes and underpinnings all the same. How do you weave those two tones together?

SR: I think a balance is always good, for anything. It allows you to indulge in both sides of things more, if you are able to counteract it with another thing. I think that's what we've found, as far as having emotion in general in our movies. The better that part of a movie is, the more effective it is, the more relatable it is and real-seeming it is, the funnier all the gross stuff is.

So the more these movies explore the male perspective and the fraternal world, the more you want to check in with the women's perspective on that world, and it makes it all funnier.

TV: Neighbors had a pretty classic protagonist-antagonist setup, and viewers' sympathies shifted throughout the movie. But Neighbors 2 has three different groups that you have to keep checking in on, with the parents, the recent graduates, and the college freshmen. How did you balance all those perspectives?

SR: We filmed a lot more of it than we thought we would need, even. We knew that part of it would be done in [post-production] to see how it would flow and intercut and go between. You really want them to bounce off each other, and for each one to push the other one forward and play into the other one's themes.

With three major stories, it took a lot of conversations. We put a lot of thought into it, which might be embarrassing to say about a movie with 400 dildo jokes in it. But we really tried to make the themes about us having daughters that we were afraid would dislike us one day, to really play off the idea that these young girls who dislike us live next to us, and that they're trying to find their way and be free, and we're trying to control them. And Zac is completely lost and looking for anyone who will nurture him and make him feel valuable. To really have them ping-pong off one another was something we tried to do.

TV: Both Neighbors movies are really tight. They're very compact and have a real narrative efficiency. You mentioned you shot a lot of extra footage for this movie. Was there anything you were really sad to see go?

SR: Nah, I'm always okay to cut it down. I literally today was telling [director] Nick [Stoller] that there was a line I was trying to get cut from the movie, and a journalist pointed it out as a line that they liked, and I was, like, "Fuck. I had to tell you that."

It's funny. On the movies we direct, we probably should make them shorter, and I'm very closed off to suggestions that we could trim them. But on the movies we produce that other people direct, I'm always trying to get them to cut stuff. I for sure have a double standard on that. [Laughs.]

Neighbors 2
It's so hard to have a nice adult dinner when you have your kid along.

TV: Nick Stoller [who also directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five-Year Engagement] is really becoming one of the most fun comedic directors out there. What makes him someone you enjoy working with?

SR: He's very collaborative. He has a very good visual sense of how to shoot things funny in a very subtle way. It's not overstylized, which I like a lot.

People who are known for being visually good comedy directors sometimes have a style that overrides the joke at times. I think he has a very effortless style, but visually it's very funny, and he frames things for comedy very well. He comes up with great jokes and is great with the actors. And I've known him since I was 18 years old, so that makes it fun to work with him.

TV: You came up in the Judd Apatow crew, and now you're giving lots of people their breaks. What do you like about building a comedy family?

SR: It's always nice when you work with people that you like a lot, on a personal level. And it's also exciting when people you think are really funny are willing to work with you, because it's in some ways really flattering.

It's rare when you find something that's very exciting in a creative way, or when you see someone who you feel like is offering something new that you haven't seen before. Whenever I see someone doing that, I very much try to work with them and try to put them in our movies or try to be in their movies.

TV: You're bouncing between the worlds of film and TV right now. [Rogen, who first starred in Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared on TV, has adapted the comic Preacher for AMC.] What have you found interesting about going back to that world of TV, now that you're more established in film?

SR: We've really been allowed to take a lot of risks in television that I think would have been hard for us to take in movies. I don't know why, but Preacher, when I look at it, was a very big stylistic risk, and the content of it was very risky in a lot of ways. The fact that we even thought we could direct it was a large risk in a lot of ways, that we didn't just hire someone who was more established in that genre and tone to do it.

Something about the scope of it or the length of it made us think we should try it. As I watch the episodes, I think because it's smaller and more compartmentalized on a weekly basis, you can try things that would be really hard to try in movies and would require a lot more convincing, both on a stylistic level and a narrative level. I've really enjoyed that about television.

TV: Do you have any practical advice for anyone who's going to act with a toddler?

SR: Oh, man. It's tough. Being me, being a loud-voiced, bearded man is bad for being around children in general. They really did like those pink vibrators [which are used as a gag in the film about Mac and Kelly's daughter choosing inappropriate toys]! [Laughs.] They really did calm [the kids] down, and they liked playing with them. So having toys the kids like around is what I would say was good advice.

TV: If Neighbors 2 is a hit, somebody's going to say, "What's Neighbors 3?" Do you have any thoughts on who can move in next to Mac and Kelly in another film?

SR: Obviously we move in next to the Fast and the Furious house!

Neighbors 2 is playing throughout the country.

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