Bros Director Nicholas Stoller on Bringing Billy Eichner’s Gay Rom-Com to Movie Theaters

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Nick Stoller (center) on the set of Bros / Universal
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Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane in Bros/Universal Pictures

Universal Studios’ new comedy Bros is going to be an interesting movie to follow as it’s released in theaters this Friday, being that it’s the first major studio rom-com written by and starring an openly gay leading man. That man is Billy Eichner, who roughly 11 years ago was running around the streets of New York City putting a new spin on the classic man-on-the-street interview format with Billy on the Street. The show often had him yelling at unassuming passersby, offering a dollar for them to answer his questions, and he would even get celebrities involved. 

For Bros, Eichner teamed with filmmaker Nicholas Stoller, no stranger to romantic comedies between Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five-Year Engagement, both of them starring Jason Segel. Stoller directed from a script he co-wrote with Eichner, who plays podcaster and LGBTQ+ activist Bobby Leiber, who has been (mostly) content being single… until he meets Luke Macfarlane’s Aaron, a rugged and good-looking jock-type who seems even less commitment-prone than Bobby. 

Eichner and Stoller managed to put together a pretty incredible cast for Bros, including a number of hilarious cameos and guest appearances, and it’s very likely to be the highest-grossing movie starring an LGBTQ+ cast in its very first weekend in theaters. 

Below the Line recently spoke to Stoller in person at the film’s NYC junket, and he had plenty to say about the film, how different Eichner is from his character, casting Macfarlane, and the body part they wound up cutting from the film.

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Nick Stoller image via Universal

Below the Line: I know Billy appeared on your show Friends from College, but at what point did he come to you with this project? Did he have some kind of script already written?

Nicholas Stoller: Oh, no. This started with me, actually. What happened was I cast him in Neighbors 2. I knew him from Billy on the Street, and then we cast him in Friends from College, which is a show my wife [Francesca Delbanco] and I created. We cast him in that, and he turned out to be an incredible actor, which I did not know, and then we screened the first episode, the pilot, in a movie theater, and he destroyed every time he was onscreen.

I’d been intrigued by the idea of doing a rom-com about two gay men falling in love. I’m straight — that wasn’t my story to tell — but when I saw that he was like a proper movie star, I was like, ‘Oh, this is the right guy.’ I emailed him, and it was like, ‘Hey, would you ever want to tell this kind of story?’ He was intrigued, and so we started talking about it.

BTL: How soon after that did Judd Apatow get involved as a producer?

Stoller: Billy and I figured out a story over the course of about a year, maybe, and I approached Judd maybe six months to a year [after that]. I mean, I collaborate with Judd a lot, and I knew that with Judd, the studio would totally understand what it was. Obviously, Judd is really helpful creatively, but also, it would be very easy for everyone to understand what it is. We approached [Judd] together, and he was really into it, and then we worked on it. We were about to shoot, and then the pandemic happened, and then, five years later, the movie exists.

BTL: Movies like this can be in development for a long time, and then you’re ready to start filming in March or April of 2020 and a pandemic happens, so how do you shift? Did you already have locations? 

Stoller: I was scouting in Buffalo. We originally were going to shoot in Buffalo; we ended up shooting it in New Jersey and New York City. But we originally were going to shoot in Buffalo, and I was scouting, and we pulled up to a hospital — there was a scene in a hospital at the time — and I was like, ‘I don’t think we should go in there.’ And then I was like, ‘I don’t think we should make this movie,’ [laughs] which is one of the craziest phone calls as a director because you fight forever to get [greenlit], and I’ve been pretty lucky. Most of my movies have, like, a two-year development process, maybe a year-and-a-half. This would have been the same except I had to call the studio up and be like, ‘I think we have to delay this production,’ which goes against every instinct that a director has. And then we delayed production when the pandemic happened. The script ended up benefiting from that because we kept working on it over the course of that time.

BTL: I always forget that you didn’t write Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but you did continue to collaborate with Jason Segel as a writer on a few other movies. What was it like writing with Billy, and were you still able to do most of that writing together in person?

Stoller: We did a lot in person. Even though I didn’t, like, officially write with Jason on Sarah Marshall, we had talked about it and talked about it. These movies tend to be a big collaboration on some level, but what I’ve done in my career is built movies around comic talent, whether it be Jason with Sarah Marshall or Russell Brand with Get Him to the Greek, that movie was all about addiction, which is something that he’s had to fight with in his life. With that movie, l interviewed Russell and talked to him about all these different things and the same with Bill. We just talked and talked and talked. It was kind of like a long therapy session where we talked about love, we talked about relationships, talked about what made him insecure or feel vulnerable. So yeah, it’s a five-year chat, basically.

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Nick Stoller (center) on the set of Bros/Universal Pictures

BTL: Was this the first time you shot in New York before?

Stoller: Friends from College, we shot in New York. I shot parts of Get Him to the Greek in New York. It was the first time I shot in New Jersey. The majority of the movie was shot in New Jersey, because there’s a new tax credit there, and it was great — New Jersey was awesome! It was actually funny because a lot of the crew who shoot in New York [actually] live in New Jersey, so they were all really happy [laughs], and then we shot for three days in New York, and we shot basically a day in Provincetown.

BTL: When I was watching the movie, there was a scene where Bobby and Aaron were on a date, and they walked by the IFC Center, but when they go inside, that’s not the IFC Center interior.

Stoller: If you’re in the know, you’ll definitely be like, “This isn’t New York.” 

BTL: There are a lot of locations in the movie, including Billy’s apartment as well as every other apartment he visits, so did you end up building a lot on stages?

Stoller: Our Production Designer, Lisa Myers, is brilliant. Billy’s apartment is one of my favorite sets ever because it’s a really nice apartment, but it’s not, like, the Friends apartment, where you’re like, “No one has that apartment.” It feels real. It feels like, for a successful guy in New York, that’s what it would be, which I love.

But yeah, we built a lot of stuff. There are visual effects like Central Park [that] we shot in New Jersey, in a park that [Frederick Law] Olmsted designed, and then we put in the buildings behind our Sheep’s Meadow. There’s a lot of movie magic — [well,] not a lot. There’s a little bit of movie magic happening. [laughs]

BTL: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot, but having worked with Billy even before making this movie, how much of Bobby’s character and personality is really Billy, and how much is he exaggerating for comedic purposes?

Stoller: I mean, it’s a made-up character. It’s not him exactly, but I think there’s an emotional core there that’s true to a little bit of who he is. The movie’s a little bit based on a relationship he had… a little bit because that relationship didn’t go anywhere, really, but it threw him for a loop, and I think that’s what he found so fascinating. He was like Bobby in the movie, committed to being single — “I don’t need anyone. I have my friends.”  It’s kind of what he talks about in the movie, and then he met this guy, and he fell for him, hard. It was very confusing to him, so that core of the movie is true, but he’s different. He’s like Bobby, and he’s not like him. I wouldn’t say it’s autobiographical, by any means.

BTL: How did you find Luke Macfarlane to play Aaron? He’s Canadian, and I loved seeing the crowd go nuts for him at the TIFF world premiere.

Stoller: That was one of those magical moments. We were writing the movie, and I kept saying that the Aaron character feels a bit like a cipher, and I didn’t totally get it. He was like, ‘I’m telling you, this makes sense.’ And then, we were auditioning people, and Luke was one of the first people who came in. He walked in, and it was instant magic. I instantly got the character 100 percent, and he and Billy had instant chemistry. They were so funny together, and they were also doing the thing that you want in any rom-com — they were both trying to figure each other out. They were both checking each other out, pushing each other, being passive-aggressive, being vulnerable, then pulling back, so that was very exciting.

BTL: Luke ends up being the straight man — no pun intended — to Billy in the movie. Were you confident that he had the comedic chops to stand up against Billy’s?

Stoller: Oh, yeah, yeah. He’s just really different. Billy is very active, [and] he talks a lot. Luke’s really good, particularly in the movie, because he’s playing a character, but he’s very still. I think that kind of combination is really interesting… and he’s super-funny, too, and for someone who is so good-looking, he’s very relatable. It was one of those things where he walked in, and I was like, ‘This guy’s like a mega movie star. I don’t understand where he’s been.’ I didn’t know who he was before he walked in, and we were all kind of blown away. I mean, when Luke walked out, Billy and I just looked at each other and just nodded. We were just done. ‘We’ve found the guy,’ and we kept casting, but we didn’t even have to say anything. I think Judd was in the room, too, and he was like, ‘Yeah.’

BTL: I hear stories like that all the time of filmmakers finding the right person quickly, but then still spending a month or more looking at other people before going back to them.

Stoller: Yeah, I’ve had it happen. It was the opposite with Forgetting Sarah Marshall when Russell Brand came in. We had looked and looked and looked and looked. We found some funny people, but there was something that wasn’t right. When he came in, I remember Jason and I hugging each other when he left.

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Billy Eichner in Bros/Universal Pictures

BTL: Let’s talk about the museum board. How did you go about casting all those funny people? I know Jim Rash is an Oscar-winning screenwriter but were the others mostly comedians from the stand-up world?

Stoller: Early on, we decided to do an entirely LGBTQ cast, and that just felt like the right thing for the movie. It also made sense. Given the debates that are being had in the movie, it seemed creatively correct. And then also, this would make us find really funny people because the secret weapon of any comedy is the funny person you’ve never seen before — if you think about Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids or that kind of thing. So we just cast and cast and cast, and we found the funniest people. A few of those people were at the table read, so, like, Guy Branum, Dot-Marie Jones, and Jim Rash were all at the table read. I don’t think [Jim] was reading the Robert part — he was reading some other parts, but we cast and cast and cast and found this great group of people, who were so funny.

BTL: You have some ringers in the movie like Harvey Fierstein. If he wasn’t in the movie, you may have had riots, but how were you able to get him and Bowen Yang to come out and do a day or two with COVID happening?

Stoller: It was fine. They said “yes” right away, which was so touching and awesome. It’s not hard. They just get tested and drive out. That was the advantage of shooting in New Jersey — any New York-based person could just come very quickly. That would have been the downside of Buffalo, which is weirdly far away.

BTL: Was the Provincetown section also shot in Jersey somewhere?

Stoller: Provincetown and Bowen Yang’s house, the interior was in New Jersey, a beach town. That B & B Harvey Fierstein runs is in New Jersey, and the exterior beach scene is New Jersey, which if you’re from Provincetown, you would know, [as] it just looks slightly different. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Cape, so it looks almost like the Cape, but it’s a little different.

BTL: I’m curious about dealing with the MPA on the movie’s rating. I know you’ve made many R-rated movies before, but in the past, the MPA has been particularly hard on LGBTQ sex scenes — I think Boys Don’t Cry was a famous example of that. 

Stoller: I don’t remember that — that’s crazy. No, there wasn’t anything with them or anything with the studio. Weirdly, the movie has sex and stuff, and it has thrusting, as I like to say, but for one of my movies, it’s on the softer side, honestly. But no, there was no pushback or anything.

BTL: Is the rating for Bros “Rated R for thrusting”?

Stoller: It’s for [the] thrusting. I know all the rules of R-rated stuff, obviously, but once you’re thrusting, you’re R-rated, even if you don’t see anything. I know that if you have a penis in your movie — which we shot but ended up not including in the movie — [at this point, Nick gives us a visualization using his index finger, slowly raising it from pointing downwards to holding it straight up in the air] it’s R, R, R, R… NC-17. [laughs]

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Luke Macfarlane, Billy Eichner, and Nick Stoller on the set of Bros/Universal

BTL: You also had Marc Shaiman doing the music, who has scored more than a few rom-coms. Had you worked with him before?

Stoller: No, I’d never worked with him. As soon as the movie was announced, he tweeted to Judd directly and was like, ‘Hey, I’m here for you,’ and he’s also gay. I forgot the exact tweet, but it was really funny. We were all like, ‘Oh, my God, amazing.’ And then, it was really magical working with him. I mean, his score is beautiful in the movie. It’s one of those beautiful scores that feels classic and jazzy, but also new. He also helped arrange the song that Billy sings in the film. 

BTL: A lot of people are going to ask you this, too, but is Billy really singing?

Stoller: That’s really him — he has a beautiful voice. That was crazy, because basically a few weeks before the end of the movie, he was like, ‘I have an idea. I want to do this song.’ And I was like, ‘Alright, let’s do it.’ So we pulled it together. Usually, with that sort of thing, you pre-record the music and the song, but we did it all live. Marc came over and played it live, and we adjusted on the fly, which is something I’ve never done before as a director.

BTL: Before I let you go, I do want to ask you about the Goosebumps series you’re developing for Netflix. There have been two features based on the beloved books, so what made you want to get into that world?

Stoller: I love the books — they’re so great. They’re spooky [and] they’re funny. I also have three daughters, and they love them. And then, I’m old friends [with] Rob Letterman, who directed the first Goosebumps movie. We just started thinking about it and riffing on what a Goosebumps TV show could be. I think we figured out something really fun. Basically, the goal is Freaks and Geeks with horror. It’s just something that’s actually very funny, but also scary for kids, and for everyone. It’s for everyone, really.

BTL: Are you going to get the visual effects budget they had for the movies?

Stoller: We have a pretty healthy visual effects budget. Disney+ wants [us to] paint on a big canvas because I think Goosebumps requires that sort of thing. But I was attracted to it just because of the idea of working out of genre a little bit [different] for me and also trying to write something that was really legitimately funny and then also had you jumping. 

Bros opens nationwide on Friday, Sept. 30 with previews starting on Thursday night.