Andrew Jay Cohen on How He Pitched His Directorial Debut to Will Ferrell

With writing credits that include the Neighbors movies and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Andrew Jay Cohen is no novice when it comes to crafting a comedy script that balances the bawdy with the sensitive, the raunchy with the sweet. Cohen and his childhood-friend-turned-writing-partner Brendan O’Brien cut their collective teeth as associate producers on early Judd Apatow films — including The 40 Year Old Virgin and Funny People — before striking comedy gold with their Neighbors screenplay. The global box office success of Neighbors signaled their arrival as the go-to scribes for sharp humor infused with a pinch of social edge for good measure.

Continuing his tradition of mining comedy out of suburban chaos and parental anxiety, Cohen stepped behind the camera for The House (co-written again with O’Brien) as his directorial debut. The House stars Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler as parents whose uneventful white picket fence existence is turned upside down when their plan to pay for their daughter’s college tuition by starting an illegal casino goes completely off the rails. And with an extended cast of players that includes Jason Mantzoukas, Nick Kroll, and Lennon Parham, The House is the perfect summer comedy that’s packed with laughs and provides a sweet spot for absurdist escapism.

Cohen hopped on the phone with me to talk The House, his “film school” experience working with Judd Apatow and Adam McKay, and the comedic power of collaboration.

Before we talk about The House, I gotta ask: Was the theme of your Bar Mitzvah really Coming to America?

[laughs] Oh, man. The overall theme to my Bar Mitzvah was “movies” but the table I sat at was Coming to America. Each table represented movies I loved: Trading Places, Police Academy and several other ‘80s comedies. I was pretty obsessed with comedy, man. Even back in the day.

It’s pretty clear that comedy had a grasp on you from an early age. Did you grow up in a funny household?

My dad was super funny. He was like Chevy Chase or Frank Drebin from Naked Gun — sort of an oblivious, intense, in-his-own-head type of dude but he had a really funny sense of humor. He was a great intro to comedy for me. I also had an older brother who was, you know, an older brother. So having that map and being able to fight with your words was also part of the growing up experience. Having a sharp tongue went a long way.

Do you remember that epiphany moment where you said to yourself “I want to write comedy for a living”?

Eddie Murphy’s Delirious. In fact, just Eddie Murphy period. Between Trading Places, Coming to America, and Delirious and all his standup tapes, Eddie was just an obsession for me and my brothers. SNL was huge for us as well. The Zucker Brothers, too, with their specific joke patterns. And John Landis was another major influence on me. I recognized the role of a director early on. It’s like you threw a party with the funniest people on the planet and you get to make a two-hour video of it to watch later on. That just felt like a really cool place to be from an early age.

Your first major comedy credit was working on Anchorman. How did you hook up with the Apatow camp?

When I first moved to LA I started working at Creative Arts Agency. At the same time I was writing and directing my own shorts and spec commercials. It was like swimming with sharks, you know? I couldn’t be this [agency] guy. I needed to create an alter ego where I’m a person with feelings and people respect me. So I tried to write and direct my way out of that environment. Then I heard about Adrian Lyne needing an assistant on Unfaithful so I ended up working for him on that movie and learned a ton about filmmaking. After that wrapped I was looking for an assistant job and I came across this job listing that said “Comedy Producer Looking For Assistant,” and that turned out to be Judd Apatow looking for an assistant on Anchorman. I had no idea what I was walking into!

Can you talk about that experience?

It was surreal. I ended up shooting behind the scenes footage with Will Ferrell and Christina Applegate and Paul Rudd. I was in heaven. Soon Judd started throwing me a lot more responsibility. I produced the Freaks and Geeks DVDs, arranging what felt like 40 commentaries on that because we did 2 or 3 per episode sometimes. Then he gave me a gig on 40 Year Old Virgin as associate producer and then again on Talladega Nights. So that was the beginning of my relationships with Will and Adam McKay and those guys. Watching Adam and Judd direct was film school all over again for me. I was just so happy to be in the room. I would’ve counted grass blades if that’s what it took.

And now it’s come full circle with Will Ferrell starring alongside Amy Poehler in your directorial debut, The House.

It was such a joy to bring the project to Will. It’s sort of like when you go back and visit your high school after your first year of college. To go back to him and say, “Hey I got something for you and I want to direct it” is a dream. You always imagine that moment. Sometimes people meet their heroes and they’re not what they’re cracked up to be, but Will is a genuinely awesome guy. Convincing him I could direct The House was a really fun challenge, too. I had to do a lookbook that would convey how I would shoot it and what the tone of the movie would be – everything down to the editing and pacing and music. But one of the images I brought him was one where I photoshopped his face onto Robert De Niro’s face in Casino. So it’s Will holding this cigarette wearing a pair of women’s designer sunglasses and I instantly saw his eyes light up like, “Yeah let’s do this.” It was all about treating this comedy with the mock epic-ness of a gangster movie. Will really connected to that treatment of his character being elevated to this neighborhood gangster.

After writing the Neighbors films and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, why was this the project you wanted to step behind the camera for?

This answer is for up-and-coming writers who also want to direct: Literally nobody wants you to direct. [laughs] So it’s really important to attach yourself to your project early. It’s not that I didn’t want to direct the other movies. But in order to do that you need to go, “You want this script? You want this idea? Then I’m directing.” I wanted to feel ready and that I had my education. I had worked with Nick Stoller, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg, so I was confident I had put in the work in my comedic-based education. I felt like it was time and I was finally confident enough to say, “I got this one.” And watching a ton of gangster movies and heist movies and taking cues from genre then trying to create a comedy out of that template was a fun challenge.

There seems to be this running motif between Neighbors and The House of parental anxieties and suburban chaos. Why is that subgenre so ripe for comedic potential?

I realized what my favorite genre is: suburban crime revenge stories. Neighbors was vigilante justice in the suburbs. The House is illegal gambling. [For upcoming projects] I have suburban burglary ideas, suburban war ideas, you name it. I love the suburbs as a subject because they are so aspirational. I think a big source of comedy is the gap between who we think we are and who we actually are, deep down. For me this gap is even wider in the suburbs. No matter how white the picket fence, no matter how green the grass blade, we’re still flawed and human. Our inability to see that, even as it’s right in front of us, is very pronounced, and that’s very funny to me. Jordan Peele just made a groundbreaking horror movie about it. I guess I see it as a ridiculous crime.

You’ve known your writing partner Brendan O’Brien since you were kids in New York and have now written three hit movies together. Can you talk about how your comedic sensibilities align and how you resolve any differences while writing?

There is something so amazing about having a writing partner who you have a shorthand with. You can literally say, “Remember that girl freshman year who got into a fight in the cafeteria?” and base a character or joke on her. There’s a common history and almost a collective unconscious of the town that we probably carry within us. Our differences are almost as important as our similarities. Dialogue is at least two people talking, so partly Brendan and I are just bouncing ideas back and forth and talking through debate. When we were writing for another director, whoever cared the most won. Now that I’m directing, I’m almost stuffing the ballot box. Sometimes I say, “I’ll talk to the director, see if he can listen to reason, but man, what a jerk right? 

The Apatow/Rogen camps are known for being super loose and encouraging improv on set. Amy and Will are also veteran improv comedians and The House has some hilarious improvised lines. As a writer and director, does it ever frustrate you to see your jokes get re-written or does it put you at ease that your comedy is in such capable hands?

Luckily in those comedy camps, the spirit of collaboration is instilled in you early on. The best idea always rises to the top, no matter where it came from. If something doesn’t work, get rid of it and replace it with something better. I’ve seen directors cut entire set pieces – really funny, groundbreaking comedy – if they don’t fit story or character or don’t make sense in the overall movie. Also, as a director I know I’ll have a chance to go through all the material later in the cutting room, so I don’t have to judge it as it’s happening, just channel the scene and yell out direction, ideas, or dialogue jokes to try to get the most out of the scene possible. Sometimes the key grip has the best joke. Try it! In the end, the movie wins.

Photo by Glen Wilson.

Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.

Andrew Jay Cohen on How He Pitched His Directorial […]