'The House' Director on Crafting R-Rated Comedies and Lighting Jeremy Renner on Fire
Andrew Jay Cohen tells THR about learning from Judd Apatow and Adam McKay and comments on Sony’s sanitized movie initiative.
Andrew Jay Cohen loves gambling. He bets on the L.A. Clippers and the New York Jets, and he hits the craps tables whenever he’s in Las Vegas. While penning The House with co-writer Brendan O’Brien, he backed his older brother in the World Series of Poker. “I tried to cheer for him, but his table was so far away and it was so boring that I left, and then he told me he lost,” he recalls. “It was awful. I just felt this emptiness and was like, ‘I’m never going to do that again.’ But then he won the next year, and I didn’t back him.”
Instead, Cohen bet on himself. He makes his feature directorial debut with The House, which stars Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell as a married couple who open an illegal casino in a suburban home to pay their daughter's college tuition. Jason Mantzoukas, Nick Kroll and, yes, Jeremy Renner are among those featured in the Village Roadshow and Warner Bros./New Line ensemble comedy, out Friday. Cohen — who co-wrote Neighbors and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates — tells The Hollywood Reporter about learning from the likes of Judd Apatow and Adam McKay, hearing about Sony’s sanitized movie initiative and trying to make R-rated comedies that resonate.
What did you learn about running a set from your previous directors?
Judd Apatow, Nick Stoller, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Adam McKay — I’ve watched them direct the shit out of movies. I also worked for Adrian Lyne on Unfaithful, and that dude is an intense visionary. All of the directors I’ve worked with run a set like it’s a place to hang out and feel safe when you’re having fun and trying crazy things. Judd said he modeled it off of Garry Shandling, who considered his set [to be] a place where magical things can happen. Amy and Will obviously helped create that camaraderie — people not only wanted to watch them perform, but also hang out with them. There’s so much that’s improvised. Ideas came from everywhere. I like yelling stuff out, I don’t like cutting.
What’s the hardest part about directing that you didn’t expect?
You need to have an opinion and have to answer people right away, right in front of them. You can’t say, “I’ll get right back to you,” go to your secret room upstairs where you have the funny ideas and play your video games. There are actors who need direction, who were wondering what you meant when you wrote this. So adopting the "answer confidently at first and, if it’s wrong, quietly adjusting it." It was terrifying, but also freeing because you just don’t have time to worry about stuff that’s not important.
What was the toughest scene to shoot?
Definitely the finger-chopping scene. I deliberately wanted it to feel severe, as if a normal person were put into a “gangster movie” situation. But when we were shooting it, it felt like a horror movie — just how much blood was coming out. Fight night was also more violent than I had planned, which was a fun surprise. It’s funnier that they actually have a rivalry and become friends after strapping on the gloves in front of your entire town for money.
Why cast Jeremy Renner?
I love throwing people like Renner into a comedy. Having that dark, violent energy seemed to really work, and the comedians bounced off that intensity. Even Renner’s preparation on set is scary to a comedian: “Oh, no! He’s a serious actor! That’s terrifying! He’s gonna beat us all at acting!” He was really a great sport about getting lit on fire.
R-rated comedies like Rough Night and Baywatch didn’t make strong debuts at the box office. What do you think is the key to a strong R-rated comedy?
I think the ones that last aren’t just about jokes; you need to have a dramatic underpinning where you don’t know how it ends. I try not to put too many jokes into a first draft because it almost distracts from if you’re telling the right story. This isn’t to disparage any of the movies that haven’t done well — I actually haven’t seen either of them, I would love to see them— but I think the ones that last have an extra emotional layer of something that has to do with interpersonal relationships or society.
Also, from what I’ve seen, it’s normal people under extraordinary circumstances doing extraordinary things. I like movies where people take the wrong route toward the noble goals. To me, high ideals plus low behavior equals funny.
Apatow and Rogen are among those who spoke out against Sony’s home-entertainment promotion offering sanitized versions of movies to the public. What’s your opinion?
Just write “eight-second bleep.” I don’t think it’s appropriate. It’s sort of like, “Here’s the Mona Lisa, but I know you don’t like eyebrows, so here’s the Mona Lisa without eyebrows.” It just feels arbitrary. Whoever’s doing it, I just picture them wearing a director hat and saying, “Take this curse out!”
What are you working on next?
I love suburban crime-revenge comedies — a very specific genre that I’ve been able to find a niche in — so I’m working on another one and co-writing other things. Then I’ve got a TV pilot that I’m writing and directing that I can’t tell you too much about. It’s cable — I don’t think I would work on a network that wouldn’t let me be raunchy, you can’t ever shake away who you are — but I’m still trying to push my boundaries.
What advice would you give to those entering the industry?
At the end of Unfaithful, the executives asked to look at a script of mine, and I had nothing! Never again will I be unprepared.
What lessons do you hope to bring to your next project?
Honestly, get out of the way. It’s a hard one, especially with improv. It’s that give and take about being clear with what you’re going for and still being extremely open to other directions.
Also, don’t open a casino in your house. But, go to a casino at somebody else’s house.