Nicholas Stoller: Meet the Straight Guy Behind Gay Rom-Com ‘Bros’

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures

It might surprise people to learn, given the discourse surrounding the film, that the historic gay romantic comedy Bros was a straight guy’s idea.

Nicholas Stoller knows how to do a rom-com. Sure, his face maybe isn’t on the genre’s Mount Rushmore alongside Nora Ephron, Nancy Meyers, and Garry Marshall. But an argument could be made that, in this modern era of the rom-com, perhaps it should be.

Stoller directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the 2008 film that famously starred Jason Segel as a man whose girlfriend (Kristen Bell) dumps him while he’s fully nude. He co-wrote and directed the spin-off Get Him to the Greek, which paired Russell Brand with Rose Byrne. Then there’s The Five-Year Engagement (Jason Segel and Emily Blunt have a… well, you read the title) and the two Neighbors films (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne navigate their relationship while fraternity and sorority students terrorize them). And his Netflix series Friends From College showed how love in a close-knit friend group gets more complicated as everyone gets older.

Now there’s Bros, which opened last Friday. Starring Billy Eichner, who co-wrote the film with Stoller, and Luke Macfarlane, it is the first romantic comedy released in theaters by a major studio to star two gay men. It also has sparked an inferno of debate, especially following a disappointing haul at the box office during its opening weekend.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures</div>
Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures

But before it was the movie shouldering a skyscraper’s worth of expectations that suddenly turned everyone on Twitter into box-office experts, it was an idea for a groundbreaking romantic comedy by a guy with a lot of experience making them.

“The idea [for Bros] originated with me,” Stoller tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed. “I love romantic comedies. I’ve made a few, and I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of romantic comedy about two gay men falling in love. But I’m straight, so I didn’t feel like I could tell that story correctly.”

He needed someone who could lend the story authenticity. Cue: Billy Eichner. Stoller had first noticed Billy Eichner in his game show Billy on the Street, which started in 2011. Years later, they worked together when Eichner played a small role in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, then collaborated more substantially when Eichner played a key character in Friends From College.

“I knew he was really funny from Billy on the Street, but I discovered that he’s a really good actor, which I didn’t know,” Stoller says. “When we showed the first episode of that show in a movie theater, every time he was on screen, it destroyed. The audience went nuts. I was like, oh, he’s like a movie star. He deserves something built around him.”

‘Bros’ Isn’t Afraid to Admit the (Very Annoying) Truth About Gay Men

They later emailed about Stoller’s idea about a same-sex romantic comedy, which the director now wanted to center around Eichner’s comedic sensibility and personal experience. Eicher joined on as Stoller’s co-writer and star, with Stoller producing alongside mega-producer Judd Apatow. Now, Bros is finally out—and it may be the most discussed film of the fall.

Bros follows Bobby (Eichner), a cerebral podcaster and LGBT historian. His ideas about life and love are upended when he sparks a connection with Macfarlane’s Aaron, a hot lawyer who—at least Bobby assumes—would never give him the time of day. Hilarity and hijinks ensue between Bobby, Aaron, and their friends—only, this time, it is gay hilarity and gay hijinks. Not only is Bros the first gay rom-com from a big studio (Grindr, foursomes, and nonmonogamy, oh my!), but every main character is also played by an out LGBTQ-identifying actor, including the heterosexual characters.

When Stoller and I chat over Zoom, it’s a few days before Bros opened on more than 3,000 screens—and before the film fell far short of expectations, making less than $5 million at the box office. In the days since, a dizzying array of industry insiders and armchair experts alike have tried squaring the dissonance between the film’s ecstatic reviews and word of mouth and its paltry gross. (Eichner, for one, argued that “straight people, especially in certain parts of the country, just didn’t show up.”)

But at the time we speak, before all of that, Stoller is hopeful about how the film will be received; a nationwide road show of test screenings had already played like gangbusters. But his goal for Bros extends deeper than whatever box-office numbers it might tally. “As a comedy fan, I just want this to work,” he says. “Each one of these people in the movie deserves their own movie or TV show.”

We talked about the pressures put on the movie, the difference in making a gay rom-com versus a straight one, and why it is so important for a mainstream (or non-LGBTQ) audience to witness a gay orgy in cinemas.

Before Bros was seen by a single person—even back when it was first announced—it became this lightning rod for strong opinions about what kind of story it should be telling, because of its historic nature. What was it like to navigate that maelstrom of discourse?

I feel really privileged to have gotten to be part of this movie—even though it did start with me, so that feels like a weird thing to say. Billy was very aware of this kind of dialogue. As a straight guy, I just was like, if we just make an honest story that's about you, we don't need to worry about any of that noise. I think that showed a privilege that I have. There have been so many movies about straight couples falling in love, that you don’t have to think about that when you’re making another one.

Right. But in this case, you can’t not think about these things.

Yes. I thought of this first and foremost as a comedy vehicle for Billy Eichner. He has a charisma and a tone and a voice that I’ve never seen before. He deserves this the way Kristen Wiig deserves her own comedy vehicle, or Jason Segel, or Seth Rogen—whoever it is—deserves it. He’s just that talented. That’s the way I always philosophically thought about it.

He was very nervous about [the expectations]. Because of my position in the world, I just wasn’t as nervous. As we worked on it, we just got more and more specific about his story and honest about his story. There’s not really any way to to make a story for every single person, but the more specific you are, the more relatable and universal your story is.

Observing all of these intense reactions on social media for what people want the movie to be, it can be exhausting. It can also be informative and useful. When a marginalized community is given a platform like this, there are a lot of demands.

It’s so unfair, and it’s something that I was totally blind to. I totally didn’t know until I worked with [Eichner]. I get it. I understand why those demands are placed on it. There are a lot of reasons, but part of why we have an entirely LGBTQ cast wasn’t because we thought it would be a good marketing hook or whatever. It’s to bring really funny comic voices that are from all different parts of the community into this movie, because it would just make it funnier and more rich.

Luke Macfarlane in ‘Bros’: The Hottest Movie Star of the Year Is a Gay Man. Finally!

Did making this movie feel differently from something like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, because this film centers around a gay couple?

It did feel different. And also it didn’t feel different. It felt really different because there was so much about gay romance and specifically Billy’s version of it that I just didn’t know. Writing this kind of movie, it’s essentially a long therapy session. It’s something I’ve done now with a few different actors, where you’re just kind of talking about your life, and they’re talking about their lives. I think about Get Him to the Greek, which is really all about Russell Brand’s addiction. I spent hours and hours talking to him about it, because I’m not a former addict. It was similar with this, talking to Billy about his life.

Bros really does feel like a movie written by a gay man for gay men, from the way the characters speak to what they’re talking about, without the burden of explaining it all for a “straight” audience. But there are also great monologues Billy has about LGBT history, the pressures on gay men, and the crossroads the community is at that are, I think, enlightening and educational for a straight audience. How did you balance not overexplaining versus not to be so gay that a straight audience wouldn’t care?

Billy could speak to this more than me, but I think he’s spent his entire career trying to explain to Hollywood who he is. So I think he felt… he needed to really explain to the audience how he thinks. A big part of who he is, what he likes to talk about, and what he’s interested in are [issues in] the LGBTQ community. He said from the beginning, and I agreed with him, that this has got to work with a gay audience first. He was like, “I don’t care about the straight audiences.” For me, another way I would think about it, being straight, was that this has to just be pure. This has to be true to Billy’s comedy. That’s all I care about.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures</div>
Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures

The idea of education and enlightenment—and what makes this historic for a major studio movie—isn’t just that there are LGBT issues discussed. There’s a very realistic Grindr scene. There is an orgy. There is the line, “I’m supposed to fuck him and his husband later.” Did it feel edgy or dangerous to include those?

When Billy wrote the Grindr scene, I was a little worried it wasn’t funny enough. I wasn’t worried if it was too crazy. I worried that we needed some big set piece. Did we need, like, a Bridesmaids-esque Grindr hookup scene, you know?

That people would only find it funny if it was over-the-top, like the Bridesmaids pooping scene.

Right. But the scene is funny because it’s just a funny, weird situation. You meet a stranger, hook up, and then leave.That is inherently funny. The audience goes along with it, because it’s honest. That was something that I learned doing this movie. This movie is very grounded. I love doing broad stuff and having big set pieces. But in this movie, the tone stays in a pretty grounded zone. Some crazy stuff happens—that was part of the tone, too. There’s a big release of tension and a big laugh when the guy masturbates onto Billy, and Billy goes, “Thank you.” I mean, it’s so funny.

One of the things that really works is that the movie follows a rom-com formula that we love and are familiar with. But, by the nature of this same-sex couple, it also deals with ideas about commitment, relationships, and monogamy in afar less conventional ways than a typical heterosexual rom-com. How did those two things work together?

At the beginning of the process, I told Billy the three things the movie needs to be: It has to be honest, it has to be funny, and it has to have a happy ending. But we also did not want this to be a straight romantic comedy, but it’s two guys. That wouldn’t work either. So do we have an open relationship? Those debates are even in the movie. … We did a cut of the movie where we lifted all of that. We lifted the foursome. The whole movie suddenly felt like a straight romantic comedy. It didn't work at all.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures</div>
Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures

There’s been so much talk about how historic this movie is and how important it would be for it to be a hit at the box office. What are your hopes for the movie?

Obviously, I have personal interest in it, but I’m going to put that aside for a second just as a comedy fan. I hope this works commercially so it opens the doors to a lot more of these stories. Because as a comedy fan, each one of these people in the movie deserves their own movie or deserves their own TV show. They’re so funny. Remember, comedy directors were once comedy nerds. I still am. But I remember being a kid and seeing The Birdcage in theaters. The movie came out and was a massive hit. And I was like, who’s this Nathan Lane guy? I love this guy. I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do next. He’s just the funniest guy. And then he did nothing, because of the way the industry was at the time. That sucks, you know? He should have had 10 more of those movies.

That’s so true.

I feel the same way with [Bros]. Someone like Eve Lindley, who’s hysterical in this—she deserves her own thing. So as a comedy fan, I just want this to work. Because the more fresh stories, the better. They’re always funny. You know, fingers crossed. Who knows. Everything is so weird right now theatrically. But the movie does what it’s supposed to do when we screen it. People laugh from start to finish. People are surprised that they felt things. That’s all you hope for.

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