Interview: Nick Stoller on directing Bros, crafting a vehicle for Billy Eichner, and respecting the queer community

The first major studio production to feature an all LGBTQIA+ cast, Bros is a smart, swoony and heartfelt comedy about how hard it is to find another tolerable human being to go through life with.  A collaboration between the ferocious comic mind of writer/star Billy Eichner and director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the Bad Neighbours films), Australian audiences are set to fall in love with the film from October 27th when it arrives in theatres, thanks to Universal Pictures.

Ahead of the film’s release, Peter Gray spoke with director Nick Stoller about navigating a queer love story as a straight filmmaker, his favourite examples of the romantic comedy genre, and how he got a famed sitcom actress to finally curse on the big screen.

Congratulations on the film, first of all.  I was actually at TIFF where the film premiered and the reaction out of there was just electric.  It must’ve been quite a coup to receive that response, as well as just have TIFF play a comedy of this sort.

Yeah, it was so thrilling.  That was definitely a career highlight.  I’ve never had a screening that rocking before.  It was so exciting because usually comedies aren’t shown at film festivals.  They don’t get to be alongside quote-unquote “serious movies”.  So it was a real honour.

With you being a straight man wanting to direct a queer love story, and Billy (Eichner) not necessarily knowing how to write a film, how did the two of you find that balance of creating a traditional romantic comedy that still managed a queer heart at its core?  I will say, I felt seen with this film.

Oh, wow, that’s so sweet.  That’s so nice to hear.  Yeah, Billy and I are obviously very different people.  He’s gay and single.  I’m straight and married.  But we have the same tone.  I joke around by saying we’re both tall, middle-aged Jews (laughs), so we also have a lot of the same references.  We had the same goals of wanting to make a really funny story that will also make you want to cry.  We wanted the film to be honest, first and foremost.  I think it was all of those things.

And (Billy’s) honestly, and this is not true of most people, he and I almost always agree on TV shows and movies.  Whenever I like something or don’t like something I know he’ll feel the same way.  We both totally agree on tone, so it would be really hard to work with someone if you don’t (agree).  That’s where the difficulty is.  The more specific your story is, the more universal it is and more relatable it is, and I’ve known that just from working with other actors, whether that be Jason Segel or Seth Rogen.  I knew that with this as well.

As a director it was also important that I listen.  I listened to Billy.  I put aside whatever I thought I knew about LGBTQ love stories, which honestly wasn’t much (because) I didn’t come in with preconceived notions, but I tried to put that aside and just listen to him.  We talked about it and hashed it out, and he did too, in terms of writing a movie.  We were figuring it out together.

You’ve worked with Billy before on Bad Neighbours 2.  Who reached out to who when it came to Bros?

I do think about this as a comedy vehicle for Billy Eichner.  For it to be built around him, instead of it just being about a gay man or a single guy.  It’s not.  It’s about Billy, ultimately.  He’s playing a character, but it’s close enough.  Basically, I knew him from Billy on the Street, which I loved and thought was amazing, and then I cast him in Neighbours 2, and he had like one or two scenes, and then I cast him in this show I created with my wife that was on Netflix called Friends From College.  He really impressed me.  I did not know he was a good actor, and he’s a really good actor.

We screened the first episode of Friends From College in a movie theatre, and every time Billy was on screen the audience exploded with laughter, and I thought “Oh, he’s a movie star! He deserves a vehicle built around him.”  For a number of years I have been intrigued by the idea of a romantic comedy around two gay men, and (being) straight I couldn’t write that myself, so I approached him and asked if he would want to write a rom-com about him and another guy.  He was into the idea, so we started working on it (and) that took about five years.  It was a long process from start to finish, due to COVID mainly.

I have to point out that the Debra Messing cameo is one of the funniest things I have ever seen.  The fact that she completely owns the fact that gay men are going to talk to her about being Grace.  “The fucking door’s locked” line is the best! Was there a lot of convincing her to play this part?

(Laughs) No, she just wanted to do it.  I had never worked with her before (but) Billy knows her from Billy on the Street and e-mailed her, and she was like “OK! Tell me where and when!”  We had booked her, back when we were shooting in March of 2020, and she said she was doing a play so the only day she could shoot is a Friday, so we just had to figure that out.  Then the movie was delayed, and we got in touch with her again when it was re-greenlit, and she was still in.  She told me that she had never been in anything where she had cursed.  And all I know is I want more Debra Messing cursing.  It’s the funniest thing in the world to watch her lose her mind.  I pitched a lot of jokes, and sometimes when a person is playing a version of themselves they’re understandably sensitive to what you might ask them to do, but she did not care.

She was mainly just nervous because she wanted it to be good.  For someone who’s such a legend, I was surprised she was nervous on the day. I think that nervousness is why she’s such a legend (though), because she wants it to be perfect.  I was very nervous working with her because she is such a legend and I kind of grew up watching her.

Given your background in comedy, and how effortlessly you crafted Forgetting Sarah Marshall, are there films you look to as inspiration? Any films you view as a pinnacle of the genre?

Saw 2 (laughs).  No. When Harry Met Sally.  I’m very basic.  I watch that every year.  I love all romantic comedies.  There was one, and I don’t know how I missed it, and it’s considered a romantic comedy, but The Worst Person in the World I loved.  It’s described as a romantic comedy, but I don’t know, I found that movie very sad and incredibly moving, but also very funny and profound.  That film from recent times, but When Harry Met Sally I watch once a year, Annie Hall I watch once a year, Broadcast News I love watching over and over again… Really any movie that shows normal people as sexy and romantic.  When Harry Met Sally is what I go back to though, so I can try and emulate the adult sophistication of that film.

I think that really is what makes Bros work so much is because it has a real sense of realism to it.  There were a lot of scenes that I wish I didn’t relate to, but I did.  The getting rejected on the apps and the muscle worshipping sex scene, it’s all awkward but I loved it!  So hats off to you and Billy for making a film that speaks to the gay community in an honest voice.  It’s relatable to the queer community, but accessible to all audiences, so you really have done an amazing job at encapsulating that.

Oh, well thank you very much.  That means a lot.  That was the goal.  I remember talking to Billy early on, and we both knew it had to be really funny, it has to have a happy ending, and it needs to be honest.  If the gay community doesn’t buy it then we’ve failed.  That was the first bar, so we knew it couldn’t be a movie that we just switched out the girl for a guy – that wouldn’t work.

Bros is scheduled for release in Australian theatres on October 27th, 2022.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.