Bros is by no means cinema’s first queer rom-com. But the fact that it’s the first from a major studio, with all the big-budget marketing and buzz that entails, is significant enough that writer-director Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement, Neighbors) and writer-star Billy Eichner elected to grapple with that benchmark in the film itself. There’s a self-awareness to Bros in telling a story that couldn’t possibly encapsulate the entire panorama of the LGBTQ+ community, but one that feels obligated to try given how few examples have come before.
So how did Stoller, who pitched Eichner the idea of a classically formulaic romantic comedy about two gay men, pull off that unlikely feat while also acknowledging its novelty? Having characters argue about how to best represent every color of the LGBTQ+ rainbow is one way. Raucous sex scenes that prioritize laughs is another. But best of all, Stoller lets his typically outspoken star air grievances—in character—from toxic masculinity to heteronormativity’s stranglehold on popular culture. It’s the synthesis of these elements, critical and celebratory, deeply progressive and charmingly old-fashioned, that puts Bros in conversation with queer cinema that’s come before.
At the same time, the filmmakers missed an opportunity when they were unable to mount their most incisive parody—namely, of the kinds of tragic gay roles that Hollywood loves to award straight actors for playing. As Stoller explains, he planned to shoot a Brokeback Mountain-style film-within-a-film called The Treasure Inside, but no one straight in Hollywood was willing to perform in it. How that didn’t come together is just one of the aspects of making Bros that Stoller revealed in this thoughtful conversation with The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: How did Bros come about? What were the original impulses for you and Billy Eichner to make the film?
Nicholas Stoller: I mean, it actually originated with me. I love making rom-coms, and for years had been intrigued by the idea of a romantic comedy about two gay men falling in love. But I’m straight. And I couldn’t tell that story just by myself, obviously. And so I’d worked with Billy—I knew him, obviously, from Billy On The Street and was a big fan of his—and I cast him in Neighbors 2. And then I cast him in Friends From College, and he was just a much better actor than I realized. He’s a really good actor. And then in the first episode we screened in a movie theater, and every time he was on screen, the audience exploded. And I was like, Oh, he’s a movie star. This guy deserves a vehicle for him. And so I approached him about doing a rom-com with him at the center of it, kind of as a comedy vehicle. And it went from there.
AVC: Early in the movie, there’s a meta moment where Billy’s character Bobby is asked to make a gay rom-com. How much is the fact that Bros hails from a major film studio intrinsic to the premise of Bros itself?
NS: I think if it was the third one of these, we probably wouldn’t feel the need to do that. I think the premise of the movie is about bro-y guys falling for each other, men being unable to be vulnerable, wanting to hide their insecurities, wanting to be, you know, masculine. As a guy, I certainly used to kind of relate. That’s really what the premise is. But because of what Bros is, we felt like we should comment on it and talk about it. So there’s this fun, little, meta thing up top.
AVC: To your point, how many gay rom-coms or movies like these will it take for that dynamic to no longer be unusual? At what point will we not have to go out of our way to address the novelty of a queer relationship on screen?
NS: I notice while screening the movie, younger audiences are starting to just really, in a great way, not care. They’re just like, “Yeah, this is part of our life,” you know what I mean? There seems to have been this sea change in the country’s attitudes, obviously not in every corner of the country, but a sea change in people’s attitudes towards LGBTQ issues and people. And I think it will continue, hopefully very quickly, and hopefully we’re part of that. But it’s also something that just happens naturally. I have daughters and my oldest is about to turn 15. And she, like, doesn’t think about any of this stuff. None of it is surprising to her. So from my sample of one, we’re on the right track.
AVC: So what did you watch or consume that helped inspire or develop Bros? How much of that was traditional rom-coms versus LGBTQ stories?
NS: I watch When Harry Met Sally once a year. There’s certain movies I just watch over and over again. And particularly when I’m doing a romantic comedy, I just have to watch that one. And then I did take a tour of LGBTQ cinema. There were a few gay ’90s indies that I hadn’t seen that I watched, one of which I particularly love: that movie Trick, which I hadn’t seen when it came out. And which is kind of closest in tone to [Bros] in a weird way, although that’s about much younger characters. But when I watched that movie, I thought it’s such an awesome coming-of-age [story], in addition to a crazy night between two guys falling in love. While it is gay, it also feels very relatable. I was like, I remember coming of age in the ’90s in New York City and staying out all night. There’s something very playful and fun and light, and not tragic at all, about it. It’s just fun. And so that movie was, I thought, really a cool touchstone.
But also this movie is primarily a comedy vehicle for Billy. So what I wanted to do is make sure to pull out of him what I think is funniest about him. And he wanted to do that, too, and that’s really what we focused on more than trying to emulate any specific movie, if that makes sense.
AVC: Bros pokes so much fun at straight actors playing gay characters, especially to win Oscars. It seemed to me that one of the aspects of that running joke was that Brokeback Mountain was never actually name-checked, right?
NS: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, of course.
AVC: Could you talk about the reasons you and Billy targeted that phenomenon? You just touched on the idea that Bros really is grappling with masculinity. Do you think that’s what this straight-actors-playing-prestige-gay-roles trope is about?
NS: I don’t know. But it’s really funny because we were doing it, and as we were shooting it, I was like, “This is a little bit of an old joke.” And then there’s a few of them this year! There’s always a few every year that are trying to win Oscars, like My Policeman. And what’s also funny is we wanted to shoot [the fake film] The Treasure Inside. We wanted to shoot a few scenes from it actually in the movie theater, like we shot like Luke and Billy watching the movie. And then we wanted to shoot the actual Treasure Inside. And we could not find any straight actor willing to do it. Because we’re making fun of the Oscars—so no actor wants that—and I’m sure they’ll all just go on to play gay parts. We couldn’t find anyone. And Billy and I at this point know a lot of famous people! What we wanted to shoot was, we were going to make it very beautiful and have, you know, sun coming through. I scouted farmhouses and stuff. But then we couldn’t find anyone, to the point where it became hilarious.
And it was something that Billy was much more sensitive to than I am. The fact that so many movies about the gay experience are tragedies and very dramatic, versus just playful and fun and funny—that was what we were making fun of.
AVC: This is a studio crowdpleaser, but one that premiered at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival. Do you have thoughts on where Bros lives in relation to those two worlds?
NS: Obviously it would be thrilling to be part of an awards conversation. We worked on the script for many years, I think it’s a complicated story we’re telling, of course I’m going to think that because I’m involved in it. But yeah, in Toronto, that was really thrilling to be part of a film festival because primarily as a comedy person, like, comedy is just never—or rarely—considered part of an awards conversation. But given the subject matter and the kind of stuff we’re talking about, I think people are interested in that.
AVC: The Oscars, for whatever reason, have not historically gravitated toward comedy, especially romantic comedy.
NS: I know. Annie Hall? Or Moonstruck, maybe, was the last one. It’s strange! Because I love romantic comedies, I think a good rom-com is very hard to make, and so relatable and so human. But I don’t know, awards movies are their own genre, I guess.
AVC: You have experience in a lot of genres, but given your experience in specifically the rom-com format, how did Bros add to your future arsenal?
NS: Every time I work on a new movie, you have to be just specific to the characters and their experience and as honest as possible to the characters. And with this, the challenge was—and we talk about it in the movie—the rules are very different. I mean, the rules are different with every single person on Earth and every love story on Earth. But the rules are different in gay love stories and in gay relationships. There’s a lot of options that are available. We didn’t want the movie to say you have to be in a relationship. Because there are a lot of people who are perfectly happy, single.
You know, in the second half of the story, there’s that whole conversation about having an open relationship and they have that ridiculous foursome. And when I was cutting the movie—you know, you try lots of stuff—and I actually removed that part of the movie, just to see how the movie would play. And it completely turned it into, like, a straight love story, instantly … It totally could have been a guy and a girl, in some way I can’t even put my finger on. So we put it back in.
AVC: It feels true that in a hetero version of that, there probably wouldn’t be a foursome. Can we talk about the amount of sex in this movie? Surely some of the new rules that had to be followed in making a queer version of this format involved the approach to sex.
NS: I mean, there’s a lot of sex in all the movies I’ve made. I don’t think you can have a romantic comedy that’s R-rated and not have a lot of sex. Sex is part of relationships. But yeah, from the beginning, Billy and I barely even talked about it; we were like, “This is going to have a lot of sex in it.” And also to have sex-driven set pieces, those get the biggest laughs routinely. Because it’s relatable. I think sex is so funny. It’s just so funny. I said to Billy, “The only kind of sex I’d be uncomfortable shooting is earnest, sexy sex.” Like, I don’t know how Adrian Lyne does that. But kind of awkward, fumbling around sex is so funny and relatable.
AVC: Do you have any dream collaborators or anything you’re dying to try?
NS: I’m working on a sequel to Brokeback Mountain. [Laughs] No, no, I’m not. But I’ve been very lucky and got to work with all the people I love working with.