Some directors prefer to stay behind the camera while a scene is unfolding, but that’s not a rule that Nicholas Stoller sticks to. On the set of Friends from College — the eight-episode Netflix comedy he co-created with his wife, novelist Francesca Delbanco — Stoller is frequently on the move, leaping up from his chair behind the video village monitors and racing to where his cast is sitting with suggestions for new lines and bits of business. It doesn’t even matter if they’re in the middle of a take; he’ll barge in, toss out his idea and run back, trusting the actors to keep the scene going.
For the group of visiting journalists standing behind him, it’s almost exhausting to watch, but after months of shooting the comedy — about a group of Harvard grads living, working, and screwing up in New York City — the cast is used to Stoller’s routine. “It’s good because you don’t have to memorize your lines that much,” actress Jae Suh Park jokes in between takes. “You know it’s going to be changing, so you have to be open to that.” Adds Cobie Smulders, who spent almost a decade as part of a much less freewheeling episodic comedy, How I Met Your Mother: “I’ve gotten comfortable with the improv of it all. We’ll be doing a scene, and Nick will just yell a line out for us to try. It makes it feel a little more grounded and realistic, and not so scripted.”
A graduate of the Judd Apatow School of Comedy (as well as Harvard University), Stoller likely learned this approach from his mentor, who is famous for incorporating lengthy improvisation sessions into his films. Stoller got his start as a writer on Apatow’s late, great Fox series Undeclared, and the director later produced Stoller’s own directorial debut, 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, as well as the two after that, 2010’s Get Him to the Greek and 2012’s The Five-Year Engagement. Even though Apatow isn’t directly involved with Friends From College, his influence is felt both in Stoller’s eagerness to change dialogue on a whim, as well as the presence of Knocked Up star Seth Rogen, who happens to be filming a cameo in this particular episode, set at a lavish wedding party. “This is pretty similar to how I direct a movie,” Stoller confirms during one of the rare moments where he’s standing still. “We’re just shooting a lot more. It’s the same length of time as a movie shoot, but I’m shooting two movies in that time.”
The person getting married in this sequence, which will be part of the show’s sixth episode, is a friend from college, but not one of the titular Friends From College. Instead, those friends are a group of six Harvard graduates who are all living in the same city together for the first time in decades. The ranks include married couple Ethan and Lisa Turner (Keegan-Michael Key and Smulders), Lisa’s playboy ex Nick (Nat Faxon), book editor Max (Fred Savage), bohemian actress Marianne (Park) and Sam (Annie Parisse) who has been carrying on an affair with Ethan since their school days. Being in separate cities kept the embers of Ethan and Annie’s passion burning (and their respective spouses from finding out), but now that they’re living in closer proximity to each other, it’s gotten significantly harder to keep their trysts a secret. It doesn’t help that they’re both intensely neurotic individuals by nature; Ethan in particular exists in a near-perpetual state of panic about Lisa discovering his infidelity, and an equally strong state of fear at the thought of losing Annie.
Now that fear is about to bubble over at this wedding, which, in the show is happening at Manhattan’s tony Metropolitan Club, but in reality is being filmed at the Sleepy Hollow Country Club about an hour north of the city. Outside, it’s an unseasonably warm November day, and Ethan is feeling the heat inside the dining room as well. That’s because his one-time collegiate rival, Paul Dobkin (Rogen), is openly flirting with Annie, and Ethan can’t shut him down lest he arouse Lisa’s suspicions.
In his desperation, he attempts to turn the clock back 20 years by resurrecting his Harvard-era alter ego “Fun Ethan,” the guy who never failed to get the party started. “He wants to impress Sam with another piece of nostalgia,” Key explains during a break in shooting. But Paul has his own secret weapon: his notorious past as “Party Dog,” Fun Ethan’s former nemesis in party-startage. “It’s a big epic showdown between Fun Ethan and Party Dog,” Key teases about how the rest of the episode will unfold. “He’s very threatened, and we’re going to end up gleaning a lot of hilarity from this.”
That hilarity also comes laced with a palpable sense of discomfort at seeing Ethan so stridently trying to recreate the past. According to Key, that’s the central theme of the show. “Ethan is a nostalgia junkie, and can’t move past his past. There are people in this world who spend their time reaching back as opposed to looking forward, and he’s a poster child for this.”
Ethan’s nostalgia addiction often manifests itself in the sometimes-charming, sometimes-confusing way he peppers pop culture references into his speech — as when he quotes Crocodile Dundee to Marianne’s Australian boyfriend, and also drops a Point Break reference. “Nick and I grew up in the same era, so it’s a collective nostalgia,” says Key, who improvised the Crocodile Dundee reference, although the Point Break line was scripted. “When we’re improvising, things will come from our shared reference base. Sometimes Nick will say, “Do you know what would be funny?’ And I’m like, ‘Can we just do your first joke?‘”
Friends From College is currently streaming on Netflix
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