‘The House’ Always Wins: Andrew Jay Cohen Directs Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler in this Summer’s Suburban Comedy
Taking an eagerly awaited leap from screenwriter to director, Andrew Jay Cohen is bringing his screenplay, The House, to movie theaters across the country this summer. The comedy brings together Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler as parents who resort to running an illicit casino from their suburban home in order to fund their daughter’s college tuition. Packed with a strong supporting cast full of established and up-and-coming comedy stars, The House emerged as one of the most talked about comedies following the Warner Bros. presentation at CinemaCon 2017. Boxoffice talked with Cohen about the project’s origins and the challenges of coming up with comedy gold.
This is your fourth feature film screenplay. Where did the idea for a suburban casino come from?
Gambling is close to my heart [laughs]. In high school I would go to my friend’s house and play poker, and it was a whole lot of fun. The original idea was to make a movie about a bunch of high school kids who start an illegal casino without their parents knowing. The good ideas always pop, and this one sat around for a bit — it wasn’t ready yet. My writing partner at the time and I then did Neighbors and that was really successful, and my manager suggested the change; “You write adults that act like kids so well, so what if you flipped it and have the adults start the casino?” And we approached it in the style that we had been developing up to that point—these adults make the worst decisions in the world but you still understand where they’re coming from emotionally. Once we understood it that way, it really started getting so much funnier, because when you start putting yourself in it, that’s when the comedy really started to fly. I can’t open up an illegal casino — I don’t know how to intimidate a cheater, I don’t know how to run my gang with an iron fist — and the thought of attempting to do that seemed infinitely funny.
How much did you have to adapt in directing one of your screenplays for a major studio for the first time?
I think I needed to let go of the words. I had spent so long on sets trying to think of the perfect joke to write on a piece of paper and hand to the director. I let go of that and started thinking of the flow of the movie in my head, and that’s a whole other skill — super hard — balancing the images and words and trying to put them together in the right way. Stepping back and imagining the movie as someone in the audience — it was more of an immersive experience than I imagined. I love directing. It’s what I went to college for, and I’ve wanted to do it since I saw Coming to America. Being in charge of all these different departments and dealing with the super-specific questions from each of them in rapid succession — you have to develop a very strong opinion very quickly. Procrastination is a writer’s number one tool, but you can’t procrastinate when a group of people are waiting on you to say what to do or where to go. That quick decision making was a big shift.
A big draw for the film is the pairing of Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, not to mention the rest of the cast who make it an ensemble comedy. How much of the casting did you have in mind when you took on the project?
I think it really came together in the writing phase, when you get to a point in a script that is three-quarters of the way there and sort of have an idea of who can play it. Once we zeroed in on Will [Ferrell], we pitched it and got him interested in playing the role. From there you have Will’s voice, and the question becomes who he plays against. We realized he hadn’t done a movie with Amy [Poehler] since Blades of Glory. It was about picking the best person they could play against, just how we brought together Seth Rogen and Zac Efron. Putting Will and Amy together, the king and queen of comedy, that’s when you start to realize that you can have an all-star [cast]. Alison Jones, the casting director, is one of the best in the business. She cast Freaks & Geeks. She knows everybody—including people you don’t know about yet. It was an amazing experience, populating a town that Will and Amy live in. It felt like putting together The Simpsons. Jason Mantzoukas, our third lead, is someone who I think should be a huge star. People know him as Rafi from The League, and he played an awful doctor in Neighbors. He’s a guy who is great at saying the worst thing you could possibly say. Everyone in our cast knows each other, and they worked together so well. It starts with Will and Amy, and it’s easy to fall in together when everyone is having fun on set. They really helped set the tone.
Family has played a big role in all your movies, as it does here. It’s not so much that you depict dysfunctional families but that they’re very relatable in their shortcomings. Your leads seem to be fully cognizant that they might not be the best parents or siblings.
I love dysfunctional family stories—that’s part of their beauty. Coming from a family that has very strong personalities, you see what happens when things mix together. I like watching ordinary people under extraordinary pressure do extraordinary things. They’re almost always war movies: Neighbors is a battle between the two houses; Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is a battle of the sexes. The House isn’t really like those movies, but you do have a tension there — between wanting to be good parents and wanting to be gangsters — that sets everything up. It’s a chemistry that exists in all families; you love each other but are also weirdly competitive with each other. The family is the original unit, and you can find infinite stories there.
They should really know better but can’t help falling into the traps they set for themselves.
There’s nothing better than somebody who is put in a situation that I could totally see myself in and either makes the decision that I wish I had made, or that on my worst day I might have made, and letting the situation go to the craziest place. That’s the fun of comedy. If your premise is tight — and almost a dramatic premise — you earn the right to crank it up as high as you want if you get the audience to buy in. That tension of getting a ticking time bomb of a character and adding another character that acts as gasoline or gun powder. If you populate your script with flawed characters, like really flawed characters, humanly flawed characters, the more people recognize themselves in them and that’s when you start to get gasps and screams. The rolling laugh is the gold standard, and that’s when you get a rolling laugh. Audience reaction is so key, too — watching screenings and seeing when they’re laughing, how they’re laughing—because we want their interaction. The clearer the idea of the joke is, the harder the laugh.