Billy Eichner had one lesson he wanted to impart to Nick Stoller as they attempted to write what would become the first gay romantic comedy release by a major studio: Love is, in fact, not love. "I knew it was such a huge opportunity," says Eichner, the star and co-writer of Bros , due out Sept. 30. "But what I told him right off the bat is, 'If we're going to do this, you have to understand that this is not as simple as doing When Harry Met Sally and swapping in two men.’"
Stoller, who directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Neighbors , had to shake off some universalist impulses to co-write and direct Bros , which is getting a big push from Universal Studios. "I did come into this being like, 'Well, all relationships, whether straight or gay or whatever, are, on some fundamental level, the same,'" says Stoller. "And Billy came into this saying, 'No! It's super different.' I kind of went to a class taught by him where he explains, in great detail, all the differences. And at the end of the day, they're the same — and different."
"We have our own rules about what's ethical or not ethical, in terms of dating and commitment and monogamy," Eichner adds. "And two men together is a very unique, specific romantic situation. Because yes, we're gay. But, as I often tell my straight friends, we're still men. I think straight people think we're basically women. We are men! I always say to my straight male friends, 'Think about all the weird, fucked-up male shit you have in your brain about sex and monogamy and being vulnerable. Now times that by two.' That's going to be a very complicated situation, and we've really never seen it explored."
The result is a new twist on the romantic comedy, with Eichner working in the Billy Crystal/Woody Allen (sorry!) vein as Bobby Leiber, a successful but neurotic and emotionally unavailable New York media figure who's also heading up an in-the-works LGBTQ history museum. (Eichner compares Bobby to Holly Hunter's Type A whirlwind in Broadcast News .) When Bobby meets Aaron (Luke MacFarlane), a handsome, jock-ish lawyer with his own commitment issues, he's shocked to find himself falling in love for the first time… and the stuff of rom-coms ensues. In all, Bros is an instant classic, auguring the long-awaited return of big, theatrical comedies made for and about grown-ups. "I'm in my forties," says Eichner. "I look around at movies in general — about straight people, about gay people — especially comedies, and say, 'Where are the adults?' I grew up with those great James L. Brooks movies and Nora Ephron movies. They really made me fall in love with movies. And they have disappeared entirely."
Setting that kind of movie outside of the well-trodden world of straight people also allows for reams of legitimately fresh-feeling comedy. An early date between Bobby and Aaron ends in a near-foursome — a scenario that Brooks and Ephron never quite touched upon, " There's an excitement to the reaction we're getting from straight audiences who've seen the movie at early screenings," says Eichner. "Because it feels like you're getting a peek behind the curtain at a culture of dating and sex that straight people think they understand, but they don't really know what it's like."
Well before he knew what he was getting into, Stoller saw this tweak on the genre as an obvious gap to fill. "I was like, 'Why has no one done a great big romantic comedy where two gay men fall in love? But I'm certainly not the person to do that by myself, because I'm straight, and I don't know that story. So, I wanted to do it, but it was pretty theoretical."
Pretty soon, though, he realized he knew a guy. Eichner, best known for hilariously haranguing celebrities and random passersby in his belligerent Billy on the Street persona, had a small role in Stoller's Neighbors 2, and a bigger one as an uptight doctor in Stoller's Netflix series Friends From College . Over the course of the latter project, Stoller realized that Eichner — who also starred in Hulu's Difficult People and played a very convincing Matt Drudge on Impeachment: American Crime Story, among other parts — had unexplored potential. "I thought he'd be good," Stoller says, "but he was really good. I thought, 'This guy deserves a movie. He's a movie star."
Bros proves Stoller right, and validates Eichner's original conception of his potential. He did Angels in Americ a and Chekhov plays onstage when he studied acting at Northwestern, and always saw himself as a leading man. But as a 43-year-old openly gay man, he had nearly given up on anyone in Hollywood agreeing with him. As a kid, he says, "I went to see Steve Martin and Tom Hanks movies and I thought, 'Oh, I could do something like that.' It was only when I was in my mid-twenties when I started to think, 'I guess I'll be lucky if I can just play the neighbor on a sitcom.' Because that's what Hollywood was telling me."
Stoller started his career building films around talented rising stars — Jason Segel in Sarah Marshall , Jonah Hill and Russell Brand in Get Him to the Gree k — and saw Bros as a chance to do so again. As with those two earlier films, comedy giant Judd Apatow was on board as a producer. For Apatow, who's created films loosely inspired by the real-life stories of stars ranging from Amy Schumer to Pete Davidson, it was all about following what he calls "our usual process, which is going into psychoanalysis for a few years to try to figure out what the story should be. A lot of the movie is about the things we do to cover up our fear of being vulnerable. Billy's character is brash and funny and opinionated as a way to not open up in a real way."
Eichner somewhat hesitantly reveals that he had one real-life experience not entirely unlike Bobby's in the movie, though it was a much shorter relationship with a less happy ending. "I had an experience years ago, when I was in my mid-thirties [and] had not seriously dated anyone in a long time," he says. "And all of a sudden, I met someone who really shook me up, who I really fell for very quickly. It was more short-lived, but it did open my eyes in terms of relationships and love and made me think, 'Oh, maybe I shouldn't completely ignore that part of my life.' I was talking to my old friends about it [then], and they said, 'Wow, Billy has feelings!'" He adds with a laugh, "Anyway, that didn't work out and then I put the wall right back up."
Eichner had assumed Bros would have to be an indie or streaming production, but much to his surprise, pitching it to Universal — where Apatow has had a long string of smashes — was the easiest part of the process. "They instantly got it," says Stoller. "They're like, 'Let's do it!' And then the pandemic happened and we were delayed for a year and a half." (It was understood going in that certain international markets that tend to reject gay content would not be on board: "This is not a movie for China," says Stoller. "And that's fine. I mean, it's not like some massive investment [for the studio].")
From left: Peter Kim, Justin Covington, Monica Raymund, Guillermo Díaz, D'Lo, Becca Blackwell, Billy Eichner, Luke Macfarlane, Symone, and Guy Branum.
The Covid delay did at least allow for extra time in the writing process, which had the occasional speed bump. "Nick has been in a marriage a very long time," says Eichner. "Marriage and family, in the very heteronormative sense, is very, very important to him. Whereas gay men make up our own rules, we create our own families. The one time I got mad at Nick, and I hope he's OK with me saying this, we were thinking about Bobby's arc in the movie, and he said to me, 'If you're 40 and you're single, there has to be something wrong with you.' And I exploded. I got so mad! I think that's an old-fashioned notion even for younger straight couples. They're polyamorous and they're this and they're that."
Stoller also had trouble picturing the character of Aaron — until he met McFarlane, who's starred in numerous Hallmark movies (including multiple Christmas-themed ones) well after coming out as gay in 2008. "Aaron is a type of guy who Billy feels the gay community is obsesssed with," says Stoller. "This type of bro-y, masculine guy who isn't totally in touch with his feelings. He kept explaining who that guy was to me over and over and over again, and I was like, 'I believe you, I trust you, but I just don't totally see it.' And then Luke walked in, and it was like, 'Oh, I get it!'"
With the exception of a celebrity cameo or two, every single role in the movie is played by an LGBTQ+ performer. "There were just so many amazing people who all deserved to work a lot more than they work," says Apatow. "When you do the casting, and you see how hysterical everybody is, and how strong, it instantly makes you feel bad that there haven't been enough opportunities for them."
The filmmakers had little idea how topical some of the movie would turn out to be, especially, in the wake of Florida's so-called Don't Say Gay bill, the scene where Bobby argues with a teacher who thinks elementary-school kids are too young to visit an LGBTQ+ museum. " I remember writing that and thinking, 'I hope people don't think that this is unrealistic,'" says Eichner, "because it seemed that we were making progress. But we were never taught our own history as LGBTQ people, even in a threadbare, overly generalized way. We have no sense of ourselves historically. And I don't think we realize what that did to us, in that we know nothing about ourselves."
"You have all these pieces of shit like Ron DeSantis trying to divide us," adds Stoller, "and it's just a bunch of bullshit to distract from failed policies. Hopefully, this movie does some work to bridge those fake divides."
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