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‘Neighbors’ hits close to home for screenwriters

Scarsdale Inquirer/Jim MacLean

Brendan O’Brien and Andrew Cohen at the premiere of “Neighbors”


Hanging out with Seth Rogen and Zac Efron would be a Hollywood dream for a lot of fans. Scarsdale natives Brendan O’Brien and Andrew J. Cohen are living that dream. O’Brien of Edgewood and Cohen of Fox Meadow, who became friends in sixth grade at Scarsdale Middle School, wrote the hit comedy film “Neighbors,” that stars Rogen, Efron, Dave Franco and Rose Byrne. Directed by Nicholas Stoller, the film’s premise is about what happens when a frat house moves in next door to a young married couple with a baby. “Neighbors” opened May 9 and has generated over $200 million at the box office to date.

The Inquirer spoke to O’Brien and Cohen from Los Angeles, where they now live and share an office. With great bonhomie — and finishing each other’s sentences — the two shared memories of growing up in Scarsdale and their careers. The 1995 SHS grads said that coming of age in the camcorder generation, when making videos was a fun and easy hobby, shaped their futures.

“We were kids at just the right time, with the conversion to technology,” said Cohen.

The theme of Cohen’s bar mitzvah was movies, he said, with each table being named after a movie.

“Mine was the ‘Coming to America’ table,” O’Brien noted wryly.

O’Brien wanted to become a writer, and Cohen wanted to work in the film industry. In the summer of 1999, after college graduation, O’Brien from Georgetown, and Cohen from Yale, the friends drove out to California, arriving in Hermosa Beach on Labor Day weekend.

“We went out West and bought our first cell phones together, in Hermosa Beach,” said Cohen.

Cohen worked at Creative Artist Agency and then wanted to get out of the representation world while O’Brien worked as a production assistant and writers’ assistant on sitcoms in order to be close to the writing process.
Cohen began working his way up in the film industry, working as assistant to Adrian Lyne in the film “Unfaithful” in 2002 and among other work, as assistant to director Judd Apatow in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” in 2004 and “Kicking and Screaming” in 2005.

He was the assistant director for “Neighbors” and has director credits for “American Storage,” a TV series, and shorts. He was producer for a number of films, including executive producer of “Neighbors,” and associate producer of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Writing credits, which he shares with O’Brien, include “American Storage” and a video short, “Acting with James Franco.”

“I worked in the Judd Apatow world, worked on scripts, and started from there,” O’Brien said.

Among his credits, O’Brien was an assistant to producer Shauna Robertson on “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and was co-producer on the Adam Sandler film “Funny People.”

The Judd Apatow years were “like graduate school,” Cohen said. “We had a platform for the scripts we had written. Getting a manager and agent we started our careers as bona fide writers in 2004, 2005. We’ve been professional screenwriters since then.”

Cohen is married to Crystal Li Cohen, who is pregnant with their first child. O’Brien is married to Amanda Headrick O’Brien and they are the parents to two boys, Gabriel, 4, and Jack, 2.

The film “Neighbors” is about the generational angst the 30-something couple feels about their 20-something neighbors who are having the time of their lives. The film mirrors the progression in the lives of the screenwriters from college students to family men.

“We put a lot of our married lives into “Neighbors,” Cohen said. “‘Neighbors’ came from our fears that we were no longer young.”

“We were looking at 20-year-olds as if we were different generations. It feels so different, and we want to be young and we can’t, and that’s the movie,” O’Brien said.

“‘Neighbors’ is a big laugh-out-loud comedy rooted in emotion,” O’Brien said.

The “silly antics” of the film are an expression of the “true terror and the pain of adjustment” and “the conflicting emotion” of the maturation process. “You give up a lot when you grow up,” Cohen said.

The screenwriting duo is hoping to write more “big, crazy comedies” that are character-based.

Growing up, the two were fans of “Albert Brooks, Mel Brooks, Brooks Brothers, anything Brooks,” they joked, along with Billy Wilder and John Landis. Landis’s “Trading Places” was a favorite.

Cohen, who was a film major, liked the films of Kurosawa. “If we can combine smart filmmaking with crazy comedy, we’d be happy,” he said.

“Neighbors” is not without controversy. After the shooting rampage in Santa Barbara by Elliot Rodger, Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday blamed Apatow and Rogen in part for the permeation of misogynistic culture in films that fueled Rodger’s fantasies. Apatow and Rogen both spoke out against Hornaday.

Cohen said they felt what Hornaday wrote was of little importance.

“I think it was unfortunate and a tiny bit irresponsible,” Cohen said of Hornday’s piece.

“What really is important is what the victims and their families are feeling after this senseless tragedy,” O’Brien said.

Opening night for the film was a lot of fun, they said. They went from theater to theater in a rented bus with cast members and their wives and went “in through the bowels of the theaters. People were so excited to see Zac,” Cohen said.

“There was so much energy,” O’Brien said. “We had the premiere and all our family were out there. It was awesome to share it with them. It was surreal.”

O’Brien’s parents, Eileen and Terry, still live in Edgewood. Cohen’s mother Susan has moved to Manhattan. His father is deceased.

The screenwriters said they were sad to learn of the closing of Muller’s deli on Garth Road. They used to “fill their bellies at Muller’s deli” quite often, they said.

Speaking of neighbors, the duo wanted to mention favorite Scarsdale teachers who were mentors. For Cohen it was SHS English teacher Julie Leerburger and Kathy Connon in Popham 8; for O’Brien it was Cora Five, a fifth-grade teacher at Edgewood School, and SHS English teacher Seth Evans.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


June 6, 2014