On paper, Max Joseph's new movie We Are Your Friends might sound like the electronic music industry's version of Entourage.
It stars Zac Efron as Cole, an aspiring DJ surrounded by a group of hard-partying twentysomething manchildren, with Emily Ratajkowski playing his pseudo love interest.
And Joseph already knows what you think of his major film debut— especially if you haven't seen it yet.
"There's a lot of low-hanging fruit," he told BuzzFeed News at the Burbank coffee shop Romancing the Bean, where parts of the movie were filmed. "You want to talk about Zac and High School Musical? You want to talk about Emily and 'Blurred Lines'? You want to talk about me and Catfish? You want to talk about EDM culture? You want to talk about bro culture?"
Smiling broadly, Joseph admitted, "It sounds like it could be the worst movie ever."
But We Are Your Friends has an emotional throughline and, perhaps more importantly, a sense of self-awareness that makes the movie a pleasant surprise.
This isn't Joseph's first feature film, but it's certainly his biggest. While serving as co-host of MTV's reality series Catfish, Joseph has continued his career as a director of documentaries and what he terms "creative nonfiction." His 2013 mini-doc 12 Years of DFA: Too Old to Be New, Too New to Be Classic was his first filmmaking foray into electronic dance music, centered on the independent record label of the title. We Are Your Friends continues that work on a larger scale, and with a fictional story, devised by Joseph and co-writer Meaghan Oppenheimer, that moves forward along with that EDM beat.
"What's funny is people see it as, Oh, here's this big studio, your first big studio movie, and I'm like, I mean, yes, that's what it looks like, but it got there in a cool way," Joseph said. The movie, which was made for around $6 million, was already shot when Warner Bros. acquired it. Before filming, Efron signed on to the then-indie because he loved the script. "We made it independently with a very small group of people," Joseph said. "And Warner Bros. came on and they had some great ideas."
The goal was to make We Are Your Friends something that could be enjoyed by those with only a passing knowledge of electronic music as well as those deeply enmeshed in the EDM scene. "You could just make something that's totally insider and that only pleases the subject, but then it's a fluff piece and you're only pandering to the insiders. On the flip side, you could make something that's kind of a layman's introduction to that world, but you run the risk of completely alienating the subject and the insiders," Joseph said. "You have to walk this fine line of representing it and opening the door just enough to outsiders to let them in and understand why you love this thing, or why this thing is worth your time, especially if they have preconceived notions of it."
The key was authenticity: At the bare minimum, if We Are Your Friends looked and sounded true to life, it would be a lot tougher to dismiss. Although Joseph and Oppenheimer were writing their own characters and situations, it was important for the writers to maintain a level of emotional honesty. As it turned out, much of Joseph's research was accidental, the result of his nearly four-season stint as co-host of Catfish.
"I've spent the last three years hanging out with a lot of kids in their twenties, in their towns, in their houses, just seeing how they live and talking with them, really having big heart-to-hearts with people about their fears and insecurities and what they want out of life," he said. "I would come home after shooting, and at the hotel that we were at in whatever city, I would write these scenes and lines that I heard during the day or things I saw at their houses, or situations I witnessed."
As much as it may make him an easy punch line, Joseph's work on Catfish is part of what has helped him create a film that's steeped in youth culture. Though still a young filmmaker at 33, Joseph is after all closer in age to Wes Bentley, whose character in the film is often treated as past his prime, than he is to Efron.
With authentic characters on the page, the next essential step for Joseph was to make sure every aspect of the music-making process on display in the film was exactly as it happens.
Because if it wasn't, "it takes you out of it. It makes you feel like the people didn't do their homework and they're watering down or selling out your subculture," Joseph said. "The biggest affront to any audience is if you feel like someone took something you love and is selling it out. God, I would hate to do that."
He turned to under-the-radar French DJ Pyramid, whom he discovered on Spotify while writing the film, to pen the music Cole writes in the film. Joseph was thrilled that Warner Bros. allowed him to stick with someone lesser known instead of turning to mainstream DJs like Calvin Harris or Tiesto.
But while We Are Your Friends is full of scenes of Efron's Cole and his mentor James (Bentley) making music — and raves that move to a vibrant EDM score — there are plenty of quieter moments. The movie is also the story of Cole's ever-changing friendships and his tenuous relationship with James' assistant and girlfriend Sophie (Ratajkowski). For Joseph, whose past work is mostly "music-driven, quick cut, emotionally charged," these more intimate, character-driven scenes were actually the most challenging.
"I was very comfortable doing the big montage stuff, even though that's technically very complicated and there are a lot of moving pieces," he said. "For me, growing as a director, the more emotional scenes involved a lot of delicate handling and really breaking scenes down into beats and being a director, understanding what each character wants at each moment and guiding the actors through the scene and making sure that you're hitting all the right beats, so that across a certain scene, things are changing."
With a relatively small budget, there were fewer opportunities for extra takes and reshoots. Joseph admitted that there were certain scenes he wrote without any certainty that he would be able to pull them off. ("I was like, fingers crossed!" he joked.)
Ultimately, he did.
We Are Your Friends feels very much of its time, a film for and about a certain kind of millennial, which is a testament to Joseph's ability to integrate himself into the worlds he covers, even though he might otherwise exist on the fringes. He approaches the youth in the film in much the same way as he approaches EDM, from a kind of outsider perspective but deeply invested in getting it right.
"The traveling that Catfish affords us and the cross-section of America that we see on a constant basis, I would have never gotten that living in the bubble that is Los Angeles or going home to visit my parents in the bubble that is New York," he continued. "I couldn't have written this movie without making Catfish."
Although Joseph has spent plenty of time among young people, he has just the right level of detachment, allowing for the self-awareness that makes his film a success. We Are Your Friends is a movie about a group of young straight white male friends who are rough around the edges, and while Joseph is reluctant to pigeonhole his characters, he concedes that they are a part of "bro culture," a very loaded term.
What distinguishes the bros in We Are Your Friends, to its benefit, is a persistent internal criticism of the culture. Cole is aware that his lifestyle is not sustainable, and Joseph hopes the audience will approach the film with the same understanding.
In many ways, the movie is a coming-of-age story, and that means seeing its characters move past a callous, juvenile engagement with the world around them. "They're chauvinistic and they're misogynistic, and they're probably a little homophobic. They're flawed," Joseph said. "[Cole] has to outgrow these guys, and you know that everyone can outgrow this phase of coming together to party and have fun, which can be very surface and superficial. The fun that they're having is not nearly, to me, as rewarding as expressing yourself creatively, making art or finding a meaningful connection."
Like Cole, Joseph knows he will continue to find himself disregarded and underestimated. That comes with the territory. Although his filmmaking predates Catfish, he's now best known as sidekick to Nev Schulman, carrying around a camera to document the internet horror love stories the duo traffic in. Though We Are Your Friends is not an MTV film, with a focus on youth and music, the association is unavoidable.
"I liked my work before Catfish, and certainly there's an evolution between that work and the work I'm doing now. I don't think there's any need to rebrand," he said. "In any of these big career decision points or questions, you just gotta let the work speak for itself. Or let yourself speak for yourself."