The Lost City has gone above and beyond expectations ever since its notable SXSW premiere. Strong reactions and critical acclaim not only lead to a larger than expected opening weekend, but Paramount’s action rom-com has continuously held a high spot at the box office ever since its debut – accumulating a worldwide gross of $128 million thus far. A huge win for both the studio and wider audiences, this success in the aftermath of pandemic delays only points to a greater truth: moviegoers are ready to invest in more rom-coms in theaters again – if it proves to be rightfully cinematic, of course. In a time when streaming seemingly offers various new rom-coms every other week, earning a theatrical experience is something that filmmakers Aaron and Adam Nee totally understand, and it’s why The Lost City works so well.
The Nee Brothers first burst onto the scene with 2006’s The Last Romantic, which established their charming taste for sincere humor. This would only be further explored in 2015’s Band of Robbers, an unlikely smalltown adventure for hidden treasure that clearly sprouted the roots for The Lost City. In our exclusive interview, directors Aaron and Adam Nee speak on the widespread desire for more rom-coms and how they specifically made a romantic quest to be seen in the cinema. They tell all on Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum, and Brad Pitt’s comedic talents and give us a taste of what’s next. Just because they made a box office hit doesn’t mean that they can’t also maneuver the streaming world, for their long-awaited, live-action Netflix adaptation of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is on the horizon. Suffice to say, He-Man fans will surely appreciate what the Nee Brothers had to say.
I want to first get your thoughts on the loud response and success of The Lost City. I don’t think audiences have been able to enjoy many action rom-coms like this, specifically in theaters, since before the pandemic, thus creating this huge desire for the film. Can you guys speak on this?
Adam Nee: I think it connects to our own personal desire to see this film. When we first read the script, we were 8 months into the pandemic, isolated in our homes. And reading this script, it just felt like that escape and that adventure that we wanted to go on. So I’m so excited that other people are feeling this way. I mean, not that everyone is going through a hard time, but that we all have this unique longing for this kind of joyful escape, that you can get in theaters that I remember I used to have as a kid
Aaron Nee: I think it’s a big part of what cinema is and why cinema has such a big role in society, in our culture. It’s a way that we, as a community, can together go to a theater and, for a moment, escape out of whatever difficulties and challenges that we’re facing, and just be taken on an adventure – getting to hear each other laugh, cheer, and applaud while on that journey.
Having seen The Lost City in theaters, it kills with an audience. It made me again think about how we’ve gotten a lot of similar rom-coms recently but they’re more common on streaming now. What are your thoughts on The Lost City being allowed to thrive in cinemas and possibly show that there’s still a hunger for the genre outside of streaming?
Adam Nee: Comedy is such an audience genre where it’s a communal thing, and even going to the cinema is just such a communal thing. This is a movie that was made for audiences and if you watch the trailer at home, you’re probably going to have a different reaction than watching it with 300 people in a room. You just feel that energy and that surprise that you’re going through together as a group.
Aaron Nee: I think streaming is wonderful and there are some wonderful opportunities coming up for movies that just couldn’t find a home in the cinema, that they can find a home on streaming. But there’s something singular and special about the cinema in that you get to have this experience with a group of people and you can feel that energy in the room – it magnifies your own experience.
Adam Nee: It was our approach to [The Lost City] because we knew it was a theatrical movie, and we wanted to make it where it had to be theatrical. We wanted to give it the scope and scale, the feel of something that you had to see in theaters and make it an event – something that you also want to see before your friends tell you all the funny scenes in the movie. So, hopefully, more people will get out and see it because I do think it is a movie that is meant to be seen in theaters.
So you got to play with comedy pros in Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum. Was their expertise in the genre at all intimidating for you two given that you’ve never worked on a film this big?
Adam Nee: For me, it’s a comfort because you just want to, as a director, surround yourself with people who are great at their jobs. It makes your job so much easier. So this cast made our lives a lot easier. I mean, having them with all of their various styles of acting and comedic timing, and then putting those things together created this really interesting tone for [The Lost City].
Aaron Nee: It could have been very intimidating and difficult if they were difficult people, but that’s not the case here. The extraordinary thing about them is that not only are they talents at the top of their game, but they’re also really enthusiastic supporters of the movie, good people who wanted to be there together to tell this story. And they elevate the movie, they make the movie.
Because Sandra and Channing are such pros, I’ve got to ask how much was improvised and how much footage you left on the cutting room floor as a result?
Aaron Nee: The initial cut of the movie was very long, not because there were a bunch of other scenes but because there were so many fun moments, jokes, and discoveries that happened on set. We had a lot to work with!
Adam Nee: We wanted to create this environment of play. You know, the script is very funny. A lot of the funny lines in the movie were in the script, but you just want to create this atmosphere of play because even if improvisations are happening that maybe don’t make it into the film, one thing that it does is kind of reinvigorates a scene. So if you’re on take 4 or 5 and you’re like, “Just play with it, let’s just try something different” someone will come up with something that almost starts the whole thing over and enlivens it. We love that way of working.
Off the top of your head, what were some of the craziest things they came up with on the spot? Because as you just said, they gave you a lot to work with.
Adam Nee: For me, it was just honestly the approach of the movie and putting these two people together… how on week 1 of the movie, like the first day of shooting, we put them in a real jungle stream together. And immediately into doing a comedic scene, we’re really all just getting to know each other and we’re in the middle of the jungle in a river. Then we put them on a waterfall ledge!
Aaron Nee: Chaining’s second day of being with all of us was stripping him, putting him out into the water, with no comfortable green room to escape to, and doing the scene with the leeches.
Adam Nee: Yeah, it was just the settings that we put them in. And the way that they delivered was just incredible. I really feel like it enhanced the performances a little bit, putting them in these extreme situations that made it feel real. Like, you’re really there in the jungle, you don’t have to pretend too much.
Right? A lot of it does feel like the two are actually in the middle of dirt in the humidity, swatting real mosquitoes off their face. Can you guys talk about how important that psychical element was?
Aaron Nee: I think putting our cast and crew actually in the jungle, actually in these environments, was not only important for bringing extra nuances out of the performances but also just what gets captured on camera has a different level of immersion for the audience’s experience. It was really important for us that this not only be a story about a character who is pulled from her home and taken out into the wild to go on this adventure, but we wanted the audience to be pulled from your home and go out into the wild and get to go on an adventure with her.
Adam Nee: Yeah, we talked about it sometimes, it was almost like a Werner Herzog comedy where we were literally in the heart of the jungle sweating in Kn95 masks through a global pandemic, shooting a comedy where someone has leeches on their booze.
We can’t go on without mentioning Brad Pitt. Did you guys have a backup or a list of potential replacements if he couldn’t play the part or said no?
Aaron Nee: We thought to the last minute, like the very last minute of him showing up, that it wasn’t happening. There’s no way this is happening.
Adam Nee: Even when he took the part we were just like, there’s no way this is real. Like he’s going to get too busy and have to move off at the last minute but, yeah, it was just so surreal to have Brad. Aaron and I probably saw Fight Club in theaters 5 times. Like, this is a guy that we’ve grown up loving our whole lives and so to have him there on set in the jungle, saying these crazy lines and being totally down and totally up for all the adventure was such a surreal experience.
Aaron Nee: Not only game for the lines that we’re throwing at him from off-camera, but also for the physical demand that we were putting on him saying, “Okay, now you’re going to take this tripod, grab that cloth, wrap it around, and knock out this thug” (laughs). And he did it so well!
Adam Nee: Yeah, on day 1 of the shoot we had the wheelbarrow scene where he’s pushing Sandra in the wheelbarrow with Channing running alongside and we’re blowing these cars up behind them. So we had one take at this, and this is happening at the end of his first day with the sun setting, raising the light – and he’s just like, “Cool, show me what to do. I’ll do it.” Boom.
He’s definitely a comedic pro in his own right.
Adam Nee: Oh my god. Brad Pitt is like an untapped gem, in terms of comedy. He’s so down and he just does it like so chill. I feel like a Lebowski-esque comedy with Brad Pitt as the lead is something we all want.
Speaking of untapped potential, I feel like a lot of people wouldn’t expect that Daniel Radcliffe can do a snobby and slimy billionaire so well. Can you talk about bringing that out of him?
Aaron Nee: We had been watching the stuff that he’s been doing recently, and it was clear that he has a lot of range, both as a dramatic and comedic performer. And we were excited about the opportunity to showcase that! We could see what he was capable of and this felt like a great role to prove that.
Adam Nee: He’s incredible. From the time we saw Swiss Army Man, we were just like, “Oh yeah, this guy is down to try weird stuff.” So he’s the man for the job. This is who we want!
Swiss Army Man always deserves a good shout-out.
Adam Nee: We love that movie, oh my god. It’s so good!
So now that you’ve closed the book on The Lost City, how quickly are things moving with Masters of the Universe on Netflix? After a long development process, you two have finally cast your He-Man in Kyle Allen. Are you guys confident that you’ll be hitting the ground soon with filming?
Adam Nee: Yeah, it’s what we’re shifting our attention to. You know, we’ve been working on it for 4 years – we actually got that movie before The Lost City. So it’s been a long process. I know the fans are dying for this movie the same way we’re dying for this movie. But we have been living in Eternia for 4 years now. We love the material, it’s something that we obviously grew up with, playing with the toys and watching the cartoon, and to have the opportunity to bring that crazy, vibrant, colorful, and funny world to life is just an amazing gift. So we’re in it – we’re writing, putting a team together, looking at actors – it’s all coming together.
To end off on that, if you could tell the fans one thing about what you’re aiming for with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, what would that be?
Aaron Nee: We’re treating it a little bit like an origin story, and that’s part of the inspiration behind casting Kyle Allen because he has that fresh wide-eyed wonder but is also just an incredible athlete. He’s a great way to bring audiences back into Eternia and rediscover it together.
Adam Nee: I think it’s the fun aspect, you know? I’ve heard from some fans that their dream [for Masters of the Universe] would sort of be like Lord of the Rings, but you can’t have characters like Snout Spout in Lord of the Rings! So I think that we are maybe more in the Thor: Ragnarok kind of tone where it’s a huge adventure film, but we have fun and there’s a good amount of reverence in there as well.
Aaron Nee: We’re not hiding from the wild, crazy aspects of the property. It’s part of what made us love [He-Man] to begin with and we’re embracing those elements as well.
Funny enough, I’ve been telling people for years that Thor: Ragnarok is a pretty good He-Man movie when you really think about it.
Adam Nee: You’re right! It is the best He-Man movie ever.