Zac Efron had to do two things, he said, in order to play the aspiring DJ of the dance-music-heavy romance "We Are Your Friends." He had to learn to be a DJ. And -- like many an ingénue before him -- he had to lose weight.
Efron -- who first danced and sang his way to fame via the "High School Musical" franchise and has more recently appeared in "Neighbors," "At Any Price" and the upcoming "Dirty Grandpa" -- is hardly a bruiser.
"But his character is supposed to be the quiet one, not necessarily the best looking, or the biggest," director Max Joseph said. "I wanted him to be an everyman. Granted not every everyman looks like Zac Efron. But these guys are young, pulling all nighters, smoking weed, they don't get out in the sun that much. So I said, 'I thought it would help you get in character if you were a little wirier. And smaller.' He took it to heart.
"It didn't make him not look like the best-looking guy in the movie," Joseph said with a laugh. "But it helped."
The film, which opens Friday and was written by Joseph and Meaghan Oppenheimer from a story by Richard Silverman, is virtually archetypal: Cole (Efron), the talented young guy from the wrong side of the tracks (in this case the San Fernando Valley, which isn't exactly Kolkata) has to decide whether to stick with the friends who are dragging him down, or grab for the golden ring. Cole's pals -- Mason, Ollie and Squirrel (Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez and Alex Shaffer) -- are small-time hustlers, selling marijuana and ecstasy and promoting club nights in Hollywood. There, Cole is the opening act for such DJ icons as James Reed (Wes Bentley), an international star. One night, Cole makes the fateful decision to leave his friend at the club and goes with Reed to a party. Reed takes Cole under his wing, teaching him the more nuanced aspects of music production, aesthetics and the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Things look good, including Reed's girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski) -- with whom Cole is immediately set on course for a romantic collision.
Efron's musical tutelage ("I knew virtually nothing about being a DJ") came via Them Jeans (aka Jason Stewart), the 6-foot-7 Los Angeles-based DJ who began meeting with the actor two and a half months before shooting of the film started, and got him to the point where he could plausibly execute the skills showcased in the film.
"He's not about to start playing bar mitzvahs," Joseph said of Efron. "But he's a fast learner."
Efron has real, other-than-virtual musical skills, which he's showcased in several films. Making a movie about DJs requires getting by a rather general presumption that people who practice the art are basically recycling the work of other people.
"Here you're talking about two things," Joseph said of his story. "There are the DJs you'd see at a party and they play other people's music in a set; and there are the DJs who produce. A lot of the top guys are producers of their own music. We needed to show the characters doing both. They are separate disciplines and two different skills, but today as a DJ you need to do both."
Joseph said the subplot -- the boys get hired to work the phones for a re-fi scam artist (Jon Bernthal of "The Walking Dead") and start making real, unethical money -- was inspired by kids he knew in Los Angeles who were making $10,000 a week in 2004, before the collapse of the real estate bubble.
"It all came back after the housing collapse," he said. "These guys who were small-time, charming hustlers promoting parties and then it all went one step further and they're screwing people over and conning them."
The heart of the movie, though, is sound.
"I've been a fan of electronic music for a while," Joseph said. "I also come from documentaries, where the main criterion is that you have to get it right. It means having to be right to the insider and inviting and accessible to the outsider. You have to walk a fine line. If it's too insider-y you exclude a lot of people. And if it's dumbed down too much you alienate the insiders. I wanted to show that electronic music is an art. And I wanted my parents to come out of it saying, 'I get it now.' "
'We Are Your Friends' not first mentor movie
In "We Are Your Friends," aspiring dance music DJ Cole Carter (Zac Efron) is taken under the wing of the electronic dance music giant James Reed (Wes Bentley) until -- shockingly -- a young woman gets in the way. But it's not always a young woman who disturbs the movie-mentor universe. Sometimes the kid just has to get his head out of ... the clouds. We all have our favorites, but the following are among the more famous mentors to have hit the screen:
YODA He may have had no respect for verb placement ("Named must your fear be before banish it you can"), but the short, wise guru of Luke Skywalker was a font of military strategy and spiritual wisdom, in addition to aphorisms and misplaced modifiers. Voiced by Frank Oz, he is a key figure in "Star Wars" mythology, principally "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980).
MR. MIYAGI The Kung-Fu genius of "The Karate Kid" was played by Pat Morita in parts I, II and III ('84, '86, '89), as well as a TV series, doling out equal parts martial arts and Eastern philosophy.
DUMBLEDORE The headmaster of Hogwarts was played by two different actors: Richard Harris -- in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001) and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" (2002) -- and then, after Harris' death, by Michael Gambon for the rest of the Potter series. Often mistaken for the equally hirsute Gandalf of "Lord of the Rings" (which also began in 2001) he was wise, kind and, apparently, gay.
GORDON GEKKO Michael Douglas was the sleazy weasel corporate consigliere to Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox in "Wall Street" (1987), a wildly overrated movie, except for the perfectly satanic way Gekko had in inculcating Bud with a philosophy of avarice and egomania.
DOUG COUGHLIN Portrayed by Australian actor Bryan Brown ("The Thorn Birds"), he was the booze-bottle-slinging mentor to Tom Cruise's Brian Flanagan in "Cocktail" (1988).