With another Judd Apatow comedy production ready to arrive in just one short week, it’s time to continue this writer’s run of talking to every director who has worked or been associated with Apatow without ever having a chance to actually talk to the man himself–I even interviewed his wife Leslie Mann!
This time, it’s Nicholas Stoller, the director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall a “romantic disaster comedy” written by Jason Segel who most will remember as Seth Rogen’s amorous pal that hit on Mann in Apatow’s Knocked Up or from the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” Segel plays composer Peter Brett who hits the dumps when his hot TV actress girlfriend Sarah Marshall (played by hot TV actress Kristen Bell) breaks up with him. When Peter flies to Hawaii to try to get over her, he instead runs into Sarah with her new rock star boyfriend (Russell Brand). Apatow teamed Segel with Stoller, making his directorial debut having come from a writing background as one of the writing staff for Apatow’s second television series “Undeclared” as well as co-writing the Jim Carrey remake of Fun with Dick and Jane with Apatow. Even before the release of “Sarah Marshall,” Stoller’s pairing with Jason Segel has proven fruitful, as they already have another comedy in the works called Five Year Engagement, plus they’ve been hired by Disney to reinvent the Muppets for a new generation, something that came out of “Sarah Marshall’s” climactic finale, a musical about Dracula done completely with puppets. (It all makes a lot more sense within the grander scheme of Segel and Stoller’s first movie.)
Considering his comedy chops, it’s not surprising that Stoller is a very funny guy and he seemed to get a kick out of sharing all sorts of funny stories and anecdotes about his collaborator (you can watch an interview with Jason Segel next week) and the making of “Sarah Marshall.”
ComingSoon.net: This must be an exciting time for you with the movie having played so well at South by Southest and advance screenings. I know that you worked Jason back in the “Undeclared” days, but have you two been working together since then and this is the first thing to come to fruition?
Nick Stoller: Yeah, basically Jason and I met on “Undeclared” and we really hit it off. We both like comedy that features guys crying hard.
CS: And naked guys, too, apparently.
Stoller: Yeah, we both like naked guys. Naked guys crying hard is the key to great comedy. That’s our theory at least. We clicked really well. We just have a similar style, I guess, and I actually wrote one of the episodes called “Eric Visits Again” where his character is a long distance boyfriend comes back to beat up the main character that Jay Baruchel played, because he finds out that he and his girlfriend at school hooked up and cheated on him. We just really hit it off and became friends, and when they were shooting “Knocked Up,” I asked Jason what he was up to and he told me about this script he was writing, and it sounded right up my alley, and I asked Judd if I would guild Jason through the writing process, if Judd would support me as a director. Judd said, “Sure,” and I’m thinking it probably wouldn’t happen. When “Knocked Up” did great and Jason really popped off of that, and Universal greenlit “Sarah Marshall” and it happened incredibly fast.
CS: As far as you directing, did Judd have to go to bat for you with Universal?
Stoller: Yeah, there was a remarkable lack of oversight I gotta say. (chuckles) My strategy too was to not pretend… I was like, “Should I pretend I’ve directed stuff?” and I decided that I was going to be very upfront and clear and be like, “I’ve never directed anything. This will be my first. I’ve no idea what I’m doing” and that strategy seemed to work.
CS: Even five years ago if you went to a Hollywood studio and said, “I want to make a movie with this guy from a TV show, first-time director, we’ll shoot the whole movie in Hawaii…” I’m sure they’d laugh in your face, so it’s pretty amazing.
Stoller: Oh, yeah, yeah, it’s totally bonkers. Yeah, I think Universal saw the concept as a big concept and the script was really working and Jason’s so talented, and I think fortunately with the Judd brand, that they could see a way to market it. I think they discovered what all us comedy writers were grousing about five or ten years ago, which is that if you make a funny comedy, people will come see it, and it doesn’t cost that much to make a good comedy. You don’t need to have a giant star in it. If it’s funny, people will see it.
CS: A comedy like this would normally be made independently, rather than through a studio, too. So was this an idea that Jason had for a while?
Stoller: No, he pitched it to Judd at like a Lakers game, and Judd thought it was good and sold it to Universal that weekend or something. He wrote a draft of it and then I talked to Jason about it, I think after he’d written his first draft of it, and then I kind of got into it with him as well.
CS: Were you working with him on the script as a co-writer before directing?
Stoller: Yeah, I mean it’s a big collaboration. As a comedy director, I’m not bringing Scorsese style visual flair. I’m bringing comedy and joke-writing and all that, so I definitely got in there, but it’s definitely a collaboration, especially with comedy. Rodney Rothman, who wrote for “Undeclared” came in and worked on it, too, and then it’s a continual process where once we nailed down the script and started shooting, the actors of course improv-ed, so they brought their own stuff to it, too.
CS: It definitely seems like everyone Judd works with comes from that TV world, and it’s such a different style of writing, since it’s episodic and writing by committee. Is that something that’s carried over to the movies he’s been producing?
Stoller: Yeah, yeah. It makes sense. It’s no mystery as to why “The Simpsons” or “30 Rock” or “The Office” or “Seinfeld” or all these shows have such a high joke ratio, and I would watch comedies and I’d think, “Why is there one joke every four minutes?” You can have a joke every 30 seconds. You just have to have a big collaboration. You have to have everyone pitching stuff. One guy can’t create that kind of rhythm unless you’re a total genius, so you have to have a lot of people working on it. I think that kind of TV-writing… and you don’t need a room of 14 people. You need that if you’re putting out an episode of TV every week, but a few people, it just makes it really tight and funny and going on all cylinders.
CS: How did the improv fall into this movie? Was it more or less fully scripted before shooting than Judd’s own movies tend to be, but when you’re bringing in people like Jonah and Paul Rudd, one would expect that a lot of stuff happens while shooting.
Stoller: Yeah, we had a really tight script by the time we were shooting, and like that was very important to me. If we just shot what was on the page, the movie would work. I didn’t want to go in with some vague idea of what scenes would be. I think in the end, this movie was probably like 60 70% scripted and then the rest improv-ed, but then there’s certain sequences that really do have a lot of improv. The Jonah and Rudd, those scenes have a fair amount of improv, and there’s also a lot of… and this is something you do on a sitcom, but between myself and Rodney and Shonna, we’d just throw out tons of jokes to the actors, too, so it’s a combination of them improv-ing and us throwing out jokes or throwing out areas to riff in. It’s also just what’s on the page already.
CS: Did you shoot all of the movie in Hawaii or just parts of it for the setting and then the rest back in Hollywood?
Stoller: It was 2/3rds in Hawaii, a third in L.A., and we were in Hawaii for about three months. It was awesome! It was a great experience. Basically most of the time we were in Hawaii, people were trying to learn non-awkwardly say the word “aloha” to each other. I think in the end, I nailed the non-awkward “aloha” because you slowly realize that people do actually say “aloha.”
CS: You and Jason were there the whole time, so was it a matter of bringing the other people like Paul in for a couple days?
Stoller: The four leads were all there the whole time, which was awesome. First of all, we had a two week rehearsal schedule which for a movie is very long, which for me is crazy that that’s considered long. It was so good to have that, because we figured out a lot of stuff during that rehearsal process because the actors, all four of them, are hilarious. I think that whole riff about her movie about the cell phone that kills people, that came out of rehearsals, so we figured stuff like that out during rehearsals. It was great because they’d all be around, so if I wanted to throw Jonah in a scene (and he hadn’t had too many Mai Tai’s), we could. The funniest was Jack McBrayer, who shot a total of eight days, but he was there for a month because of the schedule and by the end, he was so tan, we had to put make-up on him. (laughs) It was great. It felt like camp, but a camp in paradise with an open bar. There was actually a moment where we were shooting the dinner sequence. For some reason, that was when basically the entire cast was there at the time, and people were visiting because it was Hawaii, and behind the monitorsI’ve never seen this beforethere were probably about 40 people, most of whom were drunk, and the AD had to move me to a separate location, because he thought I was distracted.
CS: Kristen doesn’t have far to stretch because she’s already a hot TV actress, but how did you end up with Mila Kunis as Jason’s other love interest? She hasn’t done that much besides “That ’70s Show” but she’s really great in this.
Stoller: You know, I’ve always loved her. I thought she was great in “That ’70s Show” and I just sensed there was more to her than just that character, and I think she’s incredibly photogenic, too, and she knows the rhythm of TV. She can roll with improv and she’s really funny at improv, and then she auditioned for “Knocked Up” and had a great audition. She just wasn’t really right for the part, but Judd really liked her for that audition, so we had her do the first table read. This is like early on in the process, before we were greenlit, and after that table read, we were like, “Well, she’s the person to beat.” She really knocked it out of the park.
CS: I don’t think I realized it was her for the first half hour of the movie.
Stoller: Yeah, and she also has such a different vibe than Kristen, so I think that was a good duo.
CS: In “Knocked Up,” Jason was playing the most together of Seth’s stoner slacker friends, but in this, he’s moved into the romantic lead role, which seemed very natural. How did you convince Universal that he could carry the movie as its lead?
Stoller: I think that each time they’ve been right with taking Carell from “Anchorman” and he hit, and when they took Seth out of “Virgin” and then he hit with “Knocked Up” and I think that Universal just trusted Judd and trusted us that we knew what we were talking about at this point. Jason is like a true… I think it’s a little more romantic than some of the other Judd movies, more standard romantic comedy and because of that more romantic, and he really is a romantic leading man. He’s playing a doofus-y guy, but he does inhabit that role a little bit more. I think they saw that as well, and he has a following from “How I Met Your Mother” as well, which has definitely helped as well.
CS: Did Jason have a musical background, too? It seemed that aspect of his character came very naturally.
Stoller: Oh, yeah. That Dracula musical, he wrote a version of that song that he plays at the bar when he was 20, and he legitimately wanted to do a serious puppet Dracula musical, and didn’t understand why it was funny. (laughs) That was an actual goal of his.
CS: I had that feeling because you just kept returning to that Dracula musical, as if Jason finally had his chance to show the world how great it would be.
Stoller: Yeah, his original draft was that he was a musician and he just plays a pretty song for her at the end. It was a little bit more standard. He told me about this Dracula musical thing, we were talking about it, and I was like, “This has to be your dream…” (laughs) and because it truly is something that he wanted to do, like people just buy it. It’s the weirdest dream, but because you just sense that Jason as a person actually wants to do a Dracula musical, you accept that okay, this is really his dream. I’ve never seen him more excited around puppets. All those puppets… we had a puppet meeting with the Jim Henson Company when we were hiring them and they passed out puppets to everyone during this meeting as a cute thing to do. And then we talked the stuffit was a business meetingand I had to take Jason’s puppet from him because he kept looking at it, like doing things with the puppet and not paying attention and reacting to the meeting, but with the puppet. He’s like weirdly into puppets.
CS: And recently, there’s been the news that you two are going to do a Muppets movie. The other movie you’re doing together “Five Year Engagement” which seemed in a similar vein, but that Muppet movie seemed quite bizarre except for that puppet musical in “Sarah Marshall.” So are you prepared to direct an entire movie with puppets… or Muppets rather?
Stoller: Yeah, I have to say that the puppet musical. I was terrified of every aspect of directing for the first time, but the puppet musical I wasn’t sure how that would work out. I’d heard that “Team America” was really complicated and difficult. It turns out you want to avoid marionettes, but puppets it’s pretty easy, but puppets, they’re just like directing humans, I guess. (laughs) I thought we had to pull apart that whole musical at the end and shoot it separately, but we just put it on, after very little rehearsal, just put on that whole three and a half minute “Les Miz” style thing and then did it a bunch of times as I shot different pieces of it.
CS: It’s pretty amazing and was quite unexpected. I’d never imagine anyone going to such great lengths for the sake of a joke.
Stoller: What was funny, too, was that a film crew is essentially people who were all theater nerds in college, so the puppet musical made everybody so excited. The production designer, Jackson de Govia who literally did “Die Hard” was so excited to go back to his crappy black box theater days and decorate a set as if he only had a thousand dollars to do it, and our costume designer Lisa, who’s done a ton of stuff, was really excited to make puppet clothes, and our gaffer was excited to do like weird black box theater lighting. It was really fun for that reason.
CS: It’s either really good or really worrying that there might be this puppet resurgence and all these kids will want to get into it. It would be good because it’s a dying art, but it’s not the coolest thing in the world, and that’s coming from a comic book geek.
Stoller: I think puppets are the coolest thing in the world, so I think we differ on that.
Noting that this was the first time that Stoller did not laugh during one of his responses, the interviewer quickly tries to recover and save the interview…
CS: Actually, you may be right because I heard Guillermo del Toro is going to do something with puppets in the next “Hellboy” movie.
Stoller: Oh, cool. I think that computer animation just can look too slick and too not real, and I think the Guillermo del Toro stuff like “Pan’s Labyrinth” is so creepy and cool because I think that he just used a lot of puppets and real stuff, and there’s something visceral about that. I don’t know if you’ve seen “Wonder Showzen” but they really use puppets well.
CS: I’ve talked to every director whose worked with Judd, except not Judd himself, but everyone I’ve spoken to says that as a producer, he’s a great facilitator in getting anything a director might need that they might not be able to get on their own. Was that the case here or what was the relationship like?
Stoller: He’s the best mentor ever. He’s created a space where the studio just trusts him and lets us do what we need to do, and he’s a great writer, he always has great notes and jokes on the script. He really knows casting very well. All of these guys who are breaking right now were all in “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” so he saw that stuff years ago. He knows what makes audiences laugh and get into a movie and in terms of the post stuff, too, and editing, his notes were really helpful. But he really does create this space where the studio trusts him and trusts us to do stuff. He’s made it possible to do R-rated comedies, which I think a big reason people respond to these comedies aren’t because they’re dirty but because they’re R, we get to talk the way people actually talk. Our editor Bill Kerr, who edited “Superbad,” has a theory that the artificiality of PG-13, people are starting to turn away from that a little bit, because that’s not the way people talk. When we were talking about this movie, there was an early draft, if you can believe it, where we were close to a PG-13, like they were on the verge. We had a meeting with Universal and they’re like, “Can this be PG-13” and I said, “You don’t break up with someone and not say the word ‘f*ck'” (laughs) and then we showed his penis, so that was the end of that.
CS: Did you guys go through a similar testing process with the movie as Judd does with his other movies in terms of showing it to a lot of test audiences?
Stoller: You mean the preview process? Yeah, we’re not precious about it, and I think that comes from TV, too. It doesn’t feel disposable, but you feel like you should show it and show it and show it. Yeah, we did five previews and we start testing it WAY before we should. We’re showing stuff that audiences just shouldn’t have to sit through (laughs) but it’s very helpful. Like our first test screening, we had no business showing. It was not ready, but even that first test screening helped shape… we very quickly saw stuff that wasn’t working and could cut it out and stop focusing on certain scenes that we knew wouldn’t even be in the final product. We tested it five times and what we’d do is we’d tape the laugh track so we can put how the audiences laughs and we watch the movie with how people are laughing, which is very helpful. What that does is… because people remembereveryone’s guilty of itif you like a joke, you remember that the audience laughed whether or not they did or not. So that’s a very useful thing. So many times I’d be like, “That joke killed!” and we played it and it didn’t kill and I’d have to cut it. (laughs)
CS: This whole movement that’s formed out of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” is quite incredible, so do you think you had to hold back when you were making those shows because of the TV network censors, and you’ve had more freedom making movies?
Stoller: Yeah, on “Undeclared”… there’s just no college where people aren’t trashed and smoking pot all the time, and of course, we couldn’t do that. There were a lot of red plastic cups on that show, so yeah, there definitely is. But I think “The Office” and “30 Rock” are hilarious and “The Simpsons” so it’s not like you can’t make things that are funny, but it just gives you a little bit more freedom to do what you need to do. Even if you watch “The Daily Show,” if that was a movie that would be R-rated because they get beeped so many times. I think that’s the way people talk. I wonder if it’ll ever change in terms of just allowing people to curse on TV and stuff, because everybody curses. It doesn’t even sound rude to me.
CS: Yeah, personally I’d love to be able to walk down the street and say “f*ck” without people looking at me like I’m some sort of deranged crazy person… I mean, not like I’m a street person talking to myself or anything like that.
Stoller: (laughs) Yeah, yeah. I don’t know if that means it’s the downfall of America because there’s so much cursing or what.
CS: It’s only a curse word since people have made it a curse word. It could easily be used in everyday sentences.
Stoller: Yeah, exactly.
CS: What else have you been working on? I know there’s been a writers strike so everyone was on break, but I know you wrote “Yes Man” for Jim Carrey. Is that still shooting or is that finished?
Stoller: Yeah, done shooting, and I’m really excited for that. Yeah, I’m working on “Muppets” and I’m working on this “Five Year Engagement” and I’m finishing up a little bit of DVD stuff for “Sarah Marshall” but those are really the two things I’ve been working on. “Five Year Engagement” I’m really excited about because I think with “Sarah Marshall” you saw the wreckage of a relationship and it will be a fun to explore a relationship as it implodes in real time (chuckles)… do more of an “Annie Hall,” “When Harry Met Sally” style movie, which will be a lot of fun, I think.
CS: You have a strange sense of fun to want to watch a relationship implode.
Stoller: (laughs) Yeah, I dunno. I think it’s fun.
CS: As long as it’s not your own relationship. Other people’s relationships are fair game.
Stoller: Yeah, exactly. Other relationships… it’s a $30 million relationship therapy. (laughs) It’s just fun to explore this stuff. I think as a writer, to me what’s really fun is to write jokes and comedies and also relationship stuff, because there’s an infinite stuff… and those are my favorite movies, like “Annie Hall.”
CS: It’s kind of ironic we’re talking about “Five Year Engagement” now because it IPO’s on the Hollywood Stock Exchange (an online game where you can trade movies as stocks) today.
Stoller: Oh, really? (laughs)
CS: It’s starting at 20 bucks, so no pressure. That should be pretty easy.
Stoller: I gotta look at that. Not actual money is traded on there, is it?
CS: No, because if it was actual money I’d be filthy rich right now. You’d worked with Jim Carrey before on “Fun with Dick and Jane” so how is it writing for him? Once he gets involved with a project, does a lot have to be rewritten for his style of humor?
Stoller: It’s so fun. Judd describes him as like the “funniest staff writer of all time” and that really is true. Like we go to his house and we sit down with him with the script and he would just go through it and just punch up the whole script. We did it in a couple sittings, and he’s just crazily funny and a very nice, cool guy, so yeah, it’s a really fun process, especially someone who’s that huge and you’re not sure what to expect. He’s like all of us, just really into comedy and makes people laugh, and will just go over and over a line until it’s perfect, and then move onto the next thing, and he’s kind of tireless in that way. (At this point, I tell Nick a funny personal story about when I first saw that movie, which has become somewhat legendary in certain circles. We’ll spare you the details, but Nick followed it with another anecdote about making the movie.) Yeah, it’s a funny movie. It’s a little sharper than I think people realize when they go in. It’s a pretty fun movie. It was a crazy experience, because we had written a heist that was a comedic heist, Judd and I had because we were comedy writers, and they wanted a real heist, and we were like “We can’t do heists, hire other writers please.” We begged them so they hired eight different writers, like the “Ocean’s 11” guy and a bunch of different people to break the heist at the end. It was an interesting experience to be involved with something that was that huge. Yeah, it’s a fun heist, and yeah, it was a fun experience, kind of interesting to work on a giant budget comedy.
CS: Do you see yourself directing anyone else’s script in the future? Has that started happening where you’re getting sent scripts by other people?
Stoller: I’m definitely kind of open to anything. “Yes Man” was an adaptation of a memoir and I just sparked to it, and I think no matter what I work on, whether I do it officially or unofficially, I will have to rewrite stuff, because that’s the only way I can understand something in terms of being able to direct it is to creatively own a piece of it in terms of writing. So yeah, I think I’m always going to be writing it in some form, whether it’s co-writing it, or rewriting it or working with the writers, but I’m not against directing other people’s stuff, because a lot of people have really cool ideas.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall opens on April 18. Look for more interviews including one with that puppet-crazy fiend Jason Segel next week.