The first time ComingSoon.net spoke with writer/director Nicholas Stoller two years ago, he wasn’t particularly well-known, having just directed his first feature Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a relationship “disaster comedy” written and starring Jason Segel which ended up doing better than anyone expected. Wisely, Stoller already had some ideas how to create a spin-off for “Sarah Marshall”‘s breakout star, Russell Brand’s eccentric rocker Aldous Snow, which brings us to Get Him to the Greek.
To be more specific, it was Brand’s hilarious chemistry with co-star Jonah Hill in a fairly minor role that led to the movie in which Hill plays Aaron Green, an ambitious Junior A&R exec who agrees to chaperone Snow from his London home, where he’s been in a drug-fueled funk since breaking up with his girlfriend, to Los Angeles for a comeback concert at the Greek Theater which they hope will turn things around for Snow. He has just three days to get Snow there in time for his show if he wants to keep his job.
Where “Sarah Marshall” thrived on being based mainly in Hawaii, Stoller’s new movie takes advantage of the fun that comes along with making a road comedy by popping through London, New York City, Vegas and finally Los Angeles, as we see the ends Snow will go to in order to humiliate his beleaguered admiring fan of an A&R rep who has agreed to pull off the seemingly impossible. While the level of raunchy humor that Hill and Brand bring to “Greek” may not be too surprising for those who saw their previous movie, the real surprise might be how funny rap mogul Sean Combs is as Hill’s record exec boss, who shows up to notch up the non-stop laughs even further.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Stoller to talk about his hilarious new comedy.
ComingSoon.net: When I talked to you for “Sarah Marshall,” I don’t think there were any plans to make this movie at that point or at least nothing had been announced. Was it something you talked to Russell or Jonah about on set? How did this actually come about?
Nick Stoller: When Jonah and Russell were doing the table read for “Sarah Marshall” early on, I was like, “Those guys have awesome chemistry and I want to make a movie with them if I’m allowed to after ‘Sarah Marshall.'” Then, during “Sarah Marshall” I pitched this idea to them. I thought of it, pitched it to them and they thought it was a funny idea. Then I wrote it, originally as a different rock star, and then realized that it would be weird if he played a different rock star after playing a rock star, and so I made it into a spin-off.
CS: So this was something you actually started writing while making “Sarah Marshall”? I seem to remember it being announced right after “Sarah Marshall” came out.
Stoller: It happened very quickly, yeah. I mean, I sold it to Universal right when I was in post-production on “Sarah Marshall.” I started writing it as I was cutting “Sarah Marshall,” and then yeah, it happened very quick. There was like two years I guess between telling it and being done which is kind of crazy.
CS: It’s fairly impressive because usually when you’re directing movies it’s hard to actually take time to write. I’ve talked to a lot of directors who just don’t have time to write because they’re so busy editing and doing promotion and all this other stuff. So it must’ve been tough to get it done at the same time.
Stoller: Yeah, I mean I really, really focused on it after I was done with “Sarah Marshall” and I started writing it and wrote it over the next however many, like eight months or whatever.
CS: Now did Jason have to give his blessing or anything like that on this, since he originally came up with the character or he was immediately into the idea of spinning Russell Brand’s character Aldous Snow into another movie?
Stoller: He was fine with this but he didn’t work on it really. He wrote some songs which was pretty awesome. He wrote some of the big songs in the movie like “Going Up” and “Bangers, Beans and Mash” and a song called “Super Tight,” so he wrote a bunch of those songs and he certainly gave me notes after a table read and stuff. He wasn’t really involved in the writing. I wrote the script and then Rodney Rothman, my producer, rewrote stuff and pitched jokes and Jonah obviously pitched in as well, so at a certain moment, it becomes kind of a group effort.
CS: Jonah is playing a different character now. Was there any thought about having him play the same character? This seems like it’s taking place years after “Sarah Marshall” in some ways.
Stoller: Yeah, he played such a broad character that it seemed hard to imagine him holding up a whole movie basically. Russell’s character really belongs as Aldous Snow; Jonah’s hilarious in “Sarah Marshall,” but it’s a caricature more than a character.
CS: I wanted to ask about the songs. I didn’t realize Jason wrote them. Were there any specific musical inspirations you were going for? I guess Aldous had a song in the first movie…
Stoller: Yeah, we recorded a few songs on the first one and there’s two in it, then early on–our music supervisor Jonathan Karp came on kind of early–we basically got Jason to write songs, I would think of song titles or Rodney would or Judd would. I would either tell them to Jason, or Jason would think of a song and write a song. We also got Dan Bern and Mike Viola, who did songs for “Walk Hard” and were kind of singer/songwriters in their own right, Caral Barat from The Libertines wrote some songs. Jarvis Cocker from Pulp wrote some songs and Inara George from The Bird and the Bee, she wrote some of the Jackie Q. songs. It was really important to us that you buy the music, you buy it as a real rock star, so that was a big part of it.
CS: Between the two movies, I never really got that much of an idea of Aldous’ history. Had he been around for 20 years or more making music?
Stoller: We kept it pretty vague. The idea with him is that he has literally been a famous rock star since he was 17 or 18 – the closest to quote would be like Pete Dougherty from The Libertines. That was like the idea, then he had a brief bad boy phase where he met Jackie Q and then cleaned himself up and stopped drinking and doing drugs and cleaned himself up. That’s where “Sarah Marshall” kind of happens, and then this happens basically.
CS: How much is Russell like this character? I’ve never met him in person but I was never sure if he’s playing an exaggerated version of himself or if that’s really who he is.
Stoller: Aldous is pretty different than he is as a person. Russell, he’s very polite and he talks a mile a minute and is really interested in a lot of different things and is very sensitive and wants everyone to have a good time and is very sensitive to people. I think Aldous is a lot more kind of withdrawn. I would always tell Russell, especially during “Sarah Marshall,” I was really figuring out the character to be more aloof, more kind of reserved. I think Aldous is a bit darker than Russell is. Russell had dark stuff happen in his life, but it’s a pretty different character. It’s a testament to his acting abilities, he’s an excellent, excellent actor. He has a drama background and I think has real acting chops. It’s very exciting to get to showcase that in this movie.
CS: That may have been the most surprising thing about this movie. Having seen him at the Video Music Awards and then in “Sarah Marshall,” I think some might feel he’s a one-trick pony, but in this, we see that he has a lot of emotion and really can do a lot more than some might expect. You must have known he was capable of doing more emotional stuff than he did in “Sarah Marshall.”
Stoller: Yeah, I just saw it with his work. He didn’t have to do as much in “Sarah Marshall,” but I just knew he could do it and he just knocked it out of the park. He did such a good job. When I was writing the script – fortunately I don’t have addiction. I’ve never experienced that. He had that in his past and I talked to him about that. Nothing factual from his life went in the movie, but just the emotional strife of what it’s like. What caused him to become an addict? What could cause him to fall of the wagon? What he would act like when he was on drugs or whatever? He was really great to talk to about all that and then really accessed some dark stuff when we were shooting the movie. The scene in the Vegas suite where he yelled at Jonah I think is a pretty frightening and also sad and truthful scene I think. He nailed it and we shot very few takes of that because he did such a good job right away.
CS: I was really impressed by that and also impressed by how the music business is depicted so well. I’m not sure if you have any background in that like Jason, but I was curious about your background, since the movie depicts the music business so realistically.
Stoller: Oh, thank you. I never worked in the music business. I did a lot of research for the movie. I love music obviously. I’m a big music fan in general, but yeah, to me, I think the music industry is like the entertainment industry turned up to 11. It’s like, the same crazy stuff happens, but it’s so much crazier or more retarded or more intense or whatever. So that’s kind of my theory going in and then (I read) “The Dirt” by Neil Strauss, which is like the greatest rock book, it’s all about Motley Crue, I read this Sex Pistols book, I think “10 Days on the Road with the Sex Pistols.” I watched documentaries, “Sid and Nancy,” that kind of stuff. Then when all was said and done, after we were re-reading through the script, I asked Sean Combs, “Is there anything on this that doesn’t feel truthful because I want this to feel truthful.” He was like, “Nope, you nailed it,” which was literally the biggest compliment he wound up giving me.
CS: I would agree with him. I worked in the music business for 20 years before I started doing movie stuff and you did nail it… and it is a lot crazier than the stuff that happens in movies, which is hard to believe.
Stoller: (Laughs) Oh cool, that’s good to hear. It just seems from observing them and watching interviews – you watch “Gimme Shelter” and you watch The Stones talk and you’re like, “This wouldn’t happen with any actors.” (laughs)
CS: There so many great rock movies, and the ones you remember are “Almost Famous” and “Spinal Tap,” and this was really in that vein. It really could be next to those obviously with the more comedic stuff and it really, really works.
Stoller: Oh, awesome, thanks so much, that means a lot. One of the ways I pitched it when I was setting it up and I was writing it was like a dirty “Almost Famous.” I really loved that movie, but when you (watch) any biography of any rock star all the way down to Little Richard it’s just crazy. They just do the craziest sh*t, all of them. There are very few that don’t. I guess Norah Jones is probably… but she’s the only one. (laughs)
CS: You never know.
Stoller: I think of this as trying to go for like a dirty “Almost Famous.”
CS: Another thing that surprised me was that this seemed not only raunchier than “Sarah Marshall” but also most of Judd’s movies, if that’s possible. So do you just have a really dirty mind and Jason was holding you back in “Sarah Marshall” or am I wrong to think this is dirtier?
Stoller: (laughs) You know, it all goes back to story. To me it’s like, what does the story demand? When you’re making a movie about a rock star on the road you’ve gotta go there because if you don’t you’re not telling the true story. (Laughs) Like when these groups go on the road, they just do the craziest stuff, so that was my thought, there was no reason to avoid it. Then if something feels gratuitous when it doesn’t feel appropriate. I would hope that our dirtier sequences in this movie don’t feel gratuitous because this is true to what rock stars actually do.
CS: In “Sarah Marshall,” you kinda lucked out with Russell Brand, this great character actor who created a character that really popped out of that movie. Here you have P. Diddy who literally steals this movie. How did you know that he could be that funny? Was it just luck that you got him and he ended up being that funny?
Stoller: You know, when I was writing the movie I had him in mind. I was like, “Yeah, I think he could really do this part.” I was writing the part for him. It’s a little bit nerve-wracking, because often when the actor comes in who you’ve had in mind they’re not good and then you have to rethink the character. So he came in to audition which was very cool of him and he just was great. He was hilarious. He killed it. It was clearly his part. Then when we started with the table reads, he just was awesome at the table reads, and we kept expanding his part because he was just so funny. He did this movie “Made” years ago, a Jon Favreau movie, he was funny in that. But I don’t know, there’s just something about him, he’s got a spark in his eye. Even watching those old music videos, like the “Godzilla” music video. You watch that and you’re like, “I feel like that guy could do comedy.”
CS: Your first movie you did in Hawaii for a couple months. This one, you went everywhere else almost. What were some of the logistics of doing a road movie like this?
Stoller: Oh, you mean what’s the difference in the shooting? “Sarah Marshall” to be totally honest was an easier shoot and a more pleasant shoot, because we were in Hawaii. I remember like, the DP on that movie, Russ Alsobrook, this excellent DP who shot a million movies. He’s in his 50s or 60s and he said, “This was the greatest movie experience I’ve ever had and it will be the greatest one you’ll ever have.” He was totally right. It was literally like being on vacation because we shot in Hawaii, we had a very relaxed schedule. “Greek” was incredibly exciting, but it was very tiring because we were constantly moving cities, and every day it was either a giant crowd scene with a thousand extras or something with special effects like fire effects at the Greek, or we were doing a sequence at “The Today Show” which is very complicated, or the Vegas suite which is a big fight sequence. So it was certainly complicated and logistically challenging and I’m now ready to do something where two people sit and talk.
CS: Yeah, I was impressed by how you got “The Today Show” and those other talk shows involved in the movie. What was involved with shooting there?
Stoller: “The Today Show,” when we asked them I was like, “There’s no way they’re gonna let us, they’re not going to let this incredibly dirty movie shoot there.” They were so awesome and great and we shot there on the weekends. We shot there Saturday and Sunday, because they don’t shoot on those days or they shoot early in the morning. That whole sequence, just shooting in Rockefeller Center and there’s so much comedy history there with “SNL” and Conan and the original “Tonight Show” and all that stuff. That was thrilling to get to shoot there and work with Meredith Viera and obviously Paul Krugman was kind of hilarious to get to meet him, so that was great, but it was very complicated. We had a thousand extras, there was a thunderstorm moving in and we only had those three days to shoot that sequence and there was no backup. Usually, you have a backup plan when you’re making a movie and we just didn’t have a backup, because that was what our schedule allowed. So it was both exciting, thrilling and terrifying all at once.
CS: Well, it definitely worked out. You just said you want to do a smaller movie next? Do you have any idea what that might be? I know you’re working on scripts that are being directed by others, but do you know what you may want to direct?
Stoller: I’m writing a bunch of different things. I have a bunch of different writing projects. I’m writing a “Muppets” with Jason Segel for James Bobin who co-created “Flight of the Conchords,” he’s a great director. I wrote “Gulliver’s Travels” which is coming out in Christmas with Jack Black and Rob Letterman directed that. I’m writing “Stretch Armstrong” for Rob Letterman, but I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I want to do next behind the camera. I think whatever I do next will be maybe a little bit slower-paced (laughs) but yeah, I’m still trying to figure that out.
CS: Any idea what’s going on with “Five-Year Engagement?” The last time I talked with you, I don’t know if you remember, it had just been offered on HSX for $20 and now it’s down to $13, so I was curious what was going on with that?
Stoller: That’s a project I’m very passionate about and definitely want to do at some point. I’m trying to figure that out right now, but that would definitely be something. That seems like a very intriguing thing to get to work on.
CS: Are you going to have to wait for Jason to finish Muppets so it’s just a timing thing, really?
Stoller: Yeah, it’s like, timing and all that, but that’s something I really, really hope to make at some point because I just really love the idea and I love really just delving into a relationship and trying to do kind of a “When Harry Met Sally” story like that, kind of following this couple for five years or doing a “Jerry Maguire” kind of movie. It seems exciting to me, having just done a running and screaming movie. (Laughs)
CS: Are you generally in writing mode now? Is it easy to switch back and forth? Are you going to stay in writing mode now for a while until you find another movie to direct?
Stoller: Yeah, I feel very lucky that I get to write and then direct. I mean, writing in a way, it’s much more relaxing and I can work from home. Its easy hours, blah, blah, blah, so for all of those reasons, I really enjoy it. Yeah, I’ve been working, I’ve been writing. Right now, I’ve been switching back into writing mode now that we’ve finished “Greek” and I’m just excited to beginning to do that.
CS: Well, I hope whatever you direct next will be able to fit into a box set because these two obviously will make a great box set together.
Stoller: Oh great, cool. Yeah, I didn’t even think about that. That’s true.
CS: I’m pretty sure Universal thought of that.
Stoller: Oh yeah, exactly. There are other people who think of that. (Laughs)
CS: Obviously you want to change things up and do different things, but also it’s nice when there’s a through-line for the movies which is very rare.
Stoller: Yeah, it’s true, or you just make the same movie over and over again and really fine tune it. That’s what a lot of people do. (Laughs)
Get Him to the Greek opens on Friday, June 4.