For director Nicholas Stoller’s third movie The Five-Year Engagement, he already had an idea and a script he’d been developing with his Forgetting Sarah Marshall writing partner Jason Segel, and once again, they’ve found a way of reinventing the romantic comedy genre in a way that women can take their boyfriends or spouses or long-term fiancés to see without worrying about them squirming through every moment.
Segel plays Tom Solomon, a San Francisco chef who proposes to his girlfriend Violet, played by Emily Blunt, but their wedding plans are put on hold when she’s offered a residency in social psychology at the University of Michigan, forcing him to put his own career on hold. At the engagement party, Tom’s best friend Alex (Chris Pratt) has a one-night stand with Violet’s sister Suzie (Alison Brie) and gets her pregnant, so soon they’re married while Tom and Violet’s own wedding is still in an infinite holding pattern. As Violet gets deeper into her research work for her charismatic professor (Rhys Ifans), Tom lets his beard grow and takes up hunting to keep himself from getting bored.
If you enjoyed “Sarah Marshall” or some of the other movies directed and produced by Judd Apatow, you should enjoy the way Five-Year Engagement combines very real everyday character-driven humor without the limits of a PG-13 rating, although it’s not nearly as outright raunchy as other R-rated movies i.e. you won’t be seeing “not-so-little Jason Segel” in this one. (Incidentally, you can read our review of the movie here.)
ComingSoon.net has now spoken to Nick Stoller for each of his three movies as a director (as well as for The Muppets, which he co-wrote), but for the first time, we actually got to interview him in person since he was in New York City for his movie’s premiere as the opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival. We spoke to him mostly about Five-Year Engagement as well as other projects, some that may happen sooner than others like Disney’s sequel to The Muppets, which Stoller is currently writing.
ComingSoon.net: This was obviously a script you had going back to “Sarah Marshall” so was this something you originally wanted to make right after or was it just easier to get “Get Him to the Greek” going? Nicholas Stoller: I was always going to do this after “Get Him to the Greek.” I had a week where I was trying to figure out which one I wanted to do next, but I decided it’s always good to kind of jump between comedy subgenres so you can fill up your year like that, get new ideas. “Sarah Marshall” was a romantic comedy and I didn’t want to jump right into another romantic comedy. I wanted to recharge that part of my brain.
CS: How is it that having worked with Jason for so long, you ended up writing two romantic comedies in a row together? Stoller: It’s our favorite genre. Yeah, I mean, that’s my favorite genre, and I think it’s his too, and we both just love watching a good romantic comedy. There’s kind of nothing more satisfying.
CS: I remember you mentioned “Harry Met Sally” and “Annie Hall” as reference points for this, so is it hard to do romantic comedy and find something fresh to do because it is a genre that’s Stoller: Yeah, tried and true. Like any genre there’s been a lot of bad stuff put out, and then you just have to be true, you have to be honest, like with anything (chuckles) Like the more honest you are, the funnier and more original it becomes. You can’t rely on dumb plot machinations and stuff. It has to be all very character-driven, and no one can be an architect.
CS: Wasn’t that a running joke in “There’s Something About Mary”? Stoller: Oh, that’s a great one.
CS: That was a big part of it. Stoller: Right, wasn’t the other guy an architect?
CS: Or pretending to be architects because she was into architecture. Stoller: Oh right, yeah, that’s funny, yeah. That movie’s so funny. Oh my God.
CS: I haven’t seen it in a long time, but it’s almost forgotten at this point as a movie that helped launch the R-rated comedy craze, ’cause Judd came along and took it over. Stoller: Yeah, yeah. I mean, Judd’s a genius, but I’ve never been in a movie theater that rocked as hard as when I saw “There’s Something About Mary.” Yeah, maybe that and “Naked Gun.” (Laughs) Those are the two. I remember when I saw “The Naked Gun” in the theater and I was like, “Whoa.”
CS: What was the original seed for this one, was it just a matter of having two people trying to get married? What was the first idea that came to you and Jason when you started talking about this one? Stoller: This idea is a pretty boring story. I was sitting in my office and the words “The Five-Year Engagement” popped into my head, and I wrote those words down, looked at them and got very excited and called up Jason and he said, “Yeah, it sounded awesome.”
CS: So this isn’t based on anything in your life. I know “Sarah Marshall” had little bits of things that happened to Jason. Stoller: Yeah, I mean, there’s certainly elements of our lives in it, like in everything, you start with what’s happened to you and the emotional underpinnings are autobiographical, but beyond that, it’s not.
CS: You seemed to imply that jobs are an important part to making a movie work, and chefs are actually a fairly common one in romantic comedies. Stoller: Yeah, that’s true. We’re definitely playing with fire. Yeah, it is a common job. What I tried to do is just make it as real as possible. Sometimes, there’s no element of reality to that job when they show it, so I tried to make it really sweaty and make it look as hard as it is and that sort of thing.
CS: Usually, it’s more glamorous and you can expect a lot of food porn. Stoller: Yeah, there’s a lot of food porn. This was really just trying to show that he loves doing it and that it’s hard and we needed a job that he couldn’t do outside of a big city.
CS: Was Jason on board to learn what he had to learn to play a chef? Stoller: Yeah, he learned all that stuff, and the same with Chris Pratt. We also have a fair number of hand models. (Laughs) But there’s a lot of wide shots in the cooking, and that was all him, so yeah.
CS: Chris Pratt is the secret weapon of the movie, he steals a lot of scenes from Jason, which is funny because Chris is almost playing the character Jason normally plays in other movies. He’s just really funny. Stoller: Yeah, Chris Pratt is so funny. We wanted a character that kind of reflected the opposite of his and Emily’s situation, him and then Alison Brie. I thought he’s been funny for so long from “Parks and Rec” and whatnot, but as soon he came into the table read, he was just so funny and yeah, he did end up doing that. I think that that’s a common thing that happens. Like in “When Harry Met Sally,” you think of the comic relief as Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby, and there’s a similar thing happening there where they get to land a lot of jokes, and you need Jason and Emily to be the emotional center of the film. Sometimes that means they’re more serious.
CS: Jason ends up playing the straight man in some scenes, and it’s not often you have someone as funny as Jason taking that role, especially in a movie he wrote as well. Stoller: Yeah, Jason’s just so funny during the whole emotional mental breakdown, (Laughs) which he has a lot of in this movie, which was fun.
CS: What about Emily Blunt? I know obviously she had worked with Jason at least once before, but why did you decide to make her British and how did that add to it? Stoller: I will immediately negate this sentence, but I prefer people to do their actual accents and then I made Alison Brie do an English accent. (Laughs)
CS: I didn’t realize that was Alison Brie for most of the movie. Stoller: Oh, yeah, and with Emily, English people have a different comedy rhythm, and the more different comedy rhythms you have in your movie, the funnier it is, where you can just get different kind of jokes, so from the get-go. I was like, “She needs to be English,” so that means half the cast was English, which is awesome – not half the cast, but her whole family’s going to be English, Jim Piddick, who’s crazy funny, and Jacki Weaver, Australian but
CS: British, Australian, they’re all the same. Just an accent. Stoller: Yeah, yeah, basically. (laughs) Then with Alison, we had a long conversation with Judd, Rodney, the producer, Jason, and I, about because the parents got divorced, Alison was raised in the States and Emily was raised in England. Finally I was like, “That just doesn’t make any sense. We can’t do that.” Then Alison came in and for the first table reading did a pitch-perfect English accent, and we were like, “Oh she’s English, that’s fine.”
CS: Is it harder to write British humor? Stoller: This is strangely the third movie that has featured it that I’ve done. Three out of three with Russell Brand. I was born in London and then I moved here when I was four (laughs) but I spent a fair amount of time there. British comedy, every comedy nerd grows up with Monty Python and the greats. I’ll say the Muppets were a collaboration between Frank Oz, who’s English and Jim Henson, so it’s not that different from American humor. It’s just a slightly different flavor, which makes your soufflé taste even more delicious.
CS: If you were born in England, maybe the doctors were making jokes while giving birth to you. Stoller: Yeah, it came through, exactly.
CS: What about someone like Rhys Ifans? He’s an interesting choice. He’s also British and he’s done a good amount of humor but not the most immediate actor you’d think of to play Emily’s boss. Stoller: I’ve loved him forever, and he’s so funny and we wanted someone who would be a good foil for Jason. He exudes a strange rock star-like sexiness. I think that’s kind of interesting, but he’s a little bit off-kilter. There’s just something a little bit weird about him, which seemed interesting to us as Jason’s romantic foil. He’s an amazing actor. I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time, so the fact that he came in, it was just awesome. There’s a lot of stuff with him that was kind of the hardest part to write, not because of him, but because you want the person who’s the romantic adversary, you’re doing a balancing act, because you want the audience to root for Jason, but you don’t want them to just root against Rhys Ifans because you have to make Emily’s character more three-dimensional. We had a lot of really weird hilarious sh*t that Rhys did in the movie that we had to cut out because it made Emily’s choice to be with him dumb. That was kind of the hardest, because then you don’t want to make him too awesome because if you make him too awesome, then the audience is like, “Well, why isn’t she just with him? He’s great.”
CS: I wanted to ask about the donut experiment in this, and the psychology aspect of the story. Is that experiment a real thing or just something you made up for the movie? Stoller: It’s made up, but it’s based on real things. The marshmallow experiment’s real. It actually was done in the ’50s and ’60s or maybe the ’70s, I can’t remember. You can look it up, though, the marshmallow experiment is a real thing. Once we settled on her job as being a social psychologist, it seemed really funny to us to have an experiment that kind of was a reference point for the whole movie, that became thematically connected to the movie.
CS: Yeah, it works throughout the movie and I was curious whether or not it was something that came out of needing something that worked for the plot. Stoller: Well, yeah, it’s real, and the donut experiment, I had met with a social psychology professor named Dr. Benjamin Karney at UCLA and had many long sessions with him. I think Emily and Rhys Ifans, they both went to his lectures and stuff just to see how he did stuff. They also went to U of M too. Anyways, yeah, that was based on a real thing. I asked him, if the marshmallow experiment on kids shows that if the kid eat the marshmallow really quickly and they have impulse control problems, but what they found is that later in life they’re’ going to have a lot of problems. (Laughs) Like, if that’s true, and then we figured well, for adults it’s probably the same thing, but we’d have to trick them. Then I asked Dr. Karney if he would agree with that kind of finding. He was like, “Yeah, that would make sense, the finding.”
CS: It definitely seemed like you did a lot of research for this, and I imagine you did a lot of research for your other movies as well. Is that something you tend to do in the writing stage or is there more to do in order to direct a movie? Stoller: In the writing, yeah. I mean, this one had the most research because “Sarah Marshall” is really pop culture-oriented, and I know a lot about TV and music. Doing all the composing for TV shows, we know that world and stars and all that stuff. Then, “Greek,” the music industry, I did research for that. The music industry is kind of exactly the same as Hollywood, which I can tell is a similar thing. Then, with this movie, there was more research just because it was a slightly more esoteric field. The chef stuff, I read a lot with books, and the Anthony Bourdain book in particular was pretty awesome, “Kitchen Confidential” or whatever it is. It’s awesome. Then my wife and her whole family are academics, so I knew her parents are both professors and they work at U of M, and so I knew stuff about academia from that, and it’s a fun world to be in.
CS: One thing interesting about romantic comedies is that it’s hard to get them to appeal to guys. “Sarah Marshall” is more of a guy’s romantic comedy because it’s from Jason’s point of view, but usually in these movies, guys are either dumb or too perfect. There’s no middle ground. Stoller: Yeah, yeah. It’s a complicated movie really. Yeah, I think that makes it the best romantic comedy, there’s no villains. The best movies don’t have villains, but actually some of the best movies do have villains. (Laughs) I think the best romantic comedies don’t have villains. I think when you see the bitchy ex-girlfriend or the dumb, aggressive ex-boyfriend or whatever, it’s just boring. It’s not true to reality, you know? That was true in “Sarah Marshall.” It was important that we kind of paint Sarah Marshall from Jason’s perspective for a lot of the movie, and then we reveal in the middle that it was his fault that things went south. I mean, there’s a lot of funny sh*t in that movie, but that I think the reason that movie’s lasted, because people see their own break-ups and their own realizations through that.
CS: Do you feel like this movie’s a little more geared towards women or that it’s more well-balanced, because it’s just as much about her as it is him? Stoller: Yeah, I think this is geared towards couples. I think girls are going to go to it because it has the word “engagement” in the title, and guys are not going to want to go, and then they’re going to go and they enjoy it. I know that from our test screenings. When we’ve test screened it, the numbers for men and women are the same, so I know that on the opening Friday, it’ll be girls driving the train but once guys get in there, they will enjoy it because first of all, it’s balanced. Then also, I think it’s really funny. It’s hard funny and we’re not trying to go for soft jokes.
CS: I wanted to talk a little bit about the marketing, because there’s stuff from the commercial that’s not in the movie like the “Katniss” line. Stoller: That was amazing.
CS: Were you involved in that at all, or do you just kind of let them do their thing? Stoller: Yeah, I mean, Universal has a great marketing department, and they really led the charge. Then, Judd and myself give a lot of notes. We know the material really well, and so we’ll give notes on spots and stuff, but the Katniss line was someone at Universal’s – they thought of it. This guy Patrick Starr thought of it. He’s in the marketing department. When I saw that in the commercial, I wished that the movie hadn’t locked because I would’ve put it in the movie. (laughs) That’s a great line, yeah.
CS: It was just very timely. Stoller: Very timely, yeah. It’s definitely gotten us a lot of attention.
CS: It certainly seems like “Bridesmaids” changed the comedy game quite a bit, so do you feel that its success changed how the movie is being marketed? Stoller: Oh yeah, I mean, “Bridesmaids” is just like a perfect comedy. It’s so funny. Paul Feig, Wiig and Annie Mumolo and Judd obviously delivered just an amazing movie. I think what it did is it just showed everyone what certainly a lot of us in comedy have known for a while, which is that women are obviously just as funny if not funnier than guys, and they kind of opened that space up and showed that you can make a lot of money off of that space. So yeah, I think it did, definitely.
CS: Did it make it easier for this movie to happen? Stoller: No, I think it’s made it easier to market this movie because now Judd’s brand is associated with female-driven comedy as well as male-driven comedy. But I would say that his brand is driven mostly by human comedy more than gender-specific comedy, if that makes sense. We just like character-driven comedy. I mean, what did you do when you saw “Bridesmaids?”
CS: I loved it. I saw it probably two or three times, and I never thought of it as a women’s comedy. It was just funny. Stoller: That’s what I thought when I saw it. I was like, “This is hilarious.” I wasn’t surprised that it did incredibly well, and I wasn’t surprised it got so much written about it, but when I saw it, I didn’t judge it as a women’s comedy. I was like, “This is a bunch of hilarious people doing a hilarious movie,” the way I think of “Superbad” or whatever.
CS: This is somewhat of an esoteric question but as someone who has written in Hollywood for some time and just started directing your own movies, when you have a movie like this that takes so long from the original idea to making it and it getting released, does it turn out the way you originally expected or is it very different from the original vision? Stoller: It really turned out the way I thought it would. Yeah, I mean, this one, by thinking about it for four years, I think we kept kind of putting more and more ideas into it, and I think it hopefully feels like a layered and emotionally-complex film due to that long gestation period. (Laughs) I think if I jumped right into it right after “Sarah Marshall,” it wouldn’t have been quite as complicated. In the intervening years, Jason and I have four years of life experience and all that stuff goes into it. I love “Get Him to the Greek,” but it’s more of a crazy party movie, and this is a little bit, I don’t know, it’s a different kind of movie.
CS: Are you and Jason still writing stuff together? Do you generally have time to write while you’re directing a movie? Stoller: Not when I’m directing. Once it’s over, then I have time to write. Well, in post, I have time. In pre-production and then in production I don’t have any time, but yeah, in post I have time to write. Yeah, Jason and I are trying to figure out what we’re going to do next. We’re not sure. So yeah, since both “Greek” and “Five-Year” were immediate, for the first time in years, I don’t know what to do next. (Laughs)
CS: You guys had a pretty long period of just writing together before “Sarah Marshall” I guess and haven’t had as much time since. Stoller: Oh yeah, because we did this. With “Sarah Marshall,” that was really the first time we did a lot of writing together on “Sarah Marshall.” I wrote two of the Jason episodes of “Undeclared,” so I knew his voice really well, and we’re like the same person in terms of our comedy brain. We just very quickly clicked and find the same stuff funny.
CS: I know you’re writing the Muppets sequel, but I always thought Jason was the puppet guy, so it’s interesting that you’re going off and writing the sequel with James. Did he just have other things he wanted to do and was too busy? Stoller: Yeah, we kind of felt like we completed Gary’s story in the first one, and he’s mostly interested in writing stuff for him to be in, which makes sense, right? (Laughs) He didn’t want to go on and write the next one. I was like, “Do you care if I do it with James?” He’s like, “Of course not.”
CS: Your love of puppetry has grown? Stoller: I’m not as vocal, and I don’t have the national stage to express my Muppet love, but I’m as big a Muppet fan as him, yeah. (Laughs) I mean, the Muppets were my earliest comedy influence.
CS: Probably for a lot of people of a certain age. Stoller: Yeah, like all comedy nerds, it starts with the Muppets. For me, it was Muppets and Dave Barry and Mel Brooks were the three and then that led to Monty Python and Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker.
CS: Do you generally work pretty close with the Muppeteers while you’re in the writing stage ? What point do you bring them in? Stoller: The table read, probably, would be the first time, then we’ll get their notes and incorporate their notes from that. But the table read is really early; it’s not like right before you shoot it. Yeah, it’s very early.
CS: I was wondering about that because Frank Oz and Jim Henson were the creative force behind the early movies and in this case, they’re really working with outsiders who aren’t puppeteers themselves. Stoller: Because I was just writing it with Jason, I wasn’t privy to a lot of the stuff, but basically they’re really good at explaining the rules, and there are a lot of rules. Now, I feel so much better equipped to write a Muppet movie doing it the second time. I didn’t realize it the first time. The first time we were kind of writing as Muppet fans, and then we turned in the script, and the puppeteers were like, “This is funny, but these are all the things that are wrong with it in terms of the rules.” We were like, “Oh right,” and then we incorporated those notes. They just have 20 years of experience, and they also improv a ton of jokes. I believe collaboration makes the best comedy, so the more voices, the funnier it’s going to be. One of the Muppet rules was – I’m sure we’ve talked about this a fair amount, was that the Muppets don’t think of themselves as puppets. They think of themselves as people. Our original draft had Walter and Gary doing a puppet act on the Venice Boardwalk. So, that was something that early on we got to know from the puppeteers it doesn’t work for a lot of reasons. We were like, “Oh right. Of course.”
CS: Sure, that’s true. No one ever goes, “Oh, they’re puppets.” Stoller: Kermit the Frog, he’s not a puppet frog. You don’t think about it until you’re told to think about it, and then you’re like, “Of course. That’s one of those unspoken rules. That’s why this universe works.”
CS: I don’t know if I should ask about any of these other things you’ve been working on over the years. Stoller: Ask away.
CS: Well, “Stretch Armstrong” was something we discussed last time, so do you think that’s still going to happen? Stoller: It seems like it’s on hold. (Laughs) Yeah, so I’m not sure, but I’m not involved with it right now.
CS: Also, I read you might do a movie with Reuben Fleischer? Stoller: Not right now, yeah.
CS: Now you’re in your writing brain right now, are you really focused on Muppets or are there other things you’re writing for yourself? Stoller: Well, I did a pilot this year. I don’t know if it will get picked up, but that was fun. Then, yeah, then I’m just going to try to figure out what to direct next. I’m not really sure.
CS: Have you been looking at other scripts rather than going back and spending a year or whatever writing? Stoller: I mean, potentially I’m always going to re-write whatever I direct. That’s the way I get into something and figure it out, but I’m completely open to other people’s ideas. I might be out of them in my career. (Laughs)
CS: Ideas, you mean? Stoller: Yeah, exactly. I’m joking. (Laughs) But, if there’s a great script or a great idea and I can turn that into my tone, I’m just as interested in that as I am in completely self-generating everything.
CS: There’s no Chris Pratt, Alison Brie spin-off movie from this one you could do like you did with “Greek”? Stoller: Maybe. I definitely want to see what happens to them because it’s definitely not as rosy. (Laughs)
CS: I feel like the other movie would be their side of the story while they’re not on-screen, that whole section when they’re gone. Stoller: Yeah, but I feel like that movie was made and it’s called “Knocked Up.” (Laughs)