the vulture transcript

Nicholas Stoller on The Five-Year Engagement, Writing With Jason Segel, and Penises

Nicholas Stoller. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Last night, the Tribeca Film Festival opened with the world premiere of The Five-Year Engagement. The film stars Jason Segel and Emily Blunt as a couple that gets engaged quickly, then stays engaged for an unusually long time (see movie title for more details). They blame the delay on their move to Michigan. It was supposed to be temporary — she got accepted to a two-year graduate program — so why not wait until they were back in San Francisco to exchange vows? As it goes, their dilly-dallying had less to do with logistics, more to do with unhappiness: He’d quit his going-really-well sous-chef job to help her realize her dreams, and so it wasn’t long before he was circling the drain (and growing a really creepy, depressed-wildnerness-man beard). Ugh, relationships. We spoke with director Nicholas Stoller, who has been collaborating with Segel (who co-wrote) and Judd Apatow (who produced) since their Undeclared days, about their latest effort, his pilot for CBS, and penises.

Are long engagements a red flag?
I think so. If you’re engaged more than a year, there’s something up. There’s lot of debate as to whether one should or shouldn’t get married, but when you get engaged, it’s a promise to get married, and if you don’t just do it within a year, one of the parties is using the excuse of, like, “I can’t find the right venue” to put off the wedding.

Emily Blunt’s character questions the institution of marriage in one scene. Is that not a legitimate argument?
I’m pretty old-fashioned. I feel most people — and this is purely from observation, I’m not an expert — but I think most people want to get married, whatever one might say about the institution of marriage, especially if you are in a long relationship. I just don’t buy it.

This movie feels like much more of a romantic comedy than Forgetting Sarah Marshall
It definitely is a romantic comedy. It’s my favorite genre. A good romantic comedy is my favorite movie to watch.

But there are challenges. You don’t want it to be cliché.
I think the best romantic comedies are hard funny — no soft jokes, but ones that make you, like, guffaw. I also think that they have to make you feel good, ideally, and make you feel warm inside at the end. Ninety-nine percent of them, with the exception of Annie Hall or The Break-Up, end with the couple being together, so you have to find an interesting and surprising way to do that. Certainly the formula of romantic comedy is tried and true.

Was The Break-Up an influence? Or what movies were?
We tried to strive to more When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall, Broadcast News. Those are our touchstones. I did a very nerdy thing and watched Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment, and graphed them out on my computer to see exactly scene-by-scene what was happening. I’d watched them before, but I’d never done that, and it was interesting to see the way they were structured.

What do you mean, “graphed them out”?
I literally opened a Word document and graphed out every scene. I’d write down what was happening in the scene, what line was hitting the theme of the movie. Kind of zeroed in on how, structurally, those movies worked.

That speaks to what a writer-writer you are. Not that Jason isn’t, but he’s also an actor, and one who improvises. So what’s the process like with you guys?
We are just great partners and share a comedy brain. When we’re writing, we both come at it as writers, and when we start shooting, he goes into the actor role and I go into the director role. He’s thinking, How would I say this? I’m usually thinking, How does it support the story and is it the funniest line? Like, I’ll write a line and he’ll say, “That’s a funny line, but no human would ever say that.” [Laughs.] That’s how we balance each other out. We work really smoothly together, actually.

Do you work together in person?
Yeah. We get together and outline the script — we really work on that for a long time — and then we split up the outline and each write chunks of the script and we put the script back together and then we write it together.

Did you write this script with Emily Blunt in mind? That’s what Jason told her.
We did indeed. If she had said no, I don’t know who we would’ve cast. I’ve loved her forever and I just think she is so funny. Charming. And she just exudes an intelligence onscreen that’s surpassed by very few actors or actresses.

Did you make her character British so she could keep her accent?
I don’t like to make people do other accents. But of course then I made Alison Brie [who plays Blunt’s sister] do a British accent [laughs]. We had an internal debate where we were like, “Is there any way that they could be sisters and maybe their parents got divorced and Alison was raised in the States and Emily in England?” And Judd kept saying, “You know, like the Nolan brothers!” And then we finally were like, This doesn’t make any sense. They both have to be English.

How involved does Judd get when you’re working with him as producer?
As I’ve learned more and more how to do this, he’s been less and less involved. On Sarah Marshall, he was heavily involved. On Greek [Get Him to the Greek], less so, and on this one, not so much. He’s kind of there if you’re in trouble. And he’s an amazing sounding board and he creates, logistically, with the studio — his deal is such that under a certain price point, we’re basically allowed to do whatever we want, which is kind of amazing. So that’s what he brings to it. He’s involved in casting. He gives notes on the script. And he’s involved in post.

You’ve been working with him since Undeclared, which you did when you were like 24. So was there ever a time where you had to be like, “Dude, I’m a grown-up now. I can do this”?
Oh, no. Not at all. I need his notes. Jason and I are really hard on the material and hard on the script, but at a certain moment, you can’t see it anymore. [Judd] comes with a pair of fresh eyes and he then is hard on the material, which is what you need. As you get more successful in the film industry, you get more and more “yes” people surrounding you, and you need that voice that’s like, “No, this doesn’t work. This isn’t writing.” And he is that voice. For example, in Five-Year, he really saved us. We had a plot point in there where [spoiler alert] Jason and Emily break up, and Jason’s father unexpectedly passes away. And Emily just shows up. And that kind of brings them back together. And Judd was like, “This is not a character-driven reason for them to get back together. Anyone would show up for this.” So he really saved us from shooting that, and if he hadn’t been involved, we probably would’ve shot that and we would’ve done a reshoot because it would’ve felt false, you know?

Was it a conscious decision not to write in cameos for Russell Brand or Jonah Hill?
Yeah. I mean, this was the first time I’ve done something where we didn’t have any pop culture, you know? And I think it would’ve been confusing. We had a joke, Jonah and I, that he was going to show up in this movie as a third iteration as a fan of Aldous Snow. [Laughs.] I can’t remember if that was Jonah’s joke or who thought of that, but yeah, he was just going to show up. It just would’ve been really confusing.

Jason’s penis didn’t make an appearance either. But we see his butt. What was that conversation like, where you guys decided not to show it?
[Laughs.] He, um, you know, we shot a scene, we did shoot it. The footage exists somewhere at Universal. I’m sure it’s to be incorporated into the Jurassic Park ride or something. But we shot a scene. He was like, “I think I gotta show wiener.” And I was like, “Dude, if you want to.” And he was like, “FINE, Nick. I’ll do it. Fine!” and was blaming me, but clearly he just wanted to do it again. And then we looked at it, it just felt gratuitous and didn’t feel — it just felt like it would take the audience out of the movie like, “This is the moment where, remember when you saw Jason Segel’s penis in Sarah Marshall? We’re doing it again!” It just didn’t feel right. In Sarah Marshall, he’s naked, but he’s supposed to be at his most vulnerable so there’s a reason to show it. An emotional reason, at least — and that’s how I justify it to the world. And with this one, there just wasn’t a reason.

Also, I just rewatched Sarah Marshall and it’s like the memory of the moment is actually bigger than the moment itself. It’s not like you see it for very long.
I don’t even know if it was a full second. But Jason will say, too, that was the first movie where a lead of a comedy showed his penis, and since then there have been penises … there’s been a penis-olution, culminating in the Fassbender.

American Reunion just showed penis.
Who shows their penis in that?

Jason Biggs.
Oh. Right. [Laughs.]

It’s covered by a pot lid, but the lid is clear so you can see it and it’s sort of smushed to the side.
Oh, nice. [Laughs.] “Smushed to the side” is a good way to put it. [Laughs.] I mean, it is a comedy organ. It looks ridiculous. Penises just look stupid. There’s a reason that in comedies you want to show them. They’re not a beautiful thing, except for the Statue of David’s — or maybe Michael Fassbender’s. They look weird! There’s a comedy reason to [show it], but shock is no longer one of them.

Judd was saying in an interview with us that he couldn’t get Undeclared off the ground with Jason as the lead.
Oh yeah. I remember we were hoping that Seth [Rogen] would be approved but were sure that Jason would be, but it turned out that Fox wouldn’t approve Jason. It was kind of insane.

Can you tell me about your pilot with Brie Larson and Michael Angarano? Are you nervous going back into TV since you know firsthand it’s a crapshoot?
I’ve kind of taken it one step at a time. But yeah, it is nerve-racking because by nature I’m kind of neurotic and I don’t want to screw things up. But the pilot actually turned out really well and I’m excited about how it came out. I have no idea if it will be picked up, but I know if anyone sees it, I will be happy for people to see it. I just didn’t want to make something that I didn’t want people to see.

And it’s about young ad execs?
I worked in advertising when I first graduated college, and it’s about four twentysomethings who work in advertising in New York, all sleeping with each other. It’s called Entry Level right now, and they’re trying to figure their shit out in a hilarious way.

Is that how it was when you worked in advertising? A bunch of you guys sleeping together?
I mean, the setting is based on my past but the particulars weren’t. What was interesting to me about advertising in particular is that it is a lot of young people — because [the execs who hire] want people who know brands and use brands to impress the clients with how cool they are. I had a friend who was 23 and he sold a Sony Walkman ad and got put up in The Four Seasons in Los Angeles for a month. Like, he was getting paid nothing — and then you have this other weird flipside where you have this crazy month in The Four Seasons. So it just seemed like a funny way to do both the glamorous thing but also explore those first couple years out of college.

And are the characters going to watch Mad Men?
I think we have to make Mad Men references. I will say that a lot of Mad Men rings true.

Will there be a Don Draper wannabe?
There will definitely be a wannabe Don Draper. [Laughs.]

How are you going to juggle the TV show and the Muppets screenplay?
I’m not sure. We’ll see if it gets picked up, I guess. The Muppets thing, James Bobin and I are writing it and we just finished outlining the whole thing and we just started to write the script this past week. I’m very excited about it. I’m just deciding to not think about it. I’ll figure it out. 

This one’s going to be a caper movie?
Yes. It’s a comedy-caper. It’s not totally connected to the last one, but there certainly are a few little connections. Yeah. It’s more of a hard — well, the first one, we brought the characters back and I loved how the movie came out, but it was very nostalgic and emotional. This one will certainly be emotional, but the driving force of it will be the comedy-caper thing.

Are you feeling the franchise pressure? Pressure from the studio to get this out fast?
I’ve never been involved in a franchise so it’s actually very exciting. They want to get it out. They want us to do it as quickly as possible. I feel like, you know, I put that pressure on myself. Both James and I are writing it together and it’s not a, it’s not that hard to write a script quickly. We’ve outlined it, we have a very detailed outline, and once we have that, it’s not that hard to bang it out.

Did you have to have a man-to-man conversation with Jason about deciding to move forward on this without him? And was it a tough decision?
No, I mean, our creative partnership is completely free of that sort of melodrama, if that’s what you call it. There really isn’t any. I know there are some creative partnerships where people yell at each other and fistfight, and out comes the most amazing thing. But we’re pretty low-key about it. We kind of sit in bed at his house or my house and order burritos and, like, pitch back and forth. You know, he didn’t want to do the second one. We all felt like his story naturally concluded and he tends to write stuff he’s going to be in, obviously, and it just didn’t make sense for him to do it.

Getting back to Five-Year Engagement. There’s a great scene [spoiler alert] where Alison Brie and Chris Pratt sing a song in Spanish, at their own wedding. What is that song? Where did that idea even come from?
[Laughs.] It’s called “Cucurrucucú [Paloma]” and it’s a famous Spanish song; Caetano Veloso sings it. And I actually became familiar with it in the movie Talk to Her, a Pedro Almodóvar film. It’s one of the most beautifully shot things ever and that sequence [with the song in it], is also one of the most romantic moments of any movie. It’s such a beautiful moment. And my [cinematographer], Javier Aguirresarobe, he actually shot that scene in Talk to Her, so he’s now shot that scene twice — sorry, buddy. But we were trying to think of something — originally in their wedding, it was like a disastrous write-your-own vows kind of joke, which we actually shot as well. But when we were in production, I suddenly thought, Oh my God, we should have Chris Pratt sing “Cucurrucucu.” That would be the weirdest, funniest thing. I find the Talk to Her version so romantic, so I wanted to split difference between romance and comedy.

Another great scene is when Alison Brie and Emily Blunt fight with each other using Elmo and Cookie Monster voices.
Yeah. The Elmo scene came from my daughter, who is now 4 and a half, but when she was 2 and a half, she would make my wife and I talk in voices. She’d be like, “Talk in an Elmo voice! Talk in a Yogi Bear voice! Talk in a Boo Boo voice!” And if we didn’t, she would scream at us. So finally, my wife and I, rather than try to get around it, we would just give in but we would have adult conversations. So I would be like [adopts Yogi voice], “Boo Boo! When do you want to go to the grocery story?!” And my wife would say [adopts Boo Boo voice], “I don’t know, Yogi! Maybe at three? Would you pick up my prescription?” And we’d just go back and forth like that. So then when we were talking about it, I thought that we could put that in the scene, I thought that it’d be really funny if Alison did an Elmo voice as a means to getting her anger out. And then Jason was like, “If she’s doing Elmo voice, then Emily should be Cookie Monster.” So that made the scene really pop. And then Rodney Rothman, our producer, who is a comedy genius, thought of the “C is for condom” line. It was a group effort.

Nicholas Stoller on The Five-Year Engagement