Exclusive Nick Stoller Interview

     December 17, 2008

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

With “Yes Man” getting ready to be released this weekend, I recently managed to get some phone time with Nick Stoller to talk about his work on the project, as well as the other films he’s working on. For those not familiar with Nick’s name, he’s the director of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and he’s a much in demand screenwriter who cut his teeth working on Judd Apatow’s “Undeclared”. Recently, Nick’s been working on the next “Muppet Movie” with Jason Segal, “Get Him to the Greek” (which he’ll be directing next year), and “Gulliver’s Travels” for director Rob Letterman.

As you can see, Nick’s kind of busy.

Thankfully, Nick couldn’t have been nicer and more open about all the projects he’s been juggling and what’s the status of each one. It’s a great interview and one worth reading…

Some of the highlights are….they’re location scouting “Get Him to the Greek” and they start shooting in April. It’s also the first international Apatow production as they’re shooting in L.A., Vegas, New York and London.

With the “Muppet Movie”, he says they just turned in the script and they’re waiting to hear back from Disney. He says he won’t be directing the movie but there is a human character which Jason wants to play. He also talked about the songs in the movie and a lot more.

And regarding “Gulliver’s Travels”, he said he wants to create a “Princess Bride kind of tone”. Once he mentioned that film, I couldn’t help but get more excited…

Trust me, this is a great interview and one really worth reading. Of course a big thank you to Nick for giving me his time!

Collider: So, it’s always interesting to talk to people via speakerphone or phone interviews, so what exactly are you doing right now?

Nick Stoller: Right now I’m driving down Highland.

Good times.

Nick: Yeah.

Okay, so we saw each other at the junket recently for “Yes Man”.

Nick: Yeah.

And I guess I should start with a question on that. So can you talk about how long ago you got involved with that project and how that all came about?

Nick: Yeah, I started writing on that…let’s see it was the fall of …I’m really bad at chronology here…it was the fall before they were shooting it—before we shot and before we started “Sarah Marshall” so that would have been the fall of 2006. And basically I was brought onto it because they were doing…they had the memoirs—Danny Wallace’s memoir and they wanted someone to adapt it. And it was originally for Mike White and Jack Black’s company which has been dissolved. And David Heyman was attached before all that but I didn’t know any of that. And I thought the idea was such a really cool idea and I wrote an outline and wrote a draft off of that and then wrote basically 2 or 3 more drafts and then “Sarah Marshall” got green-lit and I had to leave the project to work on “Sarah Marshall”.

So when you got involved in this, because it was before “Sarah Marshall”, it was probably a big deal for you.

Nick: Yeah it certainly was. I mean, it was at the time it was just an adaptation of a book though a lot of people liked the idea, so there was not really-you know-there was the vague momentum of people liking the idea but like there wasn’t anything else, like there was no…there wasn’t really anyone attached to it. It was kind of just a thing. So then I kind of cracked a version of it that people like so then it became…then Jim Carrey got involved and Peyton Reed and it became a movie.

I was going to jump into “Sarah Marshall” for a second. Obviously whenever you make a movie you’re never exactly sure how it’s going to do. So what was your reaction with the success of “Sarah Marshall”? Did it come as a surprise? Did you always think it was going to do so well?

Nick: You know, I have like literally no idea before something comes out. You know you hope it’s going to do well of course but like my ideas are just try to make something that to me is a funny—would make me laugh the hardest and then see what happens from there. So like, yeah, I didn’t really know. I hoped it would do well and hoped it would find an audience. I knew that we had some momentum on our side given the recent successes of Judd’s movies and those people and Jason really popped in “Knocked Up” but at the same time we didn’t really have any big stars in the movie, so it was definitely a relief and exciting that it worked. It was kind of interesting. A lot of people saw it…a lot more people saw it on DVD then they did in the movies—in the theatre. So after the movie came out I would have meetings and people would be like “yeah that was good” but clearly they hadn’t see it. And then after the DVD came out, the meetings that I’ve had with people have totally changed where people are like “that was actually a pretty funny movie”.

It proves how big home video really is.

Nick: Exactly.

Obviously with “Sarah Marshall”—male nudity. What do you think the reason is for all the comedies recently or a lot of comedies recently having male nudity.

Nick: I think that… I don’t know…there’s something in the zeitgeist. Maybe it’s people realizing that you can still have an R-rating and have male nudity. I think that comedies traditionally always try to push the envelope and this was an area that hadn’t been pushed or hadn’t been pushed recently and so I think that it kind of-you know-I don’t know why it’s appeared in a bunch of movies at the same time but like I think it was just when people realized it hadn’t been in movies-you know-in comedies it became time to put it in, but I don’t know why all at one time. Why did “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” come out at the same time? I don’t know.

I think there’s probably a Hollywood story behind the scenes there.

Nick: Right, exactly.

Possibly. Okay so I wanted to ask you about “Get Him To The Greek”. So how’s that going with you?

Nick: It’s very exciting. We just came back from our first scout. We’re shooting the majority of the film in L.A. but we’re shooting also in Vegas, New York and London. So it’s the first Apatow international production which is exciting.

That’s actually very cool.

Nick: Yeah, it’s very cool. The movie is going to be really big in scope like it’s very exciting to see different locations and to be kind of working on a bigger canvas, so that’s all very exciting.

Now when you’re doing scoping—when you scope out locations say London or these other cities, is it sort of like a free vacation?

Nick: No. You’re in a van all day. It seems like…I left my wife at home and child and she was like “oh it sounds so glamorous” and I was like “it’s not like glamorous. You’re looking at glamour not experiencing glamour.” Just sitting in a van all day looking at these crazy apartments and stuff and then getting back in the van and looking at another apartment or looking at a club that’s closed down for the day or whatever. So it’s definitely fun and exciting because you’re seeing the movie come alive, but it’s not particularly glamorous.

So for a lot of people who don’t know, you have Russell Brand playing the same character from “Sarah Marshall”.

Nick: Yes.

And Jonah Hill is in the movie but he doesn’t play the same character.

Nick: Exactly. It’s a little confusing.

I was going to say, could you just tell people a little bit like the basic premise?

Nick: Yeah, sure of course. It’s…Russell he’s the same guy but he’s fallen off the wagon. He plays Aldous Snow—fallen off the wagon and a drunk disaster kind of big baby. And Jonah plays a guy named Aaron Greenberg who’s a young music executive. Like basically an intern who kind of lies his way or BS’s his way into getting to accompany this guy from London to Los Angeles to get him to the Greek Theatre for this big performance.

According to the always accurate IMDB, there’s a lot of music stars that are rumored to be in it from Katey Perry to Christina Aguilera.

Nick: Oh yeah.

Is it frustrating for you when like these musicians are already listed or is it sort of like-you know-you’ve got to get used to it in the Internet age where guest appearances are going to be listed way early?

Nick: I don’t really care. I mean, I think if you’re depending on a surprise guest appearance for a laugh then you’re not doing your job as the comedy writer so like I don’t mind that that kind of stuff appears. I mean, we shot a bunch of stuff with them—with the rock stars. They were very kind to let us use them during the MTV movie awards because Russell was hosting the awards. I mean I literally have no idea if that stuff…it was all hilarious. I don’t know what will end up in the cut because it’s all processed once we get to that stage. So the only time I get a little nervous is if they think being listed means they’ll be in the movie, but I never know until the last minute, so yeah, they’re all hilarious.

I actually didn’t know that you shot anything at the MTV awards.

Nick: Yeah, because we had all these rock stars there I was like well we’ll have to get Russell and these people together and see what we can shoot so we got a bunch of them together and had a kind of a skeleton crew and just grabbed some stuff because it was too big of an opportunity to pass up.

Russell is known for being great at improvising. I have a friend who attended the “Bedtime Stories” junket and said that Russell was the funniest part. How is it when you have a script that you want to, you know, that you obviously have spent so much time writing, balancing with Russell’s talent for improv? I mean, how is that as a director to manage that?

Nick: To me it’s all part of the same process. Like I’m not precious at all about what I write. You don’t have to say that I depend on the improv like I don’t. I try to write the tightest best script I can and then I hope the actors that I’ve hired can elevate the material with improv whether it be funny improv or dramatic improv. I think that that adds to the comedy. So like with “Sarah Marshall” we jammed on the that script and made sure it was really tight and it’s as funny as it could be and then on the day we’d smooth up and we would have people do what was on the page and do that stuff and then we’d also have them improv. In the end it probably ends up 70% scripted and 30% improv, I would say. Around that. Jonah is also incredible at improv and both he and Russell have a hilarious dynamic and great chemistry.

One last question on the Greek movie, you said recently that you were doing some casting on it. When is it going like in front of the cameras?

Nick: Right now we have a start date in mid-April. It’s not totally set yet but we have a mid-April start date and we have two more scouts before that and all of that. So I wanted to get ahead because casting is the hardest—well not the hardest part but it’s a very time consuming part so I wanted to get a head start on that and line up good actors and stuff.

So I wanted to ask you about “Gulliver’s Travels”. I recently spoke to Rob Letterman at a “Monsters vs. Aliens” press day and he seemed to think that was going forward and I wanted to know how involved were you or how involved are you with that project with how busy you are with “Greek”?

Nick: I’m pretty involved in it. I mean, there was a draft before me that was by Joe Stillman who wrote the Shrek movies and then I came aboard and I’ve been re-writing it since. So I’ve definitely been pretty involved in it. I mean, I had a meeting about it literally yesterday, and I’m trying to wrap up that writing by the beginning of next year just so I can focus on “Greek” but yeah, I’ve been working a lot on that with Rob. He’s a very talented gentleman I’ll say.

I think “Monsters vs. Aliens” looks fantastic actually.

Nick: I’ve only seen the trailer but I can’t wait.

It looks great. So I guess my question is how was the relationship with you working with Rob for the script and obviously there’s been other movies based on “Gulliver’s Travels”—how much did you look at those other movies when creating your version of the script? And what’s like the tone you’re looking for your version?

Nick: I mean I read the book like in college and stuff but to me I didn’t look at any of the movies or anything. This is very much a Jack Black movie and I want to create a very specific-you know-tone and universe for it. I mean, you’re going to have the Lilliputians who are small and Jack Black who’s big, but to me I was looking at trying to create a “Princess Bride” kind of tone. So you’re in another universe. You’re in this fantasy universe. There’s a specific kind of language and way that they behave and a certain kind of chivalry and etiquette that’s different than our own but it’s all harking back to the political satire of 17th century England which is what Johnson Swift was writing about.

You invoked the magic words of “Princess Bride”. How much did you re-watch that film when writing or did you watch it once? Because I loved that movie.

Nick: Yeah, I love that movie. That’s just a movie I’ve seen so many times I don’t need to re-watch it, and then again, it’s just an example of like I just want it to be…I don’t it to be just like he enters the comedy world. I wanted the world that he enters to have like it’s own kind of language like that. Or in a non-comedy version like the way “Lord of the Rings” like that’s it own world, you know? We’re not trying to like parody something or anything like that.

So for the people who aren’t familiar with the story, is there like a basic premise that you can say about it or a basic, you know, one-liner or whatever?

Nick: I mean, you know it takes place modern day and Gulliver basically falls…I mean I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say, but he basically falls through a wormhole and ends up on Lilliput, which is a land of like tiny people. I mean he’s like a giant among them and becomes their hero and all of this and then there’s things that happen that make him seem not so heroic to them.

Sort of a little bit “Hancock”-ish.

Nick: Yeah, I guess we could be playing with some of the things of that certainly, yeah.

Okay, so I have to ask you obviously with so busy you are with “Get Him to the Greek” and with this, what’s the status of “The Muppet Movie”?

Nick: You know we turned in a draft to Disney that they’re very excited about and Jason [Segel] and I are just waiting to hear. You know, we love our draft. We loved the Muppet movies, you know? We’re just trying to recreate the classic, you know, Muppet movies and waiting to hear back from Disney. I mean, Disney always has a lot of consideration to take into account when they make a movie. It’s not like we can just make “Sarah Marshall”. We don’t have to sell “Sarah Marshall” toys and “Sarah Marshall” clothes and “Sarah Marshall” rides and all of that so I think they have to figure things out on their side but I know that they’re happy with it and they’ve been great to work with.

Well, I was going to say that the “Muppet Movie” seems like or you guys making it seems like a no-brainer. In the back of your mind, I mean, would that be if they green light it, would that be something that you jump…are you planning on directing that?

Nick: Oh, I don’t think so. I love the Muppets but I think you need someone who’s really good with–even though I did a little bit of puppetry in “Sarah Marshall”—you need like someone who has a lot of experience with that. You know like for example in “Gulliver’s Travels” like I love writing it and it’s been great but you need someone like Rob who really has an understanding of scale and you know special effects and all of this stuff. I’m not the most visual director. I like people chatting on a beach in Hawaii. That’s what I’m comfortable with.

So with you guys writing the “Muppet Movie”, did you write songs or anything along those lines and put them already in the script? Or is that stuff that you guys maybe have developed on the side and there’s a thing in the script that says they do this and you’ve already written that on the side?

Nick: Yeah, in the script we put “there will be a song here” and I think Jason on the side has written songs and I’m sure, you know, once and if it were to be green-lit, they would hire an additional songwriter and stuff, but I know Jason has designs to write some of those songs and he’s a great songwriter and I like to throw in my own. I wrote some of the songs a little bit on “Sarah Marshall” so I would definitely contribute but Jason’s a real songwriter.

Is Jason planning on being….I guess I just don’t know how involved he’s going to be in the movie besides writing it. Is he going to be in the movie? Is that his plan or is this just…?

Nick: Yeah, there’s a human character in it who he’d love to play.

Yeah, I would imagine he’d be a good fit.

Nick: Yeah, definitely, yeah.

So, of course, I have to ask you I know you’re working on all these other projects, but is there anything that I…other things that you’re working on that I’m not aware of?

Nick: No, I mean that’s pretty much everything. I’ve been trying to wrap up “Gulliver’s Travels” over the next month and then “Greek” starts and I’ll be getting into that…shooting that so yeah, those are the 2…those are really what I’m focusing on right now.

Well, I have to ask you a question. I asked this of Judd Apatow when I last saw him at a junket and I’m going to ask you. You were involved with “Undeclared”?

Nick: Yeah.

So that show sort of really didn’t have an ending. Same with “Freaks and Geeks” and I asked him if there’s ever a chance—and I’m going to ask you about “Undeclared”—of sort of doing a homage to that show or “Freaks and Geeks” with any of your future movies? Like maybe having a character from “Undeclared” walk by or have a slight interaction with one of the characters from your future movie and only sort of fans from those properties would understand what that is.

Nick: Yeah, I mean it’s certainly….we did that on the “Sarah Marshall” DVD. We had…because Carla Gallo played a really funny like cameo in the movie where she’s like one of the girls that he has sex with when he was depressed and on the “Sarah Marshall” DVD we had a reunion between him and Lizzy.


Nick: Lizzy the….

I know Lizzy. I didn’t see the DVD. I didn’t see that footage.

Nick: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s on the DVD and it’s pretty funny and weird like they basically hooked up and he reverted to like his creepy Eric character so yeah.

That’s great. Is there anything else that you want to talk about or otherwise I’ve taken up way too much of your time?

Nick: Oh no, no. This was great. I don’t think so. I think that’s basically everything.

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