As the director of Get Him to the Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Nicholas Stoller has made a lot of people laugh poking fun at Hollywood and celebrities. But in his latest film, The Five-Year Engagement, Stoller is aiming at an all-new group of people to make fun of: normal folks. For those not familiar with the film, Five-Year Engagement “looks at what happens when an engaged couple, Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, keeps getting tripped up on the long walk down the aisle.” The film stars also stars Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Rhys Ifans, David Paymer, Mimi Kennedy, Jacki Weaver, Jim Piddock, Kevin Hart, Brian Posehn and Mindy Kaling.
While the production was filming at the Beltane Ranch in Somona, California last June, I got to visit the set with a few other online reporters and take part in a group interview with Stoller and producer Rodney Rothman. While both were very busy, they gave us a huge amount of time and discussed everything from where the idea came from to improv to working with a big ensemble cast and everything in between. Trust me, if you’re a fan of moviemaking, or a fan of Stoller’s, it’s a great interview. Hit the jump to read or listen to it.
Before going any further, if you haven’t seen the trailer, I’d watch that first.
As usual, I’m offering two ways to get the interview: you can either click here for the audio or the full transcript is below. The Five-Year Engagement opens April 27, 2012.
Question: When you’re doing all of these improvs like this, do you know right now where you think it’s going to end, or is it all decided in the editing room?
Nicholas Stoller: All in post. I’m not really sure at this point. Because also, sometimes things that are really funny on the day, when you look at them in post can feel too broad, you know? Sometimes not, but it’s kind of weird how that can change. And sometimes you’re not noticing a little eye movement that’s hilarious. So it all kind of gets figured out in post. And that guy you were watching was this guy Murray Miller, who’s actually not an actor, he’s a writer that Rodney and I are friends with. He’s just crazily funny, especially when hitting on people.
What does the script look like? Do you have a bunch of these ideas written out or are you just riffing off of it?
Stoller: The script is very long [laughs], but this scene is literally, I don’t have my sides with me, but this scene is like three lines in the script. We had some ideas of what we were going to do on the day, but yeah, it’s very short. It’s much shorter than what we shoot.
Stoller: Yeah, you guys missed when we shot the master, so we kind of figured out a lot of that stuff when we shot the wide shot of them. We kind of figured it out already. And a lot of the time too, this scene is not an important scene in the movie, obviously, it’s like a funny scene, but we rehearse a lot of the scenes and so we’ll kind of figure out our alts in the rehearsals. And a lot of those ended up being written in the script too.
This takes place at the beginning of the movie?
Stoller: The beginning of the movie, yeah. You’re seeing all of the beginning stuff.
How does the transfer go from Sonoma? We know you’re going to San Francisco and you shot in Michigan. How does that play into the story?
Stoller: Well, they live in San Francisco at the beginning of the movie, this is their engagement party in Sonoma. They live in San Francisco and then they have their engagement party, which takes place over like a day, basically, in Sonoma, and then they move after the first year of being engaged they end up moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where they stay for two years…three years… two and a half years. And then they end up, and I don’t want to ruin too much.
So this covers the whole entire five years of…
Stoller: Oh yeah. It covers the whole five years of the engagement.
Does it go into how they met?
Stoller: There’s just flashbacks of that, but it’s not…we start and they’ve already been together. And then we try, in the five years, to explore every single relationship problem you can have [laughs]. We get them all. In a hilarious way!
Is it linear or does it go back and forth?
Stoller: It’s linear, but I don’t know. When we get into editing maybe we’ll…
Rodney Rothman: It jumps back and forth a little bit.
Stoller: It does, yeah. Just a little bit. But it’s not like Pulp Fiction or anything.
I’m curious about Easter Eggs in this movie. For example, Infant Sorrow…are other things that you’ve done in your previous films, is there a way of nodding at those, or are all of your films in separate universes?
Rothman: It’s separate universes where Jonah Hill always is a different person who knows Infant Sorrow [laughs].
Are we going to see the music video in the background on a TV or…
Stoller: We really obviously connected [Get Him To The] Greek and [Forgetting] Sarah Marshall. This one we just haven’t, I don’t think we really have in any way. I don’t think so.
Rothman: We filmed a couple things, but I doubt we’ll use them. Jonah wanted to be in this movie playing like a third person who likes Aldus Snow [laughs]. But there aren’t really any callbacks to the other two movies in this one. So I’m sorry. Sorry.
Stoller: But we do tease the fourth Batman at the end of this one [laughs]. So just sit through the credits and you’ll see a teaser.
Rothman: It’s not even a Warner Bros. movie.
Stoller: Nope, we just threw it in there. We’re just Batman fans.
Can you talk a bit about where this idea first came from and how long the writing process was to get this thing greenlit?
Stoller: I am obsessed with relationship and romantic comedy stuff, it’s kind of what I love. I don’t know, we were just kind of thinking about different ways to explore relationship, and I remember sitting at my desk and the words “Five Year Engagement” just popped into my head and I was just like, “I think that’s a movie!” And I was also obsessed with people who are engaged or together for a long time and don’t seal the deal. I think that’s something… and I think it’s an ‘our generation’ thing, you know? So I think this was another way to explore that.
How long were you writing it before you got the green light, and also with your relationship with Universal, how much freedom do they give you?
Stoller: Well, we’d set it up. Like Sarah Marhsall, we had set up both Greek and this in the same meeting, and then we kind of worked on it on and off – not that much for the first…while I was doing Greek, and then really got into it about a year ago. It’s been around for a couple years, but it hasn’t been intensely worked on until about a year and a half ago.
Stoller: Yeah. I think this ensemble is incredible. The cast we got is just insane for this movie. I’m so excited about it. It is about them, but it’s about everyone they’ve met in the five years. Jacki Weaver, who was nominated for an Oscar, is in the movie; Jim Piddock, who is from Best in Show and all of those movies, and Mindy Kaling and Kevin Hart, Rhys Ifans, Alison Brie, Chris Pratt… there’s just so many awesome people in it.
Rothman: Everywhere you look there’s kind of a new, fun person.
Stoller: Brian Posehn who was someone who on the page his part was pretty small, and we just started throwing more and more stuff. He was just hilarious.
Rothman: So funny.
Stoller: Chris Parnell…this guy named Randall Park, who is kind of an unknown guy, but is really funny, I think.
You mention all of these actors, a lot of them are very talented comedians, how much, before filming, do you all get together and improv the script? Or is everyone finding this on the day
Stoller: It depends. With the main four…we had two table reads, so we kind of discovered stuff at the table reads, but a lot of the secondary characters aren’t cast yet. And then with Jason [Segel] and Emily [Blunt] and Alison [Brie] and Chris [Pratt] we had rehearsals, proper rehearsals. And Rhys too. They had proper rehearsals because they’re in most of the scenes, and we improvised and incorporated that improv into the script. And then, like with Kevin Hart we met with him and riffed a bunch of ideas and kind of incorporated those into the script, and I talked with Mindy on the phone. So yes, it depends on the level of the part.
Rothman: You talk to people and you just start to shape out what their instincts are with the part, things that their lines or their part makes them think of, and that usually guides us on the day. We’ll have conversations, like with Kevin, from that meeting… he has this whole run with this character that may or may not be in the movie, but his character is a postdoc candidate who’s basically deeply afraid that he’s going to end up getting a job in North Dakota where there’s no black people.
Stoller: He riffed on that. We had a meeting and he just riffed on that.
Rothman: And Kevin Hart is the rare person who every minute he’s working with us he’s losing money. He’s doing insanely successful touring, the guy is doing so well. But yeah, it’s like charity work [laughs].
Stoller: And Brian Posehn works in a deli so we told him to learn everything there is to know about pickles. So he came to set with a bunch of pickle knowledge.
Rothman: And Rhys hung out with a social psychology professor.
Stoller: So he had done some of that research too.
When you have a movie that centers around a wedding, you have the ticking clock right in the title…
Rothman: A very slow ticking clock [laughs]. Five years.
We have the general idea of the climax of the movie, the general direction of what it is, and the advantages and disadvantages of it. What tropes of wedding films are you trying to avoid?
Stoller: There’s just an advantage, because we just know what the ending is going to be [laughs]. Oh wait, we don’t know what the end of the movie is going to be. What’s hardest is to do it in a new way, there’s been a wedding at the end of every movie. So obviously we’re trying to avoid the clichés and try to have a wedding that’s – or if there is a wedding at the end of the movie, I’m not going to say – to try to make sure that it’s unique and that there’s an emotional payoff to it in some way.
Rothman: Yeah, take an unexpected route there. A lot of movies end, in some fashion, like you expect them to, but the really good ones figure out a way to take you somewhere you didn’t expected. So there are definitely a lot of twists in this movie that I think people aren’t going to expect from the title.
Rothman: You’re not going to believe how fast they run.
Stoller: They run so fast… [laughs]
It’s obviously R as we heard some F-bombs on set. How are you guys teetering on the R? Are there certain scenes, for example, that are really pushing the boundary, or is it just a more standard R rating
Stoller: It’s an R. Nothing makes us laugh like weird, awkward, bad sex and there’s a lot of that [laughs]. It’s not for the “fucks,” it’s for the bad sex that we want the R. If you’re going to have a five-year relationship you need to explore that side of it. So that’s really the reason for it.
Your own MacGruber scenes.
Stoller: Yeah, exactly [laughs]
Can you tell us a bit about the other characters, like Alison and Chris?
Rothman: Yeah, Alison plays Emily’s sister and Chris Pratt plays Jason’s best friend in the movie and Jason and Chris are both chefs. And Alison and Chris meet at this engagement party that you’re going to see, and we’re actually going to shoot that scene tomorrow, but they meet at this engagement party and immediately…like, they don’t plan anything, that’s their whole thing. And so she immediately gets pregnant and they get married and they’re on a super-fast track to kind of contrast with Jason and Emily’s characters. So it’s kind of fun playing with that stuff.
Stoller: Well, there’s a song in it that’s their song…
Rothman: There’s some musical stuff, but there’s no musician in the movie, there’s no music element…which we found is a lot less work.
Stoller: So much less work! [laughs] It’s so nice.
Rothman: And there’s a lot less pop culture stuff in this one. Like Sarah Marshall with all the crime scene stuff and Greek with all of his music videos and stuff there’s a lot, but there’s no pop culture in this.
Stoller: Kind of nice, actually, not to be doing that this time.
Was it a conscious decision not to include that stuff or did it just not have an organic place in the story?
Stoller: A little of both. I didn’t want anyone to have jobs in the entertainment industry, I wanted them to be like…normal [laughs]. Normal situations. And also, because we felt like we kind of mined that enough at this point.
Rothman: Have you guys seen the script or no?
Rothman: Some of the worlds of the movie, like Tom, Jason’s character, is a chef. Specifically he’s kind of into molecular gastronomy, new, weird chemical cooking. And Emily is a postdoc candidate in the area of social psychology, so it’s basically like Malcolm Gladwell type stuff, why people make decisions. And Rhys Ifans is like the chairman, the department chair in this area, so when Emily goes to work they’re often doing experiments on subjects and studying why people do things. Is that super boring or… [laughs]
Stoller: It’s basically like a chef and a grad student is kind of the dynamic and then she has to move for work and they end up moving.
Are you doing any video diaries while you’re shooting?
Stoller: Yes, I have been. Yeah.
You guys are shooting on film…
Stoller: Actually, we’re using video.
Oh, well that changes everything. Which camera did you guys decide to use?
Stoller: The Arri Alexa.
That’s what Roger Deakins is using. We were talking about that.
Stoller: Yeah, he switched to it. He loves it, right?
I thought you guys were using film and we were just talking about film, how like, “Oh my God, you guys are using so much film.” Yeah, we were watching you and we were saying, “Wow, they’re still shooting with film.”
Stoller: We shot that much on Greek and Sarah Marshall, but now that we’re shooting video so we really don’t have to yell cut.
If you don’t mind, what was your motivation for that camera?
Stoller: I met with a bunch of DPs and asked them all about video and everyone said that the Alexa was a game-changer. And according to some of the other people I’ve talked to there are issues with some of the other cameras, but everyone was like…and Roger Deakins, that information being part of it. This is the camera that is really most like film. And I wanted to try video just to see what it was like and I love it, it’s awesome.
Has the weather been a problem during the shoot, since you’ve been in Michigan?
Rothman: No, we planned for it. We planned to be inside.
Stoller: It didn’t affect our schedule at all. It was colder than we expected and almost inconvenient at times. It was cold for so long on the shoot.
Rothman: It was so cold. It was freezing until the end of May, basically.
Stoller: Which is good for our movie. You realize that a lot of movies in Michigan take place in winter environments and it’s not supposed to be comfortable.
You mentioned the pop culture, is there something to see the passage of time outside of within the characters?
Stoller: Well, we did some stuff with facial hair.
Stoller: It is. She’s cute. Surprisingly cute. But we had different ideas, like maybe one character’s balding throughout the movie or one character is getting fat, and then for continuity reasons, because we move stuff around, I just got nervous about having too much of that. But yeah, I think it will hopefully capture what five years…because five years is both a short and pretty long time. A lot happens. Characters do go through shit.
Rothman: Yeah, there’s a lot of seasonal changes. That’s something that you’ve talked about, like with When Harry Met Sally. We really like in When Harry Met Sally just the way they would constantly cut in into the future and you just catch up. It doesn’t introduce every event, it just sort of skips the event sometimes and that’s something that you did in the script a bit.
Stoller: When Harry Met Sally is very seasonal, Annie Hall too. Those are both movies that take place over a long time. The characters, their dress changes, but they don’t look different, you know? Their dress changes, their hair might change a bit, they might look a little bit more sophisticated, but it’s the seasons are changing, everyone around them is maturing, and that’s what we tried to do with it.
So you’re going to have nature cutaways?
Stoller: Yes, featuring Jason falling on ice [laughs]. That’s one of our major nature cutaways, yeah.
You guys filmed in Michigan. Was it because of tax reasons that you went there, was it in the script, or just a perfect marriage of the two?
Stoller: It was a perfect marriage of the two, I think. For tax reasons, we couldn’t have gone there without the tax credit, but also they needed to go to a small college town, Ann Arbor, everyone knows the University of Michigan, so that was great to be able to set it there. Also, it needed to be isolating for someone who’s not in academia, for Jason’s character. So for all those reasons we went there and I’m glad it worked out.
Rothman: Ann Arbor is fun too because it’s the kind of place people love, and part of what we were going with for Tom was that… it’s a place that people love and people are actually quite happy in Ann Arbor, but he is not. It’s like what it feels like to be going through a hard time in a place where everyone else is kind of content is part of what his experience is.
Can you talk a little bit about how the community embraced you in Ann Arbor and having all of those college kids wanting to watch or being around or what you guys did off set?
Stoller: We just partied. 24/7 partying [laughs]. It was a great place to shoot. I don’t think we ever really had crowd issues or anything.
Rothman: No, not like we would have in New York or London.
Over the course of a five-year relationship there’s obviously going to be some problems. Where does the drama enter into the equation for this story?
Stoller: There is no drama in it actually! [laughs]
Rothman: Very experimental.
Stoller: We experimented with a drama free…
Stoller: A drama free drama, yeah [laughs]. The idea of it is kind of best laid plans, so these two people, they love each other, they are right for each other, but they have different goals in life and it’s about kind of discovering… like they decide to move for her work, basically, for the first year, to move to Michigan for her work. And he thinks that it’s going to be fine, that he’ll be able to cook there. Then they move and he doesn’t like it there and he doesn’t know how to tell her that and he feels guilty telling her that, and she knows that he doesn’t like it there, but she does like it there and how do you make those decisions? So that’s where the drama comes from and as he starts to not like it more and more, dislike it more and more and she starts to like it more and more, you can make both characters go crazy and then you have comedy [laughs].
Why does he not like it? Is it just the location and the fact that he can’t cook out there?
Rothman: He starts to lose his identity and he starts to feel a little lost there, while her life is kind of starting to come together and she’s getting really energized by what’s happening around her, you know?
Stoller: Like the scene when they move, he’s like, “I can cook anywhere. I’ve cooked in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, London…I can cook in Michigan.” It’s like it’s a totally different thing there. It’s a college town. There’s only wings and pizza [laughs].
Do they go through break ups at all?
Stoller: You’ll have to see… [laughs]
Rothman: That’s what I remember we talked about early on, a part of it is a couple that gets married at the beginning of the movie but doesn’t know each other yet or their relationship hasn’t been tested in certain ways and over the course of the movie it’s getting tested. It’s like the more information you get about someone, the more complicated the decision is to make whether you can commit your whole life to them
Stoller: It’s a true ensemble, I think. Jason and Emily are obviously the centerpieces of it, but Jacki and Jim Piddock are Emily’s parents, they play Emily’s parents, so they’re pretty present in the movie and David Paymer and Mimi Kennedy play Jason’s parents and they definitely really inform the story and obviously all parental issues come into weddings and wedding planning and what your relationship is going to be like. Jacki Weaver plays a really bitter divorcee whose ex-husband is always with a new Thai girlfriend [laughs]. Every time we see him he’s with a brand new Thai girlfriend and Jacki hates this. And she’s really bitter and Violet, Emily’s character, really doesn’t want to become her mom, who felt like she gave up everything to become a mom. So it plays into the emotional aspect of it. And Rhys Ifans is a big part of it.
For more on the film: