Beginning where most romantic comedies end, the new film from director Nick Stoller and producer Judd Apatow looks at what happens when an engaged couple, Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt), keeps getting tripped up on the long walk down the aisle. The decision to create a screenplay about a seemingly perfect couple who can’t quite make it to the altar took root in Stoller’s imagination four years ago. He was in Hawaii and close to wrapping principal photography on his directorial debut, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Segel began to flesh out the idea of an engaged-way-too-long couple, and the writing partners began the process of crafting their next film, “The Five-Year Engagement.”
MoviesOnline sat down at a roundtable interview with Apatow and Stoller to talk about “The Five-Year Engagement” which marks the third film on which they have worked with one another. They told us about their collaborative process, how the best storylines for comedies often come from real-life events, and why they like comedies that are truthful, where people reveal something personal about themselves. They discussed how they visualize characters, which romantic comedies inspired them, how they kept the narrative moving forward over a long span of time, and how NBC’s Thursday night line-up factored into the casting process. They also discussed their upcoming projects: Apatow’s “This is 40” and Stoller’s “Muppets 2.”
Q: In the Apatow universe, what makes a great comedy?
JA: We like comedies that are truthful and when people reveal something personal.
NS: Like Jason’s penis.
JA: Like Jason’s penis or his pain. In any type of art or music or movie, I always connect when someone’s telling me something that I know means a lot to them – whether it’s a song where you think “Oh, that person’s not kidding around. Kurt Cobain means that.” I think it’s the same for comedy. You can tell when people are passionate about something. And then, there’s a quality to it when someone’s just funny and knows what they’re doing. That’s hard to define why things work, but originality also.
Q: Do you think you’re good at easily identifying when trying to find those moments of truth are getting a little too overworked?
JA: I’m a fan of television and movies and I’ve seen a lot, so when we’re kicking around ideas, there’s always a moment where we’ll say “Oh I saw that in that Salma Hayek movie. Let’s not do that. Let’s see if we can think of something different, even if we liked it in the Salma Hayek movie. What’s a new way to do this?”
Q: You came up with Salma Hayek very quickly.
JA: (laughs) She’s always in the forefront of my mind.
NS: We always start with a Salma Hayek movie and then we kind of build from there.
Q: How would you describe how you guys work together in developing the concepts and the story and navigating the bumps in the road along the way?
JA: I just look for problems, so I try to stay out of the way on any project and let people express themselves. And then, at some point, they say “What do you think?” and then I just say “Well, I don’t understand this” or “I’m really responding to that,” and then I try to get out of the way again because you want people to be able to go with their gut on it. Working with Nick is like holding a bird. (laughs) I don’t want to crush the bird. I think about what I’d want people to do to me. So, you want encouragement. You want to know that they understand. You want an honest discourse. But, you also want them to leave so you can do your thing.
NS: For this movie, Jason and I batted the movie around and worked from the outline and re-outlined it and then wrote the script and all that. Also, in the early part of the process, I’d come to Judd, and Rodney Rothman, the other producer, and the three of us all got together and pitched a million ideas. It’s like an all-day spew where we’re all pitching different stuff and a lot of that stuff ends up in the outline and then most of it in the script. And then, as you get more successful, there are more and more ‘yes’ people around and Judd isn’t one. He’s very hard on stuff which is what you need. Jason and I work really hard on this stuff, then we do the table read, and then Judd’s really hard on stuff. You can’t ever be happy with anything. I’m always happily surprised when people enjoy the film.
JA: We invite a lot of writers to come to early table reads. Our whole world is about everybody being allowed to be as critical as they want to be within our bubble.
NS: Because you know you’ll get to do it to them later. (laughs) That’s all you’re thinking.
JA: And so, we want people to just be very frank and vicious to us, and then sometimes we get back in another room and go “That guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” (laughs) “Did you read his last script?! Don’t listen to him!” And then, every once in a while, someone else will say…
NS: We’ll be like “Shit! They’re right!”
Q: Where did the idea for this movie come from?
NS: After “Sarah Marshall,” Jason and I wanted to do another romantic comedy. We’re both obsessed with long relationships that aren’t headed towards marriage, but aren’t necessarily headed towards breaking up, which seems to be something that’s happening a lot these days. I was sitting in my office and the words “the five-year engagement” popped into my head, and I wrote it down and got excited, and I called Jason up. He was like “Oh yeah, that sounds awesome.” And then, it went from there.
Q: So you had the title first?
NS: I wanted to explore…I love the long romantic comedy movies that take place over a long period of time like “When Harry Met Sally” or “Annie Hall” or “Broadcast News” and “Terms of Endearment.” And so, this was a way to make a low concept movie seem high concept.
Q: Was it difficult to deal with a long span of time and how did you guys find the narrative through-line?
NS: Well, I watched all the movies I just mentioned, and I very nerdily graphed out how they did it and then I ripped them off. (laughs) Basically, it’s a lot like telling the story. You cut and suddenly it’s a year later. That’s the way that you keep the audience engaged. “Annie Hall” cuts back and forth in time so that’s different, but “When Harry Met Sally” has a brilliant way of cutting forward in time and then back and you’re like “Where are they now? Who are they dating now?” We kind of copied that sort of trope. And, we were pretty hard on the story, that even if it feels as if it’s kind of wandering, it never is. It’s always charging forward and charging towards certain important plot points.
Q: Was it challenging to keep Emily’s character likeable because she puts Jason’s character through the ringer so many times?
JA: That’s why we hire likeable people and we make them do unlikable things. We talked a lot about that. For all of our work, what we try to do is to show people in their good moments and their worst moments and to not obsess over making everybody likeable or do the right thing. And if everyone is a mess, then it’s okay. She means well. She got a great job and it’s the only job she’s been offered. So, on one level, you could say that’s kind of brutal to have him come with you, but those are the big decisions you make in life. Who’s going to sacrifice in which moment?
NS: She’s so likeable as a person that if we’d had someone that wasn’t… but if you look at the great romantic comedies, Harry and Sally on the page are pretty irritating people.
JA: It wouldn’t have worked with Christoph Waltz in that part. (imitating Waltz) “Would you like some pecan pie?”
NS: In the great romantic comedies, it’s funny to see these two people fight. It’s funny to watch Harry and Sally fight. It’s funny to watch Seth and Hibo fight. That’s what’s funny about it. If it’s not funny, you’ve cast the wrong person.
Q: Was Emily always going to be British in the movie?
NS: Yes, she was always going to be British. I broke this rule, but I don’t love to have people do an accent that isn’t theirs, although we had Alison (Brie) do an accent that wasn’t hers.
JA: She was great at it though.
NS: Yeah, she was awesome at it. But just because we’re doing a lot of improv and it’s easier. But Alison nailed it. We did have long conversations about could Alison be her sister and be somehow American?
JA: Or her half-sister?
NS: Her half-sister.
JA: Like the Nolan brothers.
NS: That’s what you kept saying. “Like the Nolan brothers.” I don’t know if that will work.
JA: One’s from Chicago and one was raised in England.
NS: It’s like there’s this weird pipe in the middle.
Q: When you were casting, did you just watch Thursday night TV?
NS: That’s it. Yeah. That was it. Unfortunately, Aziz (Ansari) wasn’t available. I didn’t even realize until after we cast it that we had the cast of NBC’s Thursday night line-up.
JA: I didn’t even know who Alison Brie was at the table (read). I am such a fan of “Mad Men,” and then I saw her at the table and I said “Alison Brie is great.” I had no idea who she was. I thought she was from England. I didn’t know it was someone doing an accent. And then afterwards, someone said she’s on “Mad Men” and I thought “What is the matter with me?” How much cholesterol medication am I on that I didn’t notice that the entire time.
NS: She’s got a lot of range.
JA: She’s so great. She’s just an amazing actress.
Q: She and Chris (Pratt) steal a lot of their scenes. Is that their own doing or is it set up so that supporting people get to come in and deliver these big punches? How does it work for you guys when you’re visualizing these characters?
NS: They’re just so funny, Chris Pratt and Alison Brie. They’re crazy funny and so that certainly added to that. There’s also a long tradition of supporting characters – especially when you think of Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher in “When Harry Met Sally” – that really do steal a lot of that movie. It’s their role to comment on what’s happening. They can also do more outlandish things because you’re not as romantically invested in what’s happening between them.
Q: At any point, did you start writing in Emily’s voice or were you just writing the character and hoping she’d bring her own flair?
NS: From the beginning, we wanted it to be her. I don’t know what we would’ve done if she had said no. And then, in one of these long work sessions, where Judd, Rodney, Jason and I speak in kind of a riff, we had Emily come to it and sit with us for many, many hours over the course of a few days and basically have long weird therapy sessions that were like “When you break up with someone, how do you do it?” “When you’re mad at someone, what do you say? How do you behave?” It’s all that stuff. We’re trying to get to know her. It’s basically a very lazy form of creating a character. (laughs) We just form it around the actor.
Q: Are these characters drawn from people you know in your life or is it drawn more from a familiar concept?
NS: They’re amalgamations of people. Jason and I have a similar outlook on life which is why we like to collaborate. It’s a big combination of things. It’s not any one person.
Q: What inspired Jason’s character’s transformation into a mountain man?
NS: I think that was during one of those work sessions. It might’ve been Rodney. They do a lot of hunting in Michigan and he said “He should become a mountain man.” Rodney calls that his anger beard. That seemed like a funny way for him to be incredibly passive aggressive and there’s no one funnier having a mental breakdown than Jason. He’s really good at that.
Q: How did you come up with the weird psychology experiments?
NS: I consulted with Dr. Benjamin Karney at UCLA and had a few meetings with him. It started originally as a behavioral economist and no one understood. After the hundredth time that we explained what that was to someone, we were like maybe we should change it to psychology. And then, you brought up the marshmallow experiment.
JA: I had seen that because I’m fascinated by it with my kids. They do all these experiments where they say if a kid can’t delay gratification, their life is going to be really hard. My kids have not shown that ability. I’m always fascinated by those experiments. I’ll say to my kids “You need to learn how to delay gratification or your life is going to be terrible!”
NS: (laughs) While they’re eating donuts! And then, once we put that experiment in, it was like “Oh this should become part of the story.”
Q: I love the Food Network so I enjoyed how Jason had his Julia Child/Meryl Streep moment with all the cooking.
NS: If you watch the movie, you’ll see his hands change four different times as we use different hand models.
JA: There’s Filipino hands.
NS: The chef, this guy named Zack who we consulted, had tiny, weird hands. He was just a tiny guy and he had tiny hands, but he was Jason’s double in the close-ups. I am Jason’s hands during the wedding ceremony when they get married.
Q: Did Jason make the sandwiches himself in the film?
NS: When you’re cutting to hands, it’s not Jason. But he was good, he took classes and there are a lot of wide shots of him cooking. He got into it. He likes cooking outside of the movies.
Q: Was there a temptation to not have things work out in the end or did you know that the engagement would lead to happiness?
NS: At the very beginning, we were like maybe it doesn’t, but that didn’t feel like the story we were telling. And, with Audrey as played by the hilarious Dakota Johnson, we didn’t realize how funny she was and we’d shot the break-up which is crazy funny, and then on one of our days of re-shoots, we were like we have to bring her back. So we shot that whole sequence where she’s having sex with him and making him do Zumba.
JA: Something which I pitched but do not do because it requires exercise. That’s Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson’s daughter who was in “The Social Network.” She’s really, really funny.
NS: Crazy funny. And she has the same kind of lack of self-awareness that Jason has. She just commits hard.
Q: You mentioned earlier Jason’s penis. I understand it was supposed to make another appearance, but did it become a question of ‘been there, done that’?
JA: We didn’t want his penis to jump the shark.
NS: He gets one to two more showings of his penis in his career and we didn’t want to use it in this.
JA: Yes, we’re saving his penis for when a Coen Brothers movie comes along. We don’t want to overuse it.
NS: Or a comeback.
JA: Yes, or a comeback.
Q: Can you tell us what each of you have coming up next?
NS: I’ve started writing the second “Muppets” with James Bobin. We’ve outlined it and we started writing this week. It’s a comedy caper and it’s fun.
JA: I’m just finishing up “This is 40” which is the sequel to “Knocked Up.” It stars Leslie (Mann), Paul (Rudd), Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Megan Fox and my kids, and Jason’s in it and Melissa McCarthy.
Q: Is it cool to be working with your kids?
JA: It’s really fun to work with them. It’s harder afterwards because then they say “I want to be in something else.” And then I have to tell them “No, you only get to be in stuff with me. I’m not just going to drop you off at the “Fast Five” set so they can do with you what they will.”
NS: It’s that instant gratification thing.
JA: Exactly. “Don’t I get to be in everyone’s movies?” “No, just Daddy’s because Daddy doesn’t want to meet other kids.”
“The Five-Year Engagement” opens in theaters on April 27th.