Judd Apatow has become the face of modern comedy films. Whether it’s as director, writer, producer or all three, he’s the brains behind the operation. His latest is the upcoming romantic comedy The Five-Year Engagement, directed by Nicholas Stoller, the man behind Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek (also movies of the Apatow universe). We recently had the chance to talk to Apatow and Stoller about the hallmarks of a successful comedy, as well as casting what feels like most of NBC’s Thursday night lineup in the film. Check out our interview below.
Where did the idea for this movie come from?
Nicholas Stroller: After Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason [Segel] and I wanted to do another romantic comedy and we’re both obsessed with long relationships that aren’t headed towards marriage, but aren’t necessarily headed towards breaking up. That seems to be something that is happening a lot these days. I was sitting in my office and the words Five-Year Engagement popped into my head and I wrote it down and got excited. I called Jason and he was like, “Oh yeah that sounds awesome.” And it went from there. I wanted explore the long romantic comedy movies, that take please over a long period of time like in When Harry Met Sally and Annie Hall, Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment. This was a way to make a low concept movie seem high concept.
In the Apatow universe, what are the hallmarks of a successful comedy?
Judd Apatow: We like comedies that are truthful and when people reveal something personal.
NS: Like Jason’s penis.
JA: In any type of art or music or movies, I always connect when someone is telling me something that I know means a lot to them. Whether it’s a song, like when you say, “I don’t think that person’s kidding around, Kurt Cobain means that.” I think it’s the same for comedy. You can tell when people are passionate about something. There’s just a quality to it when someone’s just funny and knows what they are doing. Why things work is hard to define, but originality also.
Are you good at identifying real moments?
JA: I’m a fan of television and movies and I’ve seen a lot. When we are kicking around ideas, there’s always a moment when 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. The question is, what’s a new way to do this.
How would you describe working together?
JA: I just look for problems. I try to stay out of the way. At some point people say, “What do you think?” I just say, “I don’t understand this or I’m really responding to that.” Then I try to get out of the way again because you want people to go with their gut on it. Working with Nick is like holding a bird. You don’t want to crush the bird. I think about what I would want people to do to me. You want encouragement, you want to know what they understand – honest discourse – but you also want them to leave so you can do your thing.
NS: Yeah, Jason and I, for the first movie, we batted the movie around. We really worked on the outline, writing the script and all that, but we also come to Judd in the early stages of the process. The three of us, and Rodney Rothman, get together and really pitch a million ideas. It’s an all-day spew. We are all pitching all this stuff and a lot of this stuff ends up in the outline and then in the script. As you get more successful there are more and more yes people around. Judd isn’t one; he’s very hard on stuff which is what you need. Both Jason and I are really hard on the stuff and then we do the table read and Judd is really hard on stuff. You can’t even be happy with anything which is why I’m always happily surprised when people enjoy the film.
JA: We invite a lot of writers to come to the table reads. Our whole world is about everybody being allowed to be as critical as they want to be.
NS: You know you’ll get to do it to them later.
JA: [Laughs] We want people to just be very frank and vicious to us. And then sometimes we get back into another room and go, “That guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Did you read his last script? Don’t listen to him?” [Laughs] But for someone else, we’ll go, “Shit they’re right.”
Is is hard to deal a movie that takes place over a long period of time and not make it too long in the narrative of it?
NS: I watched all the movies I just named and graphed out how they did it, and then I ripped them off. It’s a lot of telling the story. You cut and suddenly it’s a year later. That’s the way that you keep the audience engaged. In Annie Hall they kind of cut back and forth between time, but Harry Met Sally has a brilliant way of cutting forward in time. You’re like, “Where are they now, who are they dating now?” We really copied that. We were also very strict on keeping the film from wandering, it’s always charging forward and charging towards important plot points.
Was there any struggle in keeping Emily’s [Blunt] character likable?
JA: That’s why we hire likable people. We make them do unlikable things. We talked a lot about that, but I think for all of our work, what we try to do is show people in good moments and their worst moments. We try to not obsess over making everybody likable or do the right thing. 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 one one level you could say, “It’s kind of brutal to have him come with you,” but those are the big decisions you make in your life. Who’s going to sacrifice in which moment?
NS: She’s so likable as a person. If we had had someone that wasn’t – like Harry and Sally, on the page are pretty irritating people, but in this movie it’s funny to see these people fight. It’s funny to watch Seth and Heigl fight; that’s what’s funny about it. If it’s not funny then you’ve cast the wrong person.
Was Emily always going to be British in the movie?
NS: Yeah, she was always going to be British. I broke this role in this movie, but I don’t love to have people do an accent that isn’t theirs. We had Allison [Brie] do an accent that wasn’t hers – but she’s great – it’s easier because we are doing a lot of improv. Allison nailed it. We did have long conversations that went like, “Could Allison be her sister and be somehow American?”
JA: Her half-sister like the Nolan brothers.
When you were casting did you just look at Thursday night TV and pull them all out?
NS: Yeah, that was it. Unfortunately Aziz [Ansari] wasn’t available. I didn’t even realize until after we cast that we had the cast of NBC’s Thursday night lineup.
JA: I didn’t even know who Allison Brie was at the table. I am such a fan of Mad Men, and then I saw her at the table and they said, “Allison Brie is great.” I had no idea who she was, I didn’t know that she wasn’t from England. Afterwards someone said, “She’s on Mad Men.” I thought, “What is the matter with me, how much cholesterol medication am I on that I didn’t notice that?” She’s so great.
She and Chris [Pratt] steal a lot of their scenes, did you intend to do that?
NS: I think they’re so funny. When you think of Harry Met Sally, the supporting characters Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher kind of steal a lot of that movie. It’s their role to comment on what’s happening. They could also do more because they aren’t as romantically invested in what’s happening between them.
When did you approach Allison?
NS: From the beginning we wanted it to be her. I don’t know what we would have done if she would have said no. In one of these long work sessions that we all have, we had Emily come to it and sit with us for many hours over the course of a few days. We basically had long therapy sessions asking, “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?” We’re really trying to get to know her. It’s basically a very lazy form of creating a character. We just form it around the actor.
Are these characters taken from people that you know?
NS: I think that Jason and I have a similar outlook on life, which is why we love to collaborate, it’s a big combination of things, it’s not just one person.
What inspired the hunting subplot?
NS: Yeah I think it was in one of those work-sessions with Rodney. They do a lot of hunting. That seemed like a funny way for him to be incredible passive aggressive and have this mental breakdown. And there’s no one funnier a mental breakdown than Jason.
How were the weird psychology experiments dreamt up?
NS: We consulted with a doctor, Bejamin Karney at UCLA. We ad a few meetings with him. It started as a behavioral economist which no one understood, so we brought a psychology experiment. Judd brought a marshmallow experiment.
JA: I had seen that because I’m fascinated by it with my kids. They do all these experiment 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. [Laughs] I’ll tell my kids, “You need to learn to delay gratification, your life is going to be terrible.”
NS: Once we put that experiment, we thought it should become part of the story.
Was there a temptation to not have things work out at the end?
NS: At the very beginning we thought that maybe it didn’t have to end in happiness, but that didn’t feel like the story we were telling. With Audrey, who is played by the hilarious Dakota Johnson, we didn’t realize how funny she was, and we shot the breakup, which is crazy funny. One of our days of re-shoots we were like, “We have to brings her back and so we shot that whole sequence where she’s having sex with him and making him do Zumba, which is something Judd pitched –
JA: I pitched, but do not do. [Laughs] It requires exercise. That’s Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson’s daughter from Social Network. She’s really funny.
NS: She has the same lack of self-awareness that Jason has.
Why didn’t Jason’s penis make an appearance?
JA: We didn’t want his penis to jump the shark. [Laughs]
NS: He gets one or two more showings of his penis in his career and we didn’t want to use them in this.
JA: He has to save his penis for a Coen Brothers movie. He can’t overuse it. Or make a comeback. [Laughs]
What do you have coming up next?
NS: I’ve started writing the second Muppets with James Bobin. We’ve outlined it have been on it this week. It’s fun.
JA: I’m just finishing up This It Forty which it the sort-of sequel to Knocked Up.
How’s working with your kids?
JA: It’s really fun, but it’s harder afterwards because then they say, “Well I want to be in something else.” I have to tell them they can’t because I’m not just going to chop you off at a Fast Five set and have them do with you what they will. I tell them, “You only get to be in daddies movies because daddy doesn’t want to meet other kids.” [Laughs]
The Five-Year Engagement opens Friday, April 27th. Will you be seeing the film this weekend?