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Forgetting Sarah Marshall - Nicholas Stoller Interview

by Rick Duran, Senior Editor

Nicholas Stoller makes his directorial debut with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the latest hysterical R-Rated romp from the Apatow Productions camp and Universal Pictures.  This time around, Stoller is directing Knocked Up scene-stealer Jason Segel, whom he previously collaborated with on Apatow’s Undeclared series.  The Frat Pack Tribute had a chance to participate in a roundtable interview session with Stoller during the Forgetting Sarah Marshall Los Angeles press day. 

In our interview, Nicholas Stoller discusses directing improvised material, what to expect on the DVD, his upcoming projects and the challenges of shooting Segel’s much-discussed nude scene.

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So when they hire you to direct a movie in the Judd Apatow style, do they tell you you’re going to have let them make stuff and improvise? How does that work?
Nicholas Stoller: Oh, well I mean, I think that’s the best way to make comedy. You know? That keeps it kind of fresh so… so definitely, they don’t really need to tell me to do that.  I just think that’s… that’s my style too, so yeah.

They sort of find someone who’s already in their style
NS: Yeah, yeah definitely, yeah. 

Was there much improv during this?
NS: Yeah, there was a lot of improv. I mean, the thing that we do is that we make sure the script is in top-notch shape.  So it’s not like just a loose script that goes like you read the script you found the movie amusing, but the script amusing.  But then once we’ve shoot what’s on the page, we then shot like improvs, stuff that makes it loose. Keep it loose; we also throw out lines, I throw a lot of lines out.  Executive Producer Rodney Rothman threw a lot of lines out.

We were on the set, and I’m glad the Flavor of Love line made it in. 
NS: Oh yeah (laughs)

I also remember from that day the Hostel 2 rant.  I’m wondering why you decided to cut it.
NS: Oh, the Hostel 2? You know, it was like, it was kind of a left turn in the scene.  The scene felt it was like long enough, basically.  We didn’t need to go into that area, that part of the story, so we decided to not to… not to put it in.

Did the MPAA give you any guidelines about how much full frontal nudity you can have in a movie at any one time? Do you have to say, “Well, there’s a little too much penis.  You’ll have to slip it around the edges.” Give them extra penis to try to trick them into…
NS: Exactly. It’s all about the angle, it’s all about the angle.

The penis or the camera?
NS: It’s not the time, it’s the angle.  We have an MPAA protractor on-set that we used to measure…

To measure the penis?
NS: Yeah, the penis can’t go above ninety degrees, so anywhere between zero to ninety is fine. I’m not even kidding.  If it goes about ninety, it’s like, “Eh…”

Was that ever a problem?
NS: Uh, no, it wasn’t.  It wasn’t a problem, it was very cold on-set.  It was kind of an awkward situation on-set. (laughter) Jason wasn’t in that frame of mind. (laughter)

What if he was laying down, and it angled a different way?
NS: If he was laying… I guess that’s the loophole; that’s the loophole.  Ninety degrees; perpendicular from the trunk of your body. I said perpendicular.

It’s a great profession you’re in when you have to think about this.
NS: Yeah, it’s like when he sits down, his penis almost goes up and we were like, you know, cuz it was flopping around.  It unfortunately didn’t, you know.  So yeah

One of the things about that scene is you don’t quite know when you’re gonna see and when it’s obscured.  How did you decide when is funniest to see the penis?
NS: We… we knew we wanted to trick people into thinking they weren’t gonna see the penis.  So we did the flopping penis thing. Uh… to make the scenes kind of funny at first.  And then we showed it, we flashed it once.  And then we flashed it twice and we were debating whether to flash it a third time or not.  Without the third time, it didn’t keep the tension up, and so we added the third time. And we had a fourth time, and the audience didn’t like that so we took the fourth time out.  It was very scientific, down to, we had… when he sits on the couch, it’s like, I can’t remember… thirteen frames of penis?  We cut it, we cut it to ten frames of penis, and it wasn’t enough. The audience couldn’t…

So you had an audience cue card? “Please rate this penis on a level of one to ten.”
NS: We recorded the audience sound, like them laughing. 

Oh, you record the audience?
NS: Yeah

Is that the new way of doing it?
NS: It’s… I mean, Judd’s done it for a while.  I’m not sure how new it is.  Yeah, yeah, it’s incredibly useful. Because everyone remembers, like if your favorite joke is whatever joke, you remember it getting a laugh even if it didn’t.  And then rewind it and it got a laugh or didn’t get a laugh. It’s very scientific.

Can I ask you about casting a little bit?
NS: Yeah, yeah (laughter)

Just to get off the penis, um, so to speak.
NS: Yeah (laughter)

Can talk a little about, you know, I mean obviously Jason, that’s kind of easy. But can you talk about Kristen being the title character and Mila and some of the other casting involved here?
NS:  It was, uh, very clear.  You know, I mean we saw a lot of really good people, but it was very clear.  Kristen came in, actually, she was one of the first people we saw and from the very beginning, she was the person to beat for that role when we were auditioning people, uh, when we started the auditioning process.  Before we started the auditioning process, we had Mila come in and do a table read.  And she was also the person to beat, she was just great, and really good in the table read.  And she was uh… and she had read for Knocked Up, and I also really liked her from That ‘70s Show.  I thought she was really good on that.  And she’s really funny and real, and she seemed to have a range, so… And then we ended up, that was very… it was very clear and they just got the roles.  That whole time, we were kinda…

Was that her photo on the bathroom wall?
NS:  That’s a Photoshop.

That was a Photoshop? Is that really?
NS: Yeah, it’s a Photoshop.

Does the fact that Kristen was on a hit TV show have anything to do with casting?
NS: No.  Yeah, it was just a total coincidence.  And uh… and then Russell Brand came in, that was the hardest part to cast.  Um, and he came in at kind of the last minute.  And we thought… he walked in and he dresses like… his public persona is just crazy.  He’s very famous in England.  No one knows who he is here.  I didn’t know who he was.  Yeah, I’m gonna pretend that we discovered him.  We did not discover him, he’s like mega-famous.  And he came in, and was dressed pretty crazy, had really tall hair and belts.  He had like eight silver belts and like, his shirt was open down to here.  It makes like the Aldous character look subtle, and you know, he dresses very personally.  And uh, he came in and sat down and was like, (in mock British accent) “I’ve had chance to take a cursory glance at your script.  What do you require of me?” And we were just like, “Uh, is this guy a joke?” (laughter) We told him, I was like, “You can be loose with the script,” and he was like, “Oh you mean improvisation?” Like he had never said it; never done it before, and he pulls out a glass.

Can you tell us about this “Guillermo” audition that Ain’t It Cool reported on?
NS: There was an unnamed actor who came in, and my friend who was… who was, uh, reading… she was reading, like, the female parts just to help us out.  Um, basically I was an improv with all the actors that came in, where the boyfriend wants to do horseback riding and the Sarah Marshall character doesn’t.  Just like one of those awkward relationship conversations that you have when you’re on like a trip.  And I was like, “You’re obviously not gonna go horseback riding, but you’re gonna try to make her.” And then this guy said, “Oh, I’m gonna make her go horseback riding.”  Like that was his reaction to the improv.  And he had a whole character, this unnamed actor, had a whole character that was a Spanish character, and he didn’t speak Spanish.  He just had this weird accent, but it was a… it was really awkward.  And then he pulled my friend up by her hair, and I had to uh… yeah.

How involved is Judd? How hands-on is Judd in this and how much is influenced by him?
NS: I mean, he is very… I think we all share a sensibility, in terms of things being real, and trying to… trying to make the core of the movie real and trying to make everything feel…  You know, trying to make the core of the movie sweet as well.  And uh, you know, he has a huge role in terms of approving, obviously has cast approval and thought of a lot of the people for the cast.  He also, he also gives tons of notes and things in terms of stuff for the script, and came to the set.  And in post, has a lot of things in post and editing; he has a huge editing staff, definitely.  It’s very collaborative; I think the big thing he’s into is just collaboration.  Just keeping it open to everyone, that’s really true.  I can’t speak to other genres, but with comedy I think with one guy alone in a room, it’s hard to make something funny.  You need a lot of people.

Are you writing with someone, or did you write with someone on Yes Man? Or was that a solo project?
NS: I was, I mean the draft I wrote, other writers came on and wrote a bit after me.  And so, that will be other writers, and what they did the draft is good.  I wrote a bit and had to stop writing because of Sarah Marshall

Are you directing something next?
NS: Um, yeah, I definitely would like to.  I’m not sure what’s it gonna be yet.  Jason and I are writing a movie together called The Five-Year Engagement. That is…

About an engagement that takes five years.
NS: It takes five years, yeah. (laughs) It’s a very simple idea, and it’s also for Judd.  And that definitely seems interesting to me to kind of explore a relationship as it implodes.

Based on any particular experiences?
NS: Just based on long, bad relationships we’ve both had. (laughs) You know, and that couple I feel, like I don’t know if you know that couple that got engaged or just were together for years and years, and just couldn’t pull it together.  So that seems like fun.

So there’s no estimated start for it?
NS: No, no, we’re writing it now, so…

Was that cliff jump scene the hardest thing for you to do as a director? Was he really hanging up there or did it take forever to shoot?
NS: That took a… that took a day and half.  And it was, you know, it was… we were so prepared for everything, the shoot, and we had really good luck with the weather.  Like I think there were literally two rain days.  Uh, that… that day, once it came, you know, I was really nervous about that day, right.  And once we started shooting, it was storyboarded to the, like, tenth degree.  And uh, the DP I worked with was just, you know, this guy Russ Alsobrook who did Superbad and I worked with him on Undeclared, he’s super-fast.  So that was actually really fun; that was really fun. 

I want to ask you about home video.  Universal was doing HD DVD, and I guess now they’re gonna have to do Blu-Ray.  So have you been able to do a High Def version of this film yet or are you sort of in-limbo on that?
NS: Um, I think that the version we have is High Def.  And I think they… they convert it to whatever the DVD is.  But I know the dailies were shot, I mean they were shot on film, but they were transferred to High Def, so…

So that won’t be a problem for you.  How awesome does this film look, especially Hawaii?
NS: Looks really good; it looks really pretty.  I kind of accidentally made a pretty film.  (laughs) So yeah, it looks really pretty. I mean, Russ an insane job. And the light, the light in Hawaii is just gorgeous, cuz you know…

What about Special Features?
NS: There’ll be so much stuff cuz we had a really nice schedule, so we have a lot of stuff. There’s actually a whole sequence in a Yoga yurt with Kristin Wiig, that is really and actually tested really well.  But we couldn’t fit it into the story, because kind of a tight story, like farce-like story, so we had to cut it.  And that’s gonna be on the DVD and that’s really funny.  And there’s a lot of other sequences.  There’s a whole, there’s a whole horseback riding sequence actually, with Kristen and Russell, that’s super-funny but we couldn’t find a place in the story.

Can you think of one particular scene that’s just more stunning in the HD version than you can tell on film?
NS: Um, I would say… well that sunset shot when they’re carrying the pig is weirdly pretty.  I think that’s Russ’ favorite shot in the movie.  Um, so that, and I think the cliff jump is just really pretty on HD.  Um, those two and then I think the puppet musical, while not stunning, you’ll be able to see all the weird individual puppets that we had built and bought. 

Is that the Dracula for the final piece?
NS: Yeah

Now apparently the Muppets…
NS: Yeah, we’re doing the Muppets.

You’re doing a Muppet movie
NS: Yeah, we’re writing… we’re writing it.

What kind of Muppet movie are you going to write?
NS: It’s a… we’re going old school Muppets.

Is it a Judd Apatow-style Muppet movie?
NS: Judd’s not involved in this.  Yeah yeah, it’s gonna be a lot of puppet penis in it. (laughter) A lot. There’s gonna be no puppet penis, I should be adding.

Is it an old fashioned Muppet movie?
NS: Old fashion, “We gotta put on a show to save the studio.”

NS: Yeah, it’s a very… like we’re going back to basics. We’re both huge fans of the Muppets.

So it’s going to be existing Muppets, not…?
NS: Existing Muppets, we’re not… yeah.  And Jason will be in it.

Will Frank [Oz] do Miss Piggy?
NS: I don’t… we’re so not in that place yet.  But yeah, but I think, uh… We’re gonna be… uh, hopefully

Will it be G-Rated?
NS: Uh, G or PG, yeah

Oh, but not R?
NS: No no (laughter) No, G or PG. Very… yeah

I thought it was very interesting that Jason was writing this, because a lot, especially buddy comedy road trip movies, that have definitely taken a nod from The Muppet Movie.  Like I know things, you’ve heard interviews like the Tenacious D stuff and Jay and Silent Bob have definitely followed that model. So when I heard Jason Segel, a very particular comedic actor, is doing it, like I could definitely see how it’s an actual script process a comedic actor would take.
NS: I think all comedy nerds, the entry-way drug was Muppets. (laughs) Yeah, yeah exactly. (Raises hand) Me too.  Muppets was first, like the pot, and then you got onto the harder drugs like the Zucker Brothers

Eventually you realize Dr. Teeth and the…
NS: Yeah, yeah exactly, then you realize that there’s actual… yeah. But I think that’s the starting point for like… there’s so much comedy, especially when you’re a kid.

Is it hard to strike the balance between the romantic elements and the disaster elements?
NS: (laughs) Yeah, that was definitely… that was definitely the balancing act that, you know, that we were trying to follow.  And uh, it was… it was hard, but I also think the actors were so good and so real. And then I think that… I think that Jason did such a good.  And I think that Mila… Mila and Kristen did a good job of grounding, helped round the film. So I think that while that was a little hard, it also… we also… it became clear pretty quickly what scenes would work and what scenes wouldn’t.  We shot a lot of varying levels of broadness too.  And uh, it was interesting to see where… like we shot, I remember one of the first things we shot was when they meet in the hotel lobby; when he meets Sarah, sees Sarah in the hotel lobby.  I shot stuff that was way too broad and stuff that was way too subtle, and um, we ended up using pieces of everything, you know, when we edited it together.  Just cuz that kind of is, when you’re having a crazy awkward encounter, that you can go from like, “I’m ok, I’m ok,” to like, “I’m gonna murder you!” You know, so…

Is there a longer version of the argument scene between Peter and Kristen, when she reveals how she’s been trying to put up with him? Because it seems like such a deep argument.
NS: Yeah

It definitely could have gone on a much longer cut
NS: We had, you know, we have… we shot a ton of stuff for that, and have… had a long version of it.  And it just, we felt that people got it pretty quickly.  Um, like so we ended up doing kind of a short version.  We have a billion examples, we shot a billion examples of her being like, you know, like, “All we do every Saturday night is stay at home and watch that talking meatball. I don’t get it! I don’t understand why the meatball talks.” We have tons of examples like, you know, him… like they’re, you know… But it was pretty quick people understood what the problem is.  Similarly, we shot a ton of Jason being sad about the breakup.  And you see him sad once, you get that he’s sad; you don’t need to see it a lot.  So a lot of that we script out.

Were there any more of his rebound flings? Because some of those…
NS: Oh yeah, we shot a ton of those.  We shot, and some of that extra stuff will be on the DVD, we shot multiple versions of stuff with the actresses that are in the movie. Like we shot a different thing with Carla Gallo, who was on Undeclared.  We shot a thing she’s a super Sarah Marshall fan, she’s just so excited she’s having sex with a guy who’s had sex with Sarah Marshall. (laughter) It’s very fun; that’s going, that went on the DVD.  And then we shot, we shot more stuff with the model, the black actress, who’s so funny. Seriously

Yeah, that was the one
NS: Yeah, we have a whole thing where he asks her, he’s like, “Are you on Prozac?” And she’s like, “Yes,” and he’s like, “Can I have some?” (laughter) Things like that.  So… and then we shot a… we shot some other stuff.

Was a lot of this stuff improv, cuz it seems like there was a natural flow?
NS: Yeah, a lot of it, yeah, was kind of a mix of improv. You know, like, Carla’s really good at improv, so she improv’ed stuff.  But we also were just throwing lines out.  Like I threw lines, certainly.  If Jason was around, he threw lines out; my friend Rodney… Shauna, who’s the other producer, threw lines out.  So it’s a combination of improv and also to the script.  A lot of the stuff was… I’d say the movie is sixty to seventy percent scripted, thirty to forty percent improv. 

It seemed like some striking similarities between Peter and Eric from Undeclared.  And you guys got, I forgot the girl from Undeclared
NS: Lizzie, yeah. Oh yeah, Carla.

Was that something that you thought of, that you used as a jump-off point, that you guys talk about?
NS: This is definitely the completion of a project eight years in the making. (laughs) In terms of him being… like the Undeclared episode, where Jason is dumped by Lizzie, definitely.  And I wrote the “Eric Visits Again,” where he comes back to school to beat up the Steven Karp character, the Jay Baruchel character. And so, Jason and I are definitely obsessed with breakups and stuff.  Our obsession started then, started before then.  We’ve, you know, bonded over that.  And so, this definitely feels like the completion of that. 

Some of the stuff on the “I Hate Sarah Marshall” website, the little late-night things
NS: Oh yeah

There was very similar stuff on Undeclared.
NS: Oh yeah, the Eric… he’s kind of… he’s definitely playing a more, like Eric a more kind of broad character.  But there’s definitely something in the same wheelhouse there.  On the DVD, we have a whole Eric/Lizzie scene for Undeclared fans, where he plays Eric and Carla’s Lizzie.  And he’s like, “It was so weird running into you at that club,” and he’s like obsessed with her.

Have you heard about the trailer being shown at the wrong display ratio in theaters, so it’s actually become visible… I think it was in showings of Semi-Pro
NS: I read that! Yeah yeah…

Jason’s penis has been coming out. People are already seeing that in the trailer.
NS: (laughs) Yeah, I didn’t realize that was in there

Back to the penis again
NS:  Yeah, yeah, it’s hard to avoid the penis. Yeah, I read that and was confused and surprised. (laughter) And then was like, “Maybe I should e-mail someone about it,” and then forgot to. (laughs)

Was there one improv where it was like, “That’s over the top, that we can’t do.”  I don’t see how, but was there anything somebody said that was hilarious, but you said you can’t do?
NS: Um, you know, a lot of the stuff… it was really hard to tell on the day.  Like, it was really hard to tell what would be useful.  I remember like, Jason would do stuff; he did this whole thing in the lobby where he was like, “I’m going up to the Kapua Suite,” and he moved his arm in a weird way.  And I was like, “That’s sooo so weird. I don’t know if that feels natural. I don’t know.” And it was just…but he did it cuz we trust each other, you know, and it was hilarious.  Like it’s just kind of weird we end up doing… And then when we shot the stuff where him and Aldous are on the water, and he starts splashing, I told him to splash Aldous.  He said, “That seems kind of broad but I’ll do it.”  And it kind of made sense in the scene, it makes him really pathetic.  But a lot of the broad, broad, super broad stuff will be on the DVD.

Was any of the Jonah Hill stuff scripted? Like when he walks off and says, “I’ll just go fuck myself” (laughter)
NS: That part, yeah, he’s just an improv genius. 

A lot of the Bill Hader stuff seemed improvised
NS: Yeah, yeah, a lot of that stuff was improvised or it was lines thrown out.

Is it in the contract that Jonah Hill has to be in every Apatow movie?
NS: Yeah (laughs) definitely, he’s just like so funny.  It was so cool too, we were all staying at the hotel, and uh… so Jonah would just come by and pitch lines.  Like he wasn’t in the scene, he’d just come by and pitch lines, cuz he… likes doing that. (laughs)

Was it always that gay thing with his character? Or is that did that come out as he improv’ed?
NS: That was kind of, we kind of… that we thought would be a funny kind of dynamic between them.  And he did varying levels of broadness, in terms of that.  You’ll see it all on the DVD, he did a thing where he tries to kiss Aldous.  We did things like where he touches Aldous’ nose.  And like, you know, the audience… I think it’s funny on DVD, but the audience, you can only go so far.

What was it, “Six to Noon” or something?
NS: Oh yeah, “Six to Midnight.”  That ended up being on our crew sheet, our crew T-shirts.  (laughter) It’s the “Aldous Snow Six to Midnight Tour.”

When you were shooting on location at Turtle Bay, it’s an upscale resort, and people are actually there celebrating their honeymoon or whatever it was, did you ever have anybody that just like, kept crashing the picture? Or somebody that wanted to be in it or kind of ruined scenes or anything like that while you’re shooting everything?
NS:  Not… No one tried to ruin scenes. People were just kind of, you know, we were a pretty good production, I think, in terms of… We must be, because we’re having the press junket there.  We must’ve been, you know, we’re pretty well-behaved.  And we only shot… like we shot the lobby stuff was stuff that we shot that was really central.  The bungalows that we shot were kind of at the very end of the resort, we kind of out of the way. But most of the tourists were kind of interested.  We had one guy, uh, named Bali Joe, would come by and just hangout on-set and I was always a little weirded out.  He kind of became friends with a lot people on-set.  I probably shouldn’t be talking about Bali Joe, because he’ll like murder me.  But any guy whose first name is an island… (laughter) He ended up, uh, he ended up buying surfboards… or selling surfboards to a few people on the cast and crew who I don’t think surfed before Hawaii and certainly haven’t surfed since. 

When you write something like Forgetting Sarah Marshall or Five-Year Engagement, do you automatically consider roles for guys like Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill and Bill Hader?
NS: Yeah, I think like with… we do and we don’t.  You know, we try to think of what the funny attitude is.  And then, if we can get those guys, it’s great and then we write it towards them and we start to push it towards them.  Like, there were many incarnations of the Bill Hader character, and once we got Bill, we really pushed it hard in that direction.  But it started, I mean it was first kind of the best friend who’s supportive.  Then it became the best friend who just wants him to go out and get laid again.  Then it became… there’s a moment where we were flirting with the idea of being his dad who hung out with him all the same, which seemed a little weird but kind of funny.  And then it became like, the step brother who has his shit together and looks down on him.  And then Hader played that really well. 

Thank you very much.
NS: Oh thank you

The movie’s terrific
NS: Oh cool, thanks

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