The Five-Year Engagement is the latest comedy from Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel, the writing team behind Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Muppets. The film follows the ups and downs of Tom solomon (Jason Segel) and his fiance Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) as they traversee the choppy waters of balancing the needs of work and relationships, and the marathon run of an extended – very extended – engagement.
We had the opportunity to speak with Five-Year Engagement co-writer and director Nicholas Stoller about the secret to creating a romantic comedy that works.
Screen Rant: So why does everyone suck at rom-coms but you?
Nick Stoller: (Laughing) “Oh, thank you.”
SR: No but it’s true, it’s true.
NS: “Well, thank you. I think the genre, like a lot of movies, is seen as product. And I think people try to jam a lot of artificial plot devices into a lot of romantic comedies, and they don’t treat it with the respect I believe it deserves. I love the romantic comedy genre. It’s a genre rich with many of the best movies ever made and I try to treat it with the respect that Shakespeare treated it with.”
SR: A successful rom-com is very, very rare these days, and I think one reasons is that they’re terrified to deal with the actual problems of a relationship. So it becomes a fantasy that doesn’t resonate. I don’t know why that is.
NS: “I don’t know why, either. I think one of the things is that the fantasy romantic movies make a lot of money, you know?”
SR: Do they, though? The comedies aren’t always so successful at the box-office.
NS: “Well some do and some don’t. I also like a lot of like bad romantic comedies. I enjoy watching the genre no matter what. But a lot of times they don’t treat relationships like they’re real, and I think the best romantic comedies and the most romantic ones treat the relationships like they’re real, you know? Like, ‘Say Anything’ has a lot of weird, dark shit happening in it. Or, ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ those two people are pretty neurotic. If they weren’t played by Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal they’d be pretty irritating people. Everyone forgets that what’s fun about a romantic comedy is how these two people are going to fight with each other and how’s that going to be funny. And I think, too, that a lot of people start with types. Like the guy likes to watch sports and the girl likes to, you know, dream about marriage or whatever. I’m like, I hate sports, you know…”
SR: That’s so funny! I hate marriage!
NS: “And I love marriage! No, but I think that people aren’t that simple, you know?”
SR: No, they’re definitely not. I think that audiences are craving something a little different, though. I think that’s why people responded to Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Though I wouldn’t call it a rom-com per-se.
NS: “More disaster. That movie’s almost more like a movie about Jason realizing that he was a disaster and trying to become a man worth falling in love with.”
SR: Right. And this may just be my projection, but my guess is that The Five Year Engagement was more your baby, like you were pulling this from your own experience.
NS: “Yeah, we wrote it together, but I’ve certainly been obsessed with kind of long relationships and why they do or don’t go anywhere for a long time. But once we started working on it, it became a collaboration.”
SR: What’s the actual process? Is it like sending each other pages, is it sitting in a room, is it some combination?
NS: “Well, we start by sitting in a room and kind of doing a spew where we think of every single thing that can happen in five years between two people. Then we meet with Judd and Rodney Rothman, the producer, and we go through that with them. And then Jason and I kind of sit down and spend a number of weeks kind of together in a room just outlining. We order burritos, often, as one does. Or pizza. Mainly burritos. And then we fine tune the outline. And then we split up the outline and write chunks of the script separately, and then put the script together and rewrite it together. And then on this one, at that point we had a script that was tilted quite in the direction of Jason’s character. We’d always wanted Emily (Blunt) to do it, and we met with Emily and had a long working session with her where we asked her a lot of questions. The kind of questions I know about Jason, like how do you behave in a fight? Do you shut down, do you lash out, are you a person that cries or not? In break-ups how have you behaved? All those kinds of questions, kind of a long therapy session. And then we take all that stuff and put that into her character. And we do that, basically for all the characters. We kind of rewrite all the characters for the people we cast.”
SR: That’s kind of interesting. But Alison Brie (who play’s Violet’s sister Suzie Barnes-Eilhauer in the film) seems the most removed from her character.
NS: “Yeah, she is the most removed from her character. First of all, she’s English in the film. But I look into Alison’s eyes and I could imagine her as the spontaneous person she is in the film versus some of the other, more controlled roles she’s played. But yeah, I’d say she’s the most removed from her character. And once you’ve really nailed down the main characters the other characters are all there to serve that story. So like Chris Pratt and Alison Brie’s characters, they’re there to serve the story of Jason and Emily.”
SR: They’re hilarious.
NS: “They’re so funny. Chris is a hyper-intelligent and an articulate dude, and he’s playing a guy who you can’t tell if he’s dumb or smart, which is kind of amazing. He’s just that guy, you know? He’s kind of both.”
SR: “He’s like a savant.”
NS: “Yeah, he’s totally a savant. So those characters tend to be a little less like who the people are but even with Chris we rewrote more for him. And we do rehearsals, too, so we’ll do rehearsals and in those rehearsals I’d say to Alison or Chris, ‘does this make sense, would you say this?’ Because actors, they have a good sense of how to make a line more natural when they’re rehearsing.”
NS: “James Bobin and I have started writing ‘Muppets 2’. It’s completely outlined and we are on page 13.”
SR: Good, good. Sooo, what’s going to happen in it?
NS: (laughing) “All I can say right now is it’s a comedy caper. I feel very excited about how the first one turned out. It was very nostalgic and emotional and reintroduced the characters, and now we’re just going to do a hard comedy caper and kind of fall as they do in capers.”
SR: So it’s going to be sort of in the vein of the old Muppet movies?
NS: “Yeah. Exactly, yeah. There are certainly connections to the last one, but it’s not…”
SR: To be continued.
NS: “It’s not to be continued, yeah.”
SR: Are Jason and Amy going to be in it?
NS: “I’m not sure yet. I hope as cameos, but all of us, Jason included, felt that we concluded their story. But hopefully in cameo.”
SR: Are you and Jason working on anything else, or what do you want to take on next?
NS: You know, I’m not sure what I want to direct next. It’s the first time I’m not sure what I’m going to do next, and it’s both exhilarating and terrifying.”
SR: But you’re working on a series, yes? A television series.
NS: “Yes, I have a pilot this year with CBS, which stars Michael Anguilaro, Brie Larson, Randall Park.”
SR: Did you see Brie in 21 Jump Street?
NS: “Oh yeah, so crazy funny. Yeah, crazy funny, crazy funny. And she’s awesome, so talented. So yeah. But hopefully it happens – but you know, you never know.”
SR: Do you think you’d ever team up with Seth Rogan again and get that whole bunch together and do something?
NS: “I’d love to, I love Seth. And you know, the best writing experiences of my life have been with Jason and Seth. I wrote with Seth on ‘Undeclared’ we wrote an episode together and we shared an office. And he’s just…I love him.”
We too would love to see what a Freaks and Geeks/Undeclared reunion would yield.
Stay tuned for more from Nicholas Stoller on pickle training, the wisdom of 30 Rock and the surprising comedic power of Elmo.
The Five-Year Engagement opens in theaters this weekend.
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