The writer-director – who first worked with Segel on the short-lived, Judd Apatow-produced sitcom “Undeclared” – has carved out a professional marriage with his pal, helming Segel’s breakout comedy, 2008’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” And Stoller and Segel last year co-wrote “The Muppets,” which the former directed and the latter starred in. Now the duo has reunited, taking on the same roles, for the romantic comedy “The Five-Year Engagement”, the story of an increasingly mismatched couple (Segel and Emily Blunt) who keep postponing their wedding as they grapple with a never-ending barrage of life-changing experiences.
Stoller sat down for an exclusive chat with PopcornBiz to analyze his career coupling with Segel, deconstruct the romantic comedy genre and hint at Muppet capers ahead.
What was your inspiration for taking this project on, and how did you want to veer away from or perhaps stay close to your first romantic comedy, 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall'?
Romantic comedy is my favorite genre, just as a fan. There's nothing I like to watch more than that. After we did 'Sarah Marshall,' both Jason and I wanted to do another romantic comedy together and we were trying to figure out what we should do. With 'Sarah Marshall,' I love that movie, but the only thing that was frustrating to me is that we were sifting through the wreckage of a relationship and not like living with one in real time. I've been obsessed with long relationships that don't go anywhere for a long time, and I was sitting in my office and the words ‘five-year engagement’ popped into my head. I wrote it down and looked at it and called up Jason and told him the title and he was like, 'Oh, my God – that's great. Let's do it!' So to me, what was great about it was to do a movie that has zero artifice. There's nothing in it that happens that wouldn't just happen. There's certainly plot and story and there's all of that, but we tried really hard so that there was no plot move that felt artificial or created a situation. It was all character-driven, and that was really fun.
Are you able to quantify the contributions that you and Jason share as co-storytellers, both in the writing and in the filming? Is there a division of labor at all?
Not really. I very quickly forget who thought of what. It's so collaborative between Jason and I and Rodney Rothman and Judd [Apatow], and we'd bring in Emily [Blunt] and we'd bring in Chris Pratt and we'd bring in Alison Brie. It becomes this big kind of collaboration. I kind of call it open-source filmmaking. Sean Mannion, our prop master, has pitched blinds that have ended up in the movie. The perfect example is in 'Get Him To The Greek,' our awesome Dutch, very serious production designer Jan Roelfs, was like, 'I'm going to make this Vegas suite that's going to be ridiculous. There's going to be furry walls in the suite.' So he built the suite with furry walls and then that became a huge set piece. So I start to lose who's thought of what, but in terms of Jason and I, we just share the same instincts. We share a comedy brain, as we say it. We think the same things are funny. We want to tell an emotional story. It was really important to us that this story be romantic. The highest compliment that someone can give me is that they teared up at the end. You can get laughs, but the most important thing is to make people feel something. That's really hard.
Finding the right romantic partner to match Jason with is key. Talk about casting Emily Blunt and what you saw in their chemistry and dynamic that made you guys want her to be the one?
We wanted her to do it from the beginning – as we were outlining the movie, we were thinking of her. She's so funny. She outclasses all of us because she's a Golden Globe winner and she exudes intelligence. She's just an amazing actress, and also in a great way, I think, she threatens Jason a little bit because she's better than he is. I think he would say that. She's just a fantastic actress. All romantic comedies are like, 'Will watching these two people fight be funny?' So they really went head to head in a great way, and I think that the other thing is that you have to cast the person that when Jason yells at them they yell right back and they don't cower, even in their eyes. You see with Emily that she's going to challenge him. When he yells at Emily, she yells right back and is just as funny, if not funnier. They really go head to head, and they're also old friends and so they have really good chemistry and that's some sort of magical thing that we managed to capture.
What are some tropes of the genre that you tried to avoid or tried to freshen up?
The big thing that I don't like in any movie – and romantic comedies do it a lot – is the misunderstanding or the miscommunication. I find that very frustrating in any movie: like, the girl sees the guy hugging his ex-girlfriend and so she storms off, goes to the airport to fly to Seattle to become an architect and he has to chase after her. In a normal, human relationship, if that happened, the guy would say to the girl, 'I was just hugging my ex-girlfriend because blank happened,' and then it would be over and it would diffuse it. So that was a big thing, to avoid any plot moves that felt artificial…Then the really hard thing with any movie, but especially in romantic comedies, is how you think of the ending that's surprising but inevitable. When we thought of the ending, I remember we were like, 'We're not going to have to re-shoot the ending!' It was just the biggest relief. I had to re-shoot both endings of 'Sarah Marshall' and 'Greek' and it was like, 'We're not going to have to re-shoot the ending!'
You're at work on the new 'Muppets' script right now. Are there elements of romantic comedy that are going to play out in that?
A little bit, but not really. It's a caper... James Bobin and I have outlined the entire thing and we actually just started writing the script this week. I'm pretty excited about it.
Was the choice of a caper intentional, in terms of looking back at 'The Great Muppet Caper' and wanting to do a modern twist on that?
Yeah. 'The Great Muppet Caper' is the one I grew up with. You have your family's VHS tapes, the random ones. We had the most random ones. We had 'Top Secret,' 'The Time Machine,' 'Scavenger Hunt.' Do you remember the movie 'Scavenger Hunt,' starring Scatman Crothers? There were a few others that were so random. I think 'Young Sherlock Holmes.' I love that movie. It was awesome. That's something that they should remake, but those were the random ones. 'History of the World, Part 1.'
What are you excited about with this film since you've now re-established the Muppet universe? What are you looking forward to doing in this film that you didn't get to do in the first film?
What's fun about it is that there were certain Muppets that we all felt were kind of under-served, and it's fun to get to have them be a little bit more in the story. The first one, I love the movie. It came out so well. James Bobin just nailed it, in terms of directing. It really came together great, but it was very nostalgic, very emotional. We did that and now we're going to do, like, a big, crazy, comedy caper. Everyone is now reintroduced to the characters, or has had their nostalgia fill and it's fun to start to think of the craziest comedy stuff that we can.
Is there a genre that you want to work in that you haven't gotten to do yet?
Like the 'Saw' genre – torture porn? There really isn't. I entered this thing thinking, 'I hope one day to direct. In my wildest imagination, I hope to direct.' I thought that if I ever got the chance I'd have to direct, like, 'Fart College 3' a bunch of times before I managed to get here. And the genre I love is R-rated – not even R-rated but adult romantic comedies. I kind of got to do that right away with 'Sarah Marshall' and it's really the genre that I like. I always am going to come at stuff from a comedic place. I can imagine one day maybe doing something on a smaller scale, maybe.
Like Jason tries to in the film, did you stage your own real life proposal?
Yes. We went to Hawaii and we'd been dating for two years and she knew that I was going to propose to her, so every night she dressed up and had a flower in her hair – but I had this whole idea and I called the hotel ahead of time. We were going to take a hike and I was going to propose to her on cliffs overlooking the ocean. So after four days she told me that she called her sister and said, 'I guess he's not going to propose to me.’ So we go on this hike and it's incredibly hot and we're both sweating profusely. We're both wearing athletic clothes, and we're on these lava cliffs, so they're really sharp rocks. So then I kneel down on these really sharp rocks and in the pictures of it we both look disgusting. So, it was really over-planned and I should've just done it at the restaurant or whatever.