Jason Segel and Nick Stoller first met up on the Judd Apatow college comedy TV series “Undeclared” just over a decade ago. The show was far from the first attempt to tackle the freshman college experience, but it was one of the more fresh and realistic, a warts-and-all portrayal of the often difficult transition from childhood to the real word.
The idea might have been a bit ahead of its time initially, but in recent years audiences are finally starting to tire of cookie cutter Hollywood comedies. After Apatow broke out with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” he helped many of his past collaborators get their own projects going as a producer. Segel and Stoller’s first feature collaboration, the 2008 sleeper hit “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” took audiences by surprise for many reasons. It continued the wave of hard-R comedies finally penetrating the mainstream, but also broke barriers with its unapologetic male full-frontal scene. But besides all that, it wasn’t the standard romantic comedy. Segel’s Peter Bretter wasn’t destined to get back together with Sarah Marshall. In fact, he was going to go through some pretty tough times. This was a break-up movie in all senses, again, warts and all.
Four years later, little has changed for the comedy team of Segel and Stoller. After proving they could make a big Hollywood family film with “The Muppets,” the duo returned to their raunchier roots for “The Five-Year Engagement,” a film most definitely NOT about the perfect courtship. Far from it. Instead, 'Five-Year' is about the realities of a lifetime commitment to another person. Because while the movie ideal of romance might be a nice idea, it’s a pretty dated concept at this point. Escapism is one thing, but over the past two decades the high-concept romantic comedy has evolved into something that more resembles science fiction.
The Playlist recently sat down with Jason Segel at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles to talk about his delightfully different taste in romantic comedy as well as how co-star Emily Blunt took to the off-the-cuff atmosphere of a Segel/Stoller/Apatow production. Here are some highlights from our chat.
Purveyors of the Anti Rom-Com Rom Com
Jason Segel and Nick Stoller didn’t set out to go against the grain. They simply wanted to tell stories based in reality and let the humor come from a natural place. “I think that we both are drawn to the idea of the old-style romantic comedies that were about exploring relationships,” Segel tells The Playlist. “Not this weird artifice like, ‘[commercial voice] He’s a scientist but she hates science.’ ‘Annie Hall’ is just about a couple trying to figure it out. And ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is just about two friends trying to figure it out, and that’s what this movie’s about.”
Segel’s Tom Solomon and Blunt’s Violet Barnes have a pretty great relationship when we first meet them on the night of Tom’s proposal. But once their wedding is delayed and they must go through some of life’s many obstacles, they find their relationship being put to some very difficult tests. “I think what really hit us about it is that a lot of people make the mistake when they say ‘I do’ of thinking it means, ‘I do at this particular time with this particular set of circumstances,’ says Segel. “You’re talking about a life partner, and the relationships are going to change and it’s going to be fluid and power dynamics are going to shift. You’re saying ‘I do’ to the messy stuff too. The vow doesn’t seem to mean that much anymore.”
The Ever Changing Stoller/Segel Shoot
It’s pretty common knowledge at this point that many of the Apatow disciples prefer a casual atmosphere on set. While they always start with a strong script, no one is too precious about changes if they can lead to a better end result. “We do a lot of improv. This is the first movie that Nick and I have shot on digital so we had the opportunity to let the camera roll much more freely without worrying about film costs. I think the DNA and the intent of the scenes stay the same but there’s nothing like having people speak in their own voice. You can just feel it on screen,” Segel said.
While Blunt doesn’t have quite the same level of experience with improv as her co-star, she didn’t have a problem catching up to speed. “She was so ready to roll,” says Segel with a big smile. “She is game for anything and I think she appreciated being on a set where we are pride-free. She is as welcome to make suggestions as anyone else is. So it really starts to feel like a collaboration and everyone feels like they’re on the same team working towards a united goal.”
Crafting The Chemistry Of A Long-Term Relationship
One of the trickiest elements of a romance like the one depicted in "The Five-Year Engagement" is finding a chemistry between actors that can hold up beyond the typical cutesy initial attraction we’re so used to seeing, but also to the ins and outs of a long-term relationship that can be believable to audiences. “We have a history,” Segel tells The Playlist. “This is our third movie together. We’ve known each other for a long time. I’m good friends with John [Krasinski] and she as a couple so we’ve done plenty of hanging out. So I totally agree with you that a movie about a couple that’s known each other for a while, it should feel like they’ve known each other a while. One of my giant pet peeves are movies where it just looks like they’ve chosen two model Hollywood actors that had successful movies the year before and now they’re just clumped together. You can feel it. And this movie, even the in-between scenes are the ones I’m most proud of, the scenes where we’re just walking together. Because it looks like we know each other. It looks like best friends. So I knew that I wanted to write it for her going in and she agreed. There was a fair amount of rehearsal, but we had a long meeting with her asking how she would like the script changed and what she thought about how she would handle, as a person, some of these situations. We tried to do a rewrite that made her her best.”
The Segel/Stoller/Rothman Team
Considering the casual on-set atmosphere Segel and Stoller are known for, some might suspect that the lines between who’s directing and even producing might be blurred at times. But Segel says the roles are actually very clearly defined. “Nick is definitely the director but Nick, Rodney [Rothman] our producer, the master joke pitcher; between the three of us there’s sort of a pride-less relationship. Nick is very clearly the director, I’m very clearly the lead actor, Rodney is very clearly the producer. None of us feel like it’s inappropriate to make suggestions to each other or talk very freely and openly, so it really is a great relationship.”
Don’t Hold Your Breath For Segel’s Directorial Debut
Thus far in his career, Segel has done a good job bouncing back and forth between writing and acting in his own projects and simply acting in others. Now that Stoller is going off on his own to direct the “Muppets 2” sans Segel, we asked whether the actor might ever want to try his hand at directing. “If I needed to, Nick would help me but I don’t really feel the urge to direct. When I go to play a part, right or wrong, I feel like no one can play this part better than me. I’m not saying I’m right. I’m just saying that, like an athlete, you better think that walking onto the court. And when I write something, right or wrong, I think no one can write this better than me," Segel elaborated. "When I think about directing I don’t have that same feeling. I feel like I know other people who could direct this better than me. So I don’t feel the need to do it just for pride's sake, just to say ‘I’ve directed.’ I’d rather the thing be good. I like when they say ‘cut’ to go home. I like that my job is between 'action' and cut.' ”
“The Five-Year Engagement” opens on April 27th.