One night, nearly two decades ago, Nicholas Stoller, at that time a freshman at Harvard, dragged his mattress out of his room and into the room of his suitemate. Both young men had long-distance high school girlfriends whom they missed terribly, and they’d decided to have a sleepover to bond over their shared state of longing. During the sleepover, the suitemate decided to put on his prom song, “Always” by the English synthpop duo Erasure. The two listened as a ghostly plucking of strings filled the room, accompanied by a faint, mournful moaning, then a pulsing beat and quirky, digital squiggles of synthesizer funk. And soon, a high-pitched male voice, wavering and rising with emotion, swelling at the chorus: Always/I want to be with you/and make believe with you/and live in harmony harmony oh love. The song played, and they both cried.
Stoller laughs as he tells this story. He is now a successful 36-year-old filmmaker in the midst of press rounds and premiere screenings for his latest movie, “The Five-Year Engagement,” which he directed and co-wrote with frequent collaborator Jason Segel. He quickly, flatly sings a couple of lines of the chorus. “It’s a terrible song. You should really check it out.” We are sitting in the hotel bar at The Pierre in New York City, a windowless room on the ground floor. The bar is strange, a tiny pocket of old New York class—tiny tiles, brass, dark wood, piano music—that someone tacked purple lights onto in an ill-advised effort to introduce a modern, club-like vibe. The result is almost lewd, slightly depressing, but also funny, and Stoller called attention to it as soon as he entered the room, saying “Wow, this place is so weird, sorry. I feel like we’re in Russia or Shanghai or something.”
Stoller’s crying freshmen story is significant for a few reasons. For one, it’s a small, neat anecdote loaded with messy emotion, (almost) grown men crying during a shared, self-indulgent, sentimental moment gone suddenly too intimate, and the ensuing awkwardness of that—it’s a perfect encapsulation of what Stoller finds funny. It also may have been, in retrospect, a pivotal moment in his life. A few years later, face-to-face with Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, who were then interviewing young writers for their show “Undeclared,” Stoller decided to pitch his weepy man-sleepover as a story idea. Apatow laughed hard, and Stoller believes the pitch is what got him hired.
There is a boyish quality about Nick Stoller that has partly to do with the combination of his young-looking face and his no-longer-crisp sport coat, but is also perhaps a byproduct of his profession: constantly collaborating with other funny (mostly male) people to invent, write down and or make movies about funny situations, finding humor in himself, in the world around him, the people around him. He is amiable and laughs easily and often. A bit of a fast talker, one gets the sense that his gears turn a few speeds quicker than most other people’s. He is a self-described people-pleaser, always working hard under a self-imposed pressure. He imagines that the people who know him best would describe him as “nice.” He doesn’t elaborate much beyond that; the topic makes him slightly uneasy. “I feel like I’m about to sound self-congratulatory,” he says, adding that he doesn’t like to talk about himself, even when he wants to. However, he does enjoy doing press for his movies, he says, somewhat jokingly, because he can talk about himself without feeling rude.
Stoller can trace his comedic beginnings back to his childhood, during which he was “obsessed with comedy.” He remembers watching “Saturday Night Live” and thinking he wanted to become a writer for the show (rather than an actor, like most kids might). At eleven years old he discovered and began to imitate the unlikely choice of syndicated Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry. “I read a book of his when I was a kid and it blew my mind. I couldn’t believe you could just write funny things and make people laugh. That’s what inspired me to start writing. I was eleven and I started to rip [him] off. Writing about how hard marriage is.”
A lover of romantic comedy in particular, Stoller is taken with the comedic potential in the way couples communicate. “I love watching how people who are in love with each other deal with each other. Every time I’ve had a fight with an ex-girlfriend, at the time they’re horrible, but when I look back they’re often funny and weird, and that kind of stuff makes me laugh.” In describing his sense of humor, he explains, “The more real it is, the funnier it is. The more awkward it is, the more people are stumbly, the funnier it is. I like a sharp joke, but it has to say something that someone would actually say.” When he was younger, Stoller aspired to make movies similar to those of James L. Brooks or Woody Allen, “movies with a lot of heart. Because with heart it’s even funnier.” He names “Broadcast News,” which he considers to be pitch-perfect, among his favorite films and greatest influences. “Watch it, and you’ll be like ‘Oh, that’s where these guys ripped everything off from’,” he says, presumably meaning himself, Segel and the young stablemate comedians who circle the Apatow satellite.
He grew up in Miami during “Scarface times,” and though it was “sports-oriented and outdoorsy,” he was able find a nerdy group of friends to run with that, according to Stoller, was ethnically diverse enough to resemble a Benetton Ad. After years of bowling and wandering the walkways of shopping malls, South Beach became a destination. But they didn’t attempt to go clubbing, as their peers might have. “We were too nerdy. We’d just go and eat dinner and walk around and awkwardly drive home.”
Once high school-aged, Stoller left Miami during the academic year for the lush grounds and old red brick of Saint Paul’s, an episcopal boarding school in New Hampshire. He is careful not to disparage it, but describes his experience there as being difficult largely because it was waspy, and Stoller, who is Jewish, felt out of place. “It’s a point of reference they all have that you don’t have.” He recollects a friend of his summing it up nicely, saying, “I didn’t realize I was Jewish until I went to boarding school.” While he eventually made great friends, Stoller views the experience now as akin to being tossed into an ocean, and emerging knowing how to swim.
“The huge advantage of boarding school is that it throws you into the social fire. Every social interaction I’ve had since then has been a million times easier.” He adds, with a slightly bitter laugh, “Literally ever since then it’s all been child’s play.”
Harvard was next, followed by a year in New York City applying for television jobs while writing advertising copy at Young and Rubicam. He credits the experience with teaching him discipline, and that writer’s block doesn’t exist. He then moved to Los Angeles where he found a writing job on “The Austin Powers Animated Series” for HBO. The show never aired, but it scored him an agent who arranged the fateful interview with Judd Apatow. Stoller met Jason Segel while working on “Undeclared,” and learned about the script Segel was working on for “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Stoller approached Apatow with a proposition. “I asked Judd if he would support me as a director if I guided Jason through the writing process for ‘Sarah Marshall.’ And then that just happened. It was crazy, I had no experience.”
Stoller insists that his life is “too boring to make movies out of,” but he does draw on his own experiences or those of friends when writing and directing films. The emotional underpinnings of what takes place in his films are firmly based in reality, but as drafts are written and rewritten, the characters evolve, moving further away from the people they were based on. “You start kind of as yourself, and then they rise and rise.”
Of all his films, “The Five-Year Engagement” falls closest to who he is as a person. “A lot of the emotional issues in it are my issues. They’re Jason’s as well, but it’s just a little closer to me personally. The specifics [aren’t mine], but some of the emotional stuff is close to who I am.” One of the biggest lessons learned from the first two movies he directed, ‘Sarah Marshall’ and “Get Him To The Greek,” was that the emotional aspects of any story must ring true, and must take precedence over jokes and plot points, regardless of how funny they are. After having to do a major rewrite on ‘Greek’ because “the emotional stuff wasn’t really lining up correctly,” Stoller and Segel approached ‘Five-Year’ in a different way. “Jason and I started out saying ‘we’re not attached to any of the jokes or the set pieces.’ We started with the emotional story and laid that in first.”
And as Stoller’s life evolves, the reality-based subject matter in his movies is able to expand. “Having more and more different life experiences you gain sympathy for people in those positions. Before I got married I wouldn’t have known how to write about marriage; it would have been pretty superficial. Before I had a kid I wouldn’t have known how to write about children.” Stoller points to a scene from “The Five-Year Engagement,” in which Emily Blunt‘s character Violet and her sister Suzie (Alison Brie) conduct an adult conversation in Cookie Monster and Elmo voices, in the presence of Suzie’s young daughter. The scene was inspired by Stoller and his wife having to imitate cartoon characters when speaking in front of their own child, who would start screaming at them if they spoke normally about mundane or grown-up things.
“The frustrations and joys of parenthood are just hard to understand until you have a kid…the constant fight you’re having with yourself, like loving being with your kid but also being kind of bored and wanting to look at your iPhone—it’s kind of an interesting thing that’s hard to write about before you’ve experienced it.” He feels that work by filmmakers who don’t have kids but still include families in their work, often suffers from a sense of falseness. “Whether you have kids or not, you’ll watch it and something will feel off about it.”
Stoller insists he has no trouble killing his darlings, describing a meaty ‘Five Year Engagement’ sequence that involves an ATM transaction leading to an elaborate moment where a restaurant blows up. Although it was hilarious, anything extraneous has to be excised. He also cut a scene featuring his four-year-old daughter. “I’m pretty brutal about cutting stuff out.”
Though he may eventually attempt to branch out, Stoller is certain that any projects he works on in the future will still contain elements of comedy. “The Social Network,” which he considers to be a work of genius, is the only film to date that jogged his desire to try something drastically different. “I’m not saying I could ever do that, but that’s the only thing I could imagine attempting: a kind of rapid-fire drama that has comedy in it.” He muses on the idea of directing an Aaron Sorkin script, just for the experience of “completely giving yourself over to something that’s not yours, that’s brilliant writing,” and following the script exactly, avoiding the improvisation and alternate jokes that have defined all three of Stoller’s previous directing efforts. He adds that he would love to shadow David Fincher.
But as far as a change of pace that’s more likely to happen, Stoller is interested in making a movie that’s smaller in scope, where he doesn’t have to be “wedded to the laughs” in the same manner studio comedies require, the general rule being that laughter must be generated at least every minute or thirty seconds. His films are fine-tuned and “carefully calibrated” based off of recordings of audience laughter during test screenings. Jokes that aren’t getting laughs are cut, areas of pacing are quickened or slowed, and characters are adjusted for likability. He calls the first test screening during this process “terrifying.”
Although “The Five-Year Engagement” tested well, waiting for initial reviews to come in is always harrowing. After New York Stoller is headed to screen the movie in Ann Arbor before returning to L.A., where he’ll continue work on the script for “The Muppets” sequel with James Bobin. He’s looking forward to the Michigan visit. “It’s nice to come to other cities where people don’t know as much or care about movies or TV. Because in L.A. you’re always living and dying by what’s happening with everyone’s movies and shit. But most people on the planet just don’t care. They’re just like ‘Oh, I think I saw that. Sarah Marshall? Oh yeah that’s that movie with like, what’s that, Seth Rogen?’ And that’s the correct and healthy attitude to have about that stuff.”
Above all, Stoller is grateful. He seems to take very little for granted. A perfect day, in his world, is a Sunday spent hanging out with his wife and daughter. He considers it a minor miracle that he ever made it into the director’s chair, considering how difficult it can be to find success in the movie industry, regardless of one’s talent. His biggest motivator? “Fear!” he says, joking, then considering that answer seriously. For all the success he’s had at his relatively young age, and as much as he hopes ‘Five-Year’ will be well-received, Stoller seems to make a continual effort to keep things in perspective, to be thankful for where his life, particularly its difficult parts, has taken him.
“You know, I’m making a great living doing something I love to do,” he says, gears spinning. “Who cares what the result is?”
“The Five-Year Engagement” is in theaters now.