When he's not directing such comedies as "Get Him to the Greek" or "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," 34 year-old Nicholas Stoller is writing...a lot. On the eve of his second directorial effort, Stoller took some time out to discuss the new Universal comedy starring Russell Brand and Jonah Hill, as well as his upcoming "Stretch Armstrong" script.
First of all, congratulations on nearing the finish line. How ya holding up?
Ya know, it’s good, incredibly nerve-racking (laughs) but I’m good, thanks.
"Shrek’s" been #1 for two weeks now. Do you guys think you can slay the green ogre?
(Laughs) I don’t know. At the beginning of the week, I had hoped for either good box office or good reviews and so far we’ve gotten good reviews so I’m technically satisfied.
I remember. Loved that show...
Thanks. Me too (laughs). But yeah, Judd was just hiring young writers from UTA for the show, which is where he and I were represented, and I don’t know--we have a very similar take on what makes both of us laugh. After "Undeclared" was cancelled, he had me write some screenplays with him and then we wrote "Fun with Dick and Jane" together, which went really well so I guess we kind of progressed from there.
Ever see yourself getting back into television?
I don't think so. I’m a movie guy now. Don't get me wrong, I love TV. Writers, especially, have so much freedom on the smallscreen but TV is hard (laughs)! It’s a tough job doing twenty-two episodes a year. I also personally just prefer, and watch more movies than television.
Not only are you directing these big studio comedies but you’re also quite the busy writer!
Yeah, I still haven’t chosen my next directing project but I’m doing tons of writing. Right now I’m working on the script for "Stretch Armstrong," the Muppet movie with Jason Segal and another project called "The Naughty List" at Universal.
About "Stretch Armstrong." You and Rob Letterman have been writing it together (with Letterman directing). How’s that project going? What's the tone of the script so far?
Well, I wrote "Gulliver’s Travels" for Rob and so he and I have become really close collaborators. We work so well together. We really do. Anyhow, he had this idea where "Stretch" would have this serious feel to it where the movie is taken seriously like "Iron Man" or something but with a light humor to it, not like "Dark Knight"; just a realistic movie that happens to take place in a superhero world. And ultimately, we wanted to make sure it all comes from character and that it’s a character-based story and then fill out the action sequences and what not.
Back to the "Greek." Did you pitch the idea before the script was even written?
Basically, during the filming of "Sarah Marshall" I thought Russell and Jonah had really good chemistry, like that just looked like a movie to me. And that’s something I learned from Judd, too. On "Anchorman", he saw Steve Carell and said to himself ‘this guy should have his own movie.’ ("40 Year Old Virgin") Anyway, I pitched an idea to Jonah and Russell and they both liked it and while we were in post, I set up the movie as a pitch at Universal. After that I wrote a few drafts and then realized that it would be weird if Russell played a different character so we just made it a spin-off.
Did Universal want it to be PG-13? Or was this always an R-Rated movie?
Universal is awesome. I love working for them. At no point did they think it should be PG-13. When they bought the pitch, they knew what they were getting into.
There's some drug use in the film and a few other gross-out scenes. Did you have to cut anything?
Not at all. They’re (Universal) creatively just a fantastic place to work. They give notes but they’re always smart and correct. They just wanted to make sure it all made emotional use. But they were never like ‘That’s too much drug use.’ They were like ‘This is a movie about a guy who uses drugs so let’s go from there.’”
Jonah Hill has mentioned that he's a big fan of improvisation on comedy sets. Was there a lot of improv shooting "Greek?"
Oh yeah, tons. We actually prepare the script as if there’s going to be no improv. I write and re-write the script a million times with Rodney Rothman and Judd helping out. Then there’s table reads with writers and actors there who both give notes. And then we have a rehearsal process where the actors are allowed to improve and I put that in the script. And then we’ll actually shoot the film, shoot what’s scripted and then we’ll go off page. So at the end of the day, I’d say the movie is 60-70% is scripted and 30-40% improvisation.
You spend so much time writing, what's the transition like to a movie director?
It’s actually quite thrilling. I think this is all an inherently collaborative art-form. Even when I was writing the screenplay I wasn’t like ‘I want to be in control.’ Having said that—it is exciting to see things through the finish line. I think it made me a better writer; I really understand more of what goes into making a movie now that I’ve directed.
"Greek" has a few concert scenes with thousands of screaming fans. Did the production feel like an undertaking at times?
It was definitely challenging. They’re on the road, they’re running. We actually call the movie ‘Running and Screaming’ because that’s basically all Jonah and Russell do the whole movie: run and scream. (laughs) But yeah, every scene there’s a giant crowd. We had a good A.D. and a good line producer though so it went very smoothly; grueling but smoothly. And grueling simply because we were always traveling and there was constant jet-lag and other obvious reasons of doing a road trip movie. But we came in under budget. At no point was there a panic. It was mainly just exciting. I remember one day we were shooting in Rockefeller center at the "Today Show" and my script supervisor turned to me at one point and said ‘This is so cool’ and I just nodded my head and was totally overwhelmed. I really want to keep having those moments, ya know?
Comedy and the film industry. Where do you think it’s headed?
I think we’re in a pretty exciting place, personally. The studios ten years ago didn’t want to make R-rated comedies and now, they make ‘em because of the success of Judd’s movies, because of "The Hangover" and Todd Phillips. They don’t blink at the R-Rated movie. We live in an R-Rated world where people speak that way naturally; they curse naturally, experience sexual behavior (laughs). So I think because of all of those reasons it’s an exciting time to be in comedy. But I think also what seems to be, the trend seems to be: there are giant superhero/action movies like “Transformers” and then small comedies so that’s mid-ranged dramas that are getting squeezed which sucks, because those are so good. But both of those kinds of movies from my vantage point seem to court the studios into doing OK.
You said you haven’t chosen your next directing project. Any inkling what it will be?
There’s a script I’ve been working on for a while with Jason Segal called “Five-Year Engagement"; that’s what I’m leaning towards at the moment. It seems exciting to get to do another romantic comedy and I love collaborating with Jason so that’s certainly something that could be interesting. I haven’t decided. Right now I just want to get through this weekend and take a nap!
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