Longtime fans of Judd Apatow will recognize a few familiar moments in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, out in theaters Friday, April 18. From an awkward reunion of sorts for lead actor-writer Jason Segel and his “Undeclared” love Carla Gallo to Segel’s uncontrollable sobbing over a girl who has left him for another man, the movie borrows a few tricks from Apatow’s television series “Undeclared.” Why not? For the past three years those alums of Apatow’s earlier, small-screen work have been conquering the box office by making racy comedies that appeal to a broad demographic.
“I think this is a story that we started telling eight years ago on the TV show that no one saw and that we’re completing now on the bigger screen, with full frontal male nudity,” jokes Marshall director Nick Stoller. Together with Segel, who appeared in a handful of episodes of the 2001 college comedy, Stoller had been a force behind the series. “We met on ‘Undeclared’ and really clicked,” Stoller says of Segel. “I wrote the episode where he played the long-distance boyfriend who comes back and finds out his girlfriend, Lizzie, had been hooking up with the main character, Steven.” Segel’s character Eric is found crying in the shower after chasing Steven around in a rage. “That amount of jealousy and pathetic-ness [that Eric displays], we both find hilarious.” So audiences can definitely expect some of that humor in this R-rated comedy.
With the hype surrounding and the talent starring in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Stoller is bound to draw comparisons to the box office success stories of other Apatow-alum movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad. Does that worry this first-time director? Not really. “I feel like people will judge [the movies] on their own merits… and I’m pretty happy with it.”
From his obsession with Blue Crush to his well-honed comedy writing (he was also the writer on 2005’s Fun With Dick and Jane and the upcoming 2008 comedy Yes Man), Stoller took time to discuss his career and the new role that fell into his lap.
Mallory Potosky (MM): So now you’re considered a part of that Apatow group. Before you were behind-the-scenes, so not really known, but now every year it’s a new movie from that group. So it’s inevitable that Forgetting Sarah Marshall will be compared to movies like Superbad, Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Do you feel pressure because of that?
Nicholas Stoller (NS): No I don’t, actually. What each of these movies share I think, and obviously I’m biased, but they share a high joke-to-movie ratio. The nature is in there also; they each have a sweetness and heart to them that I think people respond to, but I think they’re actually pretty different, despite that. So I feel like people will judge [the movie] on its own merits… and I’m pretty happy with it.
MM: Is it a shared comic timing? Because you’re right, they do all have those jokes and that sweetness to them.
NS: Yeah, I think we all come from the TV world, and in the TV world—in comedy at least—you punch it up and punch it up and you bring people in to punch it up and people improv—at least on “Undeclared” we did—and so you end up having a lot of jokes. When I see a comedy, there’s one joke every three minutes or four minutes and I’m like, ‘Why see something that makes you laugh every couple of minutes? This should be much more packed. It should be like “The Office” or “30 Rock” or that kind of comedy.’ I think we’re just trying to bring that process to the moviemaking process.
MM: With Jason Segel writing and starring in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, was there a lot of improv on the set?
NS: Yes, there was a lot of improv. I think ultimately the movie was about 60 or 70 percent scripted and then 30 or 40 percent improv. We’d all come to it with the same kind of collaborative idea, so whether it’s improv or myself or executive producer Rodney Rothman throwing out joke ideas—specific jokes or joke areas—or just the actors improvising, there was a great deal of improv.
MM: What did you see in the screenplay that made you want to direct it?
NS: I think just the opportunity to direct something was like, insane. Just the fact that the opportunity existed was great. But I feel very lucky in that, even if I had a choice of any movie, this is the kind of movie that I would ultimately want to make. I thought I was going to have to direct, like, Fart College 8 to get to this part of the process. But to be able to direct a bittersweet romantic comedy with hard laughs… I think the kind of broken-hearted guy is something that I’m fascinated by and Jason’s fascinated by. I love Jason and I’ve always wanted to work with him in this capacity, so it was pretty much a no-brainer. Basically Jason and I are both obsessed with grown men crying. We think that that is hilarious and that is the root of our comedy.
MM: Did you always want to direct?
NS: Yeah, I’ve always wanted to direct. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with comedy writing. I remember I would watch “Saturday Night Live” as a kid and I didn’t fantasize about being in front of the camera, I fantasized about being one of the writers. I’ve always had that, you know? I started writing in high school and I went to Harvard and I did The Harvard Lampoon. I’ve always wanted to do comedy writing. I also dreamt that I would one day be a writer-director, but I didn’t think it would happen this quickly.
MM: Let’s get back to Forgetting Sarah Marshall: There were some pretty engrossing scenes in the film; in the water specifically—involving the surfboard. How did you go about filming those scenes—the ones that weren’t so heavy on the laughs?
NS: First of all, I watched Blue Crush 85,000 times and basically took apart every one of their surfing sequences. In terms of the actual shooting of it, we were out in a boat and when we shot the scene between Jason and Russell Brand, we had both of them on surfboards, and we had to tie them to the boat that we were in. Our cameraman had to hold the camera steady and it was on a rope kind of thing. So we winched up the camera on the boat and then we had an underwater cameraman shooting, and then when we shot that sequence, we really pulled it apart so it’s pieces of Russell sitting on his board and Jason actually surfing. We also had Jason hold on to the back of a jet ski so we could get that reaction shot, and then we got the two stuntmen to actually hit each other. So it was all pulled apart. That’s the way they do Blue Crush and those kind of surfing movies, you pull it apart.
MM: That’s a lot of editing.
NS: Yeah, a lot of editing. Thanks to DI, you can match everything.
MM: In terms of balancing that kind of dramatic moment with all of the levity in the film, how did you go about approaching the scenes in different ways?
NS: I think it’s just like the story at the center of this movie. I think at the center of any movie, it all comes back to the story, to the central truth of that movie. I think when there’s an accident in the ocean or something, it shouldn’t be funny, it should be actually kind of scary; you shouldn’t make a joke out of it because then it won’t land. Similarly, in some of our sadder moments, there’s always something funny. So like the central truth of the break-up moment, if we had just done a straight dramatic version of a break-up, it wouldn’t have felt true because people’s break-ups and those kinds of moments are so often weird and awkward and hilarious. So that was just trying to hit that truth in terms of the central truth of the movie.