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The Playlist Profile: Nicholas Stoller

The Playlist By Maris James | The Playlist April 30, 2012 at 1:20PM

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.
Nicholas Stoller, Judd Apatow

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.”

This article is related to: Nicholas Stoller, Five-Year Engagement, Interviews, The Playlist Profile