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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.
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Nicholas Stoller

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.

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


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