On The Set: Nicholas Stoller And His 'Five-Year Engagement' Cast Talk Their Improvisational Process

Features
by Leah Zak
March 1, 2012 1:00 PM
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Many months ago, on what began as a rainy morning in the hills of Sonoma, California, The Playlist -- part of a small contingent of press -- rolled up to the vineyard-turned-movie-set of this spring’s relationship dramedy “The Five-Year Engagement.” And over the course of what turned out to be a sunny and pleasant afternoon, met with the stars and filmmakers to talk about the film, as well as see first hand what has become the trademark directing style of helmer Nicholas Stoller. Previously behind comedies “Get Him to the Greek” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Stoller has again teamed with co-writer and star Jason Segel to assemble another cast of funny folks, and let the cameras roll.

“We learned a lot in the editing room for 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall,' said Segel, “You really just never know what you are going to use until you start throwing stuff together. A lot of it happens in writing and then when we are filming you are trying the scenes in a lot of different tones...you want to have everything in your tool box when you get in the editing room.” During an engagement party scene early in the film, we watched as actor Chris Pratt worked with Stoller and Segel to rewrite some of the actor’s lines between takes; a high five from the groom’s dad (played by David Paymer) was added as well. “If there’s a good point where you think I should stop [the toast] I’ll stop,” Pratt looks to Segel, in costume just off camera. “No, just keep going,” Segel notes. During the break, Pratt and Stoller again consult, and for the next group of takes he is no longer bounding into the scene, but instead must be cajoled by the party to get up and present his toast/multi-media presentation to the happy couple.

“I found it really freeing," says Blunt of working with the filmmaker. "I think that the Nick Stoller way of doing things is to just try it because you never know. I think that that is a really liberating way of working.” Before the party set-up, Blunt and writer/comedian Murray Miller filmed an exchange about wedding locations. Miller, playing the vineyard’s owner, is doing his best to make it clear to Violet (Blunt) what the locale/he as a lover, has to offer. Without the cameras cutting, we see the scene evolve. Sometimes starting from the beginning, other times right in the middle, the actors improvise, Stoller often feeding them lines used in other takes, or new lines, from his seat behind the monitors. “He does that a lot with everyone,” says Paymer, who plays Tom (Segel)’s father in the film, “I love that. It keeps everything fresh. It keeps everything spontaneous. It’s like it’s happening, obviously, for the first time. You can study your script and I’ve got all these notes myself, but he’s going to change it four or five different ways.” 

But not all the dialogue is on the fly during production.  Much of the foundation for the different takes are laid out in rehearsals, where improvisations are often rewritten into the script. Even for smaller parts that generally aren’t part of rehearsals, Stoller encourages the actors to research, and come prepared to improvise with their characters. “Brian Posehn, who was someone that, on the page, his part was pretty small, and we just started throwing him more and more stuff," explained Stoller, "[Posehn’s character] works in a deli so we told him to learn everything there is to know about pickles. So he came to set with a bunch of pickle knowledge. He was just hilarious.” During the engagement scene as well, many of the actors were working off script for their toasts, encouraged by Stoller to come up with something their character would say before filming began that day. Mimi Kennedy and Paymer, playing Tom’s parents, performed a rhyming toast for the group they wrote that morning. Explained Kennedy, “Nick came in and said ‘Anyone who wants to throw anything in their own toast, feel free,’ and I jokingly said ‘Yes, but then we’d have to rhyme it.’ and he said, ‘That’s the only caveat, yours will have to rhyme.’ "

“Once you've done a couple of takes as written, then Nick Stoller says, ‘Go for it,’ and sometimes you end up with the most hilarious stuff,” said Jacki Weaver, who plays Violet (Blunt)’s mother, “A lot of it's very politically incorrect. And a lot of it's not usable. But some of it's quite inspired.” Weaver, an Academy Award nominee and theatre veteran is no stranger to improv, or comedies like Stoller's debut, 'Marshall.' She was so flattered when he brought her the script that she said yes before even reading it. But Weaver doesn't regret signing on, echoing the sentiment of her castmates that the comfortable and cheerful spirit of the production has made it a pleasure to be a part of. “Nick Stoller has one of the best laughs,” she said, “It's so infectious. And whenever he laughs, if it's something you do, it's like giving us a reward.”

“The Five-Year Engagement” premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City before hitting theatres on April 27th.

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