The Five-Year Engagement left us with many questions for writer/director Nicholas Stoller. These might be considered spoilers, or serious investigative journalism. Jason Segal and Emily Blunt play engaged couple Tom and Violet who have to delay the wedding when Violet career in academic psychology research gets going. The film opens with their proposal, in which they recall meeting at a costume party where Tom was a bunny and Violet was Princess Di. They move to Ann Arbor, where Violet devises an experiment where people are given stale donuts but offered fresh ones if they can wait a half hour. Then they’re shown The Notebook to lower their emotional resistance. Tom struggles with leaving his chef career behind, though during a dark period he gets to romance his crazy hostess Audrey (Dakota Johnson.) Violet’s professor (Rhys Ifans) names his dog Gwyrth which nobody can pronounce. Violet and her sister (Alison Brie) have a pivotal argument while doing Elmo and Cookie Monster voices for the kids.
See, these are all specific things about which a journalist must probe the director. And the Muppets sequel Stoller is also writing.
CraveOnline: You’ve been a successful screenwriter. As the director of Five Year Engagement what is something you would be afraid that if you didn’t direct, someone would change it?
Nicholas Stoller: I guess I’d be worried that if someone else directed it they’d pull their punches and not have Emily and Jason really get into it with each other in terms of fighting and that sort of thing.
And letting Jason get really dark? After about the hour mark it’s not wacky anymore.
Yeah, letting him, there’s a lot of wackiness and then uh oh.
Was the facial hair part of that?
Exactly, letting it get kind of real. Billy Wilder always said you have to put a little bitter pill at the center of all your fluff. You surround it by cake, so that’s what I’m trying to do a little bit.
So The Five Year Engagement is your The Apartment?
[Laughs] Exactly. That’s a little bit of a not humble thing to say but it’s my intent to achieve. Honestly, all the great romantic comedies get real and a little dark. When Harry Met Sally… is so romantic and is a beautiful movie but I rewatched it, it is a little dark in the middle there. Same with Annie Hall, more than a little dark I think.
Is any of the facial hair really Jason’s?
No, none of it was. Our makeup guy, Peter Robb-King, he’s so overqualified for this job. He did Star Wars and the Dark Knight movies.
Is the idea of planning the perfect surprise proposal really just lying to someone?
I think usually at that point the party that you’re proposing to is expecting you to propose to them at some point. Proposals are such a part of our culture that I don't think it is. Although I’ve always not understood the very public proposal, like in a restaurant, because if the person isn’t sure then that really puts them in an awkward position.
I was just thinking in my cynical attempt at humor that if you have to trick someone into being somewhere so you can spring this on them, that’s kind of just lying.
That is very cynical. [Laughs] Usually at the point of proposal I feel like in most relationships, the lady is waiting to be proposed to. I surprised my wife with a proposal but she knew it was going to happen at some point.
So they were together for a year and then it took them five years of engagement. Some couples date six years before even talking about marriage so what’s really the problem with this?
Well, I think what you just pointed at is what’s interesting to me. It is the fact that people wait so long before getting married. That feels a little zeitgeisty to me that couples wait six years or seven years to figure this out. Potentially nothing’s wrong with that. If you meet someone when you’re 22 and they’re the right person, you for many good reasons will want to wait. But I’ve also observed people waiting for many years for no good reason. I think it’s interesting that so many people are in committed monogamous relationships for years and years but then still don’t get married. It’s strange to me. That’s why I wanted to explore that in this movie.
Was it also important to show that it really isn’t the engagement that’s the difficulty of the relationship? It’s all the things they go through in that time.
Yeah, the movie’s very much the best laid plans. That’s what Jason and I would always talk about. They’re kind of innocent in the beginning. They really love each other and they have both parties’ best interests at heart. But once the engagement starts, it’s learning to compromise and learning who the other person is in a more profound way so that by the end of the movie they really know each other well. My cynical view is that most five year engagements don’t end up in marriage. It’s a movie so it does but I think in the scenarios where they do end up in a successful marriage, it’s because they now know each other better, and like what they know.
How did you approach a courtship that was believable and not annoying like some romantic comedies?
We just skipped it. We start with them they’ve already courted.
But you flashback to it.
Oh that, first of all, Jason and Emily had really good chemistry. They’re old friends so that was one element. The second thing was Julie Berghoff, a genius production designer, had this idea. Originally they were meeting at a New Years party, it was just a New Years party. She had this really brilliant idea that she had gone to a make up your own superhero party and she had this whole idea of what it could look like visually. As soon as she said a dress up party, I was like we should put Jason in the stupidest looking thing imaginable which is that rabbit costume. So we kind of undercut the romance and the treacle I guess of it. By the way, Emily could totally play Princess Diana in a biopic, she looks so much like her when she’s dressed up that way. So to cut the treacle we just put them in the costumes. Then also Jason’s rabbit costume, when we write together sometimes he literally gets into this weird bear outfit.
Yes, I’m not joking. So it was a little bit inspired by that. Then when we shot them meeting, there’s lots of music and stuff so it feels very romantic but I had them play it like two people meeting for the first time. I think sometimes romantic comedies play it like it’s this moment freighted with great meaning, but when you actually meet someone for the first time, you’re just kind of flirting and being flirty. I shot it very romantically because it’s their memory, so they’re walking in slow-mo and all that but the actual acting is very “I’m meeting you for the first time.”
Is it too soon for a Princess Diana reference?
I don't know. I was wondering that at the time but it’s a very positive reference.
How did you discover the name Gwyrth?
That was Rhys Ifans. Originally it was Gaelic but he’s Welsh so I asked him for a Welsh name and he came up with Gwyrth which is a really weird and hard to say name. That scene, there’s so much more footage of all of them saying Gwyrth. That’s probably the most overshot scene in the movie. There’s a really long version of that on the DVD that is one of the most hilarious DVD extras I think I’ve ever put on.
How many cameras did you cover it with?
Just two but what happened was we ended up jumping the line in terms of coverage so I had to cover it from two different angles. Because we were shooting for so long, we all got slap happy. As soon as Randall Park who played Ming opened his mouth, that was his first day of shooting and I didn’t realize what a comedy genius he was and he opened his mouth and started to say Gweeyong and all these weird things. It was so funny. Everyone was so funny in that scene. Mindy [Kaling] had this whole thing that’s not in the movie. First, Jason said, “Is it queef?” And Rhys is like, “No, it’s not a vaginal fart. It’s Gwyrth.” Then Mindy was like, “It’s Garth. It’s Garth, Jason.” It went on from there.
I’m always fascinated by how screenwriters decide what jobs their characters will do. How did you settle on a psychologist and a chef?
He had to do a job that at least in the beginning of the movie, if you want to be a fancy chef, you can really only do that in a few cities if you want to be the kind of chef he wants to be. For her we needed a job where she was going to be forced to move. In Academia, you have to move. When you get on tenure track somewhere you have to move to wherever you get that job. So we kind of backed into it that way. My wife’s family is an academic family so everyone there are all academics. She grew up in Ann Arbor so I know Ann Arbor well and I like to write about places I know. It also seemed like to move from San Francisco to Michigan is a big switch. In addition, it needed to be Jason’s problem that he’s not clicking with the place. Ann Arbor, Michigan is actually a pretty cool town. It’s not San Francisco, it’s different obviously, but it’s not some random place. It’s a cool place to live but it is isolating if you’re trying to be a Michelin star chef.
When did the old donuts become a recurring motif for the film?
It was actually even more specific. She was a behavioral economist and the 100th time I had to explain to someone what that was, I realized I had to change it to something more general. So we changed it to social psychology and I had a meeting with a social psychology professor at UCLA named Dr. Benjamin Karney. He brought up all these experiments that they do and one is this marshmallow experiment that we put in the movie. We thought it would be funny if she accidentally runs an experiment on Jason and uses this experiment as a means to realize her relationship isn’t going to work. Then we decide to shoot that through the whole movie of when you’re bummed out, it can be your circumstances. It doesn’t mean that you yourself as a person are messed up. It could just be your circumstances and use the donut as the symbol of that. But it was really satisfying the first time we played the movie in front of a general audience, it’s pretty erudite and it totally worked. When he eats the donut, there were literally gasps in the crowd. And when she eats the donut people laugh. So I was relieved that it worked and it also underscored my theory that audiences are a lot smarter that everyone gives them credit for.
Has The Notebook become legend now?
Yes. Everyone knows The Notebook. It makes you cry. Because all the other ones are a little bit dark. You don’t want to show Schindler’s List.
Audrey, the hostess, waited about three years for Tom, didn’t she?
Oh yeah, she waited. And there was a thing we had to cut out of the movie where she basically runs the restaurant at that point but we didn’t have time for that. She waited for him. The wonderful Dakota Johnson. Dakota was so funny, I always do two or three days of reshoots, on this one she was so crazy funny we did a day of just the whole day of partying in his apartment. The Zumba and all that.
How did you come up with the Elmo and Cookie Monster argument?
I have a four and a half year old and when she was three she would just constantly demand that my wife and I do voices for her. She wouldn’t let us talk to each other unless we did the voices. I very early on thought of this idea to have the sisters fight by doing an Elmo voice. Alison Brie at the first table read did an incredible Elmo voice. Then Jason was like, “If she’s going to do an Elmo voice, we should have Emily do Cookie Monster.” Emily kind of does a Count Chocula style Cookie Monster. The “C is for condom” line came from Rodney Rothman who’s our producer. When we were shooting the scene he thought of that line so it was a big group effort that started with my daughter constantly telling my wife and I to do Elmo for her.
It’s great news they’re going ahead with a Muppets 2. I wasn’t sure the box office was what they were counting on. Is it a relief that they’re assigning you to do that?
Yeah because I actually had the same thought. I was like it did well, but it wasn’t like a massive giant thing, but it certainly did well. They’re very excited to do another one and they really pursued us to do a sequel and I obviously love The Muppets so I was like yeah, of course. I’d also heard at the Disney Store in New York they sold out of all their Muppet merchandise and stuff. Not that they do these things to make money and sell toys but they do these things to make money and sell toys.
Is Jason not going to act in the movie either?
Right now, I mean James [Bobin] and I just started outlining it. It’s too early to say. It is more about The Muppets going on a different adventure. He’s awesome and the reason why the franchise is back so if he wants to do it, there’ll be of course a part for him.
Is Walter still in it?
Oh yeah, of course. He’s a Muppet. It would be funny though if they kicked him out right at the end of the last movie. You have this whole arc where he finally is a Muppet and they’re like, “Actually, you’re not.”
Is this outline ideas you had while you were doing the first one or is it starting from scratch?
It’s kind of starting from scratch a little bit. James and I kind of broke this really fun kind of capery story. The first one came out so well and it needed to be emotionally hefty and nostalgic. This one we reintroduced the characters so now we can just launch into a crazy Muppet adventure. There’s certainly an emotional through line to it. It’s not like there’s a lack of emotion but we don’t need to hit it quite as hard which is kind of freeing. We’re doing more of a crazy Muppet adventure which I think should be fun.
Will it still be musical?
Of course. It’s The Muppets.
Would you use any of the classic songs again?
You know, I’m not sure. Again, this one isn’t going to be quite as nostalgic but I’m not sure since we’re just starting. We’re not in the outlining stage.
Of all the cameos you got for The Muppets, why didn’t you go for Samuel L. Jackson? He’s in everything.
Oh, that’s true. That’s a good idea. We should think about him for this one.
Is it because he’s had it with those Motherfuppets?
[Laughs] Oh god, nice.
I have another one. Did he refuse to sing Mahna-Mahna because he’s a bad Mahnatherf***er?
[Laughs] Bad Mahnatherf***er. What’s the first one you said?
Bad Mahnatherfuppet. That’s pretty good.
Is Miss Piggy demanding more money now?
She is. She’s holding out. All the other Muppets agreed to be paid in food and she wants money for some reason.