IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'The Five-Year Engagement'

Thursday, 26 April 2012 12:34 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'The Five-Year Engagement'

In 2008, writer/star Jason Segel and director Nicholas Stoller made an unconventional contribution to the break-up subgenre with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a comedy that featured a irascible rock star, beautiful vistas, a puppet musical, and conspicuous nudity from Segel himself.  Stoller then directed the Sarah Marshall spin-off Get Him to the Greek before the duo reunited to write last year's The Muppets.  Now, having taken on break-ups, benders, and muppets, Segel and Stoller are turning to the subject of marriage.

Or rather, they're turning to the subject of engagement.  Co-written by the duo and directed by Stoller, The Five-Year Engagement stars Segel and Emily Blunt as a loving couple whose nuptials just keep getting postponed.  The comedy follows misanthropic Tom and academic Violet, along with their friends and family, over the five years it takes them to actually end up at the alter.

Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, and Nicholas Stoller were both present at the Los Angeles press day for the film, where they and super comedy producer Judd Apatow were happy to talk about all things The Five-Year EngagementIAR was on hand to catch the quartet's thoughts on running times, relaxed narratives, the supporting cast, cutting funny material, making personal movies, and losing objectivity.

Most movies centered around impending weddings, be they romantic comedies or dramas, use the marriage to drive the narrative engine, but in the particular film, the engagement not happening is the point.  "It was a challenge to write, and was certainly a challenge to edit, because there are no big plot movements," Segel explained. "There's no car accident; there's no big earthquake where someone dies or something, and there's also no big contrivance like, 'I'm a scientist and she hates science.' It's like a very earnest exploration about how a relationship is fluid, and when you choose a partner and you say, 'I want to marry you,' you're not saying it for this moment, you're saying it for your whole life and what's going to be ever shifting power dynamics. It really is an honest exploration of relationships, and yeah it was tricky to write, but the best ones are that. Annie Hall is that, and when Harry Met Sally is that.

Emily Blunt, known to American audiences from films including The Devil Wears Prada and The Adjustment Bureau, though that the laidback approach to the narrative paid off, saying, "I do think with a much more simple premise as well, there's just so much more room to play amongst that. As actors there's a lot you can do to really make these relationships complex and interesting and messy and flawed and loving, and all of those things. It's actually, I think, what you guys were wanting to make. It’s a movie with great heart. The situations these two are put in are ludicrous and outrageous and obviously heightened for the spectacle of the movie, but yet you invest in them as a couple in a very real way, hopefully."

That combination of raucous comedy and affecting characters has been very much associated with the films produced by Judd Apatow, like Bridesmaids and SuperbadApatow shepherded Forgetting Sarah Marshall into being, and part of his producorial ethos involves keeping costs low to allow for more creative freedom.

Segel recalled, "I remember when Judd first pitched Sarah Marshall to them, he said, 'I can give you a Ben Stiller movie for the quarter of the price.' That was his initial pitch. I think we still stand by that idea. There's no reason to get greedy about it. We're so lucky. We're all doing fine financially. No reason to cut off your nose despite your face just to prove that you're worth it or something."

As for his contribution to the emotional arc of The Five-Year Engagement, Apatow was self-deprecating, saying, "I only influence with my passive aggressiveness and my co-dependence, and then I give the book, which is the Bible, Do I Have to Give Up Me to be Loved by You? We understand kind of that weird people pleasing, where you would go to Michigan to make your girlfriend happy, but you really want her to owe you. That's one part of the movie that I thought was really interesting, because I think a lot of people do that. They try to be the angel in the relationship, but there's so many strings attached to it."

The actors were also major contributions to their characters and the emotional side of the story.  Blunt for example, was instrumental in creating and refining Violet, working with Stoller and Segel.  "Yeah, its part of our process, Nick and I," Segel said. "As soon as we hire somebody, especially to play the female lead, the first thing we do is sit down with them, and have a long talk. Just a talk, its not even about acting, abut how you feel about relationships, how you would actually handle these scenes. Then we do a rewrite to tailor it to the person that’s playing the role."

"It's funny, because Nick's been married for a long time as well, so he really gets it," Blunt said of the relationship between Violet and Tom.  "Jason, even if he isn't married, he is a romantic. He's been in long-term relationships. I think everyone who was involved in it has had experience with relationships. It felt very collaborative. I mean they did a great first draft, and then I signed on, and I came in and I gave a couple of ideas, and they were incorporated or not, but it was very collaborative, with different perspectives of what we feel about relationships. I think it was a very personal movie. Everyone talked and shared a lot, and a lot of that made it onto the screen."

Though the eponymous engagement dominates the film, the loose nature of the story allows for many supporting players to contribute both comedically and thematically.  Alison Brie and Chris Pratt, who regularly do rock-solid work on the NBC comedies Community and Parks and Recreation, respectively, play Suzie and Alex.  The two comedic ringers steal many a scene, but they also serve as a reflection of the main couple.

According to Blunt, "The supposed f**k-ups, Alison and Chris, who are actually the ones who don't over think and just go for it, and end up having a very successful relationship and are very in love. We're the ones who over think everything and strategize everything, and I think that gets in their way as much as their life circumstances get in the way. They get in the way of themselves, trying to wait for the perfect moment. I think I've always been quite a spontaneous person, so I would lean more towards, if you feel it, if you know its right, do it."

That sense of spontaneity is frequently encouraged by Nicholas Stoller, who creates an on-set environment friendly to riffing and improvisation.  That can result in many a funny take, gag, or even sequence that doesn't end making it into the theatrical film.  Stoller said that the process of whittling the film down to a reasonable length isn't too traumatic, explaining, "I don't really get attached to anything. I'm pretty brutal about cutting stuff. With each successful movie, I've discovered anything that’s not connected to the immediate story is going to be cut out of it. I learned that the hard way in Greek, where anything that didn't have to do with getting him to the Greek was cut out of the movie. Then we did re-shoots to make sure there was a section that they weren't going to the Greek, and then we ended up having to do a little bit of a re-shoot to fix that."

"There wasn't anything that I was like, 'Oh I miss that,' because usually its for a good reason," the director continued. "The dumbest joke that actually got a laugh when we tested it, but just was too dumb and really makes me laugh was a (Rodney Ruffian) joke, really funny. After the deer falls off of the car, and the deer is setting next to him, Jason's phone rings. He drops the phone on the floor of the car, and he pulls over to reaches down to get the phone, and a person is walking by, and it looks like he's giving the deer oral. Its' just hilarious, but we were like, 'Ah its like thirty seconds to get a deer oral sex joke.'"

Apatow, whose directorial credits consist of The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Funny People, said that the process can also result in a loss of objectivity and an unclear story.  He related it to his current work on his Knocked Up spinoff due later this year, saying, "I know because I've been editing my movie, This is Forty, that I need Nick and people like that to come to cuts to say, 'Does it make sense? How did it feel in that section, because I've watched it four hundred times, and I have no idea if its working or not.' But the audience does it. We do a lot of previews, and we like seeing where the laughs are, and reading the cards, because if the audience doesn't understand it then we've failed.

Conventional wisdom regarding comedy features generally maintains that running times should hover around 90 minutes.  Both Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, however, run closer to 110 minutes.  Apatow productions tend to have similar running times, allowing more time for audiences to connect emotionally.

Of this tendency, Apatow said, "We're fighting the attention span of earth. I don't think there's that many great ninety-minute comedies to be honest with you. The ones that I always liked whether it's Terms of Endearment or Broadcast News or Fast Times of Ridgemont High, they were all like two hours or a little bit over two hours. With that extra fifteen, twenty minutes is where you can get to real character, and you're not just stuck in plot. There are people who like short movies, and I think they should just watch our movies on DVD, because they can pause and go to the bathroom, eat dinner, and come back to it. Every time I'm in editing there's always a moment where you think, 'Maybe this should be six or seven minutes shorter, but I'm losing character and story that I think is important.' When I like things, I'm not in a rush for them to end, but there are people that entertainment is something they do at the end of a long hard day at work, and they want to be entertained and over quickly. 'Entertain me fast!'"

The Five-Year Engagement – which also stars Brian Posehn, Chris Parnell, Mimi Kennedy, Jim Piddock, and David Paymer –  arrives in theaters nationwide this Friday, April 27th.

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