There I sat, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, with Get Him to the Greek director Nicholas Stoller. He’s showing me pictures of his two year old daughter, holding up two hands like Russell Brand in the Greek poster. He’s a genuine, unassuming guy. Harvard educated, serious about his work but clearly enjoying time spent making audiences laugh. About 12-hours earlier, Stoller and his star Jonah Hill were on stage at the Alamo Drafthouse taking questions from an audience that had just enjoyed his latest film. Seasoned from a similar press tour with his first film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Stoller is ready to go early in the morning. Vibrant and confident from the success of the previous evening. He’s clearly relaxed and ready to speak with me about his feelings going into a screening like the one at the Alamo, about populating his movie with celebrities, and about his friends who look like Moby. There’s only one problem. We’re waiting for Jonah Hill to join us. After a few moments and the last of the adorable family pictures, we decide to begin without him.
I saw in the credits is you credited the “S&M guy who looks like Moby” is credited.
Nick: [laughs] Oh, yeah, yeah.
Was that scripted or was it just that Moby said no?
Nick: No, no. That was always…that’s a really good friend of mine named Tommy Nowell who is a hilarious writer. I think he actually was a child actor, [laughs], strangely, was in Friday the 13th Part 7 or something, in Sleepaway Camp. I just thought he would be really funny as a weird guy they run into late night in New York.
It was a really fun scene. I laughed so hard when I saw it in the credits. That guy does look like Moby.
Which leads me into some of the celebrity cameos. You know, you had Pink and Christina Aguilera. Were those planned or was it one of those things where it was just whoever you could get at the time?
Nick: You know, I knew that I wanted to populate the movie with celebrities, because whenever I’m hanging out with a celebrity, we run into other celebrities. [laughs] So it’s just like a strange sort of experience. And so that was intentional.
But then, you know, I focused on getting people…like in 2008, the first time Russell hosted the MTV VMA’s, we shot Christina Aguilera, and Pink, and also with Katy Perry. That’s where they met. And so, yeah. And I wanted to have..like Pharrell was psyched to do a bit. And then I wanted like a totally random celebrity, so the Today Show’s Paul Krugman seemed like a funny choice.
Paul Krugman seems like an “out of nowhere” choice. And I always wonder about stuff like the little bit with Tom Felton. Is that stuff where you write it and then you wish that Tom Felton would do it…?
Nick: We really wanted a Harry Potter cameo. Like we realized fans of the movies…and just like he’s in England, it seemed like a funny…We asked Tom Felton and he’s a fan of our movies, and was really excited, and was just like a gentleman and was really psyched to get to improv, I think, because I don’t think they do much of that, obviously, on the Harry Potter movies. It was just hilarious. And we kind of had areas that we wanted to improv in, certainly.
Were there any of them that surprised you? I mean any of them that…
Nick: No. I always get nervous before directing just a celebrity cameo. And everyone was super cool. There was nothing…And most people were…You know, we have this improv kind of way of doing things, and if they have ideas…If anyone has an idea, I kind of think of it is as an open source situation, and I think most of them just really enjoyed that process.
Now, was last night the first time you’d seen it with the live fan audience?
Nick: Well, we screened it a bunch of times for test screenings. I guess this was the first time since we locked picture that I went to see it with an audience. I haven’t gone to any of the…they’ve been having press screenings and stuff. I loved when we showed Sarah Marshall at the Paramount. That was the most fun screening of that whole process. And so I knew, even though I’ve seen this movie now 800 times and don’t need to see it again, I knew I had to watch it at that one with everyone.
Do you get a little nervous before a screening?
Nick: I don’t, and then during the movie I’m like, “Is this playing? What’s going on?” You know, I think I have that kind of reaction. But it’s locked. I’m really happy with it. I’m really excited about it, and it’s kind of, this is what I think is good. I think we did a good job, and hopefully the world agrees. And if they don’t, I think the world is wrong. Not a humble thing to say, but it’s a…
There’s not a whole lot you can do about it at this point.
Now the origin of the story, you mentioned last night, it was, you know, something that started very early, even in the process of making Sarah Marshall. Would you mind talking about that a little bit?
Nick: Yeah, I mean at the first table read of Sarah Marshall, I saw Jonah and Russell [Brand] had really good chemistry. And I was like, “That’s a movie. I don’t know what it is, but that’s a movie.” And I had watched, you know, like with Judd, when Judd produced Anchorman, you know, Carell was obviously, Steve Carell was obviously really popping in that, and I think Judd had the same kind of reaction, which is, “That guy’s…that’s a movie.”
And so then during Sarah Marshall, while we were shooting, I pitched to Russell and I pitched to Jonah, and they both thought it would be fun. You know, they both wanted to work together and thought this was a fun idea. And then originally, Russell was playing a different rock star and then kind of realized that would seem lazy.
At this point, Jonah Hill enters the room. After a quick greeting, he sits down and almost immediately begins doodling on a notepad that’s been sitting on the table. Shades, polygons and lightning bolts. It’s clear that he expects to be bored with the interview. After years in the business, he has been conditioned to expect underwhelming interviews. And while he’s attentive, alert and engaged in storytelling, he remains distant. We are talking about a movie that speaks for itself. His character Aaron — the fish out of water junior record executive, caught in a web of insanity perpetrated by Russell Brand’s absurd alter-ego — is as straightforward as any he’s played before.
Until the conversation turns to trust. And his relationship with Nick and Rodney Rothman, the film’s producer. He pops immediately out of his days and becomes an animated storyteller. There is also a very strange brainstorming session revolving around political analyst Paul Krugman.
So I was just asking Nick a little bit about whether or not he was nervous last night seeing it with the fan audiences. Are there any nerves for you when you see it at a screening like that?
Jonah: Not when the movie is good. I wouldn’t go unless I was confident in the movie. I definitely wouldn’t go do a giant press tour!
Well, it seems like it played really well. Do you guys find yourselves looking over your shoulder a bit?
Jonah: Yeah. We were looking around and listening to what plays big. Austin is not only my favorite place to hang out, but it is the all time greatest place to show a good movie, because it’s film fans and its people with good taste, and it’s people that are honest when the movie is not good and accepting and not spiteful or jealous when it is good.
Was there anything that surprised you that played better than you thought it would?
Nick: The Paul Krugman cameo got a huge reaction, and I was pretty excited about that.
Jonah: That’s how you know it’s an intelligent audience.
Jonah: When people go crazy for Paul Krugman and Tom Felton…
Nick: Or Pharrell.
Jonah: [laughs] Yeah.
Nick: It’s interesting, like, when different cameos hit. Because, you know, test screenings, Pharrell shows up and people in the audience go like, “Whoo!” Or Tom Felton.
Jonah: Paul Krugman.
Nick: Paul Krugman, Austin.
Jonah: Yeah, the Kruge… Austin’s got love for…
Nick: The Krugemeister.
Jonah: The Krugman.
Nick: You partied with Krugman last night, right?
Jonah: Yeah, he flew in. But he’s all like coked up and crazy. He’s a lot like Aldus in the movie.
Nick: Get Paul Krugman to Princeton. Get him to Princeton.
Jonah: That’s the boring version of the movie is getting like a political analyst to talk at Princeton.
Nick: Get him to George Stephanopoulos. I’m going to go to the Admiral’s Club and read.
Jonah: Do you have an extra charger for a Kindle? That’s like the big second act.
Nick: You’re like, “I need to find him a charger for…Yes, yes. Right here.” I purchased the Wall Street Journal so I’m actually covered.
Does finding the Kindle charger involve TJ Miller getting stabbed?
Nick: I think it involves him just going to Best Buy and getting a charger.
That was actually one of my questions. Was what would be crazier: partying in Vegas with P. Diddy or Paul Krugman?
Jonah: I’ve only done one of the two. I’ll let you guess which one. They’re both equally as weird to have done either of them.
Nick: I actually think Krugman might be weirder.
Jonah: It is way weirder.
Nick: It’s like way weirder. Like Diddy.
Jonah: …would be in Vegas partying.
Nick: Krugman is very…He’s obviously a great intellectual but an odd dude.
Jonah: But just not a guy like…he’s a serious man.
Nick: He’s a serious academic. We kept saying, “I can’t believe he’s doing this. Why is he doing this?”
Jonah: He kept saying that too. “Why did I… I don’t need this.”
Let’s talk a little bit about the evolution of the comedy. How much of it comes from the script and how much of it then evolves in rehearsal and then on set? What was some of the stuff that evolved as you were making it as opposed to what you wrote?
Nick: You know, we start by writing the script and rewriting the script and making sure the story’s good and all the characters make sense. And then we have a bunch of table reads and during the table reads we get notes from the actors and from a lot writers…
Jonah: And friends.
Nick: And friends and stuff. And then we have rehearsal…
Jonah: It was one of the best table reads I’ve ever done. People were very supportive; writers especially and directors were like, “Go forward.” You love when you get the nod of like, “Go forward and make this movie. You’ll be fine. Your career will not end afterwards.”
Nick: Yeah. It was a great table read. It was fun.
Jonah: People were very supportive.
Nick: They were psyched. And actually at the table read too you learn like…at our first table read Diddy just killed. He was just so funny. And I expanded his part. I was like, he needs to appear here, here, here, here. Because he’s just so funny you’re waiting for him to show up. So yes, those were really useful and scripts were rewritten based on that. And then we had rehearsals and the actors kind of improv and Rodney Rothman, our producer, and myself will throw out ideas and everyone’s improving and then we incorporate those improvs into the script. And then on the day we shoot the script and then we shoot…and the actors improv or Rodney or I will throw out jokes. So it’s kind of an organic process.
Jonah: It’s a very green process.
Nick: Very green. Green organic process.
Jonah: It’s very green.
Nick: I can throw that word “organic” in anywhere and I sound smart. Most organic.
Jonah: We have the greenest process of anyone. So we’re very green.
Nick: Until we get on the jet. But I always say… it’s hard to tell… I would say it’s like 60% scripted and 40% improv. I don’t know if that’s…
Jonah: That’s fair.
Now, Jonah you did this right after doing Cyrus, correct?
Jonah: Yes. Literally right after.
Working in an environment like that where a lot of… it’s very, very improv. Did you find yourself wanting to go back to something a little bit more scripted or did you find yourself ready to kind of improv?
Jonah: It was strange because I did three in a row. I did Funny People and then I had literally five days off and then I went to Cyrus. And then I had about three weeks off, or four, and then we started Get Him to the Greek. So Funny People was oddly very structured. It was very like “say the lines” experience for me personally. I mean we would improvise but not nearly, nearly as much as Knocked Up or Superbad. For me personally. Maybe that was different for Sandler [and the others.] I also had a smaller part so…
Then the Duplass brothers were so loose which was an amazing experience because it was kind of letting me out of my cage a little bit. And they literally light the whole house and you can just walk in other rooms and it’s really a creative experiment in a lot of ways. And then Greek was really nice because I’m so comfortable with Nick and Rodney. We’re really good friends.
And Nick and Rodney are kind of like… you have to want a movie and I’ve been lucky because on Cyrus I was friends with Mark and Jay, became friends with them. But John Reilly and I became really close. So on a movie when things get stressful or when you get worried about creative elements you need to have your safety people that you can go to and be like, “I’m freaked out. Let’s talk about this.” You know that there’s genuine love for one another because you’re trying to look out for each other’s feelings and you actually give a shit about each other’s feelings. So Nick and Rodney, I just love them as people and we’re such good friends.
Nick: Yeah. We’re all like friends so forgetting about the movie we don’t want to disappoint each other.
Nick: It’s like you don’t want the movie to be good. I don’t want to disappoint Jonah.
Jonah: Right. We all really respect each other but at the end of the day I really give a shit about Nick’s feelings and I know he cares about my feelings. And that’s important because I’m sure…we’ve been lucky in our careers but a lot of people work for people who could give two shits about what they’re feeling like. You know what I mean? And so Nick and Rodney…it was great.
And also Nick had written a really great script. That’s the one thing is even the Duplass Brothers when we ended up being so different… they’re fascinating because they almost write their movies in the editing room. They edit their movie…you don’t know what they’re doing. You’re like, “What the fuck is this going to be like?” And they show you the movie and you’re like crying because you’re like, “I can’t believe this is what you guys made. It’s so good.” But Nick and Rodney… Nick had written a great script.
So if we had shot the script I felt like, “Cool. We’re in good shape.” Same with Cyrus. That’s what’s interesting, talk about being different. But that was another script that was a great script so if we had shot that it’d be great. Sorry. I’m giving the most long-winded answer ever. But I was excited because a, Nick had already done a massive amount of the hard work just by writing a great script. And b, I was with people I love and respect. And c, you know, we did a lot of improvising in rewriting and joke pitching because it’s fun and it excites us. As well as Nick; you want to give Nick as many options as you can in case something sucks when you test it. But for me it’s mostly about seeing if I can make him laugh. Truly. It’s mostly about, “We’ve said the joke that was written. Now how am I going to surprise him and make…” That’s like the best feeling ever when you know you’re about to say something that’s going…you’re going to get…like Nick has a really great laugh and he’ll laugh during takes and stuff…
Nick: I would ruin takes.
Jonah: Yeah. So I love getting Nick to blow a take by laughing at something.
Now speaking of options, do you feel like you have a lot now to then share on the DVD on this?
Nick: Yeah. We the DVD is…we have a lot of extra…we have whole sequences, whole scenes, sequences that just aren’t…just didn’t end up in the movie that…
Jonah: There’s a great Central Park like cocaine jogging scene. We do cocaine in Central Park which is…
It’s in the trailer?
Nick: Yeah. It’s in the trailer.
Jonah: It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever shot. It’s so funny.
Nick: Yeah. It’s crazy funny so I actually think the extended movie will be funny.
Jonah: We shot way longer than…not that we needed to because you needed all that stuff but we shot so much stuff that’s not in the movie.
Nick: There’s this whole opening sequence at this castle in England that Russell and Rose Byrne break up. That’s their break-up scene. And it’s like this big party and it was a crazy…we shot it over the course of a week and watched the first cut and we’re like, “Nope.” Be on the DVD.
Well it’s interesting you mentioned the coke and the running scene. I kind of wanted to ask a little bit about the drugs in the movie because the movie definitely has a pretty solid “drugs are bad” stance.
Jonah: But I don’t think in a cheesy way at all.
It’s not heavy handed at all. But I wonder if there was ever a time where you thought of showing…taking Russell’s character to a darker place and showing him actually doing hard drugs. You never really see him doing heroin or cocaine or anything…
Nick: You know, I had it in the script at one point…
Jonah: You had that coke scene that’s out.
Nick: We had the coke scene yeah. But that almost is played a little more funny. I had like him doing heroine in the script and it just felt like tonally it wouldn’t work. Like it would feel…you know when you’re watching a comedy and suddenly it’s like way too serious and…I think this movie does have serious scenes in it. Obviously it has a serious…but when it takes…I thought tonally it wouldn’t work. It would seem cheesy.
Jonah: Nick was very intelligent about. We did takes where we said drugs, we did takes where we said heroine, we did takes where…
Nick: Just in case, yeah.
Jonah: He was very thoughtful about what people would be and wouldn’t be comfortable with regarding drugs. And I thought that was very intelligent. One of the first set pieces over that lunch at Cantor isn’t in there but is one of the scripts. We literally had the most slapsticky heroine joke. The heroine needle fight.
There’s a heroine needle fight?
Nick: We didn’t shoot it.
Jonah: We didn’t shoot it but it was one of my favorite things that we talked about. We talked about this over lunch and it was in the draft. It was literally going to be a fight where we get into a big argument. We start throwing used needles at each other. It’s too dark. It would have been the lowest testing set piece of all time.
Nick: If you avoid that then you have a very serious scene like the Vegas sweet scene where Russell yells at Jonah’s character…because we don’t have other dark stuff that’s a pretty dark, serious scene. And I was never concerned that it would be…
Jonah: That’s what’s always interesting to me is that the scene where I’m buying heroine from TJ doesn’t get a laugh until he’s stabbed really, because… and I think it would. Like when you watch that sequence on its own it gets laughs… huge laughs. Like checking the guests for heroine…you know, the name H-E-R doesn’t get any laughs because the scene before people are like, “Whoa. Is it OK that he’s going to get him drugs?” Like whatever. Then he gets stabbed and then you’re like, “Oh fine.”But it’s a very delicate balance and I think Nick really did a beautiful job with that. It’s a hard subject to kind of make a mainstream movie about.
Nick: I watched Trainspotting before this movie and I watched Sid and Nancy. They were both incredible movies. And as I watched them I was like, “I can’t do 80% of this. Not for a studio comedy. I just can’t.”
With that, we are cut off by time. Sadly, what turned into a great conversation about the relationships that help keep the comedy flowing had to be cut off so that Nick and Jonah could get on with a very long day of press ahead of them. And as I exited the room, I watched as two other young journalists entered behind me. Just as I reached the door I could see Jonah. He had resumed his doodling.
Get Him to the Greek is in theaters Friday, June 4th.