Compared to Nicholas Stoller‘s two previous films, The Five-Year Engagement has a lot going on. While his prior efforts only covered a few days, Engagement‘s timeline, if you couldn’t guess, goes well over… five years. Fitting all that time in one movie mustn’t be easy, as well as all the drama and comedy that takes place in that same period. As Stoller described the long writing process, it wasn’t easy, but life saves such as When Harry Met Sally helped him get through it, along with the help of co-writer Jason Segel.
With their dramatic comedy, the frequent collaborators took on an idea not discussed enough in love stories: that no one is ever going to be 100% perfect for you. As you’d expect from Stoller and Segel, said idea is milked for every comedic turn possible.
Here’s what co-writer/director Nicholas Stoller had to say about the long writing process, why he never screams, and how the world almost got the Eminem animated show it deserved:
The film spans over five years. How difficult was it fitting that into a clean structure?
You know, that was the biggest challenge: make it dramatically compelling, but also tell a story over many years. I watched all the great romantic comedies that take place over a long period of time. Like, When Harry Marry Sally, Annie Hall, and Broadcast News, and we looked at how they were structured. We learned a lot from doing that.
Do you usually do that, look at other films as templates?
Yeah, yeah. This was the most intense version of that. With Get Him to the Greek, I actually watched a lot of serious rock movies. The big touchstone for me was, strangely, Sid and Nancy [Laughs]. With Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I watched Annie Hall. I’d look at how they were structured. It was interesting because they seem like they’re slightly rambling, but they’re tightly structured and really driving forward, so we tried to duplicate that vibe in our film.
How long did it take to complete the script?
We set it up four years ago. We talked about it for a year and half, and then we wrote it… well, a part of it is we never really stopped writing, even when we were shooting, but I would say three years. It was a year of just writing and a year of shooting and rewriting. It’s a constantly evolving process when you’re writing a script. First we’re writing it as the two of us, then we’re rewriting it, taking a breath, doing the table read, and then rewriting it for the actors.
I’m guessing you even see editing as rewriting since you shoot so much footage.
Oh, yeah, the editing process is a complete rewrite. We did reshoots, and those were an additional kind of rewrite and added material. So, yeah, it’s a long process, but it’s really fun.
How long do your assembly cuts tend to be?
For this one it was really long, and actually the longest of the three. The assembly for this was three hours and forty-five minutes [Laughs] — which was a bummer! That was painful, and I couldn’t believe it! But it quickly dropped. It’s kind of the last half hour that was the hardest part to cut and, also, figuring out the last ten minutes. We did a lot of test screenings. What’s weird about this movie is it tested really well at the beginning, but we tested it longer than we would have; it was at two hours and 15 minutes. It tested great, so that made it harder to figure out. Usually it’s, “Oh, this part’s not getting laughs, so take it out.” That made it more difficult to figure out, but then we figured it out, did some reshoots, and punched up certain areas.
What was in that hour and forty minutes?
Well, there’s a lot of gags that didn’t work or weren’t necessary. During the party scene, Jason ended up going on the roof and falling off the roof, and you see him falling through the window as Violet and Winton are talking. [Laughs] Remember when the deer falls off and he puts it in the car?
We had a bit where, then, Jason’s phone rings, and he drops it on the floor. He pulls over, reaches for the phone, and a dog walker walks by, and it looks like Jason is administering oral sex on a deer. That actually worked. We tested that gag, and it worked. The biggest thing we cut out was a ten-minute sequence that we actually screened for friends and family. There was a ten-minute sequence where after they fight, they feel bad, so they go out to this dinner, dance to a cover version of “Sweet Thing,” and when they sit down, Jason’s credit card doesn’t work. Emily asks how much money he has saved, and it turns out he has 300 dollars saved. He asks how much she has saved, and she says 30,000 dollars and he just gets serious with her about why she didn’t tell him that. She feels bad and helps Jason open a restaurant, but then it explodes! [Laughs] That entire sequence, which was basically its own movie, we lifted out of the movie. [Laughs]
You should just release that as a short film.
I know. That’s a funny idea, to cut it as a short film. It’s funny, because the scene of them dancing together was one of the sweetest and most romantic moments of the film, and we had to cut it out. And the explosion, I mean, it was hilarious because we blew up a building and had to cut it out.
I’m sure Universal loved that. [Laughs]
I know, they were like, “What are you doing? What’s going on up there?” [Laughs] When we did the reshoots — which we did for three days, and they’re always helpful — it was very precise. Basically everything we shot those three days we used in the film; only one thing we didn’t use. It’s interesting, because you have a sense of the shape of the film, but you have a better sense of what you need at that point.
So you’re not one to get precious over a gag or certain scenes? You’ll cut them if you have to?
Yeah, if they don’t work. I actually don’t get attached to stuff. The only thing that’s confusing is if multiple jokes get laughs when we test the film, then it’s hard to cut them. Most of the hard conversations we have in editorial are about what is helping or hurting the story. If a joke doesn’t work, you cut it.
Tonally I’d say the film has more dramatic beats than your other work, but there are still the more broad moments. How did you go about balancing that?
Whenever I’ve had a dramatic event in my life, it’s also been weird and funny. You know, I think that they’re the opposite sides of the same point, in a way. To make something more dramatic, it should be more funny and weird. I think about the Coen brothers. Like, No Country for Old Men is one of the most dramatic and terrifying movies of all time, but it’s also hilarious. If something’s just serious, then it’s not effective to me; it’s just not realistic. Everything comes from story, and I know it may not seem like it. Jason falling off the roof didn’t really come from story and I was trying to jam it in, so I cut it. It sounds ridiculous, but when Emily runs into that car door we’re punishing her. [Laughs] There’s a lot going on there. The audience buys it because she’s going to her lowest moment ever. It’s all a part of that. Or maybe I just tell myself that and it’s all bullshit.
[Laughs] No, I was actually thinking of that street chase scene. It’s funny, but when you think about it, it’s pretty sad.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. I remember the scene where Jason yells at Emily, and that actually happened to me. I had a girlfriend in college — and it was a dumb college relationship — and I got really drunk… to this day, I am not a screamer. I never scream at people. I just don’t do it. In fact, at one point during the shoot, I tried to scream and I ended up apologizing. One day was really hard, we had too much to shoot, and I was trying to get everyone revved up, but I ended up apologizing. [Laughs]
Anyway, I was really heartbroken and trying to figure out what was going on between us; it was an on-and-off again college thing. I got really drunk and screamed at her. I still don’t remember what I said, but it’s hilarious to me that that could happen, so it seemed funny, to me, to put that in. [Laughs] It was at a party, a lot of guys were around, and it was super weird. In the moment, it’s the most dramatic and weird thing ever, but when I put a camera on it and film me screaming as guys are walking by and watching me make a fool of myself, it’s just hilarious. That’s the real-life version. [Laughs]
You should make a movie just about that.
[Laughs] Exactly, exactly. I love Todd Phillips, but you don’t want to go too Todd Phillips.
[Laughs] I know what you mean. It’s interesting how you and Jason approach the core idea of the film: someone is never going to be 100% right for you, and how that’s fine. Was that the idea the story evolved from?
Yeah. Something I noticed in When Harry Met Sally is that they repeat the thesis of the film a zillion times — like, in every scene, they’re asking if a man and woman can be friends. I think every movie should have a theme, especially something more low-concept and character-driven. Very early on our theme was: you can’t be perfect for each other, and you have to figure it out. We’re repeating that theme in many scenes, with them questioning whether they’re perfect or not. That was definitely important for us.
It’s not an idea you see that often in love stories, and it goes against the norm in that way. When you and Jason are writing, do you think about conventions or just go with what feels natural?
We do what the story suggests. Like, at the end of The Muppets, The Muppets have to put on a show. You have to have them put on a show. It’s a cliche, but also what they have to do. You have to do it, and you have to make it surprising. There’s that adage stories have to be surprising. [Spoiler Alert] Yes, we end on a wedding, but we tried to find a surprising and interesting way for that to occur, and that’s where the hard work is. There is a way to subvert people’s expectations of not having them get together by the end, but that’s not the point of the film. The point of the film is trying to make things work in life. To not have them get together, I think, would be a cop out. [Spoiler Over]
I interviewed you a few years ago, and you mentioned this great horrible meeting you had, where you discussed the possibility of working on an animated show for Eminem. I have to ask, if that show happened, what would you have done?
What was my Eminem pitch? I’m actually in front of my computer, so let’s see if I can find it… [Laughs] This was literally, like, eleven years ago. Oh my God, I think I still have it. Okay, let’s see here…
[Laughs] I can’t wait to hear this.
[Laughs] It’s going to be really bad, whatever it is. I remember they wanted it to be like a South Park ripoff. Alright, now the file’s opened… oh man, it’s horrible; it’s really bad. I wrote a whole thing! It’s six pages of shorts. Man, this is embarrassing. He lived with his aunty who’s into pot. Wait, this is what it was: he would play Slim Shady and Marshall in the show, they were both characters. So, yeah…
[Laughs] I think the world needs this.
[Laughs] I think it’s good the world never saw it.
The Five-Year Engagement is now in theaters.