At the age of 24, not long after his experience writing for the Harvard Lampoon, Nick Stoller was hired to write for Judd Apatow’s television show Undeclared. Though the show was quickly canceled, Stoller’s bond with Apatow and Undeclared actor Jason Segel has been lasting. Since the show, Stoller has collaborated on Apatow productions Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Stoller’s directorial debut) and The Muppets (which Stoller and Segel co-wrote), among others. Their latest collaboration is the Stoller-directed The Five-Year Engagement, starring Segel and Emily Blunt as a couple whose odyssey to the altar takes some unplanned turns. It was filmed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which also happens to be the hometown of Stoller’s wife and figures into their own story. Stoller recently spoke with Grantland’s Davy Rothbart.
You’ve been working with Judd Apatow for 12 years now. How did you first get the job writing for his TV series Undeclared?
Since it was a show about people in college, Judd wanted to meet with some young writers. I met with him and pitched him an idea about a girl who’s in college but is still dating a guy back in her hometown. He really liked some of my ideas and ended up hiring me for the show. The idea I’d pitched became part of the show’s fabric — and the guy back in the girl’s hometown was played by Jason Segel, who I’ve been working with ever since.
Making a movie is such a long process that evolves so incrementally. When is the first moment when you can reflect on the finished product?
I think it happens when you begin to test-screen a film. With The Five-Year Engagement, it tested well with audiences from the beginning, which was a relief. When you write a book, you can’t watch someone read and enjoy it. [Making a movie is] a very collaborative, social experience. When you watch the film with an audience, you can feel them responding. That’s kind of a rush. I love hearing people on their way out of the theater talking about the moments they liked the best — that’s my celebration right there.
How often do you end up watching your movies? If one comes on TV, do you change the channel?
A few months ago, I watched Sarah Marshall for the first time since it came out. There’s just so many feelings that go through me — things I’m happy with, things I wish I’d done differently — that it can be hard to watch. I’ve literally watched The Five-Year Engagement four times in the past week at various screenings, and honestly I probably won’t watch it again for two years. I love this movie and I love watching it every time, but there are other movies I want to see now which are higher on my list.
How’d you first meet your wife, Francesca? How similar is it to the couple from the movie?
We met through friends at a playwriting workshop. This was in 2001, during the one month in my life that I happened to have a beard. I looked really different. Francesca literally didn’t see me, and for a while she had no idea that I even existed, even though we were spending day after day in the same workshop. Finally, we got to be friends, but we were both dating other people. Then a year went by and I shaved my beard. When I came back to the playwriting workshop, she said, “Oh, I didn’t remember how tall you were!” As soon as she said that, I thought to myself, “Okay, it’s on.” We quickly started courting. But I lived in L.A. and she was living in Ann Arbor, so it was kind of like The Five-Year Engagement [Blunt moves to Ann Arbor for grad school while Segel remains in California].
By the time we started dating, I was 26, she was 28. We kind of knew right away how good things felt. I don’t think we were like, OK, this is it, we’re definitely going to get married, but we were both like, This is really good and really interesting; it’s probably worth pursuing. In a way, the long-distance was kind of romantic. We talked all the time on the phone. For our first real date, she flew out to L.A. and we drove up the California coast for the weekend.
Sounds like a pretty ambitious first date.
Yeah, it’s kind of a funny story. I was a TV writer then — a TV writer that didn’t have a job. But I really wanted to impress her, so I took her to this hotel called the Post Ranch Inn, which is probably one of the most expensive hotels on the entire West Coast. I had no money, no savings. I just really wanted to impress her. She was like, “Are you sure we should do this?” I was fronting: “Oh, don’t worry about it. This will be awesome.”
We were the youngest people there by 20 years. Well, the day we’re checking out, we were reading the Sunday New York Times. There’s this article on the front of the “Arts” section. Keep in mind, I’d been waiting for the new hiring season, when comedy sitcoms hire new writers, praying I’d find a job. And now, in the New York Times, there’s this giant headline: “Is the Sitcom Dead?” And there’s a drawing of a guy wearing a Harvard Lampoon cap pointing a gun at his head, and sticking out of it is one of those flags that says “BANG!”
How does someone really know that they’re ready for marriage?
I think the point of The Five-Year Engagement is that you don’t really know. You have to find someone you really click with and then jump into it. I’m quite a romantic, and a person who believes that my marriage and my family are the center of my life and the center of my happiness. That doesn’t mean that everything is always easy and that there haven’t been compromises along the way, but any compromises are nothing compared to the happiness and joy I get out of being a husband.