The word “penis” is seldom brought up in celebrity interviews. And it’s not like I’m on the phone with, say, Kevin Bacon or Viggo Mortensen. The man on the other line is Nick Stoller, director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the latest crowd pleaser from the Judd Apatow factory. And still, over the course of our twenty-minute conversation, we pay tribute to “penis” six times. This, after all, is not an illuminating exploration into the psyche of the next Orson Welles—but that’s not to say that Stoller isn’t a genius in his own right. A Harvard graduate (where he wrote for The Harvard Lampoon), Stoller first teamed up with Apatow on the short-lived but much-loved FOX series “Undeclared.” He went on to co-write 2005′s Fun With Dick and Jane (there it is again!), and is now days away from the release of his directorial debut starring Jason Segel, Kristin Bell, Mila Kunis, and a whole army of comedic heavyweights. It’s about a man (Segel) who travels to Hawaii after getting dumped by his TV star girlfriend (Bell), only to find that she’s shacked up with her new rock star boyfriend (Russell Brand) at the same resort. Hilarious pig roasts, luaus, and crippling humiliation ensue. Bookended by alohas, Stoller discusses his new Muppets movie, the soul-crushing tedium of directing a film, and Billy Baldwin’s unhealthy obsession with David Caruso.
BLACKBOOK: This is a big leap for you into the major motion picture. Are you terrified? NICK STOLLER: It’s been totally natural. [Laughs.] No! It was terrifying! It was a totally terrifying experience. But once we started, I remembered that I was just the person saying “Action” and “Cut.”
BB: Were you worried that the cast and crew wouldn’t take you seriously as a director?
NS: Absolutely. My first fear was that I simply wouldn’t be able to do it. And then, much after that, I was scared that I’d be really bored. So, many rungs below the “Can I get this done?” panic was the “If I can get this done, will this be three months of soul-crushing tedium?” worry.
Kristin Bell in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
BB: How hands-on was Judd Apatow with this movie?
NS: He was very involved in the casting and the writing. We really hammered on the script together. He had lots of notes, and every time I would get annoyed at his notes, I would realize later that he was completely right.
BB: It’s an understatement to say that he is riding a big wave right now, but people are calling this the new “Judd Apatow” movie. Ever get the urge to clarify?
NS: Well, that’s for marketing. People who I care about know that I’m the director. If you start getting bothered by that stuff, you’ll spin out.
BB: Is it challenging to direct a movie about heartbreak and bitterness when you’re happily in love?
NS: It’s really easy to access those feelings, actually. I think that if I were in the midst of heartbreak, it might be harder, because I wouldn’t have that remove. It’s like how people write the worst poetry when they’re in the middle of heartbreak.
BB: The Internet is going insane over the new Muppet movie you’re working on. Is this some kind of joke?
NS: [Laughs.] I love the Muppets and Jason [Segel, Forgetting Sarah Marshall‘s writer and star] is obsessed with the Muppets. I call them a gateway drug to comedy. We had a business meeting with the Jim Henson Company awhile back, and they passed out puppets for fun, and—this is how obsessed he is—I had to take Jason’s puppet away because he couldn’t pay attention to the meeting. He was, like, doing stuff with the puppet, reacting to people in the meeting with it. Eventually, he said, “There haven’t been any Muppet movies lately. What are you guys doing with the Muppets?” There was this big, awkward pause, and Disney was like, “We don’t really know.” So we quickly came up with ideas. It’s kind of an old-school Muppets movie. The Muppets have to put on a show in their studio, and a stock bad guy is going to come and destroy the studio because there is oil underneath it. It’s not a message movie in any way, but I said that to some reporter this weekend, and, immediately, it was on some right wing website: The Muppets have turned into anti-capitalist liberals!
Jack McBrayer and Russell Brand in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. BB: If the Muppets are the gateway drug to comedy, what exactly are the nude scenes in Forgetting Sarah Marshall? And, more importantly, how did you convince your actors to get naked?
NS: Well, Mila Kunis didn’t. That picture was created on the computer. I hope that doesn’t ruin a lot of people’s fantasies.
BB: Every blogger who still lives at home with his mom just died a little.
NS: And Jason [whose character is naked when his girlfriend decides to break up with him] had been dumped this way. He was naked, and the girl broke up with him. The difference is that, in reality, after she said, “I love you very much,” he went and got dressed, and intentionally chose an outfit she had bought for him. It was in the first draft of the script. But then I thought it was more of an intellectual joke. I thought it’d be funnier if he stayed naked the whole time, and Jason said early on, “I should just show my penis.” But I was like, You’re not allowed to do that. I didn’t really know the rules. Then we had a meeting at Universal and Judd was like, “Jason, you should show your penis!” And Universal was like, “Yeah! Totally!” They probably weren’t listening to what he said.
BB: Balls aren’t really as funny as they are shocking. How much do you employ shock to make people laugh?
NS: With that scene, there was a lot of shock value, and the other shock scene is probably the pig killing. But wait, how many seconds or minutes of penis do you think there are in the movie?
BB: Five minutes, maybe?
NS: There are only about two-and-a-half seconds of penis throughout the whole movie. We played around with the number of penis shots in that opening scene. And, interesting enough, the fewer there were, the more invested audiences became in the break-up—albeit for the wrong reasons. There was this weird tension because nobody wanted to see his penis again.
BB: One of the best parts of the movie, Jason’s private parts aside, is Billy Baldwin’s interpretation of David Caruso. This was a direct spoof, no?
NS: This is really funny, actually. I e-mailed Billy the link to a video of David Caruso’s character on “C.S.I.” You need to see this thing! It’s like eight minutes of “C.S.I.,” and someone cut together every bad line David Caruso has ever said. So Billy came to the set and he said, “That thing is amazing! I’ve e-mailed it to all of my friends.” And then in the middle of shooting, he says, “We’ve got to load it on the monitors.” He was, like, really obsessed with it. But overall, it felt more like a parody of that genre than David Caruso, specifically. We were definitely inspired by Caruso, but if you watch any of those shows, they’re all like that. My favorite one is “NCIS,” which just sounds like “TV SHOW” to me.
BB: Kristin Bell’s portrayal of a flawed Hollywood actress is pretty spot-on.
NS: Totally. Look at US Weekly’s “They’re just like us!” section for proof that actors are normal people. They wash their cars! They like to shop! I could look at “Just Like Us” for days. Sorry, back to the movie… flawed people, yeah. It’s not interesting if the ex-girlfriend is just a bitch. And Kristin proves that, as hard as it is to be dumped, it’s much harder to dump someone.
Jonah Hill and Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
BB: Do you associate yourself with the Frat Packers?
NS: It’s not like we’re all making stuff using the same rules or anything.
BB: But there are obvious similarities.
NS: Well, the studios are supporting R-rated comedies now, which I think is great because they’re allowing us to talk the way real people talk. In a PG-13 movie, actors don’t talk the way people really talk. Forget about being dirty, you just can’t say the stuff that people say to each other. Also, we’re all rooted in television. I used to watch comedy movies, and I didn’t understand why there weren’t more jokes. It doesn’t make sense. Like, when I watch “30 Rock” or “The Office,” there is a joke every 30 seconds. And we’re just bringing that process to movies. Each one is like a $30 million TV episode.
BB: What one scene continues to make you laugh?
NS: Jason has one line that always makes me laugh. Kristin says, “Get hard for me.” And Jason says, “I know what I’m supposed to do.” It’s such a perfectly awkward moment. I love that kind of stuff—so uncomfortable.
BB: Any chance you’d work on a proper dramatic film?
NS: In my life, there is no line separating comedy and drama. My most tragic experiences have all had elements of humor in them. That’s what makes them real. I remember when my grandparents passed away, my dad couldn’t stop making these really weird, dark jokes. He just couldn’t help himself, you know? Maybe that’s just my family.