I had coffee with Forgetting Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller last week, in advance of his movie’s release, for a forthcoming Q&A magazine piece, and I had a chance to pursue a small strand, asking him about the interesting undercurrent of
abandonment and emasculated male depression that comes surging to the forefront in particularly one scene late
in the movie, where Kristen Bell and Jason Segel’s characters rehash their relationship and she (almost tearfully) asserts how hard she tried to punch through his hermetic veneer. Was there a deeper exploration of this, either in scripted or captured form, I wondered.
“I think narratively what was complicated with this movie was that you’re looking at everything in flashbacks — you’re not experiencing the relationship as it’s happening, it’s already over,” says Stoller. “We kind of pinpointed this being the problem — that when you’re in a relationship and you get dumped, you wallow, you think that the other person is solely at fault, and so we wanted that to be the moment of revelation both for [Jason’s character] and the audience, that this was the problem, that he just wasn’t [present]. And we tried to lay it in subtly… well, I don’t know about subtly, but visually early in the film, like when he’s eating cereal at home. We shot so much of that stuff, but we found that it was an interesting balancing act. We had an entire sequence where he answers the phone one night and says, ‘Oh, I’m kind of in the middle of stuff right now,’ and then hangs up the phone and goes back to surfing the Internet, but we found that if we added too much of that stuff then he just seemed mopey and unlikeable, and people didn’t want to watch the movie. So it was a balancing act, setting up that he’s kind of lost his way and become something of a loser homebody,” but also keeping him enough of a proactive and sympathetic figure for later.
Stoller, a first-time director, also confessed that he was surprised by just how fun his first behind-the-camera experience was — something the movie’s three-month Hawaii shoot probably helped. “I was terrified that it would be boring,” says Stoller of the production. “But when you’re directing you’re just doing everything, and it was very, very thrilling. And having written for many years, it felt like the natural creative conclusion of the creative process. The shoot was pretty mellow, there wasn’t much that went off the rails. But I’d get confused by really basic stuff like angles of coverage. The most complicated sequence was probably them jumping off the rock (featured in the movie’s trailer), but we planned so far ahead that it was fine.”
“Shooting the yoga sequence, which isn’t in the final movie but will be on the DVD,” Stoller continues, “was pretty complicated, because there were a lot of angles. We shot some crazy number of set-ups that day — like 70 set-ups, which is a lot. In the scene, Peter goes to try to do yoga, and Kristen Wiig is the yoga instructor, and it’s a really funny scene, actually, it just didn’t fit exactly in the story. And Kristen and Russell (Brand) are there. It’s hard to describe in a funny way, because it’s physical comedy, but they’re both incredibly good at it and Peter isn’t, and he accidentally kicks her in the face. Because he’s drunk when he’s doing the yoga, too, I should say.”