Behind the Camera with Nick Stoller
From writing for the Harvard Lampoon in his early years to being a writer for TV shows like Strangers with Candy and Undeclared, to going on to direct movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Neighbors to then writing and producing movies like Muppets Most Wanted — whew! Nick Stoller comedy career is impressive to say the least. Still on set during a shoot, he took a break to chat with me about what it’s like to have such an impressive career (my words not his — he’s too humble to say that about himself) and talk to me about his newest projects The Carmichael Show and the upcoming show The Grinder.
What’s your favorite part of directing? Pretty generic question, I know.
Oh, no… umm… my favorite part of directing is probably, well it depends on the movie, honestly. My favorite part is production. It’s really fun. It’s really, really fun. I’ve gotten to work with really fun people and the crew that I’ve assembled is nice. It’s really just a fun experience to discover the jokes and the comedic situations. And even though it’s the most grueling part of it, because of the hours, a lot of the hard part is done, mainly pre-production and script, which actually tends to be the hardest.
As far as you, “interpersonal” directing style, are you a demanding “god-like” director or have more of that “I’m your buddy” style going?
(Laughing) I just do a lot of yelling. No, the thing that’s a little tiring, but also fun is it’s a little bit like being the host of a giant party. That’s the way I look at it. You have to pretend that everything’s going smoothly. I do a lot of hiding of my actual stress, usually about how much time we have left in the day. I like to keep it really fun and light on set just because that’s, I think, the best way to discover the funniest stuff.
I also like to foster a vibe, I call it open source movie making where anyone feels, within reason, they can pitch jokes and pitch ideas to me. Because then the more stuff you get while you’re shooting the more stuff you have to cut later.
Your resume is so impressive. Is there a job you went for that you didn’t get?
Oh yeah. Well, especially at the beginning of my career, I tried to get on Saturday Night Live. I tried to get on Letterman. Simpsons I tried to get on once I’d already built up a bit of a resume. I think the biggest break in my career was meeting Judd [Apatow] and he became a huge mentor for me. Even after that, after Undeclared, there was a period of time where I was basically unemployed. (Laughing) I would go over to Seth Rogan’s house, he was also unemployed and we would hang out and wonder what we were going to do. I did not think we would be in this position.
No. No. Not at all.
Really? You weren’t the kind that was like, “Someday I’m going to make it!”
No, I was more like, “Someday I hope to be a staff writer again on a TV show. And if that doesn’t work I’ll go back to advertising,” which is where I started. I always wanted to write for TV and my pie in the sky dream was to direct movies, but I first took a job in advertising, because I wanted to make sure I had a fallback, assuming the dream did not happen.
Besides advertising did you have any weird jobs where you thought, “I can’t believe I have to do this to make ends meet”?
You know, I’ve been very lucky. I basically graduated from college and immediately went to Young and Rubicam, which is an ad firm. I had an internship there. I worked my way up and by the end of the summer I got hired as a copywriter. I’m very lucky in that way. I don’t have the weird jobs. I mean, I worked on some weird shows. I worked on this show called Head Trip that was on for a split second on MTV that was pretty weird. (Laughing)
Was it fun?
Umm, yeah. It was fun. I couldn’t believe I was writing jokes not for ads, so I loved it. It barely even has a web presence, that’s how strange it was. If you look it up it’s like it didn’t happen. It was really weird. The weirdest thing I did, I remember I pitched to one of Eminem’s managers an animated show. That was early on in my career and that was a strange situation. I mean, he has a bunch of managers I don’t think he has any idea what’s going on. That was me trying to pitch an Eminem show. It was pretty funny.
Hey, you never know. Maybe someday.
Well now I’m going to do it. This is my way of trying to get it off the ground.
Great. We’ll tweet to him. Alright, so what I’m most impressed about is that you wrote and produced The Muppets. Is there anything that you weren’t allowed to do because they were Muppets?
The main thing with them was learning the rules of their world. They have a very specific kind of set of rules that make their whole world work. Those rules are like they think of themselves as people, not as puppets. We had a whole gag in an early version of the movie where Jason (Segel) and Walter… he’s a ventriloquist and Walter’s his puppet. They did this amazing act where Walter’s really alive and the puppeteers were like, “No that wouldn’t… that’s not the tone of the Muppets.” And it’s like “Oh yeah, of course.” There were rules like that. We had Kermit being a little bit cynical, like a tiny bit, barely anything that would register, but Steve Whitmire, who does Kermit, was like, “No he wouldn’t. He’s always super positive. He’s never cynical.” And he’s right. All of these rules are right. So it was learning how those rules work, which is interesting, because they’ve been around for a long time.
Was there anything when you first started working on it where you thought, “Oh! That’s how that works”?
(Laughing) Yeah. I mean, almost every experience I’ve had has been like, “Oh, that’s how that works.” Even now, I’m doing a movie on location for the first time without my family and I’m like, “Oh, this is what this is like.” (Laughing) But yeah, every time. From the very first job I had writing on a TV show, to working on Undeclared and seeing how that would work, you know, shooting single camera TV and seeing how you could pitch jokes on set, to the first time I directed with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and learning… I mean, I literally didn’t understand coverage at the time.
And you just learned on the fly?
Yeah. I found out later, Jason told me later that he was pretty nervous about the movie after the first week. (Laughing) Because I just didn’t know. When I say I didn’t know filmmaking, it’s not like I didn’t know the art of filmmaking. I literally didn’t understand how to shoot a scene. It was inherently, and coverage is kind of confusing and when you get tired it gets really confusing. It took me most of that movie to really understand it. That was stuff that I had to learn.
Your responsibilities have obviously changed from you know, advertising to writing, to producer, directing, executive producing. How is it different going from those different type of positions and working your way up?
If you’re just writing for somebody you’re kind of serving their vision, which can be relaxing. I wrote with a few other writers Zoolander II, which is going to be incredible, I can’t wait. It was on and off for over ten years. It was me, Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, and John Hamburg, but with that we’re all serving Ben Stiller’s vision. We can just pitch a million jokes and a million ideas, but it’s Ben Stiller who has to be like, “No… yes… no…” which is kind of the hardest job, editing that down.
When you’re directing it’s really thrilling, because you are the boss and you’re in charge. Not in a power play way, but in an artistic way. You are the final say of the movie. It’s very collaborative medium, but as the director, you’re the person who’s… the artist of the movie. I don’t know how to say it, but you’re the person who’s in charge. Ultimately the buck stops with you, so if the scene doesn’t work you only have yourself to blame. But it’s also thrilling and it’s the ultimate artistic end of making a movie, I think.
I’m very lucky that this year I’m executive producing two shows. One of them, The Carmichael Show, I co-created, so I really helped Jerrod a lot, but that’s ultimately his vision. It’s a lot about his family. I mean, there are elements of my family. There are elements of all the writers’ family in it, but still I’m very invested in it. I love it. I think it turned out great. Then I’m also helping Jarrad Paul and Andy Mogel with their show The Grinder, which is hysterical and I honestly can’t say I contributed much to that except you know, support and maybe a few jokes and some notes. I just love their tone and think their idea was hysterical and their script was really funny.
How did you and Jerrod Carmichael meet and get involved with each other?
I met him on the first Neighbors and he was really funny and has a very sly sense of humor and he has something to say, which is kind of what you look for in a comedian. We both really miss the multi-cam sitcoms from the 80s and 90s like Cheers, and Murphy Brown, going back a little bit, All in The Family and Everybody Loves Raymond. We wanted to do a show where people are just talking. It’s basically long scenes of people just talking, mainly about politics and hot button issues, because that’s mainly what most people talk about these days. It was weird to both of us that there are no TV shows like that. We got this incredible cast and it really turned out awesome. It’s very old school and yet very funny. One of the best compliments I got as I looked up on Twitter is someone said, “This is like the sitcoms I grew up with,” which is exactly what we’re trying to get to.
Do you think multi-cams are coming back?
I hope so. I think for a long time, I mean there were some good ones, but for a long time they were just… you know, the characters were just saying jokes. They weren’t being characters in compelling, emotional stories. If you look at Cheers, or Seinfeld or Friends, the characters don’t say jokes. They’re just in funny situations. They’re in emotional, interesting, funny situations. A lot of the more recent sitcoms that aren’t good that are multi-cams, the characters are just saying jokes. That’s not interested.
Tell me about The Grinder.
It’s really funny. Again it’s all Jarrad Paul and Andy Mogel. They came to me and pitched it. It’s basically about a guy who played a lawyer on this TV show called “The Grinder.” His name is Dean, he’s played by Rob Lowe. Very The Practice kind of show, very dramatic. His show ends and he returns home to where his family lives and Fred Savage is an actual lawyer at a small law firm doing real, boring law cases and Rob Lowe decides he’s going to stay in town and be an actual lawyer even though he doesn’t have a law degree. Everyone is really excited to have “The Grinder” in town. It’s like the most ridiculous premise. Fred Savage plays Stewart, this real lawyer’s worked all his life to be a lawyer and he can’t believe everyone loves his brother who was just a lawyer on TV and has no idea what he’s talking about. Mary Elizabeth Ellis is in it as Fred Savage’s wife and she’s hysterical, and they have two kids and so yeah, that’s the kind of show.
You mentioned Twitter earlier. Has adjusting to the era of social media been annoying or fun to you?
I think it’s ultimately terrible for our brains and society in general, but it’s fun. (laughing) I’m so sure it’s bad for us just to be constantly looking at this stuff online, but I do it. It’s clearly something that is unavoidable.
I don’t think there’s a single day that ends without my eyeballs hurting.
Yeah. There’s just no down time. I read this article that talked about that people aren’t bored anymore. I don’t even go to the bathroom without checking Twitter or my email or whatever. I’m just so sure you should give your brain a rest. But I don’t, so… whatever. The cool thing is you can see, like when The Carmichael Show came out I was able to look it up on Twitter. It got such an overwhelming response, it’s always nerve wracking before you put yourself out there, that I was like, “Okay, we’re not crazy. This is actually a good show.” So that’s a cool thing about Twitter and all these other things. You can see how people are responding. There’s obviously trolls and people who write negative stuff and it used to bother me more in the past, but now, I don’t care. You get used to that.