The Five-Year EngagementCast
: Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Chris Pratt, Alison Brie and Rhys IfansDirector
: Nicholas Stoller Genre
: The director and writer/star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall reteam for the irreverent comedy The Five-Year Engagement. Beginning where most romantic comedies end, the new film from director Nicholas Stoller, producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and Rodney Rothman (Get Him to the Greek) looks at what happens when an engaged couple, Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, keeps getting tripped up on the long walk down the aisle. The film was written by Segel and Stoller.Release Date
: May 3rd, 2011
About the ProductionPatient Laughter: The Production Begins
The decision to create a screenplay about a seemingly perfect couple who can't quite make it to the altar took root in Nicholas Stoller's imagination four years ago. He was in Hawaii and close to wrapping principal photography on his directorial debut, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which starred and was written by Jason Segel and was produced by Judd Apatow. The three men had collaborated often in the decade since Judd Apatow brought them together on his critically acclaimed television series Undeclared and continued the partnership with The Five-Year Engagement.
Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel began to flesh out the idea of an engaged-way-too-long couple, and the writing partners began the process of crafting their next film. "After Sarah Marshall, Jason Segel and I wanted to do a romantic comedy together," says the writer/director. "We wanted to create something that was about the relationship itself, not about the breakup."
Recalls Jason Segel: "We were batting around a couple ideas after Sarah Marshall. We had the idea for this movie and another one that we enjoyed. Nicholas Stoller went off to do Get Him to the Greek, and I went off to do a couple of other things. We started writing this at the same time as we began The Muppets. As soon as we finished making that movie, we went right into this one." It didn't take the co-writers long to figure out their story's central location. Says Jason Segel: "Nicholas Stoller wife is from Ann Arbor, which was our impetus for setting the story there."
Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller often find that the best story lines for their comedies come from real-life events. "I've always written from experience, as does Nicholas Stoller," adds Jason Segel. "We realised that we were growing up, and no longer felt like the 'man-boy' who doesn't know how to interact with women. We thought it was time to explore a confident relationship."
The question at the heart of The Five-Year Engagement is deceptively simple: Is a relationship right even if it's not perfect? "It's about how do you know what's perfect enough?" reflects Nicholas Stoller. "We wanted to make a movie that's emotionally complex, but we wrote big comedy set pieces too. We wanted to hit every problem that anyone has ever encountered while planning to get married."
The Five-Year Engagement marks the third film on which Nicholas Stoller and Judd Apatow have worked with one another, and the fourth comedy that Judd Apatow has produced for Jason Segel. Judd Apatow explains his decision to join them once again: "It's always fun to see what Nicholas Stoller is thinking about and what he wants to write about. There are certain people who are such a pleasure to be around and to collaborate with. Nicholas Stoller's at the top of that list. When he was writing this movie with Jason Segel, he wanted to make a sophisticated comedy about relationships. He really pulled it off. This movie still has their sense of humor, it just goes a bit deeper and they reveal more of themselves in it."
Regarding his long friendship with Jason Segel, the producer reflects: "I've known Jason Segel since he was a high-school student and we did Freaks and Geeks. I'm so proud of the fact that he's accomplishing everything I thought he could. He's hysterical, really smart and a great writer. I mean, he and Nicholas Stoller wrote The Muppets!"
Judd Apatow was certain that his frequent collaborators would bring their unique voice to the topic of romantic relationships, and he wasn't disappointed with how they nailed the intricacies of one couple's struggles. He says: "When you get engaged or get married, suddenly, you only have the ability to affect half of the decisions. There are some big decisions in life that you are going to lose. What I found funny about the story is that Tom agrees to move to Michigan even though he doesn't want to go, just because he wants to score some points. We do some things we don't want to do because we think we get some chip for it. But we don't get a chip."
Producer Rodney Rothman also enjoyed reteaming with his Undeclared and Forgetting Sarah Marshall crew and producing another comedy together. "Nicholas Stoller and I started working together about 10 years ago," he relates. "Since then, we all got to mature a bit, which was important for this story. It has more dramatic elements than our first two films. It's challenging to hit those notes and still make a movie that's hysterically funny. We're better equipped to take that on now.
"Getting engaged is not just diamond rings and honeymoons," laughs Rodney Rothman, who was wed a week before filming began. "There are divorced parents, money questions, priests, rabbis and gigantic religious negotiations. Tom and Violet are in love, but their relationship isn't deep enough yet. They haven't been through enough." Sparring Partners: Casting the Comedy
As Jason Segel created the The Five-Year Engagement's characters with Nicholas Stoller, it was understood that the actor would play up-and-coming chef Tom Solomon. Jason Segel describes the role: "Tom Solomon is an aspiring chef who works in San Francisco and is a big deal there. His fiancée gets offered a job out in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so he moves there for her and quickly finds out that he doesn't have a place in Michigan.
"Tom's belief in relationships is that you're meant to endure," the actor continues. "Your job as a man is to make your woman happy, and that's it. Despite Tom's best interests, he moves to Michigan and quickly finds that he's accidentally given up all of his ambition. He is desperate for a hobby, and meets another faculty husband who gets him involved in hunting. It's foreign to Tom, but he takes a liking to it and it becomes an outlet for his frustrations. It also becomes very weird. Tom starts making mead and drinking out of deer hooves."
As Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller shaped the story, one actress emerged as their ideal choice for the beautiful, brainy character they named Violet Barnes: Emily Blunt. "The key to any romantic comedy is that the guy and the girl keep up with each other," says Nicholas Stoller, "and Emily Blunt and Jason Segel do just that. They have awesome chemistry and are good friends off camera. Besides being an incredible actor, Emily Blunt's a strong presence and a great sparring partner for Jason Segel."
"Emily Blunt came in and was amazing," adds Jason Segel. "Once her character becomes tenured in Ann Arbor, she has the power position and you watch her have to handle her fiancé having nothing to do and seeing him in a different light. He's not the life of the party anymore. Dealing with a depressed spouse is a difficult thing."
Judd Apatow was pleased that Emily Blunt would finally be joining their group. He shares: "We've tried to snare Emily Blunt for other projects, and this is the first time we've sucked her in. We thought the fact that Emily Blunt and Jason Segel have such great friendship would make their relationship seem more real on screen, and it does. She's not messing around."
Early in the film's development, Emily Blunt learned of the role when she bumped into Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller at a restaurant. "Jason Segel mentioned that he and Nicholas Stoller were writing something called The Five-Year Engagement and were thinking about me for a role," remembers Emily Blunt. When she saw him on the set of The Muppets a few months later, the script was still in its early stages, and Jason Segel asked for Emily Blunt's input on Violet. "I was instantly drawn to how collaborative that sounded," she recalls. "When I sat down with them, it was quickly apparent that I wouldn't just be the reactionary girlfriend. Jason Segel and I would be going head-to-head."
The actress appreciated how the writers wanted to portray Tom and Violet's relationship with an even hand. She continues: "The story dealt with fundamental issues within a relationship, how the dynamics can shift on a daily basis depending upon how one person's feeling and how that affects the other person. It captured that tug-of-war between two people, and all the wonderful things that can happen when you're in love."
With their leads set, the filmmakers cast Welsh comic actor Rhys Ifans as Professor Winton Childs, who has a strong attraction to Violet. Explains Jason Segel: "Winton is the head of the social psychology department, and initially, you think that he's the smartest guy you've ever met. My character is intimidated by him, as is everybody. We were so honored to have Rhys Ifans and Emily Blunt in this film. We do comedy, and they have such acting chops that they elevate our material."
Ifans discusses how he came aboard the production: "I was in L.A. shooting Spider-Man. Nicholas Stoller and the guys were doing a read-through workshop of the script with advisors, friends and co-workers. They invited me along to read for Winton, and I loved it. It was one of the funniest scripts I've ever read. I must have done something right because they offered me the part the following week."
Rhys Ifans was clear on his character's arc when he signed on to the film. "He starts off as a kind of hero with his intelligence, authority, cool and his otherness," Rhys Ifans says, "but he ends up looking like a jerk. I just love when cool dudes fall from grace, which is Winton's journey completely."
Emily Blunt echoes her co-star's admiration: "Rhys Ifans is one of the best people on the planet. He is so brilliant in this role, and there's no one else who could've played it. He plays it with such bizarre, loaded intensity. You see Winton as this charismatic man and can see why Violet would be drawn to him as Tom descends into weirdness."
While Tom and Violet struggle for perfection, the comedy's other young couple never gives it a second thought. Tom's best friend, Alex, and Violet's sister, Suzie, hook up at Tom and Violet's engagement party. In a matter of months, they get pregnant, get married and mature, while Tom and Violet simply spin their wheels. "It's an interesting comparison," reflects Nicholas Stoller. "Alex and Suzie go for it versus overthinking every step."
Alison Brie and Chris Pratt, stars of NBC's Community and Parks and Recreation, respectively, portray this devil-may-care duo. "I loved it when they let Chris Pratt and me yell and fight," says Alison Brie. "We play very emotional, impulse-driven characters who just get it all out."Jason Segel was pleased to have Chris Pratt join the film and commends his comic timing. "Chris Pratt is a comedy savant. I've never been around somebody so quick and so funny. The movie started filming with a good deal of Chris Pratt and me, and it set a tone for how high the bar was raised comedically. His character is the loose-cannon friend. He's the womaniser, and very early on in the movie, he meets Alison Brie's character and gets her pregnant. It changes the course of his life. You watch him mature and become the adult in our relationship."
Chris Pratt explains his auditioning process for The Five-Year Engagement: "I was in New Mexico working on a movie and was invited to the table read. I bought my way into the table read for a $600 round-trip ticket, and it paid off. They offered me the role the next day."
The performer describes that his character is the goof-off to Jason Segel's serious-minded, career-focused Tom. Chris Pratt says: "Alex is a chef with Tom, but not nearly as good as he is. He is always screwing around and making completely sophomoric jokes about carrot wieners. When Tom and Violet decide to move to Michigan, Alex is left at the restaurant and ends up falling into the life that Tom always wanted. Over the course of five years, you see Alex go from being a low-level line cook to running the restaurant that Tom would have run. Everything that Tom's worked for and has tried so hard to get, he sees his best friend-who he knows is not as good as him-get it very easily."
Alison Brie was also asked to attend a read-through, though she wasn't aware that her character was British until the day before the read. Laughs the actress: "Randomly, two months prior to getting the phone call to do the table read, I bought a British accent CD and had been working on it every day in my car on the way to work."
Alison Brie looked forward to playing a character slightly more frazzled than her buttoned-up ones on Mad Men and Community. She says: "As soon as I read the script, I was excited because I usually play more anal-retentive, type A personalities. Suzie is the complete opposite. She's a bit scatterbrained and spunky. I thought it would be nice to play a character who doesn't have it all together and doesn't care that she doesn't. I also liked the sister dynamic between Suzie and Violet. They are close, but they are opposites. When it comes to the marriage front, it was comical that everything works out for Suzie and Alex."
Alison Brie, who grew up in South Pasadena, had more research to do before she could imbue Suzie with the British qualities needed for her to pass as Violet's sister. Emily Blunt was quite helpful in the efforts. "I have a very flat London accent-harder to do than the Queen's English, which is a bit more obvious," she shares. "I sent Alison Brie recordings of my voice, just talking to her, and when I came to Michigan to start filming, she sounded like me!"
"Emily Blunt made a three-minute tape of her telling me a story, which was super cute and worked as an affirmation to me," says Alison Brie. "The challenge was making it specific to Emily Blunt's relaxed, semi-Americanised London accent. Rhys Ifans recommended Cynthia Blaise, a great dialect coach in L.A. She and I worked together a few weeks before filming and then sat down with Emily Blunt in Michigan."
Red-hot stand-up Kevin Hart plays Violet's fellow graduate-school peer Doug, a researcher with a sexually-adventurous take on the scientific method. The performer has a history with the director and producers, as he worked with Nicholas Stoller and Judd Apatow on the TV series Undeclared and had a small part in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Of his role, Hart laughs: "Doug somehow believes that society would be a much better place with the study of masturbation being taken seriously. The fact that no one else sees this-or that no one else has grasped his concept and loves it the way that he does-pisses him off. He does not want you to downplay his theory."
Comedic actress and writer Mindy Kaling joined the cast as the very dry-humored Vaneetha. She describes her character: "Vaneetha represents the kind of girl that I knew a lot in college, which was a party-hard, study-hard person. She also likes younger guys, and she's unafraid and unabashed about it. I don't have any friends who are like this, so it was fun for me to play this role."
Randall Park adds another layer to the cast as Ming, the fourth graduate student in Winton's inner circle. A Los Angeles native, Randall Park was actually a graduate student at UCLA until he chose an actor's life over an academic one. Randall Park recalls his audition: "When I first met Nicholas Stoller, he said, 'I don't want this to be a Long Duk Dong-type immigrant character.' I appreciated that. Ming's just a regular guy from another place. I based him on kids I've known who came to L.A. from China and kicked butt in the academic world."
Stand-up comic and actor Brian Posehn, who voiced several roles during the table read, was cast as Tom's co-worker in Michigan, Tarquin, the "pickle king" at Zingerman's Deli. Says the actor: "Tarquin feels like one of those guys that I would be if I hadn't gotten into stand-up comedy. He's had dead-end jobs forever but makes the best of it. He works at a deli in a college town and thinks he's the pickle king. I love the way the character's attitude was on the page, and it felt like something that would be fun to play."
Saturday Night Live alum Chris Parnell was cast as Bill, the househusband of another University of Michigan graduate student. His domestic existence, knitting and child rearing, is a harbinger of what Michigan life could become for Tom, with regular hunting trips as his only masculine reprieve. Chris Parnell shares: "Bill sees Tom across the room and instantly locks on to him because he can tell he's also a graduate-student spouse. He's a househusband, and hunting's his time to feel like a man."
When it came to creating the characters of the parents for Tom and Violet, Judd Apatow explains the logic: "We wanted each one to represent a different point of view that a parent might have about marriage." Get Out of Your Head: Improv and Comedy on Set
Even though the script was tightly written, the cast signed on to The Five-Year Engagement, knowing improv would be massively important to the director and producers. Every day on set, Nicholas Stoller challenged their skills as improvisers. "We worked on it for a long time and had two table reads to fine-tune it," says the director. "After the table reads, we interviewed the actors, then had rehearsals, and then incorporated the improv from rehearsals into the draft."
Nicholas Stoller and Rodney Rothman, a former head writer on the Late Show With David Letterman, wrote new jokes inspired by what they saw and heard during takes. "This movie has a lot of story in it, so it stays close to the script in that sense," says Nicholas Stoller. "But a lot of the dialogue ended up changing to match what we heard in rehearsals."
Agrees Jason Segel: "We had these great comedians come in and blow us away in a lot of the scenes that we were hoping were funny when we wrote the script."
With so many comedic actors on set, the use of improvisation was inevitable, and the cast thrived on the freedom. "Nicholas Stoller makes you feel confident enough to try anything, even if you think you look stupid," explains Emily Blunt. "But he likes to give it a try because you don't know until you do."
Ideas were allowed to fly without getting lost in the ether. "Somebody sat at the monitors in video village and wrote down all our improvs," recalls Chris Pratt. "Two hours later, when the camera turned around for reaction shots, Nicholas Stoller would start shouting some of those lines to us."
Emily Blunt remembers what it was like to work with her character's brother-in-law: "You never knew what Chris Pratt was going to say. It was a bit precarious because the whole time I was on edge and trying to get ahead of myself to stop laughing, but he kept tripping me up and throwing in new stuff. In one scene, he just went off on a rant. I could listen to Chris Pratt shout all day."
Alison Brie agrees with her on-screen sister: "Jason Segel is an old hand at improv, and Chris Pratt is a comedic genius. I felt like I was a beat behind because my brain was there, but then I took an extra beat to form it into the accent and respond."
Vibe was key for the members of the troupe. "You have to be very comfortable to improvise freely-to listen, respond and react," says Rhys Ifans. "If you've got inhibitions, you're screwed. Emily Blunt made me feel right at home from day one."
Kaling was comfortable slipping back into this world. She says: "Improvisation brings out the best in actors. Naturally funny people tend to be good at improv, but it's a rare and hard skill. If you're around people who do it a lot, you learn to do it better."
Chris Park agrees with his on-screen colleague. He reflects: "The great thing about working with Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel is that they are open to ideas and new lines that aren't scripted. Nicholas Stoller was always giving us different lines to say, and most of them were winners."
Jason Segel recalls: "You see everyone at their best during those toasts. That's the measure of a comedian-just getting up alone in front of a crowd. Everyone killed it."
Recounts Chris Pratt: "After Jim Piddock did his speech, he busted out with nine different alt versions, all funny."
David Paymer and Mimi Kennedy received one pointer before their toast. Mimi Kennedy recalls: "Nicholas Stoller said, 'Throw anything you like into it, as long as it's done in rhyme."
The playful atmosphere served a distinct purpose. "It's about getting out of your own head and not overthinking the scene," says Rodney Rothman. "We filmed all the things you could have said, and later decided which one feels the best."
Recent camera technology accommodated this style well. Nicholas Stoller used Arri Alexa digital cameras, which allowed him to keep rolling for long periods of time. With traditional film, cameras must stop rolling and then be reloaded. Digital tapes allow scenes to play for much longer, and the equipment is faster to gear up.
"With this much improv, there's always something that sends the whole crew into bits," says Rhys Ifans.
But no one laughs harder than Nicholas Stoller. Says Alison Brie: "Nicholas Stoller has one of the best laughs ever. His whole body commits to it. When you hear it ring out, you know you're doing a good job." Let It Snow: Shooting on Location
The sprawling main campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor hosted six days of filming at locations that included the Diag (a large open space in the center of campus), Haven Hall, the Ross School of Business and Rackham Hall, where Professor Winton Childs occupies the elegant office of the dean.
Production designer Julie Berghoff explains their time on location: "The University of Michigan is so gorgeous. We were lucky to have such a great backdrop to shoot with. The psych lab was the most that I dressed, and added a bit of character. We also shot in the beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright Palmer House in Ann Arbor, which fit Winton's character perfectly. There was not one right angle in that house. It was fun for me to create the bedroom in another mid-century house of a very famous 90-year-old architect who lives there. He gave me the bones to re-create this Frank Lloyd Wright piece."
For Tom, Michigan offers the uncomfortable new role of a graduate-student spouse-and a job at Zingerman's Deli. An Ann Arbor institution since 1982, Zingerman's is another type of wonderland. "It's the Carnegie Deli of the Midwest," says Rodney Rothman. "But if you're not into that kind of food, or not a chipper, enthusiastic person, working there could be hell."
Jason Segel and Posehn spent several hours learning to throw flour and form loaves in preparation for their bread-making scenes at Zingerman's Bakehouse. The actors and crew worked alongside actual bakers as they went about a normal day of bread production.
Due to the space and camera movements that were required, the team used the deli for exterior shots and found another location to shoot interiors. Julie Berghoff was tasked with replicating the latter. She says: "I was a little bummed that we couldn't shoot at Zingerman's, because duplicating something that is so amazingly perfect is almost harder than coming up with a concept from scratch. But the Zingerman's people were amazing. They have two artists on staff that make all of their signage, and they already had a unique design. So it helped to meet with them and study their deli so that we could re-create it and move around in it. My decorator, Sophie Neudorfor, did a wonderful job of replicating Zingerman's hanging salamis and cheeses. I found the location and described how I envisioned it, and she's the one who put it together."
At the urging of Bill, Tom takes up hunting during his endless downtime in Michigan. The opening shot of Jason Segel, Parnell and Posehn moving through the woods in a camouflage tent was a laugh-out-loud moment on set. But the thunderstorm that soaked everyone just before the day ended was not amusing, nor was it a problem. Nicholas Stoller readjusted the script so that the rain was incorporated into the scene.
Seasonal changes helped Nicholas Stoller tell this tale. He needed a variety of looks to show the five-year passage of time, and used wide shots to show the different ways Michigan looks throughout the year.
With a month to go before beginning principal photography, Nicholas Stoller and a skeleton crew got a head start in early March to take advantage of weather conditions. When the filmmakers arrived to scout, the snow was several inches deep. They ended up grabbing wide shots of the campus, as well as Tom and Violet's house and a scene in the woods. Jason Segel was on hiatus from How I Met Your Mother that week, and he traveled to Michigan for the woods scene.
During the nine weeks of filming in Michigan, Ann Arbor served as the base city, but there were also nine days of filming in Detroit, as well as visits to the smaller communities of Ypsilanti, Saline, Northville, Onsted and Brighton.
John Gray's 12-man special effects team was busy throughout production, dispensing snow on numerous shooting days, as well as managing the explosions, rain, steam, seeping blood, liquid nitrogen and other bits of movie magic this story demanded. Local headlines reported heavy snow covering several blocks of downtown Ann Arbor in May and June, and crowds gathered to inspect the out-of-season phenomenon. Ypsilanti was blanketed as well.
The production also spent two weeks in California, filming at landmark spots in San Francisco and at the idyllic Beltane Ranch in Sonoma County. "We had more than 70 locations in a 50-day shoot," recounts Julie Berghoff. "We went from spring to summer, then back to winter, then summer-and back again. The crew did a fantastic job of staying on top of the seasons."
Snow became a distant memory when the production moved in late June to Glen Ellen, California, for the engagement party scenes. The gardens and orchards of the 1,600-acre Beltane Ranch served as the setting for the Drunken Pig B&B, where Tom and Violet's extended family gather to celebrate the euphoric couple. "It's a romantic location, and a very happy time in the movie," says Nicholas Stoller.
Jason Segel reflects: "I love Michigan and had a great time there, but I really liked being in California. It's a beautiful change of scenery. We were all happy, the energy was very different and there was a lot of fresh wine."
After cocooning at Beltane Ranch, the company resurfaced in the heart of San Francisco. The film's ending was shot in Alamo Square, across from landmark Victorian homes dubbed the "Painted Ladies." Production staged Alex and Suzie's picture-perfect wedding a few miles away, at the Palace of Fine Arts. Pratt crooned-a cappella and in Portuguese-the Brazilian ballad "Cucurrucucú Paloma." A similar moment occurs in Pedro Almodóvar's BAFTA- and Oscar®-winning film Talk to Her. Director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe, a frequent Almodóvar collaborator, shot Talk to Her 10 years earlier and inspired this homage.
Finally, The Five-Year Engagement plopped itself in the middle of the Embarcadero's afternoon rush hour for scenes with Tom's Taco Emergency truck. What better time and place to sell high-priced fast food? Later that night, Emily Blunt, Jason Segel, Chris Pratt and Lauren Weedman, who portrays Birch restaurant's Chef Sally, found themselves on a Folsom Street rooftop to shoot the scene in which Tom pops the question to Violet. With an awesome view of the Bay Bridge, principal photography ended where the story of this comedy begins.