Interview: Jason Segel and Emily Blunt of 'The Five-Year Engagement'
Comedy, Regret, Tension, Nudity ... and Other Notes on Love.
Ambling into the room to meet the gathered press with a genial wave, Jason Segel is every inch the chef and boyfriend he plays in "The Five Year Engagement," reuniting him with "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" director (and co-writer) Nicholas Stoller. Clad in an ivory lace sheath dress, Emily Blunt is a bit less down-to-earth than the on-screen life partner and friend she plays opposite Segel. MSN Movies was one of a group of publications who spoke with Segel and Blunt in Los Angeles about the film, real-life romance and filming in Michigan, in winter, while naked.
Most romantic comedies nowadays revolve around somebody concealing something or some ridiculous coincidence, like "She's secretly my Boss's daughter ..." How hard is it to make a romance film, which is simply about the fact that different people can want different things?
Segel: Yeah, it was a challenge to write, and was certainly a challenge to edit, because there are no big plot movements. There's no car accident; there's no big earthquake where someone dies or something, and there's also no big contrivance, like "I'm a scientist and she hates science." Its like a very earnest exploration about how a relationship is fluid, and when you choose a partner and you say, "I want to marry you," you're not saying it for this moment, you're saying it for your whole life and what's going to be ever-shifting power dynamics. It really is an honest exploration of relationships, and yeah, it was tricky to write, but the best ones are that. "Annie Hall" is that, and when "Harry Met Sally" is that.
"The Apartment" is like that.
Segel: Yes. It's about taking a good hard look at relationships, and I think people can relate to it.
Blunt: I do think with a much more simple premise as well, there's just so much more room to play amongst that. As actors there's a lot you can do to really make these relationships complex and interesting and messy and flawed and loving, and all of those things. It's actually, I think, what you guys were wanting to make. It’s a movie with great heart. The situations these two are put in are ludicrous and outrageous and obviously heightened for the spectacle of the movie, but yet you invest in them as a couple in a very real way, hopefully.
Based on my cursory knowledge of supermarket tabloids you, Ms. Blunt, are married, while you, Mr. Segel, are not?
Segel: I am not married.
Blunt: He is not married.
Ms. Blunt, did you ever find yourself going, "No, no, that is not how a marriage works, writer-boy?" Did you have that?
Blunt: It's funny, because Nick's been married for a long time as well, so he really gests it. Jason, even if he isn't married, he is a romantic. He's been in long-term relationships. I think everyone who was involved in it has had experience with relationships. It felt very collaborative. I mean they did a great first draft, and then I signed on, and I came in and I gave a couple of ideas, and they were incorporated or not, but it was very collaborative, with different perspectives of what we feel about relationships. I think it was a very personal movie. Everyone talked and shared a lot, and a lot of that made it onto the screen.
Segel: Yeah, it's part of our process, Nick and I. As soon as we hire somebody, especially to play the female lead, the first thing we do is sit down with them, and have a long talk. Just a talk, its not even about acting, abut how you feel about relationships, how you would actually handle these scenes. Then we do a rewrite to tailor it to the person that’s playing the role.
To follow up on that, was Emily's role originally conceived as English?
Segel: No, it was written for Emily. I wrote it for Emily. It's really true.
Had you had a social interaction before?
Blunt: We've worked together.
Segel: We'd done two movies together already: "Muppets" and "Gulliver's Travels." We were also really good friends, and I'm good friend with John (Krasinski). It's really hard in a romantic comedy. We've both said one of our pet peeves is when it just looks like two viable actors have been matched together in a movie because they've ... both had successful movies the year before. What I thought was most important was that in the in-between scenes it looks like they're best friends. I know we can do the acting scenes, because we're good at what we do, but it’s the in between scenes where you're just walking where you can feel on screen that we're buddies. I wrote it for Emily, because I knew we would look like best friends on screen.
Violet is this character, who moves to Michigan, her career is flourishing, meanwhile Tom, he's not happy at all, but at no point at all do you feel resentful about her success. I was wondering if you could talk about creating that dynamic and making sure you don't feel that resentment.
Blunt: Well, I think I have to credit these guys, because I think it’s a very fine line to tread. You want to understand everyone's predicament really. You can see that Violet isn't fulfilled at the very beginning of the movie, and then she finds her place in the world, she feels, when she moves to Michigan and she has this fantastic job. Yet she can see that it's making her other half suffer, and even though she wants to embolden him and help him and be there for him, he shouldn't martyr himself either. It becomes quite complex as to how she feels in the moment. I think that is a credit to you guys how you wrote that. You don't necessarily side with anyone. You understand people's position. I think its no bad thing that Violet's a tenacious girl. I think its no bad thing that Violet is following her dreams. I don't think she's heartlessly doing so. I think she defiantly gets swept up in it for sure, and she's hoping that Tom will be able to survive in this environment as he's promised her he would be able to, so its complex.
Segel: The only reason you question if it's heartless or if its selfish is because it’s a woman.
Segel: Honest to God. That same plot, if it’s the man that's moving, everyone would be like, "Well, of course. It's his job. You've got to go support him." I try to write every part as though I'm going to play it, including the female parts. I don’t think of how would a girl speak or talk. People are all the same. I really do think that. People are all the same. It's going to be a female by the fact that she is biologically a female.
Blunt: Or am I …?
Segel: No one is going to be watching that thinking, "That doesn't seem very much like a woman." She's a woman, and people talk the way they talk.
Aside from the writing, getting a movie like this made, how much harder is it to convince a studio to go for it?
Segel: We have Judd (Apatow, prducer) behind us. We have a good track record. Also our movies are relatively cheap to make.
Blunt: It wasn't made for that much, this one.
Segel: It wasn't. I don't demand a giant fee, and Nick doesn't demand a giant fee.
Blunt: Everything goes on the screen I think, which is great.
Segel: Yeah. I remember when Judd first pitched "Sarah Marshall" to (Universal), he said, "I can give you a Ben Stiller movie for the quarter of the price." That was his initial pitch. I think we still stand by that idea. There's no reason to get greedy about it. We're so lucky. We're all doing fine financially. No reason to cut off your nose despite your face just to prove that you're worth it or something.
But if the film does well, presumably you will be able to ... "Pay the doctor, boy!"?
Segel: To some extent, but not as much as you'd think. It's about that we really love doing it.
Your ridiculous facial hair, did that come specifically from Mr. Posehn's ridiculous facial hair?
Segel: You're talking about in the film?
Yes. Was that inspired by (comedian Brian) Posehn?
Segel: No, it was not. Something that I do that I have done in the past, which I call passive-aggressive facial hair. I've done it to make a point when I was unemployed. It was kind of like, "Really, Hollywood, you won't cast me? Well, watch this, I don't give a f**k either." That's sort of where it came from. I've done it in a relationship. It is a weird passive-aggressive move I have that I'm trying to move past.
The two couples in the film are kind of polar opposites. One is super-spontaneous and they just go for it, and you guys were more calculated and would not get married. When you're filming, which did you relate to more or were you just in the middle, because they're very different?
Blunt: I don't know, because that’s what I liked about that storyline of the supposed f**k-ups, Alison and Chris, who are actually the ones who don't over think and just go for it, and end up having a very successful relationship and are very in love. We're the ones who over think everything and strategize everything, and I think that gets in their way as much as their life circumstances get in the way. They get in the way of themselves, trying to wait for the perfect moment. I think I've always been quite a spontaneous person, so I would lean more towards, if you feel it, if you know its right, do it.
Segel: I know this sounds strange, but having written all the parts, I think I see everyone's point of view, which is sort of my job in terms of writing it. I think we think they're the idiots going in. It turns out they're exactly right, so I think that’s what's interesting. That’s what we were going for.
There's one great scene when you guys are in bed, fighting.
Blunt: It was so much fun to shoot.
Segel: That's how people fight. We really didn't want anything perfectly worded. That's not how a fight goes down.
Blunt: Yeah it should be messy and kind of ugly. It was fun shooting that scene, because I think we were really trying to make it real, like what really happens when you can't stop fighting. What happens? You make up and then someone says something that just tips it over into that awful descent again, then you make it up. It just sort of goes and peaks in troughs all night. It was a lot of fun to shoot. We actually shot it all night, and it was so much fun.
Segel: It was great. That was my favorite.
Blunt: I think you improved that bit where you were like, "Don't leave. We'll stay, but don't look at me."
Segel: So awkward. I hate it.
Blunt: And that awkward hug.
You looked like you really knew your way around a kitchen.
Segel: I like to cook, but I did go to culinary school for it, and I wasn't allowed to eat anything, because they needed me to trim up. I was around the best food ever, and just suffered. It was really neat to learn how to cook. I can do some cool stuff now.
Does that kind of muddled awkwardness, purposeful obviously, does that come from the script directly or does that really come from the improv?
Segel: It comes from the improv, but it really was going in an actual thought-out plan. We wanted things to be messy and feel real. Its my big pet peeve is feeling perfectly worded fights. It's just not how it happens. If you had that kind of composure, you wouldn't be fighting.
I've had the pleasure of recently seeing you in "Your Sister's Sister" and "Jeff Who Lives at Home." Is the dream to have that kind of small film nimbleness and invested character splashed up on thirty-five hundred screens so people can actually see it outside of some film festival?
Segel: Well, this film has the same kind of vibe that the Duplass brothers have. It's a little more structured, but we try to keep it small.
Blunt: I love being apart of these small little gems. I think they're extraordinary. We shot "Sister's Sister" in twelve days. The movie was made for eighty thousand dollars, and it's just extraordinary and completely fresh. That was completely improvised. It wasn't really a script at all. For me I signed on for the experience really, and I thought, "Wow you can really stretch your limbs on this one. It will be really cool." It was challenging and exciting. Actually the movie we all took a leap of faith with has turned out to be really good. You just don't know what will come of it, because improv can be really messy and unstructured and all that. I think those movies are made in the editing room. I do hope that there's a place for those films out there. My personal feeling is that I think audiences are crying out for stories and something they can invest in and feel at least. I see a lot of big movies that leave me feeling rather numb, so I do hope there is a place for them. I think the reality is they're not going to be on thirty-five hundred screens. But yet if there's enough word of mouth, then they can get around. I mean if you look at something like "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Precious" or all these movies that were made for no money, and they get a broad appeal. I think word of mouth is huge, and they need a lot of pushing.
Segel: "Lars and the Real Girl" slaughters me. You couldn't make that movie in a studio.
Blunt: No, never.
Jason, you're not afraid to get naked.
Segel: No, I love it.
Was that real snow that you were rolling around in?
Segel: It was, and they tried to put like a layer of fake warm snow. They developed some like chemically warm snow and I was f**king freezing. There were people surrounded with camera phones watching, it was horrible it was not my best moment. It may be why it was cut out of the film.
Do you tune everyone out when you're doing those kinds of scenes?
Segel: Between action and cut, I'm pretty tuned out in general. I'm pretty focused on what I'm doing. I'm not thinking about much else.
Was it nice for you to do a film without puppets?
Segel: Oh, the turkey puppet was cut out!
You had a puppet in this film?
Segel: We did. This is my first film without a puppet in years and years and years. Yeah, I was ready to take a little Muppet break. I was doing that for almost a decade.
What was the turkey puppet? What was that?
Segel: There was a Thanksgiving scene, where I end up taking mushrooms, and the turkey comes to life and ends up giving me a long talk about I'm way too old to be taking mushrooms with kids.
Blunt: Yeah, and its also Brian Posehn's voice as the turkey.
Ms. Blunt, how long you'd take to learn the Cookie Monster voice?
Blunt: I looked him up on youtube. I'd watched a lot of Cookie Monster before, but I was like "Oh God I've got to do the table read today. How scary!" it was really nice that people laughed and loved it, and we had a blast doing the scene. It was really fun. Our voices were just gone to shit by the end of the day. We had no voices, because we'd done it all afternoon. It was fun.
The standard Appatovian model of filmmaking seems to be that you have like an eight-hour long assembly cut and then you narrow it down and try to get something close to a straight and narrative line from a to b with enough pleasant detours, but if there are scenes that each of you lost, which ones do you miss the most?
Segel: I think it's the same one for both of us.
Segel: We had a whole subtle plot line that became about money. I ... about how I turn out to be broke, and she has a huge reserve, because she's much more responsible than I am, but it ended with her taking me on a date. We have the sweetest dance to Van Morrison's "Sweet Thing," done by a live jazz musician.
Blunt: It was so cool.
Segel: It was really beautiful, but it was just a whole plot line that took half an hour, and like you said, we just didn't have time for it.
Blunt: But there was a very funny fight in this jazz club with the reveal about money, and that I'd been squirreling it away and he had nothing. It was great. There was another plot line, which I loved with an ex-boyfriend of mine named Gideon, who was British. He kind of kept arriving, at like, our engagement party, and that was really funny.
Segel: He also bought me a restaurant, which then explodes.
Blunt: There's like a whole other movie.
Segel: We shot a huge explosion. Probably the most expensive thing we did in the movie, and it got cut.
Where did the Van Morrison come in?
Segel: Nick loves Van Morrison, and it is my favorite album, "Astral Weeks" Van Morrison. Every couple has a song, or most couples do, and that just seemed like the perfect song. It makes me cry every time I hear it, before this movie -- or not cry, I'm a total macho dude. I just felt like it was a really nice device to see it at the beginning, and then go back to it at the end for the wedding. That actually does make me cry. The wedding at the end actually really cracks me up. I think it's so romantic.
("The Five-Year Engagement" opens today.)