It’s July 7th, 2011, and I’m standing on a traffic island on a busy street in San Francisco, watching Jason Segel serve food from a catering truck to Da’Vone McDonald while his dad, David Paymer, looks on with approval. It’s surprisingly cold outside, and this is just the start of what promises to be a very long day on-set.
There aren’t many filmmakers who I can say I’ve visited on the set of every single one of their feature films, but “The Five-Year Engagement” is the third feature that Nicholas Stoller has directed, and it’s the third time I’ve joined him on-set to watch him work and see what he’s up to.
Like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” this film is a close collaboration between Stoller and Jason Segel, who co-wrote the film with him. And, of course, Rodney Rothman is right there with Stoller again, producing and serving as a sort of comic sounding board for Stoller on the set. Watching these three guys work together, you get a sense that these are people who are incredibly comfortable as a team, and who have developed a shorthand that serves them well at this point.
I flew up to San Francisco the night before and checked in at The Fairmont, where the production was staying. It’s a gorgeous old hotel, and after a good night’s sleep, I got up and went for an early-morning walk. I don’t make it to San Francisco often, and when I do, it’s always a work-out. When I got back to the hotel, I headed back towards the elevator at the same time as Chris Pratt, who is also in the film. I hadn’t met him yet, but I like his work on “Parks and Recreation” enormously. I introduced myself, and we talked about the film and his role in it. He was in a good mood about the film and about working with Stoller and Segel, and about his show. I asked if he’d be in any of the scenes I’d be seeing, and he told me he’d see me for the nighttime shoot.
Around noon, I met the unit publicist and we headed over to the first location for the day, the food truck scene. In the film, Segel’s character, Ted Solomon, aspires to be a chef. He’s got big ideas, ambition… and then life derails him, as life so often will do. The food truck I saw him operating was a compromise later in the film, one of his attempts to make something he can be proud of. Paymer was there to see what his son was doing, and there was a nice moment between the two of them as Paymer tried to gauge whether or not Ted was happy and fulfilled. The big push in this film seems to be towards finding the quiet human moments between the big laughs, and in the various takes we watched them perform, there were a number of different degrees of how overtly funny they were playing it.
Paymer talked to me about stepping in to work with a group of people who had this sort of bond formed over several movies, and what kind of environment it was on set. “I feel very comfortable with Nick and Rodney, and Jason’s been great to play with as a son. It’s very free.” Stoller and Rothman both admired the way Paymer stepped right in, saying his improv skills are very sharp, very focused.
The thing about the improv in a film like this is that it’s not pages and pages of scenes where there’s no dialogue and they expect the actors to make it up. Not at all. They’re shooting the script that they wrote, and all the scenes I saw, both during the shoot and looking at footage Stoller showed me, are fairly close to the scenes in the script. What changes from scene to scene, take to take, is the connective tissue that makes a scene feel real. This is where the actors surprise each other, where they even surprise themselves sometimes. I think Stoller and Rothman and Segel are looking for a certain something, a spontaneous moment, an off-guard reaction that makes it feel real and human. That’s why they encourage people to be loose and to play. Nobody’s throwing the script out, but they’re free to make it a living thing.
I had time to say hello to Jason, but they were rushing to get this location wrapped and move on to the evening’s spot, so we didn’t really get to speak. Same with Stoller and Rothman. A few quick exchanged words, and then it was right back into it so they could wrap the location.
In the second half of the scene, Segel was explaining to his father why he had an extra-expensive burger on the menu, telling him what that does to the perception of the customer. They were also shooting various versions of Da’Vone McDonald ordering, each one different enough that it was hard to keep a straight face. He’s a favorite for Stoller and Rothman, and little wonder. McDonald is one of those guys you never forget after the first time you see him, and he’s got a wonderfully skewed sense of humor which means you have no idea what he might say.
We left them to it, and I headed back to my hotel, where I met another of the cast members for dinner. I’ve known Brian Posehn for a while now, since the “Mr. Show” days, and he’s been a working actor that whole time. With this film, though, it feels like Brian’s role grew while they were shooting simply because of the work he was doing. He plays Tarquin, a guy who works in a supermarket deli department with Ted when he lives in Minnesota in one stretch of the film. Because the movie takes place over five years, there are phases in the lives of Ted and Violet (Emily Blunt) that are charted by the film and that are about real evolution of them as characters. Tarquin in the script is pretty much there to serve a few comic set-ups and punchlines, but during the shoot, there was such an interesting friendship that played out in those scenes that they kept giving him more to do. We’ll see what the final cut looks like, but it was obvious that Nick and Rodney were pleasantly surprised by Posehn’s work and wanted to find a way to feature more of it in the film. Brian seemed pleased just to have the experience. I think people cast Brian as an easy punchline sometimes, but he’s got more to offer, and at least in terms of what they shot, “The Five-Year Engagement” was one of the first times he got to organically build a character that he thought had more than one thing to say or do.
After dinner, I met the publicist in the lobby of the hotel, and she told me to dress warm, because we had a long night ahead of us, and we’d be spending it on the roof of a building.
More on that in our next set visit report on Thursday.
“The Five-Year Engagement” arrives in theaters April 27, 2012.