Moriarty In Hawaii, Part One! Jason Segel, Kristens Wiig and Bell! Russell Brand! Jonah Hill! FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL!!
Published at: Aug. 11, 2007, 6:04 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Let’s get the disclosure issue out of the way up front, okay? Universal paid for me to fly to Hawaii and offered me a room at the Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore, where I was asked to spend a week onset for the new film FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. I paid to bring my wife and my boy along with me out of my own pocket, turning this business trip into a semi-vacation for the family.
If any of that rubs you the wrong way, consider yourself completely informed.
Having said that, this was a great week on all fronts and I am highly encouraged about what looks to be another winner from producers Judd Apatow and Shauna Robertson. They were so nice to me that I almost feel bad about what I’m going to do here. See, they’ve come up with this revolutionary secret theory for how to make great comedy movies, and I’m going to reveal that secret theory in this article. I know... that may be a betrayal of trust, giving up the thing that’s made them so rich and powerful... but I think it’s got to happen. It’s too groundbreaking to keep to myself.
You hire the best people you can find, you trust them, you encourage them, and then you release the results.
I know, I know... it sounds radical. But that’s how Judd and Shauna roll, and look at what happens as a result. KNOCKED UP was one of those films where many people were on record as naysayers before it came out. “Seth Rogen’s not a movie star. Heigl would never sleep with him. No one’s going to see this.” Yeah, right. I keep reading skeptics talk about how SUPERBAD’s tracking poorly, but I fully expect them to eat crow when the film becomes a monster word-of-mouth hit and sells a grazillion DVDs because every kid under the age of 25 is determined to memorize it. And in the case of FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, it appears to me that it’s finally time for Jason Segel to step up and become a comedy lead in his own right.
Now, I know that if you’re in the orbit of Apatow these days, it may look like everyone’s just given their own movie automatically, but that’s not true. Apatow is certainly encouraging, but he’s not about to just randomly slap his name on something or spend two years trying to get something made to appease an actor’s ego. He pushes the actors and the writers around him to try and do genuinely interesting and original work, and when something connects, it benefits everyone.
In this case, he’s known Jason Segel since FREAKS & GEEKS, which seems to be ground zero for so many of the relationships that are paying off in interesting dividends for comedy fans right now. Segel struck me as a young Judge Reinhold the first time I saw him on that show, and I think UNDECLARED made equally great use of that sort of hangdog appeal he has. Segel’s that guy you can’t help but feel bad for because you know fate has had its way with him, and all he wants is someone to be with. Turns out, that may not just be a screen persona. When Judd finally scored big with THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and ANCHORMAN and realized he could get films made more easily, he told Segel that he was going to start producing more, and he asked if there was anything Segel might be working on as a writer. Segel offered up a basic description of the idea that became FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, drawing heavily on his own personal experiences dating in Los Angeles. In particular, all the bad personal experiences.
FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL is the story of Peter (Segel), a composer who works for a TV show called CRIME SCENE: SCENE OF THE CRIME. He’s got private dreams of one day writing a full-length musical to be performed onstage. True, he wants it to be performed by puppets and also true, he wants it to be a musical about Dracula, but it’s his dream. In the meantime, he’s content to work on the TV show because it keeps him connected to his girlfriend, Sarah Marshall, who is the star of the series. Kristen Bell, best known to the geek universe for her exceptional work on VERONICA MARS, plays Sarah, a wry commentary on the state of the modern actress, and the role isn’t just a roast of Bell’s peers... it’s also a roast of her own career so far.
Peter finds himself completely subjugating his own wants and needs to Sarah’s career, and at the start of the film, he’s aware of the problem but unwilling to do anything to fix it. He’s too afraid of losing Sarah.
And then... the unthinkable happens. She dumps him. She’s not even kind about it. She just drops him and moves on, and Peter is devastated. He wallows in it a bit until his brother (played by SNL’s Bill Hader) tells him that he’s got to get over her. He suggests that Peter should go do something that the two of them always wanted to do together but never did.
So Peter goes to Hawaii.
And, of course, as soon as he shows up at the Turtle Bay Resort, he finds that Sarah’s decided to do the same thing, except she brought along her new boyfriend, a bizarre English rock star named Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand, who is, to put it bluntly, a fucking space alien.
That’s the basic premise, and pretty much all I knew when I showed up in Hawaii. I didn’t really know what I’d be watching them film, or who I’d see working, but I trusted that it would be interesting. I’ve been on the sets now for ANCHORMAN,THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN,SUPERBAD,PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, and KNOCKED UP with the Apatow crew, and each time, it’s been fascinating to watch how they work together.
We arrived in Hawaii on a Monday morning, and we were met at the airport by a van. I’m not sure what Toshi knew or didn’t know about where we were going, but from the moment we got into that van, he was practically jumping up and down with excitement. It’s a 45 minute drive from the heart of Honolulu to the Turtle Bay Resort, and the entire way up the coast of the island, Toshi kept looking out the window at the beautiful ocean view and practically yelling at our driver, “GO! GO! GO! GO!” By the time we arrived at the resort, the poor guy’d broken a sweat, and he told me he’d never felt more urgency in regards to getting passengers to their destination. I apologized and tipped mightily, and by the time I grabbed the bags, Toshi had already run to the huge window on the far side of the lobby, where he could look down at the beach. He turned to me as I walked up, eyes wide as saucers, and just said, “Agua,” in a respectful hush. Our room was actually one of the production’s office rooms that they had cleaned out for us, so we spent a half-hour getting settled in, then headed down for a quick walk through the buffet.
After dealing with my son’s first-ever allergic reaction to food (still don’t know what it was, but his face swelled up like a rubber mask for about an hour) and spending some time at the resort’s private beach, I checked in with the unit publicist, Claire Raskind. She told me we’d get started the next morning at 8:30 or so, right outside the pool area.
Turns out, most of the movie is set in or around the resort, which made the shoot a sort of working holiday for all involved. Friends and family were dropping in and out during the entire time they were on location, and I got the feeling that by the time I showed up, everyone had settled into a great relaxed rhythm, inspired in part by the atmosphere they were working in. Talk about a gift for a director. Nick Stoller, making his feature debut here, has been in touch with Apatow’s gang since UNDECLARED, and considering all the time I’ve spent watching him work now (I’ll have reports about my post-Hawaii trips to the FSM set coming up as well), I’d say he looks unflappable, completely at ease with what he’s doing. I have no doubt that’s because he knows the material is good and he knows that his cast is well-chosen and, most importantly, he has the full support of his producers.
I was already familiar with Judd and with Shauna, obviously, but I met another of the film’s producers almost as soon as I stepped onto the set.
“Drew, this is Rodney Rothman,” Claire said. Rodney’s a published author (his book, EARLY BIRD: A MEMOIR OF PREMATURE RETIREMENT is well worth seeking out) and was a staff writer for LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN at the age of 18. Rodney’s been professionally funny for a long time, and he seems to be a symbiotic part of Nick’s process as a director. Jason may have written this film, but as I watched them shoot, Rodney was almost always on set with a yellow legal pad on his lap, listening to every line, constantly jotting down suggestions for different words or new phrases to try, slipping them to Nick or to the actors directly. Rodney was like the pit crew for the script, constantly adjusting it and fine-tuning it as they were shooting.
It’s basically the same role I saw Seth Rogen play on the set of THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, and it seems to me like it’s important on these films to have a checks-and-balances system set up, so they’re constantly pushing each other to make something that’s funny even funnier.
Nick has a strong idea of what he wants visually when they start shooting, but he’s not just looking for laughs. He’s also looking for a particular reality, and he trusts his actors to find it. That’s one of the key words in terms of how he approaches the aesthetic of FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL: reality. This isn’t a wacky over-the-top comedy. The biggest laughs come from just how close to the bone much of the material plays.
The location for the morning’s shoot was a gazebo overlooking the ocean, used primarily as a wedding site. For the sake of the scene, it’s been transformed into a yoga studio. Peter has decided to try and distract himself from Sarah and her new boyfriend, and he’s using all the activities that the resort has to offer. In this case, it’s a yoga class taught by Kristen Wiig, and when Peter shows up, he’s already fairly drunk despite it being first thing in the morning. Everyone was just getting ready to start running the scene as Russ Alsobrook was lighting the first setup. I met Russ for the first time when he was the cinematographer on SUPERBAD, where he was shooting 24p HD video. This time out, he’s working with film again, aiming for a totally different look.
The basic scene plays out as follows:
Peter shows up, drink in hand, just as the class is about to begin. He meets Prahna, Wiig’s character, and she asks him to set the drink aside during class. He picks a spot and gets ready, and at the last moment, Sarah and Aldous come walking in to take the class as well.
Peter and Sarah both react, each acutely aware of how uncomfortable the situation’s going to be, but Prahna’s only got eyes for Aldous, who she recognizes from the cover of a yoga magazine. She’s obviously smitten, gushing at him for a few moments before they start the class.
To Peter’s horror, both Sarah and Aldous turn out to be amazing as yoga. And since Peter’s never done it before, that’s an issue.
No matter how much Prahna tells him to “try the child’s pose,” he’s determined to keep up, which leads him to eventually kick Sarah in the face as hard as he can, finally getting thrown out of the yoga studio.
Simple scene, but as shot, they have so many options in terms of how to cut it together. That’s due in large part to the magnificent dry wit of Kristen Wiig. While they were shooting, Paul Rudd dropped by to watch them shoot, and so did Jonah Hill, and both of them said it was just because they wanted to watch Wiig work. I can see why. She managed to take every exchange and twist something new out of it, the same way she did in KNOCKED UP. Every single scene of hers in that film is electric because of the way she manages to play the subtext of everything she says. I think that’s her particular gift as a comic actor... she suggests all sorts of complicated emotional backstory, and it’s the sheer depth of it all that makes me laugh as I watch her.
As I walked up, they were actually shooting the end of the scene, as Peter’s being thrown out. Wiig can barely look at Segel as he leaves. He hesitates, trying to figure out the magic word to make things better.
More emphatically. “No.”
Desperate now. “Arigato?”
Once he’s gone, Wiig seems more concerned with getting everyone in the class to sign legal waivers than she is in helping Sarah with her sore face.
As they reset for the next take, I notice there’s a wedding in progress in the large yard on the far side of the gazebo. I ask Shauna Robertson if they’re worried about shooting around the stuff going on at the hotel like the wedding. She laughs.
“No, that’s our wedding. There are weddings going on in the background for the entire movie. We do over a dozen of them. Totally different kinds.”
Fooled me. It was all so casually staged, so natural-looking, that I just accepted there was a wedding going on. They moved to reset and try a different part of the scene, where everyone in the class is chanting. It’s not part of the scene as scripted, and it’s basically a quick insert. Nick and Rodney just feed everyone lines from off-camera, and it turns into a ping-pong game as the actors start batting back their own ideas. In-between “Ohhhhhhmmmmm”s, they play little riffs off each other. Rodney calls out, “Hey, Jason... instead of ‘ohhhmmm,’ try saying ‘yum.’”
That’s all he says, but Wiig immediately picks up on it as they try the scene again.
“Sir, it’s not yum. It’s ohm.”
“Oh. I thought it was yum.”
“No. That doesn’t even make sense.”
“Why does ohm make sense?”
“Because ohm is the sound of the universal vibration.”
“... and what’s yum?”
“Yum is what you say when something’s delicious.”
“... fair enough.”
That pretty much cracks Nick and Rodney up enough that they figure they can move on, and even Wiig, who seems almost unflappable, cracks a smile at Jason’s reaction.
One thing that’s pretty undeniable watching everyone on set is that ladies love Russell Brand. Brand’s a comic from England, with an official site you can visit if you’re interested or a Wikipedia entry that provides an overview of his career thus far.
It seems like he’s infamous for his outrageous behavior in the UK as much as he’s famous for any actual comedy he’s done, but he’s also been awarded such distinct honors as PETA’s Sexiest Vegetarian in Europe 2006 and 2007, which is an odd coincidence, since Kristen Bell, his co-star, was chosen World’s Sexiest Vegetarian in 2006. The two of them are also obviously real-life yoga practitioners, because in take after take, they are flawless in their technique, and they’re being asked to do some fairly elaborate handstands and downward-facing dogs and four-limbed staffs and standing forward bends. Anything that looks like it will kill Jason to try it, they’re pretty much required to do without hesitation, and not just once or twice, but over and over. At one point, as the two of them hold perfect poses, Jason struggles to get his legs up over his head, and Wiig walks by, actually pushes him down into a child’s pose.
As they broke to make the move to the next set-up, Jonah Hill showed up. He pointed out where his room was, directly overhead so that he’d been able to sit on his balcony looking down at the set all morning. He told me that he was splitting his days between spending time on set and working on a draft of his script PURE IMAGINATION. This was before Harold Ramis signed on to direct the movie, but already, Jonah sounded really excited by how it was coming together.
In the next set-up, everyone was paired off for some partners yoga. Kristen and Russell were wrapped around each other, legs entwined, every new move vaguely sexual. Jason wasn’t so lucky, paired off with another guy, a complete stranger. Their poses were disturbingly intimate. As Prahna walked through the room, talking, they were supposed to work their way through each pose.
“Look into your partner’s eyes. Synchronize your breathing. Thank them without words. Say I love you to your partner.”
After trying a few options, Nick shot the set-up as a slow pan from Russell and Kristen over to Jason and his partner, Jason watching them and dying inside at the same time. During the entire sequence, Wiig used “namaste” to punctuate everything she said, wielding each one like a weapon.
There were a few takes almost ruined by laughter, so uncomfortable for Jason. Once Nick felt like he had this particular idea in the can, they reset everything back to the start of the scene. Before Jason enters and before Kristen and Russell join in, it’s just Wiig in front of her class. “Today’s class is focused on the heart chakra.”
Then Jason enters, drink already in hand even though it’s first thing in the morning. I like how eager he is to jump right in until the moment Bell and Brand arrive in the class, and you can see his heart just break all over again, pretty much every single time he encounters her as this resort. I like Bell’s softly muttered, “Goddamit, this place is small” when she first sees him.
You can see the Russell Brand effect in the way Wiig responds to him. She gets positively giddy when she tells him how much she loved him in his cover spread on NAMASTE Magazine, and she tells him how she doesn’t feel like there’s anything she can teach him. Then it’s right into various yoga poses, and here’s where Wiig gets to really put Jason through his paces.
“WARRIOR ONE! WARRIOR TWO!” She barks positions out, and everyone drops into them, perfectly, one after another, and Jason never really has a chance to get his equilibrium. Wiig cracks the exras up with some of the combinations she yells out, and I get the feeling she’s not exactly sure what they are, but just likes the way they sound together. She stops, occasionally adjusting people’s form as they hold one position or another, and in one of the funniest moves I see from her all day, she actually lays her entire body flat on top of Russell while he’s a downward dog descending. It’s invasive, and there’s nothing he can do about it. She practically purrs at him, “You don’t really need any adjustment. I’m just going to do this for myself.” As she runs her hands up his sides, she adds, “You have beautiful skin.”
I kept expecting them to figure out a way to fake the headstands, but in take after take, Bell and Brand kept throwing their legs up and holding firm, without complaint. Meanwhile, Jason struggled with each of them, frustrated, pointing out, “You know, it’s harder for me because my legs are so long. There’s more of me.”
Again, I’m not sure how these performers keep from laughing. Behind the camera, all of us were struggling to keep quiet as Jason would push his legs up into the air, barely able to balance, bellowing a triumphant “YEAH, MOTHERFUCKER!” each time. And what really made it work for me is that Jason wasn’t playing it as broad slapstick. This is the humor of the uncomfortable. Yes, it’s physical comedy, but it’s more from the “ugly reality” school of making you laugh.
And I love how no matter how much Jason reacts, Wiig doesn’t let it get to her. At one point, he snaps at her and she calmly replies, “There’s no word for sarcasm in Sanskrit, sir.”
What I noticed about Nick’s approach as he directed the scene is that he gave himself room to either let the scene breathe and cut a big long version of the scene or to cut it back to the bone, and either way, I think he’ll be able to make it work well. It’s just a matter of how it fits into the overall picture he ends up cutting.
As the afternoon wore on, they moved to shooting close-ups of the same scenes, and I wrapped it up for the day to go hit the pool with my family, where we ran into Paul Rudd and his kid, the immeasurably hip Jack. Before that, though, I managed to pull Russell, Jason, and Kristen aside to chat for a few minutes, one at a time, and in my next set report, which I’ll run at the start of the week, we’ll get into those conversations.
For now, I’ve got some other stuff to prepare for you for the weekend, so I’ll continue this soon.