Jason Segel interview: Five Year Engagement, Muppets, Freaks & Geeks

Interview Simon Brew 18 Jun 2012 - 06:39

We sit down with Jason Segel, star and writer of The Five Year Engagement, to chat about the film, The Muppets, and Freaks & Geeks…

I only got to the superb television show Freak & Geeks six years ago, courtesy of an expensive DVD boxset import, but it’s been comfortably the show I recommend on a loop ever since. Many of its stars have gone on to great things, and Jason Segel is very much one of them.

Now an established Hollywood leading man and screenwriter, Segel is firmly a favourite here off the back of his Muppets revival alone. Thus, we jumped at the chance to natter to him for the best part of 20 minutes. And here’s what happened…

Let’s start with something random. What’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

Interesting… I guess it would have to be… oh man, there are so many. I’m going to go with The Transporter!

Job done, lovely. Freaks & Geeks. I have to properly start there. It’s a show that, for me, reinforced an ethos that every character, no matter how significant or otherwise, can have three dimensions. As a writer, what kind of an apprenticeship was that, watching that show develop? 

I’ll tell you what the conclusion I drew was. I write every character as though I’m going to play it. Which really helps. If I was going to play this character, how would I want it written? And that leads to trying to really service the characters.

And then the other thing we do, which we learned from Judd Apatow, was that every time we cast somebody, big or small, we do a complete rewrite of the script, just with their character in mind. Now that we know who the specific actor is, and we have a face in our mind, it becomes much easier to make a full-rounded character.

How many drafts does that add to your process?

We do it every time. We do a full draft for everybody. But if they’re only in two scenes, we do a two scene rewrite.

The other interesting thing that I think came out of Freaks & Geeks is that three of you who were in the cast have gone on to be established, hit movie writers. John Francis Daley, Seth Rogen and yourself. I can’t think of another TV show that’s ever done that, especially with such a young cast?

Me neither. We got very lucky. Part of what I think that is that Judd has an amazing eye for talent, and for what he’s looking for from comedy. He found people that he, somehow with his magic lens, were interested in comedy in the same way that he was. Which is creating it. Not just executing it.

It strikes me that the comedy is written in a way that the joke comes last.

It’s so funny you say that. Judd told me when I wrote Sarah Marshall, "For your first draft, I think you should write a drama. It’s going to be funny by nature of the fact that that’s your tone. And then it’s going to be funny because we’ll layer jokes all over the thing. But the reason they’re watching it for an hour and 20 minutes is that there’s a drama underneath."

Which ties in with what you’ve done with The Five Year Engagement. We’ve seen long-running relationships on screen before, after all, that have taken very different, often darker turns. You don’t shy away from some of that, either…

We wanted to harken back to the old, good romantic comedies. The Annie Halls, that were allowed to be said. When Harry Met Sally, things like that. Where the focus wasn’t a laugh a minute, the focus was telling a story that was the tone of life. Funny, and sad, and sweet, all at the same time. 

So when you came to shooting this, given that it’s spread over five years, were you tempted to do a bit of Tom Hanks method? Film part of it one year, then come back when you’ve all aged?

[Laughs] I don’t have a particular acting process when it comes to this type of role. I think you should know your character really well going in, and then I think from there I just try and show up, and just be really regular.

One more thing on Freaks & Geeks. I interviewed Paul Feig last year, about a one-off special or reunion movie. He told us you were all too expensive! But do you think it’s best left now anyway?

I do. Yeah, I do. Because with the gap that would be missing, to do a reunion now would not do a service to what happened to those characters. What I think happened to my character, Nick, is that he went into the army. I don’t think there’s a big ‘he turned his life around and all of a sudden started getting A [grades] in school’. Judd would never demean the characters that way. Nick went to the fucking army, you know what I mean? He might have died. I don’t know.

I remember specifically, they told us – when we knew we were on the road to being cancelled – that ‘the reason that I’m cancelling the show is because high school isn’t like that’. And we found out he had gone to a super-rich boarding school. And he said ‘besides, why does it have to be so sad? Why can’t they have any victories? Give them a victory’.

What an odd definition of a victory.

Uh-uh. Judd wrote them the episode where Martin Starr joins the baseball team, and he does the dramatic flyball, and Martin catches it. And then it’s revealed that it’s only the first out of the second inning. It means nothing! Judd would never, ever have had Martin catch the game-winning fly-ball. He would never demean his audience this way.

Looking at how your films have done in the UK, it’s quite interesting. A third of the foreign gross for I Love You Man, Get Him To The Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall all came just from the UK. And nearly half of the non-US gross for The Muppets came from Britain. 

Wow.

I’m quite interested in that. Some big American comedies used to commercially struggle to travel. But we’re seeing particularly a UK appetite for American comedy. What are your thoughts on that, and does it inform in any way how you put together one of your films?

Well, all I can say to that... very simply, I don’t know if it applies to all comedy coming out now, but guys like Ricky Gervais, British comedy is now informing American comedy, certainly.

That’s cyclical though, isn’t it?

Yeah, exactly. We’re copying your TV shows now! But for me, my idol is Peter Sellers. Everything I do is modelled on Peter Sellers. Maybe there’s a sense of a British sensibility built into that idea. 

You’ve got some really dark work ahead of you, then…

No shit, right?

Peter Sellers was pigeonholed for a long time, of course, as a brilliant comedy actor. When actually, his work is extraordinary. He’s a brilliant actor, full stop.

He deserves to be in the same sentence as Olivier, and people like that. He’s a genius. Look at Being There. It’s one of my favourite movies by far.

We end up coming back to comedy snobbery. We have Oscars that never gave Steve Martin a nomination for stuff he was doing in the early 80s. 

Of course, of course. And people like Judd are lobbying for a comedy category. And I disagree. I think that what needs to change is that mentality of the Academy.

I agree with that. It’s the problem with the Best Animated Film category. The animated films are actually going toe to toe with the stuff that’s getting Best Picture nominations.

Yeah. I think we’re all saying the same thing, consider everybody. But I think we make a mistake in making it a separate category.

The Academy will give comedy a pass in supporting acting roles, and occasionally there’s a screenwriting nomination, but that seems to be it.

You’re absolutely right. 

There’s a growing, perhaps cyclical, trend towards improvisational comedy in films at the moment. But from me as an audience member, there are also films that seem to be improvising because they don’t have a good script. You draw a very tight distinction here – your script is worked to death before you allow anyone to mess with it. 

Hugely.

So how precious are you once you’ve got your screenplay in place?

Our improv process is in no way about finding the story. We work incredibly hard on that, and on finding the story. Our mentality in terms of improv is that while we can imagine how somebody speaks, nobody knows better what they can do than the actor themselves. And so we’re pride-free in the idea of if you think you know a better way to execute this same scene, go for it. It’s still going to say written by Jason Segel [laughs].

I remember reading when Kenneth Branagh was still shooting his films on physical stock, his style was that if he had some spare in the can at the end of the day, that he’d do a completely different take. You don’t have to go to that extreme though, with digital filmmaking?

No. You have to be very careful. You can shoot forever on digital, but that’s not where your cost comes from. It comes from time. And so if you’re not careful, you spend hours sort of comedically masturbating, because you feel you have the freedom to do so. You don’t realise that you’ve lost a lot of time.

The producer side of you: where does he kick in? Presumably when you’re creating a film, the last thing on your mind is box office and marketing. But at some point, the producer bit has to kick in. Where does that happen for you?

Casting. Overall tone. The writer, in most scenarios, hands over the script, and loses his power at that point. What I get to do as writer and producer is provide the script, and then ensure that it’s the tone that I like.

And is that why you wanted to produce? To protect the material?

Yes. Absolutely. 

Is there a bit of you that would extend that to directing?

I’m feeling more and more as I get older, potentially. But here’s my honest answer to that, and the right and wrong part of this sentence is very important, because it’s exactly what I mean. When I think about acting a part, right or wrong, I think nobody could do this better than me. I’m not sure I’m right, but that’s what I believe. Sort of when you walk out to play a sport, you better be thinking that I’m going to kill this other team. You might very well lose, but that better be your mentality. 

When I write something, I think nobody could write this better than me, again right or wrong. When I think about directing? I think I know people who can do this better than me. So I’d rather at this point hire one of them, and have the movie be better, than for pride’s sake I directed it.

Is that a confidence thing?

No. It’s an honest assessment of a skill. If I ever had that feeling though, that nobody could direct this better than me, I would do it.

You did Jeff Who Lives At Home, a small film tucked in the middle of lots of bigger ones. Was there a bit of your head that wanted to see what happens when the budget is pulled right back down?

I’ll tell you, that is an exercise in pure talent, what they do. It’s truly the process of reduction. Let’s take away all of the trappings, and see what you can do, just as a storyteller. And I think they do an amazing job.

There’s a sense of the theatre to it?

Yeah, absolutely. They also do something amazing as directors, for their actors. It’s an unspoken challenge, this is how I felt. They turn the camera on, they point it at you, and then they kind of say nothing. I felt: you claim you’re an actor, let’s see what you’ve got. 

You pulled that back in that film. It was a still performance that you give. Some react to silence by making noise, you reacted to it by staying quiet.

Thank you for noticing. Peter Sellers in Being There was the model for that performance. 

We have to finish with The Muppets. We waited 20 years for that film. The Muppets 2: you’ve been clear that you’re taking a back seat. My question is how back a seat are you taking, are you looking to take a complete break?

Yeah. I’m not going to be involved in The Muppets 2.

At all?

At all. I need a puppet break. It was seven years, from beginning to end, and it was not an easy process. It was tricky to convince them to make the movie, it was tricky to get a tone that everyone could agree on, it was tricky to convince the old guard that I was doing this as a genuine love letter to The Muppets.

One or two comments from Frank Oz came out at the time, I remember.

Yeah, and I felt like I’ve got nothing but respect for the guy, but I’m not doing this for me. I’m trying to bring back The Muppets for this generation, and I was being treated like I was an outsider trying to pull some trick. And that’s when I started to feel like, you know what, just watch the movie… I felt like, when the movie came out, you see it, and it had a 98% Rotten Tomatoes rating or something, I felt like, see you guys, I told you. 

What about The Muppets 3, then? When someone else has gone and done the next one without you, and you watch it, and think you wouldn’t mind going back to that world?

You know, I just need a minute to figure out how I feel about that whole dynamic. I feel really proud about what happened. We won the first Muppet Oscar. Let’s see how they stand on their own two feet. That was my goal. To set it so that they could do whatever it is that they wanted to do. And so I’m happy to hand that torch back over.

Jason Segel, thank you very much.

The Five Year Engagement is in UK cinemas from 22nd June.

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