Rodney Rothman and Nicholas Stoller make a powerful team on a film set. I've seen them in action together twice, and considering the first time around resulted in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," a film that owes as much of its success to its post-process as to the shoot itself, I think it's a safe bet that "Get Him To The Greek" could well turn out to be one of the summer's best comedies.
On the set of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," it was easy to forget that it was Stoller's first time as a director and that he and Rothman were just developing their working language. Stoller had already created a solid reputation for himself as a screenwriter, and Rothman rose to prominence as the youngest head writer for "Late Night With David Letterman" ever before publishing his first novel. Both of them are still frighteningly young considering their accomplishments, and incredibly easy to speak with.
When I arrived on-set, they were in the middle of a scene involving Sean Combs and Jonah Hill, and I commented about how Russell Brand was the scene-stealing discovery on "Marshall," while he was the star on this set, and now Combs was developing into the new scene-stealer.
Rothman just shook his head, laughing. "You have no idea."
They talked about the process of getting to know him, and how Sean Combs the actor is not quite the same thing as P. Diddy the personality, and how hiring one brings you in orbit with the other. They told me about an early meeting they had with him where he insisted on going to a Russian bathhouse in New York that Combs likes because it's nothing but old Russian people. "We went with James Earl Jones and Russell Simmons," Stoller said, laughing. "He's such a character. Once we hired him, we rewrote the film and put him in a lot more of it because he was so awesome."
I asked about working with Russell Brand again on this character that Stoller and Rothman both so obviously loved during the making of "Marshall," and they were enthused at the opportunity it presented. "He's playing a much darker guy in this movie," Rothman said. "Aldous is off the wagon and crazy again." I asked them how they handle the continuity between the movies considering Jonah's a totally different character this time, and they both just shrugged it off. "We have a joke that basically Aldous doesn’t remember any of the events of 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall' anyway, including Sarah Marshall, the woman he dated for eight or nine months. So the fact that Jonah's a whole-new character is really not an issue."
They talked about how one of the most important elements of the new film for them is the relationship between Colm Meaney and Russell Brand, playing Aldous Snow and his estranged father. "The relationship between father and son is... difficult," Rothman explained. "His father wasn’t around very much. His father think that he’s the talent and the wrong person became successful."
I ask what Meaney's character does in the film, and Stoller jumped in. "He’s, you know, a n’er do well. A professional n’er do well. And he lives in Vegas, and he’s up to no good. The relationship is difficult, but for a while they have a blissful reunion and then they bring out the worst of everybody and now they’re fighting."
Actually, the fight was about to break out. The scenes I was watching them shoot as we spoke were all individual bits of business at the party where the big meltdown happens. "Everybody's going to be fighting," Stoller promised. "Everybody’s in this scene, but I don’t know how we’re shooting exactly. When it’s put all together it’ll be Jonah, Sean, Colm and Russell. And Colm makes a nasty remark about Russell’s mother to Russell."
I asked if we meet Russell's mother in the film. "We do, but you're not going to tonight. We're not there yet," said Stoller. There's still a lot of emotional boxing to shoot between father and son on this particular set. "Colm tells him, "You’re going to die lonely and alone,' and then he hits him with a guitar. Aldous picks up his guitar, which I think is a mandolin actually. It’s only 4 strings and it’s really small..."
Rothman finally couldn't resist. "It's a ukelele."
Stoller looked unconvinced. "You sure that's not a mandolin?"
Rothman's answer was directed to me instead of Stoller with a laugh. "Ukelele."
See? Fighting, and the camera's weren't even rolling yet.
Actually, there's no fighting on a set with these two. They both love to feed actors lines from behind the camera between takes, constantly adjusting dialogue and character and attitude and tone. They'll go extra-dirty on some takes, and almost TV-safe on others.
We walked around the set of the Planet Hollywood penthouse, and they showed me where each of the major beats in the sequence (one of which, hinted at in the trailers, will make "Pulp Fiction" fans laugh particularly hard) will take place. Bob Yellin and his camera crew were setting up the next shot, working around the elaborate lighting already built into the set.
Jonah Hill walked by again, and he said, "I'll be right back. Can't talk. I had too many Jeffreys." Both Rodney and Nicholas laughed, and as we made our way back to video village, I asked them what a Jeffrey is.
At first, Rothman tried to play coy. "I don't know. What is a Jeffrey?"
"I'm asking you. I used to think I was hip to the lingo. But I've never heard of a Jeffrey."
Nicholas Stoller explained, "It's a joint made with marijuana, tobacco, a layer of heroin, a layer of crack cocaine, a layer of Ecstasy, and then rolled in a sheet of paper dipped in liquid acid."
Laughing at the impossible horror of the concoction he'd described, I asked why it was called a Jeffrey. When he answered, he did a slight but spot-on riff on Russell's accent. "Because who can be afraid of something called Jeffrey? He's just a nice guy who lives down the road."
A big part of why a partnership like this one works is because both Stoller and Rothman seem to take a profound pleasure in making the other one laugh at terrible things. "Who actually smokes the Jeffrey in the film?" I asked them.
"Aaron, Jonah's character, is freaking out at this party, and someone tells him that the Jeffrey will calm him down," Rothman explained.
"Yeah, that doesn't really work," Stoller continued. "That's a miscalculation."
Rothman pointed at the screen where they were doing another set of shots of Jonah Hill taking refuge against a giant fur-lined wall, enjoying the tactile comfort of laying against the fur. Sergio
, who is "P. Diddy's character," according to Rothman, jumps into the frame to touch the fur on the wall and say something to Jonah. They'd already done five or six different takes, and each time, Rodney or Nick or Jonah or Sean would suggest a new variation on his one line. The one that made me laugh the hardest in the handful of takes I watched was, "I'ma do the whoooole outside of my house in this. It's gonna look like a f**king werewolf
." That one almost made Hill laugh on-camera, and it got a big laugh when Stoller called cut. That one was actually Combs's joke, his sugestion, and Rothman told me that he was frequently scoring his biggest laughs on his own improvs.
I remarked how strangely blithe they all were about the casual heroin references in the film. "We’ve seen pot comedies, obviously, and for a very short period of time in the 80’s there were a few coke comedies, but not many. And there's not much in the way of a tradition of heroin humor on film."
Rothman acknowledged that they were skirting some very edgy waters, but also said that the film dealt more with the culture of recovery and the way that's been mainstreamed. "We wanted to push this character in the other direction to see how dark we were allowed to let him be."
Stoller said, "Yeah, we don't think of it as a heroin comedy first or anything. This is not the 'Pineapple Express' of heroin." He said that there are definitely some wild moments drawn from Russell's past and from other true-life stories. "There's a scene where he tells Aaron to go get him some heroin, and he doesn't give him any tip on how. That's not Russell's job. He just wants it. And it's that question of... where do you even begin to go?" I told him I wouldn't know a single person to call. "We have a whole scene with him and T.J. Miller, and T.J. Miller’s this concierge at the casino at the hotel. I think what's funny is that heroin is not a party drug, you know? It’s not like… no one brags about doing heroin, you know? Aaron’s job is to support this guy who has insane appetites for everything, you know? And how do you feed that machine? We’re not making light of it."
Since this particular set visit was the day after Michael Jackson's death last year, the subject turned to the doctor that was being sought in connection with Jackson's death. Rothman wasn't kidding at all when he said, "We live in an industry and work in an industry that certainly is about enabling, where if you depend on somebody and they have this enormous talent but they also have the appetite that goes with it, which do you service?"
Stoller nodded. "When he’s sent on his mission at the end of the movie, you know, Sergio literally says to him like you have to take care of this guy. This guy is a drug addict. He’s a mess, but that’s what people expect. So you know you have to keep him at a certain level. This is sober and this is too f**ked up, and we want him somewhere in the middle."
Were they, in fact, able to keep him somewhere in the middle? Does he, in fact, get to the Greek?
For more on that answer and the promise of a Sean Combs exclusive interview still to come, continue checking back for our "Get Him To The Greek" set visit coverage this week here on HitFix.
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