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You Asked ... "Yes Man" Screenwriter Nicholas Stoller

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Nicholas Stoller


StoryLink is grateful for the opportunity to talk to screenwriter Nicholas Stoller, who wrote Yes Man. The film, based on a book by Danny Wallace, stars Jim Carrey as a man who turns his life around by saying "yes" to every opportunity.

A Harvard alumnus who wrote for The Harvard Lampoon, Stoller cut his teeth in comedy by writing for Judd Apatow's celebrated Fox television series Undeclared. Stoller's directorial debut Forgetting Sarah Marshall, was released during the 2008 summer movie season. Coming up: Get Him to the Greek, a film Stoller wrote and will direct, and then Five Year Engagement, which he will direct and write with actor Jason Segel. Stoller and Segel also plan to re-team to write the newest Muppet movie.

Stoller answered questions submitted and selected from the StoryLink Community. Members whose questions were chosen for this interview will receive a Visual Thesaurus, a product The New York Times called Inventive. Imaginative. Ingenious. Fanciful.

Here, then, are the selected questions from StoryLink members:

The American comedy is evolving yet again with more "R" rated comedies being released including your directorial debut film, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. How do you balance comedy that is funny and edgy with a story that will attract a larger adult audience since the teen audience is less likely to see the film in the theater? -Sara

I think that the rating is based solely on what sort of story you're telling. Forgetting Sarah Marshall wouldn't have worked as a PG or PG-13 movie because no one in the history of break ups has ever been dumped without saying the word “fuck.” However, the story of Yes Man is much more uplifting and can therefore exist (and should exist) in a PG-13 world. I tend to not think about the audience at all and selfishly think only about what makes me laugh or what seems true to me. You can get very easily lost in the whole "the audience won't understand that obscure reference." Audiences are much smarter than a lot of movies give them credit for.

When you are working on a comedy screenplay, how do you maintain a critical perspective after reading it for the 200th time? I find that it's sometimes difficult, after reading the same jokes so many times, to even tell if they're funny anymore. Any tips or strategies for maintaining a fresh set of eyes and ears? - Michael

Get your friends to read it, and if nine out of your ten friends says the same note, they're probably right. Also, if a joke got a laugh in the beginning, don't cut it out of boredom. And finally, always do a table read, and record the table read. If a joke didn't get a laugh at the table read, it probably doesn't work … unless it's a physical joke.

Because the film is based on a book, how close were you married to the spirit of the author's experience or did you use it more as an "idea" and create from there taking more liberty and license in creating the screenplay? - Andi

Danny Wallace's wonderful and humorous memoir was basically an autobiography — it didn't have the structure that a film needs. I took the spirit of the book and the overarching idea, “say yes to everything,” and then created a character and story from that. I made lists of things that would be funny or interesting to say yes to. I thought, “What sort of character would need to learn a lesson from the “yes” idea?” I thought about what the funniest job for a person to have who has to say yes to everything? Then Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel came on and did a great rewrite of the script for Jim Carrey.

I have noticed that a vast majority of writers are Genre-writers, meaning that they stick to their style of writing, whether it be comedy, drama, horror, etc. Do you recommend sticking with one particular style/genre when attempting to hawk your scribe, and do you think writers are pigeonholed, or even typecast, as a certain style of writer? - David

I've always been attracted to comedy. My favorite movies all have comedy in them. I think all human experiences are shot through with comedy, so I couldn't really approach any story without considering the comic aspects. I think that's true of all writers — most are attracted to a certain genre. There are certain people who move between the genres, but ultimately one is attracted to a specific style. It's important that whatever you write you are passionate about. I've found that most people are passionate about a specific genre. I'm obsessed with comedy. I love sci fi and wrote a terrible sci fi script. Because I wasn't obsessed with sci fi, just an admirer of it, I couldn't bring that script to life the way I might be able to with a comedy.

I hear you are going to write the newest Muppet movie, which I am excited to see. I was wondering how you were going to approach this script and what ways were you thinking of making it different from the others? - toni-ann

Jason [Segel] and I love the original Muppet films. We want to do a Muppet movie that hearkens back to the original films. If we can recreate one of those, then we've done our job.

How do you survive the tenuous re-write process and yet preserve your original idea? - Lois

Screenwriting is an inherently collaborative process. It's important and mandatory to take lots of people's ideas. It's also important to maintain what was funny or interesting about your idea in the first place. If you can make a good argument for your idea, then you know that you're right. And if you can't, then usually that means you're wrong. The only times that it's difficult is sometimes it's hard to explain to someone why something is funny. In that case if I really love a joke, I'll just beg hard.

What exactly is your process for writing from your initial idea, to writing a treatment, to outlining with values attached to each scene, to dialogue and anything else I might have forgotten? Thanks so much. - Rusty

Here's how I write a screenplay:
1. Write lists of ideas. Do not get up from your computer until you've written a set list of ideas.
2. Write an outline. It doesn't have to be fully fleshed out.
3. Take two weeks and write a vomit pass. Just vomit that thing out.
4. Take a week off and drink some scotch.
5. Write an outline based on your vomit pass.
6. Look at that outline and rework the outline based on what works and doesn't work.
7. Write a new draft based on your new outline.
8. Repeat as necessary.
9. Don't be precious.
10. Be terrified that it sucks and work on it until you are not quite as terrified any longer.

I'm extremely curious about your experience in making the transition from writer to writer-director. Were there challenges in convincing others that you were ready to adopt that added responsibility? How did you know yourself? And, what were the ultimate challenges you faced in making that transition and executing your role as a director? - Brian

I was terrified and had no business directing a film. I think it's important to go into directing with a feeling of complete and utter terror. That way, you are way over-prepared, which is what directing is all about. Everyone around you, especially for your first film, knows way more about moviemaking than you do and it's important to ask everyone a million questions and not act like you know the answer — because you will be discovered as a fraud. The biggest challenge for me was learning coverage. For whatever reason my brain had trouble understanding it. But [directing is] ultimately making a zillion choices (Which gun? Which briefcase? Which suit?) and really about telling a story. And, if you know your story well, then you'll know all the choices that you need to make.

If ever you find yourself working on a screenplay that doesn't reflect your own personal beliefs or ways in which things resolve, how do you tell a geniunely emotional story without "writing what you know". - royce

Everything I write has something personal it. Whether the character has a trait that comes from someone I know or what have you, I need to be able to connect with it in some way. Or I think about how I would react in a certain situation. In the Gulliver's Travels script, when I read the original draft, Jack Black's character seemed unfazed when he woke up surrounded by tiny people. I thought, “If I woke up surrounded by tiny people, I would scream for a long time.” So that's what I added. However, I'm careful to choose projects that I can connect with in some way. For example, I don't know or care about sports so I've never been interested in doing a sports movie.

Can you learn to write funny or do you have to just "be" funny? - Randy O’Brien

I think you have to be funny to be a comedy writer. However that's a tenth of it. You really have to write and write and practice your craft constantly, not to get to artsy on you.