Don’t Kill the Messenger welcomes writer and director Nick Stoller.

In the entertainment world, few filmmakers have mastered the art of crafting comedies that resonate with audiences quite like Nick Stoller. From hits like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and Neighbors to his highly anticipated upcoming film You’re Cordially Invited, Stoller’s movies strike the perfect balance between gut-busting laughter and heartfelt storytelling.

In a recent episode of the “Don’t Kill the Messenger” podcast, Stoller sat down with host Kevin Goetz to discuss his creative process, his journey in Hollywood, and the invaluable role audience research plays in shaping his work.

Early Inspirations and Finding His Voice

Stoller’s love for comedy writing took root at a young age, as he recounted being inspired by humorists like Dave Barry growing up in Florida. “I started to like, rip off his writing style and just writing my own Dave Barry-esque articles,” Stoller shared.

His passion only grew stronger at Harvard, where he was a part of the iconic Harvard Lampoon. “I was obsessed with comedy writing,” he admitted. “I always knew who the writers were. I don’t know how.”

The Pivotal Role of Audience Research

While his natural wit and storytelling abilities are undeniable, Stoller attributes much of his success to his willingness to listen to audience feedback through meticulous research and test screenings.

Recalling the process for Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he explained, “I learned the audience hates that, they hate someone who’s sad, but they love someone who’s pretending to be happy…someone who’s in denial is the funniest thing in the world.”

This lesson shaped his approach moving forward: “It’s honestly something I’ve taken to everything I’ve done since then because most characters are in denial.”

Stoller went on to emphasize the importance of taking an objective look at his work through the lens of audience response. “If 16 people all say something about your movie like negative, then that means your movie has a problem in that area, you know?” he stated. “And so it’s… feeling the laughs. But it’s also, it’s like a feeling of where they’re engaged and where they’re not.”

Balancing Laughs and Heart

While Stoller’s comedies are renowned for their ability to make audiences double over with laughter, he is equally committed to infusing his stories with genuine emotional depth and resonance.

“I mean, my goal for almost all my movies is to make people cry more than laugh.”

This balance is exemplified in You’re Cordially Invited, which Stoller described as “almost Shakespearean in its like mix-ups” while still maintaining a strong emotional core about “being honest with your family” and the complexities of aging.

The Creative Collaborator

A big part of Stoller’s success lies in his ability to foster an open, collaborative environment that allows his talented casts to shine. He spoke glowingly about working with stars like Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Effron, and icons like Will Ferrell and Reese Witherspoon on You’re Cordially Invited.

“Rehearsals are super important to me…it’s mainly reading the scenes and making sure it all makes sense,” he said of his pre-production process. “It’s reading the script. I’ve done some blocking, but it really isn’t blocking, it’s mainly reading the script, reading the scenes, and making sure it all makes sense. There’s no pressure…I’m very collaborative, I want everyone’s ideas.”

Crafting Bros, a Comedy with Heart

Nick discusses working with Billy Eichner on the romantic comedy Bros. He talks about creating a comedy vehicle for Billy Eichner rather than setting out to do a gay romantic comedy.

“We both want it to be really funny and very authentic and heartfelt and honest, which is what I’ve tried to achieve with all the movies I’ve done.”

On Cutting Jokes and Prioritizing the Story

Nick offers insightful advice on cutting scenes and prioritizing the overall story arc over individual jokes, even highly comedic ones, if they undermine character development or audience engagement.

“There’s a joke in the most recent movie that we that just tested, this Will Ferrell and Reese Witherspoon movie called Cordially Invited, that kind of hurt the character. And it’s one of my favorite jokes I’ve ever written but it kind of hurt the character. And so, I cut it, I just cut it. And I mean, jokes are free. It’s the story that you want to make sure is working.”

By blending his distinct comedic voice with insights from audience research and the brilliant talents of his casts, Nick Stoller has cemented his place as one of the most gifted comedy filmmakers of his generation. As he gears up for the release of Cordially Invited, audiences can expect another master class in finding the laughter and heart in the human experience.

For the full conversation, check out the podcast episode here. And let us know your thoughts on Nick Stoller and his movies in the comments!

Don’t Kill the Messenger, hosted by movie and entertainment research expert Kevin Goetz, brings his book Audienceology to life. This bi-monthly podcast takes a peek behind the filmmaking curtain as Kevin talks with famous filmmakers, studio executives, stars, and other creatives about movies, filmmaking, audience test screenings, and much more.

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