Forget Sarah Marshall. Who needs Kristen Bell when you can have Russell Brand?
That’s exactly what the producers of 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall thought when they glimpsed the British blabber-mouth in the film’s stand-out role of Aldous Snow.
The sex god rocker whom Sarah (Bell) rebounds with after dumping long time boyfriend Peter (Jason Segel), Snow is a philosophy-spouting child of the Earth who also happens to like a lot of sex – as well as performing moving/saucy rock ballads on stage.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall was a hit – and those who had seen it knew why. “I think the reasons Aldous Snow resonated, at least with Nick [Stoller, director] and Judd [Apatow, writer-producer], is that in this celebrity-obsessed age, Aldous was an unusual take on celebrity,” muses Brand.
The very same week that Forgetting Sarah Marshall hit screens, Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel started planning a follow-up. Remembers co-star Jonah Hill: “I was dying to work with Russell again, and I would have done anything Nick asked me to do…”
Alright, then, let’s rock...
Next: A Brand New Movie[page-break]
A Brand New Movie
“It’s very flattering that Aldous Snow’s been given life beyond the initial joy of playing him in Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” says smooth operator Russell Brand.
And he’s not kidding. How often does a former protestor slash television presenter go from such humble beginnings as Big Brother’s Big Mouth to a shimmering Hollywood career?
Not often, as it happens. Which is what makes the through-line from Brand’s Channel 4 beginnings to Get Him To The Greek such a crack-addled and wonky one. He has Sarah Marshall to thank for that.
Written by Judd Apatow and Jason Segel, and directed by Nicholas Stoller – who had briefly written for Apatow’s cancelled TV show Undeclared – Sarah Marshall currently stands at 84% fresh on the Rotten Tomatoes tomatometer.
The flick earned mucho praise (“At its heart, it’s about heartbreak, heartache, and all the other emotions that most men spend the majority of their energy trying to repress in an effort to appear strong,” wrote one critic) and a tidy box office haul of $104m. Not bad for a romcom starring that Veronica Mars girl, that guy from Superbad, and some British fella.
With Stoller having been impressed with Hill and Brand’s chemistry during a Sarah Marshall table read-through, the seeds for a spin-off adventure were well and truly sewn in his mind.
“Jonah and Russell had amazing chemistry,” Stoller remembers. “Then, on set, they were just hilarious together.”
First, though, there were going to be some changes. While Brand’s Aldous Snow character remained intact for this planned spin-off (despite a brief draft having Brand playing him under a different name), Hill’s character of a waiter who idolises Snow needed some honing in order to fit this new story.
“Jonah’s part in Forgetting Sarah Marshall was very much a broad character,” explains Stoller, “so broad it would have been hard to sustain a whole movie. It wouldn’t have made sense to have him play the same character.”
So it was out with Matthew The Waiter, and in with Aaron Green. Still a big Snow fan, Green works for the record company who ‘own’ Snow, and is charged with escorting the famously slippery star from London to Lose Angeles for a money-spinning comeback gig. Naturally, it’s not going to be easy.
Says Stoller: “We wanted to get across that when you imagine hanging out with a rock star, it seems exciting and thrilling. You get to stay up all night and party. We wanted to capture the idea that it just never ends. And Aaron has a great time.
“Next morning, you wake up and start partying again. There is no end to it. It’s a triangle where it gets more fun, more fun, more fun, then it hits an out-of-control moment, and then it starts to plummet down toward Earth.”
Producer David Bushell agrees, adding: “What’s special about the Apatow camp and the movies they make is that there’s a certain honesty that plays alongside the comedy.
"People can either see themselves in the characters or in the stories…or they would like to see themselves in the characters and the stories.”
Next: King Of The Hill[page-break]
King Of The Hill
For Jonah Hill there was no question about returning for a second round in the ring with Brand.
“Aaron Green is driven and ambitious and has a serious relationship,” the Superbad star says of his fresh character.
“He’s probably the most normal guy I’ve ever played. The interesting part is that we get to explore what’s extreme and weird about Aldous’ life. It’s not as fun for Aaron as he thought it was going to be… just weirder.”
Brand, meanwhile, was itching to slip back into the leather trews of his big screen success story. “He’s not just a straightforward obnoxious twerp,” the master wordsmith notes, “although he is an obnoxious twerp, there is sort of a sweetness and vulnerability to his self destruction and self-entitlement.”
For Jason Segel, who would be involved as a producer but leave the writing to Stoller, the thought of working with Brand again had him giddy with delight.
“Russell was the find of the century,” Segel enthuses. “When he came in for the audition, oozing with undeniable sexual energy and rock star good looks, he said to me ‘You’ll have to forgive me, I have only had the chance to take a cursory glance at your script. Perhaps you should tell me what you require?’
“And all I kept thinking was, ‘That takes balls, man!’ And I realised he was the dude. We did a complete rewrite for him.”
Apatow keeps the Brand-love coming: “Russell is an incredibly funny, remarkable, charming man, and we wanted to present him as he is as much as possible. Aldous is actually a toned-down version of Russell.” No kidding.
With their two leads on board, the Greek guys turned to perhaps the biggest challenge – casting other actors who could keep up with Brand and Hill’s fast-paced comedy without tripping in their wake.
For the part of hot-headed music producer Sergio Roma, Stoller and co turned to a man who knew the music industry inside out: Sean Combs. Otherwise known as Puff Daddy. And P. Diddy.
“Nick wrote Sergio as an amazing part,” says Apatow, “and then Sean was even better than what we had. We would go to him and say, ‘What would a crazy record company executive say here?’
“He turned into one of the important partners of the movie because he told us about the record industry, and he knew a lot of insane points of view that people might have.”
For Combs, taking the role was a no-brainer. “When I first found out there was a chance to be in a movie with Jonah Hill and Russell Brand that was directed by Nick Stoller and produced by Judd Apatow, I would’ve given one of my arms to get the role,” he says.
“I prepared all of the dialogue, worked with my acting coach, walked into the audition, and they said, ‘You’re not going to need the script. We’re just going to improv.’ I thought, ‘If I really want the role…I just have to go for it.’”
Now all they needed were some ladies...
Next: Rock Chicks[page-break]
For the roles of Brand’s ex-lover Jackie Q – a slangy riff on Lily Allen – and Hill’s live-in girlfriend Daphne, Stoller turned to the small screen seeking some fresh, up-and-coming talent.
With Emily Blunt having departed the Jackie Q role, Stoller’s gaze fixed on Damage’s Rose Byrne for the part.
Having marked herself as somebody to watch after holding her own against a gloriously snitty Glenn Close (those two Golden Globe noms probably helped), Byrne seemed like the perfect versatile actress to go up against Russell Brand.
“We had to find someone who could not only match Russell... but who could actually beat Russell,” says Stoller. “Rose plays the girl that has him tied up in knots perfectly.”
“Jackie’s very mercurial,” Byrne elaborates. So when Snow’s single ‘African Child’ tanks, Jackie jumps ship.
“She supports the song, to a point, until it’s not good for her anymore. Jackie knows it’s bad, and she knows it’s the end of Aldous and wants out. She’s the front woman now and taking center stage.”
How did Brand feel about his co-star? “Rose actually hit me during a scene that wasn’t scripted. This typifies that manner of destructive, yet alluring woman...a siren luring you onto the rocks to destroy you.”
As for Hill’s nurse girlfriend Jackie, Stoller took a trip through time to the ‘60s, where – in Mad Men – he discovered a burgeoning talent in the form of Elisabeth Moss.
According to Hill, like Byrne, Moss could hold her own: “Elisabeth was the only one who really gave me crap; she was hard on me in the audition and yelled at me. She was so right for the part.”
For Moss, who plays sewn-up Peggy in Mad Men, Daphne gave her the opportunity to break out of the stiff and repressive '60s and let loose a bit in a modern setting.
“Most of the work I do is set in the ’60s, and it is very scripted and serious,” she says. “This was something that was modern, and I was able to play a regular girl - somebody who wasn’t always in an intense situation.”
Both leading ladies rocked the production in their own unique ways. But to lend the production an edge of authenticity (or, alright, just some fun in-jokes), the film relied on Brand’s charms to land some hot musical totty in the cameo department.
While presenting the MTV Video Music Awards in 2008, Brand approached Christina Aguilera, Pink and soon-to-be-squeeze Katy Perry asking if they’d appear in the film. They all eventually did, with the exception of Perry, along with Pharrell Williams and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich.
Says producer Rodney Rothman: “We’ve tried to give a very three-dimensional view of a rock star and an addictive person - what the underbelly of rock ’n’ roll is - while still making it funny.”
“The rock world is obviously a very rich world. I feel like I’ve been researching this movie for the last 35 years. It gives you a reason to invite people who you worship to come hang out.”
Next: We Built This City...[page-break]
We Built This City On Rock And Roll
Shooting Get Him To The Greek was to take place across four different cities. Marking the first Judd Apatow production to shoot outside of America, Greek toured New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and London.
“This is the first international Apatow production,” Stoller says. “You’re seeing a lot of different places.”
Rehearsals kicked off in April 2009, with shooting commencing a month later in May. “This was a very complicated film to shoot,” Stoller reveals. “Sarah Marshall was mainly people sitting and talking, which might be the kind of movie I go back to doing. We call this movie ‘running and screaming.’”
The cast and crew got off to a glitzy start in Las Vegas, where they filmed for a week as the third stop on Aldous and Aaron’s booze-filled partying tour.
It proved to be equally as exhausting for the production crew as it is for Aaron in the film’s narrative, as they visited Planet Hollywood, Koi, PURE and the titular Greek Theatre.
“Vegas is - whether you’re working there or you’re playing there - just a city that will wear you down,” says producer Bushell. “I don’t know if anyone can leave Vegas alive.” The very first day of shooting involved a character being hit by a car…
Next up was New York, where Brand and co visited JFK airport, Central Park, and spent several days at the Today show staging an interview that Aldous conducts with real-life presenter Meredith Vieira. During a performance there, Brand nearly chipped his tooth while singing ‘The Clap’.
In London, the production visited St. James’ Park, Trafalgar Square (where Brand was shoved into the water fountain by an overzealous passer-by, who was later apprehended) and the New Cavendish Club.
Stoller also found fun ways to put the audience right into Aaron’s shoes as he dives off the ledge into Snow’s mad-cap world – which mostly includes a cocktail of different substances.
“With Greek, I’ve tried to break out the visual toolbox,” the director explains. “To simulate being drunk, we thought it would be fun to attach this head rig to Jonah, so we see from his perspective as he moves. As he walked around, it looks only at him. I saw it on Fear Factor on MTV… and that’s my film school.”
For Brand, it was an exhausting - but by all accounts exhilarating - time.
“I’ve been plunged into water for seven hours,” Brand reveals. “I’ve had to hang off a building on a wire, had to mimic having broken bones and been covered in vomit. I’ve been in sexually compromising positions, and I’ve had to take all manner of ‘narcotics’. I’ve performed live rock ’n’ roll. I’ve recorded an album...”
Next: Music Makes The World Go Round[page-break]
Music Makes The World Go Round
What’s Aldous Snow without his music? Just look at what happens to him when his career hits a landslide in Get Him To The Greek and you’ll see. (Note: it ain’t pretty.)
Alright, so he needs some songs. He also needs to perform them – convincingly – in choreographed rock shows. How about we just lay on a rock concert proper?
“The Greek is my favourite venue in Los Angeles, where I grew up and live,” enthuses Hill, who went along to the Greek Theatre when the production were given five whole days to set up their very own rock gig there.
Roping in real rock concert specialists to create special effects and previsual models, Stoller and co put on an actual five day gig, with Russell Brand performing songs that had been co-written by Jason Segel and music supervisor Jonathan Karp.
“Jason would send us piano demos that were embryonic,” says Karp, “but it was enough for us just to hear more Aldous Snow songs, since it was coming from the same voice that had created Aldous.”
Explains Segel: “At three in the morning, I’d write on my piano the dumbest songs you could imagine. Then I would send them to Lyle, and he would turn them into actual songs; he was a great partner. Then he would send them back to me, and I recorded the vocal. Then we’d forward them to Russell, and he went in and recorded them.”
For many of the songs, renowned musicians were brought in to help hone them in their various stages. Most famously, Jarvis Cocker (who also lent his talent to the fourth Harry Potter film), came on board to write some songs that he calls "rather silly, but it's a silly film."
“A lot of the songs started with Nick,” Karp adds. “‘African Child’ was his idea; he even had some lyrics. That song is a good example of how we bridged comedy with the song writing. If it gets too jokey, it’s no longer good music.”
In total there were 20 songs completed, with five performed at the Greek. As well as that, four music videos were created, including some for Byrne’s Jackie Q character. “Rose’s songs are pretty risqué,” notes Karp. “But it didn’t faze her at all.”
“Jackie Q, while not based on a living person, is definitely a kind of Amy Winehouse/Courtney Love adventurous type of musician. Rose was able to fit right into that persona and make it her own.”
Byrne, like Brand, was to perform all of her own vocals.
“When I auditioned, they did not mention, ‘Oh, can you sing?’” she says. “I can’t really sing, but I can hold a tune; I’m not tone deaf. I thought, ‘What if I had been?’ What would they have done then? But I did three days of recording, and it was so fun.”
Brand clearly had a hell of a time recording the songs as well, stating: “It was brilliant fun. I really enjoyed the performances enormously.
“It’s lovely living out your childhood fantasies to be a rock star. All the times I pretended to be a rock star, with a hairbrush and tennis racket... I got to live out those fantasies in front of thousands of people.”
Next: Give It Up For The Greek[page-break]
Give It Up For The Greek
Despite opening the same weekend as big green ogre Shrek (in Shrek Forever After), Get Him To The Greek jumped straight into the number two spot at the US box office in June. Its opening weekend took a not inconsiderable $17m.
At present it has made $53m – and that’s before it has even hit UK cinemas.
Reviews have been generally positive, with the current Rotten Tomatoes rating sitting at 74% - lower than Sarah Marshall, but not far off.
By all accounts, Brand enjoyed his return to the nutso world of Aldous Snow, claiming that he didn’t feel any pressure to deliver on a par with the first time we met the character.
“No, I did not feel any pressure at all,” he says. “I mean, I knew there had to be some continuity because they liked that character and my relationship with Jonah. That’s why this film was being made, so if I said, ‘Well, now I see him as a Frenchman,’ they would have quarrelled with that analysis.”
Still, dare we ask about a sequel? “This character keeps resurfacing like a corpse abandoned in the Thames,” Brand colourfully explains. “We will never be free of it, never, unless we tie concrete to his ankles and abandon him in some deeper body of water.
“I think perhaps it will return again and again. Perhaps it will be like the new James Bond or Sherlock Holmes, constantly played. 16 movies, Basil Rathbone will have a go, Sean Connery. That’s my feeling.”
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