“I modelled the movie off of Broadcast News” – Jason Segel on Forgetting Sarah Marshall at 15

Writer and star Jason Segel spills on the naked real-life inspirations and upcoming small-screen future of his heartbreak-based modern comedy classic.

Words & Interview

Simon Bland


There are few things in life that leave you feeling more vulnerable than being dumped. Actually, scratch that; being dumped while you’re stark bollock naked probably leaves you feeling a tad more vulnerable — and that’s exactly what happened to Jason Segel. Released 15 years ago, Forgetting Sarah Marshall has emerged as one of the funniest and most quotable break-up movies. Partly inspired by a real-life incident where Segel was dumped fully nude, it manages to walk that tricky tightrope of being funny while also offering moments of genuine heartbreak. According to its writer and star, this deep well of youthful vulnerability is where its roots truly lie.

“I can honestly say that at the age I was when I wrote that movie, 24 or 25 years old, getting over a bad break-up was the most vital, visceral and real pain I had experienced,” Segel tells us. “It was the biggest thing I’d gone through at that age and I think watching somebody scramble through new emotions in their life is what makes it funny. That’s what relationships are,” he reasons, “a series of failures until you find the one that works — but that first one just feels monumental.”

This recipe of real pain and goofy humour is a thread connecting much of Segel’s filmography leading all the way to his recent mid-life crisis series Shrinking. However, it can all be traced back to his first film. Released in 2008, Forgetting Sarah Marshall sees him play Peter, a songwriter working on a puppet vampire musical who finds himself unceremoniously dumped by Kristen Bell’s eponymous Sarah Marshall. Retreating to Hawaii to stem the weeping and attempt to move on, he meets Mila Kunis’ resort receptionist Rachel before a new problem emerges. Turns out, Peter’s new ex is staying at his hotel with her permanently-aroused new boyfriend, pop singer Aldous Rain, played by Russell Brand in the role that made him a stateside star.

“After we made Knocked Up, Judd Apatow, in an amazing stroke of internship, came to me and said ‘I can get movies made now. You’re next up at bat. Got any ideas?’” says Segel, remembering how his old Freaks and Geeks producer helped get his first film made. “I’d been outlining this idea of somebody going through a breakdown in the happiest place on Earth and having to fake happiness in front of their ex. I basically pitched it to him and within a day or two he said, ‘Alright. Write it.’ It’s nice when someone tells you what to do,” he smiles. “I had the naivety and exuberance of youth and I was hungry. I rented a house in Hawaii and wrote it pretty quickly.”

Having Apatow in his corner provided the guidance Segel needed while remaining flexible enough to welcome unexpected changes in the name of comedy. “Judd’s biggest lesson was that you should write as good a script as you can write that, in theory, you could shoot as-is,” he explains. “Then you cast the funniest people possible and don’t worry if they’re exactly right for the script as you conceived it; you rewrite and set the stage for each of your actors to kill. Russell Brand is a really great example of that because his part was originally written to be a straight-loaded British author, like a Hugh Grant-type.”

He continues, detailing how Brand’s overly-sexualised, loose-lipped personality inspired the tight-pants-wearing lothario he ultimately played. “Russell came in and was very much not that and very much something entirely more spectacular. We did a full rewrite because it was very clear ‘Oh, that’s the guy,” recalls Segel. “Imagine having to get along with that guy dating your ex-girlfriend in paradise. It was better than what I pictured, so we honoured that.”

With Brand, Bell and Kunis filling out his leads, Segel borrowed from one of his favourite movies to give his comedy a more realistic and relatable heart. “Nobody’s a villain. I stole that concept from Broadcast News, which to me is a perfect romantic comedy. Just when you think someone has proven themselves to be great, they make a mistake and just when you think someone has proven themselves to be not worthy, they do something noble — and that’s life,” he suggests. “Nobody is any one thing. I modelled the movie off Broadcast News in that way.”

Joining Peter on his heartbreak holiday are an array of faces familiar to the Apatow-verse, from Jonah Hill’s Aldous Rain fanboy waiter to Paul Rudd’s beach-bum surf instructor. Together with Brand, Bell and Kunis, these quip-heavy talents give Forgetting Sarah Marshall a moreish unpredictable quality. “Rudd and I have a special thing. I can’t quite put my finger on it but we’re just similar enough to share a sense of humour and just different enough to create the tension needed for comedy. There was something about those days that felt a little bit like floating.”

That said, keeping track of the ad-libs proved tricky at times: “The dinner scene [between Peter, Rachel, Sarah and Aldous] was the craziest to shoot because you had four people at the table then Jonah all improvising. Keeping track of everybody and trying not to laugh… it was a really fun, confusing night that I’d like to replicate over and over. It was dreamy,” smiles Segel. “It was a bunch of young actors at a Hawaiian hotel, not really understanding what making a movie was. We had the naivete of youth and had a great time.”

Counterbalancing the comedy was Peter’s very real pain which the character funnelled into a Dracula puppet musical, something Segel had actually been working on in real life. Apparently, he had a couple of “hero songs” pre-written but decided to go for the jugular with the one that fully embodied Peter’s anguish. “I chose the really sad one to play at the bar scene, Dracula’s Lament. The final, big musical number is a mix of that and a bunch of original material written by a guy called Peter Salett, who did an amazing job.”

However, when it came to literal vulnerability, Peter’s multiple full-frontal nude scenes took centre stage: “It was really scary at first. I had to have a little bit of liquid courage,” admits Segel. “The first time I came out and did the scene, when we finished, everybody behind the monitors applauded and it made me feel really safe. There was a sense that it was kind of electric,” he remembers. “Nobody had done anything like it before; it was super weird and vulnerable. When we started to get loose, we added things like me turning around and bending over so you literally see up my butt,” he laughs. “We were really going for it.”

Still, there were some lines they couldn’t cross: “There are some very specific and very funny rules about the amount or lack of arousal that you can have on a male body for it to be rated R,” he chuckles. “People are normally naked for sexual purposes and I think seeing someone naked for humiliation purposes was a new frontier.”

With so much of his own life experience fuelling its creation, seeing Forgetting Sarah Marshal realised and welcomed as a hit was not only therapeutic for Segel but much like Peter’s the-one-before-the-one love journey, a kind of ‘rite of passage’ in itself. “When you’re a young artist trying to make it, there’s an energy that’s a really powerful motivator. You might call ‘I’ll show ‘em’. When I conceived and wrote it, people were like ‘You’re not actually going to end a romantic studio comedy with a lavish Dracula puppet musical. That’s crazy.’ and I’d say ‘Yes, I am. You’ll see.’ There was a moment where I saw the movie and it worked and it really scratched my ‘I’ll show ‘em’ itch.”

Despite this early sense of achievement, Segel reveals that a sequel series is on the way: “I wrote a spiritual sister to Forgetting Sarah Marshall that I think I’m going to adapt as a TV show,” he confirms. “Full frontal nudity was the most vulnerable thing I was capable of at age 25 and it was very literal. As you get older, you realise there are even deeper forms of nakedness and vulnerability that are emotionally raw. If there’s any evolution, it’d be towards somebody accessing those same feelings from the perspective of someone who’s been through a little more life.”

In the meantime, the film remains a meaningful high-point for both Segel and the viewers who embraced it. “I hear a lot that people have watched it and it’s helped them make it through a break-up, which is a really cool thing,” he smiles. “I very rarely have something go as well as Forgetting Sarah Marshall did.”

Published 18 Apr 2023

Tags: Forgetting Sarah Marshall Jason Segel Judd Apatow Mila Kunis

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