Man to Man: John Hamburg

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Published March 17, 2009

With screenwriting credits that include Zoolander, Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, John Hamburg has been behind some of the most memorable movie comedies in recent years. His latest celebration of excruciatingly awkward relationships, I Love You, Man, which he co-wrote and directed, is the odd-couple story of a real-estate agent (Paul Rudd) whose only friends are women and a loafer (Jason Segel) reluctant to move into adulthood. In a chat with Interview, he discusses the absurdities of male slang and the weird allure of chick flicks, and reveals why Jason Segel is “a cross between a golden retriever and a serial killer.”

DARRELL HARTMAN: Jason Segel and Paul Rudd seemed very much at ease in this movie. Are they more or less playing themselves?

JOHN HAMBURG: They were very comfortable in these roles. You know, in Paul’s last few movies he’d played a cynical guy who’s dissatisfied with the world. But the Paul Rudd I have known for ten years feels like a very warm, open guy, and I thought that would be a good quality to tap into for the Peter part.

DH: What about Jason Segel?

JH: Jason is interesting. We like to say he’s a cross between a golden retriever and a serial killer. He’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, but he can be a little creepy. He’ll hold your gaze for a little too long when you’re talking. I’ll be talking with the cameraman and I’ll feel a guy come up from behind and grind up against me, and it’s Jason. When Paul’s character meets Jason, he doesn’t know what to make of him. So the mysterious qualities I wanted in [Segel’s character] Sidney Fife, I found in Jason.

DH: Lou Ferrigno, of all people, has an important supporting role. How did that come about?

JH: I knew I wanted Paul’s character to be a real estate agent in LA, which means you’re usually selling the house of some kind of celebrity. And the idea just popped into my head: maybe he should sell the house of Lou Ferrigno—as random as that. I liked “The Incredible Hulk” as a kid. And once I had that idea it was like, someone should maybe get in a fight with him.

Paul Rudd, Jason Segel in I Love You, Man

 

DH: Speaking of pop culture references, you also got a lot of mileage out of the movie Chocolat.

JH: I like in movies when they reference things in popular culture, because I think that’s how most of us go through our day-talking about books and movies and TV. And I like when characters live in the real world. So early on, I was saying it would be funny if Paul’s character really liked these chick flicks-probably because in truth I enjoyed many of those movies. I got to this point in the script where I didn’t want a total chick flick; I wanted a movie that if you watch it and just give into it, it’s pretty charming. And that was my feeling when I watched Chocolat. I started out: “This is ridiculous.” But by the end, it’s like, “Johnny Depp is delightful!”

DH: The flipside to that kind of specificity, though, is that it can sound like product placement-like when Paul Rudd’s character goes on about how great HBO’s Sunday night lineup is.

JH: If the movie was all about HBO Sunday night lineup, I think people would be like, John, what are you doing? But if you do a couple of references and they’re relatable, it’s fine. I’ve spent many a Sunday night watching “The Sopranos” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I just think it comes from life, so hopefully people won’t think it’s an ad for HBO.

DH: It’s about the ubiquity of certain products.

JH: Someone on the Internet complained about all the Apple and iPhone stuff. I was like, they’re totally right. But I write about stuff that I can relate to. I own an iPhone and a MacBook and I like Apple products—but I didn’t get any of them for free.

DH: Your comedies all deal with modern relationships. Is this sociological element on your mind while you’re writing?

JH: I’m definitely thinking about telling the story of these characters as well as I can. But there are the bigger-picture ideas—that it’s really difficult to make friends as an adult. So there’s that one through-line I find a very compelling and relatable idea, and that’s what I decided to hang this entire [film] on. There are all these rules for dating—there’s “Sex and the City,” columns, advice-but having a friend is an important part of a complete life I think. You don’t go, “Wait two days to call him, send him a text, see what he says.”

DH: Here, you’ve got a guy who has no problem relating to women, but spends most of the movie learning how to interact with other guys. So it’s an inversion of recent comedies like The Forty Year-Old Virgin and Superbad.

JH: I love both those movies, and that was a terrain I’d worked before. The last movie I directed, Along Came Polly, was about an attractive, successful guy who learns to open up dating a girl who’s overtly cooler than him. But I have observed a lot of people who aren’t comfortable with guys, and I wanted to write a different arc for a character.

DH: Did you do a lot of improvising on set?

JH: Those guys are friends and know each other and are really good at improv. The tuxedo shop, that was a very short scene on the page and we shot it and felt we could do better. So we started coming up with all this James Bond stuff, and Paul talking like a leprechaun.

DH: Had you done much improvising before?

JH: No, I hadn’t done it that much. There’s certain actors I’d worked with in the past who were better at it—Ben Stiller is an excellent improviser.

DH: Any who weren’t so into it?

JH: Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s Philip Seymour Hoffman—that says it all—but he’s so respectful of the script. So for this one I had two guys who were both very adept at it. And also the tone of the movie: it was a about two guys hanging out, so we wanted to create a vibe where you’re just spying on a couple of guys basically talking, but saying funnier things than anyone would say.

DH: Who are the most influential talents in comedy right now?

JH: There are so many good people, and our movie has so many different comedy groups represented in it—Human Giant, Larry Wilmore. “The Daily Show” is probably on a nightly basis one of the funniest things ever. And I think what Sacha Baron Cohen does is unbelievable and totally fearless. I don’t know how he has the guts. His new one is unbelievable as well. I’ve seen a version of it and it’s extremely, extremely funny.

DH: Both of you thrive on the comedy of awkward social situations-for you, not only with this film, but also Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers.JH: If you hung out with me, you might see where that comes from. I just find that awkwardness is a good source of comedy. Every day there’s just weird stuff that happens between people-missed connections, missed signals. One person goes for a hug and the other person goes for handshake. That happens thousands of times a day. So I want people to go and enjoy the movie-but say, “Oh my god, I’ve been there. I’ve made that phone call and left a two-hour voicemail that I regretted.”

DH: You’re also big on malapropisms. One of Paul Rudd’s character’s major struggles in I Love You, Man is what you might call dudespeak. He says “open hizzy” for “open house” and invents ridiculous slang terms like “totes magotes.” Do you talk this way with your friends?

JH: I’m a fan of that type of language. I don’t really use it that much, except as a comedy writer. But I love turns of phrase, and guys who get it a little wrong. Part of it was figuring out how awkward to make Paul’s character. There’s a version of the movie where he’s the most awkward person ever. It almost had to be subtitled, with all the malapropisms he used. We had to find a balance. I wanted the audience to be on his side and not just say, “This guy’s a weirdo.”

I Love You, Man is out nationwide on March 20.