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Jason Segel shares his writing process, favorite career moments and influences

Jason Segel candidly spoke to a huge crowd at BookCon
Christian Augustin / Getty Images Entertainment

Jason Segel is known for his film and tv work, as well as his behind the scenes work as a writer to bring his own visions to life on screen. He recently added author to his resume, with his first book, a collaboration, based on a screenplay he wrote as a 21-year-old, with children’s author Kirsten Miller. The novel, Nightmares!––which follows Charlie Laird, a seventh grader mourning his mother and forced to travel into the nightmare world to rescue his kid brother from the witches who whisked him off–– will not hit stores until September, but Segel is already doing his part to spread the word.

He recently treated an audience of fans at BookCon to a nearly hour-long discussion that covered an immense amount of ground. After chatting with moderator Adam Gidwtiz and reading an excerpt from the book Segel fielded questions from the crowd. He shared personal anecdotes and recollections, specifically those that helped him craft Nightmares! (for more on that head over to this article), but also took the time to elaborate on his writing process, influences and career up to this point.

If the premise of Nightmares! strikes you as a bit reminiscent of Labyrinth, it should come as no surprise that the 80’s cult classic was a big influence for Segel. He noted that movies like The Goonies and Labyrinth were films that were not only reminiscent of his own nightmares, but experienced during the same time period. He likewise revealed that his love of popular trilogies like The Lord of the Rings at the time he first conceived of Nightmares! were influential in his envisioning of the story as a trilogy.

“Nothing is really off the top of my head, my influences ring really strong. I think the aesthetic of Edward Gorey was always in my mind and Tim Burton kind of draws from that school as well. Labyrinth really influenced me, I remember thinking ‘What is David Bowie doing to me?’ It’s so wonderful and bizarre, that feeling is what I was left with more than anything. I think this about a lot of types of magic, everyone is searching, you’re searching so hard, but really, it’s right here, it’s like right here all around us, it’s all about the eyes that you’re looking through. I tried to write a book from a perspective of somebody who has keen eyes to see magic.”

Segel also noted that he a character name as a way of tipping his hat to one author in particular who influenced him as a child, Roald Dahl.

“I remember reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and becoming convinced that I could find a golden ticket. I mean honestly, I was that kid. James and the Giant Peach really got me too. [Charlie’s name] was definitely paying homage to those influences.”

When it came to the fact that mourning a parent being a big facet in Nightmares!, Segel said that other works that have trusted children to handle tough issues gave him great confidence in his own approach.

“I have a very childlike aspect to my personality, as you may have noticed. I really don’t like to be underestimated because of that, and I don’t think that children deserve to be underestimated or placated to or talked down to. I think that children are capable of handling things. … I think one of the things Pixar did great, like that first 10 minutes of Up, holy mackrel! Geez louise! But that was really inspiring to me because children can handle it, and they have things that they want to deal with and they desperately want to relate to what they’re watching or reading.”

Though Nightmares! is based on Segel’s vision and original screenplay, it is very much a collaborative work. Segel spoke about his passion for collaboration and the way he and Miller approached the project in order to create a single, seamless voice.

“Collaboration is my favorite thing. I’ve never felt for myself like I need to do something on my own just because of pride or to show that could. I would rather something be great.”

“I think tone is the all-important starting point. Particulars, I think, are really movable, but you cannot get around variations in tone between two people collaborating. ... She was really helpful in showing me that now we weren’t bounded by the idea that we have to film this, you can now go anywhere with this story, so let’s knock down all the walls. So, we started reimaging the story. Kirsten is so smart and so funny and she really understood Nightmares!, so she went off and she wrote a draft and we started collaborating back and forth. Really it came down to going over every single line. I couldn’t have hoped for a better partner.”

Though Segel initially wanted to transition his old script into a novel because he felt that the screen couldn’t do it justice the way a child’s imagination could, he noted that with Miller’s work to help him bring his vision to life, he now thinks a film is a realizable possibility.

“I actually think the book now, especially, could make a fantastic movie. I think that what Kirsten Miller brought to the table was a really beautiful, visual sense. I didn’t know that I would be capable, at the time, of describing what I was picturing well enough that people would be able to understand what I had in my mind. Luckily, I met Kirsten Miller who had the same vision of the story that I did, and now when I read it, I can see it perfectly, I can picture it perfectly, so it may have a future in that world now, as well. I’m very excited about that idea.”

Segel also revealed the single motivator behind everything he writes.

“I’ve always felt like I have things that I wanted to share with people because I felt like I had a gnawing question––which is like, doesn’t everyone feel this way? That’s what drives me to everything that I write is getting an answer to that question––does everyone else feel this way also? I don’t really respond well to any type of work movies or books, where someone is just telling me how they think, but when I hear someone say, ‘Hey, look, we’re all in this together,’ that’s when I really connect to it. I’ve always wanted to know if people felt the way I did.”

Gidwitz made the observation that Segel always seems to truly enjoy what he is working on, and that historically, audiences do as well, and asked Segel if he thinks there is a secret to work that is not only personally fulfilling, but popular.

I think that it’s really trying hard and being very honest with yourself about if the thing that you’re trying to communicate is universal. If you’re just trying to tell a joke, there’s a reason a sitcom is only 22 minutes, that’s the amount of time you’re willing to stick with just a joke. ... If you’re asking someone to read a book and keep it by their bedside and to carry it around with them, it better be more than just a joke, or to sit through a 90-minute movie, it should be something they really connect with. When I wrote Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Judd Apatow said to me when I asked him for advice, he said, ‘Yeah, write a drama, it’s going to be funny because of who you are, there’s no way that it’s not going to end up being funny, and you can always layer jokes and things on top of it, but what keeps somebody interested is that it’s something that they need to see the end of.’

Segel also looked back over his career and called out those projects he is most proud of, when prompted to do so by Gitwitz. He spoke to three projects in particular.

“This is not the obligatory answer, but I’m incredibly proud of this book. This is a stick-to-it-iveness that I’m really proud of. I think connecting with children at a certain age––I said this yesterday, but I had this moment where I sort of realized that around 12-years-old, you’re about to hop on this track and you don’t even realize it. Elementary school goes into junior high, goes into high school, goes into college, goes into a job, next thing you know that’s what you’re doing and you’re hoping to retire. I think that catching a kid right before that and then reminding them that, ‘Hey, don’t forget! Don’t forget about the magic,’ is a really special thing you can do, ‘cause it happened to me. So, I’m really proud of the book in that respect.

Muppets I was really proud of, they were my first comic influence, like when you’re a kid, Muppets are Monty Python to you, you know? And Kermit the Frog was my first acting influence. I swear! When you’re a kid he’s like Tom Hanks. I don’t like mean humor, I’ve never written it, I try not to act in it, and The Muppets never make jokes at other people’s expense. ... Even their villains, their goal isn’t to destroy their villains, the goal is to show the villains the error in their ways. I looked at what children are being exposed to these days and the influences of things like social media and Twitter and all that where you’re able to anonymously make fun of somebody and then walk away feeling really good because you made people laugh, and Louis C.K. said it, but you’re not forced to experience the look in someone’s face that you hurt their feelings. That’s a really bad lesson to learn, and I felt like putting something like Muppets in the world, might instill some other lessons, like we’re better together than we are apart, that it’s not about success at other people’s expense, like we can all have a really good time together, and so I was really proud of Muppets.

“And then, I was really proud of Forgetting Sarah Marshall because I was terrified. I think the thing I was most proud of about that was it was a romantic comedy in the era of things like Knocked Up and all these things and I managed to make it end with a lavish puppet musical. I’ll tell you something really embarrassing, I wrote the Dracula musical way before Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I wrote the Dracula puppet musical honestly thinking like, ‘This is how I’m going to make it in Hollywood.’”