Judd Apatow: “Part of storytelling is people making terrible mistakes”

The 'Knocked Up' director reflects on past work, recent film industry changes and his new life in lockdown

Is there a modern filmmaker with a more recognisable movie blueprint than Judd Apatow? King of laid-back, slacker comedies, the native New Yorker tells stories about struggling man-babies in need of a life reset. Of course, not all of his films are like that, but if you’ve seen Superbad, Knocked Up or The 40 Year Old Virgin, you’ll know what we mean. His latest project, Pete Davidson-starring dramedy The King Of Staten Island, is a similar, if rawer, affair.

Based on Davidson’s own life experiences, TKOSI follows Scott Carlin, a jobless 24-year-old living at home with his mum. He dreams of becoming a professional tattoo artist but, as is the way with many of Apatow’s protagonists, he’s shit at what he loves doing. Meanwhile, his A-grade sister (Maude Apatow) is heading off to college – and his long-suffering mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) is shacking up with a new guy who wants rid of her “free-loading son”. To cap it off, Scott is still dealing with the trauma from losing his firefighter dad as a small child. At first, things don’t look good for Scott, but as is so often the way in Hollywood, the screen’s biggest heroes find a way to makes things work only when they reach rock bottom.

We caught up with the new comedy’s producer, director and co-writer, Apatow, via FaceTime to hear how he’s been keeping fit in lockdown – and if the recent anti-racism protests have led him to reevaluate any of his past work.

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Hey Judd! How’s lockdown treating you?

Judd Apatow: “Hey! I’ve been spending time with my family. I get up every morning and I walk for two or three hours. You have to create your own structure for the day. I spend the morning trying to do something healthy – and then I spend the afternoon trying to do something productive. In the evening I just try not to eat too much ice cream while binging TV shows.”

Is walking your lockdown project then?

“I’ve lost 12lbs and there’s nothing I like to do more than eat. So if I’m any example of what people are doing then everyone in the world must be ripped by now. It’s funny when you take a walk around here [in Beverly Hills] though because everyone is in such good shape!”

You’re not smoking weed or shouting at racists on Twitter like your pal Seth Rogen then?

“I’m not. But I see that he makes pottery on his Instagram. He’s lucky that he installed the kiln before all this happened. I don’t really have a hobby like that, but sometimes I just sit and try to figure out James Taylor chords on the guitar. I mangle all of his songs.”

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I got vases for days-es.

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After lockdown ends, the industry is going to be radically different. Did you see CGI is going to be used in sex scenes?

“I did! I’m sure porn sites can explain to us how to do it. They have it refined into an art. I’m worried it may change into something super creepy though.”

Are some actors going to request certain… alterations though?

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“Now you’re thinking like a producer…”

Pete Davidson, The King Of Staten Island
Pete Davidson as Scott Carlin in ‘The King of Staten Island’ CREDIT: Press

There are some first-time Apatow-ers in The King Of Staten Island – where’s Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd and the gang?

“With every film [that I make], I try to fill the world with names that are familiar to the lead. So when I worked with Amy Schumer [on Trainwreck] I asked her who she saw in her world and she said Bridget Everett and Nikki Glaser and Colin Quinn. But for Pete [Davidson], we had his grandfather Stephen and also his buddy Derek Gaines, who is a brilliant comic too. [Having those connections] always makes the universe feel more real.”

There are a couple of jokes in the film about how tall Pete Davidson is – how did he take those?

“Pete is very tall, I’m not sure exactly how tall, maybe 6’3″ or 6’4″, but he’s always slouching. For a long time I thought he was my size [5’9″] and then he was about to start work on another movie which wanted him to stand up straight, so he started practicing – and I swear that’s why he seems so much taller in the film!”

Judd Apatow
Pete Davidson and Judd Apatow on the set of ‘The King Of Staten Island’. Credit: NBCUniversal

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement, many filmmakers are reevaluating their work – is there anything you would have done differently?

“I think part of storytelling is people making terrible mistakes. So we’ve had plenty of characters who were idiots and our intention is always to have them learn a lesson and stop being a fool by the end of the movie. It’s always a serious conversation when we decide how to define that and I think those conversations will always be there. For me, I want people to get something out of the movies. I think you can do anything if your heart is in the right place. Intentions are important and how people interpret things is important. There is no final arbiter of taste who can tell us [what’s right or wrong]. And everyone disagrees on where that line is. So I think it’s always going to be a complex issue.”

In comedy, is that balance even harder to get right?

“Yes, it’s very difficult because people have different taste in comedy. Some people like things that are very tame, some people like things that are very edgy, some people wanna be shocked and some people don’t want to be shocked at all. I always think about what my friend [stand-up comedian] Colin Quinn said, which is: ‘When you make a joke, you need to mean it’. And I think you have to be able to stand behind what you’re doing and what you’re saying. You can’t be thoughtless at this point.”

The cast of ‘Freaks And Geeks’. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Freaks and Geeks, which you co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed, walked that line perfectly – is there a Zoom reunion in the works?

“I haven’t heard about anything! What most people don’t realise is that when you make something, people expect you to get together for the 10 year anniversary and the 15 year anniversary and the 20 year anniversary and so on. Then, suddenly your whole life is filled with reunions, which just make you sad that you’re old.”

We were big fans of Love on Netflix – is there a chance of that coming back?

“There’s always a chance of anything coming back if someone makes a call and orders more. Streamers don’t have that much interest in having shows for more than three seasons. I think that they like getting all the publicity and that helps them get people to sign up. The model that used to exist for television was that shows were trying to create 100 episodes so they could go on syndication, which is where the money was. But because that doesn’t exist, there isn’t a financial motivator for allowing shows to survive for that long, unless it’s a gigantic hit. It’s a bummer. I miss having Taxi there for half a decade or one of the other shows that meant a lot to me.”

Love
Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust in Netflix’s ‘Love’. Credit: Netflix

Tiger King was a massive hit – and now they’re making a movie. Are you interested?

“I’ve seen Tiger King, of course. I’ve seen everything at this point. I’m rewatching Dynasty and Falcon Crest and Remington Steele. I’m even rewatching seasons of American Idol!”

How would you approach making a film about Joe Exotic?

“It’s always challenging to make movies about such broad characters because they are already weird and funny, but the characters [in Tiger King] are also toxic and dangerously awful people. There’s something comic about it but they are also abusing animals. I think the documentary tried to water that down to make it more fun to watch. It’s the challenge of a movie – are you going to make this something silly or are you going to try and make it even more truthful? I’m happy that Nic Cage is in it, he’s the greatest.”

‘The King Of Staten Island’ is available on digital platforms now

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