Judd Apatow, Knocked Up
After 15 years rising up through the Hollywood ranks, comedy’s underdog is on top of the world. At the moment, studios are scrambling to work with Judd Apatow (there are no less than seven films he’s currently involved with which he has written and/or produced), but this is a stark contrast to the rejection he became used to. It is ironic that the projects now being snapped up are the same ones that were repeatedly passed on previously. Apatow began as a writer on The Ben Stiller Show and The Larry Sanders Show, and then wrote the screenplays for Heavy Weights (1995) and Celtic Pride (1996), neither of which managed to jumpstart his film career. He returned to TV, and created two much-loved series, Freaks and Geeks (1999) and Undeclared (2001), both of which were cancelled in their first seasons, despite receiving critical raves. Since then, Apatow has been on a hot run, having produced Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Kicking and Screaming (2005), Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) and The TV Set (2007) as well as penning the remake of Fun with Dick and Jane (2005). However his true breakthrough came with The 40-Year-Old Virgin starring Steve Carrell, which was the sleeper hit of summer 2005.
Knocked Up is Apatow’s much-anticipated follow-up to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and has had incredible word-of-mouth since its triumphant premiere at SXSW earlier this year. The film was written for actor-writer Seth Rogen, an Apatow acolyte since Freaks and Geeks, and casts the 25-year-old as Ben, a schlubby slacker who gets rising TV star Alison (Katherine Heigl) pregnant after a drunken one night stand. When Alison and Ben decide to try and become a couple for the baby’s sake, Ben has to face up to his responsibilities as a father and finally grow up. It’s difficult to imagine a more enjoyable film this summer than Knocked Up. The movie is a delight, and showcases Apatow’s rare ability to create films that are both uproariously funny and also deeply touching, to have moments that are sweet and tender nestle alongside coarse, hilarious ones without either seeming out of place.
Filmmaker spoke to Apatow about the comedy of the underdog, being the core of a moviemaking community, and lying to his daughters for their own good.
Filmmaker: Things seem to be going very well with Knocked Up, particularly with the reaction it got at SXSW.
Apatow: It’s been playing very well. It’s shocking… We were all very surprised at how good the reaction to the movie has been. It has always screened very well, but I think when we put the final finishing touches on the music and the sound mix, and the credit sequences, it jumped up another notch. So it’s taken us a little bit by surprise.
Filmmaker: The film was written as a vehicle for Seth Rogen, I believe.
Apatow: It was. Seth pitched me some ideas after The 40-Year-Old Virgin which were big science fiction movies. I was trying to convince him to do a small movie as his lead acting debut, and so I said, “You don’t need wizards and fairies to be funny, you’re funny in The 40-Year-Old Virgin just sittin’ there. You barely move and you’re funny. You could just be in a normal circumstance. You could get a woman pregnant and that would be enough for a movie.” And then I realised, Wait a second, maybe that’s a good idea, maybe I need to write that myself.
Filmmaker: Did Seth input ideas as well?
Apatow: How this one worked was I went off and wrote a draft of it while we were shooting Talladega Nights, and then as soon as I was done I gave it to Leslie Mann – my wife – Paul Rudd and Seth, and got input from them and we started doing table reads and rehearsals. About seven months before we started shooting we did our first rehearsals. I knew it would take a while to find our female lead, but I always call everybody during the process and tell them things that are making me laugh and ask them questions about their lives and try and put it into the movie.
Filmmaker: There seems to be a lot of crossover between real life and the world of the film. For example, a lot of the actors play characters with the same name as them, and your wife and two daughters act in the film.
Apatow: A lot of the details of the movie are based on things that have happened or based on things that you think about. Or things that have happened to Paul or other actors. You know, when I’m writing I’ll call Paul and ask him questions about his marriage [laughs], and a lot of the marital problems are a combination of things that Paul’s wife and my wife find irritating about us. [laughs] There’s a lot to find irritating about us, believe me!
Filmmaker: So there’s a documentary angle to this.
Apatow: Yeah, that’s one aspect to this. I have never lied to my wife and said I was at work while sneaking out to see Spiderman with my friends [as Rudd’s character does], but I have dreamed about it. I do consider it all the time, I just don’t have the courage to do it.
Filmmaker: So it’s wish fulfillment played out on the big screen.
Apatow: It’s nightmare fulfillment! [laughs]
Filmmaker: I read a quote from your wife in which she said that you were still awkward with her sometimes, although you’ve been together for a long time.
Apatow: It’s true, I’m a very awkward person. It’s hard to shake. Some people are wired for drug abuse or alcoholism or smoking; on some level, I’m wired to always feel like a goofball. No matter how well things go, I feel like I’m 15 years old. So when I’m out at a restaurant with my wife, I always feel like I’m on a first date and she might run at any moment. And it’s very strange, especially as I head into my 40th year, that I can’t shake that, even after about 17 years of therapy. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Until a few years ago, you were pitching ideas that mostly weren’t catching the studios’ imagination, but now you’ve got so many projects on the go that you’re presumably extremely overworked.
Apatow: Well, there’s a whole crew of people that are really funny and talented that I’ve been working with since my TV days, and because we have a shorthand in the development process and the shooting process, it’s much easier than when you’re working with strangers. So much of what goes wrong with movies is people put together who don’t know each other well who develop a power struggle. See, if I make a movie and the star slowly realizes that he doesn’t like the script or the director, and then he’s trying to fix it and then the studio’s trying to fix it in a different way, things tend to get difficult. Sometimes it works out, often it doesn’t. I have found that it works much better when I really know the people I’m working with, I understand their strengths and weaknesses, and they respect the process. Right now, my friend Nick Stoller, who I wrote Fun with Dick and Jane with, is directing a movie called Forgetting Sarah Marshall which [Apatow regular] Jason Segel wrote and is starring in. I know Nick so well that it’s very easy for me to communicate with him about what I think the movie needs, and what I think could be the obstacles in making it work. And then you have a good time!
Filmmaker: It seems like a utopian set-up, as you’re basically making movies with your friends.
Apatow: When I was young I would watch Harold Ramis and Bill Murray act together, I always thought it was the greatest thing. You could tell that they were friends, and had their own specific chemistry, so whether it was Stripes or Ghostbusters, it was exciting. And then there were other movies that Ramis wrote, like Caddyshack or Animal House, that you felt like this was a group of people that had been working together for a long time, and it made the work much stronger. I didn’t consciously set out to make that how we work; it happened organically. I just realized slowly that the people that do a good job once will tend to do a good job the second time, and why not stick with the people that are adding so much to the process. The guy that plays Doctor Kuni, the nasty gynaecologist at the end of the movie, he was so funny that we put him in the movie we just finished shooting, called Pineapple Express. He plays the head of an Asian drug cartel. [laughs] He was so hilarious that we said, “Let’s use Ken Jeong again.” And then the group just gets bigger and bigger.
Filmmaker: I believe Pineapple Express was co-written by Seth, and directed by David Gordon Green. That sounds like a great combination.
Apatow: It’s a very strange, demented Abbott and Costello movie, with a lot of action and comedy and violence. [laughs] Something I always dreamt of doing, an action movie where leads are high the entire movie. It always struck me as funny since I saw Brad Pitt in True Romance, when I thought, I wish this movie was about his character! I want to follow him around for a while.
Filmmaker: So there’s a Cheech and Chong element to things.
Apatow: It definitely has a Cheech and Chong element. It’s Cheech and Chong combined with Bad Boys, in a way. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Your daughters are fantastic in Knocked Up, so are they going to be a part of that ever-growing group of regular collaborators?
Apatow: They’re so funny and cute and unfortunately talented. My wife and I are doing everything to discourage them from wanting to do it again, because we would like them to be normal kids, and not realize they are freakishly talented. At last night’s dinner, my wife was saying, “We have to not talk about the movie much at the house, or show them all of the reviews which say they are great.” [laughs] So that’s our approach: to convince them that they did a bad job!
Filmmaker: You’ve always written about underdog characters, but is your success going to make it increasingly difficult to get into the mindset of the underdog?
Apatow: I don’t know. It’s weird that everybody’s talking about it so much, because I feel that every comedy is about an underdog. I don’t think that there’s an exception to the rule – comedy doesn’t really work if you have a confident, handsome, muscular person who doesn’t have a lot of problems. Comedy is all about overcoming obstacles and the worse the guy, woman and situation the better. So Buster Keaton is an underdog, and the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields and Jerry Lewis and Steve Martin – there’s no way around it. I definitely appreciate a certain kind of nerd. I think I tend to have a theme in some of the movies, which is that people should take the time to get to know people better because there’s more there than you think. That may be my psyche revealed, and I’ll have to think of something else. But that is always an idea that is present, because that is how I feel.
Filmmaker: You wrote a couple of movies in the mid-90s, Heavy Weights and Celtic Pride, which weren’t as successful as I guess you would have hoped. How did you respond to that?
Apatow: Heavy Weights was the first movie I wrote. It was a lot of fun to make, and I learned a lot, and there’s some great comedy in there and it actually is a little bit of a cult movie with younger people. It’s definitely a little bit of a schizophrenic movie because part of it feels like a classic Disney kids movie, and then there’s a [laughs] really dark side to it which is driven by Ben Stiller as the evil head of the camp, who is videotaping the kids the whole summer and hoping to sell it as an infomercial, and almost hurting the children! [laughed] Celtic Pride was a different situation: I didn’t really have any say in any of the major decisions of the movie, so it was a lesson in finding ways to be in control of these projects. I tried not to put myself in that situation again. I think it’s a pleasant movie to watch; if you’re home sick, and you have to kill two hours, then I think it’s awesome.
Filmmaker: You seem to have a great ability to bounce back. Both Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared were wonderful, but the network still canceled both in their first season. Since then, though, you’ve gone from strength to strength.
Apatow: I’ve always tried to learn something. I look at the work as a learning experience, so I never see anything as a waste of time. I can get very emotional about the work, because I really try hard to defend it and get whatever vision everyone has through, but I really enjoy it. Whether things come out well or badly, almost all of it has been a blast to make, and a lot of the things that didn’t do well are my favorite projects. So it wasn’t hard to bounce back, because I couldn’t believe it came out so well! Then I’d think, It’s a drag that no one can see it or watch it on TV, but I’m glad it’s out there. And I’ve always known that anything you do is on DVD and television forever, so it’s more important to focus on making it great than to worry about it’s immediate success.
Filmmaker: What’s the smartest decision you ever made?
Apatow: To marry my wife, I think. All good things have resulted from that decision.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Apatow: The first film I remember seeing was called The Phantom Tollbooth, which was half real and half animated. I think it was about a kid in a car who goes through a tollbooth which takes him to a magical world. I recently saw a piece of it, and didn’t have the stamina to watch it again. But it had a big impact on me at the time. It was just the first incredibly imaginative thing I had ever witnessed as a little, tiny kid, and I knew there was something amazing about it, the idea of another world being created. I always remember it.
Filmmaker: What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Apatow: I always tell writers that the most important thing they can do is write. I knew a lot of writers who would write a script and then spend a year trying to make something happen with it – but in that year they wouldn’t write something else. I remember years ago when I first met Mike Binder, he was this guy who had six scripts layin’ around, and he was writing the seventh one! He would tell me how much he would learn whenever he would write a script, and never stopped writing. I think that’s the best thing someone can do, to not get all obsessed about whether people liked your scripts or are willing to make it, but to start the next one and continue to learn about your craft. Good things always happen to the hardest workers.
Filmmaker: Finally, if you could do it all over again, what would you change?
Apatow: It’s hard to say, because all those painful lessons led to other good things, so I probably wouldn’t change anything. I definitely had some bad moments when I made people feel bad [laughs] because they didn’t like some aspect of the work, and I probably could have been more political about how I interacted with people, but I just didn’t know any better. I apologise to all of them: anyone I made cry, I’m sorry.