Interview: Judd Apatow
By Scott Foundas on 11.8.2012
It takes a certain amount of nerve to call a film, without qualification, This Is 40. But it may take even more nerve—or reckless abandon—to make intensely personal films in today’s Hollywood, with the backing of a major studio, and the confidence that there are people out there who will come to see them. This, in short, is the curious case of Judd Apatow, who makes confessional comedies that edge ever more towards tragedy, who exalts reality over escapism, and who seems scarcely persuaded by the industrial demands for name stars, “high” concepts, and audience “pre-awareness.”
Presented as a “sort of sequel” to Apatow’s 2007 sophomore feature, Knocked Up, This Is 40 gives center stage to the earlier film’s supporting characters: Los Angeles record label executive Pete (Paul Rudd) and his wife Debbie (played by Apatow’s real-life wife, Leslie Mann). There, Pete and Debbie were offered up as something of a model couple—the frazzled but loving parents of two young daughters (played by Apatow’s real-life daughters, Maude and Iris)—trying to steer Debbie’s pregnant sister Alison (Katherine Heigl) and her stoner boyfriend Ben (Seth Rogen) along the right path. Here, five years on, Apatow gives us Pete and Debbie on the doorstep of the big 4-0, wondering if they’ve scored more wins than losses, and where they might go from here. Indeed, where can they go in light of an imploding economy that threatens to take down Pete’s indie record label, Debbie’s struggling small business and their over-mortgaged house in one fell swoop? And how to cope with parents they no longer recognize—her father (John Lithgow) long estranged, his (Albert Brooks) remarried with in vitro triplets he can’t tell apart—and kids who seem to be growing up much too fast?
If Apatow’s film career to date can be seen as tour of key stations in the journey from the cradle to the grave—a Jewish comic’s 2001 that begins with the loss of virginity (The 40 Year Old Virgin), continues through unplanned pregnancy (Knocked Up) and ends in terminal illness (Funny People)—then This Is 40 at once suggests culmination and syntheses. A study of middle-aged anomie that evolves into a panoramic portrait of everyday struggle across the generations, it is, I think, his best work yet, and an uncommonly bold, candid, thoughtful American movie by any measure. This is 40, yes, but it is also 8, 13, and 65. Were the title not already taken, Apatow might simply have elected to call the movie That’s Life.
How did you come to the idea of revisiting the characters of Pete and Debbie in the context of their own movie?
I am of the belief that you write to figure out why you’re writing. I never thought I would approach my work that way. There was nothing about me that felt like I was going to be the person who wrote from the deeply personal place and would start writing things without really knowing what the point was. It just organically happened. So, I was thinking of writing about this age , this moment in your life where you take stock and try to decide how you feel about it. You get a sense that life isn’t going to change that much. I’m not going to become a landscape architect at this point. These are my kids, this is my wife, this is my job, this is my extended family and how I feel in the world. What do I make of it?
That was the initial idea, and I just thought a lot of funny things were happening in my house, with how we were relating to each other. My kids were pulling out of being little kids who dress up like Cinderella and becoming these fascinating, much more challenging, tiny versions of my wife. It’s like living with three ages of the same woman, and I knew that was interesting. So I started thinking about who could play these parts, and then it just occurred to me: I already have these characters. It’s Pete and Debbie and Charlotte and Sadie from Knocked Up. People seemed to connect very deeply with what Leslie did with the character of Debbie in that film, and years later a majority of comments about Knocked Up would be about the scene where she tells off the bouncer for saying she’s too old to come in the club, and the scene where she says to Paul, “Just because you don’t yell doesn’t mean you’re not mean.”
Part of it is also that I wish more people made movies like this. I like characters in certain movies and I wish they had their own, stand-alone movies. Pineapple Express came out of an idea I had when I was watching True Romance. I just thought the Brad Pitt character was so funny; he’s a mess, he’s on drugs and suddenly people are trying to kill him, and I thought, “I want to watch a whole movie where this guy’s trying to get away from killers but it’s really hard because he’s high.” And after Nick Stoller and Jason Segel made Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I thought it was a fantastic idea to do a movie about Russell Brand’s character, which became Get Him to the Greek. I thought, “Yes, you can do a legitimate movie that’s about someone you met in a different film,” and when I told Universal, they didn’t think I was insane for thinking this would be an interesting exploration, just like Rhoda was an interesting exploration after The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
It’s true that the idea of the “spinoff” is more common in television than in movies.
I remember when I was a kid, there would always be spinoffs of sitcoms, and I loved it. For years, I watched Lou Grant and thought, “Oh my god, there was a sitcom [The Mary Tyler Moore Show] and now there’s an hour-long drama about the newspaper business starring Lou Grant from the sitcom. What a daring, fantastic thing to do!” So those types of leaps were something I always enjoyed, because I fall in love with characters and I don’t want them to go away. I want to know what is happening with them. I’m a big fan of the Michael Apted Up series. So, maybe we’ll do this every seven years.
There are other characters from Knocked Up who reappear here, including Jason (Jason Segal), who’s a personal trainer now, and the perpetually stoned Jodi (Charlyne Yi), who’s working as a clerk in Debbie’s boutique. But Ben and Allison themselves are conspicuous by their absence.
I shot some stuff, in case the audience demanded to know. I shot a version where Pete talks about how Ben and Allison live in Atlanta where she works for CNN. I covered my ass quite well. But when I was conceiving the movie, my interest wasn’t in what happened to Ben and Allison, because Pete and Debbie in a way are Ben and Allison. They were always meant to be the future for them, and in a lot of ways in Knocked Up, Ben and Allison and Pete and Debbie are meant to be the same couple. They’re a fabricated, exaggerated version of Leslie and myself at two different ages.
You started your movie career with a film about someone losing his virginity at 40, then went on to a movie about childbirth and another about thinking that you’re dying, only to arrive back at 40 and what could be called your mid-life-crisis movie.
It may be that I’m in the middle of an eight-year nervous breakdown; I can’t get out of this feeling. I think the idea of time and how we make choices based on our feelings about our limited time has always fascinated me. There are these different periods in your life during which you’re supposed to act a certain way. But people get stuck, so with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, he’s fighting time by not growing up. He’s afraid to take a risk, he’s afraid to find out if he’s lovable or not, so even though he’s 40 he’s acting like he’s 15 or 16. He’s stuck in that pre-sex terror.
We all pace ourselves in some way—this is when I’m supposed to get married, this is when I’m supposed to have kids—and it doesn’t usually work out the way you want it to, because then you get older and you still feel young, and how are you supposed to behave? Am I not allowed to go dancing at the nightclub just because I’m in my late thirties?
I find that endlessly fascinating, and with Funny People I just took it to another extreme, which is what do you do and how do you treat people when you think it’s over? And when you find out that it’s not over, do you still treat people well or do you go back to your self-involved, materialistic point of view? I guess that’s what all the movies are about: people just trying to figure out how to live, how to like themselves, how to enjoy their lives. Can you be a normal, nice person and have your dreams come true? What’s selfish? What’s not selfish?
That’s why there are no villains in any of my movies, because I just think that life is already so weird. The whole set-up of life doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m going to live for a while, and I’ll look good for a while, then I’ll really look good, and then it’s going to slowly fall apart. Year by year, I’m just going to cave in, then all my friends are just going to start dropping like flies, and hopefully I’m not one of them that drops first, and I’ll last as long as I can last and hopefully I won’t lose my mind and my memory while my kids have to take care of me. It’s so tragic and bizarre and also wonderful at the same time that I don’t know what to do except laugh at it.
This Is 40 in particular feels like a movie about life as we are living it at this moment. There’s a very funny scene in which Pete and Debbie resolve to relinquish their reliance on modern technology, and elsewhere the film touches on our collective anxieties about no longer recognizing the people our parents have become, and the sinking economy that threatens to consume us all.
If I’m truthful about this moment, it just starts bringing a lot of other ideas into it in an organic way. I was very interested in the idea of how we project all of our issues with our parents on to our spouses. So, I had to fill out those parental characters, and then it became symbolic of a lot that’s happening in the country, which is that there are a lot of people whose parents aren’t doing well, and who feel responsible for taking care of them. But now a lot of those people can’t afford to take care of them, so what are they going to do? Then you wrap into that all sorts of guilt and Jewish guilt. On the other hand, there are people who drift away from their parents, and parents who start new families and spend more time with one family than the other. It takes real work to stay close, and a lot of people would rather not talk than confront old hurts. Then what do you do? Somehow, you end up projecting these things on to your husband or your wife, and you find yourself fighting not with each other but with ghosts in the room.
Indeed, the fights between Pete and Debbie feel incredibly real, in a way that reminded me of arguments my parents had when they were going through their divorce and which I suspect will make some viewers more than a bit uncomfortable. Especially when you’re working with members of your own family and drawing on things from your own life, is there a danger of getting too personal, of losing your dramatic perspective?
I think the entire idea of making a movie like this couldn’t be more reckless. I do it in a little bit of a weird, creative fever, and then I finish and I think, what was I doing? That was so crazy. I feel that way on every movie. A year or two after Funny People, I said to myself, “Wow, you were really going through something and you put it all out there.” But at the time, it’s just something that needs to get done or needs to be said. It’s almost like I’m trying to say something to myself, or Leslie and I are trying to tell each other something, and we’re doing it through the code of the movie. This movie was written in a very collaborative process with these long conversations with Leslie about scenes and possible ideas for scenes, and what position Pete and Debbie would take in all of these conflicts. At the same time, we’re making up things and we’re exaggerating and we’re taking things from our friends’ lives and also trying to make certain themes fit our story. So at the end of it, none of it is true, yet it’s emotionally completely true.
At times with this movie, I felt very uncomfortable. It has been hard for me to have people watch it, but people’s reaction to it has generally been, “Oh my god, five of the things in this movie happened to me today.” So we’ve found that the more specific we get, the more universal it becomes. The line is blurry, and usually we make things way worse to make them more dramatic or funnier. For example, I have never listed every lie I’ve told Leslie, but I’ve thought about it. And Leslie never enters the bathroom while I’m in the toilet on my iPad, but that scene is my fantasy of what that confrontation would look like. In terms of the fights, they do get very raw, and things are said in those fights that feel emotionally honest. Because when you’re married for a long time, every once in a while you think, “Has this all been a mistake?” I think there’s no couple in the world where the people don’t say to themselves, “I could have married anyone in the world. Did I make the right choice?” And this movie is about the fact that they did make the right choice, but that doesn’t stop you, in a bad moment, from doubting yourself.
I make movies to try to show people at their most exposed. So that might be the only time they say that particular thing to each other over the course of their entire relationship—some secret thought—because we’re all insecure. I know that’s why I went into comedy; I doubt everything at some point, and I feel so lucky to have met a person as great as Leslie. I feel very blessed, but I’m still an insecure nerd who can’t believe it happened and will always wonder if she thinks it was a mistake.
It’s like the scene in Knocked Up when Ben and Pete are stoned in the hotel room in Vegas and Pete says, “How can Debbie like me? The biggest problem in our marriage is that she wants me around.”
As a child from a painful divorce, you kind of get imprinted with certain feelings. “What did I do wrong?” When I was a kid, when my parents broke up, I lived with my dad, not my mom—my mom moved out. And most kids lived with their moms, not their dads. That blew my mind. I noticed decades later that that had a big effect on me: “Why did mom move out?” It affects how you feel about yourself. No one took me to a therapist when I was a kid to work through anything. So you sit with certain wounds for decades before someone finally says, “You know, there are these people who will talk to you about these things and help you work through them.”
Time and again, you show us couples trying really hard to work out their problems rather than simply calling it quits and getting that divorce (or, in the case of Knocked Up, that abortion), which is something I think some critics have misconstrued as a strain of neoconservatism or family-values propaganda in your work.
Well, my parents got divorced when I was a kid and I didn’t like it, so there certainly was damage done to my psyche which makes me want people to work out their relationships and to hang in there and put in the full effort. A bad therapist could figure that out. But, you know, I like people who try really hard to connect. There’s all sorts of emotional obstacles to being your best self and being a great partner to somebody else. It requires a lot of hard work and love and patience and compassion to accomplish that—and for some people it’s not easy. I come from a world of artists and actors and actresses and comedians and we’re all a little messed up and it’s harder with us. We all want to be creative because something hurt us at some point and it makes us more open to this kind of emotional exploration. It’s hard, but that’s not an excuse not to work on these issues and try to figure out how to be a better spouse, a better parent.
I grew up on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H and All in the Family and Taxi, and what that imprinted on me was that families are complicated but we love each other and at the end of the day we’re there for each other. Those James L. Brooks shows were very important to me when I was young; at the end of Taxi, no matter what happened, they were all together having a beer at the bar, and that was important to me. Meathead and Archie Bunker made up, and I liked that.
You’ve often mentioned Brooks and also Cameron Crowe as formative influences, but I tend to think of your films, and This Is 40 in particular, as having even more in common with the work of Paul Mazursky and Blake Edwards—especially Edwards films like S.O.B. and That’s Life—in their improvisational looseness, their unabashedly personal nature, and the generosity to actors. John Cassavetes’ work also comes to mind.
You know, it’s funny because I’ve never seen That’s Life or S.O.B., but people have told me to see them, and so I’ve bought all of them on DVD.
When I was a kid, I didn’t want to do anything except be a stand-up comedian. I wasn’t watching movies trying to learn anything, but the movies I loved as a kid were movies like The Goodbye Girl and Annie Hall. The Mazursky movies...I remember seeing An Unmarried Woman. But I think more important for me, when I started paying attention to movies, I discovered Barry Levinson. I loved his use of loose performance and some improvisation. Diner might have been one of the most influential movies on me when I was young, because I thought, “Oh, I know those guys. I’m kind of like Paul Reiser.” I could see how my life could fit into that kind of a movie. Later, Clerks and Swingers made me realize that people I knew could be in movies—our lives could be represented truthfully. Seth Rogen was a big proponent of that when I first met him; he wanted people to talk in our movies the way they talk in life, no matter how rough that got.
Garry Shandling, when I worked on The Larry Sanders Show, taught me more than anybody about how all stories are about obstacles to love. He always said that The Larry Sanders Show was about people who love each other but show business got in the way, and I’d never thought about my work in those terms before. I was just trying to be funny. I didn’t think it was about people experiencing love and obstacles to love. These were all new concepts to me. Then I discovered Robert Altman and Cassavetes and Bob Fosse, and that opened things up. Truffaut too—he did a series of films all based on the same character.
Funny People felt particularly influenced by Cassavetes and Fosse, your Killing of a Chinese Bookie or All That Jazz as it were.
When we were doing Funny People, I was reading a lot of interviews with Cassavetes, and a lot of what he talks about in interviews is that it doesn’t matter what people think about a movie on the day they see it; what matters is if they’re still thinking about it at all 10 years later. Can you get stuck in their craw a little bit? Also, the idea that you don’t have to have the story move the way the audience wants it to—that was very inspiring to me. When we made Funny People, some people said they liked the first half more than the second half, but I made the movie because I wanted to show the second half. I wanted to show what it was like for a broken comedian to try to settle down, and how hard it is to get out of your own egomania.
I wanted to make a movie that had the smallest possible movement; Funny People is just about a guy who, at the end of the day, realizes he should be the kind of person who writes a joke for the younger comedian, that it’s not all about taking, that there is some giving in life. That’s all he learns: “Maybe I shouldn’t kick the honest guy out of my life.” And that was all about Cassavetes, because I totally understand how to make a crowd-pleasing movie. When we’re working on something like Bridesmaids, I really understand the construction of a very pleasing, hard comedy, and I love them. But for some stories, that doesn’t apply, and you’re trying to make people feel something that’s more uncomfortable. The dance with a movie like This Is 40 is that I want people to really enjoy the movie, but I do want to go to some darker places for a few moments, to show the depth of the struggle.
As one of the people who said I preferred the first part of Funny People to the second, I’m wondering if you were hurt by the fact that that film was somewhat less embraced by the critics than your two previous films and also didn’t perform as well at the box office.
When I make these movies, I’m attempting to do something that’s very tricky, which is I’m attempting to make a tough movie not seem so tough. How funny can I be while being brutally honest? And is it possible to show how complicated the human struggle can be in a movie that’s also very entertaining? I go back to Cameron Crowe, because on some level Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a big inspiration because it was about a lot of funny things in high school and growing up, but it also showed a girl lose her virginity and have to get an abortion and the aftermath of that. When people pull that off, that to me is the ultimate accomplishment: to show all the colors of life, the good and the bad.
Funny People was a weird experience, because my mom had just passed away while I was about to start pre-production. The movie was inspired by her struggle; she had ovarian cancer, and over the course of several years, two or three different times the doctors told her she was out of the woods, and then it would come back. When my mom thought she was going to die, she dropped most of her neuroses and became incredibly cool and intimate and connected, and when the doctors would tell her the cancer was gone, she would become very neurotic again. I noticed that, and that’s what I was writing about. I didn’t ever put it in those terms when the movie came out because it felt wrong to talk about her while promoting a movie, and unnecessary. But I was going through something really intense, which was that my mom had just died and I was trying to get a lot of those feelings out in the movie, and I don’t know how healthy that is!
When the reviews came out, it was strange, because we got about two-thirds good reviews, which wasn’t that different from the other movies, but some of the reviews that were negative were very negative and some of the positive reviews were the best reviews I’d ever received. Your review was a thoughtful, I’m-not-sure-if-this-works-well review. I appreciated how you expressed yourself, but it also hurt because I knew that you appreciated my work in a deep way, so that made me think: “Is this not as good as I hope it is?” But then other people would say, “Yes, it is,” and that confused me. And then some people attacked it in a way that I found unnecessary and nasty.
It’s all subjective. For me, what’s important is that when I start the next project I’m not trying to make an adjustment based on the amount of input I get. I do try to learn from the reviews, but when I have an idea, the idea usually tells me what to do and I can’t help but follow it through. I don’t know: My wife would tell you that I handled it very badly and was devastated. I felt like I did all right. I get more devastated for the people who collaborate with me. I thought Adam Sandler gave a very brave, brilliant performance and I wanted people to talk about that.
I’m curious about the casting of Graham Parker, who gives a delightful performance as himself, or a version of himself: a 60-something British rock star whom Pete is quixotically pushing towards a comeback that never materializes. He has this wonderfully pragmatic view of his own limited fanbase, advising that the secret to success in the music business is maintaining a “small nut.”
I’ve always had a great deal of compassion for artists who don’t achieve mainstream success. I’ve been a big lover and supporter of Loudon Wainwright’s work for a long time, and I think his music is as good as anything anyone’s done in this country and is beautiful and heartfelt and hilarious. But I’m sure none of his records have sold more than 50,000 or 60,000 copies. So I wanted to talk about people who are experiencing that. I met with Graham Parker; he’s always been one of my favorite singer-songwriters, and he seemed to have a fantastic sense of humor, so I thought he wouldn’t mind playing somebody who was presented as being unable to sell any records. And he doesn’t mind because that has been true for him during certain periods of his career.
I had already been thinking of hiring him when a friend called me up and said, “Look at Graham Parker’s website,” and Graham had written this long blog about how he had set up his new music publishing deal and how he wanted to have more of his music in movies. In parentheses, it said, “Are you out there, Judd Apatow?” I took it as a sign, so I asked him to lunch and told him the story and he thought it was hilarious. It’s very important to have somebody on set who doesn’t mind satirizing themselves and their career. We did it all the time at The Larry Sanders Show. People would come on and the show would really go at them pretty hard, but because they didn’t mind, that made them seem like great people.
I also liked the idea that Pete was holding on to his youth through music. He loves the music of the ’70s and the ’80s, and at some point he stopped listening to new music and he feels stuck, and it seemed like a nice metaphor for how he felt about his entire life. We did a lot of improvisation on this issue, because Leslie and I always disagree about music. She listens to music for joy and I listen to music to cry. I want to hear the Warren Zevon song about his struggle with cancer so I can sit alone in my room and bawl, and she wants to listen to a great old Aretha Franklin album and be happy. So I thought it was a good metaphor, too, for the problems they were having in their relationship, that they were dancing to different tunes.
Visually, This Is 40 feels like the most accomplished of your films, with lucid but unostentatious camerawork that really complements what the actors are doing. It’s your first collaboration with the DP Phedon Papamichael, who happens to be the son of Cassavetes’ longtime production designer.
I didn’t know the connection between Phedon’s father and Cassavetes when I hired him; I was a big fan of his work with Alexander Payne. I had watched Sideways a number of times and studied it—it has such energy, and there’s a simplicity to how it’s shot that makes it feel so real and alive, and I never could figure out how they did it! I would watch the shots and think, “These shots don’t seem that complicated, but it looks like such a better version of what I do most of the time.” So Phedon and I talked a lot about an approach to it, but I have to give most of the credit to Phedon, because I can communicate a tone and a feel, but he really understands how to turn that into a look. I know when it’s wrong, but sometimes I’m not so great at saying exactly how to do it. He was a fantastic collaborator, because I do like when I see a movie and I feel like it’s real. I want to feel like a fly on the wall, and he did that. It’s also the first movie I’ve done that’s primarily handheld, which is a look I’ve always enjoyed but wasn’t sure how to accomplish.
You once told me that you set Knocked Up in West Los Angeles because you wanted to make a movie without having to leave home. But Los Angeles, and West L.A. in particular, has come to feel more and more like a vivid character unto itself in your movies, and not just something that’s there by accident.
When we did The 40 Year Old Virgin, we shot it in Studio City and Tarzana because that was where I used to live when I lived with Adam Sandler, and I’m only good at writing about places where I have lived. I’m not good at imagining what Omaha, Nebraska is like and then showing up there on the first day of the shoot. When we did Knocked Up, I didn’t make a big point of showing off this part of West L.A. You got a little taste of it, but it wasn’t that specific. With This Is 40, I did want to get across my sense of that culture, which is upper middle class and a little bit upper class, but the people there are just as frazzled trying to keep their lives together, and some of them are falling out of that class, quickly. There are specific pressures to that lifestyle. Everyone is overworked, overplanning, obsessed with every detail, wondering, “How can I be the perfect parent, the perfect husband, wife, philanthropist?”
One thing my wife and I always talk about is how it’s just too much; there aren’t enough hours in the day, and there’s not enough energy to do everything correctly. We have more support than most people and we’re drowning! We don’t know how anybody does it. I feel just as insecure walking into a high school dropping my kid off as I did when I was a student. I’m still totally a mental case about all of those social issues. So, that’s what I wanted to speak to—the pressure to do everything right. You know, I wake up thinking, “If I don’t floss, I lose two years of my life. If I don’t take my cholesterol medication, I’ll have a heart attack. If I dry my hair too hard with the towel after a shower, I’ll go bald quicker. And if I don’t help my kid with her homework she’s not going to get into college and her life is going to collapse.” I can do that all day long with every single aspect of life. You can put so much pressure on yourself, and I wanted to show that the kids are feeling it too.
Does flossing make you live longer? I never heard that.
I read that somewhere. If you floss every day, it adds a year to your life.
That does beg the question: how do you manage to do everything that you do? Just in the three years since Funny People, you’ve amassed more than a dozen producer and executive producer credits (including on Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls), and are attached to another dozen projects in various stages of development as writer, director, producer, or some combination of the above.
Sometimes I think I shouldn’t do anything but write and direct and that I’m using up too much energy producing. But I get so much out of it. I’m a better writer because I spent two years hanging out with Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner kicking around the stories for Girls. It’s always helpful to hear other people’s points of view and to collaborate. Nothing makes me happier than seeing how people have enjoyed Lena Dunham’s work this past year.
There’s also a lack of pressure, because I can give her notes and tell her my point of view and then she can do whatever she wants and I can just go home and sleep better. When it’s my movie, I’m up all night wondering, “Should I have used this music cue or that music cue?” When I’m an advisor, I can give as many ideas as I have and it’s up to them to take them or not take them. That’s what’s made it possible. I once had a meeting with Tom Cruise, and he said, “You know, you’ve got to let the director direct the movie.” And that was something that had never occurred to me before. So, I try to work with people I really believe in, advise them as well as I can, protect them, and then get the hell out of the way. And what I’ve noticed is that sometimes when I get out of the way, things don’t work out so well, but sometimes they work out way better than if I was in the way.
I don’t go to the set of Girls. I work on the scripts and I work on the edit, but when everything is coming together on set, I’m available for them to call me to ask questions, or they may email me a scene if they think something’s going weird, but it’s better because I stay home, and I have fresh eyes when they need them. I only stay focused on the scripts. I don’t have to worry about where the trucks are parked.