Judd Apatow tells Claire Black casting his wife and children in his new film was the ultimate Woody Allen way to lay bare a few home truths
FLICKING through the Vanity Fair on the table in front of me, I wait for Judd Apatow. Writer/director/producer and all-round Hollywood comedy hero, he has launched a ridiculous number of careers (Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill) and has a director, writer or producer credit on an embarrassing number of the most successful comedies of recent years (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bridesmaids, Lena Dunham’s Girls). His new film is This Is 40, a midlife meltdown movie that’s a “sort of sequel” to Knocked Up. The magazine, obviously placed there by a helpful PR, is the comedy special that Apatow guest edited.
“Have you seen that before?” he asks as he arrives. “You should steal it! Take it. I worked on it for a long time. It was like a big undertaking. I mean, I didn’t just put my name on it, I really did it.”
Apatow says editing the magazine was a lot like making a movie. He had to decide what he wanted to do, and find people to work with who were good at their jobs. He even got to give notes.
“I’ve actually been sad recently that I’m not still doing it,” he says. “I feel like I got fired. It was so much work and then one day it was just over and no one talked to me ever again.” He laughs.
Apatow might write and produce, throw together glossy magazines and edit collections of comedic writing for McSweeney’s (I Found This Funny, which the LA Times described as “hilarious”), but his day job is making films. And the one guarantee about them is that they will provoke debate. And so here I feel there’s a need for a disclaimer: I liked This Is 40. Yes, there are issues – it’s too long, it’s entirely implausible that two people in shaky careers (a dying record label and a start-up boutique that’s being ripped off by one of its staff) could afford a home in Brentwood whilst driving a Lexus and a BMW (both with leather interiors) with two children whose bedrooms are like room-settings from Hamley’s. But what can I say? I laughed. A lot. And on intimacy and relationships, Apatow is good – he hits the awkward spots and makes you giggle as you squirm.
“I think it’s a real Rorschach test for how you feel about relationships and what your concerns are,” he says of his new comedy. “Some people walk out and they’re so happy and they say ‘it’s like you hid a camera in my house’ and ‘it made me feel less crazy’. Other people are like ‘oh gosh, I’m so scared to get married’. But I always say, listen, this is how we are. You might not be like this at all. This isn’t every marriage, it’s a fictional version of us at our worst.”
And maybe that’s it – the problem is that the movie’s title isn’t quite right, it should actually be This Is The Apatows. After all, it stars Leslie Mann (Mrs Judd Apatow and brilliantly funny) as Debbie, who’s married to Pete (Paul Rudd), whose children Sadie and Charlotte are played by Maude and Iris Apatow (daughters of – yes, I’m sure you got that).
“It’s almost an experimental movie,” he says. “People don’t often make movies with their entire family playing parts. In a lot of ways it’s like a novel in that I’m taking ideas from real life and turning them into fiction.
“Annie Hall was like that for me. We knew that they went out and they had this relationship and then he [Woody Allen] wrote this movie. It feels intimate – they know each other and they talk about things that only people who have been intimate can reveal.”
Pete and Debbie make us laugh, but they go through tough times too. It’s hard to imagine what makes anyone want to put that kind of personal stuff on the big screen.
“It seems like a crazy thing to do,” he admits, “but that’s what we do. People wear masks all day long – they don’t reveal who they really are even to the people they care about the most. We all want to look like we know what we’re doing and we want to be loved and we’re people pleasing. We thought it’d be interesting to show a family going through meltdown because it seemed funny and because it’s a way to show all the things we do wrong – how we project all our problems on to our spouses, how we want them to change but we don’t want to change. How our parents continue to drive us crazy and affect how we treat everyone in our lives.” He pauses briefly. “The movie’s really about commitment, what it takes to survive, because even when you love somebody dearly they can still be the most irritating person in your life because they’re the one who tells you what’s wrong with you.”
Apatow says his domestic life is “crazy... sweet and neurotic and awful”, and that’s why it works on screen. But he also acknowledges that because it’s so personal, the stakes are “ridiculously high”.
“I knew that [making the film] was dangerous and if it went badly my kids would be humiliated, and who knows if my marriage would’ve survived?” he smiles. He credits Mann for pushing him, partly through what she wanted for her character and partly through how she likes to work – finding that place that’s both funny and brutally emotionally exposed. It’s a combination that Mann, he says, does better than anyone else.
And it’s true that Mann does shine, which fits because Apatow has a reputation for matching people to the projects that can turn them into stars. “It’s what I used to do as a kid when I watched comedians on TV,” he says. “I’d think, I like that guy, he’s going to be a star. And then suddenly he’d become Michael Keaton or Jay Leno. It happened a lot, just people I was tracking as a weird comedy nerd.”
He reckons his movies work in just the same way. “I met Seth Rogen when he was a 16-year-old. We were shooting an episode of Freaks And Geeks and the director and I turned to each other and said, ‘I could watch this guy be the lead in a movie.’ ” The same thing happened with Will Ferrell, he explains, an actor he first saw playing a meth addict who would write term papers for money in Undeclared. “It’s fun to try to work out how to pull it off,” he says. “I knew Kristen Wiig was great but it took half a decade to get the right script together to make it happen.
“It’s fun to be there at the moment when people take off. It’s fun to crack the code with them and be there when they do their first press and get acknowledgement for their work. I’ve seen that a few times with Jonah Hill and Jason Segal. I do like seeing someone’s eyes light up.” «
This Is 40 is on general release from Thursday.