Judd Apatow: Confessional Personal Comedies in a Big Studio World

Scott Foundas interviews Judd Apatow about his latest film This is 40, his inspiration for Funny People, and trying to maintain expectations between career and family.

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 [40], 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 Upwould 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.

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