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The Tao of Apatow: the Comedy Moviemaker on Riding Out Career Highs and Lows

The Tao of Apatow: the Comedy Moviemaker on Riding Out Career Highs and Lows

Directing

No doubt about it: “Apatowian” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “Hitchcockian.”

OrHawksian.” Or even “Chaplinesque.” But that hasn’t stopped many critics, bloggers and civilian movie buffs from attempting to establish the surname of multihyphenate Judd Apatow as, if not an adjective, then at least a trademark.

This nigh-irresistible impulse springs from what some discern as consistencies of style, tone, characters, subject matter and/or body weight in Apatow’s disparate efforts: as TV series ramrod (Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared), feature film producer (The Cable Guy, Bridesmaids), screenwriter (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), talent nurturer (Girls), and writer-producer-director (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, This is 40).

Trainwreck, his latest movie, is the first Apatow has directed from a script credited to another individual (i.e., Amy Schumer, who shines in the title role). However, it’s bound to be labeled as a typically Apatowian comedy by admirers and detractors alike.

Consider: The central character, Amy Townsend (Schumer), is an atypical rom-com protagonist (specifically, a chronic one-night-stander who views long-term commitment much like Superman views Kryptonite) who’s improbably drawn to a Mr. Nice Guy sports-medicine doctor played, very well, by Bill Hader. The humor runs the gamut from affectingly sweet to uproariously raunchy, generously sprinkled with dead-serious emotional upheavals. There is an abundance of vividly drawn, quote-worthily comical supporting characters (including NBA superstar LeBron James—portrayed, credibly and creditably, by LeBron James). And there is an overall sense that the creative talents on the other side of the cameras are playing for keeps, even as they’re playing for laughs. Sound familiar?

Trainwreck is Apatow’s fifth go at directing a feature, though he’s produced nearly 30

Trainwreck is Apatow’s fifth go at directing a feature, though he’s produced nearly 30

MovieMaker Magazine (MM): According to Hollywood Elsewhere blogger Jeff Wells, we have you to thank for inaugurating the era of schlubby men and chubby women in comedy.

Judd Apatow (JA): People of all types have always been in comedy. You’ve always had Cary Grant, and then you have The Three Stooges—and people are funny in all shapes and sizes. I’ve always enjoyed stories about people who normally would be the supporting characters, and I like to follow them. That’s why I used to love when John Candy was the lead in the movie, whether it was Uncle Buck or Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Those were the people that I related to the most. I didn’t relate to the super-stud lead. I’d rather watch a George Wendt movie where he fights assassins than the version with the super-hot lead.

MM: Is it silly for Wells—or any other blogger—to be questioning whether Amy Schumer is sufficiently attractive to be the object of desire in a romantic comedy?

JA: Well, there’s eight zillion websites about movies. So just because one guy has his own opinion about something doesn’t mean most or any people agree with him. A lot of it, I think, is just clickbait, trying to be provocative. Obviously, Amy is gorgeous and hilarious, and it doesn’t really make any sense. But I think a lot of it is mean-spirited and meant to just get attention in a world where if you don’t get attention, you don’t sell ads.

MM: What do you see as the defining characteristics of the Judd Apatow school of comedy?

JA: I’m just trying to do what the people that I look up to do. I’m a fan of Barry Levinson and Kevin Smith, Cameron Crowe, James Brooks, Garry Shandling, Nicole Holofcener. For the most part, to be honest, it’s just my variation on Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Most bad comedies are bad because they have a premise first, and it’s a joke premise, and so then the drama is something they jam into it to make it work. We talk about making things real or organic. I try to think about what Garry Shandling says, which is, “What would people really say in that situation?”

MM: I wonder if Knocked Up was a turning point for you, or at least the movie that indicated you could make lightning strike twice. Did you view it as a breakthrough?

JA: Sometimes in your career, you don’t understand why you’re not in sync with popular culture. When we made The Cable Guy, I was surprised it wasn’t a giant hit. I thought the critics would be on our side; I thought it would be an odd but really original film that would do well. It did make $100 million around the world, but I was thrown that it didn’t do better. And it made me question what I thought was funny. Because I loved the movie so much, and still do to this day.

Then when Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared didn’t get a large enough audience to survive, for all sorts of reasons, that also made me wonder why I couldn’t connect in a big way. I loved the projects, and I never felt like I’d done a bad job.

When The 40-Year-Old Virgin did well, and Anchorman, which I produced, also did well, I felt like things were syncing up. Then Knocked Up was a hit. It was a movie where I decided to do something more personal, and to try to connect in a deeper way with the crowd, and they appreciated that. It’s one of those magical moments where you do something that’s very heartfelt and people say, “I like that.”

I’ve noticed that what happens with a lot of interesting, creative people is, when they go to this personal place, they have their biggest successes. You watch Louie, and you think he really is offering something up to the audience that he cares about. Or when you hear a great album like Nevermind, you say, “They’re not doing this to get a check—they are really expressing something.” Try to go all the way, and not think about the marketing. Just tell people what you’re feeling in that moment.

Schumer’s Comedy Central sketch show, Inside Amy Schumer, has been renewed for a fourth season

Bill Hader and Amy Schumer engage in uncomfortable spooning in Trainwreck

MM: Obviously, you have a knack for finding new fringe talent and bringing them to wider attention. How do you find talent?

JA: I find people whose voices I want to hear, like a college student who finds a band he really loves. It’s more fun when you find the new person. It’s even better when you’re allowed to be part of the collaboration, when they find out how to present themselves to people. That’s a great part of anyone’s career. I liked trying to figure out how to make Amy Schumer’s movie work, and how to present her in her first starring and writing vehicle. The challenging part is cracking the code. Like, how do you present Bill Hader as the romantic lead of a movie? One of the things that I get most excited about is being the first person to attempt to do things with people. It’s fun to do someone’s 20th movie, and help them do something different.

MM: Do you go to see people at stand-up comedy venues, or do you go to film festivals?

JA: I don’t, really. I’m not always seeking it out. There are certain agents and managers and I’ll ask, “Who should I know about that I don’t know about?” If you’re in the comedy world and if you have your eyes open, you will hear about people. Sometimes when we’re casting a movie, my casting agent will bring someone to my attention. But usually it just occurs because I stumble onto something. I’m not doing meetings, or doing any serious scouting. Amy, for example, I just heard on the radio. It occurred to me that she seemed to be someone who would make a great movie. I could tell she was a writer and that she would have a great story to tell, and that would make a great movie. So then I wanted to try to help her figure out what that movie would be.

Lena Dunham signed with the agency that represents me, and someone said, “You should see this movie [Tiny Furniture] she made; it’s right up your alley, in a James Brooks tradition.” I watched it, and I didn’t realize until later that she had written, directed, produced and starred in it. Afterwards I sent her an email saying that I enjoyed her movie and if there was ever a project she wanted to collaborate on, that would be interesting to me. She was just starting work on a pilot for HBO and that would become Girls.

It’s just a hunch. It really is just like hearing a song and saying, “I love that band I want to buy the record.” But no record exists—I have to help them make it.

MM: Trainwreck is being sold as “From the guy who brought you Bridesmaids.” Is this supposed to be a hint that, hey, Judd Apatow’s getting in touch with his feminine side?

JA: [Mock gravity] We’ve been in touch with our feminine side all along. [Laughs] Look, I’m always going to do more projects about men, because I understand that better. For me to make good movies and television shows about female protagonists, I need great female partners. Amy wrote an amazing script and was willing to do all the hard, emotional work to make this happen. In the same way Lena Dunham does on Girls, and Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo did on Bridesmaids. It is a real partnership.

jj

Apatow, Schumer and Hader behind the scenes of Trainwreck

MM: With the recent shift of emphasis from film to TV, are you optimistic about a future for comedies in the cinema?

JA: I am, because I don’t think you can only make these mega bets on action movies. You have to make smaller bets too. When a comedy breaks big, the investment is so small compared to a superhero movie that it makes for good business. Now everyone’s trying to figure out how a movie can make a billion dollars, and that means comedy has become less important than their next giant Marvel or DC comic movie. I kind of like that we’re less important in a lot of ways. I don’t want to make a movie where, if it fails, the whole studio collapses. Everyone’s up your ass when the investment’s that big.

MM: When do you first start working with someone, how does it usually go down?

JA: Usually they have an idea. I ask them to think about it and then we spend a few hours talking about it, trying to figure out what the beats are. Then they come up with some kind of beat sheet, and then we talk again and try to figure out what’s working and what’s not working. Sometimes I’ll ask them to write the whole script, other times I’ll just say, “Try writing the first 10 pages; let’s see what it feels like.” Then they come up with a draft and we kick it around. And sometimes that can go on for years: “Come in and meet, come in and meet…” From that point on, each situation is different. Some people are great with their scripts, others need more help. Sometimes we do tables, where we have 10 writers in a room debate how the script is working and what would make it better. If you start making it, it turns into rehearsals, and then you’re working with the actors and rewriting it for the people who will actually play the parts.

MM: It’s not a new phenomenon for someone to achieve an enormous success, and then his or her next work is attacked with unseemly glee. Are there times when you feel like you’ve got a target on your back?

JA: It’s hard to tell because I think it’s all cyclical, and people want to get noticed. Writing another article just saying nice things about any creative person is a bore. But I do think I’m not trying to please some people as much as they would like to be pleased. Sometimes I’m trying to get to painful truths, and there are things in the movies that are Rorschach tests.

Some people watch a movie like This is 40 and think “This is exactly my life,” and it makes them feel better. They laugh and they relate to all the madness of trying to be a good parent or husband. For other people, it’s really painful to watch. Some people don’t want to be reminded of actual struggle. Or they don’t want to think their future might have some of these complications.

You have to be strong enough to say, “I’m a commercial filmmaker, but I’m not just going to hand you everything you want.” That requires some steeling yourself to the reaction. But even with The Cable Guy—they just put out the 15th anniversary Blu-ray, and suddenly it’s being praised. I think more people watch Freaks and Geeks right now than when it came out. Netflix doesn’t give you the numbers, but I don’t think I’ve met any high-school kid that hasn’t watched every single episode.

You are creating something for success in the moment. But you’re also, and I think more importantly, creating something for success in its digital life. Thirty years from now, someone’s going to watch Walk Hard and laugh their ass off. They won’t know how much it made on its opening weekend. And they won’t care. MM

Trainwreck opens in theaters on July 17, 2015 courtesy of Universal Pictures. All images courtesy of Universal Pictures / photographed by Mary Cybulski. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2015 issue.

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