For Apatow, opportunity knocks
SANTA MONICA, Calif. ó It’s Judd Apatow’s world. We just laugh at it.
Sitting at a conference table outside his production office, the Long Island native, 39, looks as if he’s more likely to deliver a pizza to your door than dictate what tickles the nation’s funny bone. But don’t let that fool you.
He’s the Peter Parker of comedy, unassuming yet powerful. A stand-up turned multi-hyphenate, Apatow has spent the past two decades spinning a web of connections to some of the industry’s biggest and funniest names.
As a writer, he has put jokes in the mouths of Ben Stiller, Garry Shandling, Roseanne Barr, Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell. As a film producer, he has overseen such Frat Pack hits as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Plus, he was a creative force behind 2001’s Undeclared and 1999’s Freaks and Geeks, two of the most acclaimed TV series to ever last only one season.
Those in the know already have their sights on Apatow’s sophomore feature-directing effort, Knocked Up, opening June 1. How could they not? Since early spring, an eager Universal Pictures has been showing off its R-rated relationship romp to anyone who would look, like some crazed flasher flapping his trench coat.
After a March screening at the South by Southwest festival, Variety declared Knocked Up “more explosively funny, more frequently, than nearly any other major studio release in recent memory.”
Right now, Apatow is at his apex. He has at least nine movie projects in various stages of readiness, from the biopic spoof Walk Hard with John C. Reilly to onetime roommate Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. The list also includes Year One, a film co-written and directed by one of Apatow’s idols, Harold Ramis of Animal House and Ghostbusters fame.
“He is the busiest man in comedy,” says Ramis, who has been recruited for small roles in both Knocked Up and Walk Hard. “He has more films in production than DreamWorks.”
Let all those alpha action flicks rely on arachnid comic-book avengers and swishy pirates to reel ’em in this summer. This is one filmmaker who is not afraid to grab our attention the old-fashioned way: daring to show us something we’ve never seen before, at least in a mainstream Hollywood comedy.
In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow’s film-directing debut from 2005, it was the opener with star Steve Carell in his skivvies, strolling to the bathroom in a very apparent state of early-morning arousal.
In Knocked Up, in which a drunken one-night stand shared by a stoner slob (Freaks and Geeks grad Seth Rogen) and a fast-track career gal (Katherine Heigl of Grey’s Anatomy) results in a pregnancy, the money shot arrives late in the game. As Heigl’s character is on the verge of giving birth, the camera boldly dives under the hospital sheets to the place where the main event is well underway. The reaction by preview audiences has been split between horrified groans and embarrassed laughter.
“It’s so difficult to shock America these days,” says Apatow, explaining his need to expose a sight best enjoyed by trained professionals. The shot, much to Heigl’s relief, was achieved by stand-alone prosthetics.
Adds Apatow, “It’s impossible not to look like an episode of Friends without adding something new to the mix. I needed a big laugh at the end of the movie, something that would wake people up a little bit.”
But it isn’t merely a cheap jolt that he is after. It’s also a realistic re-enactment of the intensity of the labor experience, with every aspect ó good, bad and ugly ó on display.
“Any time you see a movie about birth, you never see what it’s really about,” says the dedicated family man whose daughters, Iris, 9, and Maude, 4, as well as his wife, actress Leslie Mann, are in the film.
“It really hurts, and you go through a very emotional experience together. There was no way to get that feeling without showing it. Because that is something that all men talk about afterward: ‘Did you look?’ ”
Yes, it might be a gross-out, but one with a higher purpose. “Judd Apatow has figured out how to not do a dumb male comedy but to do it smart,” says Variety.com deputy editor Anne Thompson. “He gets into the nitty-gritty of what actual relationships are like. He digs into what people in the real world contend with, then wrings humor out of it. And in Knocked Up, he takes it to a sensitive, authentic level.”
Anybody can make a movie with foul language, gratuitous nudity and stupid gags. But how about a debate on abortion (or, as it is so gingerly referred to in the film, “shmashmortion”) between two of Rogen’s roommates, played by sweet Jay Baruchel, star of Undeclared, and cynical Jonah Hill, the eBay store geek of The 40-Year-Old Virgin? Or, as Apatow calls them, “two of the biggest idiots on Earth”?
Or a deeply filthy yet incredibly funny discussion on negotiating intercourse during late-term pregnancy?
Or Rogen and his banter buddy (“You know how I know you’re gay?”) from The 40-Old-Virgin, Paul Rudd, running off to Vegas to see Cirque du Soleil after ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms?
Those are the kind of priceless moments you can only get from an Apatow production. How the guy gets away with it:
ïA knack for inspiring loyalty. Apparently, working with Apatow is like crack. Once you try it, you are hooked.
Says Rudd, who used to be known as that adorable stepbrother from Clueless until he went Apatow crazy in Anchorman, “It spoiled me from a creative standpoint. It’s so much more fun to do his movies than others. I was working on another film and I kept talking about how Judd would do it. It was like being in a new relationship and you can’t stop yourself from talking about the old one.”
Even Spider-Man’s best pal, James Franco, whose breakthrough role was as a sexy underachiever in Freaks and Geeks, has returned to the Apatow fold, first in a Knocked Up cameo and next starring opposite Rogen in the pothead comedy The Pineapple Express. Rogen reports from the set that, unlike his sullen Spider-Man 3 character, Franco “smiles this whole movie.”
ïA desire to be collaborative. Apatow is less a boss and more a co-conspirator. He is never afraid to allow his actors to rely on their instincts and go off the page.
“If I’ve learned anything from him, it’s to trust your funny actors,” says Rogen, who now produces because of Apatow. “There is no point in hiring the funniest people in the world and not taking advantage of it. Someone once said directing is casting, and he is great at casting.”
Since his TV days, Apatow has tried to hire actors as soon as possible and shape roles around their strengths. “When we get to the set, we shoot the script. But then we have all these ideas from the other times we played with the scene during rehearsal. And we start feeding those ideas in and shoot a million feet of film. Garry Shandling taught me to always save space for something else to happen, something kind of magically funny.”
ïA need to avoid marginalizing women. It’s not every day you see someone like two-time Oscar nominee Catherine Keener of The 40-Year-Old Virgin play “the girl” in a sex farce.
“In a lot of these movies, the females are an afterthought,” Apatow says. “I think when you care about the characters and they aren’t just a prop to the guys, the movie is that much better.”
He also knows women don’t live by chick flicks alone. Too much Must Love Dogs could kill. Most can roll with the raunch in the right context.
“I’ve seen The 40-Year-Old Virgin about three times, and I’m not a girl who sees a film more than once,” Heigl says. “Blades of Glory is a really broad comedy. That is more of a guy thing. They go to movies and wait for the lines they can repeat. Girls don’t do that. Judd’s films are about honest relationships. You know people like that. Everyone knows pregnant women are daffy. Judd sure does.”
The only negative that Apatow has encountered lately was from the Academy of Motion Picture of Arts and Sciences, which rejected his application for membership even though he was sponsored by such Oscar-winning scribes as Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) and Stephen Gaghan (Traffic).
Still, the academy didn’t have any trouble with including A Comedian at the Oscars in this year’s ceremony, a production number Apatow co-wrote with Anchorman director Adam McKay and composer Marc Shaiman. As performed by Ferrell, Reilly and Jack Black, the ode to Oscar’s lack of respect for comedy was a showstopper.
Doesn’t matter, Rogen says. “Judd just wanted the free DVDs.”
“Knocked Up” looks to be my favourite movie of the year!!
For Apatow, opportunity knocks