Judd Apatow Is Okay With Not Being Funny

Apatow: It’s just about the struggles of a family, and all the ways they’re having trouble getting along. And then it does become a “comedy about cancer,” as [director] James L. Brooks always called it. But it’s very moving! So on some level I’m always dreaming of doing something in that space. But it does require a certain amount of discipline, because as a filmmaker, getting a big laugh makes you feel like you made the scene work. But it sometimes makes the scene work less. You can lose truth if that’s what you’re going for too aggressively.

Sims: How many years have you and Pete Davidson been talking about making something like this, that would center his personal story?

Apatow: When we were casting Trainwreck in 2014, I sat down with Amy Schumer and asked, “Who’s funny that I should know?” And the first person she showed me a YouTube video of was Pete Davidson. So we hired him to do a very brief cameo as a guy at Bill Hader’s rehab facility, as someone who hurt his knee falling over a bong. It’s literally a one-joke casting moment. But Bill was so taken by Pete that he immediately called Lorne Michaels and said, “You should put him on Saturday Night Live,” and he did.

This idea [for King of Staten Island] happened very slowly—the seed of it was Pete’s character’s desire to see his mom happy, and the idea that her concern for him had kept her from pursuing her own social life. Over the course of six months, we all outlined this story.

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Sims: You’ve taken 9/11 out of the personal backstory for Pete’s character Scott. [In the film, Scott’s father died fighting a hotel fire, while Davidson’s died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001]. Did you think that plot point would overwhelm the film, or did you just want to distinguish the character a little bit from real-life Pete?

Apatow: We wanted the movie to be fictional. We did want to find a way to address emotional issues—that was the truth that we were seeking. There were definitely people who said “You should make it 9/11,” but it’s too big for a movie like this. When you’re in New York, when you hang around the firefighting community, it still feels very new. People don’t want to forget. They talk about it a lot, they hang pictures in the firehouses, it’s their way of honoring the sacrifices of other people.

In the movie, if that had happened to Pete’s character, everyone would be grieving about it, not just Pete’s character. I didn’t think the movie could hold all of that. And you can tell, in every moment that Pete’s onscreen, what he’s wrestling with. In most movies, what I’m trying to do is imagining what health might look like, and imagining what a character might go through to get there.

Sims: That’s your biggest recurring theme. Even though The 40-Year-Old Virgin, your first movie, has such a high-concept title and plot, it’s the same idea: You’re looking at someone who is frozen in their life and you’re trying to figure out the ways they can thaw out of that. Is that a comedy dynamic you’re consistently drawn to?