Last week I finally got to see Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s follow-up to The 40-Year Old Virgin (you can read my review here). I’ve been dying to see the movie for some time, and I feel like half the people I have ever met saw it in test screenings or at South by Southwest or Butt-Numb-A-Thon.
Finally getting the screening wasn’t just about my wonderful and lovely Universal rep giving in to my incessant whining – it was part of a very, very long effort to have me talk to Judd Apatow. I had interviewed Judd on the phone back when Virgin hit DVD (here!), but I had been trying to get together with him for Knocked Up for weeks and weeks. At one point when I was in LA there was talk about me visiting his office… what a dream come true that would have been, since Apatow is one of my comedy gods. That dream never did come true, but last week I at long last got on the phone with him.
It’s possible that you don’t know much about Judd Apatow. If that’s the case, this is probably your first visit to CHUD.com, because we pimp the hell out of his stuff here. He was one of the creative forces behind Freaks & Geeks, one of the all-time best TV shows, and that was where he first worked with Knocked Up star Seth Rogen. Seth and Judd worked together again on Undeclared, another fantastic TV show that, like Freaks & Geeks, got cancelled criminally early. After those shows Apatow jumped into features with the surprise smash The 40-Year Old Virgin, and he’s also written some movies and been producing modern classics (Anchorman, Talladega Nights).
Judd and I were making small talk before I turned on my recorder (OK, I was kissing his ass and telling him how much I loved Knocked Up), and he mentioned how surprised he was at the tide of positive reviews for the film, including a massive rave from Variety.
Why are you surprised?
I was always aware that this is a story about a young guy who is sort of a knucklehead and there would be an aggressive sense of humor that went along with his scenes, and then there would be a more adult story about having children and the responsibilities that come with it, and about marriage. I never knew how the two tones would work in tandem, so just the fact that people say it feels like one consistent movie and it’s all organic is very exciting to me. That was the tricky part of making the movie: how do you make an edgy, dirty movie that’s also serious and important to people?
When you talk about balancing the dirty stuff, was there ever a point where maybe the film was raunchier? Did you pull back?
When I shoot I get a lot of options; I just cover my ass every way to Sunday. I never know what the tone of any scene will be, so if a scene is going to be dirty I’ll get one version and then I’ll get the dirtiest version you could ever imagine in your life. In editing I try to figure out what the tone should be. I definitely got some incredibly shocking material that will never be seen, especially the stuff we got when we shot Seth and his friends out in the Valley. A lot of it is scripted and a lot of it is improvised, but when you tell those guys they can say anything they want to say… some really dark stuff comes out. But eventually I found the tone that would let me get back and forth from an incredibly immature environment to adults working through their problems.
You’ve been working with Seth since he was 16, and his housemates in the movie are his real friends and also people who have been in your previous TV shows and movies. What’s your relationship like with them? Are you the Peter Pan to this group of Lost Boys?
[laughs] I don’t know! In some way it probably relates to the fact that I can’t handle that Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared got cancelled, so in some ways I’m trying to pretend that I’m still making Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, but everyone is older now. That’s the only thing I can think of. My wife says I can’t handle change, so I’m dealing with old wounds.
Your wife is in Knocked Up, and I don’t want to get too Freudian here, but you cast your wife and kids opposite Paul Rudd, who plays the husband who is incredibly unhappy with his life.
Why would you ask me that? You’re putting me in a terrible position. [laughs] How I look at that aspect of the movie is that everything in the movie is made up and is true. It’s a giant scrapbook of thoughts and feelings that I had, that I’m making up, that Paul Rudd had, that friends of mine had. It’s just a big soup of the difficulty and tensions and wonderful aspects of being married and having kids. When I was writing the movie, I called Paul Rudd, who I was writing the role for, and I asked, ‘What does your wife hate about you? If I had to ask your wife what was the most irritating aspect of you, what would she say?’ He would tell me, and that would incorporate itself into the script. [some spoilers follow. Highlight to read them.] He would say, ‘She hates that I’m always leaving the room to check scores because I’m involved in fantasy league baseball.’ And I had already been thinking about this part of the movie about a husband who tells his wife he has business meetings but he really goes out to screw around with his friends. That’s how those ideas get morphed into a new reality. But I’m actually very happily married and about to have my tenth anniversary, but I think it’s fun to write about the obstacles. Marriage is really hard, and people are always learning about each other and dealing with things that are irritating about each other but never go away. That’s funny to look at as well.
You originally had Anne Hathaway getting knocked up by Seth, and then she dropped out and Katherine Heigl stepped in. How did that change things for you? Did you have to rewrite the role in a major way?
My process is different from what most people do. I tried to get the cast and then tailor the movie to the cast. Anne Hathaway was involved very briefly in the beginning of the process, and I was just beginning to tailor the script to her when she fell out. Then we decided to hire Katherine Heigl, and it immediately became a completely different tailoring job. Katherine Heigl is a very strong woman, and when she did scenes with Seth it enabled him to be very aggressive with and say these jokes that were just awful and mean-spirited, but the look on Katherine’s face made it OK to laugh at them. You knew she could give as well as she was getting and it allowed me to make the movie much more confrontational while still being really funny.
How do you go about your daily life as the kingpin of the greatest comedy Mafia in Hollywood? How do you balance the writing and the producing and the directing while keeping yourself involved in so many projects?
I tend to write a movie while producing another movie. If a movie is going well, there’s not a ton for me to do. Once we’ve all agreed that the script is written and the cast is strong, if everything is going well on the set, I’m needed less and less. I try to anticipate problems as a producer and look ahead for the next few weeks and make sure they have everything they need, and if not what options they might like to have. When I’m not doing that, I go into my trailer and write the next script for myself. I go to the set in the morning and, like on Talladega Nights it’s a big day and Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen are rehearsing and if it’s going well there’s not much else for me to do except say, ‘Great job, guys,’ and leave! Then I work on something else. Then when I finish the script I have to worry about my shoot, and then when I’m in post on the movie I’m directing I have to worry about being producer on someone else’s movie.
How long is your post process? I remember hearing that on The 40-Year Old Virgin you shot over a million feet of film.
We did. I tend to shoot a lot of film. We pretend it’s video and that it’s not expensive. But I’m very proud that I haven’t had to do reshoots on anything, so while we’re spending on extra film so far we haven’t had to fix anything with expensive reshoots. When you improvise a lot on film, you need a great editing team that can find a way to organize it in the Avid so that when you’re working on a scene someone remembers everything you did, because there might be four hours of footage on a scene that needs to be two and a half minutes. We always have two or three people cutting, as opposed to one, and there are certain programs in the Avid now where they transcribe everything we’ve shot and I can look on the computer and read all the different alternate lines that people said.
So how long did it take you to edit Knocked Up?
I had a 33 week post on Knocked Up. Most of the movies have a 30 week post, but I took the extra time because I wanted to be home with my family more and didn’t want to do it the way it’s usually done, which is that you’re in the editing bay until midnight. I added weeks so I could go home for dinner, basically. But it’s a lot of work and then we usually do a lot of previews. We’ll preview it anywhere from three to six times. We preview it and see what does and doesn’t work, and what doesn’t work we slip out and put something in that we tried on set. Over these screenings we slowly get to the best material and the best version of the story.
People talk about how long your films are. You showed a version of Knocked Up at Butt-Numb-A-Thon that was about two and half hours. How long can a comedy be? Are you pushing the envelope, or can they go longer?
I don’t know. I showed Knocked Up to my friends at two hours and forty five minutes and it wasn’t painful for anybody. It was the least painful two hour and forty five minute watch they’ve had for a comedy. Sometimes I laugh and think, ‘What if we did do a three hour balls to the wall comedy and test people’s patience?’ This one is about two hours and five minutes when it heads into the credits, and we debated a lot about what is too long, and there’s certainly an argument to be made that it shouldn’t be this long. For 40-Year Old Virgin, I was talking to Harold Ramis about it, and he said, ‘When you add those extra fifteen or twenty minutes, you’re saying your characters are worth it.’ It is very hard to explore people’s inner lives at 90 minutes. It becomes more complex the more time you have to spend with them. As a fan of Robert Altman movies and John Cassavetes movies, there’s a part of me that thinks it’s much more interesting to let some scenes play out completely, not just twenty seconds of them, but to show the entire trip to the gynecologist where she finds out she’s really pregnant. Hopefully it’s worth it. Someone told me a quote that was supposedly from Bertolucci, but probably not, about the length of films: ‘What do people have to do with their time that’s better? Sit in traffic?’ And the thing that Seth Rogen says to me is, ‘No one’s ever mad that they got more free shit.’
I think the time spent makes a difference. You create these characters and worlds that I love visiting, and I would have been happy to spend even more time with.
Yeah, so far I’m really pleased that I’m not being eviscerated about the length. When I was making the movie it was more difficult because everything you do in post takes longer when the movie is twenty minutes longer. So the color timing just takes longer and when I was in post I just kept thinking, ‘Man I wish this was shorter!’
Let’s talk about some of your upcoming projects. You wrote Walk Hard. What’s the tone of that? Is it a parody film?
Walk Hard, which I wrote with Jake Kasdan, and Jake is directing it, is a goof on the great man biopic. It’s specifically about people like Johnny Cash or Ray Charles or Bobby Darin. We’re having fun with those movies, but in terms of joke style we’re making a movie that’s not a joke for joke parody of these movies, but is more having fun with the problems encountered when they’re trying to make a movie about someone’s life, which is that you have two hours and they’re compressing 60 or 70 years so the entire movie become exposition and every scene becomes The Most Important Turning Point of Their Lives. That’s the thing that made us laugh: there’s no fat in these movies, they’re all turning points and important moments. In terms of joke style we just keep making the movie as if it’s made by people who are sure they’re winning an Oscar for it, so the movie drips with self-importance and self-satisfaction. Marshall Crenshaw wrote a theme song, and Van Dyke Parks is working with [other song writers] on a sequence where Dewey Cox [the main character, played by John C Reilly] goes through his ‘experimental phase.’
You also wrote Pineapple Express.
I have a story credit. It’s an idea I had for a movie a year ago and I wrote the story with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who wrote Superbad. They wrote the screenplay. That’s just a big, funny, marijuana-infused action movie which is basically inspired by the idea of ‘What if you did a movie like Bad Boys where the two leads were as high as Brad Pitt in True Romance?’
And you have James Franco back in the fold for that. He has a cameo in Knocked Up, but he’s a lead in Pineapple Express.
We’re excited to be working with James Franco again. We always knew he was really, really funny but he hasn’t chosen to make a comedy. He’s riotously funny in this, so I’m excited to surprise people with how funny he is. And David Gordon Green is directing.
He’s such a great director. He’s one of my favorites.
It’s been a lot of fun. We try to choose directors who will bring a completely different artistic bent to these movies, so Greg Mottola, who did The Daytrippers, directed Superbad, and it’s just way better than it ever should be. We’re making the shocking choice to hire artists to direct our R-rated comedies.
And you have You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, which you’re writing for Adam Sandler.
That’s a movie that I wrote with Robert Smigel a while ago. We always wanted to do it, but it was one of many movies that Adam had in development for himself. Zohan is one of my favorite scripts that I’ve worked on, so I was excited that Adam found time for it this summer.
It’s such a weird combination of comedic sensibilities between you, Smigel and Sandler.
Well, Adam and I used to be roommates back in 1990 when we first started out in the business and we were stand up comedians working at The Improv every night. And then Smigel, who we know is the funniest of anybody – this is something we all agree on and are clear about this – is someone Adam collaborated with a ton when he was on Saturday Night. It’s very fun to be working with those guys on something we all think is hilarious. It’s about time somebody made a movie about a former Mossad agent who just wants to be a hairdresser now.
Especially in this post-Munich world.
Do you have your eyes on anything to direct next or are you going to take it easy?
I have my eyes on something, but we’re pretty busy right now because we’re shooting two movies and we’re about to start shooting a movie that Jason Segal wrote for himself called Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Nicholas Stoller, who was my writing partner on Fun With Dick and Jane, is directing. I’m a little crazed right now with those productions, but as I get into the summer I’ll begin outlining something and hopefully be able to shoot something next spring or next summer.