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Interview: Judd Apatow of 'This Is 40'

'The one thing I've learned, and maybe the most important lesson? Live near your kids school.'

By James Rocchi Dec 21, 2012 2:16PM

After the successes of 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' and 'Knocked Up' -- and the interesting but less-sucessful 'Funny People' -- Judd Apatow has made what may be his most personal film yet in 'This is 40," with Paul Rudd playing a father and husband and Leslie Mann (Apatow's wife) playing his wife and Maude and Iris Apatow -- their children -- playing Rudd and Mann's kids. We spoke with Apatow in Los Angeles about everything, pretty much -- including editing, comedy, picking New Wave artists to celebrate and mock, "Anchorman 2" and the sequel crisis and much more.


MSN Movies:  What I'm curious about is, when you hit 40 you always get that first illness or medical mishap after that sends you scurrying into panic because not only are you unwell, you're 40. Did you have one of those?


Judd Apatow: Well, I had one of those when I was 34, which was I had a herniated disc, and it hurt. I had to have surgery on my back. And the day I had the surgery on my back Leslie was in New York shooting a movie, making out with Jeff Goldblum. Now that doesn't make you feel good.


That doesn't make you feel good? First of all…


Not when you're in the hospital.


And Jeff Goldblum has fully working vertebrae, so that's two things up on you really.




Is that always telling, when you get your first note from the universe that the warranty runs out, that mileage adds up?


That's true, but luckily I don't exercise that much so I haven't worn anything out. I feel like my lack of exercise has paid off now, 'cause my joints have not been injured by playing sports.


"Mint condition, slightly larger package." That's how I'm operating.




When you're around the house, because so much of this stuff seems predicated on personal experience and personal interaction, when you and Miss. Mann are fighting as all couples do ... the question is how you resolve it. At any point do either of you say, "You cannot write about this. This is not write-about-able. This cannot be polished into a funny story"?


Leslie never says that. She goes farther. She goes, "Let's do it again, topless." That's her motto, I think.


BING: Judd Apatow l Gelson's

So you want to put your fights into the screen, and she just wants to do multiple takes when you argue.


She doesn't mind at all. She wants it to be truthful so she'll go all the way.




As long as it's balanced. She wants it to be that Pete and Debbie are equally flawed and equally great. She doesn't want you to leave the movie and think Pete's right or Debbie's right. She just wants it to be balanced.


Mr. Rudd of course plays Pete. And, I mean, he's playing opposite your wife and playing opposite your kids. How much of Pete is you? How much of it is a hybrid sort of Rudd-Apatow? And how much of it is just completely fictional?


Well, it does become it's own beast.




'Cause it is the worse of me and Paul. A little of the good, but mainly the bad because the movie is about the moment where they got to have a meltdown from spinning too many plates. But luckily Paul is so likable that he can get away with it.


Whenever I want to complain about my life, the things I do, difficulties, I just imagine a coal miner punching me in the stomach for two hours. He has a name. His name is Mordecai.  Do you ever think about, do you have the equivalent of a coal miner when you're bemoaning that you can't get parking for your SUV? Do you just picture…


What do I do to feel, like, appreciate life?


What do you do for a little dose of perspective?


I have a lot of stuff. I'll go coal miner. I'll say, sometimes I'll think diamond miner.




Or any kind of miner really is helpful to appreciate things. I'm like "Take a breath, everything's fine, it's not a big deal." I have other examples, but they're so hard. My examples are gory.


Bone grinder for a glue factory?


They're bad.


You made "Funny People," which was a great, strong, really overlooked film featuring Adam Sandler as a comic who wants to improve his life. That film did not do so well when Mr. Sandler went back to "Jack and Jill," "That's My Boy." How culpable do you feel?


Well, I think Adam's always going to do a mix of hard comedies and then different kinds of dramas or drama comedies, and a lot of the guys like him and Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell, they're going to do all different kinds of movies. But I think it is important for the funniest guys in the world to try and make you laugh your ass off, so I fully support all of his endeavors.


There's a famous observation from Tolstoy that happy families alike but unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way.




There's also the William Goldman observation that the most boring film in the world would be "The Village of the Happy People."


That’s right. (Laughs)


When you have a film like this, which has characters drawn from life, which has no situation per se, which is just about time's arrrow moving in one direction, is it important to focus on externalizing all the stuff that would normally go on over years or decades for a family?


I did think that this was about a week where everything came out, but I do believe that’s how it usually goes, which is you hold in things for years and then it spills out fast and bloody. So one thing that Garry Shandling said to me when we were working at "Larry Sanders" was, "People rarely say what they mean, and when they do say it, it is a huge deal." Most people are not being honest with you almost all the time, and that's a little bit of what this is about. You try to get along with your extended family. You put on a good face. You don't say the thing that annoys you. You don't get to the heart of the real problems, and then it festers, something happens, and it blows.  And so I thought this will be the week that all their plate spinning, of all their responsibilities crashes in.


The other thing was, I mean you wanted to write a movie about people turning 40.  When you get an idea like that is it like a sudden lightening bolt or is it a process of accrual?


I didn't think ... the original idea wasn't about them turning 40. I just thought I want to write about this time. I like the scenes with Pete and Debbie in "Knocked Up." I wasn't think about making a spin-off of "Knocked Up," but I knew that what I was experiencing as a man in his 40's with two girls was interesting. And so I started thinking about that, and then very quickly I thought, "Oh, it's Pete and Debbie." And it would be really interesting to see Maude and Iris five years later. Maude is a teenager now, but in the last movie she didn't even understand how babies were made. That's how quickly life changes. You see a movie where the family in the movie is mainly a real family, so when they look mad at each other they're really mad. When they look like they love each other, they really love each other. I felt like we're going to get details and specifics of behavior that you can't get from actors, unless it's "Beasts of the Southern Wild." (Laughs)


Well, your approach seems half documentarian and half evil puppet master.




... In that you're like chucking Mr. Rudd in with three-quarters of your family and saying, "You will represent someone like me."




"Me. No beard."




"Possibly less frivolous in the bathroom."


Yes. (Laughs)


Is that something where you have a relationship with him where you can just pitch him and go, "We're doing this. Are you back in?"


Yes, because how I work is I don't write a script and try to get the team together. I get the team together before I even start writing. I'll say to everyone, "Okay, I'm going to start writing, summer of '11 we're going to make this. Let's all organize that." Because I want to be talking to all the actors during the writing process and telling them all my ideas. I'm calling everyone constantly, "What do you think about this scene? What do you think about that?" People have ideas. "Oh, you know what just happened with me and my wife? You know what fight we just got into?" And that all works its way into the script. And then as soon as I have a script, we rehearse it and read it out loud. And as soon as Leslie and Paul started reading, I instantly get a feel of what to do. I like to see things on their feet. I come from television where you read the script and then you go in another room with all the writers and you go, "Okay, how was that? Let's fix it." And I try to get to that as soon as I can. 


And then of course, on TV you go out and you shoot it maybe once or twice before you move on.


Well, in TV well it depends on the show. I mean when we did "Freaks and Geeks" we improvised a little bit, but you're moving very fast. In movies I schedule it so there's some play there. If I'm shooting a big fight scene between Paul and Leslie we're taking an entire day just to get a couple of pages, and I have a lot of ideas prepared and options and then we give them a few movements to improv runs at it. so I never wind up in the editing room with no options. That's my biggest fear: I'm in the editing room, I hate something in the scene, and there's no way to fix it. That's my nightmare.


And so you just shoot as much as you can: "This, peeled off properly, will be a Band-Aid for this scene. "


Absolutely 'cause it's so hard to get to the set. So say you have an entire day to shoot this fight. You are thinking, "What else could I ever need?" So if there's a line that's really mean I might think, "Wow, that's mean. It's good, but maybe it's too mean. What would be the softer version of that? What if I need a laugh in here 'cause it's getting too tense? Let's do a couple of lines that might break the tension if the crowd just can't tolerate the level of intensity." And I do that for every scene.


I was talking to somebody defending many of your films and saying that an Apatow film at its best is like a really, really good steak in that it's perfectly marbled. The fat is the flavor, it's in with the muscle, it melts through when you grill it. I'm getting hungry now. But, I mean the fat is the flavor.




These films work, as long as they are.




Do you ever say to yourself, "Man it's getting a little greasy"? Like, do you have a sense of when and how to edit?


I do, but I feel like when you go to the movies, it's so hard to get there. It's always funny that everyone always wants to rush out to leave. I mean it costs you a hundred bucks to have dinner and twenty bucks to park and the tickets are like ten to twelve bucks now, and popcorn is insanely expensive. Then everyone's like "That movie was long." Like, really? It was kind of hard to get out of the house. You don't have ten more minutes to spend with these people who you like?


You showered, you put on clothing, you covered your sores, you should just go out and enjoy the world.


I talked to Harold Ramis about that once and he said, "You know, when you take a little extra time with your characters, you're also telling the audience they're worthy of your time." And I think that's true. I always shorten the movie to see what happens. so this movie is two hours and 13 minutes, but I'll cut it to one-hour-and-fifty to just see what happens. Like, am I crazy for thinking I need this extra time? And then I'll look at it and I'll realize I just lost so much character depth. So many details are gone, and the movie isn't as good.  But that's my personal taste. I love "The Sopranos." I'm glad that there are 80 of them or 60 of them. I don't think I wish there was one of them. So this is the only time you're going to see these people. Whatever it is, it's a half hour shorter than "The Hobbit." That's my ultimate reply.


Right. "Zero Dark Thirty" happens as fast as a stroke.




And "The Hobbit" was longer than my university years so. Graham Parker…




Is it the fact that he has a great track record and clearly a sense of humor about himself that got him this job, or did Graham Parker get this job as he got so many other jobs, because Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello weren't available?


(Laughs) The funny thing is that Graham Parker came out before Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello. He was out in 1974 and…


C'mon, he had Brinsley Schwarz in the band…


Exactly. They played last night at The Roxy. And Lindsey Buckingham and Ryan Adams opened up for them and it was a really amazing show. But Graham, I mean I've been a big fan of Graham for a long time, but as someone who started out in television and had shows cancelled really quickly and the shows became cult shows, I always have an affinity for people who I think do amazing work who don't reach a larger audience. And so a guy like Graham who's put out amazing records for the last forty years at this point, and he's not selling records at the rate that Rihanna is, but he deserves to be heard by a lot more people. I thought, "That's an interesting thing to put in a movie. A guy who owns a record company who's trying to say these guys have value and they're making great albums and you should continue to buy them." I like that idea 'cause that's how I feel about Loudon Wainwright and 100 other people. And Graham has a great sense of humor so he didn't mind that the movie made fun of his inability…


 ... or his bunions.


Yeah. He didn't mind the movie made fun of how old he is, his inability to sell out records because he we were satirizing the whole music industry 'cause no one really sells records anymore, other than like 20 people. Everyone else is really struggling.  And as a result of kind of allowing us to really goof on him in the movie, his record's selling really well, and he's on a sold-out tour. So it actually has had the inverse effect for him.


I have his Best Of  on vinyl where he does a cover of "I Want You Back."


Oh, he played that last night; he closed the show with it.


That's some great stuff, but I mean when you're writing it do you come up with a name or do you just think to yourself "Insert new wave performer?"


I didn't write the name, but partially because I was so excited to make that choice. I knew that we would have a lot of fun with that person. And then I asked a friend of mine who has a record label, "Who should this be?" And we made lists, and then he called back. He said, "Go to Graham Parker's website. He has a blog on there." And on the blog he was talking about how he was hoping that more of his music would be in movies and television shows. And then in parentheses it said, "Are you out there, Judd Apatow?" And I took that as a sign from the rock gods that it was meant to be. So I took him out to lunch and he was really funny and self-effacing and I told him about it, and he laughed and told me all of these record company nightmares he's been through. And he's a really good actor, too. He has a funny voice and a funny presence.


It's like an interesting demeanor of being your coolest uncle.


Exactly, yeah. When you're trying to make him look cool and he's wearing a hat with the Oreo logo on it…


Was that in fact his hat, or was that…


No, it's my hat actually. (Laughs)  


That really was actually your hat?


I have that hat. I thought, "I think it'd be funny to put him in that hat."


How do you hope this movie will play with people who don't know what (upscale Hollywood grocery store) Gelson's is? How do you hope it will play outside of a specific L.A. social milieu?


What's funny is a couple of people said, "This is a movie about the west side of LA," and I traveled around the country. I did a different city every day so we went through Toronto, Chicago, Phoenix, Dallas, and Philly, and when you show it they think it's their town. Because in the movie we don't even mention, we didn't even say the word California. I think if you live here you go, "I know that street! It's San Vicente." But there are no details of show business. It's just he has this mini record label that's bombing, and he rides a bike for exercise, which is a very a very west L.A. thing to do. But I'm sure if you went to other cities there are plenty of other people in Livestrong outfits.


No, most people in other cities just ride bicycles for work or as punishment.


(Laughs) Or as punishment, yes. So I actually think it applies that unless you live here, you think it's about the Westside, but there's no details if you really broke down the details that are specific to that. It's just she works out with a trainer, which people do in places around the country. It's not like there's only trainers on the Westside. And he rides a bike.


Nic Cohn said that generation to generation, nothing changes in Bohemia. Could you say the same about the petite bourgeois of the suburbs? You just want to get a slightly bigger house and do right by your kids?


I think so. I mean, your goal is to have a nice home in a neighborhood where there's some nice kids and families. And I always try to get the house to get as close to the school as possible. That's the one thing I've learned as a parent and maybe the most important lesson -- don't live far away from the school because you have to drive there too many times a day. You can make your whole world work perfectly and make that mistake, and your life is a living hell. So if you print that, you're going to change lives.


Are there any other things like that you want to pass on? That's good.


I think that's a good one. That's my best advice. But that is what the movie's about, which is we're all so worried that we're doing it wrong. Like am I screwing up my kids? Am I screwing up my marriage? Am I eating too many cupcakes? Am I going to have a heart attack? And we're running like 200 things we're supposed to do correctly, and at some point your realize there's not enough time in the day to even deal with all these questions. And every once in awhile you just go, "F**k it." (Laughs) You just fall apart.


Do you want the life where you get things done sloppily then move forward or do you want the life of overcontemplated perfection where nothing ever happens?


Well Steven Bochco, I love Steven Bochco and I was asking him for advice before I started shooting "Freaks and Geeks" 'cause he's one of my heroes, and he said this pertaining to the show, but I take it for life. Which is that he said, "You will never have enough time and money to do everything correctly, so you have to accept that or you'll drive yourself crazy. Because making television is putting 10 pounds of s**t in an eight-pound bag. And you're never going to get it exactly right. And if you're okay with that you're going to be a happy person." And I think that's exactly true of life. There's just not enough hours in the day. I should be flossing right now. I have not been on the elliptical today. I have moles that are ... unnatural that need to be looked at by doctors. I need to help my kid with her math. I need to go out on date night. I could list for an hour everything that I don’t have scheduled.


I got a deep cleaning on half of my teeth like months ago and I couldn't do a follow up. Now I feel like my head's lopsided just from plaque unremoved on the left.


Yeah, even now I think I should whiten my teeth, I don't have a couple of hours, I may wait a couple years.


Is it wrong that I still wonder about what Romany Malco, Seth Rogen, and Paul Rudd are up to in the back store of the electronic superstore place, that when I drive by it I think if they're there?  


I know. I drive by that place too once in awhile in the valley. That could be the next spin-off.


But then you'd have horrible confusion because of double Rudd.


Then you do crossover movies. You cross them all over. It's like when "The Critic" visited "The Simpsons." (Laughs)


In a Hollywood where people are obsessed with these ludicrous franchise films where you just add a roman numeral to it and guaranteed one profitable quarter for your company, how hard is it to stay out of that? I mean I know you guys are doing "Anchorman 2" out of love and laughs more than anything else.


Well, we always knew we would do another "Anchorman" even when we were shooting the first one.


When you shot the first one, you made enough to shoot a second one.


Exactly, we had a second one. There's some scenes in the second one that are funnier than anything in the first one in the deleted scenes film that he created. But we thought there are anchormen for a long time. You could do a sequel when they're in their 70's and it would be funny.  So we always wanted to do that. I don’t get a lot of pressure to do sequels. If anything I want to do them because I do look at it like they're episodes of a TV series. So I'm mad that no one wanted to do the "Superbad" sequel but me. I instantly said, "Let's take them to college." I want to know what happens to these guys, and everyone said, "No. The movie's perfect. Let's not mess with it."


Nobody said to you, "The 40 Year Old Parent."


(Laughs) No one has said that yet. But the idea of spin offs I like. We spun of "Get Them To the Greek" from "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Whenever there's a great character I always want to check in on them and see what they're doing. We could do…


Ten years, another film about Tom Petty-face kid?


Exactly. Why not? (Laughs).



And the horrible burden he has to bear? Who are the people you would most love to work with and haven’t had the chance to yet? Or is that like asking you to like taint the hypothetical by naming it?


It's everybody. I have to start with an idea and then think who would fit? I didn't think I have to make a movie with Albert Brooks. I thought of the story and then thought who could play it, and I was so happy to realize that is a great part for Albert Brooks. So that's usually how it happens.


As somebody who bestrides America comedy like a colossus of bronze, what one funny thing this year was off the radar, that not enough people saw in terms of a film or a book that your really loved that not enough people went ape for, and if they could learn this as they learn to live close to the school you've done your work?


I'll say there is a Maria Bamford standup comedy special that just came out that she sells on, I forgot the name of the website .... she is a woman who makes me laugh harder than almost anybody. You have to see it. She does a lot of voices and characters, and it's super absurd and weird, and I'm dead inside. I don’t laugh hard at almost anything, and she makes me laugh really hard. Maria Bamford.


For more on "This is 40," watch our video interview with Mann, Rudd and Apatow:

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