Friday, August 28, 2009

The straight man

Judd Apatow interview from today's Independent -

By Susan Daly

Friday August 28 2009

Judd Apatow is not a movie star like his great friend Adam Sandler. He jacked in stand-up comedy years ago because he felt he just wasn't good enough. He took instead to writing jokes for the likes of Roseanne Barr and Ben Stiller. He had two brilliant TV shows, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, but both were cancelled after one season.

So how is Apatow, now 41, ranked as one of the most influential men in Hollywood comedy?

His picture was almost on the cover of Time magazine last month (only to be bumped off at the last minute by the slightly more recognisable Barack Obama). However, the editors did make it up to him by including him in their Most Influential 2009 awards gala, sandwiching him on the red carpet between Obama and Oprah.

Vanity Fair listed his directorial debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), as one of 15 of the most influential films of the past three decades. Are you spotting a pattern here?

Even though his latest film, Funny People, is only the third to have him in the director's chair -- he also helmed Knocked Up (2007) -- Apatow has been responsible for an entire new wave of movie comedy.

Influential is not even the word: his comic sensibilities have been virulently infectious. He has had a hand, as producer or writer, in Superbad, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Drillbit Taylor, You Don't Mess With The Zohan, Step Brothers, Pineapple Express and Year One, all released in the past two years.

Apatow can barely believe it himself. "I never thought I would produce movies and people would know I produced them," he says. "And that they would catalogue them as all one flavour. Who are producers that anyone knows?" He scratches his beard and yawns politely in a basement meeting room of a London hotel.

If you were to pass Apatow on the street, you would not take a second glance at the mild-mannered American with tired brown eyes. Goodness knows what the readers of Time would have made of him had he made the cover.

The films he has had a finger in -- and that's the kind of phrase his scripts would have a ball with -- are a different matter. Audiences flock to an Apatow movie expecting certain things. An ensemble cast of losers, stoners and slackers, a bunch of foul-mouthed kidults fumbling their way through a world that wants them to grow up. A script replete with pot and penis jokes. Hot women inexplicably falling for the charms of ultimately sweet, but socially inept, geeks.

Apatow also single-handedly introduced the concept of the 'bromance' -- the brotherly love between straight men that over-rides all of their other relationships -- to a mainstream audience.

He is aware that his creations may have become a golden cage for his name. "Some people thought I was involved in I Love You, Man and Role Models," he admits. "They were all my friends who made them and they're great movies, but ... I think because people love Paul Rudd and Jason Segel and Role Models and McLovin they think that they come out of our world."

You could forgive an audience for getting mixed up. Judd Apatow has become the new Kevin Bacon: everyone in Hollywood is six degrees of separation or less from him. Seth Rogen, for example, co-stars in Funny People with Adam Sandler. Apatow and Sandler were room-mates when they were both starting out as stand-up comedians 20 years ago in LA, and pals ever since (it's a similar story with Steve Carrell, who was the 40-Year-Old Virgin).

Rogen wrote the Apatow-produced Superbad (2007) and has been an actor, producer and/or writer in 11 of Apatow's projects. Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill (who is also in Funny People) have acted in seven of Apatow's films. Rudd also featured in the aforementioned Apatow-alike films I Love You, Man and Role Models.

Jason Segel wrote the Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall, starring in it and three other Apatow movies. Director Adam McKay has taken charge of four films for Apatow. Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann, has starred in five of his films, including Knocked Up and Funny People. Even their two daughters, Maude and Iris, appear as Leslie's kids in Knocked Up and again in Funny People.

Interestingly, Apatow has no reservations about putting his girls on screen. "To me, I've always loved the movies which have had real relationships, whether it's seeing a de Niro and Scorsese movie and you know that they are so close that there's more happening because of that. Or Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow in Woody Allen movies -- you know that they're all revealing more of themselves because they know each other so well.

"It's very hard to get performances from children in movies where they don't look like they just met the people playing their parents the day before. And my kids have known Adam since they were born, they've known Seth since they were born, so you get a type of behaviour that you can not get from actors."

In Funny People, he has wrung a rather brilliant performance from Sandler, although it caused him personal pain to watch scenes where his friend is suffering illness and depression.

"He was willing to write an hour stand-up act that I could tap for the movie, he sings in the movie, plays very hard comedy, does sad, rough moments. We would laugh about it, when we were shooting he would say, 'I'm really doing it all for you Judd! You can't say I'm giving you a half-assed try -- you're getting the full package!'"

It's not just old friends who are welcome visitors to Apatown. New protégé actors of his include Juno's Michael Cera, James Franco and Russell Brand, who reprises his role as obnoxious rocker Aldous Snow from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, for Apatow's upcoming production Get Him To The Greek (co-starring Jonah Hill, naturally).

"We love those guys and we support them. There is a common sensibility and I'm thrilled that everyone is doing well," he says of any who have found their career boosted by association.

But Apatow is growing restless. The evidence of this is Funny People, which is almost two-and-a-half hours long and which he frames as a "dramedy". It was an hour longer than that until he nervously sat down 50 of his friends and colleagues to watch it and give him feedback. He expects Apatow fans to be "challenged" by his new tale, in which Adam Sandler is a wildly successful comedian who is forced to re-evaluate his life in the face of serious illness.

"I want to make a movie that people want to talk about for a long time, not try to create a movie that you just have a blast at and forget by the time you get to your car," he says.

His actors, too, have had the gauntlet thrown down to them. He asked Sandler, Rogen, who plays Sandler's put-upon assistant, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzmann, who play Rogen's room-mates, to perform in front of real comedy club audiences for the stand-up scenes.

"More importantly, I needed them all to feel the terror you feel when you do stand-up," he says. "I wanted them to feel that pain," he says, laughing. Could this be the end of bromance?

Considering that Apatow tells me that he only wants to direct the films that feel personal to him, are we to take it that his depiction of the world of comedians in Funny People is truthful? The rivalry, the tensions between mentors and their protégées, the sheer hard work that goes into being funny?

"I think it's very accurate about the world of comedians. It was very satisfying to finish the movie and get a lot of emails from people I admire like Jerry Seinfeld and Dennis Miller, people like that, who said, 'Wow, somebody did it, somebody captured this world'," he says.

But it all looks like so much less, well, fun than I imagined. Rogen, Hill and Schwartzmann's would-be comedians spend hours working on their gags like accountants trying to balance the books.

"Seth and Jason and Jonah are what we're really like," confirms Apatow. "People work really hard -- they are pretty obsessed about their careers and they stay home and they write. The reason Seth Rogen is so successful is because, unlike a lot of other guys, he sat at home and wrote Superbad and Pineapple Express with his friend Evan (Goldberg). It took a tonne of work and you can't do that if you're just the stoned slacker."

JUDDGMENT DAY … Judd Apatow picks his favourite stand-ups:
THE HOLY TRINITY: “For me there’s nobody better than Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and George Carlin. Go back and watch the tapes. They’re still the best three comedians of all time.”
JERRY SEINFELD: “I always wanted to be Seinfeld when I started out. What a legendary guy.”
CHRIS ROCK: “Currently, there’s probably nobody better than Chris Rock. We all went to see him in Vegas about a year ago, and it’s outstanding how funny and smart and insightful he is.”
PATTON OSWALT: “Patton Oswalt is a really great comedian. He was the voice of Ratatouille, and he helped us write jokes for Adam and Seth. He’s one of the great stand-up comedians right now.”
DAVE CHAPPELLE: “Chappelle’s stuff is pretty great too. I caught a half-hour special he made for HBO and I can’t believe how good it is.”

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