Judd Apatow is protective of the young and the aimless in his stories. Similar to John Hughes, Apatow cares about their feelings; he doesn’t mock them or talk down to them. With Knocked Up, Trainwreck, and now Apatow’s latest comedy, The King Of Staten Island, the writer-director continues to focus on young adults trying to simply get it together. Starring Pete Davidson, The King Of Staten Island is another quarter life crisis comedy from Apatow that evokes pathos and laughs.
Going back to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, there’s always been a normalized depiction of pot use in Apatow’s comedies. Apatow has produced and directed stoner-friendly content throughout his successful career. Funnily enough, although Apatow makes movies that entertain the cannabis connoisseurs of the world, he doesn’t partake himself. He’s more of a Häagen-Dazs guy himself, as he told us during a conversation about his new film, The King Of Staten Island (now available on VOD).
You’ve done a lot of television and producing in the last five years. Were there any other movies you were working on or was The King Of Staten Island the only post-Trainwreck film project?
I had a couple of movies that I was trying to get going, but I was trying to figure out a way to make a movie about sacrifice. I kept thinking about that theme. When I started working with Pete on this, I realized, oh, this is the movie that allows me to discuss that. It’s something I had never written about before. I always like writing about relationships.
I was thinking about why I’m not interested in superhero movies. I like watching them, but I never want to make them. It led to me ruminating on the issue of, who do I generally write about? It is usually someone who’s struggling to get over some emotional problem. With this story, I was able to talk about both of those things at the same time. I am fascinated by people who are willing to put others before them. Heroes. Pete’s dad was definitely a hero. His mom was a nurse, his sister is a nurse. This film was a way to discuss that world.
Was it ultimately cathartic?
I hope the movie was cathartic for Pete, because we spent years discussing his history, and his psychology, and what obstacles had slowed him down over the years. I think that process was ultimately healthy for him. I try to do it with my movies. I think about things that I’m having a hard time with and I create fiction as a way of exploring it deeply. That’s what Garry Shandling did with The Larry Sanders Show, he created a variation of himself. An egomaniac who was struggling with this confluence between show business and making deep, loving connections with people. So I’m always a big fan of people who are willing to take that personal dive.
You’ve said before it’s great figuring out why someone is a movie star. For you, which movie star qualities does Pete Davidson have you wanted in the movie?
First off, he’s as funny as anybody you’ll ever meet, and you notice that when you spend five seconds with him. He’s also a fascinating person—he is really smart, very sweet, has struggled with trauma in his life that most of us have never had to experience. He’s found a way to take all that pain and turn it into comedy. To me, that is the highest calling: finding a way to turn pain into joy for other people.
I knew he had a lot of stories to tell, and I’m definitely attracted to people who have something to say. I always liken it to music. There are people who crank out pleasant songs. But then, there are other people who are clearly opening up and revealing parts of themselves—those are always my favorites.
What about Bill Burr? It’s different watching him play someone kind of sweet and romantic. Did you want to show him in a different light?
Definitely. Bill is one of the great comedians of all time. He has a certain stage persona, but he’s also a big-hearted guy, he’s a sweetheart, and he’s very sensitive. He has such a close relationship with Pete, I thought on screen you would feel their love for each other. Pete met him when he was 14 years old, he went with his mom to see him perform in Atlantic City. I think they had a brief interaction at an elevator. Oddly, Bill remembered it years later when he met Pete again.
So when we discussed who should play the guy dating Pete’s character’s mom, we very quickly realized that Bill would be the perfect person to do it. I also think he’s a man of immense talents who hasn’t had a part like this before, and he just had so much to offer.
How did the idea of them singing The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight” come about?
Sometimes you have these mystical moments when you’re working on a movie. We knew we wanted to do the scene where Pete was hanging out with all the firemen and firewomen at their local bar. We wanted it to end with them all standing by the jukebox singing some classic rock song.
We started talking about what song that might be, and Pete said, “My dad was a big fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival.” So we thought about “Midnight Special.” One of us said, “What about The Wallflowers ‘One Headlight’?” And I said, “That was the song that my wife and I heard on the radio when we drove to hospital to buy a pregnancy test when we found out that Maude was coming.” Then Pete said, “That was the song I listened to with my dad shortly before he died. It was a big, important song for us.” I thought, well then that has to be the song.
That scene is a nice reminder it’s a really good song.
Oh yeah. It’s an incredible song.
You’ve worked with actors before who smoke marijuana when they work, which produces varying outcomes on sets. What’s been your experience with actors performing after they’ve smoked?
I’ve seen every possible variation of people’s relationship with marijuana. Most people probably, after they smoke marijuana, they’re worthless creatively. They can’t act, they can’t write, they’re just a bump on a log. Then there are people who have said, “You know that series that you love? I wrote the whole thing while sitting in a room with my vaporizer.” For me, I wouldn’t be able to come up with one sentence. Nothing creative happens. The dream of my mind being unlocked has never come true.
I know a lot of people who have that experience. I’ve always been torn about it, as there are times when I worry for people, when they are excessive, and the dominance it takes in their lives. There are other times where I see it work for people medicinally, and helps them with their anxiety or depression. It’s so specific to each person, it’s hard to have a hard opinion on it. I mean, it could be helpful or abused depending on the person.
Are you glad you never had that strike of inspiration from it, then?
I have only had that experience on Häagen-Dazs ice cream. We all have our demons, and for me, I’ve been exercising all day, at various times, and then at some point at 11 o’clock at night, I’m downstairs squeezing chocolate syrup into a carton of Häagen-Dazs ice cream. We all have our crosses.
I do believe in nootropics. I don’t know exactly how they work, but I do think that they do work. I’m not sure what the science of it is. Someone once explained to me it’s as simple as getting a little more blood in your brain. It doesn’t necessarily give you a caffeine jolt, but they definitely clear your head.
As someone who’s worked in a lot of writers’ rooms, I’m very aware if I’m clear and able to access my imagination and my creativity. Some of the nootropics definitely have helped. I know that just because some days I’d use it and some days I wouldn’t, for years in a writers’ room.
You got stuck while writing some plays, right? Ever complete any?
I haven’t. It is a dream of mine. I definitely think there is an opportunity in the theater to do the type of work I do. I used to love going to see Neil Simon plays. I would love to go through my creative process on a Broadway show. I spent a few years kicking ideas around and doing research. In a way, it was the beginning of what became The King Of Staten Island. I did have some ideas that related to what this movie became. I just wasn’t able to crack them. I have some sort of a mental block about getting started, but it definitely will happen. It’s exciting to have something that I haven’t done, that I’m terrified of, to have to confront.
What have you been watching lately from home? What’s kept you entertained during quarantine?
I really enjoyed the HBO series, My Brilliant Friend. It’s an Italian TV show. That may be the best thing that I’ve binged. I watched How To Fix A Drug War, the Erin Lee Carr documentary on Netflix, which is fantastic. It’s about a drug lab in Massachusetts where the scientist was also doing the drugs. It’s about the mess it created. I am very surprised at how much I’m enjoying this new version of The Bachelor, with all the musicians. I didn’t think I would like it, but I do. I also love this South Korean movie called The Wailing, that was a great, troubling thrill ride that we all screamed and laughed through.
You’ve made a few movies and shows now about people in their twenties struggling, but you seemed so focused and productive during that time of your life. What about that period in people’s lives fascinates you?
I think I was spending a lot of time with people in their late teens and early twenties, and a lot of them were working. We wanted to explore the idea of suddenly having to mature, even though you’re not ready. In a way, show business does that to you. If you’re a knucklehead kid, and you’re cast as the lead of a TV show, you can’t really be an idiot anymore. You have to show up on time, you have to know your lines, you have to interact with adults. The same thing happens with relationships. If you’re a young person and you get in a relationship and it gets very serious, then suddenly the goofball days are over. Those ideas were very interesting to me.
It’s a lot of fun when you’re young, and you’re trying to be a comedian, and all you do all day long is basically go to the mall and watch movies and do stand-up and eat fettuccine Alfredo at one in the morning. Then suddenly it ends, because you have a job or a relationship or you’re having a baby. The struggle to make the adjustment was something that was fun to write about.
Are you very nostalgic? The days of you and Sandler and everybody hanging out, that just sounds great.
We do have a lot of nostalgia about it. Every once in a while we’ll get on the phone and just go, “Wasn’t that great? Remember when we used to go to Red Lobster? Remember when you saw MC Hammer on mushrooms?”
[Laughs] That really happened?
Yeah. We’re very good about appreciating it, and finding it endlessly hysterical, and making references to weird people we met. I do think it helps us appreciate all the blessings that we’ve had.