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Judd Apatow Interview | Comedy maestro found authentic humor in Pete Davidson's Staten Island story

The Christopher Nolan of the comedy world, Judd Apatow found quite the tale with Pete Davidson in "The King of Staten Island," out this weekend.
Credit: Universal Studios
(from left) Pete Davidson and director Judd Apatow with crew members on the set of The King of Staten Island.

ST. LOUIS — "If you fill the world with people who are already in his world, you get something magical out of it."

Judd Apatow has a way of taking real life, splashing it with some authentic comedy, and turning it into gold.

With his new film, "The King of Staten Island," the writer-director-producer placed Saturday Night Live veteran Pete Davidson at the forefront of his latest comedy about real life. Known to most as the new sensation from SNL, Davidson is also a young man from Staten Island who lost his father, a firefighter, in 9/11. Apatow and Davidson, along with Dave Sirius, take those juicy ingredients to craft a story that hits close to home and pays homage to Davidson's real life mother.

I had the chance to speak with Apatow, along with a few other esteemed film critics from across the country, about his new film and what led him down this particular filmmaking journey. One must understand that Apatow has only made six feature-length movies, not including stand-up comedy specials and documentaries. It's not often where he wears all three hats- writer, director-producer- but Davidson's story and all the connective tissue involved in his world led him back to the big screen.

Apatow was asked by one critic about finding his way to Davidson through recent projects about comedians such as the Garry Shandling documentary he made, "The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling." "Making a documentary about Gary certainly challenged me to think deeper than in the past about people's journeys and how their path can affect them. The loss of his (Gary's) brother affected every day of his life and how it defined his personality and his work but held him back in other areas," Apatow said. "I think their courage to tell their stories and find ways to be dramatic and hilariously funny got me into thinking how to do that in a film."

Apatow found an instant link in Davidson's relationship with his mother, Amy. "We started talking about making a movie that was discussing how he felt about his mom being single and having spent so much of her life taking care of him," Apatow said. "Wanting her to be happy. We started talking about her dating a firefighter and forcing him to confront everything in his life."

Davidson came into Apatow's world like so many of his film subjects and collaborators do: through another talent. He met Pete via Amy Schumer, whom Apatow directed in the hilarious 2015 film, "Trainwreck, which Davidson had a small role in. He was getting his knee inspected by Bill Hader's sports physician with Schumer in the background. Still, even though he had a lightning rod in Davidson, Apatow isn't blind to the hallowed pit of comedy attempts, so he knew there was still risk even with the true connection between mother and son.

"Stylistically, we knew what we were going for, but you still don't know if it's going to be funny. You never know the balance of comedy and drama until you jump into it," Apatow said. But he wasn't too worried due to how familiar Davidson's world was on set. A lot of the cast is pulled from his real life. His best friend in the movie happens to be his best friend in real life, Ricky Valez. Davidson's co-worker in the movie, the one who engages him in a playful post-work fist fight is his old roommate. Apatow finds life in the combination of the make believe and reality, because it can lead to organic comedy roots.

It is those two roads that helped him find the amazing Bel Powley, who steals many of the scenes she's in as Pete's on/off girlfriend in the film, Kelsey. Hailing all the way from London, Powley rocks an accent that had me believing she was a Staten Island ferry-riding native, but that's just a testament to how talented she is, according to Apatow. "Bel was already friends with Pete. I saw her on Broadway. She was in an amazing movie called 'The Diary of a Teenage Girl' and on the morning show. She's ridiculously talented. She doesn't even know that she shouldn't have accepted this job."

Part of the charm of the film revolves around the relationship that develops between Pete and Bel's characters, and it was Powley's ability to adapt that kept the movie at a high level. "She brought so much to it, she's an amazing improviser and so funny. The fact that Pete and her care about each other so much in real life really made it feel alive. She was a character who saw the good in him and refuses to give up," Apatow said.

One particular cast member had familiarity with Apatow: Maude Apatow, his daughter with actress and fellow frequent collaborator, Leslie Mann. This was Maude's fourth film with her dad but it's a different situation than it was 14 years ago.

"It's changed because in the beginning, she was really little. We shot 'Knocked Up' in 2006, when she was eight and that was more about manipulating a child into improvisations that she didn't even know she was in. We would set up the camera, buckle them into chairs, and try to get them to start talking and fighting with bacon," Apatow said. "I assumed it would be amazing if we got them doing it for long enough. She made that up and it kept happening. She was funny and intuitive."

These days, Apatow found he was working with not only a much older woman but a sophisticated and trained one as well. "We hadn't worked together since 'This is 40' came out, which was eight years ago. In the meantime, she did a bunch of movies and 'Euphoria' and the Netflix show 'Hollywood'. Now she really knows her craft and I don't have to put her in the Truman Show to get a performance out of her."

For a movie about a guy trying to get his life together while coming to terms with the past, "The King of Staten Island" has a lot of good laughs, but it couldn't have ALL of the jokes, according to Apatow. "One of our editors, Jay Cassidy, who worked on 'A Star is Born' and 'Into The Wild,' has a great sense of humor, but he also had no issue cutting jokes. If he thought it didn't fit the overall scene, he was as aggressive as anyone I ever worked with about removing humor during inappropriate times," Apatow noted.

I can assure you that Cassidy cut zero of Marisa Tomei's lines. Apatow spoke glowingly of the Oscar-winning actress, who lends a credible grace to the film playing the mother of Pete's character, Scott. Tomei made the cast bring their A-game. "She is the best actress you could ever get. Everyone wanted to raise their game because she was around. Having her really changed everyone's attitude," Apatow said.

This is arguably one of the best casts assembled for an Apatow movie. There's all kinds of talent involved here. Along with Tomei, you have Steve Buscemi, Bill Burr, and Domenick Lombardozzi playing firefighters. Pamela Adlon has a small part as the ex-wife of Burr's Ray Bishop. Kevin Corrigan has a small role. Lou Wilson and Moises Arias play a couple of Scott's friends.

Think about Apatow's movies and you'll see a place of comedy discovery. In "40 Year Old Virgin," he plucked a Daily Show veteran in Steve Carell to star in his movie, which launched his career. In "Knocked Up," it was Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl. That movie also introduced Apatow's wife, Mann, to the world and extended that aspect of the screenplay into "This is 40." In "Trainwreck," it was taking a very funny person in Schumer and telling the world about her.

Most of his films have a semi-autobiographical feel to them as well, giving off an air of authenticity that can't be formulated elsewhere. It's helped him comprise a highly successful career as a producer and allowed him to pick his spots for writing and directing. From a 30 for 30 ESPN special in "Doc and Darryl" to the movies to producing hit films like "Bridesmaids" and Oscar-nominated fare like "The Big Sick," Apatow's mark is felt around the arena of Hollywood. But it begins and ends with comedy, and not just the end result of people laughing and gasping. He wants to know what makes people laugh and how comedy draws a picture around the more dramatic aspects of his life.

That's why I think of Apatow as "the Christopher Nolan of comedy," because he is out in search of what makes the genre tick and how to make it come off more fresh and relevant. In "The King of Staten Island," Apatow found another personal story and turned it into a crowd-pleasing yet genuine experience for the viewer.

It's the bravery in Davidson telling his story that triggers Apatow's deepest gifts as a storyteller. You need a good steak to cook with if you're going to make a great meal. If there is anyone that knows how to take a look at the tragedy of life and spin it into something entertaining and informative, Judd Apatow is the guy for the job. Like a good comedian, he's always looking for the next funny yet honest story.

"The King of Staten Island" hits on demand services this Friday. I urge you to check it out.

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