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It’s hard to slap a two sentence logline on Judd Apatow’s This is 40. Rather than being about a specific crisis or conflict, the style is instead more free flowing, the film working to encapsulate what it means to be 40 years old with a family in the modern world. And that’s no accident: Apatow wants you to feel what it’s like to spend a week in the life with his characters.
Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with the writer/director to not only talk about the looser structure of his latest film, but also his sources for inspiration, the maturity of his work over the course of his career, how his projects are motivated by the group of actors he regularly works with, and his desire to write a play. Check it out!
With the films you’ve directed there seems to be pattern of growing maturity, both in the sense of characters and relationships, going back to your work on TV and your films. Is that something you’ve seen in your work as well?
Well, I think I’m writing about different phases of life, and I’m writing about people with different levels of maturity…
But there’s no specific order to it?
You know, who’s mature, who’s immature, I think I’m getting more confidence to attack the work from different angles, to have the courage to not worry as much about likability or how funny it is in every specific moment. So this is a tone I like where it’s realistic, but I’m still trying to make it funny as well as dramatic, which is probably something I would have been too scared to do first thing out of the gate. So the early 40 Year Old Virgin… while also a personal movie to me and Steve, I thought, “Well, I have to make the scenes insanely funny or I’m never going to work again.” [laughs] And then I thought, “What can I do that would make this be about something?” and I would talk to Garry Shandling about it and he would say, “Well, I think the movie is about how sex is better when you’re in love” and in the end he has better sex than all his friends [laughs]. But, you know, Paul Rudd’s character is different than Seth Rogen’s character, he’s a young guy who is trying to enjoy is free, wild years when suddenly he gets someone pregnant and is forced to end that immediately. Paul Rudd is 15 years down the line. He is playing the same guy from Knocked Up… I don’t know if you remember the scene where they were watching the kids play with bubbles, and Paul Rudd is like…
“I wish I could be that fascinated by bubbles”
[laughs] They would talk about, “I wish I was that happy…” I don’t know who says what [laughs] but that is what This is 40 is about. How do you make your life work better? How do you appreciate it more? You do reach a moment in your life when you take stock and think, “Alright, this is my family, this is my job, this is what it turned into.” It’s not ever going to be that much different. I’m not suddenly going to be asked to be the Secretary of Defense, I’m not going to become an athlete – I’m this guy with this family, and I think a lot of people are under pressure to just do it all correctly, and no one can so we all feel like we’re spinning plates and they’re just dropping everywhere. Because it’s hard to be a good husband and a good parent and be on top of your health, and to make sure your job is working, and take care of your extended family, and dealing with the technology and all the media… there’s just not enough hours in the day, really. So the idea for this was what if I showed a week where a family had a nervous breakdown [laughs].
And that’s something I definitely noticed about this film. The structure is more free-flowing than your previous movies, and it really does lend the story a “week in the life” kind of feel, and I’m assuming that was completely on purpose.
I like movies by Robert Altman and John Cassavetes that aren’t tightly structured. For me one of the great pleasures of going to the movies is having absolutely no idea where it’s going. A lot of movies, as soon as it starts you can almost feel what the structure is going to be. “Okay, he’s looking for that guy, he’ll find that guy, maybe they’ll get into a fight, and that’ll lead to the treasure…” You can pace it out in your head. I like to make movies where in every moment you have no idea what the next scene can be. Because that’s what life is like – it’s so random. So then it becomes how can I keep this amusing and dramatic while doing that. Because in this movie there is no goal. It’s just life. They’re just trying to get through it and get along, and stay in love, and have their kids not be too screwed up [laughs].
When you are developing new projects, is there an entry point into a story or a character that you typically look for to get things going?
Usually I have the larger idea and I start figuring out what the small details of it are. So if it’s mortality with Funny People, at some point I thought, “Oh, maybe I can combine this with another idea I had about comedians and why people are interested in that line of work and how it affects them.” And I just start making lists of ideas and thoughts about it and a structure starts revealing itself. I know, first of all, that I would like to do a movie about someone dealing with the fact that they almost died. And with Knocked Up I knew I wanted to talk about getting someone pregnant who you didn’t know at all and trying to see if you could make the relationship work – wanting to give it a try for the baby. So with this I just thought, I would like to do something about what my life feels like right now,” and even though it’s fabricated this is about all of the emotions that we have about the things that are in our lives and the things that we’re struggling with, and I don’t have the next idea, so we’ll see. Maybe it will present itself.
And that’s a thing in itself - you announce your projects one at a time. But is there a notebook or a drawer somewhere that you use to get down all of your potential ideas for future projects?
Well, I have one idea for a play that I’ve been working on and I’ve done a lot of research, and I don’t know if I’ll suddenly explode into watching that or it will take me a while. I like the idea of working in the theater – I’ve never done it before and I think the interplay with the audience and developing the project would be really fun for me. But talk about a project that’s really difficult to execute.
Just the idea of doing it on stage or the specific type of thing that you’ll be doing?
Just to write. It’s a great idea, but it contains characters who have a life experience I don’t have, so I have to do a lot of research and it’s not how I usually work. So we’ll see what happens.
So do you find yourself waiting for those bits of inspiration to hit you and then you just start developing them?
Usually what happens is, like right now a movie comes out – December 21st – I’m not going away during the Christmas break, and I’ll just be hanging out with the family and my brain will just start regenerating and hopefully something will just pop into my head [laughs]. That’s how it’s happened before. If you force it you get too anxious about it. And if it doesn’t it’s fine because I’m working hard on Girls and I’m producing Anchorman 2, so I don’t need to have it for a while.
So you’re waiting for the project to find you.
Yeah. I mean, I’ll take time to gaze at a notepad and see what my hand writes down. But I’ll know it when it happens.
And just knowing how much you like to work with the same group of actors, how much influence does that have on the projects you develop?
Sometimes. Sometimes I’m thinking about what I should do next, and part of it is, “Who would it be fun to hang out with for two years? Oh, I haven’t worked with him in a while, I wonder…” And sometimes I think about them, sometimes an idea just pops in your head, “Oh, that would be fun.” I didn’t plan on making Knocked Up with Seth [Rogen]. We were just talking, and I did think Seth could carry a movie, but we were working on Superbad and then one day he said he wanted to do this science-fiction comedy, and I said, “Well, you don’t really need to do that. You’re kind of funny just standing there, you don’t need science-fiction. You be funny just getting a girl pregnant. Just how that would go down would be funny.” And then I thought, “that would be a good idea!” And that was it! [laughs]
To talk a bit more specifically about This is 40, I wanted to ask about casting Albert Brooks and John Lithgow as Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann’s parents. In Knocked Up you cast Harold Ramis to play Seth Rogen’s dad, which I thought was an ingenious bit of family casting – I don’t think you could have done any better with that. And the same goes for this movie with Brooks and Lithgow, who are both fantastic. I’m curious how you picked them for their parts and how you went to them about the movie.
I wrote Albert’s part for Albert. I spent a long time in a room alone trying to think of, conceive of a way to use him well, and then I had lunch with him and told him about it and left him the script and he liked it. I had met him in the early 90s and had dinner with him a couple times with Garry Shandling and knew he was a great guy. So that was simple.
It was more difficult with John Lithgow because the character as written in the script doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but he has a strong presence. And the whole movie is driven by his ghost in a lot of ways. We end up seeing why Debbie acts the way that she acts – because she has this dad who started a new family when she was a kid and didn’t pay much attention to her. So it makes her needier with her husband and more controlling of their world. But it was hard for actors to understand what the part was going to be like in the movie.
Who else did you meet about the part?
I didn’t do any meetings, I just started asking around. And then I had a meeting with John and he said, “Well, let’s read all of it!” And it wasn’t an audition, but he was like, “Let’s read it out loud!” – and I had Leslie [Mann] there for the meeting. And he started telling us what his insights were to this idea, being disconnected from relatives and children. He was so smart and hilarious I was literally calling his agent before his ass left my office [laughs]. And he was so excited to do it! He was thrilled and he had such enthusiasm. And on this set a lot of those things were really difficult, and on the day I would rewrite and rewrite and we would play and improvise and do them angry and do them sad. We really worked his scenes because I knew they needed to be explosive and kind of short, but I didn’t want to wrap it up cleanly. That was the hardest part of the whole movie. How do you show confrontations with parents in a truthful way? And how much can you heal? Because it takes a while.
And this is just over the span of a week too.
So in a movie you can’t get all the way there, so how can you get a sense of what direction it’s moving in? And he was amazing.
I know I have to wrap up, but I feel myself compelled to ask this as well: given the great scenes they share together in This is 40, you are now planning a movie that pairs Jason Segel and Chris O’Dowd, right?
You never know! I wish I had a lot more time to just explore all of those things. We’re well aware that there would be nothing better on this earth than the Chris O’Dowd-Jason Segel movie [laughs]. That’s a no-brainer. So unless someone beats me to it, it seems like that needs to be done.