While Judd Apatow is a talented writer, it’s no secret that he is a massive fan of improvisation. What’s put on paper is important for structure, plot, and character arcs in his movies, but he is also a big believer in on-set magic, and in the production phase of all of his projects he has actors make up material on the day and is known to frequently throw out ideas from behind the camera. There is much less specific emphasis put on the details of his scripts – which is why Bill Burr, during the making of the recent The King Of Staten Island, felt comfortable changing up his methodology during the making of the film, and within a couple weeks on set found himself taking a different approach than normal to the screenplay.
With the new comedy set to hit the physical home video market following its PVOD release this summer, I had the pleasure of hopping on the phone to talk with Bill Burr earlier this month about his performance and working with Judd Apatow, and he was perfectly candid with me when I inquired about the improv experience on an Apatow set. I specifically asked about his relationship with the script during production and if he found himself paying less strict attention to it over the course of filming, and he didn’t exactly play coy about it:
Absolutely. I always knew the lines, but by like the second week, I'm just like, 'We're just going to come in here and have fun.' So I mean, that's basically what I did, was I just kind of had fun. You have to know what the scene's about, and you have to know how it progresses the story. And then once you go from there... but with each scene there are those pivotal lines that you gotta make sure that you say each time.
While this is the first time I’ve asked an actor in a Judd Apatow movie about this, would anyone be surprised if this is common practice? Obviously it’s the responsibility of any performer to know and understand the material, but if the person running the whole operation is going off book for the majority of scenes, letting the camera roll, and trusting funny people to be funny, it makes sense that one would not treat every word on the page like holy scripture.
In The King Of Staten Island, which was co-written by Pete Davidson and Judd Apatow, Bill Burr plays Ray Bishop – a firefighter who enters the life of protagonist Scott Carlin (Davidson) when the wayward 20-something gives Ray’s son what ends up being an aborted tattoo. Ray finds out where Scott lives to get some kind of an explanation, but things take a turn when he meets Scott’s mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei), and the two fall for one another. Unfortunately it’s not a relationship that Scott fully condones, primarily because his father was a firefighter who died during a call.
All in all, the film is actually one of the more dramatic features that Judd Apatow has made, but Bill Burr, who is best known as a stand-up, proves wonderfully adept with the dramatic material (a skill he’s previously demonstrated on Breaking Bad and movies like The Front Runner). He also gets some great laughs, though, and further in the discussion about all of the improvisation on set he promised access to extra material that didn’t make the final cut on the home video release.
Speaking of which, you can now purchase The King of Staten Island not only digitally, but also on Blu-ray and DVD where you can find special features like deleted scenes, production diaries, alternate endings, and more. Pick up a copy today, and also be sure to check out my interviews with Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, Steve Buscemi and Marisa Tomei from earlier this summer.