Judd Apatow explores being overwhelmed via ‘This is 40’

In “This is 40,” a spinoff of his 2007 comedy “Knocked Up,” Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann plays a man and wife who, upon turning 40 years old, must figure out how to forgive, forget and enjoy the rest of their lives – before they kill each other. The Dec. 20, 2012, edition of “Breakthrough Thinking: The Magazine” featured several soundbites from the film’s writer/director Judd Apatow, whose filmography includes “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Funny People.” The following is my full exclusive interview with him from which said soundbites were pulled.

Question: First of all, what was it like to revisit these characters that you introduced 5 years ago?

Answer: It was really fun. As soon as I got the idea, I became really excited by the prospect because I like tracking people’s lives. I love television. When a show is on for a long time, we really get to see people’s evolution. To me, there is nothing more fun than that. And I thought that this was a rare opportunity to tell a story with a family that actually is three-quarters of a real family. So when they fight or look like they are in love with each other, they really are having those feelings and the shorthand between them would be accurate in a way that you cannot do if you just hire some kids to pretend that person is their mom. I wanted to get to some deeper truths that are only possible with this kind of collaboration. Everyone in the movie is collaborating on what the movie is. We are doing rehearsals and we are talking about it. It is not just a script that they are performing. It it is a collaboration between everybody.

Q: Are there any other characters from previous projects of yours that you would like to revisit?

A: I really loved “Get Him to the Greek.” Nick Stoller, who directed “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” thought that we should make a whole movie about that Aldous Snow character and I think that he did a fantastic job. That was a lot of the inspiration for attempting to do this. Seth [Rogen] has, in the past, talked about whether or not he should do a whole movie about the cops from “Pineapple Express.” I think all of those are good ideas. It is just a matter of how much time it takes to do them. Anytime you decide to make a movie, it is going to take 3 years so I am very careful about making those choices. But I could follow any of the characters from any of the movies and I think that it would be fun.

Q: This is a very relatable film. The same can be said about any of your projects. How do you achieve that? Where do your ideas come from?

A: Some of it is made up. Some of it is from our lives. Some of it is things we notice our friends going through. We try to talk about how overwhelmed we feel by modern life. You become obsessed with trying to be the perfect parent or the perfect husband. You want your kids to be happy and healthy but you also want them to do well in school. And you don’t know what to do about technology and the media. And you want to be healthy. It just starts caving in. I could spend my whole day just worrying about if I am flossing enough or exercising enough or should I be eating gluten or not and the pace of my hair falling out. There are so many different things. Then I have to pick up my kids from school. And my kids have activities at different times and it really doesn’t time out and Leslie can’t pick them up. You just wonder how anyone gets anything accomplished well. That is part of what this movie is about – this meltdown we are all having because we are expected to be perfect and we all fail miserably all of the time.

Q: So why is it that Seth Rogen’s Ben and Katherine Heigl’s Alison from “Knocked Up” are absent from this film? Why wouldn’t they show up – even once – to offer some advice to Paul Rudd’s Pete and Leslie Mann’s Debbie?

A: I think they are so funny and charismatic that you can’t just walk them through the movie and have them leave. You would want to stay with them. There was a moment where I thought, “Maybe I should have the main story be about Pete and Debbie and the smaller story be about Ben and Alison.” But I didn’t have an idea for it. And the funny thing is that, in my head, those two couples are the same couple. I always meant for Pete and Debbie to be the Ghosts of Christmas Future so that [Ben and Alison] would see what is going to happen and that is what freaks them out in “Knocked Up.” You can’t get along and your wife will try to control you or she will criticize you and you will have to deal with intimacy issues and problems being a parent. So in doing the movie about Pete and Debbie, I am kind of also doing the movie about Ben and Alison.

Q: What was it like to work with your daughters Maude and Iris?

A: Sometimes I am annoying to my kids. It is really more about sugar crashes and things like that. Sometimes my kids were just tired and I would have to give them a hard time and say, “Guys, we are filming this and it is going to be in the movie forever. Do you want it to be good or bad?” And they would say, “You’re being so mean!” And I’m like, “Come on! You’re professionals!” I would tease them a lot to wake them up because they would be so relaxed that they were almost sleeping at times and other days they were ready to go. But they are kids. They are not professionals. They really know what they are doing now but I don’t want them to feel any pressure. So it is a funny balance of trying to make this feel like no big deal while getting them to really focus.

Q: And working your wife Leslie Mann?

A: She is a real collaborator. When I have an idea, I instantly tell her and she starts pitching me ideas for it. By the time we have the script, it is something that we came up with together. It is not just an acting job. She is the one who said, “Maybe you should show what it is like when I get into a dance club. In “Knocked Up,” I couldn’t get in so, this time, show what happens when I do get in.” She is always willing to do whatever it takes to get to the truth of a scene. She inspires me to be brave about going all the way. She is about total commitment. It is definitely tense at times because we both know every day that we only have one shot at a scene and we both want it to be great but we both might see it slightly differently so we usually shoot things both ways to have whatever we need in editing. We wanted it to be balanced so that both Pete and Debbie are equally good and flawed. That is what we debated. That is where the tension occurred because we are both trying to stand up for the point of view of the other character. And, in some ways, we are talking to each other about our relationship when we talk about our characters. I say, “I don’t think Pete would think that was fair,” when I am really talking about myself.

Q: Speaking of shooting a scene two different ways, your projects are known for having an awful lot of funny material that can be seen in commercials or eventually on the Blu-ray/DVD but did not make the final cut of the film. What is your favorite scene that you shot for “This is 40” that did not make the final cut?

A: There was a great scene where Leslie and Paul were having dinner with Robert Smigel and Annie Mumolo. They were talking about what their parenting styles were and, in the middle of the scene, Robert and Annie’s son comes up to the table and asks to go to the bathroom. They keep saying, “Give us a second,” and he finally says, “I just pooped. I pooped it.” They say, “Is it soft? Is it hard? Is it a ball? Is it wet?” And they start having a fight about who will take him to the bathroom. It was a really funny scene but it didn’t serve any story purpose and I had to make some hard choices.

Q: The television series “Lost” is mentioned many times in the movie. Why is that? Where did that material come from?

A: That is something that is very truthful. Maude watched the entire series of “Lost” in about 2 months. She would be crying and emotional after certain episodes. She would listen to the score in the car and that would make her cry. She was like, “This is the song that plays when people die.” And I thought that was something that I haven’t seen commented on. People watch television series in a weekend now. People will watch “Undeclared” in a day. As parents, we don’t know what to make of that. “Is it bad for my daughter to watch seven episodes of ‘Breaking Bad’ in one day?” And I am a big fan of J.J. Abrams’ work. He is a friend of mine. So i just thought that it would be a realistic way of showing what is happening right now with kids and technology.

Q: What did you learn about life as a result of writing and directing “This is 40?”

A: I learned a lot about the mistakes you make in communicating with somebody and also how much of your own stuff you project onto them. That is a lot of what the movie is about. If you have some unresolved issue with your own parents, you are probably going to tell your wife that they are doing it, too, whether they are or not. You become sensitive. They say that whatever you didn’t get as a kid is the thing you are looking for more as an adult. And that is something that was fun to explore because people get in some big fights but really they are fighting against things from their past – not against the person they are talking to.

Q: Finally, as a fan of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and a friend of Paul Reubens, I could not be more excited about your collaboration with him on a “Pee-wee” movie. What is the latest news on that project?

A: He wrote a fantastic script for “Pee-wee.” We are trying to get somebody to pay to make it but he wrote a really funny “Pee-wee” movie. And he is one of the nicest men I have ever met. I really enjoyed working on that part of the process with him and I hope that we get a chance to do it.

Joseph J. Airdo

Joseph J. Airdo is a film critic, producer and on-air personality for Breakthrough Entertainment, a talk radio show airing 10-11 a.m. Saturdays on KPHX 1480 AM and BreakRadioShow.com that shines a spotlight on the practical perspectives of the topics and themes explored in movies. He has a pet duck named Frozen who is as opinionated about movies as he is. E-mail him at joseph.airdo@gmail.com.

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