Yesterday at the Tribeca Film Festival, a special event was held celebrating the centennial anniversary of Universal Pictures. This “100 Years Panel,” hosted by Deadline staffer Mike Fleming, featured an introduction by Ron Meyer, Universal’s long-standing CEO, and panelists Judd Apatow and Robert De Niro (both frequent Universal employees and creative partners). And while this might have seemed like a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Universal’s first 100 years (and the movies De Niro and Apatow have memorably contributed), it turned out to be a slog – an excruciatingly unentertaining hour that oscillated between terse answers by De Niro and wild outbursts from Apatow. At one point Meryl Streep was scheduled to be the third panelist (she had to back out due to a family illness) and you suspect she could have balanced the scales a little bit, since most of the time it felt not like a celebration of Universal’s cinematic legacy but some anniversary thing tied to the sinking of the Titanic. Iceberg right ahead!
The panel opened with a fairly jaunty (and, indeed, heart-tugging) montage of footage from Universal’s memorable back catalog – “Jaws,” the Hitchcock films, “E.T.,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the usual suspects – after which Apatow and De Niro took to the stage. When Fleming asked them if they had been able to see the reel. “I saw the back of the reel,” Apatow quipped. “ ‘Cape Fear’ was in there. One of the first important milestones in my career and the sketch that got ‘The Ben Stiller Show’ picked up was our ‘Cape Fear’ parody ‘Cape Munster.’ ” Then Apatow turned to De Niro and asked, “When people parody you, do people want to show you the things that parody you or are they afraid to?” After De Niro mumbled “Sometimes,” Apatow continued on how important the Martin Scorsese “Cape Fear” remake really was to his career. “We studied that shot-for-shot with Ben dressed up as Eddie Munster and that’s what got us picked up,” Apatow said. He then added, about the remainder of the reel, “The rest of it I didn’t care for. It was ‘Out of Africa,’ ‘Schindler’s List,’ and [Steve] Carell getting his chest hair ripped off?”
Fleming could only bleed a handful of words out of De Niro for every question he lobbed at him, which made us think that maybe he should have directed more questions at Apatow since he was actually answering them. On “The Deer Hunter,” De Niro remarked, “I was given the script by Mike Cimino. I liked it very much. I even liked how it was presented – the cover of the script was in red with a silhouette of a man with a deer. I thought it would be a great poster.” On the casting of Meryl Streep and John Cazale in “The Deer Hunter”: “We saw her in ‘The Cherry Orchard’ at Lincoln Center and she was great and then she came and she was in the movie. I don’t know how John was cast.” While this isn’t exactly surprising for anyone who has seen a De Niro talk show appearance or listened to a commentary track of his, it doesn’t make it any less painful.
Thank god for Apatow. After a series of grueling questions about “The Deer Hunter” (a Universal Best Picture winner), he just blurted out, “I want to know how you’re going to transition from ‘Deer Hunter’ to ‘Knocked Up.’ There’s no way that I’m not going to look like a jackass. I was unhappy with the ‘Heavyweights‘ poster. I thought our movie was too good for that!” On his debut feature for Universal, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Apatow said: “We did the movie ‘Anchorman‘ and Steve Carell was hilarious and I just thought, ‘I’d like to watch this guy for an entire movie.’ And he said, ‘I’d always wanted to play a 40-year-old virgin’ and I said, ‘I relate to that in so many ways.’ ” Apatow said the studio was immediately on board. “I told Universal and they were excited to do it – it was a lower budgeted comedy with a new talent. They like discovering new people. There are people like Melissa McCarthy who has been around for 15 years who were finally able to have their moment [in the Apatow-produced ‘Bridesmaids’].” Ever eager to do Fleming’s job of bringing the two men’s careers together, Apatow allowed for a pregnant pause before saying, “Much like Christopher Walken in ‘The Deer Hunter.’ ”
Afterward, Fleming asked Apatow what his first sexual experience was like. “I’m going to tell you in detail – it was senior year of high school and I thought it went really well,” Apatow explained. “And I said, ‘Was it good for you too?’ which I thought was a funny thing to say. And she said, ‘Well, I hope it gets better.’ ” Apatow took a moment, clearly waiting for Fleming to pose the same question to De Niro, before yelling, “PUSSY! Why does he get the pass?”
Apatow, clearly not that keen on the questioning, took over from Fleming and posed another question to De Niro, “May I ask you a question? Why do you think you’re so good at playing tough guys and murderers?” To which De Niro shot back: “That’s for me and my psychoanalyst.”
Not that Apatow was completely charming throughout the whole panel. When Fleming brought up Katherine Heigl’s complaints about the Apatow factory and their inability to produce quality material for women (something that seems to be shifting with last summer’s “Bridesmaids” and HBO’s “Girls”), Apatow said, “So maybe she was wrong?” And while the line was meant to get a laugh (and it did), it also let him off the hook way too easily. “When ‘Knocked Up’ came out we thought the fun of the movie was that the women were as flawed as the men,” Apatow said. “In a lot of movies women are perfect and kind of boring but we wanted to show what it was like in relationships when you have a weird husband or some loser gets you pregnant. So I always thought it was about people trying to find their maturity.” He added: “When we made ‘Bridesmaids’ I didn’t think it was a groundbreaking idea. I just wanted to do a movie with Kristin Wiig. There’s tons of hilarious women, there always has been. It didn’t connect with us. We’re all fans of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Gilda Radner. He said the reaction to the film surprised him. “People thought ‘This is new!’ I didn’t think it was new. I liked ‘Private Benjamin‘ as much as the next guy.”
When the subject of Universal’s beloved buddy movie “Midnight Run” came up, De Niro actually offered a couple of details about why the movie was so special and what’s in store for the proposed sequel. “The way Chuck Grodin is, it worked. His character was irritating and Chuck knew how to do that, to work that. I felt like that was a good way to go,” De Niro said about the film’s lasting impact. On the sequel, he noted: “Somebody had approached me, a young writer, and he thought about writing a sequel. So it’s been going through these changes.” In the sequel, De Niro’s character is “helping the son of Chuck Grodin, who’s gotten himself into trouble. And that’s where we are. The script is being reworked again.”
Apatow jumped in with his thoughts on “Midnight Run”: “It’s one of those movies where you speak to studios and they say, ‘It’ll be like ‘Midnight Run!” And no one does it. Everyone tries to make that movie and nobody can do it.” When Fleming made a comparison to studios trying to recapture the magic of “Die Hard,” Apatow rightly shot back: “There are 200 movies like ‘Die Hard’ that are great. ‘The Matrix…’ ”
Later Apatow talked about the influence of another Universal-housed comedic genius, John Hughes. “I was a gigantic fan of John Hughes’ work. Always. Those movies were the movies of my childhood, comedically. Especially ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles.’ There’s that scene where John Candy and Steve Martin have that huge fight in the hotel room. That was a sign to me that you can do that in movies. It inspired that scene in ‘40 Year-Old Virgin’ where they have a fight and he says, ‘Einstein has a bike.’ And she says, ‘Einstein had a wife that he fucked.’ ”
After a disastrous attempt to take questions from fans via Twitter (Apatow: “How many people here have better questions? That’s just a nine-year-old in their room. ‘I’m talking to De Niro!’ ”) Fleming asked De Niro about his ability to underplay things. “It’s all about what’s not said – all subtext and so a lot of things in life are just reactions. It doesn’t mean you have to say something even if it’s written. I always say ‘Let’s try it the other way.’ Sometimes, with writers, they’ll write something because it has to be said and then when you do it, the less said the better. The audience will read into it, like a novel, with what needs to be felt.”
The best moments of the panel came when the two got to play off each other. When Fleming brought up the fact that Spielberg and Scorsese had swapped films – with Spielberg trading “Cape Fear” for “Schindler’s List,” Apatow exclaimed, “Is that how it works? There’s a barter system I don’t know about? ‘You want to switch ‘40 Year Old Virgin’ for ‘Gangs of New York?’ ” And after De Niro explained that he tried to make things, even stuff like ‘Taxi Driver,’ have elements of humor, Apatow eloquently remarked: “I think that what people love about Mr. De Niro’s work is that there’s always such sharp comedy in it. Even ‘Cape Fear’ to me has a lot of humor in it. When he put his thumb in her mouth and pulled out the retainer – that’s good stuff! ‘GoodFellas‘ is darkly funny. That is what life is like. Nothing is completely serious. When I see a movie and it doesn’t have any humor, I feel that there is something wrong with it.” Apatow was clearly following his own advice – adding laughs into an otherwise deathly panel.
Towards the end of the panel, De Niro and Apatow opened up about two costly flops they made for the studio – De Niro, as a director, with his epic, sorely underrated CIA drama “The Good Shepherd” and Apatow with his deeply personal “Funny People.” De Niro said that the goal was for the studio to green-light a sequel, which they eventually did but at a smaller budget (De Niro was uninterested). Apatow remarked how Universal was always supportive, “They didn’t mind losing millions of dollars.” Apatow also said that the movies live on elsewhere. “These movies are on everywhere – they’re on TV all the time,” he said. “So when you do something great like that, it takes years for people to finally get to see it. That’s what’s exciting about film right now – there’s a way to make movies and people get to see it but Universal makes no money at all.”