After the comprehensive onslaught of attributed projects for which his name lies above the title, it remains a rare and welcome sight to see Judd Apatow return for his fourth directorial effort, “This is 40.” Last seen in 2009 with “Funny People,” Apatow has now expanded his cinematic universe with his latest film to focus on Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), two supporting characters from “Knocked Up” who return saddled with a host of unexplored issues.
While there remains little connective tissue to the previous Seth Rogen/Katherine Heigl comedy in the final cut — although Apatow shot footage with the intent to make more of that aspect — the performances by Rudd and Mann effectively convey their characters’ fluctuating marriage, and breathe life into their struggle to keep things stable while keeping family and financial issues at bay. During the film’s Los Angeles press conference which we attended, the two actors — along with Apatow and fellow cast members Albert Brooks and Megan Fox — took questions about their roles, the personal and emotional details used within them, and their perspectives on kids cursing.
1. Apatow and Co. have varied reflections on the dreaded 4-0.
Just as “Funny People” dealt directly with issues of mortality and second chances punctuating the larger comedy narrative, “This is 40” represents an unswerving glance at aging, a benchmark that nearly everyone in the cast had already faced. Apatow claimed “it was more 30” that provoked a deep self-analysis, while Mann has already begun planning for the grim future, noting, “I keep asking women who are little bit older if it gets better, and they say, ‘No, it just gets worse.’ ”
Brooks, who plays Pete’s money-grubbing father Larry, then jumped in with a secret of his own. “When I was very young, I began to make friends with much, much older people. So when I was 20, my friends were 50, and I never really went through 40 ‘cause I would watch them die, and I would always feel younger. So you make friends with older people, and you always feel young, no matter what.”
He then briefly reminisced, “On my 40th birthday, I was in hospice with a 92-year-old buddy,” at which point, a beat after many audible sighs, he slyly whispered, “That’s a lie.”
2. Apatow’s writing process for “This is 40” started by swapping ideas with Mann, Rudd, and others in his creative circle.
As always, the road for Apatow’s films to the big screen come paved with exhaustive collaboration, and the loose, improvisational style that appears so tossed-off is actually meticulously conjured from the project’s beginnings. “We talk about the movie for years together, and that’s where a lot of the scene ideas come from,” Apatow described, glancing over at Mann, his wife and recurring actress. “And it’s a little bit of a coded conversation where we’re really debating our own problems with each other. So Leslie can complain about Pete, but not about me. So I’ll say, ‘Don’t you think we should have a scene where we really point out how controlling Debbie is?’ And then she’ll say, ‘Yeah, but maybe there should be a moment where Pete says he knows he’s a dick.’ “
He added, “We go back and forth like that, kind of subtly talking to each other. And then at the end, it mutates into this kind of other thing, which is a combo of mine and Paul’s worst traits into one monster husband that Debbie has to deal with.” Mann agreed with Apatow’s process, saying, “It’s what I would fantasize saying to Judd. Debbie can say these things to Pete, but Leslie can’t say these things to Judd. So it’s fun to be able — and also yelling at [co-star] Melissa McCarthy — I wouldn’t ever do that, but it’s fun to have this character to live through so I can.”
3. Melissa McCarthy provided the production’s hardest scene to shoot for all involved.
When Mann describes the thrill of yelling at McCarthy, she’s referring to the scene where Pete and Debbie sit in the principal’s office of their daughter’s school, fielding the escalating, aggressive threats of a mother — played by the “Bridesmaids” actress — whose son the couple endangered themselves. What results is a torrent of insults, both improvised and scripted, that had the cast and crew in tears after every take. “That was impossible,” Mann recalled. “I’ve never experienced that, maybe, like, one time I crack up and then keep it together from then on, but with her it was hours of just… like we could not keep a straight face. And finally we just gave up, and Judd said that he was using more than one camera ‘cause we just couldn’t keep it together.”
Rudd agreed. “I’ve seen people in tears before, but that was something otherworldly. People were leaving the room — crew had to leave. It was impossible, and she just kept her composure through all of it.” Apatow also revealed that legendary “SNL” writer and producer Paula Pell had a few contributions as well. “Paula Pell had a few funny ones, about [Pete and Debbie] looking like a bank commercial couple,” he said. “But Melissa is one of the best improvisers there is. I’ve never seen anything like that other than [Chris] Farley. If he looked you in the eye, like if you had to do anything with him, you would bust out laughing. There’s just a madness for certain people that you can’t — it’s hard to look into. You have to stare at their foreheads.”
3. Maude and Iris Apatow used their on-screen roles as an avenue to stretch their privileges.
Apatow and Mann’s daughters, Maude and Iris — while having featured consistently in Apatow’s films since “Knocked Up” — find themselves now at the center of “This is 40,” as the two sisters deal with their changing attitudes and their parent’s conflicts as well. Fox described the two young actresses as “just good kids, which is rare for ones raised in this industry for sure,” and Mann continued that image when talking about Maude’s cinematic scenes of rebellion toward her parents.
“[Maude and Iris] don’t curse at home, so it was fun for her to do it at work,” she said, “Which I didn’t think was a great idea, but Judd thinks its funny. So that’s fun for her, but then she gets home from work and tries to say the f-word or whatever and we have to shut her down.” Apatow too noted the personal downsides to his expletive-ridden filmography, “They use [my films] against me now. They’re like, ‘Everybody curses in “Superbad,” ’ She’s finally using it as revenge against me. I knew it’d happen one day, like ‘You make your whole living off of cursing. How do you not like cursing?’ “
However, Apatow wasn’t the only one who faced trouble with their kids’ exposure to improper material. Brooks said, “Being in the Academy you get screeners, and I have kids too. You try to keep them from going to the actual movies, but then you let them watch screeners, so we all gathered around and watched [Robert Zemeckis’] ‘Flight.’ And it prompted a discussion of cocaine that I never wanted to have for at least a few more years. ‘What’s that?’ ‘I think its what pilots do, that’s a pilot-type aspirin.’ “
4. Albert Brooks and Megan Fox found themselves integrating naturally into the Apatow clan
Last year’s Jennifer Westfeldt comedy “Friends with Kids” showed a comedic pitch from actress Megan Fox only hinted at, if at all, in her previous films, and so “This is 40” proves a natural progression for the actress toward increasingly familiar waters. Naturally with the territory though, this meant her improv skills had to be put on full display. “From the first audition that I went through — it was Judd, Leslie, and Paul — and I went in with my sides, and we did that once,” Fox said. “Then, Judd said, ‘Okay, so Paul, you come into the store [where Fox’s character Desi works] and you have an awkward conversation’ that I was not prepared for at all. So I was scared shitless then, but I got over it from that point.” She also recalled one scene, where her character Desi drives Debbie home from a nightclub at 3am, that she faced pure terror regarding the script instead. “It was one of those days — I don’t know if you’ve had one of these — where I memorized the wrong scene, so I didn’t know my dialogue at all. I was so scared, and I did all these crazy things in the scene which I think maybe worked.”
Luckily, Fox’s scene in the finished film also marks one of the most memorable, so it’s a testament to her performance that she was able to pull it off, but Brooks — coming in for his first work experience under Apatow — was quick to demystify the director’s vaunted “carefree” approach. “I think that we in rehearsal got a chance to add and improvise a bit. It’s sort of the way it works; you know the idea that you get there, and in the actual moment you’re making it up is sort of a fallacy, but you know, you get a script and then you have time to throw that to the wind and see what comes back.” Apatow then added, “Albert would actually email me jokes the night before that topped many of my jokes, so I was happy about that.”
5. Apatow’s guest-edited Vanity Fair comedy issue happened almost by accident.
Stuffed to the gills with fascinating narrative histories, humor pieces, and exclusive interviews surrounding the world of comedy, the January 2013 issue of Vanity Fair finds Apatow stepping in as guest editor, and calling on just about every contact to chip in. But as intensive as it was to actually make, the genesis of it was much more subdued. “I brought bits of [‘This Is 40’] around New York to try to get people interested in writing about it, and I knew that a friend of mine had done something like that for another magazine. So I just tossed it out there, not thinking that they would let me do it.,” he said. “And then they really let me do it. It was a crazy amount of work for something like half a year. I think it was one of those things where I could’ve done very little, and they wouldn’t have minded, but then I got really anal and drove everyone crazy over there.”
“But it was fun, it was great to talk to Albert [Brooks] for that Q&A, it’s fun to read Q&As when people kind of know each other well cause they go a little deeper and work with Paul, Megan, and Leslie on the cover, and I got to get them to do a interview with [Mike ] Nichols and [Elaine] May, who haven’t done an interview together in 50 years. So that was very exciting,” Apatow continued. “I got to take a picture with Steve Martin, which is a career highlight. And Mark Seliger, the photographer, is brilliant too, so if I came up with a funny idea for a photograph, just how he would realize it was pretty remarkable. People seem to like it too. I heard the ‘Freaks and Geeks‘ article got more page views than any other article in the history of Vanity Fair’s website.”
6. While her husband has the reputation, it was actually Leslie Mann who suggested most of the more self-revealing aspects to the film.
Apatow has observed that “This Is 40” draws one-third of the material from his real life, with the other sections derived from Rudd’s own experience and comedic flourishes, but alternately, Mann was also revealed as a main proponent of the more awkward moments. “The more uncomfortable, the better. The more truthful, the better,” Mann said, when asked of her preferred mode of acting. “One of my favorite movies is ‘Broadcast News,’ and the scene where [Brooks’ character] is trying to read the news and sweating, it’s the greatest thing ever. It’s so uncomfortable to watch, yet so funny. It’s just like the perfect combination of everything, and that’s just my dream to act in something like that.”
One of the main scenes to highlight such a mixture occurs in the trailer, as Rudd takes to examining his body’s bottom half doubled up with an iPhone and mirror. Apatow also cited Mann as contributing to that scene, saying, “We did sit and try to think of examples of the mystery disappearing in a relationship, and people being totally open after that many years getting disgusting and not sexy. And one day we thought, ‘We need two examples’ and one of them was [the mirror scene] and the other one was being [Pete’s] iPad in the bathroom.”
Half-jokingly, Rudd grumbled, “Here’s the thing, I’m not excited about any of it. I thought it would be funny,” but then gave an honest answer when asked of his fear approaching the personal role. “Of course it’s terrifying, but in the context of the movie and what I think we’re all trying to go for is some kind of reality, and if it’s funny, there’s certainly no room for vanity.”
Finally, speaking of Rudd’s vanity, while news on the actor’s return commitment in “Anchorman: The Legend Continues” was kept tightly under wraps during the panel, Apatow did reveal Rudd had, in his words, ”a scene [in the film] that is the funniest in movie history.” A bold claim, but with Apatow’s comment that the Adam McKay-directed project still lies over a year away before release, that promises a long enough wait before Rudd’s showcase moment is finally revealed. For the meantime though, his performance in Apatow’s latest, as well as roles in “End of the World” and David Wain’s “They Came Together,” should prove substitute enough.
“This Is 40” opens in theatres on December 21st.