Late last month Judd Apatow tweeted the view from which he was doing press for his latest directorial effort, “Trainwreck.” It wasn’t ideal. As he explains when I arrive to the interview in Los Angeles, he’s thrown his back out that morning while removing a piece of luggage from the car. “It’s nothing. Forever ago I got hit by a car from behind when I was driving, so my back just goes out,” he explains. “It’s more like I can’t sit up or it’ll lock up. If I lay down all day it’ll go away.”
It should help Apatow’s general health, however, that “Trainwreck” turned out fantastic, its summer release following a warmly received SXSW premiere (we called it one of his “most hilarious and finely-tuned films to date”). He achieves this with a key collaborator both behind and in front of the camera: Amy Schumer. Having grown into a standup and sketch comedy force, she also handles her first screenplay and starring role with a natural ease, taking her unique perspective and pairing it with the best of Apatow’s filmmaking instincts.
A game ensemble cast including Bill Hader, LeBron James, Brie Larson, and Colin Quinn only seals the deal further, so read on to learn Apatow’s thoughts about his latest film, present and future projects with new talent, and more. But first, we chat briefly about the peculiar interview conditions.
Is this the most you’ve suffered surrounding one of your films?
I always do. Something always happens. Sometimes when I’m about to start a movie I’ll sneeze for a day straight. I’ll get an allergic reaction to just starting, or like when “Freaks and Geeks” got canceled my back kept going out and then I had a herniated disc. And I don’t know if that was from stress, or from writing. They tell you the worst posture to write in is leaning forward, and I never knew any of that. So I had to have back surgery after “Freaks and Geeks” was canceled.
Well, I appreciate you chatting to us anyway. Can you describe the initial script that Amy brought to you before you two developed “Trainwreck”?
It was a different form of a romantic comedy, but it was more high-concept. We sat and said, “When you have a bad relationship, what goes wrong? What type of guy are you choosing? What do you think you’re doing that’s making this difficult, and where did it come from?” A lot of times these movies are an imagining of health. Like if you change what do you think the change would be, and if you found the right guy what would that look like?
From her work Amy doesn’t immediately strike me as someone who needs that push to go personal.
Well, when you’ve never written a script before it’s a whole new language. Her standup is very honest, that’s what I like about it. I heard her on Howard Stern’s show and she’s an amazing storyteller. She found a way to talk about very difficult subjects, like her dad’s struggle with MS, and to be honest, it was darkly funny, and warm and connected at the same time. That’s the hard part — you can teach someone to write if they have that. She’s got stories, she’s got a point of view, she’s fearless about being vulnerable, and she’s funny. Then you’re just explaining Final Draft to her.
Speaking of, the film definitely feels different structurally after to your previous few.
I think some movies benefit from structure, but some movies are meant to say, “This is a slice of life, and life doesn’t have that type of structure.” So when I do movies like “This is 40” or “Funny People” I’m very aware that I’m trying to move in a more Robert Altman world, where you don’t really know what the story is, you’re just watching people living and making decisions.
It is what’s challenging about those movies–it’s a little bit more of a European style, which might seem odd for someone like me to work in periodically. But I feel like you get to certain truths that way that I find really interesting. I look at movies like “Trainwreck,” “Bridesmaids,” “40 Year Old Virgin” as more classically structured, and you still can get into some really funny areas, and very dramatic areas. When I direct things that I write, usually what I’m thinking is “I would like you to have no idea where this might go.” Is there any way to surprise you? Is there any way to touch you in a way that you haven’t experienced before in that genre? The romantic comedy — you know where it’s going, but I think Amy’s so unique and original and so forthcoming for herself that it reinvents the genre, because of what we love about her.
I definitely felt that invention when it came to “Butch Academy,” that comedy you were doing with Kimberly Pearce. What happened to that?
Well she’s just way ahead of her time. She was half a decade ahead of her time. There was a moment with that where we realized, “We’re not gonna get this funded.” It was very, very bold–I’d be willing to say bolder than anything that anyone has made on that subject. It may be something that resurfaces, but she’s still a brilliant writer and filmmaker. It’s been an amazing week in our country, and I think that is a result for people like Kimberly Pearce, and it’s also been the result of a cultural shift because a lot of people have written about it in dramatic and comedic ways.
“Will and Grace” and “Modern Family” are a gigantic reason why our country realized that denying people their rights is ridiculous, and that everybody’s the same. Same with “Transparent,” “South Park,” “The Daily Show,” and “The Colbert Report”–they shifted the way young people thought about this issue. Because they basically said prejudice in any form is ridiculous. You should be mocked if you’re prejudiced, and that’s what’s so great about all of their work.
Have you been pressed to explore those subjects onstage, now that you’re returning to standup after being away from it since you were in your twenties? You talk about the shift in stand-up comedy from repeated material to fresh, up-to-date bits every night in your book “Sick In The Head.”
Some people want to talk about the day’s events [on the Trainwreck Tour] and some people are honing their hour and that’s all they’re doing. As someone who’s new to it I’m really enjoying writing. My act changes a lot–my biggest mistake is that I don’t polish it enough to get the most out of every idea because I haven’t done it in 22 years. My tank is very full in concepts, but it takes discipline to stick with a five-minute area and just keep honing it, and every idea is clear.
That’s something Jerry Seinfeld said. He would work on a bit and he knew there was one word that was wrong, a bridged word in a sentence that he would spend a year on. Just knowing, “I don’t have the right word to make this joke work properly.” I think there’s something great about that, but I also think there’s something in thinking of stuff off the top of your head, and discovering things onstage. I’m trying to do all of it.
Who was the last actor or comedian that you’re actively trying to work with?
Right now I’m writing something with Pete Davidson from “SNL,” I think that he’s a very special guy, and has a great, unique point of view. I’m doing something, an original project, with Key and Peele, too. I always have four or five ideas floating, and sometimes a script comes up and sometimes they don’t. They all require a lot of work, years of work before a script deserves to be shot. Andrew Rannells from “Girls”, too. I’m working with him on a comedy idea. He’s always someone that I thought deserves to star in something.
Have you honed down a process of approaching these people?
Sometimes I’m asking them if they’re thinking about anything, sometimes I’m just casting them in something that exists. Every movie you’re building a team, and I’m just trying to build a group of people that I think will collaborate well together. So if we’re doing “Superbad,” Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] have a script and I’ll think, “Oh, Greg Mottola‘s awesome, I think they’ll get each other, they’ll like each other.” Just having that instinct to think David Gordon Green might be someone that would work for “Pineapple Express,” and to add a style to it that we would never think of.
Did the experience on “Trainwreck” differ because of directing someone else’s script?
Because we developed it together it’s not really different than anything else, other than it’s her vision and I’m trying to find a way to help get it across. So I’m asking tough questions and trying to support her in every way. I know what Amy’s trying to say here, so it was seeing how I could help her in casting, what tough questions I could ask to make her revise something. I’m asking myself those questions too, and I’m asking my friends to read it and be tough, taking that criticism and trying to turn it into a stronger next draft. But I’m honoring her idea and everything is about supporting her.
How did Bill Hader’s character develop? He and Amy have a great dynamic.
The idea was, “What would happen to this person if they met a great guy, and what would go wrong? How would she approach that relationship?” I’d also wanted to work with Bill forever in this type of a movie, and they’ve really great chemistry. They’re both really funny in different ways, and they complement each other. You never know — sometimes two funny people together are awful, and everything they do steps on and ruins what the other person is trying to do. You don’t know until you have people read and improvise in rehearsal whether this is a good team. If you think of any two of your favorite comedy people, Jerry Lewis and Don Knotts say, that could be good, or the worst thing that has ever been done. I mean, who knows?
What was the one thing here you’ve never done directorially?
I haven’t done too many sincere sex scenes that weren’t sex scenes where everything goes wrong. Usually I find what goes wrong in sex funny, so this is the first. Or actually, possibly the second, because in “40 Year Old Virgin” there’s a sweet sex scene at the end.
I don’t know–I’m always uncomfortable asking anyone to do anything like that. I’ll do it and sometimes it makes me laugh, you almost become like a porno director. You feel like Burt Reynolds in “Boogie Nights.” Yesterday Bill was saying how I directed was like, “Ok, now do three thrusts, then say the line, then two thrusts, then kiss, then say the line.” It’s the most uncomfortable thing I could do.
What’s your relationship with Netflix at the moment?
Well, they’re putting out the Pee-Wee Herman movie next year, that went great and they’re editing right now. John Lee directed it, Paul Reubens wrote it with Paul Rust. And also Paul Rust, Lesley Arfin and I wrote this series called “Love” that we’re doing ten episodes of next year. Just a romantic comedy, an exploration of a couple, [starring] Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs. [Paul and Lesley] said they wanted to do something about their relationship; they were talking about a movie, and I had an idea for a series that would be very slow-moving exploration of a couple through all the ups and downs.
It’s going great, we’ve got a few different directors, and we’re just beginning to edit. But it’s interesting, you understand that most people are going to watch it in two or three sittings, and the funny thing is the people who say, “Judd, your movies are too long” because they’re eight minutes longer than a normal movie yet people will go home and watch the entire season of “Orange is the New Black” in one five hour sitting. I keep saying maybe I should be in TV because I can look at it as a five-hour movie, which is what I’ve always wanted to do anyway.
“Trainwreck” opens in theatres July 17th.