Judd Apatow makes big commercial comedies, and “The King of Staten Island” is no exception. However, while developing the project with Pete Davidson and drawing on the comic actor’s personal life, Apatow decided he needed to capture the rough-and-tumble nature of the character’s experiences. As a result, the movie has a more naturalistic quality than Apatow’s other work, with a restless camera that hovers alongside the jaded twentysomething with documentary-like finesse.
To develop that quality, Apatow turned to one of the most respected cinematographers in the industry. Robert Elswit, the Paul Thomas Anderson DP revered for his work on “There Will Be Blood” and “Boogie Nights” among many others, played a key role in developing the new direction that “The King of Staten Island” represents in Apatow’s filmography.
“I had wanted to work with him for a very long time,” Apatow said in a recent phone interview with IndieWire, “but he’s rarely available, because he’s off making some of the greatest movies of all time.” As it turned out, Elswit was attached to shoot Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” last year when the project went into turnaround, just as Apatow was developing “The King of Staten Island.” So he pounced. “I jumped on the phone and met him and I was really so excited to have him join the team,” Apatow said. “He shoots in a style that I have always wanted to use in one of my movies. I’m a big fan of all of his work because there’s a lot of energy and movement.”
That was a big change for Apatow, who tends to cede control to the actors and leave room for improvisation. From “The 40 Year Old Virgin” to “Trainwreck,” conversations about Apatow movies tend to focus more on the performances he elicits from top comic stars rather than the filmmaking tools surrounding them. “I certainly get afraid to move the camera because I’m serving the jokes more than the action,” Apatow said. “With this movie, I decided not to worry about that at all.” Apatow described the look he wanted as a “1970s handheld Hal Ashby-Sidney Lumet aesthetic.”
The result compliments the movie’s sophisticated tone. “The King of Staten Island” presents a semi-fictionalized version of Davidson, as Scott, whose firefighter father died when his son was young. (Davidson’s own father was a firefighter who died on 9/11.) While Davidson eventually worked through some of his adolescent challenges by finding success in the comedy world, Apatow’s movie envisions what might have happened if he’d kept his ambitions low: Scott lives at home with his mother (Marisa Tomei) and dreams of making a living as a tattoo artist. Mostly, though, he roams around New York’s least glamorous borough getting stoned and causing trouble with his pals.
That premise could go a lot of different ways, and at first, the filmmaker was concerned that Elswit’s style might get in the way of the entertainment factor. “I always wondered when I got the footage back if I’d miss jokes because Bob happened to be pointing at the wrong person when something happened in improvisation,” Apatow said. “He never did. I didn’t lose one joke in 53 days of shooting because he just happened to be focused in the wrong direction.” Apatow tends to work through a lot of footage, and “The King of Staten Island” was no exception, with a rough cut that ran in the vicinity of three-and-a-half hours. “We tried to shoot a lot of funny moments, and in post, we decided how many of those funny moments we needed and which ones ruined the drama because it felt like we were reaching,” he said. “Almost every scene in the movie is double or triple the length it needs to be because of improvisation.”
Apatow relied on Elswit to get inside this environment and capture it from the inside out. “Bob is also one of the great camera operators of all time,” Apatow said. “A lot of the reason why the movie looks so good has to do with his in-the-moment choices to point the camera. He captured that gritty feeling of Staten Island we were looking for. The amazing thing was that none of that made the movie any less funny.”
Stay tuned for more from IndieWire’s interview with Apatow next week. “The King of Staten Island” is available on premium VOD on June 12, 2020.