As the film industry struggled to stay afloat in the early days of the pandemic, Judd Apatow was taking notes. The filmmaker’s new Netflix comedy “The Bubble” centers on an ensemble of actors and crew trapped on the British set of “Cliff Beasts 6,” a ludicrous Hollywood tentpole in which the full cast is forced to stick together to avoid an outbreak. It doesn’t take much scrutiny to recognize some similarities with the real-life scenario that faced the production of “Jurassic World Dominion” in 2020, when the shoot shut down and then resumed production with COVID restrictions in place. But Apatow’s movie is also a commentary on its own circumstances, as Apatow shot the movie during the pandemic with necessary restraints as well.
“The Bubble” satirizes the industry from several directions at once, with its cast of characters (played by Karen Gillan, David Duchovny, Fred Armisen, and Keegan-Michael Key, among many others) populated by self-involved Hollywood types worried for their careers as much as their safety. The filmmaker spoke by phone with IndieWire about how he developed the scenario from his relationship to the business, his feelings on the recent Oscars incident with Will Smith and Chris Rock, working for streaming platforms, and more.
IndieWire: Just how much is this movie based on the actual production of “Jurassic World Dominion”?
Judd Apatow: I really wasn’t thinking much about the “Jurassic World” experience other than I wanted to do a two-location movie for safety and I thought that, if half the movie takes place in a hotel and half of it takes place in a green screen stage, then I could have a smaller crew and hopefully can make it very safe for everyone. We were trying to think of monsters that could inhabit this monster movie. Was it Bigfoot or wild wolves? At some point, we thought about a flying Tyrannosaurus rex on the top of a mountain, and then it just became about dinosaurs.
So you didn’t pull specific details from that shoot?
That’s not what I was going for, but there’s no way for some of it not to feel like it lines up that way. I definitely heard about the “Jurassic World” bubble as well as what was happening on “Mission Impossible” and “The White Lotus” and the production of “Cyrano.” You would hear stories of all the problems people were having. But it wasn’t based on anything that was happening because the truth is the “Jurassic World” shoot wasn’t that eventful other than some positive tests that shut them down. They all get along and love each other. [“The Bubble”] is a situation where everyone who acts in the movie ends up hating each other. I was mainly interested in an exaggerated version of people having nervous breakdowns in isolation similar to the kind that I was having in my own home.
What were your breakdowns like?
We’ve all had a sense of purgatory where everything stopped and we had no choice but to think about our lives. Are we happy? Do we like our jobs? Are our relationships and families working? Am I happy with the decisions I’m generally making? That can be positive for people, but it can also totally break you down. So much of show business is about seeking that constant ego stroke, the constant search for appreciation.
How do you feel about what went down at the Oscars on Sunday?
Violence is never the answer to any problem. A lot of people in the country are pretty wrung out by the last few years. That’s why it’s more important than ever to tell people this. Comedians are always assessing what space they’re in and what the rules are there. Sometimes people want edgy material, and sometimes you’re doing a corporate gig where they tell you to keep it clean. That’s part of the job, to decide how you deal with those rules and sometimes censorship. Every situation is different and you can’t predict what you’re going to face. That’s what makes it a hard job.
Do you feel vulnerable onstage?
For the most part, I’m not an edgy comedian. I talk about personal things. There are certainly some brilliant comedians, like Chris Rock, who challenge the audience and try to make them think. He’s working at the edge of what comedians do. I just did a documentary about George Carlin that’s going to be on HBO in late May. That’s what he did. He said that the job of the comedian is to find out what the line is, step over it, and make the audience glad that they did. It’s the constant challenge of the comedian: Every night is an experiment, nothing is predictable.
How would George Carlin deal with social media?
We don’t know. He was a free speech absolutist. He came from a time when people went to jail for saying certain things on stage. He got fired for talking about the Vietnam war. They played one of his cuts on the radio, someone objected, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court. So he always preached that words only have the meaning that we give them and you can always change the channel if you don’t like it. But he didn’t live in the time of algorithms and the way that a lot of these platforms try to get you addicted to a certain negative type of information to keep you on the platform longer. He was never a fan of big corporations manipulating citizens for financial gain.
You’re all over social media. This past week, you deleted some tweets you posted about the Oscars incident. A few weeks back, you shared a hilarious anecdote about sitting behind Kanye West at the Super Bowl. What compels you to put unfiltered material out there, knowing the risks?
As a comedian, sometimes you see something that makes you laugh and you post quicker than you should because something just seems funny or ridiculous. I didn’t regret doing it. A lot of times, though, you wonder if it’s worth the negative feedback you get. But the issue usually is that no matter what you say, a third of the country violently disagrees with you. Does that mean we shouldn’t comment on anything?
I just assumed you were Team Pete.
No, I just thought it was funny that he seemed uncomfortable and sweaty.
One of the funnier moments in “The Bubble” finds a studio executive (Kate McKinnon) reporting on the film shoot to her superior, who has to contact his own superior. Have you ever dealt with that bureaucracy in your own career?
I felt it when I worked at Fox Television around 2001. I thought a couple of times that the culture was vey toxic, that everyone was very scared and intense and fearful for their jobs and willing to do things that weren’t necessarily as kind or as ethical as they could be. That culture came from the top. There was a cutthroat nature to it that dripped down to everybody. It wasn’t a happy group of fun, calm, people. Everybody seemed to have the fear of god in them. They don’t even exist anymore.
Towards the end of the movie, you have an actor complaining about his movie going straight to streaming. There’s something meta about putting that into a movie with Netflix. What is your feeling about the transition to streaming?
I had a great experience with Netflix doing “Love” with them, my standup special, “Peewee’s Big Holiday.” That’s all been very positive. I think everybody in the business is adjusting to the fact that everyone’s work has moved to streaming, so I thought it would be funny to show a big star trying to deal with the concept that his movie was not going to be in the theater and whether that means he’s a TV star now. We see everybody making that adjustment. Obviously, over the last few years, there have been many people who have had that moment. It’s part of the natural transition of the business and the technology. But it is still something that requires an adjustment.
It’s also a question of what success looks like.
We’re adjusting to that emotionally as well. If I make a movie for theaters and it costs $10 to see, and 10 million people see it, it makes $100 million and that’s a giant hit. If I make a movie for Netflix and 25 million people see it, I think it’s considered unsuccessful. What does that mean to the artist? With the theatrical experience, it’s terror because if it bombs, it’s rough. On streaming, we wanted to make “Pee-Wee” for the longest time, so that was a great experience, and I’m so happy that Adam McKay was able to make “Don’t Look Up.” I don’t know if he would’ve been able to get that done exclusively for movie theaters. The most important thing is that we’re getting a variety of movies on a variety of formats. It’s only bad if there are certain genres that really get shut out of theaters. That would be the worst case scenario.
Well, that does seem to be happening to the midsized adult drama, but you don’t have to worry too much about that.
I remember before the pandemic how giant Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was, and it made me think that if someone makes something really strong, people are happy to go to the movie theater. It certainly wipes out a lot of mediocrity. But people love going to see Paul Thomas Anderson movies. Everyone just needs to do really good work. We have to give them a reason to go to the movie theaters. I went to see “The Batman” and had the best time. The next day, my daughter said she wanted to go to another movie in the theater because of that. Hopefully, we’ll continue to be able to enjoy the luxury of both experiences.
What are your priorities as a producer at the moment?
I’m really just trying to find untold stories. Unfortunately, there are a lot of underrepresented people in movies, so we’ve tried to put what credibility we have behind storytellers who might have a lot of trouble getting a movie or TV show made. I’m really proud of “Bros.” It was written by Billy Eichner and Nick Fuller; Nick also directed it. It really came out well: It’s very emotional, funny, really sweet. It’s the first very gay studio romcom with a big budget. That’s a great thing, but it’s also so sad that it took until 2022 for that to happen. That comes out in the fall and we’re really excited for people to see it. We’ve screened it a lot and it’s a big crowdpleaser filled with ideas that are really important to get out there.
What else is consuming your attention at the moment?
We have a great script with Tig Notaro that we’re trying to get made this year, as well as a script with the Lucas brothers. It’s a really funny fictional film based on events from their lives. We have a TV show called “Dysphoria” that I’m producing with Ramy Youssef, starring Steve Way from his show, that we’ll hopefully get to do for Peacock later this year. We’re trying to ramp up our TV production with Universal.
What potential do you see with Peacock?
I go on there and it’s a pretty great well of stuff. I’m excited to put some TV shows on there. Obviously, it’s a really competitive atmosphere right now. But that’s good for comedy. It seems like that’s what everybody wants more of.
As someone who worked so closely with Ben Stiller early on, what do you make of his current evolution as a TV director? “Severance” is next-level stuff, and particularly impressive after what he did with “Escape at Dannemora.”
Courtesy of Apple TV+
From day one, I’ve learned so much from Ben Stiller. When I got to him, he’d done a groundbreaking series for MTV, where he’d started making cinematic sketches. He really was the most ambitious person and pushing the boundaries on that. He was doing Metallica and U2 parodies. He had an amazing sketch that combined “Star Trek” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” So much of what I learned about sketch comedy and filmmaking came from working with Ben on “The Ben Stiller Show” and then “The Cable Guy.” From that, it was obvious that he was an amazing filmmaker, and seeing “Severance” really feels like the culmination of everything he’s been learning and working on throughout his career. It really is a masterwork. It’s so beautiful, chilling, funny, and troubling. It looks incredible. I’m so excited for him and the response to it. There was always a lot of Sidney Lumet in Ben, and I really appreciate that he made a decision to fully engage that side of himself. Nobody cares more than Ben. He’s such a hard-working person and no detail gets by him. I’m really happy this part of his career has been taking off.
What movies did you really appreciate from the past year?
I loved “Zola.” I thought that was really ambitious, funny, and completely original. I was a big fan of “The Worst Person in the World,” a very special movie. I also loved “Red Rocket.” Sean Baker is one of my favorite directors and always does something very interesting in trying to explore rarely seen parts of the American experience. I can’t say what their experience is raising money and finding homes for their work. I just hope they get the budgets to follow their creative visions because obviously they have so much more to offer.