King of Staten Island: Judd Apatow, Writer-Director, Starring Pete Davidson

The King of Staten Island Universal Pictures

Interview with Judd Apatow (writer, director, producer)

Pete Davidson as Screen Presence

Judd Apatow: I thought he was hilarious when I first met him.  Amy Schumer told me about him when we were looking for people to be in “Trainwreck.”   we were just sitting around one day and I just said who don’t I know?  And she was like there’s this kid, he’s like 19 years old, he’s so funny and dark.  And I watched him and I thought a lot about Sandler when I first met Adam Sandler, when we were young in our early 20s.  He had that same type of charisma and brashness, but he also had a darkness to him and he’s very, very honest.  And it’s a tough kind of comedy.  So we put him in “Trainwreck,” mainly because we just thought he’s going to be a big star, it would be funny that he had just a short moment in “Trainwreck.”  We gave him a small part in “Trainwreck” because we knew he would be big.  Which we did in a lot of movies, Bo Burnham is in “Funny People,” and Jonah Hill is in “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” we always try to place people, if we don’t have a big part, who we love and who we think are going to be among the greats.  And Bill Hader liked him so much he recommended him to “Saturday Night Live” and he auditioned and he got “Saturday Night Live,” just off of this one cameo from “Trainwreck.” And then we kicked around a silly movie idea for a couple of years.  And I just thought well, he’s clearly a comedic movie star.  And then that script never really came together, it just wasn’t the right idea.  And then he started saying to me I would like to write something about my mom and how I want her to be happy and how I want her to meet a man and he had an idea in the arena of trying to hook his mom up.  And I said but isn’t it true that if your mom met a man you wouldn’t like him?  And wouldn’t that cause a problem?  And what if it was another fireman, would it force you to face all of your issues?  And then he showed a lot of interest in going very deep into an exploration of his trauma and how it affected him and his family and then we developed that idea for the next few years.

Abrasive Hero

JA: It’s tricky because we were very aware that this character was acting out. And he hadn’t resolved a lot of his issues.  So he was being terrible to all the people around him and in the first scene he is terrible to the people he is driving around and he is terrible to his sister and he is terrible to his mom and then he doesn’t want to be close to the girl who is in love with him.  And Pete would say on the set, is anyone going to like this guy, is this the worst guy ever?  (laughs) But I do think when you are that traumatized, sometimes it leads to a kind of sensitivity and selfishness and in AA they call it King Baby, and that’s something that he has to work through, the fact that he is not being good to the people around him and he is playing victim all the time.


Casting of Sister

JA: Well you have got to go to the best and usually when you go to the best, it’s close to me, I got good genes in the family and yeah, she is excellent.  Maude was so fun to work with, because when I used to work with Maude, I hadn’t worked with Maude in eight years, people go you guys work together all the time, no, we haven’t worked together in eight years, almost a decade.  And back then she was a little kid so it was almost like a reality show.  I would just manipulate my kids to fight and try to get it on film, but this is the first time I got to work with her after she has been on “Euphoria” and the TV show “Hollywood” and now she’s a master of her craft, so she’s really fun to collaborate with.


Discovering New Talent

JA: I have always been a giant fan of comedy ever since I was a little kid.  And when I was a kid I would watch TV and see someone funny, for instance I used to watch Michael Keaton do standup on the talk shows in the mid 70s.  And I thought, that’s my favorite guy in the world.  And then suddenly he had a TV show and it didn’t last very long.  And all of a sudden, he had this movie “Night Shift,” and he became a giant star.  But I had been tracking him for years, and I feel that that’s what I do now, except when I see someone I like, I try and see if there is an opportunity to collaborate with them.  And there’s really no trick to it other than people I want to watch.  So just like you might have a favorite band or a favorite actor or actress, I just see someone and I get excited like hearing the new album from someone that I love.

Personal Story for Davidson

JA: For me, I was just concerned about hurting him in the process, that this exploration of his history and how he was doing would be painful for him and maybe it was wrong to try and create art out of it at this time, maybe it was too fresh.  So I moved very slowly with him over the course of the first year of writing and I talked a lot to him almost like a journalist about how he was feeling and his history and how he felt that affected him and his family.  And that I spoke to his mother for a while about her perspective.  And at every stage I just kept saying are you comfortable doing this?  And he is a producer on the movie, so we structured how we made this movie together so that it felt healthy and safe.  And my hope was that it would be cathartic for him, to dig very deeply about this trauma would help him release a lot of it.  I think that writing, not just his story but characters playing versions of his mother and his sister, helped him to see how it affected other people and how his behavior affects people.  And I do think that all of that was very healthy for him to demystify all of his feelings.  It’s so easy to be repressed and push everything down and just act out and not even know why you are acting out.  I think he made the connection between his feelings and what he had gone through in his life.  And coming out of it now, he’s very happy.  I also think it’s because the movie came out well and I think he feels like people understand him more and he is very excited to share his story with people because he knows that everybody has a story about grief and sudden trauma, we are all trying to get over things.  And he hoped that the movie would be positive for other people’s feelings.


Journey of Movie

JA: The making of the movie was all really fun.  We had a fantastic time.  We rehearsed a ton, so when we got to set, we had worked on all of these scenes.  And even the scenes that were very emotional, we were excited to shoot, we knew they were difficult.  But he was very brave to reveal himself in the scenes.  And as soon as he realized that it came out well, that we accomplished what we were trying to accomplish, he became ecstatic.  There were definitely moments where I was crying at the monitor just watching him expose his pain.  But we were also very proud of him for having the courage to do that.  But on most days we were just laughing our asses off.  Probably the funniest day was when Bill Berg comes to the door and yells at Pete and Marisa Tomei because Pete had tattooed his son.  There was a lot of improvisation between all of them.  And Luke who plays Harold, was also great at improv, he got into the flow of it.  But watching Bill stay in character but angrily tell off Pete and every take was different, was making us laugh so hard, especially when Bill was screaming at his kid to look both ways when he crossed the street, that was the part that made us laugh the most, just screaming that over and over again.

Comedy Too Long?

JA: I think every person has their own clock for how long they want any type of movie to be.  For me if I invest in people and their story, I am in no rush for it to be over.  I think that’s why people like streaming television, is because they can spend 50 hours with characters that they care about.  The experience in the theater is a different one because you have to urinate at some point.  (laughs) And everyone has the moments where they get antsy.  And we had different clocks for different types of movies.  I see these movies more as dramas with humor, and a lot of the movies that I loved in the past like “Terms of Endearment” and “Broadcast News,” they were over two hours, and I felt like I loved these people and I want to know more about them and I want the stories to be rich.  And when you do a movie like this at 95 minutes, you are all plot, you can’t let the scenes play out because you don’t have time for character, you are just flying along.  So I think they need an extra 15, 20 minutes to go that deep.  But I also laugh because it’s pretty arbitrary, it seems okay to watch “Harry Potter” or “The Avengers” for three-and-a-half hours and there’s no difference, it’s just a movie and it’s a story.  Just because there’s action isn’t really the reason why you should get another hour, people like it.  People like a good movie and they like characters they care about and I don’t think comedy is the exception, like comedies must be short.  Because really they are just stories.  And yes, there are stories that shouldn’t be that long, I think joke-a-thons, like you wouldn’t want a two-and-a-half hour “Airplane” or “The Naked Gun,” but these are not in that genre.  And to answer the second part of your question, in terms of changing genres, for me, what I was trying to accomplish, it’s actually not that different than a movie like “Parasite” in a way, which is that you meet people and you get a sense that this is going to be like “Knocked Up,” it’s a guy and he is high and he is hanging with his friends, but then you just go way deeper than you expect and the movie becomes a little bit of almost a manic episode where you realize that he has serious mental health issues and he’s struggling.  And then suddenly the stakes become much higher than in other movies that I’ve done.


Origins of Project: Script?

JA:  We started from scratch. He had been playing around with the idea of doing something about his mom and wanting her to be happy.  But it all came out of long discussions that were as simple as like how are you doing Pete, how are you feeling?  And if you are not feeling great, what do you think it stems from, what is all this based on?  And obviously a lot of it has to do with losing a parent, his dad died on 9/11 when he was seven, and that hole, that loss, how do you get over it?  And the idea of Pete trying to accept a new father figure which would be a sign of growth and being able to move on and opening his heart to someone else, was what was interesting to us.  Cause in a lot of ways, this is a love story between a young man and someone who might become his step-parent.

First Movie Experience

JA: I was born in 1967 so a lot of the movies that had the biggest impact on me were the movies in the mid to late 70s.  So the first time I saw “Rocky,” and “Rocky 2,” I remember waiting in line to see “Rocky 2” and the place exploding like it was a rock concert.  I remember seeing “Star Wars” in a movie theater, where you had to wait an hour and a half, in line when it didn’t used to be about the multiplex, there weren’t a ton of theaters, and you had to wait in line for a big event.  I also remember seeing “Ghostbusters” in Plainview New York, and again, Friday night, 10 o’clock, and these experiences were events.  The biggest one probably for me was “Jaws.” I was a little kid, probably way too young to see “Jaws” but maybe I could have been nine or eight.  And the place just screamed, I remember the head popping out in the boat under the water, and I don’t know if I have heard a reaction like that the rest of my life.