After a difficult decade in network TV comedy, writer/director/producer Judd Apatow has developed a Midas touch in films, with the uninterrupted successes of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Superbad.”
Apatow’s latest, “Drillbit Taylor,” a high school comedy based on a John Hughes script, starring Owen Wilson as an inept bodyguard to three freshman geeks, opens nationwide Friday.
In a phone interview last week he discussed how he learned to be funny, his practice of working with a stock company of actor/writers and why he hates exotic locations.
There are names for all sorts of genres, from chick flicks to brat-pack movies. But there isn’t a category description for the kind of distinctive films you make. What would you like people to call them?
I always refer to what I’m trying to do as filthy James Brooks movies. He’s the man that I look up to and is probably my biggest influence. James Brooks and Cameron Crowe and Hal Ashby and Garry Shandling. I always go back to episodes of “Taxi.” They were really broad but really funny and had a great human quality to them. They always were about something important beneath the surface. And ended with a scene that showed the idea had more significance. I like to do that but also show male genitals.
You’ve shown hundreds of drawn penises in your movies, lots of real ones and even shots of a baby crowning. What else do you have up your sleeve?
You’d be surprised what parts of the human body haven’t been emphasized. This summer you’ll see some things you didn’t expect. I always think it’s funny that people are embarrassed about the body, so it’s my job to push their faces in it!
You studied comedy on TV and interviewed comedians in pursuit of a comedy career. What were the most important lessons you learned?
The main lesson was that it was going to take a really long time to learn how to do this. All of them said it would take about 10 years. It taught me patience. And it also made me feel OK that I was going to be bad at what I was doing or a really long time. It just takes a while to learn your craft.
Why did you move from TV to movies?
I could never crack the code of how to get anybody to watch the shows that I was making. There are a lot of great shows that hang by a thread, they have one supporter at the network who allows them to continue. Whether it’s “Seinfeld” in the early years or “30 Rock” now, they had champions. I never had that. So my things disappeared before they even finished one season. It was really heartbreaking, and I thought maybe I can find better partners if I work in film. I write a script and I decide to sell it only to a person who gets it and is really excited about it.
You work with the same performers time and again, bringing them up from cameos to starring roles and screenwriting. How did you develop that approach?
I guess it was because I was friends with a lot of people who became comedy stars and I saw how difficult the struggle is to be given the chance to be the lead in a movie. Adam Sandler had to write a movie for himself and that’s how he became a movie star, he wrote “Billy Madison.” And Jim Carrey wrote “Ace Ventura.” So I encourage the people that I think are funny to write themselves into the process. Seth Rogen wrote “Superbad,” and Jason Segel wrote (next month’s) “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” And that becomes an avenue for them to create a project that is tailored to what their talent is.
You also work frequently with your wife, Leslie Mann, who is the female lead in “Drillbit Taylor,” and you cast your own children as the kids in “Knocked Up.” Are there any disadvantages to working with your family?
A Leslie and I met on the set of “The Cable Guy,” which I produced and she was the lead of, so that worked out. We had a blast on “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” and when it was time to do “Knocked Up” I was trying to write a story that was more personal. I thought it would be interesting to have Leslie’s children played by my kids so it would feel more like a real family. It gives it some authenticity. It would have been awful if it had been terrible and the world said they hated my family. That could have caused problems. So we seem to have walked through that minefield OK, and I’ll keep doing it until something goes terribly awry.
What about having your wife kissing all these other guys?
I can’t say I enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy having her kissing Owen Wilson. I left early that day.
There seems to be a strong thread of family values running through your work.
I think movies should have something positive to say, that’s why I make them. I start with that idea, I rarely start with a comedic premise and then try to figure out how to add emotion to it. I start with an emotional idea and hang the jokes on that. So usually there’s something that I’m trying to say that hopefully connects with people. The pictures are about the big subjects, romance and finding someone to connect with and marriage and the difficulties of having a family and trying to work. I like the big themes. And I have no imagination, so I’m not going to write about Eskimos or fairies or goblins. I can’t really see much farther than my immediate world. That’s why I shoot all my movies within 15 minutes of my house. I don’t even know how people live in Minnesota. I wouldn’t dare try to fake that.