By James Lindorf
Between producing, writing, and directing, Judd Apatow is widely considered a comedy legend. His films range from raunchy sex comedies (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) to a somber tale of discovering true friendship (Funny People). I was lucky enough to be able to talk to him about his latest feature film “The King of Staten Island,” which will hit all major On Demand platforms on June 12th. The film has a star-studded cast, including Pete Davidson, Oscar Winner Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Steve Buscemi, Maude Apatow, and Bel Powley. Scott (Davidson) is trying to adjust to his sister leaving for college, his secret hookup pressuring him for more, and his mom dating a loud mouth firefighter. If that isn’t enough, he is dealing with depression, ADD, and grief related to his father’s death. The movie is a semi-autobiographical telling of Davidson’s own experiences growing up. You can find my review of Apatow’s first fictional film in five years here.
Red Carpet Crash (RCC): How did this movie come into your life initially, and how did you decide to direct versus just producing or writing?
Judd Apatow (JA): Well, I met Pete when he did a cameo in “Trainwreck,” and I knew he was someone wanted to make a movie with. We played around with one premise I gave him that probably wasn’t the best fit, and slowly we seemed to be gravitating towards this area. I wasn’t supposed to be the director I was just developing and writing it with him, and at a certain point I thought, I think I am the right person to do this because I am close to Pete. I knew it was a film that would need a lot of rehearsals and improvisational to get it to be funny and truthful in the right way. A lot of it evolved in those rehearsals and on the set. I tried to hire actors and actresses that were very comfortable in a process like that. A lot of what they do in the movie is based on their personal creative contributions in creating these characters.
(RCC): Do you think it is important for people to know Pete’s story going in because it seems like that could change how you view the film?
JA: It is hard for me to speak on it because I know his story, and I will never have the experience of viewing the film without knowing the background information about Pete. I think that it was important for us to show Pete and his father when the credits start to remind you that it is a tribute to his father. It is also a tribute to his mother, who sacrificed so much to take care of him hats why Pete wanted to make the movie.
(RCC): During filming, what was the most challenging day on set, and do you believe this was a cathartic experience for Pete?
(JA): I do believe it was cathartic for Pete. You know when most of us have issues, we go to therapy and talk about for years and years and years, and sometimes it’s helpful but only to a point. When you put it the filter of creativity and make fiction out of it, you look at it from every character’s point of view it makes easier to see it from new angles and make it more understandable. Hopefully, that releases some of the stuff that might be stuck. I was definitely nervous about making the movie. I didn’t want to put Pete through something that would be painful for him. He was very brave about facing everything directly. The days where we had scenes, we thought were very emotionally we just talked about it weeks in advance. We would sit down, and I would say how do you want to handle this, what do you want it to feel like that day and how can I help you with this. Some of those scenes are very tricky and really involved him opening up. In some ways, they are more documentary than fiction. He allowed himself to be very vulnerable, and I think that’s why his performance is so strong.
(RCC): Pete’s personal connection to the film seem endless; he even got his grandfather to play a part. Why was that important to him?
JA: When Pete was a kid, his mom was a school nurse and an emergency room nurse simultaneously, so Pete sent a lot of time with his grandfather Steven. When Steven was a kid, his dad ran a movie theater way back in the day, and he loves movies. He was the one who would watch old movies with Pete when he was a very young kid. They even started making little short films when Pete was young. A lot of Pete’s love for cinema comes from his grandfather, so it was very meaningful for Pete to have Steven in the movie. The thing that is so exciting is that when we screened it a bunch of times for testing purposes, Pete’s grandfather would get gigantic laughs, and at one screening, even got an applause break. I think that was Pete’s happiest day on set.
(RCC): Because this is more of a drama with comedy in it, which is the opposite of what we normally see from you, did you have to change your directing style?
JA: I think what was probably the most challenging was figuring out how this was going to be funny. I had to figure that out as we went along. Every lead is different in how they are funny, and that is something I learned as I rehearsed and did additions with Pete because he would read with everybody. I slowly got to know him and got a sense of how the scenes would work. He’s not a wordsmith he isn’t someone who talks in funny, witty lines it is very character-driven and very emotional, and that was new and very exciting for me. For me, I thought I want the story to work really well and hope it is funny enough for people.
(RCC): We’ve discussed Pete’s background bringing the film to life, but did Steve Buscemi’s background help convince you to cast him?
JA: We certainly knew that Steve was a firefighter before his acting career took off, and he has stayed very closely aligned to the firefighting community and works with a charity Friends of Firefighters. We did want sooner to be the person who was quietly looking out for Pete and needed a kind soulful firefighter to get certain ideas across about that community, and luckily, we were able to get Steve in the movie. He is a dream he is so funny, and people love him, his acting couldn’t be better, and he is so kind. He does reflect the firefighter community, we met so many people, and they work so hard, and they really are willing to walk into a house on fire to help people. One of the main reasons we wanted to make the movie was we wanted to pay tribute to the people who are willing to take great risks to help others.
(RCC): Was Ray’s character always from Boston, or is that something Bill brought with him?
JA: Well, Bill is from Boston, and it was either go with that or make him get a Staten Island accent. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is say he’s a guy from Boston who got married and moved to Staten Island.
(RCC): What about that mustache, was that all Bill?
JA: Well, firefighters aren’t allowed to have beards because they often have to wear facemasks, but they are allowed to have a mustache. So, a fair amount of firefighters have a big mustache, and Bill was excited to grow a big mustache. I told him to grow a beard and mustache, and when you get to New York, we will start chipping away at it and figure out the best version, and this is what we landed on. I have to say it is even bigger than I imagined.
(RCC): You have a great ensemble cast, but the film features a lot of scenes of just two people talking. Was that by design, or did that evolve on set?
JA: I tend to work that way. I just think people are interesting when they have intimate moments. I like seeing how people try to slowly open up to each other. It is so hard to say certain things to other people; we are all so guarded and afraid we are going to get hurt. I’m sure I gravitate to watching the dance between two people as they move towards difficult subjects. I also think it’s funny because the audience knows what is really happening. It is hard to tell someone you love them; it’s so hard to thank your mom for being there for you. These simple things for some people are the hardest things in the world for others.
DIRECTED BY: Judd Apatow
WRITTEN BY: Judd Apatow & Pete Davidson & Dave Sirus
PRODUCERS: Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Pete Davidson, Michael Bederman, Judah Miller
Pete Davidson – Scott Carlin
Marisa Tomei – Margie Carlin
Bill Burr – Ray Bishop
Bel Powley – Kelsey
Maude Apatow – Claire Carlin
Steve Buscemi – Papa