“I love when people have a great story,” Judd Apatow tells me over the phone in mid-May. For the past three decades, Apatow has dedicated his career to helping turn his collaborators’ (and his own) lived experiences into comedy. Much of his work, including Freaks and Geeks, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, This Is 40, and Trainwreck, is biographical, sometimes autobiographical. It often feels as if a surgeon (played by Ken Jeong, of course) has sliced open his chest and laid his heart bare. “Maybe in a parallel universe I should be writing these things from scratch,” he says. “But I just don’t seem to work that way most of the time.”
The King of Staten Island, which will be released on VOD on June 12, might be Apatow’s most personal movie yet—even though it’s the one that draws least from his own personal history. Cowritten by and starring 26-year-old Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson, the semi-autobiographical tale (for Davidson, that is) follows Scott, a likeably difficult outer-borough kid whose grief over the death of his firefighter dad leads to arrested development. He’s the center of his family’s world, even if his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei); potential stepfather, Ray (Bill Burr); and sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), are constantly vacillating between being worried sick about him and wanting to kill him.
The film doesn’t exactly mirror Davidson’s life, but its story clearly belongs to him. His father, also named Scott, was a firefighter with Ladder Company 118 of Brooklyn Heights who died in the line of duty on September 11, 2001. Davidson has long spoken frankly about his dad’s death. And over the past few years, he’s also been open about his depression, borderline personality disorder, and Crohn’s disease. His character faces similar issues but lacks his real-life counterpart’s direction. He’s “the version of Pete who never found comedy,” is how Apatow puts it.
There are some laughs and plenty of improv-generated banter that’s long been a trademark of the Apatow oeuvre, but for the director, The King of Staten Island is a departure. While developing it, he was far less focused on making the audience crack up than usual. “I didn’t want you to feel a filmmaker trying to amuse you, ever,” Apatow says. During filming, he often asked himself a question: “How can I make it real and have you feel like you’re seeing something that’s a little bit more documentary in style? That’s hard for me. That requires more discipline than I usually have.”
How did you and Pete Davidson get together to work on this?
Pete was working a lot at the Comedy Cellar, where Amy Schumer performs. And when we were in preproduction on Trainwreck, I asked Amy who her favorite comedians were and she showed me all sorts of people that we wound up using, like Nikki Glaser and Bridget Everett. And one of the people was Pete Davidson. She said, “This guy’s really young and ridiculously funny.”
He was 19 or 20 at the time. I remember I met Adam Sandler for the first time when he was around that age. And he certainly had a lot of that same brash charisma. So we put him in a very small cameo in Trainwreck, mainly to plant our flag and say, “We don’t have a great part for him in this one but we just want you to know we knew he was gonna be one of the greats.” I love when you can spot someone like Richard Dreyfuss in The Graduate and realize that’s their first time on screen in a movie.
The scene was mainly improvised. It was a sequence where Bill Hader is showing Amy’s character around his rehab office, and Pete is there because he has some sort of injury. We probably spent an hour riffing on how he hurt himself. I think we landed on him falling over a bong or something equally as sophisticated. We had such a good time with Pete that the next day Bill called him and said, “I’m gonna recommend you for Saturday Night Live.” To Lorne Michaels. Then, I was at a party, and Lorne was there, and I said, “Oh, you’re gonna see our buddy Pete Davidson. We love him.” And the next thing you know they hired him to be on Saturday Night Live.
Then Pete and I and his friend—a great comedian named Dave Sirus, who he writes with—started talking about different movie ideas. And we spent a couple years on one broad comedy idea and it never really got there, but we got to go through the experience of talking through it, having them write a script. And inevitably it turned into a conversation where we discussed the elephant in the room: Does Pete want to write about all of these issues in his life? We tiptoed into it. And as we figured it out, he became more and more open to sharing these stories from his life. And we started outlining a fictional story that would be able to address some of the real events that had happened—and more importantly, his emotional life. His story is very much about how a child responds to having a parent who makes a great sacrifice for other people, and what does that do to a kid when he’s 7 years old? It changes his life completely.
Did the three of you hole up together to write?
We spent an enormous amount of time outlining the movie and did a lot of research, and I spent time talking to Pete’s mom, Amy. I talked to a bunch of his friends. And I just tried to track every detail of what happened during the course of Pete’s life and how it affected him. And we created this story. In real life, Pete discovered comedy at about 15 years old. And he was actually very ambitious. He worked very hard. But in the movie it’s a character who is lost and is not working hard and is just flailing about, sitting in basements, watching movies, smoking pot; with a dream of maybe trying to be a tattoo artist that he’s clearly not pursuing in a thoughtful, serious manner. So in that respect, the character’s very different from Pete. And so the inciting event of the movie is his sister is leaving for college. And suddenly, Scott is going to be living alone with his mom, and his mom is trying to figure out what the next phase of her life is going to be like, without her daughter in the house. All of that is fabricated. But it’s a way to explore a lot of emotional ideas that Pete told us about.
A lot of your work mines writers’ personal histories. How do you get people to open up?
I was trained by Garry Shandling, who turned his life into television that blurred the lines between what was true and what was fiction. The Larry Sanders Show wasn’t true. To Garry, Larry Sanders was very similar to him and very different than him. He used to say that Larry Sanders couldn’t make The Larry Sanders Show because he had no ability to be honest about who he really was. He didn’t have that distance. And when I was a kid, the movie that really affected me more than most was Diner. I was aware that this was taken from [Barry Levinson’s] life in some respects. I was really drawn to that.
So when we started kicking around [an idea], and we’re aware we’re gonna make up a story using some elements, a lot of the process is a discussion of “What would need to happen to this character for them to grow?” It’s an attempt to create a story that would force someone to evolve. I love self-help, and they always talk about how most people don’t grow unless they hit bottom or something terrible has happened or life has changed in some dramatic way. And so when dealing with someone’s real-life story, often you’re making up that part. Amy Schumer’s father has MS, but in the movie, we talked about how that affected her life and her relationships. And we imagined what would happen if he wasn’t around. How would that affect her choices and her ability to be in a mature relationship? So often, we’re creating moments that force somebody to look at their life and make some hard decisions.
Maybe this is obvious, but was there any discussion about whether to keep the 9/11 part of Pete’s story?
The main reason I didn’t feel like I needed to make the event 9/11 was because 9/11 has affected everybody’s life in the country in a gigantic way. I wanted the story to be about Pete’s personal grief and his family’s grief. If it was 9/11 and his character Scott said he was sad, everyone in the movie would say, “I’m sad, too.” And it’s such an enormous subject that I didn’t feel like a movie like this could handle all of the dimensions of it in the way that you would need to. I also was well aware that the entire audience would know that we are talking about 9/11. You feel it in Pete’s performance and in every aspect of the movie. So ultimately, it wasn’t necessary to make it 9/11 for people to understand that we were exploring that aftermath.
I’m from Boston and while watching the movie I said to myself, “Are they going to address Bill Burr’s accent?” I’m glad you did.
We all admire Bill. Pete met Bill when he was a kid. Him and his mom went to see him perform in Atlantic City and spoke to him briefly the next day near an elevator bank. Bill was somebody that Pete looked up to, who was very kind to him over the years. They became good friends. And so very early in the process, Pete was saying he thought Bill Burr might be perfect for this part. I always feel like if people have a preexisting intimacy there’s a good chance that will lead to some great moments that you might not get if people don’t really care about each other. Bel Powley [who plays Scott’s girlfriend, Kelsey] and Pete were also very good friends. I felt like that gave the movie a sense of deep history that might’ve been more difficult with someone who had never met Pete before.
Bill has so much to offer as an actor. A ton of his work in the movie was created in rehearsals and improvisation—his contribution as a comedic mind and a dramatic mind was enormous. He’s a guy with a very big heart and I knew that his actual love for Pete would seep through, even in the scenes where they’re screaming at each other. That’s why we wanted him in the movie.
What did Marisa Tomei bring to the movie?
She was so creative in her acting and as a collaborator on all the details of her [character’s] life. Marisa designed what her hair would look like and what her clothes would look like. She took it all so seriously and challenged the material in the best way. What would her character’s attitude be toward Pete? What would the attitude be toward Bill Burr’s character? Why would she like him? What is their connection? It reminded me a lot of Holly Hunter when we worked on The Big Sick. I know there are people who write brilliant screenplays and they tell everyone not to change a comma, and a lot of those movies are some of my favorite movies of all time—I just have no idea how to do that. I really need to get in a room with people and have a collaborative, creative situation. I need Marisa Tomei to ask me tough questions. When we saw the movie on the big screen for the first time, the thing we commented on the most was how remarkable Marisa’s performance was. Just seeing her eyes light up in certain moments, we all were knocked out. That’s the only sad part about going straight to video on demand, is people not seeing it that way, because there’s aspects of the performance that benefit from their heads being 10 feet high. Hopefully people will be sitting really close to the TV.
I touched on this a little bit last year, but to me, the movies that lose the most without theatrical releases are comedies.
We tested the movie with 400 people at every screening, and by the end of the process it played the way we wanted it to in terms of where the laughter was and how people reacted to it. But I do think the movie also benefits from an intimate viewing. It is the kind of movie that plays very well when you’re alone and having that experience. When we were editing, I would watch it by myself, and I thought, There’s something about this movie that benefits from that privacy.
Pete seems like a cool customer in a lot of ways, but there are some very intense scenes in this movie. Could you feel him getting more comfortable with that as filming went along?
There were multiple stages. First off, auditions allowed Pete to get comfortable with all of these moments because he was reading with a ton of people. For us, that’s also part of the writing process, to get a feel for how it’s working by hearing it. Then, we did a table read and got to hear the entire film performed. Then we continued to do auditions while also doing very early rehearsals with Bel, Maude, Marisa, and Bill. So by the time we got to the set, we had really worked through all of these moments. And we knew which moments would be the most difficult to shoot. And we tried to know what we were doing. We couldn’t be there on the day [of filming] and be confused. Because I think that’s where it gets scary and painful. This way you know what’s coming. And so we would have very open conversations. “Wow, this is gonna be a very hard scene. And how should we shoot it? What would work best for you so that you’re comfortable doing this?” And we built the production around a sensitivity to what might be hard to relive. And as a result, Pete was able to give a really strong, vulnerable, courageous performance. And all those days turned out to be really good days, but it was because we had worked so hard in prep.
Maybe this is a corny question, but what has it been like for you to collaborate with people on their own stories, like with Amy and now with Pete? These are all personal films, but with your older work, say, Knocked Up and This Is 40, your movies used to be more personal to you.
Some of this might be that I’m just not creative enough, and so I just look for people who have something to work with. It’s just a genre that really interests me. How we take our lives and turn them into semi-fictionalized worlds to discuss things that we’re working through. And at some point you run out of your own version and you ask other people what theirs is.
I know it’s hard to pinpoint these things, but how do you think you’ve progressed, not just with the stories you tell, but as a filmmaker?
A lot of it is choosing your tone. With this film, I thought, “I’m going to make a very conscious attempt to not be as concerned with the comedy as I am with the story and the dramatic aspect.” All these people are fun to watch and many of them are hilarious, but let’s stay focused on why we’re here. And we’ll determine in the edit how funny it should be. I’m not gonna sit there and obsess on the joke while shooting this. I think my attempts in the past to make sure every line of almost every scene is really funny sometimes cost me credibility and authenticity. Because people aren’t that funny in life.
I was lucky enough to work with the cinematographer Robert Elswit, who shot The Night Of, There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, Mission Impossible, The Bourne Legacy ... he really understood how to capture the vibe of Staten Island in a way that made it seem vivid and real. In the past I’ve always been so afraid of missing a joke, and as a result I would often have the cameras not move very much, because what if someone says something hilarious and the camera is on the wrong actor? This time I really trusted him and said, “Do what you do, and I’m not gonna get anal about you being on certain people to capture specific lines. Just follow it the way you think is appropriate.” And then I got into editing and he was never on the wrong person. Not once did I think, “We lost that moment.” It just never happened. His brilliance as a cinematographer and an operator makes so much of the movie work.
It’s a shooting style that feels naturalistic. I always loved the movie The Last Detail by Hal Ashby. There are certain movies that are shot in a way that feel very alive but you’re not aware of the director. You don’t think, “Oh man, cool shot Judd put together there.” I never want you to think that.
Doesn’t Seth Rogen’s character in Funny People have a Last Detail poster?
Yes, he does.
You talk about vulnerability, and obviously that’s one of the hallmarks of your characters. Is that something you can teach, or do you need to innately have that ability?
I think Pete has dealt with life by being an open book. In his comedy, on Saturday Night Live, his personal life. He’s just someone who’s not going to hide anything. He’s going to tell you exactly how he feels. Whether he’s good or bad. He has no secrets. It’s all out on the table. And as an actor, he was very comfortable exposing himself. He might say to me, “Was I good? Did we pull it off?” But he never said, “I regret showing you this side of myself.”
Was there a scene where you remember him doing that?
I really enjoyed directing the scene where Maude is leaving for college and she gifts him the gift the night before, and tries to ask him to go easy on their mom when she’s gone. And they wind up in a big fight. That was a really fun scene to direct, because Maude’s character is the one person who gets to challenge Pete on all of his behavior. And we get a sense of what a drain it was on her, that Pete took all of the oxygen out of the room at the time because he needed to be taken care of more than her. It was a really exciting, fun day because they went to battle. There’s so much love in the scene and concern and guilt—we were trying to say so much in one moment. Like, “I love you, I’m gonna leave. Please try to hold it together and I kind of think you won’t be able to and I still gotta go. And I feel terrible that I’m leaving, but bye.”
Mental health and mental illness are explored in the movie in a very real, intense way. How do you explore that topic without it overshadowing everything else? Was it a trial-and-error type of process?
It was, because we wanted to take it very seriously. We didn’t want there to be easy answers. Those problems don’t suddenly get resolved. We shot an enormous amount of material. We shot many different endings. And we found a lot of it in the choices we made in the editing room. How manic should he be? How depressed should he be? How up and happy should he be? And then we had to decide what the progression was. There’s a moment in the film where Pete says to his mom, “I’m sorry I’ve been so hard to deal with.” And then Pete improvised, “I think it’s always going to be hard.” And that was an important thing to include, and he had a real instinct in the moment that that was the essential line. He feels bad that sometimes he’s difficult. He has an awareness of it, but he’s also self-aware enough to know that it’s not something that is easily solved.
We didn’t want to define it so specifically. And we also didn’t want to resolve it in a simplistic way. Clearly he grows and gets to a better place and hopefully it leads to a much more productive life. He’s accepting more support. He’s made a big breakthrough. And maybe he’s worked through something that makes it a little bit easier to continue to grow, which is true for everybody. We all have events in our lives that become obstacles. We try to make decisions and have healthy relationships and feel solid.