Human Comedy: Judd Apatow on Love, LeBron James and ‘Trainwreck’
Judd Apatow calls you personally, and it’s okay if you’re taken aback. Typically these sorts of phone interviews go through an intermediary, a publicist who calls you up and hands the phone over to a professional famous person. But Judd Apatow – the director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and the new comedy Trainwreck – calls you directly from his personal line, even though he’s stuck at home, reclining, nursing a bad back.
It’s a relaxed atmosphere, and even though he must have been pretty uncomfortable physically the filmmaker is very open and conversational about his storytelling process, romance, and working with basketball superstar LeBron James, who plays himself in Trainwreck and may or may not watch Downton Abbey in real life. We spoke about working with Amy Schumer, casting Bill Hader against type, and why none of his films have villains, because people make their own lives hard enough already.
Trainwreck comes to theaters on Friday, July 17.
CraveOnline: Trainwreck seems a lot more structured than a lot of your movies. It’s a romantic comedy, and a lot of your other movies eschew that sort of narrative convention. Was that a challenge for you, or a part of the appeal?
Judd Apatow: I think every story demands its own structural idea. Sometimes I’m working in a more traditional type of structure, other times I like working in a little more of a loose, Robert Altman/John Cassavetes type of structure. It’s dictated by the material so if I’m trying to give you a sense of what the comedy world feels like, I’m attempting to give you a peak into something that has its own rhythms, and that’s different than a romantic comedy type of structure.
What sort of conversations did you have with Amy Schumer about the kind of movie Trainwreck would be, and what it’s trying to do with the genre?
You know, we didn’t think about it in those terms. We really just talked about the story itself. It started with a conversation about Amy’s relationship and we just sat down and said, “How is it going? What’s going well, what’s going badly? When they fall apart why do they fall apart? What mistakes do you think you’re making? What’s your baggage? What would you do if you met a great guy, could you handle it? Would you screw it up?” That was the root of how Amy started outlining this story. We just followed the story where it went, to serve it, and she started outlined and we sat around and started doing drafts and it evolved into Trainwreck.
It sounds like those early talks or meetings were a lot like a therapy session. Is that how they played out?
Yes, definitely, because I think a lot of the time people don’t think that deeply about some of those issues, and writing is a great way to get to know yourself. Sometimes I think old dictum is true: you write about something to learn about why you’re writing about it. It’s always best to write about the thing that’s on your mind. It was definitely an opportunity for Amy to explore how she was feeling about her life and her relationships, and her relationships with her family.
She didn’t censor herself. She was very deep and very personal. Even though the movie is completely fabricated – nothing in it has ever happened – you do get a sense of her world and her inner life, and I think that’s what makes it so emotional and also so funny. I mean, Amy is one of those rare people who can tell a story like this and have it touch you and be raucously funny at the same time.
What about what you bring to it? Is there any Judd Apatow experience? What did you learn from making the movie about these situations?
Well I’m always interested in how people get in their own way. That’s why I don’t have any villains in my movies, or nobody’s getting murdered, because I feel like life’s complicated enough just trying to get along with other people, just trying to make your day-to-day work. So I felt very in synch with what she wanted to explore because it’s an area that I find interesting. Human comedy. Just trying to meet someone, trying to drop all your old pain long enough to be present and positive for somebody else.
Garry Shandling used to say that The Larry Sanders Show was about people who love each other, [but] show business gets in the way. You could say that’s true about every story. It’s about people who love each other and what gets in the way.
Well what about you? This might be a personal question, but you seem to be a very successful person in a lot of ways. If the idea of getting your own way fascinates you, how do you get in your own way?
Oh, you know, I’ve always been somebody who has a sort of obsessive-compulsive mind. I’m always thinking, I’m always thinking of what could go wrong. That’s one of the reasons why I’m a good producer, is I’m always thinking too far ahead. But when you do that it takes you out of the moment and that’s not a healthy place to be all the time. So that’s something that I always am trying to work on.
How does that affect you on a set? Do you have to reset yourself mentally in order to get back into a scene, or by that part are you focused enough?
You’re running both programs at the same time. You’re trying to be very present for the actors and you’re listening and you’re trying to interpret whether something is funny or not, whether it’s going well. Am I stealing anything? Is it an emotional scene? But I’m also aware of how much time I have to shoot and what time we go into overtime and when we lose the light. So that’s what’s difficult about being a director, is you’re trying to be creative and there for everybody and you have have to think ahead.
It seems like a lot of your films have scenes where you let the actors go. You let them breathe and explore the scene and come up with their own dialogue and interactions. How do you manipulate that on know when you’re on the right track?
You always know the purpose of the scene, but there’s always a zillion ways to get there. So if Amy wakes up in the morning and realizes she’s slept at someone’s place and trying to figure out where she is, you have the written scene which is very strong, and then you say, okay, while we’re here, before we leave, what else can she say? Is there anything else that would be funny? Are there any other options that we might want to consider for when we get to the editing room and screening this for people?
So I always feel like it’s good to make the screenplay great but you always want to be open to new inspirations, because sometimes you see a scene differently when you get to the set. You’re like, “Oh, it looks like this?” You could write a scene of Bill [Hader] talking to LeBron [James], but until LeBron’s sitting at that table across from Bill you don’t really know what it feels like, and so you want to be open to new thoughts in that moment.
Is that where the idea of LeBron suggesting they split a check comes from?
Well, the idea was always there that LeBron was cheap and that he was obsessed with having an equal relationship with his best friend. We knew that was funny. LeBron isn’t cheap but we know that was a bizarre detail to him. [Laughs.]
So Amy wrote a hilarious scene, but when they goof around with it, it was fun to see what LeBron would do with that. And then Amy would pitch some new jokes as she observed how it was going, and we found out that LeBron is a great improvisor in addition to being a really strong actor. He was able to play and a lot of great stuff came out of that.
Was it always LeBron James in the script, or was there a note saying, “If we can’t get LeBron we’ll go to Tom Brady” or something?
Amy always says that she wrote LeBron in because he was the only basketball player she had ever heard of. [Laughs.] But she said, “I always thought we would wind up with Larry Bird or something.” He was just the person that we dreamed we would get. Usually you don’t get that person but Bill had worked with him on Saturday Night Live and LeBron was very receptive to hearing our pitch for what we would do, and Bill and I went out and had lunch with him and talked to him about it, and he really got a kick out of the movie and the idea of his character.
The character is nothing like LeBron acts in real life. The only thing that we took from real life was part where he’s a really nice guy, but we thought the idea that he’s somewhat obsessed with his friend’s relationship and was just the greatest friend ever, who also didn’t have any sense that his life doesn’t apply to Bill, that he’s such a big star that he doesn’t realize that people’s lives aren’t like his life. It all worked out great. We had a fantastic week with him.
So LeBron James doesn’t watch Downton Abbey? Is that what you’re saying?
You know what? I didn’t find that out. We asked him to say that but I didn’t ask him if he’d seen it.
I talked to Bill Hader and he said how surprised he was that he was offered the romantic lead. What made you want to go to him for it?
I wanted to go to Bill as a romantic lead because I’ve known Bill for a really long time and I’ve always thought that in addition to the hilarious broader parts he’s done, that he was also a fantastic, grounded actor and a really sweetheart of a person. He’s one of my favorite people and I thought that there was a side to him that he hadn’t gotten to show yet in movies, and as soon as Amy wrote this part I thought, “Oh, this could be Bill.”
But I wanted to make sure it worked so we did a screen test, we had them hang out. I knew it wouldn’t [work] unless they really got a kick out of each other and had some chemistry, and we went out to dinner and hung out a little bit and I thought, “This seems exactly like what I would hope it would be,” and they became fast friends. I think you can tell in the movie.
I’m curious how that dinner and hanging out experience goes when you’re trying to gauge chemistry between actors. Can you tell me a little about what you looked for?
It’s hard to say. You just get a sense that they seem like a couple who would love each other, and you can’t really explain why. You just see two people and you go, “Oh, they seem like the type of couple I would want to watch in a movie and they seem funny with each other.” Their different energies work well for this type of story.
I don’t know what you’re doing after Trainwreck. Do you know what your next film is going to be?
I don’t. As soon as Trainwreck comes out I’m going to think about what to write, or which project to rewrite. I’ve been working on a TV series for Netflix called Love. We’re doing ten episodes of it. I created it with Lesley Arfin who is a writer on Girls and Parks and Recreation, and Paul Rust stars in it with Gillian Jacobs from Community. So that’s where most of my focus is there.