Geekology 101

Judd Apatow explains himself

That juggling act between high comedy and high drama is one Apatow chalks up to the influence of two of his favorite American filmmakers, James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News) and Cameron Crowe (Say Anything, Fast Times at Ridgemont High). But the relaxed rhythms of Apatow's style and the untidy, lifelike paths taken by his narratives may more readily call to mind the vanguard American cinema of the 1970s — especially the hybrid comedy-dramas of directors like Paul Mazursky, Robert Altman, and Elaine May — and their staunch resistance to obvious heroes or villains, contrived conflicts, and tidy endings.

"I'm trying to tell a story about four nice people who have problems and are trying to figure out how to work them out and how to be good to each other," Apatow says. "The obstacles are their own issues and circumstances. What's interesting, which I hadn't thought about until someone pointed it out to me in an interview, is that there's no antagonist in the movie. Everyone has his or her own eccentricities and struggles, and you should be rooting for all of them. So the structure is very loose, and it does meander. That was the scary thing about making this movie."

In Apatow's office, photos of Warren Zevon, Lenny Bruce, and a few other of his creative heroes adorn the wall behind his desk. On the opposite wall, a bulletin board lined with index cards contains the story outline for Walk Hard, a mock music biopic co-written by Apatow and Kasdan that's scheduled for release at the end of the year. Next to that, a dry-erase marker board contains notes for another project still in the script stage. All told, there are four films on which Apatow is credited as writer, producer, or both currently shooting somewhere in the world, two more about to go before the cameras, and myriad others in various phases of development.

Scan the cast and crew lists of those projects, and you will find many recurring names, including Kasdan, Undeclared and Knocked Up co-star Jason Segel (whose first screenplay, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, is being produced by Apatow), and the team of director Adam McKay and actor Will Ferrell, whose three collaborations (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and the forthcoming Step Brothers) are all Apatow productions.

Not least, there is Knocked Up's Rogen, who was discovered by Apatow during the Freaks and Geeks casting process and who is (together with writing partner Evan Goldberg) the author of two forthcoming Apatow-produced films: the semiautobiographical last-night-of-high-school comedy Superbad (which opens August 17) and The Pineapple Express, which Apatow describes as "a big pothead action movie." Knocked Up marks the first starring role for the cherubic, curly-haired, 25-year-old Vancouver native, whose personality, Apatow says, strongly influenced the development of the script.

"It is based on how Seth lives," Apatow notes of the frat-house-like residence inhabited by Rogen's Knocked Up character, Ben Stone, and his coterie of porn-obsessed, film-geek roommates. "Some people who see the film say, 'People don't live like that. People don't talk like that.' And I always say, 'Go to Seth's house. It's happening right now.'"

That extends to the film's laissez-faire depiction of drug use and alcohol consumption — a subject about which Apatow has mixed feelings. He himself is strongly anti-drug, he says, "but at the same time, as a filmmaker, I just need to show things exactly as they are. I hope, on some level, I'm indicating to the audience, "You probably shouldn't do this," that you can't be the high guy when the earthquake happens and you have to figure out how to shut off the gas.

Apatow's yen for reality even led him to cast some of Rogen's real-life friends — up-and-coming comics all — as Ben's onscreen cohorts. He then allowed them to riff off one another, as in the film's soon-to-be-immortal discussion of the coolness value of Steven Spielberg's Munich.

Collectively, they are anything but conventional movie stars: short and fat or tall and skinny, with bad hair, skin, and fashion sense, and a terminal awkwardness around women. They are the kind of actors who usually appear in movies as the goofy sideshow rather than the main attraction, and who rarely ever get the girl. But in Apatow land, it's the suave, perfectly coifed matinee idol who would seem out of his element.

"When we were making Knocked Up," Apatow says, "there were all sorts of debates about whether or not it's believable that Seth could get this woman, which I always thought were funny debates, because I believe that if you're funny and reasonably intelligent, there's no one really out of your range. But certain people are like, 'This could not happen!' They project their own issues onto it."

Still, despite his growing empire and his bloodhound's nose for fresh comic talent, Apatow is quick to downplay his status as the paterfamilias of contemporary screen comedy. "I'm a fan of comedy, and I try to work with people who I admire," he says. "As a result, I have connections and working relationships with a lot of people who hopefully are good at what they do, because I would hope that I don't have crappy taste. No one's really relying on me so much as I'm relying on them. I'm lucky to have Seth as the star of a movie, because I know he can do it. Even if the town doesn't know it, in my head I'm working with Steve Martin."

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