Judd Apatow, in a Dallas Hotel, Talking This is 40, Long Movies and the Value of Aimlessness

Judd Apatow with his wife, Leslie Mann, who stars in This is 40.
Judd Apatow with his wife, Leslie Mann, who stars in This is 40.
Universal Pictures

A couple weeks back we told you that comedy rainmaker Judd Apatow was in Dallas to promote his fourth directorial effort, This is 40, a sort-of spin-off of 2007's Knocked Up. As part of that press tour, Apatow -- who also directed 40-Year-Old Virgin and Funny People -- spent one morning at the Ritz Hotel, shuffling between interviews with local journalists, including this local journalist.

That interview follows. It's been edited and condensed to make me seem slightly less dumb than I sounded on the tape.

Me: I really liked the movie. It's kind of ... raw.

Him: It definitely is. I like that. I feel like movies smooth out the edges of life and of relationships. Leslie [Mann, his wife and the film's star] is always frustrated by the fact that movies always make couple scenes so happy or make problems so easy to solve.

See also: Judd Apatow Went to NorthPark Last Night, to Greet His Fans and Talk This is 40

When you're married, you're projecting all your issues out onto the other person, and it's annoying having someone point out what's wrong with you, and they're usually right, which is even more annoying.

And it takes you 12 hours to figure that out, at least.

It gets edgy, it gets rough. Sometimes people say, "Oh, you make the women so tough or bitchy." I just think that people've been trained to have people be so mellow in movies. When you show reality, it's shocking.

People get mad and they scream at each other, say mean things and curse each other out. Sometimes it's sad, sometimes it's hysterical. People at their worst are entertaining. No one wants to watch a movie about people who just get along.

I had a great time making Funny People. I just wanted to do something that was painfully truthful. I thought it was interesting to talk about mortality through the eyes of somebody who spends his life trying to make somebody laugh. It's naturally funny because how people like Adam [Sandler] and Seth [Rogen] can communicate is through humor all the time no matter how bad the situation.

Funny People was about someone that is really resisting change, and even when lessons are presented to him because he thinks he's going to die, he still can't accept those lessons. That's how deep his wound is. This is a much more hopeful movie because it is about commitment and about the work it takes to be there for another person for the long haul. It's inherently more optimistic. They're trying to do better the whole movie. But all of their histories and ghosts and communication issues get in the way. But It's fun to watch them try. You're happy they're trying.

I wanted Pete and Debbie to be equally right and wrong. I didn't want anybody to leave the movie thinking that one person was more right than the other.

The end is sad. For me, anyway.

I think people project their own sense of relationships onto these movies. Some people saw Knocked Up and thought it was a happy ending. Other people thought, "Oh, they're going to break up tomorrow." It really depends on your own mood and what phase in your own life you're in. I see the end of the movie as being hopeful, but it's still going to be hard.

We're rooting for them to let go of all the pressure they feel to clean up life's messes.

It has a subtly Buddhist idea, which is non-attachment. Sometimes you have to stop trying so hard in order to be happy. You can't always be trying to fix things. You have to accept things as they are. That's the hardest lesson there is to learn.

Sometimes one of my daughters will say, "Are you guys fighting? Stop fighting." We'll say, "Imagine you have to spend every second of the day for the rest of your life with your best friend. Wouldn't they start driving you crazy at some point?" Every once in a while you'd have to get into a fight. It doesn't mean anything's going wrong.

You still want to be friends.

You just have to let out some steam.

When we sat down to screen the movie, the publicist very nicely said, "Okay, we're going to start it now. It runs about two-fifteen, so we'll be out of here at whatever time." The critic behind me said, "Two-fifteen? For a comedy?"


Whatever it is. The publicist very sweetly said, "Oh well, you know, it's a lot of laughs." The woman said, "I'll be laughing at the run time."


Which, look: She should get a different job. But it does --

How was she at the end?

I didn't really notice. But you're up against that, aren't you? Not the length, but the fact that you're making populist comedies that break some conventions.

We always debate how long the movie should be. The truth is, in order to show complex characters, you need an extra 15 or 20 minutes. I'll always do a shortcut in the movie to see what I lose by shortening it. It always ruins the movie.

I never really understand why people are willing to watch a Harry Potter or The Hobbit at close to three hours but to have a two hour and five or 15-minute drama with a lot of comedy is weird. People don't want to laugh for that long? There's a limit to how much happiness they want to have?

Sometimes I'll watch the movie and I'll think, "If I could have done everything I did in this but somehow it was an hour and a half, that would've been a great thing." I actually can't do it. The things that people like about the movies are results of the length. Bridesmaids is two hours and five minutes. None of our movies are 89-minute comedies.

And movies honestly are expensive. It's a pain in the ass to get to the movie theater. That's why people are watching Netflix at home. As long as you've left the house, why are you in such a rush to get home?


Apatow with Paul Rudd, who reprises the role of Pete from Knocked Up.
Apatow with Paul Rudd, who reprises the role of Pete from Knocked Up.
Universal Pictures

People have a certain expectation, though. They see the previews and it's pot jokes and the comedians they love. It's a bit of a bait and switch.

It's always a little deeper than you expect it to be. It was like that with The 40-Year-Old Virgin. It seems like it's just going to be a big, stupid movie but it ultimately it becomes about a guy who falls in love with a woman who's a grandmother, who's a very complicated person. It becomes a relationship film.

Even Freaks and Geeks sounds like it's going to be some dumbass TV show, but it's a really intimate exploration of young people and rejection.

That's always the dance when you do marketing: How can we let people know it's funny but there's more to it? It is difficult sometimes.

There's one scene that made me stop and say: Wow, they went there. About the allure of being the widower and the fantasy of your wife dying.

It was Paul Rudd's idea, so I feel better about it. Paul Rudd said to me, "You know you have to do the scene where they talk about how sometimes they wished their wives were dead." And he said it with such confidence as if every man in the world thinks that all the time. I can't say I've never thought of it.

It's a place that your brain just goes before you know it's there.

I think it's because when you're in a lifelong commitment, there is a tiny part of your brain, even if you're very happy, that wonders what life would be like if you didn't have to be home a certain time every day, if there wasn't a person calling you on everything you do wrong or someone who relies on you. You do have that dream of freedom.

There was really a long version of that scene we shot that's so dark and hilarious that went into great detail. He says, "The key to having your wife die is they have to find the body. You can't have a situation where they don't find the body because then you have to spend the rest of your life looking for the body." Everyone says, "He's not allowed to play golf. He should be looking for his wife."

Sometimes the funniest things are things that people think but no one ever says out loud.

If someone pitched you this -- a movie about American families or about that pressure to fix things, whatever it is -- your reaction would be, "That's a really cool theme to explore but it's not really a story." It's pretty low on concept.

It's meant to be a slice of life. In life, often, there isn't a giant story. You're just trying to get through the day. The day has enough problems to make for an entertaining movie. A lot happens in the movie. There's not a clear goal. There's a subtle goal, which is, "Let's make a list of everything that we're not doing well and try to do better." But then life intrudes and all sorts of crazy things start happening to them.

I like that. I like when movies meander around and you have no idea where it's going. I love Punch Drunk Love because you couldn't predict what was going to happen. For me, that's the key thing in my movies. I don't want you to able to predict what's going to happen. I like when things move in an odd way.

I'm a big fan of John Cassavetes' movies, and that's a very extreme example of it. I like the randomness of life. I'm doing this dance between being entertaining and really funny and emotional and not try to fall into any structure that you've seen before.

But you're dealing with studios and studio money and budgets. They're sort of big on structure, aren't they?

Universal Studios has been very supportive of what I try to do. Part of that is because we've had enough successful movies that they realize that when the risk pays off, people really appreciate an original movie. It is scary because if you fail, you're going to fail big, but if you succeed, you can succeed big.

The audience wants to see something they've never seen before. But as a result of that, the whole time you're making it, you're thinking, I don't know if this is going to work, there's no precedent for it.

You don't have those fence posts that you know they will respond to.

But we can tell when we're testing the movie and editing whether or not it's playing, and the audience always responded to this in a big way.

Now you're done, it's in the can, it's coming out in two weeks, but it's not out. You don't have anything like hard evidence that it's being successful, but you're getting a ton of feedback. That seems like it would suck.

I finished the movie at the end of May. It's seven months from the time I finished the movie to its release. It is like telling a joke and waiting seven months to see if someone laughs. It's slow water torture.

We're in this funny moment now where we're showing the movie a ton and we're getting our first feedback and it's all been very positive. We have seven or eight reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and we're at 100 percent. As long we get no more reviews, we're at a hundred percent.

What you have to do is say to yourself, "Am I happy with the movie?" There are things that are very popular that people love that I hate, so I can't expect everyone to like it. If I can get two-thirds of the people to like it, it's pretty good.

That's a little bit what the Graham Parker storyline is about. [Parker, the British rocker, plays himself in the movie, peddling a comeback album that no one seems interested in.] It's a great artist who goes his own way. He's not too concerned about what other people think. He's going to sing a song to tell his story, and it's a tragedy that more people don't listen to him because he deserves to be heard. But is something more valuable if millions of people buy it or 10,000 people buy it? Does it lose its importance?

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