While people may be actively trying to move on from that fastly evaporating memory of that time we all watched Netflix and got really good at faking enthusiasm on a Zoom call, Judd Apatow probably can’t, not when his two most recent projects are so connected to that time, creating a question that the writer and director said he has been asking himself: “Do people need a comedy about this?” The answer is, unsurprisingly nuanced. So too are the projects and their connection to the pandemic.
With The Bubble (which you can stream on Netflix), it’s unavoidable. Commenting on the ways Hollywood trudged along during the shutdown (while also making the film itself in the shutdown), Apatow tells us, ” Everyone I know who has been in bubbles really relates way too much to what’s in the movie.” But there are relationship dynamics and commentary on the studio system that will still resonate no matter your feelings about where we are in the pandemic. To Apatow, this isn’t just a pandemic project, it’s also something that relates to The Larry Sanders Show for its behind-the-scenes focus (in this, Karen Gillan, Keegan Michael Key, Pedro Pascal, David Duchovny, Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann and their daughter Iris Apatow hang around on palatial estate while filming a dinosaur epic)
With his new book, Sicker In The Head, Apatow’s interest in long-form interviews with comedians — something he began doing when he was 15 — continues against the backdrop of the pandemic in that people were more available and perhaps a little more open to going deep into a discussion about their lives when Apatow wrote the book, a sequel to 2015’s Sick In The Head. This all makes for a fantastic set of conversations with the likes of Sam Bee, Hasan Minhaj, Amber Ruffin, David Letterman, and many more.
While culture in the time of COVID, The Bubble, and Apatow’s new book dominate the conversation, there is also a quick bit about his now infamous Oscar night tweet and what it feels like to be a polarizing figure. Here’s Judd Apatow.
This film [and the book, to a lesser extent] have such a deep connection to the pandemic. As you’re watching this unfold over the last half a year where a lot of pop culture is moving away from telling stories rooted in that, does panic set in because the movie is so rooted in the pandemic?
I think I thought about it the entire time and still do. Do people need a comedy about this? What would be the purpose of that comedy? I chose to write about isolation and how the world tries to keep moving forward even though everything has changed. So some of the satire’s about Hollywood, how ego-driven people deal with a shutdown. It’s about studios feeling the need to keep the machine moving even through all of this. I wanted to explore what happens when you take a pause and think about your life. We all talk about the Great Resignation and that’s part of what the movie is about, people whose whole lives are about trying to stay famous and trying to get all of their self-esteem from this business and then suddenly it all drops out from under them. And then they desperately try to keep it going by making this flying dinosaur movie. So it was a silly premise to talk about things that a lot of us are dealing with in our own way, how are we managing this.
You don’t have the budget of a Jurassic World, but how important was it to make this feel not distractingly terrible in terms of the way it looks when you’re showing the dinosaurs?
Well, I wasn’t sure what my budget was going to be. So when I started, I thought, well, maybe you never see the dinosaurs. Maybe you only see these people dressed in tights, the motion capture actors, the Andy Serkis-type people. And then I thought, well, maybe when you see the dinosaurs, it’s always half-finished and it’s like a crappy pencil drawing of dinosaurs or the roughest animation and it’s temp. But then we started talking to the people at Industrial Light and Magic about how we could do it, and we realized it might be really funny if every time you cut to the set, you’re just in the movie and it looks exactly like Jurassic Park and then suddenly something goes wrong and it falls apart and you reveal all the green screens and how shitty the set actually looks. And that forced me to try to understand how to do the highest level special effects.
We worked with Roger Guyette who has worked with J.J. Abrams in a lot of his movies and Star Wars and he was the essential person who taught us how to do it and storyboarded with us. And he actually pitched some of the funniest jokes in those sequences. It’s so much work. There’s like 15 minutes of dinosaur material in the movie, maybe less. It took a thousand meetings to get that right. I don’t know how people do The Avengers and have thousands of people fight thousands of people. To me, it would take 25 years to finish the movie.
You’re not putting yourself up for a Marvel movie gig at any point soon?
I think all roads lead there at some point. It’s like the draft.
I spoke with David Duchovny a few months ago and he mentioned how you and him talked about Garry Shandling and how much you thought about him while you were on set. And he said that you had said that you thought about him every day. Curious what you’re willing to share about how you kind of felt his hand in the process, his influence, and his memory while you were there.
I mean, I was thinking about Garry’s philosophy about the work because he really believed that if you created a fully dimensional human character and got to the core of who they were, it would naturally become funny because we’re all trying to be happy. We’re all trying to get through the day. He believed that everyone wears a mask. We present ourselves to the world the way we want to be seen, but it’s actually not who we are down deep and then we go home and we cry and we’re insecure and we fall apart, but we might present as completely having our shit together. And we see that all the time when people reveal their true selves. And he always said that it’s very rare that people are very direct and honest and real with you.
With a movie like this that’s basically a relative of The Larry Sanders Show (it’s behind the scenes of the making of an action movie, not a talk show), I would think of Garry when I was writing the scenes for every character. David Duchovny is the one who wants the movie to be good and, in his head, he thinks it’s a pro-environmental message and he has great pride in the movie, and he doesn’t think of it as corny. And he’s really willing to fight hard to make it good, even though it probably can never be good. And that’s some of the comedy of it… is that he wants it to be great and it will never be great. And he’s also willing to sacrifice his time with his family and his child to get that done. So he’s lost some sense of what’s important in life, and the ridiculousness of that and the mistakes of that become comedy. That was Garry’s style.
Turning to the book, these are your peers and obviously, you’ve established yourself now many times over, but do you still feel to a certain extent like a fan? Do you still feel like an outsider to a certain extent with any of these?
I always feel like a fan. I mean that’s really the root of everything I do. So when I meet someone like Harry Trevaldwyn, the guy who plays the COVID supervisor in The Bubble and he’s done nothing except put up funny videos on Instagram, there’s a part of me that feels like, “Oh, he’ll be great for the movie and I hope he does a good job.” And there’s another part of me that feels like, “Oh, I just met a new Steve Martin.” And I’m as excited by that as I was when I was 14 years old, and it doesn’t even matter if he ever becomes famous. I just know he’s great. It’s like hearing a new band that you love and sometimes it doesn’t matter if they get successful, it’s just you connect with them.
So that’s the most important part for me is my love of comedy and the people who do it. So I’m intimidated. Sure, I’m not completely relaxed talking to David Letterman because he had such an enormous impact on my life and in the lives of a lot of people in comedy in ways he doesn’t understand because he inspired us to take chances. He showed us what was possible and at certain moments we needed him to anoint us and put us on the show and give us the breaks that led to good things happening.
You talk about discovering a new comedian for the first time, hearing that voice for the first time. How important is it for you, again as you go along in your career, to keep your eyes open and ears open for that new thing as opposed to just sort of playing with your familiar toys and the comics that you know?
Well, I mean you fall in love with things in your life like a band and it does take work to look for something new and to open yourself up to be touched in a new way. I like working with new people because it’s fun to try to crack the code of how they would tell their story, how they would work as a star of a movie. So for a lot of these projects, I’m finding someone that I believe in as a performer and a presence but also someone that has a great story or an interesting inner life that I think will lead to a great film.
So if I meet somebody like Billy Eichner, who just wrote a movie with Nicholas Stoller called Bros for our company, I know he’s hilarious and I’m also interested in what he wants to say on screen and how does he want to develop his persona? It’s the first studio-made gay rom-com. It’ll come out in the fall and it’s been a four-year process of him working with Nick Stoller, writing the script and Nick directing and all of us discussing what a movie like this could be. And that’s very exciting. And part of what is really fun about it is how hard Billy Eichner will work because it’s so important to him. And it was the same way with Pete Davidson and Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham. That moment where people are given that opportunity just leads to so much passionate effort.
You mention Pete. That was one of my favorite interviews from the book that I read. With that and with a lot of these really, when it’s someone that you know, how much of it is your exploring and finding out new information that you didn’t know about their backstory and about their journey and how much it is just trying to help them kind of tell that story in a new way while connecting with them?
Usually, I know some of it and then they go deeper and tell me more. I interviewed Pete extensively for the film. We wanted to do a very extensive interview where we could use pieces of it to create documentaries about the making of the film and about Pete to educate people when the movie came out. And I took that interview and put it into the book. So we tried to go as deep as you could go. And with that interview, I hope that what his childhood experience was could come alive for people. What is the trauma of that experience? How does a young person process it? How does that lead to the choice to become a comedian and a writer and an artist? Because it tunes you into something. You become an observer, you become empathetic to other people, and you have so much in you and you want to find a way to express it. And for Pete, that meant writing comedy, sometimes dark comedy as a way to express himself. And then the film and everything that he does on Saturday Night Live. And a lot of people had difficult childhoods that led to them looking for a way to express it.
Pete is polarizing, I guess you could say. With everything that just went on [with the Oscars and Apatow’s tweet], you may be walking into that space as well where you’re someone who is a polarizing figure to an extent. With the tweet and everything that happened there, what is it like to experience that? And also, when you see some of the criticism over it, is it something you look at constructively?
I think everyone disagrees about everything right now. I don’t think you can state your opinion about anything without losing half the room and that’s an unfortunate part of our discourse right now. So if you say, “I don’t think we should deal with problems by resorting to violence,” oddly a lot of people will speak up and say, “I disagree with you.” And there’s not much you can do with that. You can’t change everybody’s mind. It’s impossible to get everybody on the same page, but I think people should be able to express themselves if they do it in a non-toxic way. And, unfortunately, a lot of what happens when people are debating these things is meant to injure.
‘The Bubble’ is streaming on Netflix and ‘Sicker In The Head’ is available to buy wherever your book-buying is done.