Judd Apatow On How Leslie Mann Saved ‘The King Of Staten Island’

Earlier this year Judd Apatow was on Conan O’Brien’s podcast, sometime before the middle of March – I know this because I remember listening to it on the Q train and it’s been a considerable amount of time since I’ve been on the New York City subway – and when the subject of The King of Staten Island was brought up, he sounded fraught. Actually, that’s not entirely true, since O’Brien merely asked, “how are you,” (granted, a more and more difficult question to answer every day) before Apatow launched into an answer about how frustrated he was working on post-production of his new movie. I remember thinking to myself, while listening on the Q train, oh, that doesn’t sound good.

In retrospect, this makes a lot more sense. The King of Staten Island, which is getting great reviews, seems like a movie where everything has to be meticulous to work. (And it does work.) And when Apatow was talking to O’Brien, he was in the editing process and couldn’t quite get the opening scene right. It was Leslie Mann who suggested moving a scene of Pete Davidson’s Scott, obviously distraught, probably under the influence, driving along, not noticing the accident just up ahead. It’s a terrific opening scene and tells us everything we need to know about Scott. But, as Apatow says, he was being “bullheaded” and didn’t take this advice for months. It was only after he moved the scene that it all come together.

The King of Staten Island is loosely based on the life of Pete Davidson, who plays Scott, but with some major differences. As Apatow explains ahead, throwing 9/11 into this movie was just too much of a shared grief and would take away from Scott’s (and Davidson’s) personal grief. So Scott’s firefighter father dies in 2004, as Scott, now in his 20s, just kind of drifts aimlessly through life. But, as Apatow says, The King of Staten Island, at its heart, is a love story between Scott and Bill Burr’s Ray, the firefighter love interest of Scott’s mother (played by Marisa Tomei). It’s a deceptively sweet film that, as Apatow admits, still has at least one scene that makes him tear up every time.

Judd Apatow: How are you?

I keep catching myself saying “good,” but I wish I could just say “bad” and not have to offer an explanation. If you say “good” people don’t ask why.

Yeah, I know. It’s all new territory.

I’m sure it has to be weird for you right now doing press for a movie.

Yeah. It’s unprecedented times.

How are you holding up on the press tour? I’m assuming it’s a bit weird.

When our release date was canceled, I decided not to put any energy into worrying about when the movie would come out. There are more important things happening and I figured it would get figured out at some point. And then we decided that we would put it out on video on demand, which I was excited about because I thought this movie makes people happy. It’s also about first responders: firemen and nurses and trauma and grief, and it might help people process some of what’s going on around them. And I adjusted to the idea that we would have it come out on June 12th … and then the world changed again with everything that’s occurring right now. Obviously, it’s not important in the grand scheme of things, so I’m just doing my best to try to be positive during a really difficult time. I always feel like nothing will get better in the world, unless we all realize that we’re in this together. And whenever people try to separate people, it only leads to bad things. And it’s a Buddhist idea that we all need to get over the illusion of separateness.

It is a surprisingly emotional movie about firefighters.

Well, firefighters are very special people and we spent a lot of time with them over the last few years. The movie is a tribute to people who are willing to take those types of risks to help other people. And now with what’s happening with COVID, we see that there are people in many professions who put themselves in harm’s way to help others. That’s part of why I wanted the movie to come out, because it is a way of acknowledging that.

There’s a really poignant moment in the film when Bill Burr’s character goes into a burning building. I teared up during that.

I do every time. It’s easy to go through life and not fully pay attention to the people around you who have your back.

You were on Conan O’Brien’s podcast, maybe three months ago? I remember listening when I was on the subway, which feels like forever ago. And when you mentioned this movie you sounded fraught. You were fraught about something involved with editing the movie. Was this a particularly stressful edit?

Oh, I was having trouble figuring something out with the movie. I had the order of scenes and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it and I was getting very frustrated. So I went on Conan’s podcast and I just leaned into expressing to him what it feels like when things aren’t going well creatively. What was actually happening was there was a scene in the movie, which currently opens the movie, which I had 20 minutes into the movie. And for three months, my wife, Leslie, had been telling me that scene was in the wrong place and it should be the opening scene of the movie. And because I was so married to this progression we had thought of, I kept resisting her perfect note. And then when I finally tried it, it fixed the entire first half.

That opening scene is great.

Well, I was being bullheaded and saying, “You don’t understand what we’re doing here.” But I was completely wrong for months.

In the movie, Pete’s character’s father dies in 2004. I get this is loosely based on Pete’s life, but where is the line for you where that begins and ends? Why the differences at all?

Well, we were trying to come up with a story that would allow us to explore all the emotional terrain that Pete’s dealt with. And what we all came up with was the idea of his mom dating another fireman and how that would force him to confront everything which he hadn’t gotten over yet. We very quickly decided that 9/11 is too big a subject to fit into a movie like this. It’s a trauma that the entire world shares and we wanted this movie to be about his personal grief. But, at the same time, we were aware that when people watch the movie they will know, on some level, that it is about what Pete went through. So we came up with a fictional story that we hope is emotionally truthful. Nothing in the movie happened, but in a way it’s very honest.

Did you happen to see Bill Burr in The Mandalorian?

I didn’t, but I heard about it. I heard he was amazing in it.

I feel like he hit a new level with The Mandalorian, now every Star Wars fan knows him. That must be nice, considering he’s such a big part of your film.

I mean, I’ve seen him acting in Breaking Bad. He’s in the movie about Gary Hart. His voice work is incredible on the TV show that he makes, F is for Family. But I thought this movie was a great opportunity to show all sorts of different dimensions of Bill. People know him as this hilarious, opinionated guy. But he also has a big heart and a soft spot and a soft side. And in the role of Ray, we get to see all of that because the movie is, at its core, a love story between a young man and someone who might become his stepfather. I mean, it’s really fun to work with someone who’s had so much life experiences, so funny and talented, but hasn’t had a big lead part like this before.

He’s very good.

He had so much to offer and was a big part of the writing process with us. He helped create that character. So many of the great lines of the film, he came up with. And that’s how I like to work, a giant collaboration.

And I want to ask about one specific scene, because it’s a lot different than the rest of the movie. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a scene where Scott and his friends rob a drug store and there’s a shootout. Where did that come from?

I mean, the inspiration for it was the fact that Pete said there was a moment growing up in Staten Island where he felt like people were beginning to get in more trouble. And we wanted to show that this character was really lost and not having many options. There was the possibility that he might make some terrible choices and rob a pharmacy, thinking it would be really easy, but having it turn into a bit of a disaster. The person he robbed is Robert Smigel!

Oh yeah. I know. I was very happy when he showed up.

He was in This is 40 and was so funny.

I really liked Pete in Big Time Adolescence

Oh, yeah! He’s fantastic in that movie.

I know you worked with him in Trainwreck for a little bit, but how was he as an actor? In terms of directing him. I know he doesn’t have a lot of experience, but he does seem pretty natural…

Yeah. I mean, he’s a real natural actor and he’s very present. We did a bunch of table reads and a lot of rehearsing with a ton of improvisation, so by the time we got to the set we had worked on the scenes a lot and felt good about what we were trying to do. But as an actor, Pete’s right there. It’s like the moment is happening. He’s not someone who has notes on his script saying, “talk louder here. Feel sadder here.” He just throws himself into it and lives the scene in a way that’s very exciting and sometimes hilarious to watch.

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