Judd Apatow is standing alone in the corner of the press room at Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel, eating pizza, ostensibly avoiding the roving eyes of nearby reporters who’ve come to interview the stars of his newest movie, Trainwreck. He’s just left the Art Institute, where he participated in a live Q&A about his new book, Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy, and about the new film, which was written by and stars fast-rising comedian Amy Schumer and marks the first movie that Apatow’s directed but didn’t write. Fittingly, he looks happy but exhausted — he’ll perform a standup show with the cast of Trainwreck later in the evening1 — and it seems as if this slice of pizza is incredibly essential to his well-being.
Apatow recently started performing standup comedy again, and the experience is what led to the Trainwreck tour. As he he told the Chicago Reader, "I was watching Amy [Schumer] do so much stand-up that I got jealous. I hadn't done it in a serious way since 1992. I said to her, 'Give me some premises for jokes, and I'll write the jokes. And then when we get to New York to shoot the movie, I'll get up onstage.' Every day her and her sister Kim would send me ideas—like, 'What if you had boys instead of girls?'—and I'd write jokes, and then when we went to New York I got up at the Comedy Cellar and it went all right the first time—they were very nice to me at the Comedy Cellar. So every day after work I would go up and do stand-up—I just felt like it woke up my brain. It's important to talk directly to the crowd and get a feel for what people are thinking and what they think is funny. It helps me as a director in some way. During the shoot we talked about how many comedians there were in the movie and it would be fun to do a Trainwreck tour."
I approach him anyway, and to my surprise, rather than politely brushing me off and returning to his slice, he almost immediately asks if I’d like to interview him. I tell him I’d love to, and start to explain that I don’t have any questions prepared, but he stops me mid-sentence. "That’s journalism," he says, laughing. When Judd Apatow — the man behind the likes of The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, This Is 40, Freaks and Geeks, and Lindsay Weir’s army jacket — expounds on the nature of things, you listen. So what follows is our conversation about why he believed in Schumer so deeply, whether he thinks the criticism of his female characters is warranted, and what he’s writing next.
Rachel Handler: Trainwreck is the first movie you’ve ever directed that you didn’t also write. Why this movie? Why Amy Schumer?
Judd Apatow: I heard her on Howard Stern, and she was talking about her dad a lot, who has multiple sclerosis, and what she was saying was really painful, but it was also really honest and warm and funny. She was also talking about her relationships, and the problems she was having sustaining healthy ones. I was in my car, and I didn't know her standup at all. Maybe I’d seen her on a commercial for a roast. I really wasn't familiar, and then I just sat in that parking lot [listening] for 45 minutes. I didn't get out of the car. I thought, "Oh, these are definitely movies."2 So I asked her to come in, and we started kicking around ideas, and that led to Trainwreck. But I haven't had that experience with anyone else where listening to them talk made me think, "Oh, this is a natural storyteller."
Listen to a clip of Apatow relaying this same story to Stern, as well as a clip of the interview with Schumer that Apatow's referring to, here.
RH: When I spoke to Amy, she said she initially had a completely different idea for a movie, and you came in and guided her, helped her come up with a new concept. How would you characterize what you changed about the project and the script?
JA: Well, we developed another idea first that was a little more of a high-concept comedy, and then when she handed it in, it was really funny and there were certain elements that were more realistic. So I told her, "You know, I think you should start over and do something that's more personal."3 We just had a really long talk about her dating life, and I just said, "Why do you think you don't have a boyfriend right now? What goes wrong when you are in a relationship? If you have a breakup, why do you have a breakup? What happens?" It was almost like a therapy session, and then I said, "If you met the right guy, what do you think he'd be like? What do you think would happen if you met him, do you think you could handle it? Would you screw things up and sabotage it?" And those discussions led to outlining this story.
Here's Schumer's recollection of the process: "Judd was like, 'What would people want to see from an Amy Schumer movie?' so I didn’t make some completely dreary Sundance-type thing. But I wasn’t really worried about representing my stand-up character so much—that’s in there, all of that’s a part of me—but it’s a lot of me in the movie. I unfortunately don’t have as much sex as her or drink and abuse substances… I do it, but not as much. But that struggle of getting yourself somewhere where you can accept love—where you’re like, 'I am lovable, I deserve to have somebody love me, if I want them in return.' It was also just what worked for the movie ... and so it was a compromise of straight-up from my life, and then also just some stuff that was like, 'Well, we are making a Hollywood movie.'" ("Amy Schumer Does Not Need Your Approval," Complex, July 2015)
RH: When talking to Amy about Trainwreck, particularly its ending, and how traditional it is for a rom-com, she said you encouraged her to make that happen, rather than subvert the genre or surprise the audience. Why?
JA: I think that all movies have one of the same few endings. They can have a really dark, David Lynch ending. They can have a really sad ending that we learn from, or an absurd ending, or a hopeful ending. I always think these movies are about hope — especially movies about love and romance. You're either going to try to figure it out or you're going to run away crying. The run-away-crying end is usually not appropriate in this situation. [laughs] … It happens [that movies end sadly but still work]. I love Terms of Endearment, and Terms of Endearment — in a weird way — is a happy ending, but it also ends with the death of these kids' mother. And now Shirley MacLaine is going to raise them, and that seems like the worst possible outcome, yet you're very happy about it so it's a magical, truthful story. But, you know, in life you do have great moments, and you don't know what's going to happen the next day. It doesn't mean the road isn't bumpy afterward, but you have moments of great elation where everything seems like it might work out. You deal with the good and the bad as it comes. It's just as easy to do the dark ending as a happy ending. That's the secret no one realizes. [laughs] You shoot someone in the head at the end of a movie, and everyone says you're daring, but it's not that innovative.
RH: You were recently profiled by LA Weekly, and you talked about worrying that you were "out of ideas" after telling stories about "high school, college, people who just got out of college, getting married, kids, being a comedian, sickness, death, financial problems, long-term relationships." The writer you spoke to, Amy Nicholson, suggests that this is why you’re "letting other people speak" — like Schumer, for the moment.4 What do you think is next for you in terms of your own writing, when you do find a new idea?
Nicholson wrote, "Initially Apatow just wanted to guide Schumer through the process of getting her first film made. He wasn't planning to direct Trainwreck himself. He's never directed anyone else's script. Yet slowly he realized that, unlike Bridesmaids and Superbad, he didn't want to hand over Schumer's story to another director. That is, if Schumer was game."
JA: Well, I've been writing with Phil Klay, who is this great writer who won a National Book Award for this book of short stories called Redeployment, so we're developing a script together. I have a bunch of ideas that I'm kicking around. I usually target a time frame. I'll say, "Okay, I’m going to shoot a movie fall 2016." And then, almost like a TV show that knows we need to shoot another episode, I will use that as the fire under my ass to get going. That's my hope, to shoot in the fall of 2016.
RH: The Freaks and Geeks movie?
JA: Yes, exactly. The Freaks and Geeks movie, which now I can't afford anybody for. [laughs]5
Fans of the cult TV show, which was canceled in 2000 after a single season on NBC, have long hoped for a reunion of sort, in either movie or reboot form. The "unaffordable" cast Apatow is referring to includes James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, Martin Starr, and Busy Phillips, among others, many of whom launched their careers on the show.
RH: You’ve been criticized in the past for underserving your female protagonists.6 Is that something you're aware of? Do you think about it, or did you think about it when making Trainwreck? Is it something that bothers or concerns you?
Apatow's treatment of his female characters was at one time the subject of much debate. Former collaborator Mike White publicly expressed discomfort with some of Apatow's comedy as it pertains to women and gay men, while Katherine Heigl, who starred in Knocked Up, famously labeled that film as "a little sexist." However, Apatow also has many defenders.
JA: It was never a criticism that felt valid to me. I started in this industry writing for Roseanne Barr. I used to write her standup act with her. I always felt that Freaks And Geeks was about Lindsay. The fact that I made The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I didn't think about it like, "We're underserving women." It was just a story about a guy who was a virgin. In that movie, Elizabeth Banks was riotously funny, Jane Lynch, Leslie [Mann], my wife — I felt like it was a great showcase for a lot of funny people. Knocked Up and This Is 40 were about couples, and were hopefully honest portrayals of couples trying to make it work. I always felt like there were a few people who said it, but then it kind of hit an echo chamber and bounced around. I mean, clearly, I’m a guy, so I will lean on the male perspective most of the time because it's hard for me to say I completely understand women. I will do better when I’m in a full collaboration with brilliant women like Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, or Lena Dunham, or Amy. If anything, I’ve realized, "Oh, that's the way to do it." You collaborate with other people who have strong visions.
RH: What do you think it is about Amy that's so resonant at this particular cultural moment?
JA: I keep thinking that she's a little bit of a George Carlin–type character. I think there's a lot of things that women should be very upset about, and it's great to have a raucously hysterical person to say, "This is bullshit." Unlike other people, there's no bitterness in it. She never loses her sense of humor. The comedy always comes first, but she's making points that really need to be made. It's hard to do great comedy about rape culture, but someone should do it. It takes a genius to engage people to say, "Isn't this crazy that we don't care more about this?" She comes at it, and she's attacked so many subjects that have been neglected. The reason why she can do it is because she's incredibly smart, she has great positions, she is insanely funny, and she can do it all at the same time. Someone else hasn't done that before, or hasn't been given the opportunity to do it before. That wasn't the style of other [comedians]. We only had one George Carlin, but in addition, she's doing things that George Carlin didn't do. She wrote an incredibly vulnerable, honest movie about relationships and family that's also super funny. But it goes deep, and it's very insightful.
RH: You and Amy both have very strong perspectives and voices. Were there ever any moments of discord on the set, any sticking points that you couldn't get past, or things that you had to compromise on?
JA: There's always moments where you're debating certain jokes — more so in the edit than on set, though. On set, I’d say, "Let's just shoot all of it." I’d pitch a joke, and she’d be like, "I don't like that one." And I’d be like, "What have you got?" Then we’d shoot hers. And in editing, we showed it to an audience, and the vast majority of the time, the audience will tell you [what’s working] both because they're laughing but also because sometimes you feel they're not getting the point that you want them to get. So we didn't have anything too bad [on set], but we’re also shortening the movie [in the edit], so you have to lose jokes that you like. There's plenty of debates about what should disappear to get to time.
RH: How is your own process different when you're directing a movie that someone else wrote versus your own?
JA: When I'm directing, I really feel like I can throw everything out at every moment. I don't respect my own writing. I get the actors there, we do the scene, and then I think, "Okay, I’ve got everyone here on this set. What else could they talk about?" It feels a little bit more like a documentary, and I actually enjoy a sloppier style. I like it to be a little more in a Hal Ashby or Robert Altman–influenced shooting style. But when I'm directing Amy's script, the most important thing is that I'm executing Amy's vision, so I'm trying to enhance it. And I’m trying to challenge her, but I’m always trying to do what she wants us to do so I'm not tossing everybody around.
Trainwreck is in theaters now.