Judd Apatow | Interview

When your film is also your life, Apatow finds, the stakes are that much greater.

Photograph: Suzanne Hanover; Photo illustration: Jamie DiVecchio RamsayJudd Apatow

The only member of Judd Apatow’s immediate family who isn’t in his new movie, This Is 40, is Judd Apatow. The married couple in Knocked Up, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), endure midlife crises in This Is 40, and Apatow and Mann’s daughters, Maude and Iris, reappear as Pete and Debbie’s kids. In a Chicago hotel room, the director-producer discussed the connections between life and art.

“I’m generally thrilled with my life,” you said, “but at the same time Leslie and I often wonder why certain aspects of our life and relationship are not easier.” What are those aspects that the movie explores?
You know, we’re creative people for a reason. [Laughs] We’re very sensitive and in tune, and nothing gets by either of us. It’s like being married to a psychic. Most of your life you’re trying to cover up what you’re thinking and put a good face on things. When you have two people whose whole lives [are] paying attention to the subtext, it makes for much more complicated interactions. That’s usually our biggest complication, is communication.

In This Is 40, you explore that midlife what-if feeling: What if I’d done something else? If not this life, what life do you fantasize having?
I never thought about making movies. I only wanted to be a stand-up comedian. Then I realized I wasn’t interesting enough or charismatic enough to perform in that way, and it evolved into this career, which I love but I’m still adjusting to. You work on a project for multiple years, you’re obsessed on it in an unhealthy way, you want people to appreciate it, and then you slowly wait to see if they like it or not, and you try not to have all of your self-esteem hang in the balance. It’s a strange way to go about your day.

With film it’s a years-long question: Is this all in the service of something?
Is it all working? Is it just one giant ego machine? Or am I doing it because I want to share something personal with the world and connect with people? And the truth is it’s both. But it’s scary. [Laughs] It’s scary to finish this movie in May and wait around for seven months to see if people like it. It’s like telling a joke and waiting seven months to hear if somebody laughs. And when you have succeeded in your career, all it does is create more room for you to be anxious about other things. It doesn’t actually resolve anything.

Or ease the anxiety?
No, it doesn’t ease much anxiety because there’s actually something distracting about the climb and writing your first script and hoping someone appreciates it. That busies your mind. And after you’ve had some success, more space opens in your mind, and then you realize what’s really bothering you, and you have to deal with that. And that is the definition of a midlife crisis. [Laughs]

So what is really bothering you?
Well, I’ve been going to therapy for 20 years trying to figure it out. A deep existential crisis. [Laughs] The same stuff as everybody else.

When The New York Times said you’ll always be associated with the stunted adolescent men of movies like Knocked Up, you said in response, “I’m not that guy anymore.” So who’s the guy you are now with This Is 40?
I’m 44 years old. I’ve written about high school, college. But most of my life isn’t about that transition anymore. So it’s a challenge to explore other periods of your life. I still find nothing funnier than that period. That moment when you have to define yourself and grow up is hysterical because we’re all such a mess in that moment. That’s why there’ll always be a lot of movies and television about 15- to 25-year-olds ’cause it’s when you make the most mistakes.

This Is 40 was inspired by your relationship with your wife, Leslie, who also plays the wife. When work and life intersect, as they do for you, how does that change your life?
A lot of the movie is based on emotional questions that we discuss at home, and it’s an observation of all of our friends. It is a real collaboration in a lot of ways. I’ll be talking about Pete’s point of view, and she’ll be talking about Debbie’s point of view, and we’re having a coded conversation about our own relationship. What I always hope will happen is that in the long term it forces us to confront things, which will make us happier. I don’t know if that’s happening or not. Sometimes I think, Well, if we said this in the movie, we can never say it again in life ’cause then we’re just quoting our movie, so maybe we’ll never have that fight again. And then one of us can say, “You can’t say that! That’s in the movie!” [Laughs]

You’ve joked that she beats you up to make sure you have the proper amount of depth with women. Yet you’ve gotten criticism for just that issue, for having female characters who are foils for men.
Anytime you write something if you’re a man, the reason why women become foils is because you spend most of your life trying to understand women, trying to find someone who will spend their life with you, trying to figure out how to communicate with them, so it’s natural that they become the key figure in your writing, but that doesn’t necessarily make them an equal focus. With this movie, I wanted it to be equally about Pete and Debbie.

Was there a moment when Leslie said, specifically in that gendered sense—
In the gendered sense, it starts from day one, so it’s not as if Leslie says, “You’ve written a script that leans male.” From the very first moment, I say, “I have this idea for a scene progression,” and Leslie will say, “You should have a sequence where you see Debbie get into a dance club and what happens. Once I went to this dance club, and all these hockey players were hitting on us, and it felt really good because as a woman you like to know that people are still attracted to you.” And then suddenly that becomes a giant sequence in the movie.

Casting your kids seems like a difficult thing to negotiate. There’s the question of whether, as minors, they really have a sense of what it means to be in a film based on their family.
Well, I think it’s debatable how healthy it is. I don’t know. I hope it is. I think that the creative life has been very kind to Leslie and I, and they’re clearly really talented people. I find them endlessly funny and amusing. And I wanted to share this experience of filmmaking with them. It doesn’t mean this is what they want to do. They can decide for themselves.

But as kids, are they really deciding?
Well, you’d be surprised. They certainly could’ve said, and they do about so many topics, “I’m not into it. I’m not coming.” But they were very excited about it and loved the process. Before we made the movie, they had terrible sibling rivalry, and they still do, like most kids, but having to perform together really changed their relationship ’cause they had to spend the summer as partners, and ever since, they’ve gotten along much better. That to me is the great triumph of the movie. I was always aware that if the movie was terrible, it would be an awful embarrassment to me and especially to them, so I worked really hard [Laughs] to have them come across well. And that might’ve been a reckless act. I guess there are worse things in the world than kids being in a terrible movie.

As different as the husband and wife are here, they both have selfish dads with second families, and their mothers are absent figures. Your parents were divorced when you were a kid, and you lived with your dad, not your mom.
People always beat up on the moms. All stories are about how moms screw up kids, and they’re very rarely about how dads create problems.

It’s an interesting choice for you to make, as a dad.
Yeah, because I’m thinking about myself and how I treat my kids.

Why did you live with your dad rather than your mom after their divorce?
When I was a kid, I just didn’t want to leave the house, so my mom was moving out, and I just loved my friends and my school, and I said, “I don’t care what you guys do. I’m going to my school. You’re not gonna change my everyday world.”

Speaking of dads’ influence on their kids, Maude recently tweeted, “I don’t think my dad wants to talk to me because every time I’m in the car with him he turns on NPR.”
[Laughs] Well, sometimes I put it on because I want her to listen to NPR. Also, there’s a lot going on in Israel [Laughs] that I was trying to stay up on. Like our entire family, she finds a way to express something that I think most kids would never say out loud, and as a result of that, next time I’m in the car I wouldn’t put on NPR unless she wanted to listen to it. I would never say that to my parents. There’s no scenario where I would have the courage as a child to speak up for my own emotional life.

She’s also speaking it to the world. And here’s this reporter asking you about it two days later.
Yeah, I don’t mind that, because I feel like we’re all in these same situations. That’s what I like about the movie. After people see the movie, they don’t think, Your life’s weird. They say, “Seven things from your movie happened to me this morning.” If something heinous was happening [Laughs], I might not share it, but we’re normal people who are as overwhelmed as everybody else with how much we’re trying to get right.

It seems like you have to do a certain dance around revealing and concealing. You recently disclosed that Funny People was informed by your mother’s experience with cancer, something you didn’t share at the time of the movie’s release.
I didn’t feel like it was appropriate to talk about my mom being sick because it just happened, and I found it distasteful when I read about other people talking in that way when they were selling movies. Just in my gut it felt wrong.

To use personal tragedy as marketing?
Yeah, it felt fresh and I hadn’t processed it any way where I could talk about it. I made the movie to process it. It was a very traumatic situation. My mom struggled for a long time, and when she felt that she was better, everyday neuroses returned, and when she was sure she was gonna die, she lived in a more enlightened state.

Like the Adam Sandler character.
Yeah. I found that to be fascinating and very human: How do you hold onto this wisdom you get when you realize that every moment is precious? But it didn’t seem like the right time to talk about it. It may not be the right time now. I feel like anything you share with other people is helpful. It makes people feel less alone.

This Is 40 opens December 21. Read our interview with Paul Rudd and our review.

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