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If You Ask Judd Apatow, His Movies Are Too Short

Judd Apatow Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Getty Images

For a man who’s made a career showcasing zhlubs, Judd Apatow sure is constantly working. He’s produced so many high-profile TV shows and movies that when he directs a new film, you’re like, Oh yeaaaaah, that’s what we know him for. Out on VOD later this week, his sixth feature film, The King of Staten Island — which he co-wrote with Pete Davidson and Davidson’s writing partner Dave Sirus — in many feels like a Judd Apatow movie: an over-two-hour-long semi-autobiographical dramedy about a stuck star who is failing to thrive. But in many ways, it feels like something different. Where Apatow’s previous movies were comedies with healthy doses of drama, Staten Island feels more like the reverse, focusing on Davidson’s Scott, a character darker and less hopeful than Apatow’s previously privileged protagonists. In turn, Scott lives in a world filled with essential workers, not people trying to start boutique record labels or porn sites. It’s why Apatow decided to release it now, instead of pushing it back for an eventual theatrical release. He wanted to celebrate those who sacrifice.

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Apatow discussed how he writes, shoots, and edits his films; what he saw in Davidson; if he fears the end of theatrically released comedies; how all of his films end with a very similar shot; and whether his love language, quality time, is why his movies are so long. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode right below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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On Pete Davidson’s Big Rock Energy

I met him when we were looking for people to cast in Trainwreck, and I asked Amy Schumer, “Who’s funny? Who should I know about?” The first person she showed me was Pete. I just looked at some YouTube video of him on some show. Sometimes you just go, That’s the guy. That’s the one who’s gonna be the big star. I don’t know what accounts for that. I had the same feeling when I saw [Adam] Sandler for the first time. I had the same feeling when I saw Kristen Wiig on her first episode of Saturday Night Live. Just as a comedy fan, I thought, That’s someone that people are going to really like. That’s something that I like. So we had him do a cameo in the movie. We didn’t really have a part for him. We were bummed we didn’t have a part for him, but we just placed him in the movie, I think almost just to say we knew he was going to be big before anyone.

We had Bo Burnham in Funny People — it was the same thing. We have a lot of those in the movies, just people we like. Nick Kroll was in Get Him to the Greek. There’s all these people where sometimes we don’t have the largest part, but we just love them and want to let people know about them. But also to say we knew they were great. We didn’t have the thing yet, but just we knew, and Pete was one of those people. And then after Bill Hader spent an hour riffing with him and hanging out with him, he said to him the next day, “I called Lorne Michaels and told him he should hire you on the show.” So Bill had that instinct right away. Then I bumped into Lorne Michaels at a party and I said, “I hear you’re looking at our friend Pete. He’s a killer.” And then the next thing you know, he was on Saturday Night Live.

It’s hard to say for sure why anybody becomes famous, why anybody has that magic quality that you can’t really define. He has a dark sense of humor. He’s hilarious, has been hilarious since he was younger than 20, which makes no sense. He obviously has a very interesting attitude about life. And the story of his life is fascinating. It’s also one that makes us all worry about him and hope that he heals and can feel strong. Like a lot of rock stars, there’s charisma, there’s sex appeal — and then you also care about him and you hope he’s gonna be okay. And he’s a great guy. He’s a bighearted person. He’s a really kind person. The aspect of the movie he was most excited about was being able to hire some of his friends, like Ricky Velez and Derek Gaines, to be in the movie. When they would score, he seemed so much more excited than when he scored.

On Omitting 9/11 While Adapting Davidson’s Story

We debated that a lot. I mean, the story is fictional. So we weren’t trying to do Pete Davidson’s life story. We were trying to use some of his emotional life to tell a truthful story that related to things that he is working through and deals with. So the question was, “Should you make it 9/11?” And there were a lot of people who told me, “You should. You definitely should.” I felt like if Pete’s character, Scott, said, “I’m so depressed about 9/11” that whoever he was talking to would say, “Yeah, me too. We all are.” So having it not be 9/11 — having it be that his dad died fighting a different fire, a hotel fire, then he has his own grief — he’s in his own bubble, and not everyone understands him.

9/11 is so universal that it affected everybody’s life. It changed the world. So I thought the reaction to him and his problems would have to be through that filter. I didn’t want to use that filter. I also think 9/11 is such a giant subject. I didn’t even think a movie like this could hold it all because every person in the movie would have a very complex relationship with it. I didn’t want to boil it down, but I also thought, The audience knows that we’re really talking about 9/11. I don’t need it to be 9/11, because that’s what we’re talking about. You can see it in Pete’s eyes. So I feel like all the weight of it is there without saying it.

On His Movies’ Infamously Long Running Times

I think that there’s a moment in editing where you realize, I could make it shorter so people can feel like they saw a short movie, but I will be sacrificing certain moments that are important to develop the characters in this story. So how much do I care about people’s internal clocks? Some people say, “I want my movies to end in an hour and 40 minutes.” I know that it’s really painful for them to sit for 2:20. Do I care? And the truth is I do a little bit, but if I’m going to hurt the movie just to satisfy your lack of attention span, I’m just not going to hurt the movie. So I’m always trying to make it as short as I can. But usually it’s ten or 15 minutes longer than most people probably would want.

But at the same time, I always think, But yet you’ll sit and watch six hours of Narcos in a row. So go fuck yourself. That’s where I always land. People will watch ten hours of the Michael Jordan documentary. And if Harry Potter’s three hours and 35 minutes, no one bitches. The Avengers is three hours and whatever. So usually when I’m editing, I look at the times of a lot of things in the culture and from the past, and I give myself permission to just do what I feel is correct for that story. I certainly have made some hard decisions to lose things that I didn’t want to lose to get it shorter. I definitely am up all night worrying about it and thinking about it. But I’ve also noticed that when these things hit TV and streaming, no one thinks they’re too long. They only think it’s too long when they’re in a movie theater and they have to pee.

Certainly it’s not more important to blow up a city than it is to deal with people’s feelings, so I don’t mind. The concept of length … anyone can debate me because it’s also personal taste. For a lot of people, if they’re watching The Avengers, they wish it was six hours. They wish it was 25 hours a day. They’re like, “Let me take a couple of breaks and I’ll stay here forever.” And I feel that way for movies like that, and all sorts of movies. I’m fine at two hours, two and a half hours with the human stories. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had is watching three Sopranos in a row. And that’s really all I’m doing: trying to give you a little more character and a little more story.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not wrong a fair amount of the time. Sometimes I’ll get asked to trim a movie because it doesn’t fit in the time frame of a television presentation of it. So they’ll say, “We’re going to show Funny People on FX. You’ve got to cut 11 minutes, and you have no choice.” And then suddenly, okay: Here’s the cut I wouldn’t make. And then sometimes I make the cut, and I think I might have just made it better.

But then there’s scenes that you cut for time, and you miss them. There was a great scene in Funny People near the end of the movie where Adam [Sandler] and Seth [Rogen] get into a big fight, and they’re not friends anymore, and then Adam goes back to work and we cut to what he’s shooting, and he’s shooting a hot-dog-eating competition, and he’s the star. The scene is him eating hot dogs and then you hear “Cut!” I walk on, and I’m playing the director, and I’m asking Adam if he can do all this in one shot: “I need you to eat four hot dogs in one long shot.” And Adam’s like, “Can’t you just do it in coverage and then I could take a bite and spit it out every take?” And I’m like, “Adam, it would be so much better, like a great Scorsese shot at the nightclub, if I could just see you swallow four hot dogs.” And Adam’s like, “I just got over leukemia. You want me to eat four hot dogs?” And I’m begging him, “How about this? One take. I won’t do a second take. Can you do it once?” And it’s him saying “No.” It was such a weird, funny scene, but that late in the movie, two hours and ten minutes into the movie, we didn’t have room to stop for three minutes to do the scene. I miss it so much. I mean, no one will watch it. So I will make those cuts and then regret them for years.

When we did The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I put out a director’s cut, and I was so new at directing that I made the director’s cut 17 minutes longer. And most people think that’s the movie. Most people watched it on DVD. They watched this two hour and ten-minute version of The 40-Year-Old Virgin with this big, long sequence of Stormy Daniels. There’s all sorts of crazy stuff in it that wasn’t in the movie. Like a really long Kevin Hart–Romany Malco fight.

On Releasing a Movie About Sacrifice During a Pandemic

I had thought about writing about sacrifice for a long time. I don’t know how that occurred to me. I just thought, I’m probably repeating myself. My themes are probably all the same. There’s a lot of coming-of-age stories, problems in romance, parenting issues. How do I not write the same movie again? So I worked with a friend on a movie about soldiers returning from Afghanistan and had a really good experience writing that. But I ultimately felt like I didn’t understand it enough yet. I might return to it. But I thought, I don’t know if I’ve completely figured this out and gotten intimate enough with this material. 

Then I had an interesting idea about people getting out of prison and what that experience is like. I did a lot of research on it. It was actually very painful because the justice system is very cruel. When you spend a lot of time learning more about it, it hurts. You feel for these people if you have any compassion at all. It’s somewhat devastating what our country does to people. Obviously, a lot of people in prison should be in prison and deserve to be there, but there is a cruelty to it that I couldn’t figure out how to break. A story about it, it just troubles me. There was no part that felt like it was going to head comedic or even dramatic. It just took me down, quite honestly. But I knew I wanted to write about sacrifice because it sounds like the last thing Judd would ever write about.

And then when Pete and I started talking about this, it took me a while to realize, I think I’m writing it right now with Pete and Dave [Sirus]. Because it is about the sacrifice his father made and how it affected Pete’s family. And then, as I got to know people in the firefighting community, I realized that their entire life is helping other people. They’re not trying to make movies. They’re not trying to get ahead or win awards. They wake up every day and all they think about is, How can I come through for someone else and save them or help them? And I’ve found that to be very moving.

There is definitely a great cost to that. We talk in the movie about how the world needs heroes, but it also sometimes leaves wreckage in its wake. That subject matter was very challenging to write about, and I’m really proud of the movie. I think it talks about some issues that people don’t bother to pay attention to. There are these people out there, and now we see it in the pandemic with nurses and EMTs and policemen and firemen, but also grocery stores or anyone that is doing a normal job that has to encounter a lot of people. They’re taking a very great personal risk to be there for other people. In a lot of ways, if you like, the movie is about them. That’s one of the reasons I wanted it to come out. I thought, What, am I gonna hold on to this movie for a year? This needs to be seen now because it is, in a lot of ways, a tribute to those people.

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If You Ask Judd Apatow, His Movies Are Too Short