'Knocked Up' Player Hits Homer

Writer-director Judd Apatow gets personal

Los Angeles—

"I really enjoy people who are deeply personal," says Judd Apatow, slouching in a chair in his Santa Monica office and scarfing down some vegetarian takeout a few weeks before the release of his second film as writer-director, Knocked Up, which has since become a sleeper hit. "I just never had the balls to try until relatively recently. It took me a very long time to think that if I wrote from a personal place, it would be interesting to anyone but myself."

Apatow's self-doubt is perfectly understandable in an industry where the idiosyncratic and the original are regularly sacrificed in the name of higher ratings and bigger grosses. But in the seven years since the untimely departure of Freaks and Geeks, the brilliant NBC series on which he served as an executive producer for the duration of its ratings-challenged, 18-episode run, Apatow has continued to tap into his own life for inspiration, marshaling new comic armies of neurotic, socially maladroit teens, twentysomethings, and even middle-agers into America's living rooms and onto its movie screens.

Fully loaded: Writer-director Judd Apatow on the set of 'Knocked Up'
Universal Pictures
Fully loaded: Writer-director Judd Apatow on the set of 'Knocked Up'

Released in the summer of 2005 to little advance hype, Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin took a premise that might have made for a one-joke raunch fest and spun it into an exuberantly vulgar and unexpectedly tender farce about one man's belated coming, so to speak, of age. It was, I wrote at the time, a movie Blake Edwards—or perhaps a dirtier-minded John Hughes—might have made, and an altogether revivifying breath of fresh comic air in a terminally sophomoric movie-comedy landscape. All the more remarkable was the fact that Apatow, who had never directed a movie before, had managed to make Virgin at a major studio (Universal), with a relatively unknown star (Steve Carell) and a great deal of creative autonomy. It was also, arriving on the heels of another axed series (Undeclared) and several unsold pilots, Apatow's first bona fide hit.

Now, I know what you're thinking: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a personal film? Who on Earth would fess up to that? "It's not specifically me," says Apatow, who grew up as a small-for-his-age, unathletic, comedy-obsessed child of divorce on the middle-class end of Long Island in the early 1980s. "But, unfortunately, I really understand all of those emotions—namely insecurity, and fear that people are going to think you're a freak."

Like Virgin, Knocked Up also takes flight from a state of emotional panic—its title refers to the unplanned consequences of a drunken one-night stand between an upstart TV news reporter (Katherine Heigl) and the slacker-stoner layabout (Virgin costar Seth Rogen) she meets in a Hollywood bar. But as before, the movie's real subject is that of men struggling to cast off the vestiges of their carefree bachelorhood and accept grown-up responsibility, regardless of what age they happen to be.

Apatow, an admitted workaholic who has been married since 1997 and is the father of two young daughters (both conceived in wedlock), describes his new film as "a love letter and an apology to my family."

"I remember when I first had children," he says, "I'd be sitting on the floor with my daughter and she'd want to play with her doctor kit or something, and there'd be a part of me that was preoccupied thinking about a fight I was having with the network. In that moment, I would know how fucked-up it was that I couldn't let go of this fight and just play doctor, that I wasn't fully present. But when things get to the point where your family will no longer tolerate them, then you make a change."

Such candor courses through Knocked Up, where it is regularly offset by the kind of uninhibited, go-for-broke comic set pieces that made Virgin an instantly quotable classic. The constant is that, in Apatow's work, the jokes never come at the expense of the characters' emotional reality, but rather grow directly out of it. Case in point: a scene in Knocked Up where, in the chaos of a late-night earthquake, a dazed-and-confused Rogen thinks first about rescuing his bong and only later about his sleeping pregnant girlfriend.

"I'm trying to tell a story about nice people who have problems and are trying to figure out how to work them out and how to be good to each other," Apatow says. "The obstacles are their own issues and circumstances. What's interesting, which I hadn't thought about until someone pointed it out to me in an interview, is that there's no antagonist in the movie. Everyone has his or her own eccentricities and struggles, and you should be rooting for all of them. So the structure is very loose, and it does meander. That was the scary thing about making this movie."

Rogen, the cherubic, curly-haired, 25-year-old Vancouver native who has his first starring role in Knocked Up, was discovered by Apatow during the Freaks and Geeks casting process and is (together with writing partner Evan Goldberg) the author of two forthcoming Apatow-produced films: the semiautobiographical last-night-of-high-school comedy Superbad (which opens August 17), and The Pineapple Express, which Apatow describes as "a big pothead action movie." Apatow says that Rogen strongly influenced the development of the Knocked Up script.

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