"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.
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.
"It is based on how Seth lives," Apatow notes of the frat-house-like residence inhabited by Rogen's character Ben Stone and his coterie of porn-obsessed, film-geek roommates. "Some people who see the film say, 'People don't live like that. People don't talk like that.' And I always say, 'Go to Seth's house. It's happening right now.'"
That extends to the film's laissez-faire depiction of drug use and alcohol consumption—a subject about which Apatow has mixed feelings. He is himself strongly anti-drug, he says, "but at the same time, as a filmmaker, I just need to show things exactly as they are. I hope, on some level, I'm indicating to the audience: You probably shouldn't do this, that you can't be the high guy when the earthquake happens and you have to figure out how to shut off the gas."
Apatow's yen for reality even led him to cast some of Rogen's real-life friends—up-and-coming comics all—as Ben's onscreen cohorts. He then allowed them to riff off one another, as in the film's soon-to-be-immortal discussion of the coolness value of Steven Spielberg's Munich.
Collectively, they are anything but conventional movie stars: short and fat or tall and skinny, with bad hair, skin, and fashion sense, and a terminal awkwardness around women. They are the kind of actors who usually appear in movies as the goofy sideshow rather than the main attraction, and who rarely get the girl. But in Apatow land, it's the suave, perfectly coifed matinee idol who would seem out of his element.
"When we were making Knocked Up," Apatow says, "there were all sorts of debates about whether or not it's believable that Seth could get this woman, which I always thought were funny debates, because I believe that if you're funny and reasonably intelligent, there's no one really out of your range. But certain people are like, 'This could not happen!' They project their own issues onto it."
Talk to Apatow for a while and you begin to see how this self-described "typical Long Island nerdy kid"—who still very much looks the part in scruffy beard, baggy pants, and dirty sneakers—has moved through life with the outsider's confidence that what goes around comes around.
"When I was a kid," he tells me, "I thought that so much of school was unfair. I thought, 'How come every day they line us up against the fence and everyone tells me that I suck? And no matter how hard I try, I can't prove to them that I'm good at sports, because I'm playing deep right field and the ball never comes to me. And because the ball never comes to me, I'm not getting better.'"
It was Apatow's early love of comedy and standup comedians, he says, that "empowered me and it made me feel better about my situation. I thought, 'Someday, people will appreciate the fact that I'm different.' We put a lot of that into Freaks and Geeks—the idea that even though these kids were under the thumb of these bullies, they knew they were actually the people who would do well. It's almost like, subconsciously, they knew they would create Microsoft."
For the record, Apatow did not create Microsoft. But he does have a production deal at Sony, which will release Superbad. He remains committed to a feverish pace of work, provided it keeps him close to home. About Knocked Up, which was shot entirely on location in Los Angeles, he says, "I thought, 'How close can I get to my house every day? Can I make the set literally down the street?'"