Judd Apatow on the Importance of Film Festivals Like SXSW

Andrew Barker

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Emerging careers are on hold because the covid-19 pandemic has forced the closure of SXSW and other spring festivals. So it’s worth talking to artists for whom particular festivals have been vital. One is Judd Apatow, who spoke to Variety prior to the cancellation of SXSW.

Whether he was at SXSW to unspool projects he directed (“Knocked Up,” “Trainwreck,” “Make It Last: The Avett Brothers Documentary”) or produced (“Bridesmaids,” “Girls,” “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” “The Big Sick”), Apatow was instrumental in helping to turn SXSW into a destination festival for comedy – and in particular, the types of broad comedies that rarely manage to secure serious festival attention elsewhere. Apatow was scheduled to return to Austin with SXSW’s opening night film, “The King of Staten Island,” a fictional, comedic version of Pete Davidson’s own life experience processing the death of his firefighter father in the World Trade Center. The film is currently scheduled for release June 19.

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Why does SXSW gel with you the way it does?

That is a mystery. I remember years ago we showed something there, and we were always hearing, “Austin has the best crowds! The best crowd you’re ever gonna get is at SXSW.” And then I went with Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner to the premiere of “Girls,” which we held at SXSW, and it really was an incredibly supportive, explosive crowd. So we started developing this great relationship with Janet Pierson and the festival, and it’s been a really fun place to show a lot of our work for the first time. I don’t know if it’s because they get great movie fans down there, or because it’s a college town, but we always feel like these people just get what we’re trying to do.

We showed the “Big Sick” there, and it was amazing. And the thing is, when we showed “Make It Last” there, we had exactly the same experience with a documentary. We’ve done a lot of standup there too. It’s always a busy, fun weekend for us.

I have a hard time thinking of any other major festival that is as accommodating to comedy in general. How valuable is that to have as an outlet?

It’s very special. We have developed a relationship with the audience down there to the point where it really feels like family. While we’re editing the movie, we start thinking about the SXSW screening. That’s how much we look forward to it. We think, “We’ve gotta get this right so it plays well at SXSW.”

There’s become something of a tradition at SXSW, with yourself and others, of showing films as work-in-progress screenings. How useful is that feedback?

We’ve shown movies where we weren’t fully locked, and as our final test screening we’ve shown them there. It’s very helpful. Also, you’re getting a very specific type of experience, because when movies are in movie theaters it’s pretty rare that the room is sold-out. That might happen the first few days here and there, but for the most part people watch movies with 30 people in the theater. So to watch it with a thousand people is really fun, it’s like a rock concert. People aren’t just showing up to watch a movie, they’re really pumped. As if Pearl Jam’s in town.

Critics often talk about the role of improvisation in your films, but I often feel like we can overstate or overestimate how big a part of the process it is. How much of “The King of Staten Island” arose out of improv?

I mean, none of my movies are improvised films. There’s just a process where we rehearse a lot, we shape the script, we try to get alternate lines based on things people have come up with in rehearsal, and we might relax a scene for a little while and let people play. And then hopefully when you get into editing you have choices. There’s nothing worse than, at a test screening, having a moment not work or a joke bomb and having no other material to fix it. We’re always looking for some variation on the material. But every once in a while someone will improvise something that’s better than anything else in the movie. Often the best moment is something that just happened because the actors and actresses are feeling loose and trusted, and they’re really present in the scene.

What surprised you most putting “King of Staten Island” together?

For me, the experience was very emotional, because we got to spend a lot of time with real firefighters in New York. One of our consultants, John Sorrentino, was Pete’s father’s close friend, and we also put him in the movie as an actor. A lot of the people from Pete’s father’s firehouse came and visited the set and talked to us in the research stage. I think we were all greatly affected by learning about who these people are, and their willingness to put themselves at risk for other people.

Obviously, Pete’s experience losing his father is something he talks about often, and that he has drawn comedy from, but how delicate did you have to be in developing that dynamic?

Well, we spent years writing it and talking about it. And the main subject matter of the film is grief, and a family needing to move forward. So we had a lot of honest conversations about how everything affected his life and his family, and then we constructed a fictional story that would force all of those characters to have to make traces in order to not be frozen in their grief or their reactions to it. How that becomes funny is through bad behavior. When you’re a mess you make mistakes, you don’t run your life right, and you don’t have healthy relationships. And that’s inherently funny. So our movie is walking the line between very serious subject matter and the comedy of people stumbling through life trying to get healthier.

You have a history of collaborating with comics and actors who have had some early success and helping them put together their first big films. How much do you see your role as pedagogical, or as a sort of mentorship?

I always looked up to people like Harold Ramis, who had a sense about what was funny about the people he collaborated with. Whether it was Bill Murray or Chevy Chase, or Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal, he had amazing instincts for how best to use people. I think the thing that I do that expands on that is that I really like to sit with people and help them develop their writing so that they can tell personal comedic stories. The process is very collaborative and takes years, but we’re trying to dig out stories that are very important to these people. They’re not just joke ideas. Sometimes the most meaningful aspects of their lives. And there’s something very intimate about it, and very fun when something special happens.

When I first started out, Garry Shandling was my mentor. He gave me a lot of opportunities and taught me a lot about writing and was there for me as a friend. So I do hope that I can be that for other people. It’s not like we have big discussions where we actually talk about any of this, but this type of process requires a lot of trust and respect. Because it’s very intimate and dangerous to poke around in all these psychological areas, and you want people to feel great about why they’re doing it and the result of the work. It’s a real gift for Pete to take his life story and turn it into fiction.

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