In a fluorescent-lit hallway at a Long Island nursing home, Judd Apatow sits on an overturned box beside a collapsed wheelchair, marking a two-page printout of jokes. It’s 8:40 a.m. on May 19th, 2014: the first day of production on Apatow’s fifth directorial feature, Trainwreck. Residents mill around on walkers and canes; one wants to enter the home’s glassed-in sitting porch, but Apatow has transformed it into a set. A production assistant tasked with directing elderly traffic reroutes her: “Ma’am, I’m sorry, we’re shooting a movie in here.”
Trainwreck‘s writer and star, Amy Schumer, is on the porch, in front of the cameras, kicking off her Uggs for the heels that her character, also named Amy, will wear in today’s scene. Colin Quinn, playing Amy’s ailing father, Gordon, slumps in a wheelchair beside her. In the movie’s opening flashback we see how Gordon’s cynicism about marriage and fidelity helped turn Amy into an alcohol-abusing, commitment-averse adult. Since this is a Judd Apatow movie, these personality traits are mined for laughs at first, and then gradually, falteringly, worked through. “This scene motors the movie in a lot of ways,” Apatow says. “Amy’s troubled in her relationships because of her relationship with Gordon. And there’s personal significance to this scene for Amy, because her dad’s in a nursing home with M.S.” And yet — since this is a Judd Apatow movie — the scene is also an opportunity for a bunch of jokes about Viagra-powered octogenarian orgies. “It’s like Caligula in here,” Gordon says.
Over the past decade, Apatow has become the most prominent comedy-maker of our time. He is referred to less often as a director, it seems, than as a career-minter, a factory foreman, an emperor: His name evokes not only a particular comedic tone (heartfelt raunch), but also particular stars (Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Melissa McCarthy, all of whom he helped give big breaks), particular techniques (endless on-set improv, which he helped pioneer), particular gags (Steve Carell getting his chest waxed in The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and particular directors (Paul Feig, Adam McKay and Rogen again, all of whom have had major films produced by Apatow.) Besides Trainwreck, Apatow, 47, has directed four movies — The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, This is 40 — and as a producer he’s shepherded Anchorman, Superbad, Pineapple Express and Bridesmaids, among other smashes, to theaters. His résumé transcends eras and involves numerous icons. As a teen, Apatow interviewed stand-ups like Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling for his high-school radio station. (These are included, alongside newer conversations, in Sick in the Head, his recently published collection of comedian interviews.) In his twenties, while trying to make it as a stand-up, he opened for his buddy Jim Carrey and landed gigs writing jokes for Roseanne Barr. Later, he wrote on The Larry Sanders Show and did punch-up on the Happy Gilmore script for his longtime pal Adam Sandler. He was a driving force behind quickly canceled, highly influential cult gems like The Ben Stiller Show and Freaks and Geeks — shows that highlighted, respectively, his twinned interests in absurdity and naturalism. More recently, Apatow helped Lena Dunham develop Girls, and he just helped Paul Reubens make a new Pee-wee Herman movie.
Present these bullet points of his résumé to Apatow, though, and he demurs. He prefers to think of himself as a mere bystander to, and facilitator of, other peoples’ genius, he says: “It’s about which collaborators you luck into working with. And I’ve been blessed to meet some of the most talented people around.”
Come May 2015, the final cut of Trainwreck has been locked, and I’m walking up a path past tall trees and large spherical lawn ornaments to the front door of Apatow’s Brentwood mansion. Wearing socks, jeans and a polo shirt, he leads me into his office. Messes of paper and books cover every horizontal surface — scripts he needs to read, novels and biographies he wants to. The mess presents a fitting visual corollary to his neuroses, which, after all these years, are still ample, surrounding him and gnawing at him. “I have a very hard time filing things away,” Apatow says. “Someone will come in and straighten up, but then it’s back to looking like this in three days.”
At the very start of making Trainwreck, you returned to stand-up after 22 years, dropping in on the Comedy Cellar in New York during shooting. Tell me a joke of yours that killed.
I’d talk about how when you see Jews, they give you a look like, “You can’t join. We don’t want you. If we want more Jews we will fuck our wives and create Jews. We will breed.” That grew into a bit about how that’s the best part of the Jewish religion: we don’t expect anybody to join, so our philosophy isn’t about being mad at anybody for not following our rules. We just want to be left alone safely. Today I still tell it, but it’s expanded into a larger discussion of how Jewish people don’t mind if you draw us. But the truth is, we shouldn’t want you to draw us because any well-done drawing of a Jewish person is inherently anti-Semitic. If you draw a perfect picture of me, it’s hateful! That’s why they never hire a caricaturist at a bar mitzvah — there’d be too many tears.
Was getting back into stand-up after so long a way to center yourself, or a way to disorient yourself and step outside of your comfort zone?
I felt like my self-esteem was lowering, and it felt like something that would help me fight that battle. I thought that me not doing stand-up had been a sign of low self-esteem, motivated by fear. I slowly realized that being willing to stand up and be yourself was a sign of higher self-esteem.
Why was your self-esteem low?
There’s probably no answer for that except that’s where it all returns, in some primal way. In some ways it’s high, so that’s what’s weird. I mean, obviously, I’m confident that I know what I’m doing, but there’s a little corner of me that returns to a low place, which never goes away. Mel Brooks talks about it — how you always feel like someone’s gonna walk in and say you’re a fraud and take your pencil away. It could be genetic. It could be my parents’ divorce. It could be not being breast-fed. It could be having a very emotional and loving but manic mother. You never find out what the source of it is.
How did stand-up help?
When I’m working on a movie or a show, I’m just so scared that it’s gonna be a disaster, and then if it isn’t a disaster I have a sense of relief but I don’t have an enormous feeling of joy. My years of stress far outweigh the moments of pleasure and relief. And then I was interviewing Pearl Jam for their last record, and I thought, when you write a song, if it connects with people, you have the pain of writing and making the song, but then the rest of your life you just sing it and have this communion with the audience, and you get pure joy. You get none of that as a filmmaker. That was bubbling in my head — where’s my concert where I can play the greatest hits and just have fun with the audience? Then, I was working with Amy Schumer and she was always coming back from somewhere, telling me about some great experience she’d had doing stand-up. I was jealous. It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. So I said to Amy, write up some premises for jokes for me, and I’ll write the jokes. Give me areas. So she would send me areas, like what if instead of having girls I had boys. Things like that. And I started writing jokes and then I started remembering some stories I told on talk shows, and I put a set together.
Did you bomb?
I didn’t. Amy was really funny because, in a very friendly way, she acted annoyed that it went well for me. She didn’t get to enjoy me bombing. But I’d told a bunch of those stories before — what was harder was to try to write new things, which took a long time to figure out how to do again. About six months into it, I figured out my older comic voice, and I think I did a better job on the movie, because I was in a great mood from performing and it just wakes up some part of your brain that understands humor. I felt a little more tuned into what’s funny.
“Now everyone likes comedy. But back then, I’m just alone in a library, looking up articles about Lenny Bruce’s death, not mentioning it to anybody.”
You say you wished you had some greatest hits, but you’ve got all these movies and shows you made. You can see how many people bought a ticket to Knocked Up, and how many people downloaded 40-Year-Old Virgin or bought the Freaks and Geeks DVD.
There’s no pleasure from that. You always return to this place of fear. It’s very motivating. I think probably the fuel for the whole endeavor is the fact that you never get comfortable. It’s not like doing stand-up where if you have a set that doesn’t go well you just think, “Oh, I’ll go up tomorrow.” With a movie, it’s years of work, and then if it crashes, it crashes hard. And if it goes well you’re like, Ahhh. . .but how am I going to figure out the next one? That thought hits you on the drive home. I don’t want it to sound like it’s some horrendous experience, it’s just very intense. I’m way better than I was when I felt like I never succeeded and nothing ever broke through — that was painful.
Trainwreck is a big departure for you as a director in several ways: It’s the first time you’re directing a script that someone else wrote; there are none of the actors from your usual, core ensemble; it’s about a woman; and it’s not set in L.A.
I was certainly open to doing something different. I spent a lot of time trying to write a play, then another play, and I couldn’t crack it, and I didn’t write a single word in a year. Literally not one. I did a lot of research and it just didn’t come. I don’t want to give away the ideas, because they’re good, but one had to do with newly released convicts and the other one was set in rock & roll. But I just couldn’t find the humor in it. Some of my research depressed me and I just hit a wall. I just got sad. In the meantime I was working with Amy and I loved what she was doing — I said, I should take this to the end and direct it.
From Schumer to Lena Dunham all the way back to Seth Rogen on Freaks and Geeks, you clearly love working with people in the early stages of their careers.
Recently I’ve been thinking, “Goddamn it, I wish I could start all over.” Maybe that’s what I do by choosing to work with people on their first breakthrough projects, because in a way it forces me to always be in that moment of wanting your movie to work for the first time, or wanting to make your career. That always seems interesting: Trying to figure out why someone is appealing as a movie star, what stories they have to tell, but also the energy that someone like Amy has. It’s the same with Seth or with Jonah Hill. That moment of, Oh, this is the big break, I’m going to stay up all night, give my life to this. You don’t do that again in the same way. You work hard, maybe even harder, but you don’t have that energy of “If this doesn’t work, I’m never gonna be allowed to do this again.” That’s a pretty wild moment in people’s lives, when you’re defining what you’re going to be.
Let’s go back to your own early days. Did your parents’ divorce drive you into comedy?
When I was a kid, I wanted to leave, I wanted to move to California — I wanted to get out of there. Whatever was difficult in my childhood, from my parents getting divorced or whatever problems we had, it was my motivation to get a job and work hard. So it was positive in that regard. I never hear my kids today say, “I gotta get the fuck out of Brentwood! The parking at Brentwood County Mart is awful!” So I don’t know if making their lives stable is helping them or de-motivating them. The worst parts of my life have been the reasons why I’ve been able to accomplish anything I’ve accomplished.
What’s it like where you’re from in Long Island?
I started in Woodbury and then my parents divorced and we moved to Syosset, next door. They separated when I was in sixth grade, got back together, then separated again between eight and ninth grade, I think. Everyone in my neighborhood, they’d start out living in a big house and then their parents would divorce and they would move to a condo a mile away. The condos were filled with all the divorced families. I found a poem recently that I wrote when I was 15, called “Divorce.” I wrote it when I was a dishwasher at a comedy club on the weekends. It’s so funny but it’s so sad. It predicts my entire life.
Apatow walks over to a backpack and retrieves an enormous stack of papers. He finds the poem. It consists of rhyming couplets like, “For me there was separation with lots of tears/going out with my friends, marijuana and beers,” then, a few lines later, “I cover my pain with silly jokes/no more drugs or beer, just Cokes.” By the end, he’s found a degree of solace in an imagined show-biz future: “Maybe one day I’ll be a big star, driving around in a big car, and I won’t mind that my parents split/Because it helped me write my comedy shit.”
It’s your career blueprint.
Isn’t that crazy? I was trying to figure out how to express all of this. Then the next page is “Funny Stuff About Divorce.” I tried to list what’s funny about it, but a lot of these things are really dark. It says “Charging stuff,” because my mother would charge stuff on my dad’s credit card without permission. This is me trying to survive. I should have done this the whole time — I might have felt much better. Because I didn’t go to therapy. My parents didn’t send me to a counselor. My dad at one point left out a book that said Growing Up Divorced, and I thought it was for him, but I read it, and it was actually very helpful. That was his way of talking to me — he left it out hoping I would read it. But he never asked me if I read it. There was no follow-up conversation. Maybe he saw that the book moved and hoped I had suddenly healed myself. Now divorce is all conscious uncoupling. Back then it was just tense and uncomfortable.
It’s remarkable that you were already treating your misery as potential material.
I always knew that Richard Pryor’s family ran a brothel — was his mother a prostitute? His grandmother was the pimp. I don’t remember the exact details, but I remember thinking, I wish I had something like that.
Your mom moved out and you stayed with your dad. Did you take his side?
They separated and my mom went and moved to Southampton, and I said, “I’m not leaving my house.” I was very close with my best friends, Ronnie and Kevin, and I was not gonna change schools. And later, I talked to my mom, right before she died, and she said that she thought she would only be gone for a couple weeks. “I thought we would get right back together.”
But your dad had a girlfriend, and she moved in.
He’s married to her now. My stepmother, Jackie, who couldn’t be sweeter. But I was very. . .I wasn’t warm, because my mom made me feel like just living with my dad was a betrayal. It made me feel like I wasn’t allowed to relax or have fun, because if I was joyous in the house, it was wrong — she tried to demonize the situation. And I didn’t understand what they were fighting about. To this day I don’t. Just the normal problems of a marriage. But there was a lot of energy from her, like, “How can you talk to him?” And she never took it back. In modern times people say terrible things and then that night they say, “I’m sorry, I just got upset, this is a really hard situation.” My mom never ever said that, my whole childhood, after going on a run of hurt. We just started the next day, so that puts you on guard — emotionally, it shuts you down.
You were made to feel that that if you were happy, you were betraying your mom?
That’s how I must have processed it. Because my dad didn’t say bad things about my mom, for the most part. He tried to be a calm presence, but also we didn’t talk about it. So that was confusing. They never resolved anything. It was a lot of years of conflict. I’m sure my dad is sick of hearing me talk about it because he did a great job and he took really good care of me. But this becomes my origin story. It was a volatile situation for too long and it imprints you in ways that you never quite know.
Your brother came out of the same situation and is now an Orthodox Jew who lives in Israel.
Me, him and my sister, we were all split up between my parents — we weren’t around each other enough to be a normal, healthy unit. I get along really well with my sister today. But as kids we had no tools to support each other throughout it. We were all just winging it. So, my brother, he was looking for something he could use to make sense of everything. And that became Judaism.
And for you it was comedy.
You get lucky that the thing you use as your defense mechanism actually turns out to be a way you can make a living. I could have been into playing the spoons! I lucked out that the thing I wanted to do turned out to be a business that gets bigger every year. I would have done comedy regardless. No one was interested in it when I was a kid. It wasn’t a fun hobby that me and my friends all laughed about. Now everyone likes comedy, and if you’re a kid you can watch Funny or Die videos and look up Hannibal Buress on YouTube. But back then, I’m just alone in a library, looking up articles about Lenny Bruce’s death, not mentioning it to anybody! I had to wait till I was 17 and I moved to L.A. to find like-minded people.
Early on, before you quit stand-up, you shared bills with Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler. That’s a great way to feel outgunned.
It was like opening up for U2. That’s what it felt like. But I also knew that I was young and I didn’t have any stories to tell, and I didn’t even have strong opinions about anything. It took me a long time to think my voice was interesting at all — that’s why I wrote for other people for a long time.
You’ve talked about being in the same room with Sandler, at a party or something, and how a part of you resented this innate charisma and appeal he had, and how people were drawn to him.
I didn’t resent it. I felt bad about myself. It’s funny because Adam has always been my biggest supporter. He has always believed in me more than almost anybody. I was his friend but I also knew, “This guy is one of the all-time greats.” But it is a weird feeling when you’re hanging around with somebody that talented, that charismatic, and you really feel down on yourself. You feel your own lack of charisma.
Speaking of which: Please tell me about the time Jim Henson basically called you unlikeable.
Around that time, Adam and I auditioned for Henson — he was trying to put together a show where comedians traveled across the country with video cameras. Adam and I made an audition, with David Spade, I think. We all got turned down. But when I didn’t get the job, the feedback was, “Jim Henson would like to pay you a thousand dollars for all of your ideas for the show, but he thought you lacked warmth.” It was probably incredibly accurate on some level — not about warmth but my confidence was so low I was tight and probably still am, honestly, in life and art. I’ve been talking about that onstage, though, because it was my worst fear.
It’s almost like Kermit stepping off of your TV and telling you that.
And I was a big Sesame Street guy. It only would have been worse if Mr. Rogers said it. That was the first nail in my performing coffin.
But in 2015, at least from the outside — with respect to Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler and their enormous talents — I would much rather have your career than either of theirs. There’s a sense in which you found your path.
Well, what they’ve done is astounding. When I look at them I can’t believe what they’ve accomplished. Think about how many great movies, great albums, great moments — all the times they were riotously funny. It’s easy to beat up on people for their attempts at growing, but it takes great courage to be funny, to go for hard-funny, for thoughtful-funny, to go for drama. To be doing Punch Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. We are getting older, and everyone faces somewhat of a Jerry Lewis moment. I have it — I write movies about bromances and being immature and at some point I have to write movies about fatherhood and being sick and mortality. Everyone is figuring out how to be creative in the next phase of their life.
Seeing Adam Sandler in his first movie, Billy Madison, when I was a kid helped shape my sense of humor in a huge way. But I’m not alone in my impression that he went on to make a lot of junk. Like, “Why is this guy doing Grown Ups, much less Grown Ups 3?”
I don’t think you need to call it junk, because that’s hurtful. People really have their balls out. It’s a naked thing to try to make people happy and try to express yourself that way. And the culture is pretty brutal on anything they don’t like instantly, and they’re especially tough on people who have had success. There’s a lot of anger at people who are doing OK. That’s why when you go on Twitter everything is #richmansproblems or #firstworldproblems or #whitemansproblems. Sandler said something interesting after we did Funny People. He said, “A lot of people think that these movies, or Punch Drunk Love, should be held up higher than the hard-funny movies, but we know how it’s as difficult, or maybe way more difficult, to make You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.” When comedy is done well it seems effortless. And even in comedies that it’s easy to not take seriously, there might be a couple great set pieces in there — something that’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen. I appreciate people’s efforts to spend a lifetime trying to make other people happy. I love that Sandler is devoted to just hilarity. And he’s still the guy in Punch Drunk Love.
Funny People and This Is 40 didn’t do nearly as well at the box office as your first two movies. Maybe part of the reason is that they aren’t about outsiders and losers, the way 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up were. You’re asking audiences to care about #firstworldproblems.
Now that some of the movies have been out for a while, I have people talking about moments in This Is 40 that they relate to — what it’s about connects with people as they reach certain moments in their lives. You might be at a moment in your life where you don’t want a movie like that. It might scare you about your future. Other people are in the thick of it and say, “Oh, this is exactly my life.”
You’ve said you came at comedy yourself as an outsider — as someone whose comedic fuel was being the small kid picked last. Do success and power make it harder to be funny?
The feeling of being the little kid never goes away. It’s in your wiring. I still feel like a weirdo in most situations. I will still talk to someone at a party and think it didn’t go well and then I’ll think about it all night. The other day I was in a restaurant and the head of Sony was there with someone else from Sony. And I walked over to the table and I didn’t have any clue what to say so I just said [his voice gets disconcertingly, awkwardly, loud], HEY HOW’S IT GOING! And they’re like, “. . . Hi.” And I went, WHAT DO YOU GUYS EAT HERE! And one of them said, “. . .Fish.” And I walked off and for weeks I just thought, I am such an idiot. What was I talking about? Like, I’m always a fool. There’s enough fool in me to keep me going. And my kids certainly have the proper lack of respect for me, which keeps me from ever feeling that wise.
Early in your career, you kept making shows that kept getting canceled. Were those early failures — like The Ben Stiller Show and Freaks and Geeks — the audience’s fault, the networks’ faults or the shows’ faults?
You never find out. You can blame it on marketing, you could say, well, Freaks and Geeks was on only 12 times over 26 weeks, so how was it gonna find its audience? Or you could say, I don’t know, it didn’t set the world on fire right away and we weren’t Empire! But we were on Saturday night, up against Cops, and they moved us to Tuesday, and we felt like there wasn’t a lot of marketing energy behind it. But as far as the audience, it feels like everyone has seen it now.
It was ahead of its time in a few ways.
Yeah. Today, you don’t need as many viewers. Today Freaks and Geeks would be a hit! But at that time you couldn’t survive with 7 million viewers. I was like, “Maybe I’m fringier than I thought. Maybe this is the equivalent of a Replacements record — I like the Replacements more than almost everything in the Top 40.”
Directing The 40-Year-Old Virgin, you finally had a hit. In part it’s because you played ball with executives and took their notes more graciously than you had before, right?
None of my yelling had seemed to have done anything positive. It seemed like every time I yelled, we got canceled. And so I realized I should just listen and see what their concerns are. Some I agreed with, some I didn’t, but there was a solution to all of them. I tried to spin everything they were concerned about into something positive. So they said, “Steve Carell looks like a serial killer — he looks like Jeffrey Dahmer.” And then we said maybe we should just talk about that in the movie, and that became a part of the story.
What’s another time where a studio note made your work better?
I remember the only large note that Donna Langley, the president of Universal, had on Knocked Up: “I don’t think the third act is that funny.” And at that time I didn’t have Martin Starr and Jay Baruchel and Jason Segel at the hospital during the delivery. I said, “I could chuck all the friends into the waiting room.” It changed the entire movie. That’s a really smart executive, who’s not moving where you’re putting the commas, but is giving you very effective notes.
Why did The 40-Year-Old Virgin click?
The movie is about shame, so I understood that. It was about being afraid that no one will like you, so you hide in a stock room. And I got really lucky — I was lucky enough to produce Anchorman with Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, and that led to meeting Steve Carell. And I wrote 40-Year-Old Virgin with him — it was Carell’s idea. I just lucked into the greatest comedy-writing partner you could hope for, and applied my take on things. We’d split scenes. I’d sit at home and one day the fax would go off like it used to in the old days, and I’d read what Steve wrote.
On later movies you’d write scenes with your wife, Leslie Mann, whom you also frequently cast.
Leslie is really the partner on all of it, coming up with ideas — she’s essential in every aspect. She’s so funny and so fun to write for, but she also inspires me to write drama, because she sees herself as a dramatic actress who, when she does it, it comes out funny. Almost nobody can play things as emotionally as she does and still get huge laughs while breaking your heart.
“It’s easy to beat up on people for their attempts at growing, but it takes great courage to be funny, to go for hard-funny, for thoughtful-funny, to go for drama.”
You’ve said writing This is 40 with Leslie allowed you both “to have a very intimate conversation about other people” — you were working things from your own relationship into the movie.
It’s a way to communicate. Leslie and I always debate what’s true and what’s not. It’s all fabricated, but it all comes from some emotional truth. It’s not fun watching a normal couple do a pretty solid job in a movie — it’s only fun to say, “Here’s everything at its worst. Here’s the week it just went to shit.” So it’s an expression of our feelings. In real life, we don’t yell at the kid at school or at the kid’s mom!
You’re active on Twitter, and one of the ways you’ve used it is to hammer Bill Cosby repeatedly. Why do you think the sexual-assault charges finally stuck against him, in the realm of public opinion, in a way that they didn’t stick with, say, Woody Allen, when his daughter Dylan asserted repeatedly that he molested her?
I think people don’t seem to want to believe women who are attacked. I don’t know if it’s that we just don’t want to believe terrible things happen, especially when people we love are accused — like, How can my favorite person in the world do it? It’s much easier not to believe the accuser. With Cosby, for a while people were thinking, “They’re all gold diggers.” And at some point enough women came forward that the world knows this happened and that he is clearly some sort of sociopath. With Woody Allen — you can’t compare all the cases, but the sheer numbers effect it. It’s very sad when someone like Dylan comes forward and doesn’t get the level of support she deserves, but it might be easier to try to ignore her than it is to ignore all the women who accused Cosby.
People say, “Separate the art from the artist.” They want to watch Annie Hall and Bill Cosby’s old routines and still enjoy them. Can you do that separating?
No. Not at all. Some people say you have to separate it, then they list everybody who’s done terrible things who made art. I guess that’s an argument you could make. The Cosby thing I took seriously because I know one of the victims, who is not going to come forward. I had a personal connection to it, where somebody that I care about said that’s exactly how it went down. Obviously you have to make sure things are true. Everything everyone says isn’t true. But if you don’t believe women or take their accusations very, very seriously, women will not speak up. And if women don’t speak up more women will be raped. So it’s really all about preventing other people from getting hurt, because Cosby’s on tour — ignoring all of the victims is a signal to other victims that when you speak up, people will not take care of you and do something about it.
Beyond your collaborations with Leslie, you’ve lately come to be seen as a champion of funny women onscreen, whether it’s producing Bridesmaids and Girls or working with Amy Schumer on Trainwreck. Was this a conscious, concerted move?
A lot of it isn’t about any conscious choice other than who’s crazy funny. With Bridesmaids, Kristin Wiig is as funny as anyone I’ve ever seen. I didn’t really think about male or female. And when the movie was done there’s a moment where people say, “This could be good for the issue of female comedy if it’s a success,” but we didn’t think about it. We just thought, Wow, there’s a lot of funny women in this movie, that’s kind of cool. There was no political agenda to it. But then it wakes you up — you realize, this is an underserved market. It seems epically wrong that women have to be dragged to so many male-dominated movies. And there are so many women that deserve big shots. Then I got handed Tiny Furniture, Lena’s first movie, and I thought, This is exactly what I love. She’s doing a personal movie that stars her family and it’s in a modern, James L. Brooks style. I’d love to work with her. It isn’t a male or female question — I’m not bumping into five other male Lena Dunhams that I’m turning down. I’m not meeting tons of Amy Schumers that I’m turning down.
But there’s a received industry wisdom that you’re using your stature to help break down.
The simplest way to look at it is, because there haven’t been anywhere near enough movies made by women, written by women, starring women, it’s all fresh terrain, and that’s exciting. I know that women want good movies. I didn’t need to be told that. It’s sad that there are so few. There’s not a big run of Gilda Radner movies we were left with. A lot of these people didn’t get those opportunities, and they should have. I’m aware, because I live in a house with three beautiful, hilarious, awesome women, that their point of view is fascinating and they should be able to tell stories in equal proportion to men, and it would be so wrong if for whatever weird reasons those doors were closed to them. And I’ve watched Leslie’s career and seen what the scripts are, and how many are good and how many are bad, and I always thought, If I can be helpful in having the good stack be a little higher, I’d like to. And I became a little more attuned to how lazy some of the writing for women was — they were just being used to service men or get a guy from A to B, or be an object of affection. But I look at it more as a fan — I want to see Amy Schumer in a movie.
There’s a parallel between Trainwreck and Knocked Up, in that they’re both about fuck-ups fumbling toward maturity. We just haven’t really seen a woman portraying this kind of fuck-up before.
I like movies about people who are a mess. And there are all sorts of people trying to get their acts together. If anything, I get accused of being conservative, that there’s some sort of hidden conservative message! But I see it as a human message — we’re all trying to connect, and when you’re young or immature or damaged it’s tricky to figure out how to make it work. And yes, I like when couples try to figure it out. I do.
There is something lower-case-c conservative about the value your movies place on building or protecting the family unit.
I like the family unit. And I could make a movie tomorrow that ends with everyone being single and deciding they don’t like each other, but that’s not such a bold move to make, either. There’s only so many ways to end these movies.
“It seems epically wrong that women have to be dragged to so many male-dominated movies.”
One of the other common raps against you is that you don’t know when to end them.
I’m rarely trying to compress time, I guess you could say. There’s an aspect of it which is me wanting to live with things and liking to create things that feel like life. I’m not the person that wants to speed the whole thing up. I’m trying to slow life down so it never ends and that may be why all the movies are 15 minutes longer than some people would want them to be. But then, I always say, “You’ll go home and watch eleven episodes of Breaking Bad in a row, so fuck you, I want my 15 minutes!”
Describe your job as a producer — what do you do?
I can use a sports analogy: Each time out, you’re kind of creating a team, and sometimes you’re the quarterback, sometimes you’re the water boy, sometimes you’re in the stands watching, sometimes you’re just the guy who delivers beers to the stadium. In every situation what I do is very different. Some things work because I was smart enough to shut up and let people do their work — to know that Greg Mottola is gonna kill it directing Superbad, so I’m gonna stay home for as much of it as possible. And then in another situation I know if I get deeply involved it’ll be better — I’m happy to look for, like, holes in the ship. I’m plugging holes, trying to anticipate problems, trying to make sure people have enough money. One of the reasons a lot of modern comedies work correctly is because we take a little more time, and that costs a little more money. These aren’t expensive movies but if you get 40 days from the studio instead of 30 you’re gonna get more jokes, more scenes, and you’re gonna have more time to think. So a lot of my job is to try to figure out how to create a financial situation where people can do their work and not rush their way through important scenes.
How do you get your way with studios?
I was powerless until a few things made money. The more things do well, the easier it is for me to create supportive situations for filmmakers. But I always believe that finding a new comedian is a great business. People love that they didn’t know Zach Galifianakis when The Hangover came out. People love Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect. They love Melissa McCarthy in everything she does with Paul Feig. That’s my main pitch: People love stars but they love finding the next person, too, and it’s inherently less expensive to make a movie with someone in the earlier part of their career. And when it breaks, it’s good business.
In terms of technical craft, how have you changed or improved as a filmmaker over the years?
I’m not technically adept, and I can’t really put into words how I approach it. I’m not one of those people that loves breaking down film. I’ll never be on set and go, “That reminds me of this shot from Psycho.” I just say, “Move it a little to the left.” I like movies that feel real. I don’t want you to ever think about me, so I don’t try to do anything where you’d go, “Nice shot.” I’m trying to make you forget it’s a movie.
How long did you hold out before searching for your own name in the hacked Sony e-mail database?
I didn’t. I didn’t do it.
My assistant took a quick peek, and after 20 seconds I said, “Let’s not do this.” So I haven’t done a deep search. But the stuff that came out early was really funny to me because it was me asking for things and Sony saying no. Me wanting to make Pineapple Express 2 at a certain budget and them forwarding the e-mails to each other saying no.
That whole hack unfolded in the context of Seth Rogen and James Franco making The Interview. What conversations did you have with Seth in the middle of that controversy?
I didn’t talk to Seth that much during it, but it’s scary when people can just post a threat online and everyone has to decide how to react to it. You can shut almost anything down with a well-placed threat. So we all have to decide, well, what do we react to? How are we going to deal with that in the future? I was always fully on Seth’s side about it. He and Evan Goldberg and James were aware that there were bad people running North Korea and they were trying to satirize that situation, and in addition to doing something really funny, they wanted to get people to pay more attention to it. So I’m proud of them for making the movie and I get really upset when people disparage it, because that took a lot of balls. It’s a fascinating moment in movie history, but I just look at it in the simplest way, which is that someone should make fun of evil people — that’s our job. I don’t know if anything productive comes of all of it, there’s no way to know. But we’re supposed to tell the truth.
When you have so many friends also making movies, how do you not compete with them? If you want Melissa McCarthy but Paul Feig has already locked her up, or you have a release date and Seth Rogen has a movie coming that day, how do you make it all work?
It happens. I used to get a little more thrown by it, but now I’ve resigned myself. If you read the Sony hacks, one of the e-mails was me trying to not have Trainwreck come out on the same day as Pixels, the new Sandler movie. I never want to be put in a situation where there’s anything positive in doing better than any of my friends. But we can’t control that, so I’ll send an e-mail and get ignored. And the dates shifted anyway. When it comes to actor availability, yeah, that happens all the time, where I can’t book somebody I’ve worked with before because they’re working with someone else I know. It can be frustrating, but it’s par for the course. That’s another reason I like working with people who have never starred in movies before, because they’re always available! One of the reasons I started doing that was because there are a lot of people I wanted to work with and I would keep trying to line things up, and I could never get their attention and get it on the calendar. There’s plenty of times when I call someone up and say, “Wanna do another one?” and they say no, because everything’s going great and they have a lot of options. I have to just decide it’s all fluid: I should be happy for everybody.
In Funny People, Sandler’s character, George Simmons, is diagnosed with a terminal disease. Is one of the subtexts that being a comedian — having that particular personality and wiring — is almost a worse fate than having a fatal blood condition?
My mom died of ovarian cancer, and I was writing Funny People while she was sick as a way of processing it. I had one idea that was about someone who got sick and learned nothing from it, then I had another idea about how it felt to be a young comedian mentored by older comedians. Then I realized, it can be the same movie. But it was written in deep sorrow. I didn’t want to market the movie by talking about my mom’s journey when she was sick, but I did notice that whenever she thought she was gonna die she seemed happier, and let go of her neuroses. And then she would take a new medicine and think everything was gonna work out, and she would start calling me up to talk about financial concerns and all the things that generally bothered her.
Another thing about Simmons is that he’s in this huge mansion, richer than his wildest dreams, and he’s miserable. That connects to the mansion we’re sitting in now, and it connects to something you’ve said about how, as an entertainer, all the success in the world won’t heal you.
It doesn’t do anything. There is a great distraction in thinking, When I get to the top of that hill, it’s all gonna be awesome. And then when you get to the top of the hill, you’re like, Oh, I guess now I have to really deal with my problems, because that didn’t work at all. I talk about this onstage a bit: It’s why Putin is taking back Ukraine. He’s just looking for new hills to climb. You need new impossible goals to distract you.
There’s a story about Steven Spielberg calling your office once to give you a compliment, and you had your receptionist lie and say you were out of town, so that he’d send a nice letter that you could frame.
Yes, that’s a funny story. I needed that letter! And you would think that filled the self-esteem tank. Like, “That should be good for a decade.” But it might have been good till noon the next day.