I hereby christen 2007 the Year of the Apatow. In a year when moviegoers were subjected to an unprecedented onslaught of overhyped, uninspired sequels and remakes, it was writer-director-producer Judd Apatow who came to our rescue with Knocked Up and Superbad, a pair of fresh, uproarious comedies that together scorched the box office to the tune of almost $300 million, proving definitively that a movie doesn't have to be based on a comic book or accompanied by a Roman numeral to make a profit.
Once left for dead after a couple of high-profile TV flops, Apatow is now Hollywood's most bankable behind-the-camera talent this side of Spielberg, with a handful of blockbusters under his belt and a stable of A-list actors, writers and directors at his disposal. And with a barrage of promising new releases in the pipeline, including high-profile collaborations with Adam Sandler (You Don't Mess with the Zohan), Owen Wilson (Drillbit Taylor) and Superbad's Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Pineapple Express), the one-time industry pariah looks poised to continue his unprecedented run of success well into 2009. He's branched out to the internet as well, partnering with pals Adam McKay and Will Ferrell on the humor website FunnyOrDie.com -- a move that appears all the more savvy with the prospect of a prolonged writers' strike driving more and more entertainment consumers to the net.
I sat down with Apatow last week at L.A.'s Standard Hotel, where the man recently crowned "The Smartest Person in Hollywood" (by the renowned braniacs at Entertainment Weekly, no less) was busy promoting his latest comedy, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, starring Talladega Nights scene-stealer John C. Reilly.
Walk Hard is the first full-on movie parody that you've produced. After the succes of Knocked Up and Superbad, what compelled you to switch gears?
I'm a big fan of movies like this. I loved The Rutles and Spinal Tap and all the Zucker Brothers movies. To me, it's going back to what I started doing, which is sketches and film parodies on The Ben Stiller Show. Some of my favorite sketches that I worked on were sketches like "Legends of Bruce Springsteen," which were people telling stories about when Springsteen showed up at their local bar and played for like five hours, and then mopped up after and combined the ketchup bottles.
So when Jake told me of this idea he had, I immediately thought, "Oh, this is hilarious and would be fun," but it's a real challenge to do a joke-for-joke, survive-on-how-funny-the-next-one-is movie. It makes you appreciate The Simpsons more than ever.
But it really was challenging. Walk Hard had a lot of elements that were new to me, like trying to be involved in how we create all the music, and how to make fun of a certain type of filmmaking while also doing it. Because the big joke of the movie is that we're making fun of movies that feel like they want Oscars, (with) "chewing the scenery" type lead performances. We're making fun of the style as much as the details of those movies.
How did you and Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard's director/co-writer) collaborate on the script?
Me and Jake outlined the movie on the phone. Every night after working on Knocked Up, I would call Jake and we'd spend two hours on the phone laughing and giggling about new scene ideas. We would say, "Oh, we gotta do him in a bad variety show in the '70s like The Sonny & Cher Show, when he's lost his muse and he's just covering other peoples' songs," and "We gotta do a sex scene where it's too animalistic, when they finally have sex and they're kissing and beating the crap out of each other at the same time." And we just listed 100-200 scene ideas, or ideas for different styles. And then at some point you have to sit down and go through it and circle everything that you think is actually doable. There are so many people that you can have fun with, but there's only so much time.
One of the recurring jokes in Walk Hard is the naked guy, who appears (or at least his genitalia appears) at various points throughout the movie. What was the casting process like for that role?
Jake had extras casting for someone that was comfortable showing their penis. And then they brought him a big stack of polaroids, and it was all these guys in their underwear, which led to this odd conversation of 'How do we know what it looks like?' Because it could be terrifying. You actually do need the right-looking penis, because the wrong penis could sicken people. If the penis is too large, men might get sad and stop laughing in comparison with this enormous penis. But as we went through the stack, only one guy actually just was naked. He had the funniest little smile on his face and Jake thought, "That's the guy." And that's who he hired. For the DVD we made a documentary about making that sequence, which we like to call a "c***umentary."
What else do you have planned for the Walk Hard DVD?
For this DVD, we have full performances of a lot of the songs that you only see a piece of in the movie. There's a bunch of documentaries about the making of the movie, both serious and with the reality level that Dewey Cox really existed. We like to show extended versions of scenes, so you see the Beatles sequence in the movie, but on the DVD it's like four times as long. We're gonna put a lot of demos for the songs on the DVD, so you can hear the songwriters' versions of the songs before John recorded them. There are whole movements in the movie that we didn't use. The first cut was almost three hours long. So for the DVD we're also gonna have a two-hour version -- which is a half-hour longer than the movie as it is -- called the "The Self-Indulgent, Almost Unbearably Long Director's Cut." So we'll satirize the long director's cut as well.
People have used terms like "The Apatow Brand" to describe the movies you produce. Do phrases like that make you cringe?
It's embarrassing and ridiculous, but I know what they're trying to say and I think that ultimately it's not an attack. [Laughs] That's all that matters. I don't think they say it as if the work is bad, I think they're saying that there's a certain type of comedy that hopefully is really funny, might be a little edgy or gross at times, and has a good heart. So I'm proud of that. That's what I'm going for. So they're not saying anything that's wrong.
But the word "brand" sounds so corporate.
It is. I mean, I don't approach any of it from a corporate point of view. It's kind of funny that that word gets applied. It's somewhat horrifying. But all that really matters is that they're allowing us to make movies that people are liking. If the business page needs to have a word to call it, I'm ok with it as long as when I say, "Can I make a reefer action movie," someone says yes.
And by "reefer action movie," you're referring to Pineapple Express, which comes out next summer. How did that project come about?
Years and years ago I watched True Romance and I thought Brad Pitt was so funny as a character who was on crack or meth, and it was only one scene. And I thought, "I wish this movie followed him out the door." I thought it would be great to do one of those pot movies, but with the action of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, that looked really good and was also filled with people who were stoned. So I came up with some ideas about how a story would work and then I collaborated on it with Seth and Evan, who then wrote the screenplay. And they just did an amazing job. Then we hired David Gordon Green to direct it. It's way better than it has any right to be. In the end, it's this really demented movie that's in the school of Superbad, but also has an enormous amount of action and violence. [Laughs] And we're really proud of it.
James Franco is hysterical, which you would never think in a million years, that James is this hilarious guy, because he's never shown that side of himself. Right now on FunnyOrDie.com we have this clip of Franco and Mila Kunis recreating a scene from the MTV show The Hills to show what life would be like if there were no writers. It's been getting a bazillion hits -- and it's very funny.
Can you tell us about your upcoming collaboration with Adam Sandler?
Adam is one of my oldest friends. He and I were roommates back in 1990. I did some polishes on Wedding Singer and Happy Gilmore, and my wife Leslie was in Big Daddy. We've always wanted to do a movie together. About six years ago, me and Robert Smigel wrote this movie called You Don't Mess with the Zohan, which is about a Mossad agent in Israel who's burnt out from the violence and wants to go AWOL and move to America and be a hairdresser. And it's a really funny action movie. I've been looking at some cut scenes and it is riotously funny. And there's no one funnier than Robert Smigel, so it's very exciting just to have been a small part of that movie, because Smigel is as funny as they come.
When do you plan on directing again?
I was about to start writing when the writers' strike started. I was in the middle of a little creative paralysis, so now I can blame that on the strike. My plan -- if the strike ends next year -- is to write a movie and then try to shoot it in the fall.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story opens nationwide on December 21, 2008.
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