Maclean's Interview: Judd Apatow

Hollywood's most prolific writer-director, Judd Apatow, talks to Kate Fillion about nerds, critics, and casting his kids

Q: Was being a nerdy kid what made you who you are today?

A: Yeah. The sad thing is that now I’m married, I have two children, my career is going well, but I still couldn’t feel like more of a goofball. The feeling doesn’t go away, which I’m finding deeply depressing.

Q: Come on. You’ve had a hand in eight movies this year, including producing Stepbrothers and Pineapple Express, which premiere in a few weeks. How can you preserve your self-image as a geek when you’re basically running an empire?

A: Sometimes I think it’s just hard-wired, like your brain was wiring itself when you were a child and it’s impossible to undo the strange damage. You just always have that insecurity. As I get older, I realize older people feel exactly the same as younger people. You tend to get stuck in your patterns and it doesn’t matter what else happens. It’s rare that you meet someone at a high school reunion who’s completely changed.

Q: Did you go to your 20th high school reunion?

A: I did, in 2005. I think The 40-Year-Old Virgin [which he directed and co-wrote] had just come out. It was very fun. Actually, I had a lot of friends in high school, I just had interests that were different than most people’s. Nobody in my school was interested in comic books or any of the things I was obsessed with — I was completely alone. So when I came to L.A. to go to film school, I was shocked to find that there were thousands of people who have all the same interests I do.

Q: Was everybody fawning over you at the reunion?

A: Not at all. You know those times when you think, “I’ll do well, and then I’ll have my moment of triumph?” People really don’t care that much, they lead their own lives. Actually, as I get older, I realize my high school experience was really not that bad. But it doesn’t change the fact that I was this awful athlete picked last in gym class every day for 13 years. That’s enough to mess up your head right there.

Q: You cast your daughters in Knocked Up. Did you have any qualms about that?

A: My wife was concerned, I really pushed. But they did such a great job. They did get calls about being in other movies. We didn’t want any of that to happen. With me, they’re protected and with friends and it’s an odd, fun experience. But they’re young now, five and 10, and they have more important things to learn, like long division.

Q: How would you feel if one of your kids showed signs of incipient geekiness?

A: I don’t know. I know my own parents were concerned that I spent a lot of time alone in my room watching TV. I would watch TV from three in the afternoon till 12:30 at night many a day. I was in my own little world. For years, from the time I was in the sixth grade, I would go home every day and write letters to every celebrity I could think of, to see how many autographed pictures I would get back in the mail. And as a teenager, I pretended to work for a real radio station, not the high school station, where the signal didn’t go past the parking lot. So I was able at 15 and 16 years old to talk to a lot of people that I looked up to — Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Steve Allen, John Candy, people like that — and ask them what was their career path. I was asking, “How do you be funny?” The most important thing I learned was patience — everyone said it would take a long time. So very early on, I wasn’t in a big rush. I was trying very hard to get better, I didn’t feel the need to be instantly successful, and that has helped me throughout the years because I try to stay in the mode of learning. When I finish the movie, I instantly think, “What I can do better? What am I weak at?”

Q: What is your weakness?

A: Well, I’m not the most visual director the world has ever seen! When Knocked Up [which he wrote and directed] and Superbad [which he produced] came out, there are similarities in terms of comedic style, but I would look at Superbad, which was directed by Greg Mottola, and think, “Why does his movie look so good? It’s way better than mine. Wow, he’s moving the camera a lot — how does he do that?” I’m very verbal, I started as a stand-up comedian, so I don’t see people running around, my brain is more static.

Q: Do you care what critics think?

A: I’ve had movies bomb with terrible reviews, I’ve had movies make a lot of money with terrible reviews, I’ve had movies get good reviews and make money. And I like it best when the movies do well and the reviewers like them. I love magazines and film criticism, so I eat it up. I’m not one of those people who says, “I never read anything.” I generally read all of it.

Q: Which critics do you most admire?

A: I really like David Denby [at the New Yorker]. He’s written some really nice reviews and some really rough reviews. He wrote in a review of The 40-Year-Old Virgin that it was clear that Steve’s relationship with the Catherine Keener character would be very difficult but ultimately would be worth it. And that gave me some inspiration to attempt Knocked Up. Most romantic comedies are about people who have all these obstacles to falling in love, but they’re generally pretty soft and kooky. I wanted to try to make a movie about how difficult and painful it can be even when you’re in love. When people say some aspects of it are sexist, I think it’s because I’m showing some behaviour that you don’t usually see onscreen. Sandra Bullock never says, “I’m going to tear your f–king head off because you’re so f–king stupid” to Hugh Grant. But in real life, most men have heard that — and we have done things that are equally rough.

Q: Your standard protagonist is an insecure, nerdy slacker. The women in your movies tend to be more together and grown-up. What do they see in the geeks?

A: I don’t know that the women are more together. Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up is meant to be wound tight and career-driven.

Q: So you’re saying the women have better jobs but they’re neurotic?

A: Well, as neurotic as the men. If you look at Katherine Heigl’s character, she doesn’t even seem to have any friends because she’s obsessed with her work, and her work is being an entertainment reporter! I don’t think the guys are a mess and the women are together, it’s more that the women are pushing the guys to get their s–t together, which I think is a natural part of life. I don’t know a lot of guys who are pushing hard to have their wives get their s–t together, but I know a lot of women who are upset with their husbands.

Q: Aside from your wife, Leslie Mann, who’s in a lot of your movies, and your producing partner Shauna Robertson, most of the people you make movies with are men. Do you think there’s a difference between a male and a female sense of humour?

A: I’m not very smart about breaking down the comedy in that way. My wife tends to challenge me when I’m working on the female roles, she beats up on me about making surethat they have the proper amount of depth, and are not just there to serve the men. Obviously my wife makes me laugh a lot and is an important collaborator for me, she’s always about getting to the truth of the character. But she doesn’t see herself as a funny person. Things just come out funny when she does them. In fact, she gets mad at me if I say, “How do we make this funny?” She just wants to make it real.

Q: Some of your best friends — Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey — are comedians, and your next movie, Funny People, is about comedians. Is that stereotype, of the comedian as a person who’s crying on the inside, valid?

A: I think every person on earth is crying on the inside. I don’t think that’s particular to comedians. Everyone has their own private torture. The interesting thing about comedians is that sometimes they’re more comfortable with large groups of people than they are with one person. I think comedians get the approval they crave from performing and doing stand-up and from movies, and sometimes that approval allows them not to learn to be intimate with one person because they’re getting so much from so many, and then they don’t have to really question how shut down they are. I had a therapist once who said, “It’s really hard for successful people to get sane because their success supports their mental problems.”

Q: A few of your recent movies, like Drillbit Taylor, haven’t done well at the box office. Do you feel people are rooting for you to fail, after having monster hits?

A: I don’t think anyone really cares enough to root for me or against me. You always hear people babbling on the Internet, but you could read those posts about anything.

Q: Your Hollywood doesn’t sound shallow and venal, it sounds friendly and collegial.

A: A lot of finding a way to have a pleasant experience in Hollywood is locating like-minded people you can collaborate with. It’s taken me so many years to find studio heads who are fun to interact with. I like the executives I work with. If some of the work is profitable, they tend to leave you alone, and then it’s more fun and the work gets better, because it becomes a little more pure, it’s not watered down by committee.

Q: You encourage improvisation and collaboration, you use the same stable of actors repeatedly — you’ve basically brought a TV approach to film. Why didn’t this work for you in TV, judging from the cancellation of your series, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared?

A: In TV, you’re a victim of scheduling and marketing. You can do something very good, but if they happen to put it on at the wrong time, you might be dead before you’ve evenstarted. With a movie, if it turns out well, they tend to try their best to make it a hit. Television is much more difficult because at every moment, the network can force you to change things based on their belief about what would make it popular. You’re in a constant debate with a gun to your head, and the gun is cancellation. So it’s hard to win the arguments. Unless you’re a mega-hit instantly, you’re in for a constant conversation that either leads to you watering down your work, or you fight so hard that they hate you and cancel you.

Q: What are you best at: writing, producing or directing?

A: What’s most important to me is the writing and directing. With producing, I’m trying to give honest advice to people who are working on projects I believe in, but I’m also trying to stay out of the way. I’m popping in saying, “Maybe you should try it like this,” but for the most part I’m creating and managing teams I hope will inspire each other.

Q: Managing teams isn’t easy. How did you learn to do it?

A: The first job I had was creating The Ben Stiller Show. I was 24 and had no idea what I was doing, so I read all these Stephen Covey books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. They are actually really good! I haven’t read them since, but I have to say, all the answers were in there.