Judd Apatow knows that in casting his real life wife and children in his latest film, the seriocomic Knocked Up spin-off/sequel This Is 40, he's inadvertently invited the world to peek into his own life, marriage, issues, and neuroses. Still, despite the many parallels one might draw between Paul Rudd's Pete (now a struggling indie record label owner) and Leslie Mann's Debbie (whose own small business and marital woes are nothing compared to impending big 4-0), Apatow insists most of This is 40 is fictionalized. Okay, much of it. Well, he doesn't escape to the bathroom to play games on his iPad like Pete does. "I’m more about reading the Huffington Post," Apatow joked.
Apatow may have built his comic empire on R-rated man-child tales rife with fart and dick jokes (not to mention sweet, sweet bromance) but with This is 40 the writer-director takes a considered look inward at marriage and relationships. They're never perfect — even between Hollywood creatives like Apatow and Mann, whose daughters Maude and Iris play heightened versions of themselves in the film — but as Apatow mused in our conversation rife with relationship real talk, personal reflections, and necessary tangents about Maude's real life LOST obsession and Apatow's 1995 kids' camp movie Heavyweights: "Imagine that you had to spend every second of the rest of your life with your best friend. How often do you think they would annoy you?"
Out of all the characters you’ve created onscreen, you spun off Pete and Debbie into their own film — the two characters whose lives are closest to your own. What was the impetus for wanting to explore this particular relationship further?
I have two interests; I’m trying to make funny movies and I also want to explore the human condition, and I want to be truthful about it. And the truth is in any relationship you have good times and loving times, and sometimes it goes really dark. And sometimes out of nowhere, something just blows. People bring a lot of baggage into their relationships and I think most people are pretty neurotic. Life is pretty overwhelming for most people. If you have any concern about being a good spouse and parent and having your job work out and your health — you’re just spinning too many plates. And once in a while we snap, so I was trying to show a truthful version of what happens when that occurs — sometimes that’s really funny and sometimes it’s just sad, and people’s fears come out.
When you first began working up the seeds of This is 40, was there any hesitation knowing that people out there might watch the film and wonder, ‘So that’s how it is in their family?’ about you and Leslie?
For some reason I didn’t worry about because I thought we already did it with Knocked Up. And it is a mutated version of us. It’s very heightened — a lot of the moments, the worst moments, for dramatic and comedy purposes – but for the most part we’re pretty boring. Once in a while it does go the wrong way, but then you have to figure out how to get it back. That’s what a long-term commitment is about; sometimes you make mistakes and you have to apologize and be kind to each other again. I always say to my kids whenever they ask me, ‘Why do you guys fight?’ — I say, ‘Imagine that you had to spend every second of the rest of your life with your best friend. How often do you think they would annoy you?’ And, you know, that’s how we feel about it. We love each other but we’re complicated people — and it’s hard for me to know if part of it is this is why we’re in this business, because we’re sensitive, complicated, wounded people and we’re trying to get along with each other. [Laughs] But most of it is fabricated. Nothing in the movie feels specifically true, it didn’t happen to us, but the emotions are very truthful, the feelings and the conflicts are all based on things that we relate to.
Even so, you know that some folks out there are going to imagine you sitting on the toilet playing Words With Friends on your iPad every morning.
I’m more about reading the Huffington Post. [Laughs] I would sit on the toilet all day if my legs wouldn’t go numb. If I could create a toilet seat that didn’t lead to my legs going numb…
This is 40 is also a rare opportunity to see Leslie front and center; she has this wonderful ability to play deep sadness and humor simultaneously. Do you have a favorite scene of hers from the films you’ve worked on together?
My favorite scene that we’ve ever done together was the scene in Funny People where Adam Sandler’s character apologizes to her character for cheating on her when they were young, and ruining their chance at having a long-term relationship. We shot it with three cameras and it was very emotional, and I was proud of both of them. Of everything I’ve done it’s one of my two or three favorite scenes. She has a way of being very funny while also being deeply emotional, so she can be dramatic and show pain and get laughs at the same time. I’m not even really sure how she accomplishes that, it’s just some aspect of her vibe which allows her to do many different colors at once. That’s the fun of working with her. And she’s always willing to do whatever it takes to get to an honest moment. She never says, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ or ‘That would be embarrassing,’ if anything she pushes to go farther and wants to get to the core of her character. There were definitely moments when we were making [This is 40] when we said, ‘What are we doing? This is crazy’ — especially if there was a day when we weren’t getting along. We’re making this movie about a couple and their love and their troubles, so on the days when we’re not liking each other it just feels like a complete waste of time.
Did it also then help to be making this movie? You have entire scenes where the dialogue pokes fun at couples therapy-speak, and it’s hilarious to point out how much, in the heat of the moment in a fight with your significant other, no amount of preparedness or civility training helps.
Yes! I know everything about therapy and so can break every rule of how you’re supposed to communicate in five seconds. You just have to learn to slow your brain down and be patient and not feel the need to win every moment, and I don’t know if there’s anything harder on Earth than doing that. Giving up your need to be correct is brutal, especially for me because I think I have to be very confident in my day job. All day long I’m making decisions very quickly and I have to be very strong about it, so for me to come home and be soft and open and not leap to pounce on a problem and come up with an answer and execute it is hard for me — and it’s truly annoying to Leslie. [Laughs]
I can imagine!
Any time a problem comes up, my thought is ‘Let’s solve this in the next five seconds and move on!’ And Leslie might want to explore the emotional life of some issue and tell me how she’s feeling for a really long time, and I just want to give her five seconds. That’s a big adjustment.
This is 40 is also really about parents and children — every one of us is messed up because of our parents, and by the same token we’re great because of our parents. Pete and Debbie both deal with that burden.
Whatever you didn’t get from your parents, you want more of from your spouse. So if you feel like you were abandoned, you’re going to be needy. If you feel like your parents were engulfing, you’re going to want to push your spouse away. It’s really hard to fight against that; I find that the imprinting you have when you’re a kid is really difficult to wipe away. Whenever I’m really upset about something it’s always a result of something from the past.
But that’s a revelation that you really only have when you’re in your thirties, maybe. I don’t know that I would have really understood it so much when I was 20.
Well, people are so busy trying to earn a living they put very little time into understanding themselves. That’s something that happens later in life, and partially what the movie’s about. I find myself embarrassed that I’m still neurotic about things that happened to me as a kid, because my memory’s disappearing so I don’t even remember the incidents, but I remember the neuroses are and they’re not going away.
How do you think viewers of a younger generation will react differently to the film?
A lot of it depends on what you’re looking for in a movie. Some people go to movies to escape. I like movies that make me think and feel and I don’t necessarily have to feel good the whole time. So I like movies to be as entertaining and hilarious as I can make them, but I’m also trying to stick in your craw a little bit and talk about some tougher ideas. If that’s what you want, I think it’s a movie you’d really enjoy. But if you really want to shut your brain down, then I have other movies that you can rent. [Laughs]