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Judd Apatow is back in the director’s seat for ‘The King of Staten Island’

Ed Symkus
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Herald-Journal

Writer-director-producer and sometime standup comic Judd Apatow broke into the movie and television business three decades ago as a writer for the Grammy Awards. He worked his way into coproducing TV specials, then creating and writing for TV series, and earned his first directing assignment while writing for “The Larry Sanders Show.” Along the way, he got his first movie writing credit for “Heavyweights,” and his first theatrical directing credit for “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

Since then, as writer-director-producer in movies and TV he hasn’t slowed down. But it’s been five years since he directed his last feature, the comedy (with dramatic elements) “Trainwreck.” Now he’s back in the director’s chair, but his current film, “The King of Staten Island,” is more of a dramatic film with comedy elements.

It stars standup comic Pete Davidson, playing a fictional, alternate universe version of himself, and was written by Davidson, his pal Dave Sirus, and Apatow, who added the dramatic parts to the script by Davidson and Sirus.

The based-on-fact parts involve 24-year-old Scott (Davidson), whose fireman father died during 9/11, leaving Scott, his sister, and their mom to make their way through some tough emotional times. Davidson’s father was a fireman who died during 9/11, when Davidson was 7. The film’s central story got its start there, and though it stays rooted in reality, it goes off in all sorts of different directions.

Apatow spoke about the film in a Zoom interview from his Los Angeles office.

Q: This film has got to be very personal for Pete. How did you go about bringing his life into the script?

A: We moved slowly into that aspect of it. I didn’t think it was going to get that personal when we first started. Pete was a teenager when he started doing standup. He was doing open mic nights when he was 15. So, the movie is what might have happened to Pete if he didn’t have a dream and if he didn’t work so hard, and he wound up on Staten Island, living at home, without direction. And when Scott’s mom starts dating a fireman, he’s forced to confront a lot of issues that have held him back.

Q: You’ve done a lot more producing and writing than directing. What made you decide to direct this one?

A: I met Pete when he did a cameo in “Trainwreck,” and I knew he was someone I wanted to make a movie with. We played around with one premise that probably wasn’t the best fit. Then slowly we seemed to be gravitating toward this area. I wasn’t supposed to be the director. I was developing it and writing it, with him. But at a certain point I thought, “Maybe I’m the right person to do this.” I knew it would be a movie that would require a lot of rehearsal and improvisation to get it to be funny and truthful in the right way. A lot of times when I hire directors, it’s because I feel that the script is working. On this one, I thought we’d discover most of it in the process of making it, and I felt I had a handle on how to do that.

Q: There are a lot of long, two-person scenes. Were they by design from the start, or developed on the set?

A: I tend to work that way. I think it’s interesting to have intimate moments. I like seeing how people slowly try to open up to each other. It’s so hard to say certain things to other people. We’re all so guarded and concerned that we’re going to get hurt. So, I’m sure I gravitate to watching the dance between two people as they try to move toward difficult subjects.

Q: And Bill and Pete already knew each other. Do you think that helped them in their one-on-one scenes?

A: Yeah, they did standup together, and Bill’s always been a bit of a mentor to Pete. That’s one of the reasons why we knew that it would work well. They would care for each other, and I felt that even though [their characters] hate each other for a lot of the movie, you would feel that warmth, anyway.

Q: Pete’s real-life grandfather Stephen has a great speech in a scene about colleges where he’s dissing Bill Cosby and Bernie Madoff and Trump. Was that your writing or Pete’s?

A: No, Pete didn’t write that one. (laughs) When Pete was a kid, his mom was a school nurse. She was also an emergency room nurse, simultaneously. So, Pete spent a lot of time with his grandfather, Stephen. And when Stephen was a kid, his dad ran a movie theater, way back in the day. Stephen loves movies, and he was the one who would watch movies with Pete when Pete was a very little kid. So, a lot of Pete’s love for cinema is from his grandfather. It’s very meaningful to Pete that his grandfather is in the movie. I think that was Pete’s happiest day on the set.

“The King of Staten Island” premieres in select drive-in theaters and on most streaming platforms on June 12.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.