EXCLUSIVE: Judd Apatow on 'The Big Sick' and Clean Movies Censorship: 'It's Pretty Sleazy'
By John Boone
Mentorship is not a new hat for Judd Apatow -- after all, he's the guy who helped guide a then-unknown Lena Dunham and Girls to success. Lately though, he's only increased his efforts, with Pete Holmes on Crashing, Paul Rust on Love and now Kumail Nanjiani's first feature film, The Big Sick.
"I think it's among the best movies we've ever been a part of," Apatow says of The Big Sick, out June 23. "It's scary to come out in the summer against all these behemoths, but there's always room for one movie that people go see just because it's awesome. We're hoping that there's a little sleeper appeal."
I sat down with Apatow at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, along with fellow producer Barry Mendel (who produced Apatow's Funny People, This Is 40 and Trainwreck, as well as Oscar-nominated films The Sixth Sense and Munich), to discuss their movie and Sony's now-scuttled "clean" movies initiative, which Apatow denounced on Twitter, saying, "Shove the clean versions up your a**es!"
ET: You both have had long careers, including numerous movies you've worked on together. In terms of looking for projects, what do you find inspires you these days?
Judd Apatow: I like human comedies -- or dramedies. More than anything, I'm interested in people just dealing with everyday things that are difficult, and there is more than enough comedy and drama in that. Every once in a while it's fun to do something big and silly, so I also really enjoy when I get a chance to work with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay or with the Lonely Island guys. But I'm always fascinated by people dealing with the everyday difficult stuff in life.
Barry Mendel: For me, it's like, I forgot who said it -- it was maybe Jesse Helms? -- about pornography: "I don't how I describe it, but I know it when I see it." [Laughs] I'm more that way. I don't really have a philosophy about it. In this case, when Kumail came in and told us the story of what happened with Emily, it was just like, "Wow." Just, like, the light goes on.
Do you think a project can ever be too autobiographical?
Apatow: I think the key is that you have to always be aware that it's a movie. The audience doesn't care that most of this happened. They just want a good movie. During development, we definitely said, "Well, that's what happened, but it's kind of boring. So, maybe we could spice that up a little bit." [Laughs] We're not presenting this as an 100 percent accurate story. It's just the inspiration for our movie.
Many of your movies also draw inspiration from your life. Is that something you had to wrestle with in your writing, writing what you know but not being confined by the historical details?
Apatow: I just never thought anything about me was interesting, so I didn't think about writing from my personal experience.
Mendel: It's almost like the opposite journey, of writing about things that were fantastical and moving towards the personal.
Apatow: Yeah, and I think a lot of people do that! It's why people like Louis [C.K.], after decades of work as he got more and more personal, people connected with it more. It's always a big mix between fabricated and real things, as it should be. I mean, it's the only fodder you have to create with.
You are both known for nurturing young talent. And obviously that talent is what catches your eye, but what does someone like Kumail do to keep you invested?
Apatow: I think that he works so hard. I like working with people on their first movies. I think that you never get that level of effort again. And I think that most people only have a couple of amazing stories from their lives, so you're getting the best of them. And I like the passion that people have when they're trying to prove they can make a movie or be a movie star. Later in your career, you just get offered a script and maybe you get a week or two to punch it up, and maybe they rehearse it for a day before they shoot, and that's why a lot of movies don't come out well. But when you do something like this, where we developed it for three or four years before we shoot it, there's so much love and care that goes into it. That's what I like! I like being at the moment of inception for people.
Mendel: I would say Kristen [Wiig on Bridesmaids], Amy [Schumer] and Kumail had never written a script before, so they're panicked every night. They're waking up in the middle of the night with ideas and writing them down. It's like they can't believe they're getting paid to do it. It's not a job. It's the greatest thing that ever happened to them. So, it's so great for us to get to work with people who have that vibe about what we're doing. It refreshes our experience of what we do.
Apatow: Because when you're making your 20th movie, it might be the 20th most incredible thing that's ever happened to you! [Laughs]
Judd, how do you balance producing those projects with writing and directing your own?
Apatow: It always energizes me with my own work. It's always a reminder how much I should care and how truthful I can be. I think in the last few years, I haven't been able to write as much, because I've been working on the TV show with Pete Holmes, Crashing, and Love on Netflix. But that's OK, because I think the world is changing and all that matters is that I'm creating things.
Mendel: You're also working on your third documentary.
Apatow: Yes. I'm working on a documentary about Garry Shandling right now and we have a documentary about the Avett Brothers that's going to be on HBO in January. So, I've been enjoying that format. I'm just happy to make stuff. Ultimately, I don't think it matters what the frequency is of me writing or directing a movie. It doesn't really matter to anybody else. I'm just trying to put good things out there.
You recently called Sony Pictures' clean movies initiative "absolute bullsh*t." What would something like that mean for your movies? [Two films that Apatow produced, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers, were of the first films Sony made clean versions of.]
Apatow: Well, it goes against everything you want in your relationship with a studio. The most important agreement you have is that they will not f**k with your movie once it's done. And so it's pretty sleazy to say, "We're going to take the version of the movie you like the least and try to distribute it to even more people." When you edit a movie for television or for an airline, you're doing it very reluctantly. And you don't want people to watch it that way! But it is part of the business that you can't prevent. It preceded you. But they're trying to create a new initiative, and we're allowed to say, "No. We've agreed to ruin our movies for television and airlines and we're hopeful that due to streaming, most people aren't watching it in those formats. We do not want to spread it." And our movies were not built to be made for children. That's the other weird part about it is, Now I can show it to six year olds! Well, even the essence of it isn't meant for six year olds, or whoever you're marketing it to. But it's a real violation of the spirit of our creative relationship, and I'm assuming that they will quickly realize it and not do it.
That basically answers my last question, which was you have the theatrical release and then sometimes an extended or unrated cut. Is there a way to make a PG or PG-13 version of your movie that you'd be happy with?
Apatow: That's not even the question. The question is, Whose decision is it? I could edit it to, like, a six minute short if I want to! But that becomes the decision of the filmmaker. If Martin Scorsese wants to do a 14-minute, clean Wolf of Wall Street for kindergarteners, I guess he should be allowed to do it. But certainly the head of the studio shouldn't be allowed to do that without his approval. That's the issue. And I do think it will get quickly resolved.
Mendel: In France they call it, Le Droit Moral.
Apatow: What does that mean?
Mendel: The moral rights. Of the artist. The artist is implied in the French version.
I kind of want to see that Wolf of Wall Street for kindergarteners. I think if you edited out any scene with swearing or nudity, it would only be 14 minutes anyway.
Apatow: [Laughs] Exactly. I remember watching Goodfellas on a plane once, and every time they said the C-word, instead they would say "Bundt cake." And you could tell it was kind of an eff you from someone in the Scorsese world. Actually, you know what it was? It was Glengarry Glen Ross. [Directed by James Foley.]
Mendel: We did it on Rushmore, too. We did "foot rub" for "handjob." Every time it said "handjob," we just said "foot rub."
Apatow: I think we had one where we were trying to replace every curse in the entire movie with the word "tomato."
[Note: As Apatow predicted, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment soon after announced they would no longer release the "clean version" of a film if the director objected, claiming, “We believed we had obtained approvals from the filmmakers involved for use of their previously supervised television versions as a value added extra on sales of the full version."]