To Make ‘The King Of Staten Island,’ Judd Apatow Mined Pete Davidson’s Grief

Judd Apatow has been at the forefront of many careers, having directed Steve Carell, Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer in their first headlining movie roles. His latest gamble is Pete Davidson, the self-deprecating “Saturday Night Live” breakout whose tabloid-friendly romances and interpersonal grievances sometimes supersede his comedy.

The King of Staten Island,” which Apatow co-wrote with Davidson and Dave Sirus, isn’t technically Davidson’s first lead. That distinction goes to a different arrested-development dramedy, “Big Time Adolescence,” which premiered on Hulu in March. But “Staten Island” marks Davidson’s inaugural foray into traditional big-screen Hollywood stardom — or at least it would if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t relegated the film to video-on-demand platforms. 

Inspired by his own life, Davidson plays Scott, a slacker in his mid-20s who lives with his frustrated mother (Marisa Tomei), smokes a ton of weed and makes a hobby out of giving neighborhood pals regrettable tattoos. His essence will be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to Davidson since he landed on “SNL” in 2014. The root of the story, however, stems from Scott’s grief. Like Davidson’s father, his dad was a firefighter who died on the job years earlier. Scott still hasn’t overcome the loss. “The King of Staten Island” chronicles his messy journey toward maturity, a common Apatowian theme.

“I just always wanted to show where I’m coming from,” Davidson told CBS. “Pretty much how a tragedy affects a family. And I think, like, there hasn’t been many of those movies that are, like, really honest and transparent.”

“Staten Island” is one of many comedies to hit VOD while theaters remain closed, whereas movies in most other genres have seen their releases delayed until after the health crisis passes. By phone last week, I asked Apatow what he thinks that says about comedy’s stature within the film industry and what it was like to mine Davidson’s emotional wounds.

You were already going to be promoting this movie in the midst of a global health pandemic. Now you’re also promoting it in the midst of a very different type of crisis. Does it feel weird to talk about comedy right now?

Yeah. When we made this movie, one of the main motivations was for Pete to pay tribute to his mom, who was an emergency nurse for his entire childhood, and his father, who was a firefighter. We knew we were telling a story about sudden trauma and grief, but we also wanted to talk about heroes and people who are willing to take great risks to help other people. And that’s one of the reasons why we were excited to get the movie out now. We thought people need a break and a laugh, but also it might help them process some of the trauma we’re all experiencing at this moment. It’s certainly an important time and scary time, and I certainly hope productive things come of it. We’re just doing our best to put something positive into the world. 

Marisa Tomei and Pete Davidson in "The King of Staten Island."

Marisa Tomei and Pete Davidson in “The King of Staten Island.”

The reason “The King of Staten Island” is premiering on VOD is due to COVID-19, but did some part of you think it was inevitable that eventually you’d be directing a movie for VOD or streaming platforms?

I produced one of the first original movies for Netflix, which was “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” and we had a great experience doing that, so I’ve always felt like that was going to be part of my work going forward. Some movies will be in the theaters; some movies will be on streaming or video on demand. The world is changing and each project will have its own distribution. Obviously, when you make a comedy, you prefer that it’s in the theater, but it didn’t seem appropriate to hoard the movie for a year in order to have that experience. I had an intense feeling that this movie is supposed to come out now.

The movie aligns with what we know about the typical Apatowian protagonist, someone who is seeking a kind of self-fulfillment and maturity process, maybe without knowing it. But it’s also different in tone, a bit gentler and more melancholy. There aren’t as many antics, if you will. Did it feel like you were doing something different from the movies you’ve made before?

It did. I was aware that we were telling a story which required every aspect of it to be credible and authentic. It isn’t the kind of movie where I can suddenly cut to a giant, comedic, silly set piece. I wanted to tell the story well, knowing that it will be funny at moments but that wasn’t the highest priority. A lot of the editing process was me and our editors trying to decide how funny it should be. And when does comedy distract from our dramatic story? I certainly tried to be disciplined about not being hungry for the laugh. And one of the most gratifying parts of this process was we showed a bunch of audiences while we were still editing and none of them said, “It’s less funny than the other movies.”

Did you end up cutting a joke or set piece that you were particularly fond of for tonal reasons?

I didn’t cut any sequences, but within certain sequences, I was careful not to pick jokes which felt like they made any character feel sitcom-y or created for comedy’s sake. I didn’t want you ever to think that anyone was in a reality that was different than Pete and his family.

So, fewer traditional laugh lines.

It just all had to be character-driven and completely credible. I always say to everybody, “People are funny in real life,” so you still can get to those places without having it be false. You just have to be very thoughtful about creating those characters and those moments. If people feel like you’re stretching to get to it just for comedy’s sake, that’s when it ruins the movie.

Pete Davidson and Judd Apatow on the set of "The King of Staten Island."

Pete Davidson and Judd Apatow on the set of “The King of Staten Island.”

Pete has found a lot of success on “SNL” and in the stand-up world. What was it specifically that convinced you he could carry a two-hour movie? Those things don’t always translate from one to the other.

I met him when he was 20 years old when he did a cameo in “Trainwreck,” and we were all very impressed at how hilarious he was at such a young age. I did stand-up at that age. I was terrible. He was just riotously funny and also a fascinating person with a very unique life story. I feel like people really feel for him. They root for him. I didn’t have any doubt that he could carry something like this.

What was most gratifying was that he was a very courageous writer, that he never held back. He never said, “I’m uncomfortable talking about this.” He was open to deep exploration, and a lot of it is very tough stuff. It is a movie about loss and grief and what it does to you and how it can hold you back. He was very open to spending years considering it and turning it into fiction.

Did anything about getting this movie set up look different than your previous projects? Studios don’t seem to make as many traditional wide-release comedies these days, and I wonder if anyone questioned whether Pete Davidson has enough name-brand value for a big summer vehicle. Do you feel like tides are shifting in terms of getting a green light?

I think that Universal Pictures has a long history of making very successful comedies. We’ve done the majority of our films with them. They did the “American Pie” movies, the “Meet the Parents” films. They love comedy and they have remained big supporters of our work.

One aspect of my [production] company is we like to break new talent or people who haven’t been the leads of movies before. I’ve always felt that the audience really wants that and that they love that. As a result, we’ve been able to make movies like “Bridesmaids,” “Trainwreck” and “The Big Sick,” and we’ve had a lot of success. So this really wasn’t different at all than any of the others. 

I do think something’s happening in the world of filmmaking, which is an international hit can make a billion dollars so generally the industry wants to put most of its focus on hitting a grand-slam home run. But there’s always a place for movies like ours so luckily we keep getting our shots.

What, if anything, do you think it says about the comedy landscape that almost every comedy scheduled to open in May and June pivoted to VOD, whereas most other movies opted to wait for theaters to reopen?

I think that happened because everybody feels like there’s going to be a pileup of very expensive action-superhero-spectacle movies when the theaters open and it will be hard for smaller movies to compete with that.

But there was once a time when, box office-wise, comedies wouldn’t automatically be considered small. It’s interesting to hear you talk about this because you’re probably the most famous comedy director working today. Outside of your own films, I wonder if you feel there’s a broader drought going on compared to the days when we’d get a Whoopi Goldberg movie one week, a Jim Carrey movie the next and an Albert Brooks movie after that. It feels like the comedy heyday has faded a bit.

I think that there’s multiple reasons why that happened. One is the spec-script market, for the most part, went away. Every day you would read the trades, and someone had sold a screenplay or bits for a screenplay. At some point, the studios decided they didn’t want to work that way. There’s still some of that, but way less. At the same time, DVD went away, and that was a way a lot of these movies made money. And at the same time, streaming took off and a lot of writers found enormous success not by writing screenplays but by creating series. I feel like streaming has siphoned off a lot of the great comedic talent, both in writing and acting. I don’t hear a lot of my friends say, “I’m going to write a movie.” They all say they’re going to write a pilot.

And that wasn’t the case when you were making “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up”?

Yeah. Streaming didn’t exist and nobody who wasn’t a veteran of television was getting the opportunity to create a show. It used to be that you had to be on staff for a decade before you could create a show. [Now] a lot of people are creating successful TV series before they’ve even staffed a show. All the rules have changed.

I always say if a comedy is great, people tend to go. I feel like if somebody made the next “Hangover” today, it would make a billion dollars. If there was an equivalent to “There’s Something About Mary,” it would be gigantic. People still want it, and hopefully there’ll be some sort of adjustment where we get more of it.

For the longest time, you wrote all your own scripts. Then Amy Schumer wrote “Trainwreck,” and you collaborated with Pete Davidson and Dave Sirus on “Staten Island.” Are you itching to write something solo again?

Potentially. I like talking to people. I get bored being alone. I’ve had a great time working on television shows like “Crashing” and “Love” and “Girls.” I don’t know if I’m seeking to go alone into my office for a year or two. I enjoy being around people, but it may happen.

Pete Davidson in a 2019 episode of "Saturday Night Live."

Pete Davidson in a 2019 episode of “Saturday Night Live.”

Talk to me about Pete Davidson the dramatic actor. By the movie’s third act, he has to lose some of the Pete shtick that defines the premise of the movie.

He’s a great natural actor. He’s just very real and very present. He’s comfortable being vulnerable onscreen. He’s never trying hard and he’s in the moment. So if he’s surrounded by actors who are creative and the material is evolving over the course of the day, most of the time something magical tends to happen.

Was there a lot of improv going on?

For me, there’s always a lot of improv because that starts five months before we shoot. We’ll improvise at the auditions and we will do a table read and then we’ll do a rewrite based on how that went. And then we’ll do rehearsals and we’ll work on the scenes, but we’ll also improvise and punch them up, and that might happen multiple times. By the time we’re shooting, we’ve really worked the material. Everybody knows it so well, and we can shoot the scene as scripted and then begin to drift and see if something else might bubble up.

And that’s no different here than it would be on a movie that’s more joke-driven?

Improvisation isn’t all about trying to get to a joke. I remember “The Larry Sanders Show,” the first episode I ever directed. There was a scene between Garry Shandling and Illeana Douglas. They’re having a fight and he’s apologizing for something, and he improvised very emotionally, “I’m a talk show host. I’m all fucked up.” That was the best thing I ever saw happen in front of me. You wait for those moments.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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