Judd Apatow Directs His Daughters, Onscreen and Off

“I wouldn’t call being a dad amazing. It’s just who I am.”

by Donna Freydkin
Originally Published: 

Judd Apatow is the elder statesman of dick jokes and also Hollywood’s resident good guy. He’s the dude who gets a laugh slamming the cynical race-baiting of Trump and Pence then pleads with Lachlan Murdoch to detoxify Fox News. And… he’s also the dude who shares videos of the family cat drinking out of a feline water fountain and then wears said cat in a pouch to the cringing comic dismay of his daughters Maude and Iris.

Apatow has been accused of navel gazing and pled guilty repeatedly. His films follow his life. There’s 40-Year-Old Virgin then Knocked Up then This is 40 then Funny People. These are comedies and also meditation on manhood and growing up and caring too much or too little. Apatow seems to owe his success at least in part to the banality of his preoccupations. He’s normal.

“I wouldn’t call being a dad amazing,” he says. “It’s just who I am.”

But Apatow’s work lately hasn’t really been about him. It’s been about stepping aside for other talented people. The King of Staten Island, which showcases SNL cast member Pete Davidson, who co-wrote the script, is an ideal example. The movie feels like it was made selflessly — like Apatow very willingly stepped to the side (nevermind that he cast Maude in a leading role).

Fatherly spoke to Apatow about Pete Davidson, directing family, and the board game renaissance of 2020.

It’s your first time directing your daughter as an adult, after both of your girls appeared in your movies as kids; Maude made her debut as Sadie in Knocked Up in 2007. Was that a revelatory experience?

When I first started directing her, it was more like manipulating a child. We’d put our kids at the breakfast table after not having fed them and we’d put food in front of them and have Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl and Leslie have a conversation. It was more like a Truman Show situation; I’d try to capture their real behavior. As they got older, they were actually acting. After we did Funny People and This is 40, I didn’t work with her for eight years. Now she really knows what she’s doing. Still, I know her so well so I know how to get certain colors of her personality into the performance.

So what’s it like directing your own kid?

It’s not without its challenges. A lot of my approach is, we do a lot of rehearsing. We table read. We’ve talked a lot about the scenes. Then we shoot the scripted version and then experiment and improvise. That makes the entire process less scary. As a parent, I’m just trying to treat her exactly the same as everyone else. But everyone knows I’m probably taking better care of her than them.

Did she have the best trailer?

I can’t say her trailer was anything to be proud of.

How did you and Pete come to work together? I know he had a cameo in Trainwreck, but it was pretty brief.

We kicked around a bunch of ideas and talked about doing a movie about his relationship with his mom. I asked him if he’d consider getting a little closer to the truth. Surprisingly he was interested in that. So we sat around with his writing partner for about six months outlining it. I got to know him and his friends and his family. We did it very carefully and respectfully. I didn’t know if I would direct the movie. He was very courageous. How he deals with the world is by not hiding anything. He’s going to let you know exactly what he’s going through. He didn’t hold anything back. He was comfortable talking about difficult topics, but he also has an amazing dark sense of humor.

Did directing a movie about a kid who lost his dad make you reflect on being a father?

I would say, ‘I’m going to take my kids out to eat’ and Pete would make jokes like, ‘That must be nice.’

I mainly thought it was a gigantic loss for Pete to not have had that. A lot of people stepped in and took really great care of him. The writing and making of this movie allowed him to deeply explore the issues surrounding this. I think he had a deeply cathartic experience.

What’s the best part of being a dad?

My kids are so interesting and hilarious and creative. There’s a lot of energy in our house. No one is sedate. It’s really fun and intense. It spins and spins and spins. We find a way to work and adjust what we do to be around for them. We made a point of primarily working in town, sometimes on the block we lived on. I’m so glad they’re such smart, kind girls and are doing well. They’re a riot.

And I assume you’re all hunkered down together?

Yes, we’re all here together. There’s a lot of board games happening. There were zero board games before this. The world of what they’ll do with us has changed. This would not have happened if we were not stuck here right now.

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