Judd Apatow praises Pete Davidson sharing his grief in the dark comedy "King of Staten Island"

"I don't think we screwed it up. When it's on cable, I won't be ashamed of myself."

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published June 12, 2020 5:00PM (EDT)

Pete Davidson & Judd Apatow behind the scenes of "The King of Staten Island" (Universal)
Pete Davidson & Judd Apatow behind the scenes of "The King of Staten Island" (Universal)

Judd Apatow, the acclaimed director and producer behind films and TV shows like "Trainwreck," "Knocked Up," "40-Year-Old Virgin," "This Is 40," "Girls," and "Crashing" is back with a new comedy film, "The King of Staten Island," led and co-written by "Saturday Night Live" player Pete Davidson and featuring an all-star cast including Marisa Tomei, Steve Buscemi, Bill Burr, Pamela Adlon, Bel Powley, Ricky Velez, Maude Apatow and more. The film is available on VOD June 12.

Apatow sat down with me on "Salon Talks," remotely via Zoom, to discuss the story behind "The King of Staten Island," how it draws from Davidson's real-life experiences, and the most difficult part of his movie-making process — balancing the line between drama and comedy. "My top priority is making sure that I'm not selling out the story to be funny," Apatow told me. "I tried to make it funny, but also a little scarier than the other movies." 

What he means by that is the stakes are high for Davidson's character Scott, a young and confused tattoo artist who is trapped in his late firefighter father's legacy, while mourning his death and deciding if he's going to fly straight, or participate in a life of crime like some of his close friends. "If he doesn't figure out how he's going to live his life, he's going to wind up in jail," Apatow put it. The film tackles tough issues like loss, grief, and the pressure society puts on young men to be accomplished breadwinners. Every sensitive topic that the story takes on is processed through comedy. Especially now, in a time of global riots and a pandemic, we all need a laugh. 

You can watch my "Salon Talks" with Apatow here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about the film, why Apatow loved directing his daughter Maude, and what he's snacking on late at night in New York. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How have you been holding up in quarantine?

I'm taking it day by day. I think the best way to do it is to not plan too much. Just try to make today work, then deal with tomorrow. Very early on, I was flailing about, and I realized it worked best if I thought in the morning that I would try to do something healthy. In the afternoon I'll try to do something productive. That might be writing, it might be cleaning out my closet. Just something where I felt like I did something. And then after that I will eat with the family and then binge something on television for four to seven hours.

How much of that time do you block out for writing on a productive side?

I give myself permission to be worthless. That's part of it. In the healthy version of the day, I take a long walk, a two hour walk to start the day at seven in the morning. And sometimes I think of stuff, most of the times I think of nothing. And so hopefully some day something occurs to me, but I'm trying not to feel the need to be too productive, but I'm open to it.

When I first heard the title of your new film, "The King of Staten Island," I thought it was going to be a Wu-Tang [Clan] film.

Well, we have them visually everywhere in the movie. There's a lot of shirts, things on the walls. I've worked with several members of the Wu-Tang Clan. RZA was in "Funny People," Ghostface Killah was in "Walk Hard," and Method Man was in "Trainwreck." I'm slowly working my way through the group and I'm going to get all of them eventually.

The film was hilarious, but before we get into talking about Pete Davidson, I want to say your daughter Maude really crushed it.


She did an amazing job. I just had my first child, a little girl. Hopefully one day I'm cool enough to have my daughter want to collaborate with me on a project.

Congratulations. Yeah, it's the best. I had such a good time working with my kids over the years. That's the first time I've directed my kids since 2011 when we did "This Is 40." In the meantime, she's on that show "Hollywood" on Netflix and "Euphoria" on HBO. So now she really knows what she's doing. She plays Pete's sister who is a hyper achiever and who wants to escape and go to college — get away from Pete. She has a lot of funny scenes where she gets to really challenge him aggressively and call him out on all of his stuff.

Is it easy to draw those lines between family and business on set?

I like it because she has to listen to me on set. As soon as we leave the set, she doesn't have to listen to me at all. She can ignore me completely. But on the set, there's all these people around and they kind of assume she'll listen to the director, so she feels obligated. But she's really funny. I like working with actors and actresses that you know really well because you understand what they can do and what's funny about them. And her and Pete are really, really strong together. It's fun to watch. It feels like sibling rivalry. It feels like it's going down.

It's kind of like the relationship I have with my wife. She edits my books before I actually send them in to my publishers. This is the only time I have to listen to her. And then after the book is put out, I go back to not listening.

I was working on the edit for the movie for a long time and I couldn't make the first act work. And there's this sequence in a car with Pete. And it was about 20 minutes into the movie. Very early on, my wife said, "I think that should be the opening scene of the movie." And I'm like, "You don't get it. You don't know what I'm doing here, artistically." And I fought her for three months. Like, "No." And she's like, "Just try it to see what it looks like." And the second I did it, I was . . .

The women know, man.

I was totally wrong. You can't resist when you get the good notes. It made the whole first act work. It completely changed the meaning of everything. You have to be open to everybody, even when you have to bow your head and realize that you're completely wrong.

Women always know. Tell us about "The King of Staten Island" and the story behind it, just to give our viewers a little intro into this film and what it's about.

Pete plays a guy named Scott who lives with his mom and his sister, and his sister is going away to college. Now he's going to be living alone with his mom. He's in his mid-20s. He's kind of a loser. His mom hasn't dated since his dad died. He was a fireman who died in a hotel fire. Suddenly she starts dating another fireman, and it forces Pete to confront everything in his life that he's been avoiding about why he's not doing well. And the fireman is played by Bill Burr, the great comedian.

Bill Burr is always hilarious.

He's amazing in the movie, and a fantastic actor and so funny. Marisa Tomei plays his mom. Steve Buscemi is in the movie and all sorts of great people. Action Bronson's in the movie and Machine Gun Kelly, Ricky Velez. There's just so many great actors and actresses in it. And I don't think we screwed it up. That's all I need in life is to go, "I think when it's on cable, I won't be ashamed of myself." Because that is what I realized. Sometimes I'll go and I'll see, "What's on HBO?" And it's a movie I did 12 years ago. And if I don't hate myself, I feel pretty good.

In talking about Pete, do you think we underestimate the pressure that society puts on young men to be successful, to be the go-getters or to have a driving ambition?

I think that everybody is different. That's one part of parenting, to give you a little parenting insights for a new dad. You never really think about, "Will my kids have energy and ambition?" You always think about, "I want my kids to be safe and smart." But you never think, "Will my kids have the madness that I had to try to succeed?" I had so much energy to go for it. And when you're a parent you get scared, you think, "Is my kid going to try really hard to do well in the world or be like Pete's character in the movie, hanging out, smoking pot in his room, goofing off with his friends?"

I do think that it's a little harder for kids today because there's so much on social media. They all are watching how everyone else is doing. They can compare where they're at with everybody in the world. When I was a kid, I didn't know anyone but my eight friends. So I had no idea what anyone was doing outside of my small town on Long Island. But I think it's a little harder. They're feeling a pressure to accomplish that we didn't feel when I was a kid.

What did you learn about Pete while making the film? He has some complexities that he isn't shy about showing in general.

The one great thing about Pete is, he is an open book. How he has dealt with things in his life is to be completely transparent. His dad was a firefighter who died on 9/11, and Pete dealt with it by just talking about it and having a really funny, dark sense of humor about it. Unlike a lot of people, he doesn't stuff things down and let them fester. He shares where he's at with people. It's a really beautiful thing. In the movie, I feel like he wrote a fictional story with me and his co-writer, Dave Sirus, but it's emotionally very truthful about what it's like to try to get over something like that and how it affects your life.

Dark, but funny. He's like, "Knock knock," "Who's there?" "Not your father."

Yeah, it's dark. And I think that is what made Pete feel better. He didn't make it something that you couldn't goof around about. It wasn't so sacred that it couldn't be spoken of. Writing something like this is a real act of generosity to other people to share this experience. And I think that he found a way to make it really funny, but very truthful and powerful.

A lot of people consider Staten Island the forgotten borough. And a lot of people I know from Staten Island, they have a chip on their shoulder because of that. Did it feel good giving it a voice?

Well, the funny thing about Staten Island, I had never been there. I'm from Long Island from Syosset and Woodbury. And if you didn't have a relative there, you wouldn't go. If you didn't have a friend or relative there was never a reason to go there. There's no Six Flags Staten Island. There's no stadium where you would go see a concert, so I had never been there.

But when I went, I realized it's very similar to Long Island — a lot of just great hardworking people who are super nice. It's got this gorgeous view of Manhattan, so it's this funny place that no one wants to go to and it's the prettiest view you've ever seen in your life. But Pete always said that a lot of people who live there, they don't leave. If they're not commuting to work, it is a little bubble. It is its own little interesting universe.

Yeah, I have an aunt that lives there, and I go to New York at least once a week for work, but sadly, I haven't seen her in like five years. I need to get on that ferry.

You got to bring the baby.

I bet you had a lot of fun shooting this in New York, being as though you're from New York. I would imagine you probably spent a lot of time in LA?

Yeah, I live in Los Angeles, in Santa Monica, but I love coming to New York. We shot "Trainwreck" in New York and "Girls" and "Crashing."I'm always trying to find a way to work on a project that will force me to go to New York. It's the best — there's nothing better than shooting in the city. We shot a little bit on Queens, mainly on Staten Island. I would say the hardest part about New York for me is I always go to the Comedy Cellar to do stand-up at night and I can't go home without stopping at Ben's and eating pizza on the way home. I have trouble not eating at night, so not gaining 20 pounds was the biggest accomplishment of the whole movie.

But you're taking those two-hour walks through New York though.

I didn't when I made the movie. I was jumping some rope though. I started jumping rope in the apartment just to not get too heavy.

When I was watching this movie and I was thinking a lot about the different relationships that Pete's character Scott was going through. It was brilliant how you guys were able to balance the comedy with grief, loss, and identity. You guys really pulled it off.

That's always the most difficult part, the line of "How much of the movie is drama? How much is comedy?" This time I tried to really focus on telling the story correctly and then I thought "It's going to be as funny as it's going to be. I'm going to try to make it funny, but that's not my top priority. My top priority is making sure that I'm not selling out the story to be funny." Because sometimes if you reach for a joke, you lose your credibility, you lose your authenticity. And then because everyone is so funny and likable, it turns out to be very funny anyway. But sometimes on other movies, I'm really concerned about how riotously funny can I get it? Sometimes you lose a little emotion because everyone in the movie is way too witty and funny and you lose something and you don't really notice it as you're making the movie that something got lost because it's so funny.

Your films thrive on friendships, relationships, connections, brotherhood. Is that a reflection of your own relationships or you're just really good at creating different friend sets?

Only in a movie can you create friendships you wish you had. I mean, I think that it's a reflection of my peer group when I was young and a young comedian. I lived with Adam Sandler, and Robert Schneider lived across the street, and David Spade lived down the street, and comedians always hang together in groups. When you're a kid and young and funny and stupid and immature, I always got a kick out of trying to see if I could capture that on screen. And the difference with this movie is that Pete's hanging around his buddies, but also his buddies are lost. They're on the path to getting in a lot of trouble. It's just the beginning of small crime turning into more serious crime. And if he doesn't figure out how he's going to live his life, he's going to wind up in jail. I tried to make it funny, but also a little scarier than the other movies.

That's the brilliance of it because in life, a lot of us, we have to make those decisions. People who you love the most and you're around all of the time who know any and everything about you, sometimes they may feel like they don't want to try to do something productive. They want to take a different way and they want to go straight for the money in a way that seems like it makes the most sense to them. And you want to maintain that connection. But at the same time, is it worth your life?

Yeah. There's a scene in the movie where they're doing some low-level drug dealing and they're considering other crime. And one of the friends says, "We could be like Jay-Z. Jay-Z used to deal drugs as a way of raising money for his rap career, then he stopped. We can be like Jay-Z." And he's like, "We can't all be Jay-Z; one of us is not going to be Jay-Z."

There's only one.

That usually doesn't work out as a game plan.

Considering your whole body of work as a director and a producer, you always introduce us to brand new comedians, brand new writers, brand new talent. How do you find these people? Are you just walking through the streets of LA lurking? Are you in all the comedy clubs in the way back?

Well, in the last few years I was doing this TV show "Crashing" on HBO, which I guess is on HBO Max now; it's all changing so quickly. I tried to spend a lot of time at the Comedy Cellar and in the comedy clubs. I was doing a lot of stand-up and I just met a lot of people. With this movie, I said to Pete, "Who are the people that you like?" And that's the fun part. Pete has this opportunity and then he'll say, "Well, my favorite comedian is my best friend, Ricky Velez." He plays Oscar in the movie and is really fantastic.

Lynne Koplitz from the Comedy Cellar plays Marisa Tomei's sister, Joy. Liza Treyger from the Comedy Cellar is in the movie and Derek Gaines. There's all these comedy people that I got to see and meet through Pete. And the funny thing about Pete is he was so much more excited about them scoring in the movie. Every time they were great he was so happy. He was never that level of happy about his own scenes working, but when they would kill, he was just out of his mind happy.

We need more people like you guys to just keep making sure other people are getting plugged. There's no shortage of people who just hog the spotlight. I'm thankful that you guys are out there just creating those opportunities. In these unforeseen times and quarantine, the industry is talking a lot about how it's going to bounce back. Writers need funders and all of the different people in the business. What did you have planned next and have any of those plans changed?

We were right about to start shooting a movie Billy Eichner wrote with Nick Stoller, that Nick Stoller was going to direct, a romantic comedy. And we were all set to go to Buffalo and shoot that movie. We had to shut down our pre-production. So we hope when we're given the go ahead that it's safe, that we'll get a chance to do that. That was a bummer for us because we had worked on it for a few years and it's a great script. Billy Eichner couldn't be funnier. So we're excited to do that one as soon as it makes sense.

People are talking about opening up studios pretty soon. What have you heard and how do you feel about it?

I mean, I check in and talk to people I know about what they think is going to happen and when it will be safe. I hope it happens very thoughtfully and slowly because we really don't know what the dangers are and we want to err on the side of protecting everybody. I'm hopeful that they can come up with procedures that make sense. But it is scary because a movie set is very intimate. Everyone is all over each other. Everyone's doing each other's makeup and touching each other and putting costumes on each other and the camera's in people's faces. And you're in a small set a lot of times, or you're shooting in a house and you're cramped in a corner. I'm not sure exactly how that will work to be a safe environment. They're going to really have to be very, very careful because there is a lot of danger in that environment.

"The King of Staten Island" is currently available on VOD services, in addition to rent through the Amazon, Apple, Google Play, and YouTube, among other services.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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