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'This Is 40': Judd Apatow on Staying Relevant and P.T. Anderson's Love of 'Heavyweights'

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Dec 20, 2012 | 7:49am EST

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judd apatow this is 40

Growing old is a part of every person's life, a universal source of anxiety that's scrutinized beyond comprehension by both individuals and the world around them. Few people enjoy talking about their age... making it the perfect subject for writer/director/producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) to confront head on.

Unlike most, Apatow has been working his present job since his early 20s, when he was a writer on 1992's short-lived but much-revered Ben Stiller Show. Two decades later, he's one of the most important faces in the world of comedy. With his new film This Is 40, Apatow confronts his own longevity, following a couple (played by Paul Rudd and Apatow's real life wife, Leslie Mann) as they near the milestone age and jump every hurdle that comes with it. The film is recognizably personal. But for Apatow, there's an added layer of introspection happening on screen. Apatow's aging experiences have occurred under in the lens of show business, an industry where modern relevance is key.

The maintenance of this relevance is not an easy task, and one Apatow is certainly aware of. Hollywood.com sat down with the actor to discuss growing up in Hollywood, how he continues to stay funny after all these years, and his eagerness to collaborate with young performers, like Lena Dunham, Seth Rogen, and even Megan Fox. And because The Master director Paul Thomas Anderson really loves Heavyweights, we can't help but bring up Apatow's misunderstood Disney classic:

As you've told many people, you drew a lot from your own life in This Is 40. But do you think working in Hollywood has made you more aware of age?

Judd Apatow: I don't think about it a ton, but every once in awhile I think, "What if slowly I lose my sense of humor and I don't know it. And everyone in the world knows I'm not funny but me." [laughs]

How do you stay conscious of that?

Apatow: I try and think of people who are hysterical when they're old like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and Woody Allen. I think, "It's possible! You can stay sharp forever!" I just have to keep an eye on what they're doing. You know, Mel Brooks has a new special. He's 86-years-old and the entire special is him doing an interview and it's so hysterical that they made it an HBO special. It's just him talking to a guy for an hour and a half! And he did the exact same special a year ago with Dick Cavett! Because he's so funny, he can sit in a chair and make you laugh for an hour.

Do you talk to older comedians about that challenge of staying relevant?

Apatow: I never ask them directly about staying relevant, it's just certain people stay fully, intellectually engaged. It's not that they change their sense of humor, like suddenly Mel Brooks is working in an edgy, current genre. [laughs] I'd go as far to say, "Who has made an edgier movie than Blazing Saddles?" I mean, you couldn't even make Blazing Saddles today, it's so ballsy. He remains hysterical in the way he's hysterical. Hopefully I'll be just as lucky.

judd apatow heavyweightsAlong with This Is 40, I was fortunate enough to watch your movie Heavyweights with the new Blu-ray commentary you recorded. Thinking about you then and now...

Apatow: Oh yes, I had long beautiful hair! [laughs]

You were young when you wrote and produced that movie — I think you say 26 in the commentary. Do you look to collaborate with younger people because of your own early experiences? Does recalling your earlier work impact what you do now?

Apatow: I'm just a fan of comedians. I try and figure out how to get talented people [to] get their ideas across. It really doesn't matter what age they are. It is fun working with young people at the moment when they're first trying to figure out how they can develop their screen persona. So it was fun working on 40-Year-Old Virgin and Bridesmaids and working with Seth [Rogen] on Superbad and Knocked Up. But I had an amazing time working with Albert Brooks and John Lithgow on This Is 40, and being with people who were brilliant with their craft and had so much to offer. In a lot of ways, that was a new experience for me. I found it equally fulfilling. So who knows, maybe I'll find the courage to work with Dame Judi Dench.

I think the Marigold Hotel sequel is looking for a director.

Apatow: Exactly!

Do you think you've learned anything as a director from the younger people you've worked with? Even on a film that's about turning 40?

Apatow: Absolutely. Superbad had such a strong comedic point-of-view. We had been kicking it around for a long time — I was producing it for him and his writing partner Evan [Goldberg]. But we couldn't get it made. And in the period that we couldn't get it made, we wrote Knocked Up, and we got that made. And I'm sure working on Superbad influenced how hard we went at a certain edgy type of comedy in Knocked Up. He had a big influence.

And working with Lena Dunham I'm sure influenced This Is 40, because I was seeing someone being so courageous in her choices. It made me want to have the courage to take a lot of risks with my movie. Being around someone like Lena, who is a real visionary, it definitely inspires me.

What about someone like Megan Fox, a young performer but not someone who is known as a "comedic voice"?

Apatow: Megan Fox is an example of a person who people see as a gorgeous woman, and people put them in a box because of one definition. Leslie and I saw her on Saturday Night Live and we instantly thought she was hysterical. We could tell there was so much more going on if she had the opportunity to present to people. So for me, that becomes a major opportunity. I get to be the person to show everyone that Megan Fox is also riotously funny.

So she came in and read with us and improvised and had so many funny and bizarre ideas for her character. I'm really proud of the fact that her work in the movie is so strong. And she's such a nice person, it's great to help somebody get to show more of their colors.

The movie ends up chronicling so many different scenarios for the characters. How did you know how much you could cram into one movie? At times I felt like I was watching one of your television shows.

Apatow: I was definitely influenced, and am probably more influenced these days, by television and shows like Mad Men and The Sopranos. I wanted something that was random, like life. You never know where it's going to go at any moment. You can have a great moment, then life falls apart — then something great happens at the end of the day. That's accurate to what our lives are like.

And I like when you see a movie and you don't know where it's going. There's no clear goal. It's just life, just this week. There isn't a treasure map and they're not trying to find the gold. They're just trying to get to the end of the week and put their birthdays behind them.

When you're making a movie, how do you discern what is random in a way that mimics life versus what is random in a way that's meandering? I assume there's a risk.

Apatow: I watch it with people and I can tell when they're engaged. So, in addition to how much they're laughing — because when people start getting bored, the laughs get smaller and smaller — but also, when there's a new plot point and you hear the whole crowd gasp, you go, "Oh, they're paying attention." I often joke that it's hard to know when the drama's working, because when the joke works, people make a noise. I wish when the drama works there would be a noise. Sometimes there's a "Uh! Ahh!" [laughs] But I think when they like the people and want the best for them, people get deeply involved. I don't need a murder.

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Is going back to television with your own original concept something you're still interested in?

Apatow: I'm definitely not closed off to it. I'm having such a good time working on Girls that it's reminded me how much freedom you have on television to be creative. And it would be nice not to worry if scenes got laughs! When we make Girls episodes, I write a few here and there with Lena, it makes me happy to put them on television without having tested them and not wondering how people will react. Do it based on the gut and the story — that's it. Shows don't have to have resolutions that are so clean. With movies, there's a little more of a demand that people learn something.

You've got to have that lesson.

Apatow: It's hard not to have a lesson. But in television, you can end on an awkward moment or a sad moment or a happy moment — you have a different level of freedom.

Another Heavyweights question: on the Blu-ray you mention that Paul Thomas Anderson [director of The Master] loves the movie. I'm curious why he loves it.

Apatow: [Laughs] That's a good question, I'm not sure I know. For a few years, we had the same agent, and he told me he was a big fan of Heavyweights. He was working with Adam [Sandler] on Punch Drunk Love. And it was a great point of pride for me.

You can't get a much better endorsement.

Apatow: I think when you watch The Master, you feel some Heavyweights influence.

Do you talk to Paul, or other filmmakers who might be outside of your sphere of interests, about filmmaking? Ways to evolve the way you work?

Apatow: I don't, but I do ask them to watch my cuts. Ask for input. Sometimes I just want to see if I'm crazy. So I'll show Paul the movie and go, "Does this make any sense at all or am I off base for even attempting this?" He's been kind enough to look at cuts of some of my movies, and has been very helpful.

I go to my heroes when I'm figuring out the edit. In the past, James Brooks has looked at the movies, Jay Roach [Austin Powers], Cameron Crowe, Ron Howard... I'll do anything to find out what I'm doing wrong from the people I respect.

I assume you in turn watched The Master and gave notes about where jokes would fit.

Apatow: Exactly. I was the punch-up guy!

[Photo Credit: Universal Pictures; Walt Disney Pictures]

Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches

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