Judd Apatow Interview: The Truth in Trainwreck

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Read our Judd Apatow interview about his new film, Trainwreck!

Amy Schumer writes and headlines director Judd Apatow’s latest, Trainwreck

Ten years ago, Judd Apatow helped launch a renaissance for R-rated comedies with his feature film directorial debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. A hit both critically and at the box office, it was followed by three more Los Angeles-set comedy dramas, Knocked Up, Funny People and This Is 40. For his latest film, however, Apatow has switched coasts, heading to New York City where, for the first time, he’s working from someone else’s screenplay. Amy Schumer (who many already know from standup work or from Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer”) both writes and headlines Trainwreck and it’s likely that her performance is going to leave a strong impression.

ComingSoon.net sat down with Judd Apatow earlier this year at SXSW where the film premiered as a “Work in Progress” edit. With the final film arriving in theaters this Friday, we’re pleased to share Apatow’s thoughts on Trainwreck‘s journey to the big screen.

CS: How did you and Amy Schumer wind up deciding to collaborate?

Judd Apatow: You know, I didn’t really know her standup that well. I’m not sure I had even really seen any of it. I may have seen a couple of jokes on something or a joke or two on a roast. I was just becoming aware of her in drifts and drabs. Then I heard her on Howard Stern. She was talking very personally about her dad and her relationship issues and what it’s like having a father with multiple sclerosis. It was riotously funny but also dark and heartbreaking. But I loved her. I thought, “This is someone whose stories I want to hear.” So I just called her and I said the same thing I do to anyone who makes me laugh: “Hey, you got anything you want to work on?” So we worked on a different concept for six to eight months. Then I finally said, “I don’t think this is the one you should do first. I think you should tell a more personal story.” That’s what I learned from Gary Shandling. People want something that’s deeply truthful. It doesn’t have to be exactly your life, but it should come from your core. So that’s how we started working on this.

CS: The emotional honesty really shows through. In many ways, “Trainwreck” is a very straightforward story, but the tone is so exact.

Apatow: I think all stories are the same. Superheroes are either going to beat the bad guy or lose to the bad guy so they can beat him in the sequel. People in romantic comedies either wind up together happily or they decide things aren’t going to work out. There’s only three ending to any genre. It really becomes about execution and how deep you go into these people’s psyches. Very early on, I said to Amy, “What are you going through? Why do you think you don’t have a boyfriend right now? Why do you think your relationships aren’t working?” We talked about it and said, “Let’s make a movie with those obstacles.” She was very brave and forthcoming. That’s why I think it’s so good.

CS: Some of the funniest parts of “Trainwreck” arrive in reaction shots and, throughout your career, you seem to have a particular knack for getting the right comedic talent into the right role, even if it’s just for a scene. What does that selection process look like on your side of things?

Apatow: I just think every part is of equal importance. If there’s eight people at a party, I just try to get the eight greatest people that I know to be there. It was also an opportunity to work with a lot of people that she works with. A lot of east coast comedians. My movies all take place in LA, so there’s a little bit of a different sensibility. Now we’ve got Mike Birbiglia and Colin Quinn and Nikki Glaser and Briget Everett and Leslie Hope. All these great New York voices. I think that adds a good vibe to it.

CS: Colin Quinn in particular seems like pretty inspired casting in a role that’s both funny and intensely dramatic.

Apatow: I met Colin when I was a kid. I lived with Adam Sandler and Adam played Study Boy on “Remote Control.” Colin was the announcer. That was a huge deal on MTV in the late ’80s or early ’90s. I did a pilot with him way back when. He’s been on “Girls.” He’s just so kind to us and is also one of our favorite people. I was thrilled when Amy said, “I think Colin could play my dad.” We just had to make sure he seemed like the appropriate age.

CS: On beyond the physical shift to New York City, “Trainwreck” just looks different than your previous films.

Apatow: I used the cinematographer who did the first season of “Girls,” “Tiny Furniture,” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Jody Lee Lipes. He’s a brilliant cinematographer who just did this brilliant documentary about a ballet company, “Ballet 422.” I wanted to work with Jody because I love his sense of composition. I think he’s one of the great, rising cinematographers. Every time you set out, you ask yourself, “How should we shoot this? How does the camera move? How can we shoot New York City so it doesn’t look the same as it always looks?” He had some very strong ideas about that and I think he was right.

CS: There’s an energy to it, both visually and in terms of the comedy and drama blend, that feels a bit like Woody Allen.

Apaptow: Anytime you shoot New York well, people will think it looks like a Woody Allen movie. The work of cinematographer Gordon Willis is just unparalleled. But Woody Allen also comes at films as a comedian and, when you’re a comic, you just tell the truth. It’s very raw and it’s very intimate. You sit in rooms with ten people or tens of thousands of people and you just tell them what’s happening in your life. I just tried to translate that into cinematic form.

CS: How does someone who isn’t a comedian like John Cena or LeBron James get involved?

Apatow: We wanted her to date someone who is in incredible shape. Our casting director had John read and then we did a table read with him before he had the part. He was the funniest person at the table by far. Funnier than all the comics, I think because he’s performing so much. He’s so comfortable in front of the camera and really knows what he’s doing. He just happens to be insanely funny. A lot of what he does in the movie is improvised. He was as funny as anyone I’ve ever worked with, honestly. LeBron James had hosted “Saturday Night Live.” He’s a really strong performer and a great guy. We took him out to lunch and explained what the joke was. That really made him laugh, the idea of a bizarro LeBron James who is worried about going bankrupt. He’s super cheap because he doesn’t want to wind up like MC Hammer and is oddly invested in all of Bill Hader’s romantic issues. He cracked up and was a real pro. He showed up early every day and he really approached it like a comic. It wasn’t like an athlete doing a cameo. He was doing it in the same way that Colin Quinn was doing it. He was open to suggestions and was improvising. But we’re well aware that we were around one of the greatest athletes that ever lived because, everywhere we’d go, children would show up everywhere. People who we were friends with would show up with all their kids to meet LeBron. It was like having Babe Ruth on the set!

CS: Does sports humor take a different skill set? I was impressed that, as someone who knows very little about sports, most of the more specific jokes were still easy to follow.

Apatow: I’m not that big a sports fan either. I think that’s part of the reason why it’s funny. We’re trying to portray all these people as just normal people. I actually don’t have any interest in the sports aspect of it. What I find incredible is the pressure these people are under to fix someone. If you mess up someone’s knee surgery, their entire life changes. Their career is over. It was more about the pressure of that.

CS: Is there a solid difference you can point to between wearing a producer’s hat versus a director’s hat? 

Apatow: When I’m writing, it’s different because it’s very personal. I’m trying to get everything I need and I’m trying to say something from my heart. I’m trying to figure out what that is. I’m working with people I’m very close with. I want the audience to experience all sorts of emotions. I’m trying to make them laugh. To make them feel my pain. I’m trying to give them the whole experience. What it’s like to be a comedian. What it’s like to be a parent. When I’m directing and not writing, I’m really trying to share and support Amy’s vision. I’m being really hard on her and I’m making contributions and pitching ideas. But I’m also paying close attention and trying to make sure that what she’s trying to say is what we’re executing. It’s not about my ideas. I think we have a similar world view, which helps, but all I’m really asking is, “What is Amy trying to do and how can I help?”

CS: Is there a rigid process to that, or is it just about sitting down and having a conversation?

Apatow: Well, it takes years. You chat. You talk about some areas that are interesting. She goes off and writes an outline. We talk about the outline for a long time and how a structure might work. Then she goes and writes pages and I give her notes on the pages. Then she does a draft and I do notes on the draft. We read it out loud and talk about what’s working. It just happens in phases over a couple of years. But she’s such a hard worker. She’s so dedicated and so emotionally forthcoming that it’s all so exciting. She has a real point of view, so you’re trying to build the best story to support that world view.

CS: “Honesty” is really the word I would associate first and foremost with “Trainwreck.” Are there times, though, when you’re trying to be emotionally honest and, try as you might, it’s just translating into the narrative?

Apatow: Yeah. Some people don’t know how to do it. Some people try. I’ve had tons of movies not get made, because the writers just can’t get there. Sometimes magic happens and the script is great. Like this movie. The studio isn’t that familiar with Amy. They’re certainly fans of hers. What attracts them, though, is the fact that the script is so good. It was the same thing with “Bridesmaids.” They loved Kristen Wiig, but really Kristen and Annie Mumolo wrote a fantastic script. They believed that it could break someone as a movie star because the material was so strong.

Trainwreck opens in theaters Friday, July 17.