“My dad died in a fire 17 years ago…”
“Not your Dad!”
Flipping from raw emotion to sick humour – all through a haze of weed smoke – the opening scene of The King Of Staten Island trailer is the most Judd Apatow thing ever. Back directing his first feature since 2015’s Trainwreck, Apatow’s latest might be his most personal film to date – even if this time it’s personal to someone else.
Co-written by Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson, the film tells the story of Pete’s own arrested development through the guise of Scott Ready – a 20-something stoner and wannabe tattoo artist who’s still struggling with the emotional fallout of losing his firefighter dad when he was a kid. Davidson’s own dad died whilst he was trying to rescue people during the 9/11 attacks, and the famously troubled comedian co-wrote the lead role for himself to help work through his own grief.
Things get weird for Scott/Pete when his mum (Marisa Tomei) starts dating again – introducing him to her new boyfriend (Bill Burr) who also happens to be a fireman. Cue a lot of awkward family dinners, at least one bar fight and as much weed as it takes to numb the pain of being blown out of bed by an angry man with a firehose.
“The movie is fictional but in a way it couldn't be more truthful,” says Apatow. “This didn't happen, but it's how Pete feels.”
Total Film and GamesRadar+ caught up with Apatow from his LA lockdown to talk through the trailer and fill us in on the backstory behind summer’s most intimate stoner comedy.
Congratulations for even getting this trailer out during lockdown... did you have to finish the movie from home?
Actually, the last day of colour timing was right when LA was about to shut down. So I just finished it... and then I wasn't allowed to give anyone a hug.
That first joke walks such a fine line between comedy and tragedy – how hard was it to find the right balance in a scene like that?
That joke was important because it tells the audience that he's lying. He tells everybody that he doesn't mind joking about his dad's death, that he's over it, but the truth is he's so clearly not over it at all. It came up in an improvisation with Ricky Velez, who's one of Pete's best friends in real life, and he made it up on the spot. It's one of those great magic moments, right out of the blue – a perfect joke that says so much.
When did you first come across Pete?
When we made Trainwreck I asked Amy Schumer who she thought was funny. Amy turned me on to a few people and one of them was Pete, so we had him come and do a very brief cameo in that movie. Bill Hader was so taken with him that he told him he was going to tell Lorne Michaels to put him on Saturday Night Live the next day – and then that actually happened.
This is obviously such a personal film for him – how did you convince him to tell this story?
We were talking for years about doing another movie that didn't pan out, and then slowly we dipped our toe into a discussion about the elephant in the room. He was very courageous about it, but it required him to be very vulnerable – in a way that I was honestly really nervous about. Writing this forced him to confront everything.
Was he always comfortable about doing that?
It was all very emotionally fraught. But at the same time, I think Pete got a lot out of it. If you think of emotions getting stuck as being frozen, this was certainly a way to melt a lot of them. We did spend years having very long discussions about exactly what happened, how it made him feel, what kind of problems it created and what kind of problems still exist for him. I know he's been in therapy his entire life, but this was a very different way for him to look at things.
Your name is the first one we see in the trailer. This is only your sixth time directing a feature – why did you feel like you wanted to tackle this script yourself?
After Trainwreck I spent a long time trying to figure out topics or themes that were not in any of my other films, and the one I came up with was sacrifice. I played around with a bunch of different ways to approach that, but when I started talking to Pete about this idea, I realised that this is how you do it. I think I just knew then that I was going to direct.
Marisa Tomei had a great cameo in Trainwreck – were you looking for a way to work with her again after that?
I always think there's some kind of kismet involved in casting. I was visiting Carnegie Mellon college with my daughter and we were when Holly Hunter was a guest lecturer. A year later we were trying to figure out who should be in The Big Sick and I was like: "Maybe it's meant to be Holly Hunter! Maybe that's why I saw her!” Marisa did us a favour by being in Trainwreck, and we had a great time with her, so I think that was all it was. She's so real and so inventive and funny. She's the heart of the whole movie. The movie is really about a son who realises that his problems have held his mum back, and she really captures that idea of being torn between love for her son and love for the life she wants.
What was it like directing your daughter, Maude, again? Since you last worked with her on This Is 40 her acting career has exploded with Girls, Euphoria and Hollywood...
I guess a lot of the work we did together when she was young was almost a trick to try and make her forget that she was making a movie! When we made This Is 40, she gave this amazing performance as a stressed out teenager, but I haven't worked with her since. I read a lot of other people for the part, but Maude was able to capture this mad frustration so perfectly.
She plays Scott’s sister?
Yeah, and she's the one who dealt with loss by getting good grades and getting into college, but now that she’s leaving, she’s terrified about what’s going to happen to her brother. That’s something that Pete talked about a lot too. His sister is younger than him and he was seven when his father died, so there’s this debate about who it was worse for – someone who spent time with him or someone who never got that chance? That’s the core of their whole personal conflict.
What about casting Bill Burr? We haven’t really seen him play a guy like this before.
Pete actually met Bill when he was a little kid. Pete wanted to be a comedian and his mum took him to New York City to see Bill, and he actually met him by an elevator outside the gig. Later, when Pete became a comedian, Bill remembered that whole story. He’s always been someone that Pete looked up to, so I wanted there to be that background of love between the actors – that real history. And Bill is so funny. He hasn’t had a part like this before so he’s really able to show this whole side of himself that you haven’t seen before – this brash guy who also has this big heart that he doesn’t know how to express.
Did Bill really throw Pete into the pool over his shoulder like that?
Bill had a bad shoulder so we did use some special effects! Some rigging and wires were used to make him appear that strong, but if it wasn’t for his injury I’m sure Bill could have done it!
Let’s talk about those awful tattoos...
The hardest part of this entire movie was figuring out those tattoos! We had to work out a consistent style for Pete. How good is he? How bad is he? What’s his sense of humour? We went through thousands of ideas. That might actually be the part I’m most proud of.
That Obama face is so creepy.
Yeah, the eyes are just a little too far apart! We wanted it to feel like he’s been experimenting on his friends throughout his whole life, so his friend Lou has this Obama face on his forearm, and his other friend has this cat on his belly where the cat’s butthole is his bellybutton. That’s a pretty troubling tattoo but it’s oddly common online. We had a tattoo consultant on the film who was a world class artist – the hardest part for him was trying to figure out how to draw so badly.
What do we need to know about Staten Island? Here in the UK it’s probably not somewhere we know too much about. The top result when you type the name into Google is “Is Staten Island the most boring place in New York?”…
Ha! Exactly. The thing about Staten Island is that there’s nothing there. It’s a blue-collar community and it has the most beautiful view of Manhattan that you’ve ever seen, but that’s about it. You’ll meet people who have lived in New York their whole life but have never been to Staten Island. I was talking to Christopher Guest the other day and he said “I used to go to Staten Island because they had a great guitar shop there!”, but there are so few other reasons to go there. We had a great time there though, and everyone was super nice. I made a point of shooting almost the entire movie there, just to capture the spirit of the place.
When did you first come across Bel Powley?
I loved The Diary Of A Teenage Girl. She had me for life with that performance. Then I saw her in Lobby Hero on Broadway with Chris Evans and she played a young police officer from New York, and I didn’t even know she wasn’t American – you’d never in a million years think she’s British. She’s been friends with Pete for several years – her boyfriend and Pete are really close – and they just had an amazing chemistry. When she came in and auditioned for the role of Scott’s girlfriend, you could tell there was something special there. Every once in a while you have an actress on set you just think, “it’s gonna be so funny in the future that she was in this movie!” I had that with Brie Larson on Trainwreck… like, they don’t even know how amazing their career is gonna be!
Who does Steve Buscemi play in the movie?
He plays Papa, one of the elders at the firehouse. In real life, Steve was a fireman before his acting career, and he’s stayed very close with the community, doing charity work. He was one of the people who went down to Ground Zero after 9/11 to help with the clean-up. He’s a beautiful soul, and one of our greatest actors and directors. We felt like his character should be the one who’s quietly looking out for Pete. Every moment he was on set, we just felt so lucky to have him there.
Did you have any other real firemen on set? They must have helped during that scene with the fire hose?
About half of the firemen you see there are real firemen – and one of the firemen was also our consultant, John Sorentino, and he was actually Pete’s dad’s best friend. We wanted to have all these people around because it makes that world feel more real, but also because they can tell us if we’re screwing anything up.
The film is being released online on 12 June. Was there ever a discussion about waiting until the lockdown was over to release in cinemas, as originally planned?
For me, I felt like… this movie is about heroes and first responders – firemen and nurses – and the families who surround them. It felt appropriate for this movie to come out now, and not in some distant future. The movie hopefully is very funny, but it’s also about what we’re all going through. Sudden trauma. The decisions people make to potentially sacrifice their lives to save other people. I’m glad that people are going to get to see the movie now. Pete made the movie as a tribute to his father, who was a fireman, and to his mum and sister, who are nurses. The other option was to release it in a year or something, and in our gut that felt wrong. I love hearing a crowd laugh in a movie theatre and I intend all my movies to go to cinemas, but this is a unique time. I’m happy that I can present a movie to people that will hopefully make them happy at a time when we’re all looking to feel better.
The King Of Staten Island is released on VOD on June 12.