Judd Apatow exercises different creative muscles with ‘The King of Staten Island’

Pete Davidson and director Judd Apatow with crew members on the set of 'The King of Staten Island.' Andrea Foster/ NBC Universal

By Molly Given

When thinking of veteran filmmaker and proclaimed funnyman Judd Apatow, a slew of films could come to mind. Films like ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin,’ ‘Knocked Up,’ and ‘Funny People,’ are a few that are the tip of the iceberg on Apatow’s resume. The New York native has always put comedy in with his movies, and audiences have truly grown to love his comedic timing and cast of colorful character-driven plots that mirror real-life situations. With his latest film, ‘The King of Staten Island’ starring ‘Saturday Night Live’ cast member Pete Davidson however, Apatow went a bit in the other direction and instead let the story drive the comedy instead of vice versa.

“I generally think that all stories should have some amount of humor in them,” says Apatow. “It’s always weird when a movie has none. When a movie has nothing funny about it, something feels false about it because there’s always something funny that happens even in the worst of times. I always think it’s a part of it—so the idea of any label is kind of weird. For this, I just thought, I don’t want to chase the jokes, I want to tell the story really well and it’ll be as funny as it turns out to be. Pete is a funny person and the people in the movie are funny, but I’m not going to sit there grinding on jokes during the shoot. I’m just going to make every scene work as well as it’s going to work and hopefully, it’ll be funny enough.”

‘The King of Staten Island’ takes a lot of inspiration from Pete Davidson’s actual life—which only makes sense since the SNL star wrote the first draft of the film with co-writer Dave Sirus before bringing it to Apatow. What the seasoned director then brought to the story was a focus and a vision to help further along the truth behind the script. Although it’s not exactly a biography of Davidson’s life, you can tell even just by the opening scene that this was definitely a personal project for the young actor. What Apatow’s hope was with this film specifically, was that the realness of the plot would direct those classic funny one-liners and humorous situations organically instead of having them being the driving force. Any worry of audiences not receiving that new adjustment was gone almost immediately as well.

Pete Davidson as Scott Carlin. Andrea Foster/ NBC Universal

“We tested the movie, and everyone thought it was as funny as all the others,” adds Apatow. “That was the thing I was happiest about, at the end of that, I think it’s hopefully as funny as people want it to be while being a deeper story.”

In the ‘King of Staten Island,’ Davidson plays Scott, a loveable yet complicated stoner who is living in the shadow of his over-achieving, college-bound sister (played by Judd’s daughter, Maude Apatow) while also still living with his mother (Marisa Tomei) after his father, a firefighter, passed away years before. Now, Davidson has always been open with his life and has even talked about losing his actual firefighter father on 9/11, but the film, even though it’s fictional, really feels like an ode to the emotional journey that Davidson must have gone through. It feels honest, even with a cast of made-up characters and situations.

To help fuel this narrative, Apatow as a director is able to work his magic in the form of casting. How he does this is quite ingenious, and is also how he met Davidson in the first place. Finding comedians and launching their careers is sort of the filmmaker’s bread and butter and he’s able to do that through a referral system. For example, when working with comedian Amy Schumer on ‘Trainwreck,’ when asked if she knew anyone funny in her own life, she then recommended Davidson, who came on set and met Apatow, then did a scene with Bill Hader that subsequently led to his role in ‘Saturday Night Live.’

Judd Apatow with Marisa Tomei. Andrea Foster/ NBC Universal

“I like to ask the person I’m collaborating with who in their world do they love that I should know about? That’s how I met Pete, through Amy Schumer. Pete loves Ricky Velez who’s Oscar [in the film], he’s one of his best friends and who he started out in stand-up with, he’s incredible. He was so helpful with me talking about the script that we made him a co-producer of the movie because he was just this important part of my process re-writing and understanding this world,” says Apatow. “And Derrick Gaines, the guy who beats [Pete] up during the fight club sequence, he’s Pete’s old roommate when he first started doing stand-up, and he used to be a pop-n-lock dancer before he was a comedian. There’s [also] a lot of people from the comedy cellar who are great actors, Liza Treyger plays the waitress, Lynne Koplitz is a great comedian too and she plays Joy, Marissa’s sister.”

Building that internal cast is a bit of a calling card for Apatow and has certainly worked for him in the past and on this film as well. It’s also what enables him to bring that extra bit of special out of who he is directing.

“Kevin Corrigan was in ‘Pineapple Express’, and I worked with him on ‘Freaks and Geeks’, he’s one of our favorites. And then Marissa Tomei is the best actress you could ever get—everyone wanted to raise their game because she was around [for this]. Everyone felt like, she’s going to be great, so if I’m not great too, I’m going to be the weak link, so having her really changed everybody’s attitude on the set.”

The movie follows Scott through various situations—navigating his own love-life with his secret childhood friend hookup, watching his mother start to date again (and with another fireman no less) and even his own set of personal tribulations dealing with mental issues while on the path of trying to become a tattoo artist.

Claire Carlin (Maude Apatow) and Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson).Andrea Foster/ NBC Universal

With all of that emotion, personal casting and vision in check, ‘The King of Staten Island’ let all who were involved, especially Apatow and Davidson, exercise new creative muscles in their careers.

“I’m always looking for those opportunities,” says Apatow. “For me, I feel if you fill the world with people who are already in his world, you get something magical out of it—it doesn’t feel like a world of strangers.”

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