Movie Interviews
12:27 pm
Thu December 6, 2012

In 'This Is 40,' Family Life In All Its Glory

Originally published on Fri December 7, 2012 5:22 pm

Since earning a cult following for his acclaimed television show Freaks and Geeks, writer, producer, and director Judd Apatow has become a brand name. He has a new movie out this month — This Is 40 — and also guest-edits the January "Comedy Issue" of Vanity Fair.

He's an executive producer for the HBO show Girls and previously wrote, produced and directed the 2005 comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Beyond those hits, Apatow has also produced a litany of recent comedies, including Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Bridesmaids and The Five-Year Engagement. His films often feature the actors Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, with whom he first worked on Freaks and Geeks.

Several of these films have been about people who don't want to — or don't know how to — grow up, but Apatow's new movie is about adults. It picks up five years after the end of Knocked Up, and tells the story of Pete and Debbie, two of the characters from that 2007 comedy. Pete runs an indie record label and is trying to keep it afloat, while at home the couple is raising two girls — Charlotte and Sadie — and having trouble keeping their relationship fresh.

The movie stars Apatow's wife and collaborator, the actress Leslie Mann, and their two daughters, 10-year-old Iris and 14-year-old Maude, as well as Paul Rudd. And while the film isn't explicitly autobiographical, it does draw on Apatow's own experiences as the child of divorced parents and as a husband attempting to balance his work and home lives. In that way, it's his most personal film to date.

In fact, This Is 40 was shot on Apatow's own block, nine houses down the street from his home. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that that was part of his effort to integrate his work and family lives; he's reluctant to leave Mann and their kids for long stretches at a time, as many in Hollywood do.

"Just so people know," he says, "I won't be directing the next James Bond movie."

Apatow admits, however, that he was not initially prepared for the changes a family and children would bring to his life and worldview. He is still caught off guard, he says, when he's sitting around immersed in his work and miscellaneous anxieties, and his daughter — oblivious to his preoccupations — wants to spend time with him.

"It makes you realize how noisy your mind is," he says. "And it took me years to figure out how to quiet it down and just appreciate that moment with my kids. ... [T]he best part of life is that moment alone with my kids, but no one ever prepared me for that fact."


Interview Highlights

On writing a scene in which Debbie (Leslie Mann) realizes her husband, Pete (Paul Rudd), is using Viagra

"I've thought about what [my wife's] reaction would be to it, and I just thought, 'That must be a funny thing for most men,' because, I guess, intrinsically, a woman would say, 'Why do you need that — am I not enough? You actually need medication to do that now?' [Using Viagra] is a real sign of age, even though in the commercials the men are handsome. The men on the commercials look like erections. They get all these tall, skinny guys, with like nice heads."

On the role of improvisation in his movies

"Improv gets kind of overblown. ... Usually, it's just a little seasoning at the end. I feel like if the actors know they're allowed to change their lines, they act differently. Most actors are obsessed with getting their lines exactly right, and I always say, 'It doesn't matter, I just want a truthful moment. So, if you like the line the way it is, say it. If you want to put it in your own words or if you can think of some embellishment, you know, go for it.' And then, [the actors] are more in the moment because of that."

On how his parents communicated with him about their divorce

"One day I found a book in the house, and it was called Growing Up Divorced, and it was a self-help book about how to treat your kids when you're getting divorced, how to communicate with them. And I read it as a little kid, and it helped me. It really did help me understand their conflicts and why they weren't getting along. ... [A]nd a couple years ago, I mentioned that to my dad and he said, 'I left that out for you so you would read it!' ... [A]nd, you know, on one level, you think, 'Oh, that's like a sweet thing,' and, on another level, you think, 'Well, you could have talked to me directly. ... You don't leave bread crumbs of books that you're hoping I'm going to read. What if I didn't read the book?' But that was a different era; people weren't as communicative about their feelings and problems."

On having a daughter, Maude, who has 100,000 Twitter followers

"In the beginning, we read everything that came in and that she was tweeting, and there wasn't much weird coming in. ... [W]e just said, 'If someone says something weird, just block 'em,' so she learns about that. And we would tell her the first month she was tweeting, 'Well, don't say that, that's obnoxious,' or 'That makes you look this way, don't do it.' But very quickly she learned how to be polite. She learned how to express herself in a way that was not cruel and judgmental of other people. ... [I]t's more about her and about our life, and people really respond to it in a big way. What's interesting now is we're all nervous about the kids being on the Internet. They see everything, so this idea that you're going to prevent kids from seeing things — yeah, good luck with that. All you can do is raise a kid who will talk to you if they see something weird."

On the different working attitudes of men and women

"With both Lena [Dunham] and Kristen [Wiig] ... you do get the sense that they approach all of the work differently than men. The things that they're writing about are different, but it's hard to say what it is ... because everyone's looking for love, everyone's looking to be happy, everyone wants to be grounded.

"There are specific neuroses to their projects that are not exactly how men are. There's more of a vulnerability to how they go about their lives. ... [T]hey're all willing to not worry about being liked. They will expose themselves and show all of their pain and frustrations and desires, and we never have a moment where they think, 'I'll look weird doing that,' or 'That makes me look bad.' They just want to expose the truth, which is what I always want. And being around them has made me want to do that more in my work."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Joining me for a return visit is Judd Apatow, who wrote and directed the new movie comedy "This is 40." He was an executive producer of the high school comedy series "Freaks and Geeks." He wrote, produced and directed "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" and produced many film comedies, including "Superbad," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Bridesmaids."

He's an executive producer of the HBO series "Girls," and Apatow is guest editor of Vanity Fair's first comedy issue, which is on newsstands this week. Several of Apatow's films are about people who don't want to or don't know how to grow up, but "This is 40" is about a married couple with two children, dealing with adult life, like it or not.

The main characters were featured in the film "Knocked Up." Paul Rudd plays Pete. Apatow's wife and collaborator, Leslie Mann, plays Pete's wife Debbie. Their daughters are played by Apatow and Mann's children, Maude and Iris. Set five years after "Knocked Up," "This is 40" finds Pete desperate to keep his indie record label afloat. Debbie owns a boutique that is just breaking even.

With work and parenting keeping Debbie and Pete exhausted and anxious, it's been difficult for them to keep any spark in their relationship. Here's a scene from the film. The family is having dinner together. In an effort to simplify their lives and connect as a family, Pete and Debbie decide to get rid of Wi-Fi and encourage their children to spend time away from TV and computers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THIS IS 40")

PAUL RUDD: (As Pete) Because you need to get outside more. Do some playing outside.

LESLIE MANN: (As Debbie) Yeah, you can build things, you can build a fort outside.

MAUDE APATOW: (As Sadie) What?

MANN: (As Debbie) Yeah, build a fort, play with your friends and...

APATOW: (As Sadie) Make a fort outside? And do what?

MANN: (As Debbie) Have little...

APATOW: (As Sadie) Do what in the fort?

MANN: (As Debbie) When I was a kid, we used to build tree houses and play with sticks.

APATOW: (As Sadie) Nobody plays with sticks.

RUDD: (As Pete) You and Charlotte can have a lemonade stand.

MANN: (As Debbie) Play kick the can.

RUDD: (As Pete) Look for dead bodies.

MANN: (As Debbie) It's fun. That's fun to do.

RUDD: (As Pete) Get a tire and then just take a stick and run down a street with it.

APATOW: (As Sadie) Nobody does that crap. It's 2012.

MANN: (As Debbie) You don't need technology.

IRIS APATOW: (As Charlotte) No technology.

MANN: (As Debbie) Charlotte, put that down.

GROSS: Judd Apatow, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you here.

JUDD APATOW: It's great to be here in Philadelphia.

GROSS: Yes, we're actually face to face, which rarely happens on our show. It's usually a long-distance interview. So let me start with what turning 40 meant for you. You are now, what, 44?

APATOW: I just turned 45.

GROSS: OK.

APATOW: I'm halfway to 50. I already have to start a new movie.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: But when I turned 40, I said: What are we going to do? And Leslie said: Well, I have to work that day, I'm shooting a movie. So I said, well, I'll visit you on the set. And she was shooting a movie called "17 Again," and when I got there, what she was doing was erotically dancing with Zac Efron, and he was holding her and spinning her, and I had to spend my 40th birthday with my big, fat gut watching sexy...

GROSS: You don't have a big, fat gut.

APATOW: Well, I'm going to put it on the table for you right now so you can see. See now that I'm here in person, you can see what it is.

GROSS: I see all your lies now.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: So that was a little bit of a meltdown for me. But I think 30 was harder because you're - I always thought you were supposed to go nuts in your 20s and party and be crazy, and then you settle down. But I was always working and trying to get my career going, so I didn't have any fun. So when I hit 30, I'm like well, I guess I just didn't do it.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: And you don't want to be like kind of drunk and crazy when you're older.

GROSS: When you knew you were making "This is 40," did you start taking notes about funny, ridiculous things about being in your 40s?

APATOW: You know, I'm always making notes of things I think are interesting, and I'm - I was coming out of doing "Funny People," and I wasn't sure what I wanted to write about next, and it occurred to me that I did want to make a movie about family life. And I didn't think it would be about Pete and Debbie from "Knocked Up."

And then it just occurred to me when I - oh, I have the cast, I have the family. Why am I sitting here trying to figure out who to put in this movie? And then everything fell into place. So then it's, you know, a year or two of, you know, coming up with scene ideas. A lot of it is in collaboration with Leslie, where I would tell her an idea for a section of the movie, and then she'll say, well, you know what you should do a scene about, and a lot of the great scenes are things that she pushed to do.

Sometimes people see the movies, and they think how can you make your wife do that. And I'm like she begged me to do that. She thought of it.

GROSS: Like what?

APATOW: Well, there's a scene where she comes into the bedroom topless and basically, you know, wants to have sex with Paul Rudd, her husband, and he's preoccupied with work and his problems, and he doesn't even notice what she's doing. And it's a really painful rejection because they're just in different head spaces.

And she thought it was important to show that aspect of marriage that, you know, you get older, you want to feel loved and still appreciated and sexy, and sometimes you're just not connecting and how painful that is. And then she said: And I think it would be much better if I was topless when we did it. I would never think to ask her that.

And then I said, well, don't you think that would be embarrassing for the kids? And she's like: Who cares? They can handle it.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: Now she says I just want to get them on a record.

GROSS: Well, on a related note, early in the film the couple, Leslie Mann, your wife, and Paul Rudd, are having birthday sex.

APATOW: Yes.

GROSS: Until she realizes that he's taking Viagra, and that's, like, going to end. She is so offended by that. And is that what turning 40 means to you?

APATOW: Well, I've never taken Viagra, but I have thought about that...

GROSS: Let that be on the record.

APATOW: I'm going to say officially, but I've thought about what her reaction would be to it, and I just thought that must be a funny thing for most men, because I guess, intrinsically, you know, a woman would say why do you need that, am I not enough, you actually need medication to do that now. It is a real sign of age even though in the commercials the men are handsome.

The men on the commercials look like erections.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: You get all these, like, tall, skinny guys with, like, nice heads.

GROSS: But with hairdressers.

APATOW: Yeah, when would you tell your wife you're using Viagra? Would you ask for permission beforehand? And if you took - said it afterwards, she would be mad. So I thought that would be really, you know, a funny way to start the movie.

I like starting the movie with a bang, as they say.

GROSS: Since so much of the movie is about tension in a marriage, what did you - I mean, I read in the New York Times that you and - that basically you had your wife improvise on camera - do I have this right - thoughts about tensions in marriage.

APATOW: Well, our process usually works like this: I will come up with an idea, and then I need the family's permission to make it. You know, I can't make the movie with my wife and children unless they say OK, and I don't want to write it if I think they're ultimately not game. So I start there.

And then I go off and start outlining, and outlining for me is coming up with just hundreds of scenes. You know, I start with just moments. Then an outline just reveals itself, and I'll go off and write a draft. And as soon as I have a draft, I call Paul and Leslie, and we do a rehearsal. And at that rehearsal we had dinner with Paul Rudd and his wife, and we said, you know, how are you guys getting along, what are your obstacles these days.

And we read the script, we improvise, we play, and by the time we get to shooting, we've just - you know, we've all collaborated so deeply on it that we understand the material, and we'll shoot both the script and extra ideas that we thought of that we're not even sure where they go, but we've got to have them say this.

And then we play a little. We do a little bit of improv. But improv gets kind of overblown. People kind of assume you show up, and you don't know what you're going to do. Usually, it's - you know, it's just a little seasoning at the end, because I feel like if the actors know they're allowed to change their lines, they act differently.

Most actors are obsessed with getting their lines exactly right, and I always say it doesn't matter. I just want a truthful moment. So if you like the line the way it is, say it. If you want to put it in your own words, or if you think of some embellishment, you know, go for it. And then they - they're more in the moment because of that.

GROSS: One of the lines that Paul Rudd says, well, I'm not going to do the line, I'll just give the thought, is he thinks, sometimes, about his wife dying.

APATOW: Yes, well that Paul Rudd's idea.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: Anything bad was Paul Rudd's idea.

GROSS: So he thinks about his wife dying a kind of decent death, not a painful death.

APATOW: Yes, not painful, just slipping off.

GROSS: And then being a widower and getting to have sympathy sex.

APATOW: That's true. Well, in all honesty, that was Paul Rudd's idea. But as soon as he said it, every single person associated with the movie said oh my God, I think about that all the time, and women have said that to me: Oh, I'm always thinking about what life would be like if my husband died.

So again, it turned into a universal secret thought a lot of people have. And they did some pretty hilarious extended versions of that scene, where Paul Rudd and Robert Smigel are fantasizing about their second wives. And they start listing everyone who has a second wife in Hollywood who seems happier: Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, second wife; Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, that's a second wife; Will Smith and Jada Pinkett.

That is what, you know, the movie is about is that you can be very happy and love your wife and your family, but there's always a little part of you that's expressing your terror or your unmet needs. And that to me is the funny part, you know, the disgruntled little piece of your brain.

GROSS: Some of your movies are about characters who either don't want to or don't know how to grow up. And "This is 40" is about, you know, it's a couple. They're grown up. They're 40 now. They have two kids. The kids are growing up. One of them is on the verge of being a teenager. So did you always want to be a father, or is that something that just kind of happened to you, you know, as opposed to I really want this to happen?

APATOW: I never thought about it. I never was planning. When I had children, what occurred to me, very early on, was I don't know if I had ever held a baby. I hadn't hung out with a four-year-old since I was four. I didn't have, you know, nieces and nephews, and there were no young people in my family. I wasn't like the funny uncle to anybody. So that's what blew my mind when I had kids.

GROSS: Did you feel like I don't know how to interact with a baby or child because I don't have experience?

APATOW: Completely, and beyond that, I realize how much I hadn't worked out mentally. Because, you know, when you have a kid, and your kid's a year-and-a-half years old, they just want to tool around and talk to their dolls and play doctor. You know, my kids always liked to get old medical equipment, like the little toy medical equipment, and pretend to check your heart rate.

And they want to sit with you for hours in their fantasyland, because they're completely healthy.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: And when you're not healthy, you want to run out of that room so fast. Like this is too much time in my own head. Like, you realize like oh, I'm running my problems 24 hours a day. I'm running my work problems, my writing problems, my general neuroses, and she just wants me to play doctor here for the next hour and a half.

And it makes you realize how noisy your mind is. And it took me years to figure out how to quiet it down and just appreciate that moment with my kids, and that's the best part of life is that moment alone with my kids. But I - no one ever prepared me for that fact. No one ever said, you know, when you play with your little kids, sometimes you have a nervous breakdown because you've never actually gotten outside of your own egomania to just be a purely giving person.

But it's been very healthy, but harder than I anticipated.

GROSS: So the way you've solved the problem is to bring them into the work room.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: Well, part of is...

GROSS: Bring them into your fantasies instead of playing doctor with them.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: Well, you know, it's very hard to have bounds in show business because it's a real circus life, and so, you know, people shoot movies in Croatia for four months. You know, like I always think about people's schedule, like wow, they really traveled around the world doing those "Bourne Identity" movies. That's a lot of days out of town.

And so I shot this movie on my block, like nine houses from my house, and all the scenes where Paul Rudd's riding a bicycle around in his Spandex suit is like, literally, my block because I'm trying to figure out ways to be around my family. And then, you know, everyone's in the movie together, so that's another way to not leave them.

So I'm not actually - just so people know, I won't be directing the next James Bond movie.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Judd Apatow, and his new film, which he wrote and directed, is called "This is 40." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Judd Apatow, and his new film is "This is 40." Before you had children, and when you were single, and when you imagined what marriage and family life would be, did you think: OK, that'll be great, there'll be a woman in my life all the time, and then we'll have children maybe, and that will be great, or that will be the end of life as I know it?

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: You know, it's much different for me. I couldn't believe Leslie would date me. You know, I couldn't believe that I found this, you know, amazing woman and that she was in my life. I never really got to the point of thinking about marriage and having a baby.

What I realized after I had kids was every single thing people think about what it's like to be a parent and to have babies is not what it is. All you know is television or diaper commercials, and there's always, like, talk about oh man, you're going to have to do diapers. And like that has actually nothing to do with the emotional experience of, like, creating life and being responsible for it.

And all of your priorities suddenly change. You know, I spent my whole life, you know, worrying about a job and doing comedy and meeting someone I could share my life with, and suddenly all of that takes a back seat to something else. I didn't anticipate any of that.

Someone told me, you know, you go from being number one in your world to number four instantly. And then a lot of guys don't talk about it, and they're quietly having a nervous breakdown because they're not, like, the king of the castle anymore, they're the last person that's being dealt with in any situation, as it should be, but I didn't think about any of it.

And it wasn't in any of the baby books. No one's written a good baby book that explains the emotional change, you know, that thing that happens where you have a kid, and you're up at three in the morning with your ear next to their mouth making sure they're breathing. You know, that's what it's about.

GROSS: So in the forthcoming edition of Vanity Fair, the comedy edition that you edited, you interview Albert Brooks, who's one of the stars of your new film, and you tell him in one of your questions that most of your neuroses stem from your parents' volcanic divorce. And you say it made me think things could go really badly. I've got to be on my game.

So since we're talking about marriage here, can you talk a little bit about how your parents' divorce affected you and maybe even affected you wanting to be a comic, if it in fact affected that?

APATOW: I always feel weird talking about it. You know, my mom, you know, passed away a few years ago, but my dad, he always feels bad when I talk about how much pain the divorce caused me. But, you know, if two people aren't getting along, you know, to that extent, they need to break up.

And back when they got divorced, you know, people weren't watching Dr. Phil. You know, things got intense, and people fought, and they fought in front of the kids. And the kids were, you know, in our family we weren't shielded from what they were talking about.

My dad was very good about not telling us the details of what they were arguing about, but my mom told us every single detail.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: And was not happy with him and told us why. And that was a very painful aspect of it. What it did to me was it made me realize that adults are not perfect, and I can't listen to all their advice. And I think that's a bad thing to happen to a kid when he's still pretty young, this is like early teens, you know, 11, 12, 13 years old.

So then it made me think oh, I need to figure out the answers for myself because if the two people who give me advice completely disagree with each other, one of them is wrong.

GROSS: Right.

APATOW: So who's right? I guess I'm the arbiter of what's right. And I also thought: And I need to get a job. They were fighting about money, and it put, like, money issues in my head. I need to be solid so that I don't have to worry about any of these things. And so from an early age, I thought: How am I going to be a comedian? How am I going to get into this business?

So I started interviewing comedians when I was very young because I was 15 years old, but in my head, I was thinking: Tell me how to get a job. Tell me what the way in to this business is. And so it made me very hyper-vigilant, which leads to workaholism, you know. It makes you think OK, I have to take care of myself.

That doesn't mean my parents weren't trying to take care of me. They took great care. I mean, you know, my dad drove me to comedy clubs at night. He'd drop me off and pick me up in the middle of the night, and he was the big comedy fan that, you know, played Bill Cosby for me for the first time. So they were both, you know, very nice people.

But when two nice people dislike each other, it does shatter your world as a kid, and it confuses you because it's adult issues you really don't understand. I'll tell you a funny story about it, which is when I was a kid, I lived with my dad, not with my mom, because my mom moved to a different city, and I wanted to stay in my neighborhood and stay around my friends.

And one day I found a book in the house, and it was called "Growing Up Divorced," and it was a self-help book about how to treat your kids when you're getting divorced, how to communicate with them. And I read it as a little kid, and it helped me. It really did help me understand their conflicts and why they weren't getting along, and it was valuable.

And a couple years, I mentioned that to my dad, and he said: I left that out for you so you would read it.

GROSS: Really?

APATOW: On one level, you think that's like a sweet thing. And on another level, you think, well, you could have talked to me directly.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Obviously he couldn't.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: You don't have to, like, leave breadcrumbs of books that you're hoping I'm going to read. What if I didn't read the book? But that was, you know, a different era. People weren't as communicative about their feelings and problems. So in movies, I tend to always push people to want to be together, even though it's hard, to try and work things out. That's why there's a lot of brutal conflict in these movies.

People fight, and it's rough. I don't, you know, sand down the edges. But I guess it's my way of saying, like, even when it's rough, you can figure it out.

GROSS: Judd Apatow will be back in the second half of the show. He wrote and directed the new movie "This is 40." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Judd Apatow. He wrote and directed the new film "This Is 40," which comes out December 21st. It stars Paul Rudd and Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann, as a married couple. Their children are played by Apatow and Mann's two daughters. Apatow also wrote and directed "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" and "Funny People," and produced "Superbad," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Bridesmaids." He's an executive producer of the HBO series "Girls" and he's the guest editor of Vanity Fair's comedy issue, which was just published. It includes a history of the TV series "Freaks and Geeks," on which Apatow was an executive producer and also features a couple of his interviews with comedians.

So in your new film, "This Is 40," Albert Brooks plays Paul Rudd's father. I know he's one of your heroes and you write about him and you interview him in the comedy edition of Vanity Fair that you edited. So what does Albert Brooks mean to you?

APATOW: What does he mean? Figures from my youth who inspired me to want to get into comedy. I used to watch Albert Brooks' films on "Saturday Night Live" when I was very young. I just thought, who is this guy making these movies? They were so funny. He was just one of the first people that I saw as a person. Also, like I saw his short films but he was this very specific character who I related to as well. And then I saw his movies, "Modern Romance," "Real Life," "Lost in America," and there are those people you think he's hilarious and neurotic and I relate to a lot of those feelings that he's expressing in an extreme way. And so I bought all of his albums. And "The Ben Stiller Show," which I worked on, was very much modeled after his work on "Saturday Night Live" and "Second City" sketches. So he's always been someone I've looked up to. And I'm always afraid to try to work with someone who I idolize because I think I don't know if I can make my movie as good as his best movie, so then why waste his time? This will be like one of his weird side things that's not as good as "Lost in America." But for this one I thought I'm just going to go for it and I wrote the part for him. I would sit in my office doing impressions of him trying to figure out his voice.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Which is?

APATOW: My personal impression of him?

GROSS: Yes.

APATOW: Well, the only way I can do it is in a story, which is, I met him in the early 90s. I had dinner with him and Garry Shandling when I was writing for "The Larry Sanders Show" and I was so excited to talk to him that when I got home I wrote down everything he said at dinner in my journal. And at the time the Menendez trial was on and I remember writing down that he said, you don't kill your parents and then buy a Rolex watch. That's the first thing you don't do.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: Anyway, it was a big, you know, honor to have...

GROSS: Did you call him and say I wrote this role for you? Would you take it?

APATOW: I did. I...

GROSS: And you called him after you wrote the role for him?

APATOW: I did. I rolled the dice that I could get him.

GROSS: Gee, what if he said no?

APATOW: That would have been difficult. Then I'd have to CGI myself doing a bad impression of Kevin Pollack's impression of him. But I took him out to lunch. I told him the whole story and then I gave him the script and he really connected with it. And then we went very quickly into rehearsals, where he definitely helped create that character and came up with a lot of the amazing lines he has in the movie. I mean you don't ask Albert Brooks to be a part of your movie if you don't want to do a deep collaboration with him because he, you know, he's one of the greatest writers and comedy writers of all time.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of how that collaborative effort worked in terms of writing for his character or improvising for it?

APATOW: He would just mainly email me lines the night before he shot a scene. Like, I would just get an email, you know what might be funny for Larry to say? And, you know, it always would top my joke, but that's why I wanted him there.

GROSS: So in the movie he plays - both Leslie Mann's character and Paul Rudd's character, their parents are divorced.

APATOW: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And Paul Rudd's father, who is Albert Brooks, is remarried to a younger woman, and through in vitro fertilization she's had triplets. They're, but they're toddlers.

APATOW: They're three-year-olds.

GROSS: Yeah. And so it's just weird because Paul Rudd's father has children much younger than Paul Rudd's children.

APATOW: Yes. That's why he says to Paul's daughter, go play with your tiny uncles.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So the Paul Rudd character used to work in the music business for a major label but he was kind of downsized out because of hard times in the music industry and now he has his own label that's not doing so well. He signs Graham Parker to it. The real Graham Parker is one of the stars of the film. Your grandfather was a real record producer...

APATOW: Yes.

GROSS: ...Bob Shad, a name that's familiar to jazz listeners. He produced a lot of jazz. He founded the MRC label, produced Clifford Brown and Max Roach, including the album that has a great track "Parisian Thoroughfare" on it. So was he alive when you were young?

APATOW: He died when I was a senior in high school. You know, he was this, you know, legendary figure, you know, in our family. You know, he did something remarkable, which is he, you know, he grew up in the Bronx. You know, he didn't come from, you know, a family with any money, and at some point in his teen years he decided he loved jazz and somehow raised enough money to just hire a few guys to record some songs. He had them printed up and went around to record stores and had them sell it and then he kept doing that until he had an official record label. Then he owned his own record store and then he became the head of a lot of record labels in his life. And over the years he worked with people like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughn.

So what it did to me was make me realize oh, anything is possible. I mean if you have guts and are willing to take risks, you can make your dream come true. There's no reason why that guy should have become a legendary jazz, blues producer. He just worked really hard. And somewhere in my head I thought I guess it's possible in comedy too. My grandfather went down South with a tape recorder. He was one of the first people to ever go down south and record blues artists in their, in their homes. I mean he recorded Ray Charles when he was 18 or 19 years old when he was playing guitar, and he just traveled around recording people like Lightning Hopkins and no one had ever done that before. So I guess that entrepreneurial spirit stayed with me.

GROSS: Did you listen to his records when you were growing up?

APATOW: I, you know, I did listen to some of his records but I didn't understand them. You know, it's hard to get into jazz when you're 10 years old. As I was in high school...

GROSS: Did it seem just like not interested or did it seem like old man music to you because it was your grandfather?

APATOW: You know I, I didn't have sophisticated tastes anyway. I mean I was just, you know, you know, I just sat home all day long listening to my record collection, which was a lot of Styx, a lot of Kansas.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: There was a fair amount of the Chicago catalog, and then I was evolving into enjoying, you know, The Who that, you know, became my favorite band. So I didn't dislike it. I just hadn't connected with it yet. And then when I was a DJ at my high school radio station, I started listening to all of it and I really liked it. And I was planning to travel to California to visit my grandfather in high school and I wanted to talk to him about his life and jazz as someone who was beginning to understand it, and before I got there he died of a heart attack.

GROSS: Oh.

APATOW: And so I never got to have those conversations with him.

GROSS: Oh, that's really a shame.

APATOW: It's very sad. Recently, we found nine hours of recordings. Someone recorded an interview with him for a project he was working on where he tells all the stories from his entire career. So we have that.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Judd Apatow. His new film, which he wrote and directed, is "This Is 40."

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Judd Apatow and he wrote and directed the new movie "This Is 40."

We were talking earlier about improvising. And your two daughters are in the film. How old were they when you made the film?

APATOW: Eight and 13.

GROSS: The eight-year-old in particular seems to me to be improvising a lot in it, in the sense that my impression was - and tell me if I'm wrong here - that instead of getting her to memorize lines and then feel like she's reading them, you say to her, say something like this, tell her that you think blah, blah, blah, and then she'd say it. Because it sounds so, it sounds real when she's saying it. It doesn't sound like she's doing a script. So what did you do with her?

APATOW: You know, it changes in each situation. When we did "Knocked Up," I would just, you know, buckle my youngest daughter Iris, into a chair, you know, give her a bunch of bacon and then she would just sit there, you know, listening to the scene. And, you know, and I'd say, you know, just say, what are you doing here? And then she'd go, what are you doing here? And she would always be very natural. But now she's kind of hilarious, my daughter, Iris.

So there are certain fights that the kids have all the time. One of the fights is, what is appropriate for Iris to watch on television? She gets very upset if you think she's not mature enough to handle anything. And Maude, my older daughter, thinks it's very important that Iris does not get to watch anything at an earlier age than she was allowed to watch it. And she will fight hard to prevent her from watching shows like "Lost," until it's the age she was allowed to see it. So on the day I'll just say, Iris, ask Maude if it's OK if you watch "Lost." And Maude, Maude both is - she's still mad. She's mad to even be asked the question and they'll start having the debate on camera. And they're very comfortable in front of cameras because they've always been around them. But they also know where the comedy is. And then occasionally I'll chime in and tell them to say a certain line because I can hear the fight but I know there's no punch line, and if they say this one line this very real exchange will become comedic.

There was a line where Maude says, you can't watch "Lost." Then Iris says, I watch "Shark Week." People get eaten on "Shark Week." And Maude goes, that's not real. None of that's real. It's re-creations. And Iris says, I know it's re-creations but it really happened.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: And so I didn't write any of that and they, you know, it's funny. They do know what I'm trying to accomplish. They're not mistakenly being funny. I don't want to take that away from them even as little kids, they just are funny. But then Maude said something about it'll give you nightmares. And then Iris says well, you're a nightmare every day for me. And I might've fed that to her to, you know, to get out of the scene somehow.

GROSS: So your older daughter Maude is terrific in the film and she was also really terrific in - it was a small scene in "Funny People" where she sings. We, I talked about this the last time you were on the show. She sings, what's the song that she sings?

APATOW: "Memory" from "Cats."

GROSS: Yeah. I assume she loves Broadway.

APATOW: Yes.

GROSS: Does she want to be a professional? Does she want to be an actor?

APATOW: You know, it's hard to know because she's 15 now and she's doing so many things. You know, she's in the movie. She does musical theater at school. She tweets and has like 100,000 Twitter followers @maudeapatow, if you're looking to follow someone new. And she's really...

GROSS: Well that...

APATOW: ...funny. And she talks about the experience of being a 15-year-old. And it has nothing to do with me. People don't follow her because they like me. She's really sharing what her life is like in a fascinating way and...

GROSS: Wait. Let me stop you right there...

APATOW: Yeah. OK.

GROSS: ...because when I had read about how many followers she has on Twitter - and what did you say it was 100,000?

APATOW: Yeah.

GROSS: It's up since I read about it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's a growing following. I was thinking like what position does that put you in as a father? Usually when your kid is 15 you're trying to have some mediation of their media diet.

APATOW: Yeah.

GROSS: And here she is, she's the person putting - not only taking it in but she's putting it out. Do you want to like edit her tweets? Do you read what she's tweeting just to make sure you're OK with it?

APATOW: Well, when she started it about a year ago...

GROSS: Or is that - should that be none of your business? I mean I have no idea.

APATOW: You know, in the beginning, we read everything that came in and that she was tweeting, and there wasn't much weird coming in. And we just said, if someone says something weird, just block'em, so she learns, you know, she learns about that. And we would tell her the first, you know, month when she was tweeting, well, don't say that, that's obnoxious, or that makes you look this way, don't do it. But very quickly it's like she learned how to be polite. She learned how to express herself in a way that was not cruel and judgmental of other people or things she's seen in the media. And it's more about her and about our life, and people really respond to it in a big way.

What's interesting now is we're all nervous about the kids being on the Internet. They see everything, so this idea that you're going to prevent kids from seeing things - yeah, good luck with that. All you can do is raise a kid who will talk to you if they see something weird.

It's like in "Knocked Up" where she says I Googled murder. Well, what did you see? There was some people on the ground and blood and blah. But...

...will talk to you if they see something weird. It's like in "Knocked Up," where she says I Googled murder. Well, what did you see? Oh, there was people on the ground and blood and bleh. But they're going to see those images. You just want to raise a kid that knows to just shut them off, or to know how to process all this information, because all kids do all day long is judge each other.

They put up a photo and people like it or don't like it. So they're not as sensitive as we are. They're used to way more input, and it doesn't throw them off their game. Like, if someone says, like, I hated the movie, Judd. I'm devastated. But Maude will read a thousand comments on the movie, and if 900 of them are good, she's pretty happy.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: Because it is - you know, she's from the world of Rotten Tomatoes. I'm from the world of, you know, one bad review in the New York Times, and I'm going to cry. But she's like, but, dad, your Metacritic score was 82. So it's just - everything about it is different. And she's found her voice on it. So I feel like that's positive. And - but I could be wrong. I mean, you know, I - we still pay, you know, attention to it.

GROSS: You're an executive producer of the HBO series "Girls"? Do I have the title right?

APATOW: Yes, I am.

GROSS: And you kind of made it happen, is my understanding, that - didn't you basically bring it to HBO with her, and said you should do something and get her an audience at HBO?

APATOW: Well, I saw "Tiny Furniture," and loved it.

GROSS: That's the independent film that she made on, like, for about $5...

APATOW: Yeah.

GROSS: ...on, basically, a cell phone, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: It's a beautiful movie she made on a Canon camera for 45 grand in her parents' apartment in New York. And I just reached out to her and said: That's incredible. If there's anything I could ever do to help you, let me know. And it turned out that she was about to set up this project with HBO with a good friend of mine, Jenny Conner, who worked on "Undeclared." And they asked me to be a part of it.

So it didn't come from me, but I think my involvement might have made them take it more seriously. And I was very aggressive about I really want to make this pilot. I don't want Lena to have a script in development for two-and-a-half years. Let's make the pilot. We'll make it good. And they were very supportive to making it something that was real, and not just - you know, a lot of stuff goes into development and disappears.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Judd Apatow. His new film, which he wrote and directed, is "This is 40." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with screenwriter, director and producer Judd Apatow. His new movie is called "This is 40." He's also an executive producer of Lena Dunham's HBO series "Girls," which returns in January.

What have you learned working with her, since she's a woman, and most of the people who you've worked with as writers have been men?

And also, because she's in her 20s now, which is what you were when you got started, but now you're in your mid-40s. So she represents a different generation. So are there things that you feel like you've picked up? You know, insights into what it's like to either be that age now or to be, you know, a woman of that age, you know, in her 20s?

APATOW: You know, I've had this great experience over the last six years working with brilliant women, you know, working with Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo on "Bridesmaids..."

GROSS: True. Of course. Right. Of course.

APATOW: ...you know, since 2006.

GROSS: Right.

APATOW: And that was, you know, a long run. And a lot of people, you know, for a long time said, look, where are the projects where women are the center? And, you know, we were just trying to make a good one. It just wasn't done yet. And then I met Lena, and with both Lena and Kristen and Annie, you know, you do get a sense that they approach all of the work differently than men.

The things that they're writing about are different, but it's hard to say what it is. It's hard to go, well, this is, you know - because everyone's looking for love. Everyone's looking to be happy. Everyone wants to be grounded. There is specific neuroses to their projects that are - it's not exactly how men are. There's more of a vulnerability to how they go about their lives. I think the friendships are different.

And I love the friendship between Kristen and Maya in "Bridesmaids." It's just very special, and it's not the same as the Seth and Evan character in "Superbad." It has just as much love. It's expressed differently.

So I don't know if I'm answering your question about, you know, what I learn from them. I think they're all willing to not worry about being liked. They will expose themselves and show all of their pain and frustrations and desires.

And we never have a moment where they think, I'll look weird doing that, or that makes me look bad. They just want to expose the truth, which is what I always want. And being around them has made me want to do that more in my work. And I think working on "Girls" helped "This is 40," not just because Lena was reading the scripts and giving me notes - Jenny, as well - but just watching her balls. She's just so courageous, that I thought, oh, I guess I have to go all the way, because look at what Lena's doing.

GROSS: You seemed to have taken an almost parental responsibility for younger performers and writers, dating back to "Freaks and Geeks." And there's a history of "Freaks and Geeks" in the Vanity Fair comedy edition, where you and other people talk about doing the show. I mean, you and Paul Feig, who you worked on with it...

APATOW: Feig.

GROSS: Feig. Sorry. Basically, you took kids who were in high school and kind of took them out of high school to work on the show. And when the show was canceled, I think there was this great feeling of, like, guilt and responsibility. Now what happens to them? And you've really, like, worked with, you know, people over the years, including Seth Rogan and Jason Segel. And you helped them become writers. You helped them have careers in acting, and so on, and then taking on Lena Dunham and "Girls" and helping to shepherd that through. And I guess I'm interested in that feeling of not everybody does that, you know.

APATOW: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Not everybody helps out younger people. And it makes me think of several things. It makes me think about how when you were younger and you were in high school and you were interviewing these older, established comics and wanting to learn from them and hoping that they would help you.

And it makes me think about your parents divorcing, and you feeling like you had to be independent and make decisions on your own, because they saw things from opposite points of view and you had to decide who was right and what was right and going out when you were young.

And I'm wondering if that is a connection, if you think that they're, you know, related at all?

APATOW: I think it completely is. I mean, on one level, it's definitely that thing that when you're a kid, you just want someone to help you out. Like, who's looking out for me? You know, who's going to tell me what to do? And when I interviewed people, certain people were very, very kind. Most everybody was very cool.

But certain people just, you know, made the extra effort when they were talking to me. You know, Jerry Seinfeld really, you know, looked me in the eye and told me how he writes jokes and how his mind works. And I interviewed him twice. He didn't have to do it again. I interviewed Jay Leno twice. And they, you know, it was a very, kind of, giving experience.

And then later in life, when I started working for Garry Shandling, I mean, he really took me under his wing. When I started working at the "Larry Sanders Show," he said to me, you're going to learn so much here. You know, he was going to teach me. It wasn't like he thought, oh, my God. Judd's going to be so helpful and make my life easier.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: It was, you know, this is going to be a great experience for you. And almost everything I learned about writing, I learned from being around Garry at the "Larry Sanders Show." And I always appreciated that kindness. So when we did "Freaks and Geeks" and there were all these kids around, and I thought they all deserved to be the stars of movies and to write movies and to do everything.

It felt natural to say, hey, can I give you some advice? If you want to be in a movie, you better write it yourself, because it's hard to get a job in this town, and especially if you're a unique personality. Those scripts aren't just sitting around. And I wanted them to succeed, because I felt like we'd changed their life trajectories by putting them on this TV show.

You know, Seth moved to America from Canada. And then the show got canceled. Well, what's he going to do? His parents moved here, as well. And Jason Segel didn't go to college. Maybe it wasn't because of "Freaks and Geeks," but he didn't go to college. And I felt like, oh, I'm not the kind of person that would just move on to my next project and never talk to these people ever again. I love all these people, and I believe in them. And we all became great friends.

GROSS: I really regret that we have to end the conversation, because it's your fault, because you have to be someplace.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: Oh, no.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But...

APATOW: Screw those other people.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It has been so wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed the new movie.

APATOW: Thank you very much.

GROSS: And it's just been great to have you back on the show. I hope we get to do it again.

APATOW: It's great to be here, face to face.

GROSS: Yes.

Judd Apatow wrote, directed and produced the new movie "This is 40." It opens December 21st. And he edited Vanity Fair's new comedy edition, which is their January issue. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

Before we hear some music by Graham Parker from the soundtrack of "This is 40," I want to apologize for a mistake I made yesterday when I credited Dave Brubeck with writing Paul Desmond's composition "Take Five." So here's a song by Graham Parker that he wrote for "This is 40."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT DO YOU LIKE?")

GRAHAM PARKER: (Singing) When you that weight on my shoulder, when you put that hook in my mouth, it pulls me down like a concrete kite. Oh, what do you like? Then you kick that chair from below me, leave me swinging in the drowning seat. We used to be friends. Now we just fight. Oh, what do you like? How did we get here? I don't know. How did we lose that original glow? We started in love, but now you're a shrike. Look it up in the dictionary. What do you like? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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