“Almost everything good that’s happened in my life is as the result of being bad with women,” says Judd Apatow. The Hollywood comedy powerhouse is, I suspect, being a little disingenuous.
After all, he’s been married for almost 19 years to the actress Leslie Mann. So, he must have been pretty successful with at least one, I posit. “That’s all you need,” he grins.
Truth or not, romantic complications have been core to Apatow’s work, from his early cult television show Freaks and Geeks to film hits like Knocked Up, This is 40, and last year’s Trainwreck, and HBO’s Girls, which he executive produces and writes alongside creator Lena Dunham. When we meet in Los Angeles, Apatow is about to join Dunham in the writers’ room to begin crafting the sixth and final season, to be broadcast in early 2017. ‘There’s a natural ending for the show, as the characters near the end of their twenties. But I have no interest in ending it,’ he admits, brow furrowed. ‘Not having my world be filled with calls from Lena, that’s incredibly sad to think about.’
But most pressing is his the launch of his new small-screen project, simply called Love, which brings matters of the heart to the fore: beginning next month on Netflix, it follows two newly-single thirtysomethings, Gus (Paul Rust) and Mickey (Gillian Jacobs), as they negotiate the choppy waters of the dating world in the hipster enclave of East Los Angeles, while getting to know one another.
Love is “less autobiographical” than some previous projects, Apatow says, “but I have been in situations that are not completely different to this, in terms of being a people pleaser, like Paul’s character, and wanting to do the right thing, but being very angry underneath”. In the first five (of 10) episodes, it seems a gentler and less provocative proposition than Girls, though Apatow promises me it will get gratifyingly dark and weird.
The initial premise for the show was, he says: “What if Knocked Up was a TV series?” In traditional romcom style, that film ended at the point that its two leads finally became a couple. “[But] what if you could show the next day, and the next day, and how that relationship played out?” he wondered.
“When you are in a relationship, for the first year, you are kind of hiding who you are … then slowly, the other person figures it out – and they are really not happy about it, for the most part. And then, you have to decide if you want to heal, or grow, or listen to their complaints.
“I feel like every stage of that is really interesting,” says Apatow, who is also, he confesses, “a self-help junkie”. “I think one of the reasons why my movies are so long is because I feel that you need more time to explore characters and all of their ups and downs,” he says. “So, the idea of doing a show with Netflix is like doing a five-hour movie, which is my dream.”
Growing up in Long Island, New York, the young Apatow’s initial dream was to be a stand-up comedian, and as a teenager he scored a weekend job washing dishes at the Long Island East Side Comedy Club. Aged 15, he began interviewing successful and emerging comics, including Howard Stern, Steve Allen, John Candy, and Jerry Seinfeld, about their craft.
“I would call their publicist and not give them the one important detail: that it was a high-school radio station,” he laughs. “And then I would go along with my little portable tape recorder and interview them.” Some of those early conversations, as well as many more recent ones, with the likes of Louis C K, Jimmy Fallon, and Miranda July, are collected in Apatow’s forthcoming book, Sick in the Head.
What did he learn from those youthful interviews? “The main thing was that it takes a long time. When you’re young, you want to be successful right away,” he notes. “But people told me: it takes ten years as a stand-up comedian to find your voice. That changed my clock. So, at 17, I thought, well, okay, I’ll make it when I’m 27.”
He started performing stand-up of his own, then moved to LA to study screenwriting, but dropped out in his second year, and moved into an apartment with Adam Sandler, whom he’d met at the Improv, a Hollywood stand-up venue. “I worked for HBO for free for a year or two, and then eventually I made $200 a week while I did stand-up at night,” he recalls. “So, I understand that phase in your life where you’re trying to do the thing you want to do, and not have to work too many hours at the thing you hate.”
The films you'd expect to have won Best Picture that haven't
The films you'd expect to have won Best Picture that haven't
1/15 Citizen Kane (1941)
Long revered as one of the greatest films ever made, Orson Welles' debut - a film à clef focused on tycoon Charles Foster Kane - was just another nominee back in the day, losing out to How Green Was My Valley.
2/15 Vertigo (1958)
Not only did Alfred Hitchcock never win an Oscar (save for his memorial award in 1968), neither did any of his films - one of which is Vertigo, a classic that won Sight & Sound's once-a-decade greatest films of all time poll in 2012.
3/15 The Graduate (1967)
One of the films that kickstarted the New Hollywood Cinema, The Graduate may have won director Mike Nichols an Oscar, but ultimately lost out to Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the night.
4/15 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The crème de la crème of Hollywood filmmakers would have you believe that Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi classic remains one of the most influential pieces of cinema there is. The Academy didn't agree, however, nominating Kubrick for Best Director and awarding the visual effects in favour of even considering 2001 for Best Picture.
5/15 Taxi Driver (1976)
Despite not winning the main award, the Academy showed they had good intentions by nominating Taxi Driver in four categories - that both All the President's Men and Network also lost out to eventual winner Rocky shows that, ultimately, it never really stood a chance.
6/15 Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola's ambitious Vietnam War epic received a grand total of eight nominations, but only went home with two prizes (for cinematography and sound) losing out to drama Kramer vs. Kramer.
7/15 Raging Bull (1980)
Of all the Oscar blows dealt to Martin Scorsese over the decades, none landed harder than Raging Bull's losing out to Robert Redford's weepie Ordinary People, an oversight many consider one of the Academy's most infamous.
8/15 Blade Runner
Another sci-fi classic overlooked by Oscar was the hugely influential Blade Runner which didn't even get nominated in the Best Picture category. That Ridley Scott's latest sci-fi The Martian received seven nominations could signal how the Academy are finally taking responsibility for their past errors.
9/15 Goodfellas (1990)
Having awarded both The Godfather parts I and II Best Picture in 1972 and 1974 respectively, you'd think Scorsese's gangster classic stood half a chance; but no - Kevin Costner's directorial debut Dances With Wolves was the most appealing choice for voters.
2012 Getty Images
10/15 Pulp Fiction (1994)
New talent on the block Quentin Tarantino's second feature won him the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes - a success he failed to match back on home turf; while he won an Original Screenplay Oscar, Pulp Fiction got beat by Forrest Gump.
11/15 The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
...and it wasn't the only one. Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's prison-set novella The Shawshank Redemption also fell victim to Robert Zemeckis' Oscar-friendly Forrest Gump. We don't see that film sitting atop the IMDB top 250 though, do we?
12/15 Fargo (1996)
You may think it was remiss of the Academy to shun Fargo but it did come pretty close to winning, its chances bolstered somewhat by seven nominations and two wins (Actress for Frances McDormand and Original Screenplay for the Coen Brothers). It lost out to The English Patient.
13/15 Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Having won Best Director five years previous for Schindler's List, everybody expected Steven Spielberg's next war epic to scoop all the top awards. Cue Shakespeare In Love upsetting the establishment.
14/15 The Social Network (2010)
David Fincher's generational Facebook drama got shunned in favour of British patriotism in an Oscar two-horse race for the ages that ultimately saw The King's Speech crowned winner.
15/15 Boyhood (2014)
For last year's Oscar race, you were either team Birdman or team Boyhood (not forgetting outside bet Whiplash, of course). Each represented a different facet of movie-making that posited them as favourites; that Richard Linklater's labour of love - shot intermittently over 12 years - failed to win may still come as a surprise.
Indeed, though now only a couple of years shy of his fifties, Apatow says he feels on the same wavelength as the millennial characters of – and team behind – Girls. “The only tension I’ve ever had with Lena was when I took her to see The Who and she started texting in the middle and I almost lost my mind,” he recalls.
Meanwhile he has long championed up-and-coming talent in Hollywood, from Seth Rogen to Dunham and, most recently, Trainwreck writer-star Amy Schumer. A few days before we meet, the Oscar nominations are announced, with Trainwreck and especially Schumer notable absentees from the list, despite the film’s critical acclaim. Apatow attempts to sound sanguine but can’t entirely hide his frustration.
“I think when comedy is done well, it feels effortless … [whereas] they seem to nominate things that seem like a lot of work. Like, wow, how did they get the bear to do that? [And] People tend to see more overwrought performances as being more valuable and having more complexity,” he concludes. “But what Amy did is as difficult as it gets.” The next person set for Apatow-endorsed stardom? Dunham’s Girls co-star Andrew Rannells, with whom he is in the early stages of a film project.
Not all of Apatow’s collaborators have been wholly admiring of him, however. Film-maker Mike White, who co-wrote Freaks and Geeks, has confessed to being “disenchanted” by Apatow’s later films, “objecting to the treatment of women and gay men”, while Katherine Heigl, star of Knocked Up, famously admitted that she herself found the film “a little sexist”.
Indeed, the treatment of women in his films is something that has been picked up on by critics, right up to and including last year’s Trainwreck. Many objected to the title, which referred to Amy Schumer’s hedonistic journalist protagonist. Was that a just way to refer to a woman who enjoys a drink and a spot of casual sex?
“After The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I’m just like, what is it?” he says. “Girls. What’s the show about? Girls. Trainwreck. What is she? She’s a trainwreck.” I bridle a little. “I think what we were trying to say was that she has certain defence mechanisms for dealing with the fact that she was very unhappy … I don’t think that she loved drinking or one-night stands; I just think she was very immature.”
Personally, I’m inclined to believe Apatow wouldn’t last long at home were he a misogynist, living as he does with Mann and their two daughters, 13-year-old Iris, and 18-year-old Maude, all of whom have appeared in his films. “I’m basically living with three ages of the same woman,” he quips.
But is he, as some have said, more broadly, a social conservative, creating stories in which people must end up married, or at least in long-term relationships, for them to be deemed successful and happy? “I don’t root for people to end up alone,” he laughs. “That’s not my instinct. I don’t think it is a conservative value to think that most people want to find love and happiness – I think that’s just a human value.”
In his defence, the money men should also shoulder some blame. “A lot of relationships end weirdly, or uncomfortably, but movies are built for a third act that creates some sort of resolution,” he laments. “People worry that if a film doesn’t end happily, then the box office won’t be big enough. And that removes a lot of possible endings … and that’s what’s great about what is happening on cable, and on the streaming services; it does not have to end happily.”
Meanwhile, he doesn’t yet have even a beginning for his next film, he says – though there is one aspect of his work he can guarantee. “I will always be writing people that are a mess,” he assures me. “People who have got their act together are not funny. We want to see them in life ... just not in movies.”
‘Love’ launches on Netflix on 19 Feb. ‘Girls’ returns to Sky Atlantic on 21 FebReuse content