Judd Apatow interview: The Big Sick

Judd Apatow chats to us about The Big Sick, directing, stand-up comics and bad interviews...

Heading into UK cinemas this week, The Big Sick is a reinvigorating romantic comedy. It has a brilliant cast of characters, a unique pitch (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, awkward situations and a medically induced coma ensue) and a balance of drama and comedy that means you never know whether to brace yourself for a broken heart or split sides. A breath of fresh air, it’s the sort of film regular cinema goers need. It’s also the sort of film that needs regular cinema goers; it needs those that see it and enjoy it to shout about it, to tell people that it’s worth paying attention to.

Directed by Michael Showalter, the film stars Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote the script with his real life spouse Emily V. Gordon based on their real life lives. It was, unsurprisingly, produced by Judd Apatow. The renowned comedy producer has shepherded the likes of James Franco (Freaks & Geeks), Kristen Wiig (Bridemaids), Seth Rogen (Knocked Up), Jonah Hill (Superbad) and Amy Schumer (Trainwreck) through various films in their careers. In fact, you never know where Apatow’s fingerprints might turn up, be it 2011’s The Muppets (produced, written by and starring Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Jason Segal) or Spider-Man: Homecoming (with Freaks & Geeks’ John Francis Daley – co-writer – and Martin Starr – playing teacher Mr. Harrington – prominently involved).

That’s all in addition to Apatow’s work writing and directing his own films. It was The 40 Year Old Virgin that made Apatow a household name back in 2005. That film also served to establish his style; improv-heavy comedy, with likeable characters dealing with recognisable problems (not being a middle aged virgin, but forming human relationships and gaining maturity). It was a smash hit, grossing over $150m. More than that, it was really, really funny. Two years later Knocked Up would prove just as successful and funny. While Apatow’s next two films, Funny People and This Is 40, wouldn’t match the box office returns of his first two, they’re both inventive, ambitious films (the ‘wait, where did my life go?’ of This Is 40 struck a chord with this writer in particular). Apatow would strike box office gold again with 2015s brilliantly funny Trainwreck.

We were lucky enough to score some time with the ludicrously busy Judd Apatow to talk about The Big Sick. Here’s how we got on.

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When did you get involved in The Big Sick and what state did it come to you in?

I met Kumail when I was a guest on Pete Holmes podcast, which is called You Made It Weird. He would do a live podcast at the South By South West film festival in Austin. And I remember the day because it was the day that we first showed Girls publicly. That was, you know, six years ago. And then at some point we met, because he said he had some movie ideas, and he pitched me a couple of high concept comedies and then he said “and there’s this true story that happened to me and Emily when we first met” and then he told me the story of The Big Sick and I instantly thought that would make an amazing movie. I knew it would be a difficult movie to get exactly right, because there’s so much high medical drama in it, we’d have to work really hard on figuring out what the balance was between comedy and drama. He and Emily started working on the draft and they worked on the script for like three years.

And are you developing the script with them in that time or do you let it sit with them and they come to you when it’s ready?

No, we talked about it. We sat in rooms for many, many hours, talking about how the structure might work. It was their first attempt at writing a screenplay of any kind. They’d write an outline, they’d come in, we’d talk about it, I’d give them notes, they’d write another outline. After months and months of that discussion I said why don’t you try to start writing some pages, and then we would do notes until finally they had a draft. Then they would do another draft and I would give notes, and then we would go back and forth, you know, every month, or couple of months, for several years.

On this film you have Kumail, who as you’ve said co-wrote the script and it’s partly based on his life, you have yourself, then you have the director Michael Showalter as well. Is it difficult to balance that many creative voices without complicating the filmmaking process?

Well I think it is a delicate thing to do. But hopefully that’s the one thing I do well, which is I’m able to challenge people and help teach them about screenwriting while not interfering with their vision and this idea that they’re passionate about. It’s a lot like being a record producer. I assume it’s similar to Rick Rubin going into the studio with Kanye West. You’re pushing somebody, you’re trying to indicate what’s working and what’s not working, but you’re also trying to stay out of the way. And you know that the whole thing could fall apart if you push any idea too hard.

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You’re listening to them and you’re constantly saying ‘are you happy with this? Are we moving in a direction that you feel this is getting stronger?’ I never, ever force anyone to do anything that they are not super excited about. I certainly will argue and debate them and explain why I think certain directions might be helpful.

Is there a process of, because you’re a big name in comedy, is there a process of making them comfortable in responding to you? Because if you told me to do something, I’d look at your record and I’d probably do it.

Well, some people are very comfortable collaborating and some people are not. There are people that I’ve started screenplays with and they hand me a draft and I say here’s what I think might help it and they never talk to me again.

*laughter*

That’s happened more than a few times. Some people want to engage and other people have a lot of problem with that. And I have total respect for both types of people. Kumail and I and Emily and Michael happen to be very much in sync about the style of comedic filmmaking that we enjoy. In a lot of ways you could say the tone is like Barry Levinson’s movie Diner. I always go to that film, I always think about the movie Say Anything by Cameron Crowe as a tonal touchstone.

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We also like each other, we have a great time and we respect each other. I think that these relationships are a disaster when the people don’t respect each other. And also if people don’t have good communication skills, because I’m very aware that if I’m telling somebody that something’s not working I have to do it in a very loving, respectful way or they’ll want to punch me in the face.

Is there a degree to which your name and your presence would protect a film from outside interference, too?

It depends on the project. I think that I do get a certain amount of trust from studios and investors because they know that I have some sense of what I’m doing and they’ve seen enough of my work to know what I’m trying to do. Every project is different and it has different challenges but I think the people paying for movie think ‘Well, Judd’s gonna make sure nothing goes off the rails’.

I think that allows the director and the writer and the filmmakers to really focus on ‘is this working or not and how can we make it better?’, they’re not constantly nervous about studios or investors interfering, That’s when things get complicated with comedy because no one knows if it works; every joke is an experiment, every movie is an experiment, so it ultimately won’t work if you get too watered down. The people who financed this movie, FilmNation, put a lot of trust in our ability to do this work and were very supportive in every possible way. We got lucky but I know a lot of people who had a much different experience.

You have an amazing cast in this film. In particular I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Ray Romano. How did he come to be involved in this film? I know you’ve worked with him previously.

In 1992 I was on the HBO Young Comedians Special with Ray, that was when we were both starting out. I’ve known him a long time. He was in a movie I made called Funny People and had a really funny sequence with Eminem.

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Yes!

I’ve always been a giant fan of his acting, I think that Everybody Loves Raymond is one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.

When we were trying to figure out who should play the parents we went on a dry erase board and we wrote down the name of every man who could play the father and every woman who could play the mother and then we just started drawing lines from one person to the other person and just trying to imagine certain couples. And I had recently got on a tour of colleges, looking for a college for my daughter, and I saw Holly Hunter teach an acting class and I thought ‘that is the universe telling me I need to find a way to work with Holly Hunter’. And then we just had this instinct that they would make a very unique couple and that they both can be intense, they both can be really funny and that’s something that’s important to the film. We didn’t want the reality levels to disappear, we wanted to play the stakes, we didn’t want it to get silly. We wanted you to believe that this couple had a daughter in a coma. We also wanted it to be hilarious at times.

This is the second film you’ve done about stand-up comedy. Did you have any reluctance over that given that you made Funny People previously?

No, I like stand-up comedians. I think that they’re a unique breed of people. So I’m all for multiple projects about stand-up comedy. There are certainly enough movies about lawyers and private detectives and cops, there can be a few movies about comedians. I have a television show in the United States that stars Pete Holmes which is called Crashing. It’s not the Phoebe Waller-Bridge version.

I’m endlessly fascinated by comics.

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So when you come on to a project like this, that takes up a lot of your time, but it’s Kumail and Emily’s pitch, is there a point where you’re putting yourself on the backburner? Do you not think maybe you’d like to put your own idea first?

In their movie?

No, I mean you can take on their project, or you can take that time and sit and write your own script.

Well, yeah. It definitely takes up a lot of time and mental space, and I’m sure it slows down my ability to make another film, but I don’t feel like I need to follow any pace of how many movies I write and direct. I get just as much pleasure helping out Kumail and Emily and Michael as I do making my own film. I try not to think of it as a different part of what I do. I’m just trying to create things that make people happy and think a little bit. It doesn’t have to be all about me.

Appreciating that you have just said it doesn’t have to be all about you, do have an idea of what you might direct next and when that might be?

I don’t actually. I had a movie and it fell apart. An actress dropped out, it was written very specifically for her, so I’m back to the drawing board. What I’m focusing on lately is my two television shows, Love on Netflix and the Pete Holmes show Crashing on HBO, and I’m making a documentary about the comedian Garry Shandling which will be out next year. I also made a documentary about a band called The Avett Brothers, which also is coming out next year. So I’m doing a lot of documentary work.

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So I know you did a book interviewing comedians. Does it change your perspective on sitting down in situations like this, having to do interviews?

Well, when you interview people and when you have been interviewed a lot you certainly realise when someone else is good at it. There’s a lot of generic interviews that get done and it’s somewhat shocking the lack of unique perspective you get from interviewers.

(the sweats kick in)

And when you talk to somebody intelligent such as yourself you notice it instantly.

(the sweats ease off but maybe he was just being polite? It’s been days and I still feel tense)

And most of the time people ask the same six boilerplate questions. Sometimes I wonder why I’m a good interviewer, because I really do think I am, and I can’t put my finger on it. But I am definitely interested in what people are saying and I’m paying attention to what they’re trying to express and I follow up in ways that I feel when I’m being interviewed people don’t necessarily follow up.

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I don’t know why I asked a question about interviewing. I made myself hyper self-conscious.

Exactly. That’s what I just did to you on purpose. I just took you down. I scared you.

I was genuinely terrified. I immediately regretted doing it.

What is your favourite Jason Statham film?

I don’t think I have a massive amount of Jason Statham knowledge. But I certainly enjoyed him in Paul Feig’s film Spy.

He was terrific in it.

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I thought the action in that movie was great and I thought he was hilarious. Which is rare, someone who can kick your ass who is also funny.

Judd Apatow, thank you very much.

The Big Sick is out in UK cinemas 28th July 2017.