Judd Apatow talks sincerity, heroism in upcoming film ‘The King of Staten Island’

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When he’s not directing, producing or spending time with his family, Judd Apatow is a collector. The “Girls” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” director met with The Daily Californian, among other publications, in a digital Zoom roundtable interview from his memorabilia-decorated living room in promotion of his upcoming dramatic comedy, “The King of Staten Island.” But while he’s held onto trinkets and artbooks from his previous productions, Apatow reportedly didn’t take any souvenirs from his latest directorial work. 

“There was nothing (that) felt symbolic of (the film) I guess I could have taken.” Apatow said. “What would I have stolen from the set, you think?”

“Pete Davidson’s soul, maybe?” another reporter jokingly asked. 

“Well, I have that.” Apatow remarked. “I have his friendship.”

It’s certainly a tongue-in-cheek exchange, but it reflects the sincerity with which Apatow approached working with Davidson on the film. Co-written over several years by Apatow, Davidson and Dave Sirus, “The King of Staten Island” explores Davidson’s mental health and grief over the passing of his late father — a firefighter who died in the twin towers during the 9/11 attacks — as well as the place public servants such as firefighters occupy in modern society. 

Apatow prioritized authenticity with “Staten Island,” a decision that he says informed even the earliest stages of writing. To this end, Apatow followed Davidson’s lead for the initial drafts of the screenplay. “That was very helpful,” Apatow said of his writing process, “Just to go, ‘Oh, this is Pete’s sense of humor — this is what he thinks is funny about how his friends talk, this is what he thinks it sounds like when he talks to his mom.’ ”

“We were trying to make a fictional movie that was emotionally truthful,” Apatow reported. “Even though most of the movie’s made up and didn’t happen, when it was over, you feel like you really got to know Pete and what he’s been through.” 

But even after this careful and intricate scripting process, Apatow sees value in improvisation on set. “We do very loosely improvised versions of a lot of the scenes, and we always find moments in those takes that are better than most of what we scripted … when you have very talented people around who have writers’ minds, they add levels and layers that I could never think of alone or just with Pete.” He especially gave praise to Bill Burr, who portrays the character of Ray in the film, for his hilarious and organic improvisation, as well as the authentic dynamic between him and Davidson.

This constant strive toward authenticity also informs the art direction of “The King of Staten Island,” particularly when it came to how the film would portray Staten Island and its residents. “Pete went with us and he showed us all the spots where he thought we should shoot, and that was really helpful to our production designer Kevin Thompson and our DP, Bob Elwood,” Apatow said.

Apatow believes that capturing Staten Island in sharp, accurate detail — its unique spots, its people’s eccentricity — is central to the film’s goals of emotional honesty, especially since the burrough is so rarely depicted on screen. Staten Island “is its own bubble and its own culture,” Apatow said. “And we felt like if we shoot the entire movie there, maybe we’ll get a truthful look at what it feels like to be there.”

Ultimately, Apatow hopes that the sincerity of “The King of Staten Island” will allow its central ideas of mental health and heroism to shine, especially the heroism of the film’s firefighters, who serve a pivotal narrative and thematic role. Apatow consulted several New York City firefighters for the film and was touched by their dedication to their jobs. 

“People don’t think a lot about heroes and about the people who are willing to sacrifice for them,” Apatow explained. “For years … I wanted to write about sacrifice. And I feel like we all move through the world and we just assume these people will come help us, but we don’t really think much about them. We don’t thank them, they’re just there … Yet, if you call a firefighter right now, they’ll run into your burning house, wherever you are.”

It’s clear Apatow sees that Davidson is the perfect lead for a film such as “Staten Island” — one that is both about emotional sincerity and heroic sacrifice. But it is more than a purely creative chemistry: The film also reflects the trust of the friendship between them. Davidson is “this big-hearted guy — he clearly has been through a lot, and we’re all rooting for him,” Apatow said. “We just have an instinct to care about him, because I think we all feel like him in some way. And he’s so funny and darkly comic and willing to talk about things that most people want to keep hidden.”

Contact Olive Grimes at [email protected].