Funny People was the latest in Judd Apatow's ongoing series of summer comedies, but it was anything but a typical summer comedy: following a successful comedian (played by Apatow's longtime friend Adam Sandler) who reflects on his life after discovering he's going to die, the film offered lots of humor but with decidedly heavier themes lurking beneath the yuks. The film debuts on Blu-ray in a 2-Disc Collector's Edition next week, and the contents are amazing, showing how Apatow combined lighthearted fare with more serious ideas in the service of exploring something substantive.
Cinematical was lucky enough to catch up with Apatow via telephone one recent morning to discuss the process of putting together the film's home video iteration. In addition to discussing the bonus materials, extras, featurettes, and a documentary that's the most thorough and thoughtful ever produced about a comedy production, Apatow talked about finding the right ending for his magnum opus, discovering and deconstructing the process of producing laughs, and front-loading the film's universe with outside content about the supporting characters.
Cinematical: One of the ideas highlighted in the Blu-ray bonus materials was the fact that you knew this was going in a different direction than your previous films. Even knowing that while you were making it, were you surprised by the reactions of audiences and critics when it was released? Or does it matter?
Apatow: Well, while making the movie it was exhilarating to think we were doing something different that would elicit a wide range of reactions. I'm the first person to get thrown when Bill Murray makes The Razor's Edge, but I did love the movie and then I read the book. But it took some work to understand what he was trying to do with his career, and only now that I'm older am I not angry at Woody Allen for making Sleeper 25 times (laughs). I've been through it with a lot of my friends, watching them take risks and attempt to grow; when we made The Cable Guy, it threw a lot of people because Jim [Carrey] was basically saying I want to have a varied career and do a lot of different things that you wouldn't expect of me, and it paid off well for him with that movie and Eternal Sunshine and The Truman Show and a lot of ambitious movies he went on to make. It throws people at the time, but it's great; who wants to watch me or anyone else do the same thing every time out? And it's been fun. People overall have had a really more intimate relationship with the movie than the other movies; it definitely makes you think about things most people are trying to avoid thinking about most of the time (laughs). They write books called like A Year To Live, where people try to figure out their priorities by imagining what it would be like if they had less time, and in a strange way this is a comedic-dramatic version of that. It makes you think about how you would look at your life differently if suddenly you got sick and then got better.
Cinematical: You and Adam both say that he went anywhere you asked him to. Would you say that's because you knew him well enough to be able to challenge him effectively, or was he just game for anything, with or without you pushing him?
Apatow: I think Adam is a brave artist. He said to me, "I'm going to do whatever you ask me to do and I'm not going to question it. I want you to make the movie you're going to make." And there's nobody in show business who will do that! That was during the writing process, shooting and editing – he never came into editing and said, "don't do that – it makes me look like a jerk." He wanted me to fully express that character and was willing to do whatever it would take to help me – which included writing an enormous stand-up act, performing all of these songs; he really put himself out there. Some days he used to joke, "you're really getting the full package of me on this one! I'm giving you everything!" To me that was one of the best parts of making the movie, feeling that trust from Adam; Adam loves the movie so much, and the fact that he was happy with the outcome means a lot to me because as I was making the movie I thought 'I hope the movie's as good as what Adam's doing right now'.
Cinematical: Among other things, the Blu-ray for Funny People documents your long history examining and reflecting stand-up comedy. Do you tend to intellectualize comedy or deconstruct how things work, or to see what works better or worse? For example, in one of the documentaries, Randy says it's funnier if he spins around seven times instead of six; that's obviously a joke, but do you think about your work or comedy in general that way?
Apatow: I have the ability to talk about comedy in as full of shit a manner as anybody on the planet, but I try not to break it down because it just dies in front of you if you think about it intellectually. And I've seen people have conversations where they explain why people laugh; I watched a whole conversation between Alan Alda and John Cleese at the Paley Center where they were able to break it down. But that makes me want to never work ever again if I think it's actually possible (laughs). It really is about your gut; sometimes afterwards you can explain it, but it is about just a feeling you get. It's not that different than probably like when a batter is at the plate and he just somehow knows how to read a certain ball to get a hit; you've just got to feel for it and it becomes muscle memory. Some people like to talk about it afterwards, but I try not to (laughs). When you're making a movie, you kind of have to sit and think, why are we telling this joke? What does this joke say? But I don't like talking about, like, why is this joke funny.
Cinematical: When the film was released in theaters there was a huge wealth of supplemental material that was used as marketing. Even though not a lot of it ended up directly in the movie, what purpose do you feel was served by creating all of this content around it for characters who may not appear on screen a lot?
Apatow: Well, at heart I'm just a fan of comedy, so there's a lot of hilarious people around and I just want to make a lot of stuff with them before they leave me. So if I'm making a movie, I have unlimited time with Aziz [Ansari] around, and I don't know when I'll get to hang out with Aziz again, but I know in this period, he has to come to work (laughs). I thought to myself I loved what he does in the movie, and the movie really can't contain everything he could do with his character, so let's make more stuff with Aziz. We paid for that with our own money; we were just so excited that he had come up with this hilarious comedian character that we felt like we had to max out what you could do with it. You're aware it will be fun to put on the DVD and put on the web and hopefully it makes people more aware of the movie, but the main reason I do it is I just find it funny; I just want to see what Randy would do. I'm excited to see Aziz and Jason Waller, the guy who directed it, I'm excited to let them go nuts with no restrictions just because that's exciting for me as someone who loves comedy. And people don't necessarily get that many opportunities to do that; it's rare for someone to just write a check to someone and say, "go crazy with Randy!"
So we did that, but it's almost like a video game where you could just walk into other rooms and learn more about certain aspects of these characters. I mean, for me I see the Blu-ray as the new comedy album, so as soon as somebody says I'm allowed to put things on a Blu-ray, my mind goes crazy. What else can we put on it? Can we clear Adam on Letterman from the early '90s? Can we clear me on The Dennis Miller Show? Can we put all of the phony phone calls from back then on there? As someone who loves these DVDs, I think, how can I make the best comedy DVD that's ever been made? Before we started the process of making the movie, we decided to try to make a very strong documentary that wasn't like your normal, generic making-of that you see all of the time. So we hired this amazing documentarian, Chris Wilcha, who was the director of the television series This American Life, and we tried to give him all of the access he could ever want, and the tools to really capture what this process was. It's an oddly powerful documentary; you see how the movie was made, and there's something very emotional about it because the movie is also a summation of all of our relationships.
Cinematical: In the commentary track Seth Rogen called the final scene of the film "a real motherf*cker." How tough was it to determine where the story would and should end up?
Apatow: One of the first ideas that I had was that the movie would end with a small gesture of Adam writing a joke for Seth. Everything is always about George's character and he's never willing to help, and at the end, that would signal to the audience that at the very least he has some understanding of how damaged he is and he's not forcing Ira to get out of his life. He wants an honest voice around, and maybe he'll change slowly. Or not, maybe he won't, certainly it's going to be difficult, but the fact that he tries to keep Ira around is what the movie's about. But I thought the movie was this slow reveal of who George actually is. You have some sense of what he is and what his problems are, and as the movie continues, you realize oh, he's really much more damaged than I thought, and has limitations when it comes to maturing and finding a way to be happy, and then when it ended, you would think I know everything about this person.
Cinematical: Is it hard to surround yourself with people who can be that honest with you?
Apatow: I make a point of only working with people who are very excited about this type of process. Leslie [Mann] is a very daring actress who's willing to go there at all times, and in a lot of ways she sets the bar for how emotionally raw you can get, and how much you can expose. It's really exciting watching her act and watching her interact with other actors. Seth, I've been working with him since he was 16 years old, so he knows the drill better than anybody. And Adam has shown over and over in his career that he's willing to commit fully to what he's doing; Punch-Drunk Love is one of my favorite movies ever, and I love what he did in Reign Over Me, and he has this side to his work that is very vulnerable – and that was what I think was most exciting about working with him.
Continue on to part two of this interview ....