The Angsty Existence of Judd Apatow
The writer and director of "This Is 40" on his childhood issues, therapy and how he's gotten over being angry: "I would get so out of control."
This story first appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It's Nov. 6, and Judd Apatow sits at a light, bright desk in his West Los Angeles "Apatower," dwarfed by a stack of papers, pondering cuts he has to make as guest editor of Vanity Fair's first-ever comedy issue.
There's an article by Cameron Crowe; reams of mug shots featuring collaborators from Melissa McCarthy to Seth Rogen; an oral history of his cult TV series Freaks and Geeks; spoofs of the napalm-bombing scene in Apocalypse Now (which don't make it to the final publication); and three different typographical versions of the section's cover, each with Apatow's name prominently displayed.
Hollywood's current comedy guru -- the 45-year-old writer-producer-director who has had a hand in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bridesmaids and HBO's Girls -- is in the final throes of putting the magazine together before it hits newsstands in early December. The work is consuming -- 80 e-mails alone pile up as we speak -- and it has left even this ultra-organized workaholic visibly drained. "It's almost as hard as making a movie," he admits.
For a guy who also has the imminent Dec. 21 release of Universal's This Is 40, Apatow still manages to seem remarkably calm, despite an inner turmoil that frequently has gotten the better of him, and certainly did before his career exploded with 2004's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and 2005's Virgin.
He may have been less so a few years ago, he acknowledges, especially in the case of TV executives with whom "I would get so out of control. I would project all my childhood issues onto them."
On one occasion, after his 2001-02 Fox TV series Undeclared was canceled following NBC's Freaks, he even wrote a production executive: "I don't see how it's possible that you're f---ing me in the ass now when your dick is in me from last time." Today, he regrets that "poor choice of words. It wasn't something I should have done. Back then, when I felt lied to, I would lose my mind."
He doesn't often lose his mind anymore -- though his insecurity occasionally wells up (not least a month after this meeting, in a series of late-night e-mails, when he vents frustration over a minor point, then regrets it, then turns funny, then blames it all on turning 45 that Dec. 6: "I have 44 minutes left of this birthday," he quips at 11:16 p.m. "I guess I will waste them on Twitter!").
Add all this up, and it makes you unsure whether to laugh or cry, bristle or be sympathetic, though his sheer likability makes this reporter opt for the latter. Clearly, he is only partway toward mastering his neuroses, which may be even more apparent at home than via e-mail.
"He is a hoarder; he doesn't like to let anything go," says his wife, actress Leslie Mann, 40. "He doesn't like if I change the couch or a pillow. It makes him nervous that things might fall apart."
Counseling has helped. ("I've been going to therapy since I was in my early 20s," he says.) So has reading Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People -- one of the numerous self-help books to which he's addicted, including Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times and therapist John Welwood's Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships: Healing the Wound of the Heart.
To escape his inner demons, he dips into reality TV -- including the various Real Housewives that he maintains he is trying to quit watching. He also favors Mad Men, Saturday Night Live and Louie, and adores films from James L. Brooks' Terms of Endearment to John Cassavetes' Husbands. On top of this, he is taking a spinning class for which Mann signed him up.
He loves music (photos of his grandfather, Mainstream Records founder Bob Shad, decorate the ground floor of his building); he carefully follows 14-year-old daughter Maude's tweets (she has about 100,000 followers, avidly tuned to her comments on everything from the movie Beaches to whether "black bands on your braces" are gross). He also has an abiding passion for collecting letters and autographs -- among them Paddy Chayefsky's and Rod Serling's. "I just bought 14 pages from a legal pad of Johnny Carson's notes when he was hosting a Friars Club roast," he beams.
Such pleasures have helped him heal the scars from a difficult youth, or at least paper them over.
"He's gotten a lot happier and more confident," says Rogen, who first worked with Apatow on Freaks back in 1999. "He was really stressed out all the time. And because you are stressed out all the time, you are angry all the time."
Stress, anger and the pressures of modern life are at the heart of This Is 40 -- which features the richest role Apatow has created for a woman to date.
He has not been immune to criticism in that regard. His Knocked Up star Katherine Heigl accused their 2007 film of being "a little sexist" and said it "paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight."
Apatow admits her comment surprised him. "I understand the movie shows women as very tough, and there are scenes where they are very angry," he says. "But that was my intention, because in movies women are always very sweet, and aspects of women are not shown: that sometimes they get really pissed off and want to kill you."
Similarly, in 2007 his occasional collaborator Mike White, who worked on Freaks, said of Apatow's sensibility, "At some point it starts feeling like comedy of the bullies rather than the bullied." Apatow declines to discuss this, though he says White since has apologized and they remain friends.
What's ironic is that this man condemned for being so male-centric is now behind some of the best roles for women.
"He writes incredible female characters," says Lena Dunham, the creator and star of Girls, which Apatow executive produces. "He came up in the comedy world, which is notoriously a gentlemen's club, and [earlier] he was writing about his experience as a guy who was uncomfortable with female interactions. But as he has grown, women have snuck more into his world."
She adds: "Once a verdict is issued from on high, it becomes an uncontrollable media mythology, and it has haunted him. But they went after the wrong guy. Why the f-- is nobody screaming at the person who made The Hangover, with Heather Graham as the happy, breastfeeding hooker?"
Bridesmaids' Kristen Wiig is equally protective. "I've never experienced him do anything less than try to get a woman's perspective," she says. "It's never 'fill in the blanks.' "
Billed as a "sort-of" sequel to Knocked Up, This Is 40 will test that.
The film -- which not only stars Mann, his wife of 15 years, but also their kids, Maude and Iris, 10 -- revolves around Debbie (Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd), the husband and wife who help Heigl, an upwardly mobile young woman impregnated by an immature slob (Rogen). The new film follows them as they struggle with finances and family while crossing the threshold of 40.
"I had an inkling that this period was worth writing about," reflects Apatow. "You reach a point where you realize, 'This is my life, this is my family, this is my job -- and how do I feel about it?' "
Leaving his office, Apatow leads this reporter downstairs to a small conference room where he does much of his writing and where he embellished that initial idea.
"I have this electronic dry-erase board, called a Smart Board," he explains, pointing to a whiteboard that dominates one wall. "I can write on it and then hit a button and it becomes a file on the computer." He laughs: "I've taken a $50 item and found a way to make it cost thousands."