The Angsty Existence of Judd Apatow

9:00 AM PST 12/12/2012 by Stephen Galloway.
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Austin Hargrave

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."

Using that, he "started outlining and listing scenes, hundreds of moments," before a storyline began to emerge. Along the way, he sought advice from such friends as Dunham and her colleague, Girls executive producer Jenni Konner.

Apatow also analyzed every aspect of the screenplay with Mann, his trusted creative partner since they met when she auditioned for the Apatow-produced The Cable Guy (1996).

"It's written in very intense collaboration with Leslie," he says, citing a scene she suggested, when her character goes to a singles bar.

"We'll have a conversation about the script every day for a year or two," Mann confirms.

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Unlike most writers, Apatow says he sent portions of the work-in-progress to Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson and co-chairman Donna Langley: "I do something that most people won't. I send them the first 30 rough pages and then send them the next 30 pages."

With half the script in place, Apatow set it aside for a few months, then resumed work over an intense several days in Hawaii, where he wrote the remainder. "I always feel, if I'm on page 60, I can finish a script in a week," he says. "And it may be terrible, but then I can figure out what it means. With this type of writing, it's so personal -- if you thought too much, you might be embarrassed."

Once a "terrible, vomit draft" was completed in late 2010, he called early rehearsals with castmembers Albert Brooks (who plays Rudd's father) and John Lithgow (Mann's dad). About four months before shooting, he started working on scenes with two or three actors at a time -- repeating the process as more actors joined the cast before filming commenced -- and incorporating their ideas into the screenplay.

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A 58-day shoot began June 27, 2011, in and around the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, where Apatow lives. "I'm always trying to figure out how close I can shoot to my house," he jokes.

Even during the shoot, changes were constant. "I never finish a script; I just start," he says. Indeed, at times he shot the same scene in different locales, or with the actors in different clothes, knowing he might use it at some other point in the story.

Apatow disputes claims that the film is pure autobiography: "It's based on something real that I've fabricated and exaggerated. It's like a novel; no one is really the person that you might think."

As to casting his wife and children -- frequent presences in his films -- Apatow insists: "When I hire my children, the purpose is to get a level of detail that other people can't. People with existing relationships allow you an incredible opportunity to show truthful human behavior. When Leslie kisses the kids, you feel the love."

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A search for love is at the heart of Apatow's quest. It explains his craving for family -- both his own and the comedy family he has built around him.

At age 13, while living in Syosset, on Long Island, Apatow witnessed his parents split in a bitter divorce. "They're both great people, but the divorce was the motivation for everything I've done," he acknowledges. "That was the fuel for my whole journey. On one level, that was really hard. But on another level, I thank God because it made me work my ass off. It made me connect with people suffering."

Apatow stayed with his father, Maury, while his mother, Tami, moved to California, where she would be followed by his older brother, Robert, and younger sister, Mia.

"Everybody splintered; the family just completely cracked," recalls Apatow, with an emotion palpable beneath his pleasantly rumpled surface. "My parents were doing very well. They owned a restaurant; my father worked in real estate development. They had been together since they were in their teens. But they got divorced, and in a lot of ways it broke my mother's spirit because she hadn't thought about what else she would do with her life. She just thought she was going to raise kids. So, to be suddenly thrown into the workforce wasn't something she had ever prepared for. And at the moment that happened, her father -- one of the great jazz producers of all time, who also produced Janis Joplin's first album -- was experiencing financial difficulties. He had a heart attack, and when he was in the hospital, his broker lost a vast majority of his money on short-selling stock without his permission."

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Apatow's mother -- who died in 2008 of ovarian cancer -- found work as a waitress at the East End Comedy Club in Southampton, N.Y., giving her son access to a world he had fallen in love with while listening to Bill Cosby's Wonderfulness and Steve Martin's albums.

Her travails are something that stamped him. "She knew how much it meant to me to get into that comedy club every weekend and watch every single show all summer long," he says. "She never said, 'I'm doing this for you.' But what other reason could she have had for doing that?"

It's striking that this man who so perfectly captures character on film struggles to define his own mother and father with any real clarity, other than saying his dad was sweet and his mom somewhat zany: "She was the kind of person that would drive the car really fast through the neighborhood just to make you laugh."

It is equally striking -- and quite touching -- that the one thing on which Apatow dwells after our three hours together is his parents. In a series of e-mails tumbling out later that day (with more to follow over the ensuing month), he expresses deep concern that they be depicted in a positive light. After all, he notes, his father -- with whom he remains close -- regularly would drive him to the comedy clubs that soon became Apatow's obsession and where he sought answers to the spiritual questions ignored in his Jewish but nonreligious home.

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"That's what drove me to comedy: I need answers," he says -- or a recognition of their absence. "I was very attracted to Cosby or George Carlin or Richard Pryor, who said, 'None of this makes sense.' "

Apatow left New York for Los Angeles at age 17 and briefly attended USC film school's writing program but dropped out in 1987 because "I ran out of money." Unlike so many students, he was preoccupied with work rather than study -- and both more than play.

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