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Fun with virginity, pregnancy - now mortality?

Judd Apatow discusses life, death, and ‘Funny People’

By Laura Bennett
Globe Correspondent / July 26, 2009

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With movies like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin’’ and “Knocked Up,’’ writer-producer-director Judd Apatow forged a new genre of nerdy-cool comedy fueled by bodily functions, awkward sex, and marijuana. But Apatow’s upcoming film, “Funny People, which opens Friday, tackles some darker themes. Adam Sandler plays a comedian diagnosed with a terminal illness who takes a young stand-up comic (Seth Rogen) under his wing. Why would the reigning king of comedy make a movie about death? Apatow opens up about high school gym class, his family, and where he wants to go from here.

LAURA BENNETT

Q. In “Funny People,’’ George (Sandler) asks Ira (Rogen) whether being humiliated led him to the path of comedy. Has this been true for you?

A. Oh, definitely. When I was a kid, I was the youngest in my grade. I was also the smallest, but at the time I didn’t realize that those things were correlated. I was really bad at sports. There were athletic events at lunch and recess, which meant there were numerous times a day to be picked last. It scars you for life.

Q. So that made you funny?

A. I think so. I chose comedy because there was no one to compete with. It wasn’t like tennis camp, where everyone was better than I was within a few months. Nobody at my school was remotely interested in comedy. I was always looking for something I could be good at since gym class was so humiliating.

Q. As Jonah Hill says in the movie, “There’s nothing funny about a physically fit man.’’

A. Yes. Except Eric Bana. He’s very funny.

Q. Your wife, Leslie Mann, plays the romantic lead. Has she indicated how being married to Eric Bana, as she is in the film, is different from being married to Judd Apatow?

A. He’s dashing. I’m not dashing. I made a point of not letting them do a love scene together. I can’t follow that. I have enough pressure as it is.

Q. Eminem has a cameo appearance. Is he funny?

A. He’s the funniest guy on earth. He certainly wasn’t shy. He was willing to say anything we wanted him to say. I was jealous because Adam and Eminem are friends, so they would ride around in the car together and Adam got to hear “Crack a Bottle’’ months before I did.

Q. The cinematographer of “Funny People,’’ Janusz Kaminski, has worked in some very different genres in the past; he did “Schindler’s List’’ and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.’’ Why bring him on board?

A. Our producer also produced “Munich’’ so he knew Steven Spielberg, and Kaminski has worked with Spielberg. I think Janusz made the movie look beautiful, but it’s very alive. He is really the best at what he does. No weird energy, just pure professionalism.

Q. The film features actual footage from your actors’ pasts, including video of Adam Sandler making prank calls in the LA apartment that you two shared 20 years ago. Why use home videos to create fictional characters?

A. I hate when movies use fake photos to create the histories of the characters. They take someone’s head and post it on someone else’s old wedding photo. It looks terrible. I was hoping that, with all this old footage - like the strange commercials Leslie did for Kodak and Coke - we could re-create the actual history of these people. And that throws you into the characters even more.

Q. And there was the clip of your daughter Maude singing a song from “Cats’’ at a school recital. She has some pretty formidable pipes.

A. Tell me about it. She was too embarrassed to sing it for me. But I played the video once and strangers were walking by with tears in their eyes.

Q. Your daughters were in “Knocked Up,’’ and now “Funny People.’’ How do they like the limelight?

A. It’s funny, they don’t see it as the limelight because they aren’t allowed to see the movies. So they couldn’t care less. To them, they’re just hanging out with Seth and Adam and mom and dad for two weeks. I may cut a version of the movie where I remove everything inappropriate so they can see it, but then it would be 11 minutes long.

Q. What’s it like to shoot a movie with your whole family?

A. Actually, we get along better on the set than we do in life. It’s probably because we have the same objective. Usually we all want to do something different. Leslie wants to go to the mall, I want to go to the movies, and then the war begins.

Q. Can you run through a typical day of Apatow and Sandler as roommates back in the day?

A. The real day started at 9 p.m. when we would perform at the Improv in Hollywood. It was all about filling the day before then. We did not see a lot of mornings. I don’t think I ever saw Adam before 11:30 a.m. We walked around a lot of malls. For a fancy meal, we’d go to Red Lobster when we wanted to treat ourselves. It was all about waiting for nighttime. And then we’d always hope a comedian we looked up to like Jerry Seinfeld would let us sit and talk with him. It was like, “Wow. He let us sit with him.’’

Q. “Funny People’’ runs two and a half hours. But then, all your movies are fairly long.

A. They’re long compared to a YouTube video. I think that when you care about characters, you want to spend time with them. It’s such a pain to get to the movies. You have to walk to the car. You gotta have dinner. My movie is a good value. It’s just two minutes longer than “Transformers.’’ And the robots are better.

Q. Is “Funny People’’ a big departure from the pubescent humor of “40-Year-Old Virgin’’ and “Knocked Up’’?

A. I see it as the next step. It goes deeper. I’m trying to talk about issues that everybody faces. But when these things happen to comedians, it’s much more amusing. It does make you laugh hard, but hopefully you think about it longer than it takes you to get to your car.

Q. At this point, you’ve written about teen angst, sex, pregnancy, and now death. Is there anything left to make a movie about?

A. You’ll know I’m in trouble when I make a thriller. As soon as someone gets kidnapped or murdered, you’ll know that Judd is bankrupt of ideas. I’m hoping they bring back Harry Potter. Then in a few years, I can do number 16.

Q. And then your kids can see it.

A. Exactly. And they are much more interested in Harry Potter than my movies anyway.

Laura Bennett can be reached at lbennett@globe.com

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