Judd Apatow on the making of ‘The King of Staten Island’

Judd Apatow talked to Insider about taking the directing reigns to help tell Pete Davidson’s semi-autobiographical story, “The King of Staten Island.”Apatow first met Davidson through Amy Schumer, which led to the then-unknown comic getting a small role in Apatow’s “Trainwreck” and he and Apatow beginning to write a script together.Eventually, Apatow suggested Davidson write something on his own life leading to “The King of Staten Island.”Apatow applauds how Davidson is so willing to “give you the unvarnished truth.””The King of Staten Island” is available On Demand beginning Friday.Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

For a few years, Judd Apatow was trying to write a story about sacrifice but wasn’t getting anywhere.”That word kept popping into my head,” Apatow told Insider over the phone from his home in Los Angeles on what was driving him.But what would be the best way for the guy known for movies like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” to make a movie about such a serious topic?He was ready to throw in the towel. Then he says he met comic Pete Davidson.

“The King of Staten Island” (On Demand starting Friday) has all the hallmarks of a Judd Apatow movie. Lots of banter between friends, the main character being a guy needing to grow out of his manchild ways to better his life, and a female character being the steady rock for that guy (though he never realizes it until the third act). But there is something about this movie that feels a little more authentic and serious than your typical Apatow tale.That’s where the word “sacrifice” comes in. And it’s the contribution by Davidson that brought it.Along with playing the lead in the movie, Scott, Davidson is also a co-writer and producer on the movie. It’s loosely based on his own life suffering from borderline personality disorder and depression coping with the death of his dad, who was a firefighter and died on 9/11.”The more Pete and I talked the more I felt, “This is it,” Apatow said. “The world of firefighters is a world of sacrifice. People who are willing to take enormous risk to help other people.”

From casting Davidson in ‘Trainwreck’ to teaming up on a high-concept comedy scriptAs Apatow has become one of the biggest comedy directors in Hollywood with several titles that are now considered modern classics, along the way he’s also launched the careers of many who have worked with him. Seth Rogen, Lena Dunham, and Amy Schumer are just a few that have been guided by Apatow in channeling their personal lives into hit projects. But that’s not how things started out when he met Davidson.Davidson got on Apatow’s radar thanks to an introduction from Schumer which led to the young stand-up comic getting a small part in the Schumer-scripted/Apatow directed “Trainwreck” in 2015. Davidson followed that by joining the cast of “Saturday Night Live,” and at just 20 years old he was one of its youngest cast members ever. Apatow and Davidson also began talking more about doing a project together. But not on Davidson’s life.

Marisa Tomei and Pete Davidson in “The King of Staten Island.”

Mary Cybulski/Universal

“It was more of a high-concept comedy,” Apatow said, refusing to give more details because he admits he might want to make it one day. “It’s like going to screenwriting college, to get a script under your belt. But then it became clear we should do something that hits a little closer to the bone.”By this time, Davidson was becoming more recognizable to audiences thanks to showing up weekly on “Saturday Night Live.” He was also building a fanbase for being very open in his comedy about his mental health and sobriety (his relationships with the likes of Ariana Grande, Kate Beckinsale, and Margaret Qualley also quickly made him a tabloid favorite, too).

“More than anyone I’ve ever known, Pete is willing to give you the unvarnished truth,” Apatow said.It all led to Apatow suggesting Davidson channel everything swirling around in his head into a much rawer script than what they were already working on.Finding Davidson’s truth through a fictional storyCowritten along with Apatow and Dave Sirus, Davidson, 26, set the story in his hometown of Staten Island. Always thought of as the unappreciated borough in New York City, it mirrors Davidson’s Scott character. While his little sister Claire (Maude Apatow) is excited to go off to college, Scott is still living at home with his mom (Marisa Tomei), has no job, and spends his days smoking weed with his friends and clearly dealing with depression over the death of his father (though he won’t admit it).Apatow points out that the story is fiction (though Davidson really does live with this mother in Staten Island), but that didn’t mean it was easy to pull off.

“I don’t know if there’s any kind of movie that’s more difficult than this,” Apatow said. “He’s mining his life to create a story that sheds some light on everything he’s been though. We wanted to find a way to get to something that was both fictional and at the same time very true.”So though Davidson may never have actually closed his eyes on the highway, floored it, and narrowly escaped crashing into cars in front of him (like in the opening scene of the movie), he has opened up about considering suicide.”I got as close as you can get, I mean just testing the waters,” Davidson told CBS Sunday Morning. “And until I met the right treatments and met the right doctors and did all the work that you need to do to not feel that way, it got pretty dark and scary.” (Fans were concerned for Davidson’s life when he posted a disturbing message on his Instagram in 2018.)

(L-R) Pete Davidson and Judd Apatow on the set of “The King of Staten Island.”

Lloyd Bishop/Universal

Gradually, Apatow saw that what he was writing with Davidson was meshing with what he wanted to write about sacrifice. This is what finally led to him deciding to direct the movie.

Apatow is constantly developing projects, mainly as a producer, but there are some that grab his attention to the point where he wants to direct them. And like “Trainwreck” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (which he wrote with Steve Carell) before it, “The King of Staten Island” would be that kind of project for him.”There’s always a point in the middle of the process where I have to assess if I’m the best person to be the director,” Apatow said. “I never want to direct anything where I’m not a very positive, helpful part of the production.”But he was convinced he could do Davidson’s story justice. And he looks to be right, the movie has a strong above 70% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.Apatow isn’t sure if “The King of Staten Island” is any different than his other movies. But he believes what makes this one special is it puts the focus on Davidson, a talent that is still building his craft.

“People are just beginning to learn about who he really is beyond his stand-up and his work in sketches,” Apatow said. “This is the first time that he’s really put himself out there and he’s done it in a very artistic, vulnerable way.” 

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