Paul Brownfield is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of AwardsLine.
The first scene in Judd Apatow’s dramatic comedy about marriage, This Is 40, is the only love scene. Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) are having birthday sex in the shower, but what Debbie doesn’t know is that Pete has popped a Viagra. Thrusting is soon followed by tumult.
First seen in Knocked Up, Pete and Debbie functioned in that film as “the ghosts of Christmas future” for the two main characters, played by Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl. But This Is 40 doesn’t pick up where Knocked Up left off, it starts afresh.
Let us assume the Viagra shower episode hasn’t happened in the real-life marriage of Apatow and Mann. But both the writer/director, edging into more mature terrain, and his actress wife, truly starring in a major Hollywood film for the first time, are aware that they’ve made something that feels, anyway, like an autobiographical film. In the time before making This Is 40, Apatow went back and watched, among others, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, “which had more humor in it than one would expect,” he says.
AWARDSLINE: Early in the movie, Pete and Debbie go away for a romantic weekend to get away from domestic and work stresses and reconnect as a couple. I think they have sex but they mostly do platonic things, like get stoned and order off the room-service menu. I’m curious what each of you thinks that says about marriage and long-term relationships.
JUDD APATOW: Well, I intended it to look like they had sex. If Paul Rudd had agreed to show me his behind, maybe that would have been clearer. The intention of it is to show that everybody has too many things they’re juggling. Between their marriages, work, all the kid stuff, it is very stressful and time-consuming, in addition to their extended families and health issues. Sometimes you need to get away for a few weeks just to figure out who you are again.
LESLIE MANN: But originally we had (Pete) taking Viagra.
APATOW: There was a funny shot where she sees him try to sneak the Viagra, and she just gives a look like, “Oh, God.”
AWARDSLINE: There’s another scene where Debbie catches Pete in the bathroom at home, playing Scrabble on his iPad, and says to him, “Why are you always trying to escape?” That seemed like a crucial line in the film.
APATOW: I’m a big fan of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. They talk about how men like to go to their caves, and women are always trying to get men out of their caves. That’s always my excuse for my escape. And it probably is just that I’m exhausted, and it’s fun to read the Huffington Post for 12 minutes on the toilet. Leslie will track how long I’ve been in the bathroom based on my Tweets. She’ll say, “I know you’re not going to the bathroom, you’re Tweeting.” She never opens the door. I think the second I hit the toilet, she signs on to Twitter to see if I’m really doing what I’m saying I’m doing. But I think everybody does that. There’s no guy who’s seen this movie that doesn’t say that they escape into the bathroom. I just think it’s a natural thing. Do you think women don’t do that, honey? They don’t feel the bathroom is a place to escape?
APATOW: To catch a breath?
MANN: I don’t think so.
APATOW: Where do you catch your breath?
MANN: We don’t. We’re women. We’re stronger than you are.
AWARDSLINE: Judd, The New Yorker once described your process for scriptwriting as involving a mostly male “Bucket Brigade of actors, writers, and directors” punching up each other’s scripts. Did that happen here?
APATOW: Not really on this one. Some movies are more of a joke fest, so it’s helpful to have a lot of input. Some movies survive just based on how funny each individual joke is, but because this is a more intimate movie, it really started with this idea and a year of Leslie and I talking about it and what our feelings were at this time of our lives. So I would tell Leslie some of the story I was thinking about, and then she would comment on that and pitch me ideas for scenes based on what she was going through. That’s how I outline. I just list hundreds of scene ideas, and then slowly the actual plot starts revealing itself.
AWARDSLINE: Did you workshop the script or show it around?
APATOW: The first person to read it is Leslie because we talk a lot about it. Leslie doesn’t like reading the early, really crappy drafts, so I tell her how it’s going and talk through the scenes with her. Then when I feel like it’s pretty decent, I give her the script. I’m also well aware that if she doesn’t like it, we’re not making the movie. So that’s actually the only scary read for me. Then I’ll get her notes and do a pass, and I do give it to a ton of people, which makes Leslie very nervous. I’m always just sending the script to people, and a lot of friends who are the writers I most admire read it. James Brooks read it, and Eric Roth, and Jake Kasdan, and Adam McKay. I send it around and say, “Am I crazy? Does this make sense at all, what we’re trying to do here?” And they’re very, very supportive and insightful and helpful.
AWARDSLINE: How long did it take to get from first draft to a shooting draft?
APATOW: Very short. I only finished the script because we were about to start shooting. So I drafted the script in December of 2010, and we shot in the summer of 2011. But we started doing rehearsals and table reads about five weeks after I finished the rough, vomit pass. Very early Leslie and Paul’ll come in, and we all talk and play and see how we feel and what’s missing.
AWARDSLINE: Since this film is somewhat close to your personal lives and is such a family affair, did it feel different when you started shooting?
MANN: I feel like Judd always protects me from anything that would stress me out in that way, so it’s only about being creative, which is stressful enough. But he kind of shields me from all of the little things, the business things. He creates a really safe place for us to be just creative. So I didn’t think about, “Oh, wow, this is however much money the budget was.” (To Apatow) How much was the budget? See, I don’t even know. So I didn’t worry about that. I think he may have been worrying about that but didn’t say anything about it. He’s just really snotty and having stress allergies.
AWARDSLINE: Did you feel as though you were crossing a line, putting your own family life on film?
MANN: I don’t see it that way. I know that there are certain things that are kind of pulled directly from our lives. Like, we don’t have wifi in the house.
MANN: We have it in my bedroom, but don’t write that because (our daughter) Maude doesn’t know. But most of it, emotionally, I feel like it’s true, and what a woman goes through and what a man goes through at that stage of life feels really honest. But I think that’s pretty universal. So I didn’t feel like I was exposing this really personal thing about myself. I just felt like I’m playing a character and this is different from my life, but the same emotionally, you know? Does that make sense?
AWARDSLINE: You mentioned your daughter Maude. Both your kids act in your movies. Did that feel risky this time, to expose them to more scrutiny? I guess in this era of social media that isn’t the big deal it once was.
MANN: It’s weird because they haven’t been able to see the movies. I mean, Maude just recently saw some of Knocked Up, right?
APATOW: She fell asleep at the halfway point, which was very insulting to us.
MANN: Their friends don’t see the movies, and they just go to school every day, so they don’t really know what they’ve done. It kind of doesn’t affect them in their lives at all. But now that Maude is almost 15, it’s probably a little bit different.
AWARDSLINE: And she has a big part in the film.
MANN: And she’s really good in it. And I think that can’t hurt her. I don’t know, we’re very protective of them, and we’re just going to do our best. I hope that it doesn’t hurt them in some way.
APATOW: We think of it more like a singer-songwriter. You write about what you care about, and you share that with people. And hopefully that makes it OK because you are doing it with a positive intention. When people do that in their music and in movies, I always really appreciate it. I think it is what we liked about Annie Hall. We all knew that they dated. We didn’t think it was like that exactly, but we knew that something had inspired it.