On a late February morning in the editing suite of Judd Apatows multilevel West Los Angeles headquarters, the writer/director and editor Brent White were playing back scenes from Apatows new comedy, This Is 40.
By MARK CARO
They had test-screened cuts of the movie the previous evening at a San Fernando Valley multiplex, running two versions in separate theaters and recording the audiences reactions throughout.
Now White was cuing up versions A and B of a scene in which Annie Mumolo, who co-wrote the Apatow-produced Bridesmaids and here plays the best friend of Leslie Manns lead character, Debbie, describes the aftereffects of losing all feeling in a certain lower region of her body.
In one version Mumolo cites two examples of her numbness before a punch line that involves a shower head. In the other version, she offers more and more examples before reaching the payoff. As the editor played back the scenes synced up to the test screening laugh tracks, it was clear that the audience responded more enthusiastically to version B, the one that took more time to set up the gag.
We can actually look at the joke when we showed it this week and when we showed it (at an earlier screening) and see if weve either made it work better or actually hurt the joke by surrounding it with different variations of lines and stuff like that, White said.
But as Apatow progresses as a filmmaker, his increasingly personal works have grown less reliant on pileups of jokes and gags. This Is 40, which opens Friday and is the fourth movie he has written and directed, explores middle-aged angst over marriage, family, career, identity and sex appeal through the eyes of Manns Debbie and Paul Rudds Pete, characters theyre reprising from Apatows 2007 hit comedy Knocked Up. The effectiveness of such a work cant be measured through test-screening reactions alone.
We feel the movies working when its getting laughs, but thats actually not true, said Apatow, who turned 45 last Thursday. The audience is actually following the drama, and sometimes we have to think hard and go: Its OK that theyre not laughing here because this is a heartfelt moment or a devastating moment.
This Is 40 is being billed as the sort of sequel to Knocked Up (the earlier films stars, Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl, are absent here Apatow felt theyd be distracting), and the Apatow-Mann family echoes are unavoidable this time.
Mann, 40, has been married to the director for 15 years they met on the set of The Cable Guy (1996), which he produced and in which she starred and their daughters, Maude and Iris (now 14 and 8), once again play Pete and Debbies children, Sadie and Charlotte. (They also played Manns kids in Apatows 2009 film, Funny People.)
Apatow shot This Is 40 just 10 doors down from his familys house in a tony Los Angeles neighborhood, so, yes, the movie literally hits close to home, with Rudds struggling record-label owner functioning as a more dashing though no less neurotic stand-in for the scruffy Apatow.
Nothing in the movie happened, but it is based on emotional feelings that we have that we talk about all the time, Apatow said. I dont own a record label, Leslie doesnt own a store, but I think emotionally I do spend too much time in the bathroom, I do have kind of an overbearing Jewish family that makes you want to spend most of your life in the bathroom, so we connect to some of those issues.
Mann said her husband first mentioned the idea to her when they were on vacation, and they discussed it on and off for a couple of years. He said his impetus was to make a movie about this period in peoples lives its never-ending rush of demands and anxieties rather than specifically to continue the story of the Knocked Up characters.
Then just one night, literally in the middle of the night, I just thought: Oh, its Pete and Debbie. I could make the whole movie about Pete and Debbie, Apatow said. Because we just did Get Him to the Greek, which is a spinoff of Forgetting Sarah Marshall (both of which Apatow produced), and I thought that worked well, like Rhoda off of our Mary Tyler Moore (Show).
Rudd, who has appeared in several Apatow-directed and -produced comedies, was brought into the process early as well.
Well talk about facets to the character or conversations or aspects or storylines, things like that, Rudd said. Then Judd goes and writes it out, and then we play around with it when we shoot it too.
Mann recalled of Rudd: When we first started rehearsing with him for Knocked Up, hes like, Isnt it just funny, like when youre in a big fight with your wife and one of you just cracks a smile, and you both just start cracking up? And were like, No. That has never happened.
Now Apatow was cracking up, adding that a realistic film about him and Mann would be much more morose, prompting more laughs from the two of them.
Im not as light and charismatic as Paul, he said. But thats one of the great things about Paul: Hes so likable that you could make him play a really flawed character and hes hiding all these issues he should be sharing with his wife, and hes passive-aggressive, yet you really like him and connect with him because theres an Everyman quality to him that makes it OK.
They are fictional characters, Rudd said, but there are aspects of their relationship in the marriage that are specific to, I think probably, Judd and Leslie. There are a couple of specific things that have made their way into these movies that are from my own life.
The autobiographical elements arent necessarily flattering. My own wife was like, Oh, I love it when you say, Everybody thinks Im so nice, but Im really such a (jerk), Rudd said. That one really seemed to land with my own wife.
With Mann and Apatow both using the word crazy to describe Pete and Debbies behavior at times, the movie is willing to make its leads unsympathetic in the quest for some greater truth, if not humor.
I like when people dont try so hard to obsess over likability, Apatow said. I wanted it to be balanced. I wanted Pete and Debbie to have an equal amount of good qualities and bad qualities. But it was helpful working with Lena Dunham on Girls (the HBO series that Apatow executive-produces) while I was working on this, because she doesnt care at all if you like her character. And so just talking about the script with her and shes such a great cheerleader of this film put me in a good frame of mind to not polish things up.
The director starts viewing one of his movies with his wife when its almost finished because Leslie is great at catching an inauthentic moment.
I watch the scene, and if it doesnt like, hit me in my gut. I cant say exactly what is wrong, but thats the difference between us, Mann said. Hes more in his head and thinking about
The frame count, Apatow said.
But I can have like a gut reaction, and if it doesnt ring true, then its
And thats really annoying, he said.
Yeah, it annoys him. She laughed.
Ill go, Isnt that good? Shes like, Ah, its not working. Why? I dont know! I dont know. Its just not working at all.