On-set with Judd Apatow's 'This Is 40,' we talk to Albert Brooks and Robert Smigel
It is increasingly uncommon to have a day on a set alone, with no other press, but with Judd Apatow's films, there is a long precedent that is on my side. After all, I've visited him on all of his films, as well as many of the movies he's produced, and I've built a rapport with Judd and with many of the people who work on his films that makes it very easy to hit the ground running when it comes time to write about what he's working on.
When I got the call to drive down to the set of "This Is 40," I was told that they'd picked the day specifically so I would have a chance to talk to Albert Brooks. That was a priority for me because of how much I adore his work. I'd talked to Paul Rudd a few weeks earlier about how excited he was to have Brooks playing his father in the film. Considering he had just finished a film where Jack Nicholson played his father, I told Rudd he was rapidly defining a very strange niche for himself as an actor, but one that seemed like it would be a lot of fun.
The drive out to Rancho Palos Verdes is a long one from my house, but a nice one. The Terranea Resort is this sprawling gorgeous property, nestled right on the coast amidst these big beautiful housing developments. It is an area that positively screams money, and the sequence that was being staged there was a party for Pete and Debbie, the characters playing by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in "Knocked Up," who have become the central characters for this new film. As I understand it, the scene did not make it to the final cut of the film, which doesn't surprise me. Apatow has earned the ability to really experiment while he's shooting, trying things out and giving himself options.
It was a smart time for Universal to schedule the visit, though, because much of the cast was on set for the party, and Universal was determined to get me as many cast members as they could. I'll have two separate halves to this article, and we're going to start today with two tremendously funny men who both play key supporting roles in the film.
First, there's Robert Smigel. One of my favorite live comedy memories is from a benefit I attended where Smigel performed Triumph The Insult Comic Dog. It was a devastating performance, and no matter what he said in character, no one ever seemed to get upset. It's hard to be pissed off when you're laughing so hard you can't breathe, evidently. In the film, he's one of the close friends of Pete, and you can see him featured prominently in the new trailer. Smigel hasn't done a lot of on-camera work like this, so I was surprised when I first heard how big his role was.
Smigel concurred. "I heard it from Sandler first. 'Judd's thinking about you for a role, and I told him you're awesome.' I said, 'Well, thanks for lying.'" I asked him if Judd wrote the role specifically for him. "No, I did audition. The last time I did an audition was  for Larry David, and that was for a 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' that's on this coming Sunday night. When I got the call for this, I was working. I was doing an 'Ace and Gary' cartoon for 'Saturday Night Live,' and I had to pretend was going to the bathroom so I could slip out and head over to read for Judd. Rudd was there with his 'Our Idiot Brother' beard left over from his reshoots. And he's just so easy to hang with on camera and off-camera, so it was a very easy audition."
We started talking about Rudd and the remarkable effect he has on ladies every single time I've seen him. It's amazing how much "Clueless" affected audiences and how women still have a crushing on Rudd lingering from the movie. We talked about how "Wet Hot American Summer" and "Anchorman" really reinvented him as well, and how he's become a major player in American comedy as a result.
"Paul is such a nice guy, and he really put me at ease for that audition. And the way it works, we had to read from the script first, and I'm sure I was awful. And then we had to improvise off of the main idea, and that was a lot of fun. Then Judd called me a few days later and… it was just a lot of fun."
Making a film with Apatow may be fun, but it's also very demanding. He shoots much more than he ends up using, and how his films really come together in editing. On "Knocked Up," it would have been fairly easy to cut a totally different movie with Pete and Debbie as the leads and a subplot about her unmarried sister getting pregnant. We talked about how that movie was such a major announcement of what Leslie Mann could do that we hadn't seen on film before.
"That scene with the bouncer really turned a corner on that character," Smigel observed. He talked about why he loves Apatow's sense of humor and the way he builds his ensembles. "Judd's own movies are never about a sort of heightened reality or characters like that. Maybe you could argue that with someone like Charlene's character from 'Knocked Up,' but for the most part, his characters are all based on real observation."
I asked him if he could explain the difference between Apatow's use of improv and the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" use of improv, and he said they feel totally different when you're shooting them. "In some ways, 'Curb' is less loose because the plot is unbelievably intricate. They spend tons of time making sure the episode's plot is airtight. Then after they put in this tons and tons of work, they have this scenario that people can improv off of, so it's not scripted, but it's plotted more specifically than any other show on TV."
I asked if his work here and in "Curb" meant he was going to be focusing now on more on-camera work. "Oh, god, no. It's really very strange. 'Curb' was just because they were asking in pretty much anyone they thought was funny in New York. They had this one character, and he ended up becoming a pretty big deal in this week's episode. With this film, it's just the fact that I know Judd and I've worked with Judd, and when I finally asked him, 'Why me?' it was a very flattering answer. He said, 'I'd just been thinking about your… you know, your whole disheveled thing, and your low energy, and the droning.' There's this living death that I sort of personify, so I get it. 'Thanks, man.'
He explained that he's had a long relationship with Judd, if not always a close one. "I've known Judd sort of peripherally since the early TV days, and I've met him mostly through Adam. I didn't get to spend much time with him until 'Zohan.' He wrote the early drafts with Adam. It's the only one where Judd and I are co-credited. It's a big character…"
I pointed out that my favorite Sandler roles are the ones where he pushes himself to some outrageous extreme instead of just his "rich suburban dad" mode. "Oh, really? You'll love the next one, then. 'I Hate You, Dad.' [NOTE - This was released as 'That's My Boy' this summer.] We finally got him to do his Boston guy voice for a movie. I lean towards a heightened reality when I'm writing, but I really enjoy the more grounded thing that Judd does, and it's been great to work in that sort of world for this one."
After a few more set-ups, they called for a break, and I was shown into an adjoining room where Albert Brooks was waiting for me.
I am an ardent fan of this prickly, hyper-intelligent writer/director, and I was excited to finally get a chance to sit down with him. Right away, though, he put me on the defensive when he asked, "So why did you write under a fake name?"
Devoid of context, that's a strange question to be asked, but I knew right away that he was talking about AIn't It Cool, and if he knew that I wrote under a pseudonym there, then there was a chance he read my review of "The Muse," one of the earliest and angriest I published at the site. He put me on notice right away that I had not shaken off the old reviews I'd written, and that he was well aware who I was.
As we settled in, I tried to steer the conversation away from talking about the move to HitFix and writing with a pseudonym and back to Brooks and his work. I mentioned how much I like his novel, "2030," and how I especially love the way it raises big questions without answering them.
"They are the questions of our day," Brooks said. "I was sitting in this scene with these two older extras, and I was listening to them discuss how they both had their knees replaced. And they weren't even that old. I'm listening to them and thinking, 'There are 60 million people having some variation on this conversation.'"
This led to us talking about how my parents are at retirement age while my kids are just starting school, and we both agreed that it feels like the system seems to be failing everyone equally right now.
Brooks said, "I have a girl who is 11 1/2, and a boy who is going to be 13 in a couple of months. And their schools cost more than our colleges did." Despite such a grim mood in the air these days, there is some optimism to his book, and he said that was part of the reason he wrote it, trying to sort out his own emotions. "I wasn't sure how I felt either, and my answer to myself is 'We're still here.' I guess that was positive. You can think of so many scenarios that are so much more devastating than what I wrote. I chose not to go as far having a nuclear device go off in the United States. And that is terrifyingly possible. You look at our ports like over in San Pedro, and that's all it would take. Just bring something in on one of those boats, and before the customs guy can say, 'Hey, what's this?', we're all just dead on arrival. But I didn't want to write that. Those are Armageddon stories, and i don't like those. I wanted to include some hope there, even if it's cynically hopeful."
I talked about how his writing often feels like he had to write it to deal with those ideas at that particular moment. That's true of "Mother" and "Lost In America" and "Modern Romance," one of my favorite films, and I told him how different films of his have been important to me at different points in my life, and how "Modern Romance" got me through some very strange moments in my twenties.
"There is a time in your life where romantic behavior becomes insane. You can't do that forever. You can't do that anymore. You don't have the energy. When you're younger, you explore these emotions. I like exploring them until it's time to use them up. I married the right woman, so I'm glad I played out those ideas in the movie. I didn't want that kind of relationship in real life."
I brought up Rudd's reaction to learning that Brooks was playing his father in the film, and I mentioned that Brooks carries an iconic weight now when he's cast in something. He laughed about being old enough to play "the dad" these days, and how he's tried to deny it.
"Look, I have kids who are younger. If I had a child at 20, Paul could be my son. We don't really look alike, and before we began, I had a hairpiece made up in grey that would make my hair look more like Paul's. Judd saw it and told me no. 'We don't need it.' 'Really? I'm fine? You believe me as his father? I thought I looked more like his friend. Shit.'"
Keep in mind, this conversation was almost exactly a year ago, and at the time, "Drive" was not yet playing in theaters. I talked to him about how great the film was and how exciting it was to see him play a role like that. I complimented Nicholas Winding Refn, the director of the film.
"He did a wonderful job," Brooks agreed, "and that is a totally different role for me. I think it took a Danish person to do that. I went to his house, and at first he started out playing that cat and mouse with me. 'Why do you think you should do this?' And I told him to knock off the shit and just talk to me. I told him that I think there are typically about ten people you go to who could play that role, and with all ten of them, as soon as you see them, you know how things are going to play out. You won't know that if you cast me. Then I asked him why he thought I should do it. 'Because when I was a little boy, I saw 'Lost In America,' and the way you yelled at people really scared me.' Well, okay, there you go. Then I pinned him up against the wall. I think with a role like this, I know I can do it, and it's just a matter of someone else making that jump."
That gets back to the idea that he is iconic, and I asked him if he was ever aware of another performer or a collaborator struggling with Brooks and his prodigious comedy history.
I asked him if he was ever aware of someone in a scene with him or behind the camera really struggling to deal with his iconic weight. His response was a nice reminder that we all have people we idolize, and we all react differently when we meet them.
"I remember one of the great… I was used to show business. My father was a radio comedian, and even though he died when I was young, I had seen a lot of famous people, and it never meant much to me. Then I met John Lennon because I was really good friends with Harry Nilsson, and I became friends with John Lennon. And the first time I met him, Harry says, 'Come on, he's in this car.' And I sat next to him in a car, and it was the first time in my life I felt like I was 'on.' I always prided myself on being able to turn it off, but with him, I was working really hard to be funny, and I could feel myself… there was no way to get out of it. And right in the middle of it, Lennon said the greatest thing that has ever been said. He leaned over to me and said, 'I've known you for a thousand years.' And it was like, 'Oh, okay.' And that's the way… I'm just trying to be in the moment. To think that someone else is thinking that sort of thing about me, I can't worry about that. It's great if someone loves the work you've done, but I don't walk around expecting people to feel that way."
I talked to him about watching Judd's ensemble grow over the years and asked him how it was to step into this group that's been working together for a while now.
"I like watching Judd grow up. That's the interesting thing." If you've seen the new trailer for the film, then you've already got some idea of the relationship between Brooks and Rudd, and he explained the dynamic to me. "The appeal to me was that this relationship was not what I've seen before. There's a reversal in what he wrote here. I'm the kid. I'm the one who needs the money. I'm asking my son to give me an allowance. And I told Judd, 'I like this because I think we're going to start seeing this a lot.' As your parents… as we have to take care of them… that's going to happen more. He touched on that here, and I like that. I like it's not a standard take on living with your parents. The parents are the children here."
I mentioned how happy I was that John Lithgow is playing Mann's father, and Brooks laughed, saying it's been a real pleasure to have Lithgow around. "He's very fun to play off of. He does this cold character, and oh, boy… nobody does it better."
Finally, I told him the story of when I was a theater manager and he was test-screening his film "Defending Your Life." I saw a screaming match between him and Geffen in the lobby of the theater over the way the film started, and Brooks was fighting desperately to protect what he saw as essential information. It shocked me because I was such a huge fan and I just assumed he was left alone to work, that it would get easier for him on every new film.
"It actually gets harder. My movies didn't cost that much, and people have done fine over time. 'Defending Your LIfe' is still number 200 on Amazon after how many years? So someone's still watching them. Someone's still buying them. Someone's getting it. But unless you make these people a fortune… you look at the luxury Judd has, and part of that is simply because, you know, 'Bridesmaids' did well, so he can have two cranes on the set today. You have to make the businessmen swoon, and that was never me. I've done everything in spite of that. That's what stays difficult. The writing is fun, the shooting is fun, editing is the best… but then comes the time for the commerce, and if the commerce doesn't go the way they want it to, everything becomes difficult."
When I started to lament the notion of him having to fight for his work, he brushed it off. "The real problem is that it's a very expensive kind of art. If I was a painter, I could say, 'Fuck you, take it or leave it.' It's yours at that point. But when you're asking people to put in millions of dollars, that comes with attachments. When my wife wasn't my wife yet, back when we were shooting 'Mother' at Paramount, she came to see my office. I said to her as we looked out over the parking lot, 'You see these cars? Every one of those cars belongs to someone who is trying to keep me from doing what I want to do.' It's always a fight."
I'll have more interviews from the set of "This Is 40" for you soon, and I look forward to seeing the finished film very soon.
"This Is 40" opens December 21, 2012.