Judd Apatow’s unique eye for comedic talent has helped launch the big-screen careers of Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer. He hopes Pete Davidson is next.
Apatow developed his sixth narrative feature, The King of Staten Island, in collaboration with Davidson, the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member who based the details of the dramatic comedy on his own life story of grief, redemption, and arrested development.
Apatow befriended Davidson after he played a small role in the 2015 Schumer vehicle Trainwreck, and saw a sweetness beneath the sardonic surface.
“He’s a big-hearted person who’s ridiculously funny. There’s something fascinating about him because you sense he’s going through something and you want to know what it is. You root for him,” Apatow said. “Quietly, he’s an artist who wasn’t afraid to go to difficult places to make this movie. He gives up a lot of himself on screen. There are moments that are very real. It really connects with people.”
The semiautobiographical story finds has Davidson playing Scott, a twentysomething slacker and aspiring tattoo artist whose mother (Marisa Tomei) — the widow of a fallen firefighter — both condemns and enables his lack of ambition. After his younger sister (Maude Apatow) leaves for college, Scott finds incentive for becoming more responsible. Yet when his mother starts dating another firefighter (Bill Burr), he must confront his simmering hostility and unresolved grief.
A few years ago, Apatow tried to develop a broader comedy with Davidson that never materialized, so they tried a more personal approach.
When he was 7, Davidson’s firefighter father died in the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. So he was raised by his mother on Staten Island, where his grief turned to rebellion. From there, Apatow came up with the fictional angle of her dating another firefighter.
“We started talking about a movie that was discussing how he felt about his mom being single, and having spent so much of her life taking care of him, and wanting her to be happy,” Apatow said. “That would force him to confront everything in his life that was difficult and that might be holding him back. The idea was to come up with a fictional story that would allow him to talk truthfully about a lot of these issues.”
Apatow recently directed a documentary about the late Garry Shandling and a couple of stand-up comedy specials that featured comedians finding humor amid heartbreak in their personal lives. He said those experiences informed this film.
“Making a documentary about Garry challenged me to think deeper than I had in the past about people’s journeys, and how their path affects them,” he said. “That has always been of interest to me.”
Still, Apatow admits he was nervous about how the drama would play with the comedy as The King of Staten Island was shaped in the editing room.
“When a movie has nothing funny, something always feels false about it. There’s always something funny that happens even in the worst of times,” Apatow said. “For this, I didn’t want to chase the jokes. I want to tell the story really well, and it will be as funny as it turns out to be.”
With its intended theatrical release scrapped due to theater closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the film is available on digital platforms beginning this weekend.