Peruse the grocery store racks by the register and you'll see studios repackaging their older films to tout an actor or filmmaker who would later become a "big deal." (Or they'll take a name off—seen the recent cover of Mean Girls?) Judd Apatow was a small fish when The Cable Guy was released. He's literally the very last name in the corner on the original poster. But the writer-director and then-producer went from conceiving comedy bits for Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller to creating his own brand with Knocked Up and Funny People. making him one of the stars of The Cable Guy's Blu-ray release. Boxoffice caught up with Apatow to talk about the cult comedy's new commentary track featuring him, Stiller and Carrey, and the sentimental release of the audition footage of lead actress Leslie Mann, who would become Apatow's wife and muse.
What sort of relationship do you have with your older work? DVD has forced filmmakers to spend a lot of time with their films via commentaries and featurettes, but how often have you revisited older films you've done?
Pretty quickly after I finish something, I start getting this strange feeling like I didn't make it—I get separated from it pretty fast. I still have affection from it, but it almost feels like a dream that it happened; it's an odd feeling, it's hard to describe. What you remember most is the relationships that formed during production and sometimes there were crazy times while you were doing it, almost more than the work. I met my wife Leslie [Mann] when we made The Cable Guy. It was a great time working with Jim and Ben, which for me was such a dream after The Ben Stiller Show to get to make a movie with Ben. And I had been writing jokes and sketches for Jim Carrey for a long time and had worked on his Showtime stand-up special, but to get to make a movie with him seemed like such a gift. And Jim was so white hot at that exact moment that we had a lot of freedom—obviously—we pushed the boundaries of what he was doing.
What's also surprising is that no matter how over-the-top Jim's character goes, he is still really sympathetic throughout the majority of the movie. How tough was it to balance out how funny or creepy this guy was and then also how sympathetic he was?
Well, we always assumed that no matter what Jim did you would be on his side. We always loved the movie Neighbors with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, and in that movie, no matter what horrible thing Dan Aykroyd does to John Belushi, the next thing he does is so incredibly nice that he always can weasel his way back in to his good graces—and then he does something even worse the next time. And that was really making us laugh, to terrify someone and then buy them new stereo equipment; he doesn't know how to be a friend, so he keeps giving him things to bribe him to like him. The basic idea was that he was a creature of having been left in front of the television his entire life. And what is interesting about watching it now is that the whole movie is about how one day we are going to combine our telephone, television and computer—he has this long speech about what its going to be like one day when you are going to be able to play Mortal Kombat with a friend in Vietnam, and I think people can do that right now. There were funny prophecies in it.
How much were you considering the cultural implications of the story, in addition to its purely comedic elements?
I grew up watching a good 8 to 10 hours of TV a day as a kid, so I think we were thinking that's probably not good for anybody's brain how much time we were spending in front of the TV and monitors. He is the worst creation of that, and his bad behavior is based on something he has seen before—he doesn't know how to be a good friend or just socialize in any normal way. But I think it's a joke a little bit that we all feel that way a little bit about ourselves; we are all comedians, desperately trying to please other people [so] we certainly understand that. But even now I think, wow, my parents really let me watch a lot of TV and they were not good at shutting it off. I would always win that fight.
How tough or easy was it to recover all of the material you guys have for this? There's an impressive collection of archive footage, not the least of which being Leslie's audition.
I'm a real hoarder—Leslie was telling me this morning that I need to get on top of my hoarding; she sees the similarities between me and those people who won't throw out Christmas ornaments 28 years ago. But every once in a while that pays off—we have these projects and we say, "Hey did you keep that gag reel that we only have one copy of on VHS?" And someone will say, "Yes, I did keep it. I'm that strange." Some of it was really difficult, because they don't keep the actual film and the readout of what the edits are, because this was 15 years ago. None of that existed, but what did exist was some old VHS tapes and I think they had some ability to reassemble some things based on looking at old VHS tapes of cuts. That was tricky, so I think if we could have done it on a better format we would have tried to extend the movie, but we didn't have the footage in the right format to do that. But we did have those scenes, and we did find the gag reel, which was the holy grail of this search because we knew they were a funny gag reel from the wrap party. And then we had saved the auditions—so many people came in and read for that movie. I remember Heather Locklear coming in to read and I was reading with all of the actresses, doing my impression of the cable guy, and I told the person who was running the camera just make sure at some point I'm in the frame with Heather Locklear. I was a pretty hardcore Melrose Place fan at that point. And I believe the audition with Leslie, I'm reading the Jim Carrey part at her audition and that was the first time we ever spoke, so the first time I ever spoke to my wife, I was talking with a lisp like the cable guy.
Was that moment a love at first sight kind of thing for you, or were you just interested in her for the role and then you guys got to know each other during production?
I think it was the classic version of me falling in love and her not. [Laughs.] She was focusing on doing her job as I gazed into her eyes.
She was like, "Do I get the role?"
She was busy trying to nail it. But it didn't happen on that day for her. But it was the best thing that ever happened in my life that she came in that day, and I'm very happy that happened.
It was great to get you, Ben Stiller and Jim Carrey together for the commentary track. What was the most fun or surprising thing you discovered during the process of doing the commentary?
We tried for years to get this commentary done; for a long time, it seemed impossible because Jim has never done a commentary before, and we had to convince him to do that. And then when we were all set to record, at the last second Ben had a change of schedule—and then literally I just gave up. I thought "We are never going to get both of them on the same day, in the same city, available," and then they were both shooting movies in New York. They're two of my closest friends and it really was a magical time making that movie, and as crazy as it was after it came out, the process itself of making it could not have been more fun.
I like the commentary because in addition to talking about the movie and all of the experiences we had making it and how we dealt with its reception, then its growing cult status, you do get a feeling of what its like to be a veteran in comedy and the perceptive they have about their careers and taking chances. Because The Cable Guy was the first of a lot of giant chances that Ben and Jim have made in their careers, and I think they have they always been daring artists; they have big commercial movies and then they do risk-taking independent movies and their careers are ridiculously impressive. The scope of what they done between Greenberg, Your Friends and Neighbors, Tropic Thunder, and Meet the Parents, Night of the Museum. With Jim he has Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Truman Show, Liar, Liar, A Christmas Carol, and Bruce Almighty, it's just an awe-inspiring range of work. I just feel very proud of what they've done and how they've managed their careers and their work. Before The Cable Guy, all there was were these incredible popular mega successful, broad comedies from Jim that are still some of the funniest movies ever made. But Jim really said, "I would like to do that, but I would also like to challenge myself in other ways." And it was a real risk at the time to do something like this.
Is it hard to maintain that kind of fearlessness after doing something with the maturity of Funny People, to then go back and do something totally silly?
I think it's just you have a rhythm of wanting to make things which are very heartfelt, and then take a break from being personal and doing something that is more imaginative and goofy and bizarre. For me there is a rhythm of that—it's nice to go and work on Knocked Up and then work on Walk Hard, as a writer or a producer just to give myself a break in one area or another. It's always great to make something that is really hard. It's such a difficult thing to do, but every time you start a new project you're terrified—you just wonder if it's going to happen. Can you make people really enjoy the movie and have it be original and have it be piss their pants funny? You certainly never get bored of it or complacent. I've been around for a very long time now and it takes more work to create jokes you haven't kicked around in the past. I've already shown every body part in every permutation, so at some point you run out.
Are there any other movies of yours that you would like to revisit to give audiences the opportunity to connect or reconnect with it?
I just said to Stiller yesterday, our next commentary is on Heavyweights. Heavyweights was a movie that Steven Brill directed that me and Steve wrote together. Ben Stiller was the bad guy, and it was about a summer camp for overweight kids and he is the abusive owner. It was definitely a schizophrenic movie because it felt on one hand like a classic Disney movie, and then it got really weird, dark and hilarious. And that's become a little bit of cult movie as well. There was a funny thing on Twitter the other day where everyone started tweeting quotes from it, and then Aaron Rogers of the Green Bay Packers tweeted a quote from Heavyweights, and Ben and I got very excited. So maybe we can get that out one day; there were a lot of extended versions of those scenes where Ben went on these mad improvisations with that character, which I would love for people to see.
How far along in the process are you with your new project?
I'm going to start shooting this summer, so it will come out the following summer. And we have Bridesmaids coming out in February, which came out fantastic, so I am really excited for people to see that which Kristen Wiig wrote with her partner Anne Mumolo, and Paul Feig directed. It's the first time Paul and I worked together since Freaks and Geeks, so we were excited to collaborate. And then I produced David Wain's next film with David, Ken Marino and Paul Rudd. It comes out in October—it's called Wanderlust, and it's a really super funny film.
Is it tough to balance your own projects, to be alone to focus on them, at the same time you have all of these other efforts as a producer?
It is. I have a lot of writing to do now. We're locking Bridesmaids this week, so finishing one thing opens up more time for me. But the movies I direct, I look at them like they're episodes of a TV show; I like to schedule when I'm going to do it and use the pressure that we are actually making it as my motivation to get going. I think, Rod Serling wrote 20 episodes a year of Twilight Zone, so I should be able to write one movie.