‘King’ makers: Apatow’s latest film does deep dive into characters instead of comedy (but ‘Staten Island’ story still elicits laughs)

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

Many of the characters in Judd Apatow’s titles have some growing up to do. But growing up isn’t easy, and Apatow always finds unique ways to explore the concept more deeply with each consecutive film. 

From working on television comedies such as Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, we dealt with the growing pains of adolescence. His feature filmmaking debut, 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, followed a grown man whose life came to a halt due to his lack of sexual experience. Whether it’s Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, or Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in This is 40, Apatow has been drawn to characters who seem stuck in their lives. 

“This realization came when I attended a benefit with Mindy Kaling. She said this, and I laughed so hard because it’s true, and I never thought of it like that,” Apatow said via a Zoom call from his Los Angeles home. “I tend to write about people who need something to happen to knock them out of their rut, to force them to grow or evolve in some way. If you think through a lot of the characters, there are these moments where people come through for somebody else in a very pure way. So, clearly, I must need that [in my life].”

(from left) Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) and Papa (Steve Buscemi) in “The King of Staten Island,” directed by Judd Apatow.

Apatow’s latest film, The King of Staten Island, is cut from the same cloth as his other comedies, but it also takes a more dramatic approach with a story that fits well for the current moment. It centers around a 24-year-old wayward soul, Scott (Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson), who still lives with his mother (Marisa Tomei) and passes the time hitting bongs and drawing questionable tattoos on his friends. He doesn’t have any life plan in motion outside of launching a tattoo-restaurant that he jokes about calling “Ruby Tattoo-day’s. Additionally, Scott is trying to come to grips with the death of his firefighter father from when he was a kid. While Scott aims to embrace maturity, his mother begins a relationship with another firefighter (Bill Burr) after his younger sister (Maude Apatow) ships off to college. 

Scott’s story somewhat reflects Davidson’s own, with both characters growing up and around Staten Island and their fathers dying in the line of duty. Apatow co-wrote the screenplay alongside Davidson and fellow SNL writer Dave Sirus. The team kicked around a script premise once before, but nothing stuck until they found inspiration from Davidson’s life, which became a cathartic experience for all.

“We go to therapy and talk about [our problems] for years and years. Sometimes it’s helpful, but only to a point. But when you put it through a filter of creativity and create fiction out of it while looking at it from every character’s point of view, it makes it easier to see and more understandable. I hope the film has that experience for others,” Apatow said. 

Earlier this year, Davidson opened up about his “dark and scary” battle with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. He told CBS Sunday Morning that he “got as close as you can get” when contemplating suicide, and it wasn’t until he found the right treatments and met with the right doctors that it began to evaporate. 

“I was definitely nervous about making the movie. I didn’t want to put [Davidson] through something that would be painful for him. But he was fearless about facing everything directly,” Apatow revealed. “There were days when we had very emotional scenes, so we just talked about it weeks in advance. I asked him how we should handle those days and how I could help him. Some of those moments were tricky and involved him opening up. In some ways, those scenes are more documentary than they are fiction. But he allowed himself to be vulnerable, which he found helpful and gave him a strong performance.” 

The balance between comedy and drama and the level in which it covers uncomfortable realities are a rare sight in a studio film. Apatow said he feels thankful that Universal Pictures gave him the creative license to take significant risks. 

(from left) Director Judd Apatow with Marisa Tomei on the set of “The King of Staten Island.”

“You don’t see a lot of movies like this anymore. It’s generally not something that studios invest in for the theater. I’m lucky that Universal is a supportive place for me because they still have a lot of energy to make interesting comedies and dramedies, which is sadly disappearing,” Apatow shared. 

Not only did The King of Staten Island mark new territory for Universal, but also Apatow, who hasn’t made a film so emotionally driven as this before. The filmmaker explained that he opened up his process to find new avenues of storytelling and a new comedic rhythm. 

“I think what was probably most challenging about the film was not being sure if it would be funny,” Apatow said. “I had to figure that out as we went along. Every lead actor is different in how they’re funny. I learned that from the audition process because [Davidson] would read with everyone to get a sense of how the scenes might work. He’s not a wordsmith who talks in funny, witty lines. The story is very character-driven and emotional, which was new to me. I wasn’t obsessing over every line and joke.” 

Another aspect that makes Apatow’s work stand apart from other comedies is its story focal points. The King of Staten Island is just as much about Davidson’s journey as Scott as it is his mother finding herself again. Commonly, movies like this will concentrate on the main protagonist, and the parents (or parental figures) will merely exist in the background, only to surface when their child needs support. 

(from left) Kelsey (Bel Powley) and Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) in The King of Staten Island, directed by Judd Apatow.

“[Movies] always talk about how stressful life is on kids, but it’s just as stressful being a parent these days. You are so worried about them. People are comparing how they are doing with other people on social media. There’s pressure to do well. I don’t think our brains are built to take in this much,” Apatow said. “My fear to not screw up as a parent is also hysterical because it’s the thing I care about the most in the world. And some of what this movie is about is how [Scott’s mom] has given up her personal life to make sure her kids are OK. The idea of her trying things just for herself is a considerable risk to her, but she feels now is the time to do it.” 

Apatow concluded by describing the movie as three stories in one: Scott’s relationship with a young woman he’s known since grade school (played by The Diary of a Teenage Girl’s Bel Powley), Scott’s mother’s relationship with Burr’s character, and the father-son dynamic between Scott and his mother’s boyfriend. But most importantly, The King of Staten Island explores the idea of heroism and how people can be everyday heroes. 

“One of the firefighters I spoke to for this film said that they do what they do because they just like helping people,” Apatow said. “He was so sincere, and it touched me. That everyday quality is powerful, and we need more stories about that.” 

The King of Staten Island is now playing on digital platforms.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.