Judd Apatow: Pete Davidson Isn’t the King of Staten Island You Think He Is

Pete Davidson and director Judd Apatow with crew members on the set of The King of Staten Island
Pete Davidson (left) and director Judd Apatow (center) with crew members on the set of The King of Staten Island. NBCUniversal

The King of Staten Island, co-written by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, This Is 40), SNL’s Pete Davidson and former SNL Writer Dave Sirus, is the first feature film Apatow has directed since Trainwreck (starring Amy Schumer and Bill Hader) five years ago. A semi-autobiographical story based on comedian/actor Pete Davidson’s real life, Davidson stars as Scott Carlin (named as an homage to Davidson’s father Scott Davidson, a firefighter who died in 9/11 and comedian George Carlin), a 24-year-old slacker who lives at home with his mom (played by Marisa Tomei), an exhausted emergency room nurse. Stuck in a perpetual state of arrested development after having lost his firefighter father to a hotel fire when he was seven years old, Scott spends his time smoking weed, playing video games and watching cartoons with his friends while dreaming about becoming a tattoo artist. However, when Scott’s high-achieving younger sister (Maude Apatow) leaves for college and his mom begins dating a mouthy firefighter (Bill Burr), Scott is forced to come to terms with his grief and trauma to move forward.

Heartfelt and engaging and as funny as it is poignant, The King of Staten Island, which also stars Steve Buscemi (a former real life firefighter who volunteered with the FDNY on 9/11) and Pamela Adlon (Better Things), shines a light on grief, the healing power of human connection, and the importance of finding meaning and purposefulness while also featuring first responders.

Over the phone from Los Angeles, Apatow discussed how The King of Staten Island came together, its psychological themes, its relevance during the coronavirus pandemic and what he learned by making the film.

Observer: Do you get nervous when the film is being released as to how it will be received?
Judd Apatow: I’m nervous in the moment when I don’t know if the movie works. Now I’m in the phase where I’ve been through all the testing which we did before everything happened, and I’ve shown the movie to a lot of people I respect and I’m beginning to believe we did alright. [Laughs.] That’s when I relax. I’m not generally as stressed about box office as I am about just knowing if I made something good or terrible.

To whom do you show early versions of your movies?
I always try to show people I collaborate with and old friends like Jake Kasdan and Bill Hader but tons of people. I bug everybody I know to watch the movie and give me honest feedback.

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What was Pete’s reaction when he saw it for the first time?
He watched it in the editing room with some friends and he was very happy, and then we did a screening for his family. That was the one that I was the most nervous about and they were all thrilled and then I felt better. There was no moment after that screening that means anywhere near as much as knowing that his family loves it and is proud of the film and of Pete.

The King of Staten Island was supposed to open SXSW and play at Tribeca Film Festival with a theatrical release on June 19th. Due to the pandemic, it’s coming out on June 12th on-demand. How do you feel about that?
I feel like this movie was meant to come out now. I would have felt bad if I had held onto it for a year just because I wanted it to be seen in theaters because the themes in the movie apply to what we’re all experiencing, so I’m very happy that we found a way to get it to people immediately. It is about first responders and trauma and healing, so I’m hoping it gives people a break and some laughs but also helps them process a lot of what is happening around them. I try to think of it as a great opportunity to remind people the sacrifice that we now see a lot of people are willing to make for other people, not just firefighters and policemen and EMT workers and nurses and doctors, but people who are delivering things or working in grocery stores or any job where they’re exposed to the public in a way that is now dangerous.

The character is a slacker, he’s lost and he has no motivation. Pete, in real life, is the opposite.

The movie was always about Pete learning why his father was willing to make that sacrifice, so I’m really glad that the movie is a way to discuss how appreciative we all should be that there are those among us who care enough to take that risk. I found it very powerful being around all of those people when we made this movie. In real life, Pete’s sister’s a nurse, his mom was a nurse, his dad was a firefighter and a lot of his father’s friends were part of our consulting team. His best friend John Sorrentino was a consultant and actor in the film and it’s exposed all of us to something we should have appreciated much more our entire lives. These are the best people. So I’m happy the movie is coming out and it’s about this. It’s about something we’re all thinking about.

What is it about Pete Davidson that made you want to work with him?
He’s as funny as a human can be. He’s really smart, he has a gigantic heart, and we have a ton of fun working together and he also has a lot of issues which are important to explore. There was an important story to try to figure out how to tell here, and Pete is one of the few people who would have the courage to jump into this without hesitation. He’s a very honest, transparent person. He wants to share. He wants to help people. He wants to entertain people. The entire experience was very positive, and it only happened because of his willingness to explore all of this material.

And I’m so glad that it seems like people are responding to it because when you watch the movie, even though it’s fictional, there are certain moments where you look in his eyes and you realize, “This moment could not be more honest, we’re not even watching a movie right now. He’s sharing something right now and it’s very powerful.”

I read an interview with you in Entertainment Weekly recently in which you said the best kind of movie comes from real life, which resonates as true, as opposed to a high-concept comedy that can feel more contrived.
Yes, I like when you can tell that people really mean it, that it’s not a product. You know someone’s sharing something and in this case sharing the most personal thing in their entire life with the audience. As a viewer or listener of music to me, that’s always a gift when you hear a song and you know they dug it out of their deepest place. That’s why I’m most taken in by art.

How do you decide where to draw the line between fact and fiction when you are writing a semi-autobiographical film?
We tried to keep it very simple: This is what Pete’s life might have been like if he didn’t find comedy when he was 15. The character is a slacker, he’s lost and he has no motivation. Pete, in real life, is the opposite. He’s somebody who at 15 started going to open mic nights, and by 19 he was a very established strong comedian, so the core of the movie isn’t true at all because Pete’s on Saturday Night Live. He’s not wondering what he’s going to do with his life. But at the same time, Pete has had to process the loss of his dad and how it affected his family, and so some of the details of what this character learns are similar to lessons that Pete learned in the past.

Firefighters walk toward New York's World Trade Center before it collapsed after a plane hit the building September 11, 2001
“We wanted to find a way to acknowledge 9/11 in the way that it would exist in the environment of the firehouse,” Apatow says of The King of Staten Island. “When we visited all the firehouses, we noticed there were photographs and articles everywhere.” Pictured: Firefighters walk toward New York’s World Trade Center before it collapsed after a plane hit the building September 11, 2001. Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora/Getty Images

In the film, Pete Davidson’s character Scott Carlin loses his firefighter father to a hotel fire. In real life, Pete lost his firefighter father in 9/11. In the film, I spotted the firehouse has the iconic photograph “Steel Standing,” taken at Ground Zero by first responder and photographer Anthony Whitaker, hanging on the wall.
We wanted to find a way to acknowledge 9/11 in the way that it would exist in the environment of the firehouse. When we visited all the firehouses, we noticed there were photographs and articles everywhere. It wasn’t like they tried to minimize it because it was 19 years ago. They make a point of keeping it front and center as a way to honor their comrades, so we thought it was important to include that detail. For us, we didn’t want to make the movie about 9/11 because it’s such a gigantic subject. It’s almost too much to wrestle with in a movie like this, which is supposed to be about the grief of one family, but also we always thought the audience knows that’s what we’re really talking about.

Given the autobiographical ties, were there any especially powerful moments with Pete on set?
I mean kind of all of it really, just how he moves through the fictional world was always a sharing of how he moves through certain situations, and he always finds a way to be really funny even in moments that you would think there is no way to get the comedy from here. Also, more than almost anyone I’ve ever worked with, he’s not really a comedian who is funny because he speaks in a certain way or communicates in jokes. It’s all character. Everything about his work in the movie is about this person that he created. With some people, everything they say comes out of their mouth like a joke. They just speak in jokes, so this one’s very different for me, because when we were shooting I didn’t even know how it would be funny. I wasn’t even sure how to write for him. There was a real learning curve to understand where his humor comes from.

With the comedic backgrounds of several of your actors in addition to your own, how much improvising was there on set?
We worked really hard on the script for a very long time, and then we did a lot of rehearsing and improvising in rehearsals, and then we’d do revisions and we’d do table reads and more revisions and more rehearsals, and then on the day we would shoot the script, we’d say, “Alright, let’s play a little bit.” It’s definitely a mix but I am hiring all the actors and actresses because I feel they can make a very large overall contribution to the movie. No one is there just to read the lines. And the improvisation isn’t just for comedy. It’s also for the dramatic. Some of the best moments emotionally were improvised on the set because you want to create a space for something else to happen. When you have these brilliant actors and actresses, you want to see where their instincts take them. It would be crazy not to give them that space.

Margie Carlin (Marisa Tomei) and Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) in The King of Staten Island
“I am hiring all the actors and actresses because I feel they can make a very large overall contribution to the movie,” says Apatow. “No one is there just to read the lines.” Pictured: Margie Carlin (Marisa Tomei) and Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) in The King of Staten Island. NBCUniversal

While the film is about processing and healing, the writing of the film must have been cathartic for Pete, too.
Yes, because these types of movies require a lot of soul-searching and that’s always good for people. It’s also not done in therapy. It’s done in story sessions. It’s done with friends, so you have very honest conversations about your history and how it made you feel. At the end of the process, most people have moved something that was stuck out of themselves.

Every time, it seems like it’s been really good for the creative people involved to do that. You want it to be a cathartic experience but you’re also terrified because if you allow yourself to be that vulnerable and the movie’s awful, it’s really bad and embarrassing. You have to pull it off or it’s the worst type of failure to someone.

Potentially re-traumatizing.
Exactly, yes!

It’s easy to get stuck in our heaviest feelings. Your film shows the importance of feeling those feelings but also processing them.
Absolutely. It’s about how difficult it is to process feelings when something very surprising and tragic happens and how that can reverberate for years and decades, and Pete was very courageous to take some experiences from his life and turn it into a fictional story, but also a very emotionally truthful story about some of the struggles that he’s had to get over a terrible loss.

Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) and Ray Bishop (Bill Burr) in The King of Staten Island
“We used to joke on set that this is a love story between Pete and Bill Burr,” says Apatow. Pictured: Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) and Ray Bishop (Bill Burr) in The King of Staten Island. NBCUniversal

And no matter what the specifics are of a particular loss, we all have losses in life.
Yes, everybody has these losses. The circumstances are different, but we all have them and they are very tough to deal with and to make [into] a commercial American comedy-drama that talks about grief and explores these issues very deeply. It was a real opportunity to do the kind of movie that doesn’t get funded very often these days.

While the movie is very entertaining and funny, it’s in the tradition of films I’ve always loved like Terms of Endearment, which wrestled with larger ideas. Everybody’s trying to make connections and find ways to love other people and a lot of times our damage complicates that. You know, part of this movie is about Pete’s character trying to decide if he is willing to accept a new father figure. We used to joke on set that this is a love story between Pete and Bill Burr, and that’s definitely an important part of the story. Can we let down our guard and allow ourselves to be vulnerable and let love in?

His character is somewhat paradoxical because he wants to connect with people and to be seen and loved, and we empathize strongly with him due to his loss, but also he has defense mechanisms in place that can push people away. There’s a scene which is included in the film’s trailer where his romantic interest tells him normal people go crazy from hanging out with him.
He’s charming, but he’s also in pain. He’s both cocky and needy. At times, he’s manic, and I think the audience is rooting for him to find a way to get his shit together. You feel for him, but he’s a lot to handle, and I think we all know people like that who are flailing about and who have trouble calming down and figuring out what’s going on and getting a good solid approach to their lives. As much as this character is very specific to aspects of Pete’s life, when we show the movie a lot of young people really see themselves in him and his struggles. There’s a lot of anxiety and depression among young people, way more than there used to be. There’s a lot of reasons why, and some people think it does have to do with social media and technology addiction and comparing yourself to everyone in the world. It’s a much harder time to be a young person than it was when I was a kid, so I think that character’s way more relatable than we even thought when we were making the movie.

You hold his character accountable, but you do it with compassion.
I think everybody is struggling. There’s a quote that goes around the internet which I really like. It’s something like, “Everybody you see is going through something you know nothing about, so please be kind” or words to that effect. I believe that. One of the reasons I like to make movies is that it’s a way to show the simple human struggle of all of us trying to make our lives function. That’s why I usually don’t have big premises [in my movies], because I just think the simplest things in life can be very tough and we all share that. I was talking to my therapist, and he was saying that’s why in Buddhism the first thing they say is life is suffering, but the second thing is you need to try to be happy anyway. And I think all of my movies are about that on some level.

The King of Staten Island Review
Pete Davidson in The King of Staten Island. Mary Cybulski / Universal Pictur - © 2020 Universal Pictures

One way in which Pete’s character deals with his emotional pain is by getting tattoos. He seems kind of addicted to both the physical pain and the emotional release of getting tattooed.
Yes, yes. The tattoo world was something I knew nothing about. I have no tattoos. I’m Jewish, I’m hairy, that’s not something that people like me do. It requires too much shaving and going against our religion. But Pete loves tattoos and tattoo artists, but there is also an element for him, and for some people who get tattoos, where it’s a form of control. It’s a way to express their feelings, it’s a way to control their pain, and we thought it was appropriate that that would be his dream to pursue his creativity through tattooing but he’s never tried hard, he’s never learned how to do it and he doesn’t seem to have the discipline to do what it would take to actually have a career. Again, that’s the opposite of Pete, [who] was a guy who obsessed when he was tiny about how to be a comedian.

His character also wants to make a career out of being a tattoo artist, so it seems like making a career out of what’s essentially a coping mechanism, which is also what it seems a lot of comedians, including Pete, have done with humor.
I think that’s true for a lot of artists. We decide to write or direct or tell jokes as a way of attempting to make sense of the world and reality. I always think no matter what the movie is, on some level I’m making it because I’m trying to learn something or I need to tell myself something.

Pete Davidson as Scott Carlin in The King of Staten Island, directed by Judd Apatow
“I think we all look at the firehouse in our neighborhood and go, ‘Have I ever dropped by? Have I ever gone in and said hello?'” -Judd Apatow NBCUniversal

What were you trying to learn or tell yourself with this movie?
I was very interested in making a movie about sacrifice. For years, I was looking for a story that was about that and I don’t know why. It just occurred to me one day, “What don’t you write about? You don’t write about sacrifice. You write about love and people trying to connect but you don’t write about sacrifice,” and I was thinking about soldiers at the time and worked on some other ideas, but there must have been a part of me that wanted to think about these people who are living at a higher moral level and I learned a lot about what’s truly important by being around them while making this movie.

Relatedly, I find that I’ve been watching and appreciating fire engines as they go by in a way I hadn’t before the pandemic. They are standing out even more to me due to the otherwise empty streets.
Sure, I think we all look at the firehouse in our neighborhood and go, “Have I ever dropped by? Have I ever gone in and said hello?” It really makes you want to change your whole relationship with those people. I was talking to a firefighter and I said, “I know a lot of calls are about things that ultimately are not that demanding. It might be somebody tripped or someone can’t find their pet. Is that annoying?”

And the guy looked at me and he said, “Judd, I know this sounds corny but we just like helping people.” And I could tell he was one hundred percent telling the truth, and it was beautiful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Judd Apatow: Pete Davidson Isn’t the King of Staten Island You Think He Is