LOS ANGELES — On a late February morning in the editing suite of Judd Apatow's multi-level West Los Angeles headquarters, the writer-director and editor Brent White were playing back scenes from Apatow's new comedy, “This Is 40.”
They had test-screened cuts of the movie the previous evening at a San Fernando Valley multiplex, running two different versions in separate theaters and recording the audiences' reactions throughout. Now White was cueing up versions A and B of a scene in which Annie Mumolo, who co-wrote the Apatow-produced “Bridesmaids” and here plays the best friend of Leslie Mann's lead character, Debbie, describes the after-effects of losing all feeling in a certain lower region of her body.
In one version Mumolo cites two examples of her numbness before a punch line that involves a shower head. In the other version, she offers more and more examples before reaching the payoff. As the editor played back the scenes synced up to the test-screening laugh tracks, it was clear that the audience responded more enthusiastically to version B, the one that took more time to set up the gag.
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“We can actually look at the joke when we showed it this week and when we showed it two weeks ago (at an earlier screening) and see if we've either made it work better or actually hurt the joke by surrounding it with different variations of lines and stuff like that,” White said.
But as Apatow progresses as a filmmaker, his increasingly personal works have grown less reliant on pile-ups of jokes and gags. “This Is 40,” which opens Dec. 21 and is the fourth movie he has written and directed, explores middle-aged angst — over marriage, family, career, identity and sex appeal — through the eyes of Mann's Debbie and Paul Rudd's Pete, characters whom they're reprising from Apatow's 2007 hit comedy “Knocked Up.” The effectiveness of such a work can't be measured through test-screening reactions alone.
“We feel the movie's working when it's getting laughs, but that's actually not true,” said Apatow, who turned 45 Thursday. “The audience is actually following the drama, and sometimes we have to think hard and go: ‘It's OK that they're not laughing here because this is a heartfelt moment or a devastating moment.' It's still not my strongest suit understanding all of that. I always say I wish there was a noise people made that let me know that drama was working.”
“This Is 40” is being billed as “the sort of sequel to ‘Knocked Up'” (the earlier film's stars, Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl, are absent here — Apatow felt they'd be distracting), but the Apatow-Mann family echoes are more unavoidable this time. Mann, 40, has been married to the director for 15 years — they met on the set of “The Cable Guy” (1996), which he produced and in which she co-starred — and their daughters, Maude and Iris (now 14 and 8), once again play Pete and Debbie's children, Sadie and Charlotte. (They also played Mann's kids in Apatow's 2009 previous film, 2009's “Funny People.”)
Apatow shot “This Is 40” just 10 doors down from his family's house in a tony Los Angeles neighborhood, so, yes, the movie literally hits close to home, with Rudd's struggling record-label owner functioning as a more dashing — though no less neurotic — stand-in for the scruffy Apatow.
“Nothing in the movie happened, but it is based on emotional feelings that we have that we talk about all the time,” Apatow said. “I don't own a record label, Leslie doesn't own a store, but I think emotionally — I do spend too much time in the bathroom, I do have kind of an overbearing Jewish family that makes you want to spend most of your life in the bathroom, so we connect to some of those issues.”
As do others. Despite Apatow's and Mann's status as one-percenters, they're plying in the comedy of recognition. I'll disclose this now: The Pete-and-Debbie scenes from “Knocked Up,” showing what couples really talk about when they're in the bathroom or how they negotiate their so-called free time, were the ones that resonated most with this particular married guy and his wife, and “This Is 40” ups the ante in terms of such candor.
“What's been fun is as we've shown the movie to people, everybody says, ‘It feels like you've been secretly recording me and my wife,'” Apatow said. “And that's what I always hoped: that the more specific it was, the more universal it would become.”
Apatow said he took a more open-ended approach to developing “This Is 40” than his films “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005), “Knocked Up” and “Funny People,” which covered, respectively, coming of age sexually, becoming a parent and facing mortality. In his knick-knack-filled office, which includes cut-outs of Mann and their daughters from “Funny People,” he pulled out a grid, color-coded by location, that charts various scenes that might occur over the film's eight-day time span.
“I shot it almost like a documentary, so I had the script, and we did a lot of improvisations,” Apatow said. “It was like here's eight days of their life, and then I also at the end shot a whole bunch of extra scenes which could go in there or not, and it was so complicated that I needed to remind myself what happened every day, because I also wanted to have the ability to move some scenes. So I would have to look at what they were wearing and say, ‘OK, if at night Paul Rudd wears a white T-shirt, I could use this scene anywhere in the movie.'”
Mann, who accompanied Apatow to Chicago recently for a “This Is 40” screening and Q-and-A (which I moderated) in a West Loop theater, said her husband first mentioned the idea to her when they were on vacation, and they discussed it on and off for a couple of years. He said his impetus was to make a movie about this period in people's lives — its never-ending rush of demands and anxieties — rather than specifically to continue the story of the “Knocked Up” characters.
“Then just one night, literally in the middle of the night, I just thought: Oh, it's Pete and Debbie. I could make the whole movie about Pete and Debbie,” Apatow said. “Because we just did ‘Get Him to the Greek,' which is a spinoff of ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall' (both of which Apatow produced), and I thought that worked well, like ‘Rhoda' off of our ‘Mary Tyler Moore (Show).'”
The “Knocked Up” connection also gave Mann and Apatow a chance to offer a corrective to some folks' perception of Debbie in the earlier movie. Mann, cozy under a down comforter next to her husband on their downtown Chicago hotel sofa, said that when they traveled to Australia to promote “Knocked Up,” “all of the journalists were like” — she put on an Aussie accent — “‘Why are you such a beetch? Why are you such a beetch all the time?'”
Apatow, laughing, added: “This is a little bit of a response to that point of view, which is Pete's driven her crazy, so it's fun to show the whole story of how somebody gets to be that way.”
Rudd, who has appeared in several Apatow-directed and -produced comedies, was brought into the process early as well.
“We'll talk about facets to the character or conversations or aspects or story lines, things like that,” Rudd said last week by phone from New York, where he is starring in the Broadway production of Craig Wright's “Grace.” “Then Judd goes and writes it out, and then we play around with it when we shoot it, too.”
Mann, who off camera is unsurprisingly assertive in a soft-spoken way, recalled of Rudd: “When we first started rehearsing with him for ‘Knocked Up,' he's like, ‘Isn't it just funny, like when you're in a big fight with your wife and one of you just cracks a smile, and you both just start cracking up?' And we're like, ‘No. That has never happened. Ever.'”