Judd Apatow vs. Miranda July

Judd Apatow vs. Miranda July

Trading Off — A conversation about work that has nothing to do with work.

Judd Apatow is a funny guy. And it’s fun to speak to funny guys. It can also be enlightening. Absurd things like sex and relationships and terminal illnesses seem a little less complex in the presence of a dick joke. Which is why his movies, despite parading as escapist comedies, are life lessons wrapped up as popcorn LOLs. From the cathartic awkwardness of his writer-director hits (The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), Funny People (2009), This Is 40 (2012)) to generation-defining projects like Bridesmaids and Girls, Apatow’s work as a writer, director and producer taps into the conundrums that somehow bind us all. (With a penis thrown in for good measure here and there.)

But talking to someone funny about their funny work is actually a lot less funny than it may seem. So imagine our relief when Apatow replied to our interview request with a request of his own:

“It would be fun if the interview was different than what we normally do. Like if it was Miranda July and myself talking. I would just want the conversation to be unique. And with someone who understands what I am trying to do.”

Enter Miranda July – another funny person who taps into the absurd through heartfelt books (like the brilliant It Chooses You, published by McSweeney’s) and films (Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), The Future (2011)) that deal with our unending desire to connect. Her response?

“Yes, I accept the challenge. My only stipulation is that we don’t ask each other questions about work. So this leaves everything else in the world wide open. Maybe we each come up with eight non-work related questions for each other? Or is it really supposed to be me interviewing him?”

What follows is the result of this dual challenge – Apatow interviewing July, July interviewing Apatow (over the phone, and then via email) about stuff that has nothing and everything to do with work, from dealing with bad therapists and toxic guilt, to wondering what Victoria really thinks of David Beckham’s abs.

Miranda July: Okay. So do you want to go first or should I? Lets alternate. I’ll go first. Who’s someone you envy and why?

Judd Apatow: Um, let’s see… I envy a lot of creative people that seem happier than me. They find a way to do their work and not be miserable. I envy your husband, [director] Mike Mills…

July: [Laughs] He’s not that happy…

Apatow: He seems happy to me. I envy Eddie Vedder. He seems solid but yet still emotional and vulnerable. Maybe it’s all a cover and he cries himself to sleep every night. I doubt it. There are people out there that I think have it all figured out. They probably think I have it figured out. We are both wrong. Okay, my first question is: What was your scariest nightmare?

July: Like an actual asleep nightmare?

Apatow: Yeah.

July: Occasionally I write them down, which is probably why I remember it. I had taken this suicide pill that would kill me. Then after I took it, I strongly realised I didn’t want to die…

Apatow: Oh no!

July: But I had an antidote. I took it and was so relieved. Then a few minutes went by and I realised that the antidote was in my cheek and I hadn’t actually swallowed it. You had to take it in a certain amount of time or it was useless so I knew, ‘Oh, it’s too late! It was in my cheek!’ And then I just felt myself fainting and was like, ‘I can’t believe it – just this one little oversight.’ And that was it. I died.

Apatow: And then you woke up feeling refreshed?

July: [Laughs] Or like, ‘Surely there’s some way I can use that in my work.’

Apatow: The one I always remember was really vivid – like it was actually happening. It’s me on a plane, I’m the only one on it. It’s going in and out of mountains and steep cliffs and it’s clearly out of control.

July: Oh right – ‘the bizarrely-low-plane dream’. I have that, too, where you’re like, ‘Wait, I’m looking at buildings!’ Sometimes it’s flying around downtown LA.

Apatow: I used to have nuclear war nightmares all the time as a kid. The sirens going off. I don’t know why they stopped, maybe we’re safer now?

July: Yeah, or are we?

Apatow: Actually it’s worse now but for some reason I’ve tricked myself into thinking that’s not an issue. Okay – your turn.

July: What’s one good thing and one difficult thing you feel like you got from your mother. And then from your father.

Apatow: Well, my dad was a big fan of comedy, and I think he thought he was funny. I can’t confirm that his sense of humour is funny, but he carries himself as someone who’s hilarious.

July: Right. The idea that trying to be funny might be a ‘thing that one does’.

Apatow: His success rate is lower than he thinks. [Laughs] But he loved comedy and would allow me to play stand-up records in the car for hours. So, his interest in comedy sparked mine. A difficult thing I got from him was a general sense of nervousness, just not feeling comfortable in your own skin. I got that from my mom as well. They got divorced, but maybe that’s why they found each other. [Laughs] That agitated way of thinking, ‘I need to stay on top of things to make it better in the future.’ A lot of future thoughts. We weren’t very ‘present’ people. In my house there was a lot of, ‘Next year will be my year!’ My mom had a lot of fun energy when I was a kid. She was a really happy person then after their divorce she became really unhappy, which threw me. During the divorce, they were more tuned into their pain than they were to me. When your parents behave in ways that make you feel unsafe, you think, ‘Oh, I guess I’m in charge of myself.’ And when you’re fourteen, that’s not a great thing. It kind of never goes away. As a producer, I’m always assuming things are going to crash and I’m trying to figure out what could go wrong before it happens. It’s helpful for work. But it’s a terrible way to live your life.

July: I think I have some of that too, for similar reasons. I guess that’s a little bit of a director thing. I feel like it’s in overdrive for me right now but it’s like, ‘Oh wow, this really has a purpose now that I’m a parent.’ This idea of being on the lookout for calamity at all times.

Apatow: [Laughs] As a parent, you become obsessed with anything dangerous that could happen. I remember once my mom, who’s no longer with us, was babysitting my daughter and we saw her on a very busy street, and my mom was paying no attention to her whatsoever. We were like, ‘You’re never watching our kids again.’

July: [Laughs] Sometimes me and Mike play a game: who would you choose to take care of Hopper, our son, between two unthinkable options.

Apatow: When you first have a kid and you have to make a will and you literally have to decide who gets your kids if something happens to you, that’s when you realise how little you think of everyone in your world. That’s a good way to get yourself to stay healthy. Put down the worst person you can think of to take care of your kids as motivation for staying alive. Okay, I have my next question. Do you have faith in humanity?

July: My first instinct is to say yes and that I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if I didn’t. I’m counting on everyone to catch my heart, you know, to be able to understand in the deepest way that I can get it across, so in that way it’s like I’m practising that faith. But on the other hand, I was listening to the radio and it seemed that literally every day there would be a new gun-violence thing. At the same time I was struggling with problematic friends and struggling with the part of myself that sometimes wants to just get rid of a friend. Like, I’m overwhelmed, I can’t figure out how to deal with it and I just think in my head, ‘That’s it! Let’s just not be friends and never talk to each other again!’ I realised that I was feeling that same tendency about humanity. I was like, ‘It’s too much of a mess – let’s just end it now.’ And then I told myself, ‘No you’re piling on the way you do with other things, and surely there’s something that can be done – it’s not all a waste.’ Okay, next question for you. What are the top three things that make you feel guilty.

Apatow: You’ve hit the motherload! You live in a fantasy land where I can make it just three things. I am built for guilt, and if a person in my life doesn’t try to guilt me to get their way, I will unconsciously train them to use guilt to manipulate me. Everything about how my family worked was based on guilt. From going to the mall with my elderly grandmother – if I had to run in and grab something, she would say, ‘It’s okay, you can just leave me in the car.’ There were a lot of discussions that started like this: ‘Nobody said life was a fair.’ That was a cornerstone concept. I remember as a kid my mom used to tell us who she liked best out of me and my brother and sister. We were just totally wired to please and if we didn’t please we’d feel terrible. It’s a horrible thing. There’s a book called Surviving Toxic Guilt. I always feel responsible for everyone’s happiness around me and I’ve had therapists say, ‘Has it ever worked? Have you ever been able to make anyone happy?’ And I always say, ‘No.’ But weirdly all these things support me in my work. Everything that’s screwed up about me makes you a thoughtful producer. [Laughs] You can make everything go okay for once.

July: But what about right now? Top three things you feel guilty about right now.

Apatow: I always feel guilty about whether or not I’m being a good enough husband and parent. I’m always guilty about not taking better care of myself. And I’m usually guilty about not being helpful enough to people in my extended family who need assistance. Because no matter what you do it’s not enough. And people resent you the moment they ask for help, so it changes your relationship instantly. You have problems but then you become part of an ecosystem of their problems. That’s the bad thing about Twitter. Anything you say, someone resents you for it. Like, ‘Oh my god, my TV is totally stuttering.’ Then people tweet to you, ‘White Man’s Problems.’

July: Well Twitter in general is so paralysing to me. The worst Twitter experience I ever had was… you know when you look up your own name in the search part? Well, once I accidentally typed ‘Miranda July’ in quotes in the Tweet box, so I just tweeted my own name.

Apatow: I get people that say. ‘Dude, This Is 40 minutes too long!’ And then because I was taught to give people guilt, I always tweet back directly to them and say, ‘Why do you want to hurt people.’ [Laughs] And then they’re like, ‘Dude I didn’t mean it – I love that movie!’ But to get there you have to act wounded, like, ‘I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it, I tried so hard.’

July: I don’t know if that would work for me with my detractors. Okay, your turn…

Apatow: Do you care about sports?

July: No.

Apatow: That’s a good answer. When I was a kid I supported the Mets, and I was so into it that it ruined my life. So the idea of competition doesn’t interest you? Because as I get older I realise, ‘Oh, people love sports because it’s such a distraction from real life.’

July: Right. No, that would be why I watch The Mindy Project or something. Okay. In your experience is it true that men are more visual and women are more mental in terms of what turns them on? I didn’t make this up – this is like a thing. Men are more visual; just looking at a woman’s body can turn them on. Whereas women are more mental. Like, they’d rather think about sex to be turned on.

Apatow: Oh, I’ve never thought about that before.

July: Really? What do you think about? Or are you too busy being guilty?

Apatow: Yeah, I’m too guilty to think about any of these issues. [Laughs] I’m trying to think of me. Am I visual or mental? Isn’t everybody both? Well, the male figure is not pleasing. Like, the penis is weird and sloppy looking. It’s like something on the inside of your body is now on the outside and it should be on the inside. Most people don’t look like David Beckham. So women need men to have a good personality because most of us don’t look good.

July: Even in the best of circumstances, if the man is David Beckham, Victoria is still not… it doesn’t do anything for her. She has to pretend that she just met David for the first time, or that she’s David’s secretary, or…

Apatow: Or that he’s a Jewish comedy writer.

July: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly.

Apatow: She’s probably bored. He has the abs. But it gets repetitive. There’s only so much you can do with rock-hard abs, because there’s not enough skin to work with. It’s like making love to a piece of slate.

July: But I think that’s not true for David – I mean, Victoria doesn’t do anything for me but… I’m doing too much talking for your question. So you don’t really have anything to say about this? That’s fine.

Apatow: You’ve seen The 40-Year-Old Virgin, right? [Laughs] I’m not the guy to go to about this stuff. I’m usually just hiding in a corner shaking. I look away when a pretty girl walks by – I feel like it’s an invasion to stare at somebody. I let my eyes look up real fast and then hope that I retain some memory of it. My next question is: Who do you reach out to for guidance?

July: Um. Not too many people. I didn’t really know about that until recently, talking in terms of work – which actually breaks my own rule, because what else is there. But in terms of other things I always have close women friends. There’s my friend Sheila Heti, she’s a writer. In fact, I sent her these questions and she just answered them all. [Laughs] Which is kind of like playing with someone else’s toys before they’ve even unwrapped them. And I have a really good therapist – which is the first time I’ve ever had a therapist I admire…

Apatow: Admire?! I need that phone number. I just always think, ‘Oh my gosh, they look so bored. I can’t believe I’m not getting better and I’m just boring them to tears.’

July: Yeah I do a certain amount of saying, ‘Well this is boring,’ or ‘Here’s something insignificant I want to talk about.’ I usually try and preface it with some sort of diminishing thing.

Apatow: Do you cry during therapy?

July: Not as much as I did with the old bad therapists. It’s funny; you would think that would be good, to be crying, but I feel like I’m just a better person with this new one so I don’t need to cry as much.

Apatow: I don’t like to cry, because then every session when I don’t cry he thinks, ‘Oh, he’s not actually opening up.’ Once I’ve showed them that’s there, then it’s like I’m always hiding it.

July: With this therapist, the first session I ever had with her was really terrible. I was really angry with her but I forced myself to go back and tell her how she’d fucked up. It was an amazing way to start because it got to the important stuff right away and how she dealt with that was, like, really smart. I don’t think in the past I would have been willing to come back. I would have just quit.

Apatow: I just disappear. Then I feel guilty for years that I didn’t tell the doctor why I stopped coming and I assume that they’re haunted by it. But they’re not haunted by it. [Laughs]

July: The therapist I left this therapist for, I’ve still never told her. I figure she just thinks I’m busy with the baby.

Apatow: Just send a card: ‘Doing great! Don’t need any mental health support – thank you for fixing me!’

July: I really want the old therapist to know how much better this new one is.

Apatow: Send them another note: ‘Why did you waste seven years of my life?’

July: Okay next question. So there was this article in The New York Times about how they proved that telling the family story made kids strong in the face of traumas. So I was wondering: did you have that, and do you do that with your kids.

Apatow: When my parents divorced, my dad left a book out called Growing-up Divorced. I thought it was his book and that I was a smart kid for reading it, but actually it was some ploy to leave out a book that would help me cope. That’s how much attention they paid to my feelings: a book was left out. The main thing I got out of the book was how much pain they were in and how going through a divorce can lead you to neglect your children’s feelings. I tell my family story through my work – even though we’re not supposed to talk about work – but I slip little details of it in. I pull the meat from the bones of all the pain for everything I do. I don’t know if any of my work has made me feel better, I just felt the need at the time to figure something out by creating a story. But when it’s over I feel exactly the same as when I started – usually worse, because I’ve neglected my feelings for three years while making a movie. My mom died of ovarian cancer, when she was sick I was writing Funny People and I made the movie right after she died and it’s probably only now that I’m beginning to work through it. It’s this gigantic form of denial. I’d love to think I’m doing something that helps me work things through, but I think I need your therapist. [Laughs] One I admire.

July: I have noticed recently that no sooner do I feel something new, good or bad, I’m immediately trying to translate it into my work. Like, ‘That’s good, that’s important – that’s not in my book!’ I still do that, but now I try to stop and notice, wow, I really made sure that feeling didn’t have anywhere to just be in me. I just held up an arrow that was like ‘Keep moving, go thatta way! Into my book!’ and just bypassed myself.

Apatow: You get it out, but then you also keep a bulk of it in. Okay, I have to go to lunch with a retiring employee. We are throwing her a party. So I’ll ask you one more question and then shall we do our last three as a bonus round via email?

July: Okay.

Apatow: The last one is: Do you have any food issues?

July: I’ve never had like, ‘I’m-going-to-get-fat’ food issues – which I have to say I credit my mom for. She just never picked up on the fact that she was supposed to worry about those things and was always like, ‘Let’s go get a doughnut!’ in a really benign way. But I love different kinds of restrictive diets. If I’m meeting a new person, and hear that they’re on some kind of new restrictive diet, I want to hear all about it and possibly get on it myself. I like different forms of self-discipline. Like, I had no reason to be gluten-free, but then someone said, ‘Oh, you know it’s not great for your breast milk.’ I was like, ‘Great! I’ll go off gluten!’

Apatow: We went to an allergist and it turns out our kids have no allergies to gluten. But our house is totally gluten-free. Every time we go to the supermarket my child is desperately sneaking a loaf of white bread into our cart like it’s Oreos! I couldn’t have more food issues. For me food is such a reward. It’s all about fun. For me to think of food as fuel is extremely difficult. Food is happiness. I like being stuffed. I like being so stuffed I can’t get up. Like when you’re in that haze of exhaustion.

July: Haze – like a drug.

Apatow: Okay. Well, let’s do these last ones on email and let people see what a bad writer I am when I actually type.

July: Yeah, or maybe they’ll just get better.

The following exchange took place via email – with Apatow and July both asking their final questions, and then dutifully answering each one themselves. (The photos also came via email: Apatow’s are selfies shot on an iPhone; July’s are outfit checks when a mirror wasn’t at hand. Hell, if they were going to take over the interview process, they can damn well take control of the camera, too.)

Apatow: How does having a child change the way you think about your pre-child life? How has it changed you?

July: I’m kind of amazed to see that the massive amount of time I spent thinking about my feelings turned out not to be vital to my existence. In fact, having less time to think and having to simply DO is just fine. For my whole life before I thought I needed the maximum amount of freedom but as it turns out what I really need is to feel free for a limited amount of time and then crawl around the floor saying, “I’mgonnagetcha, I’mgonnagetcha,” while a very, very cute little boy squeals with glee. Before it was easy to feel alienated from most people, now I feel like I have something sizeable in common with nearly every single person in the grocery store. Also my son had a really rough start so I went through a level of trauma and fear that forever changed my relationship to catastrophe. It’s more real now so I’m more afraid of it. I suppose I’m braver too.

Apatow: I was forced to realise how self-centered I was. I found it hard to shut my brain down so I could just hang out in my kid’s reality. It’s easier now because my kids’ realities are more like my own. We can talk about Breaking Bad episodes and why we think it is a bad idea to take ecstasy.

Apatow: How would you like to spend your old age?

July: I’d like it to be just like now – writing and surrounded by people I love – except I want there to be zero anxiety. I want to feel like I’m sitting in a jacuzzi all the time.

Apatow: I want to be like Mel Brooks. A great memory, a lot of energy, still making people laugh. I do not want to be like Jack Lalane, pulling fifty boats as I swim across a lake.

Apatow: Do you have  a conception of the afterlife? Are you a spiritual person?

July: You know it’s funny, I just wrote that I was spiritual and then sat here for about ten minutes trying to put words to that feeling. Everything I came up with seemed made up or like some idea I’d had when I was fifteen. It all felt distasteful to me so I erased it. I think I’m less entranced by amorphous things at this moment.

Apatow: I have some friends who had near-death experiences who felt a presence tell them to go back. It was not their time. That is all I can hold onto. When I am creative I think something more is going on, so maybe it does not end. I don’t think I am going to get ninety virgins or hang out in a beautiful kingdom. My biggest fear is that I will become a ghost and be forced to hang out in some house watching a bunch of jackasses live their lives. I don’t want to be a tree. I know that is supposed to be a beautiful thing, to become a tree or a beetle. I am not into that. I would like to stay me. Maybe in the future with a jet pack.

July: What are the top three times you’ve been most completely freaked out in your life so far.

Apatow: When I was in sixth grade my friend’s brother grew pot in his room. One day my friend got his hands on a joint and we attempted to smoke it in the middle of the night at a construction site. Before we took a real puff a security guard pointed a flashlight in our direction and we ran for miles and miles and miles as if he was hot on our tail. There is no chance he took even one step in our direction. We stared out the window at my friend’s house for a half hour terrified that he would knock on the door and tell our parents. The next year I was so scared that my friends were going to become potheads that I switched social groups. My new friends eventually became the real potheads of the school and after two years I ran back to my old friends who never bothered to try it again.

When the Northridge earthquake happened it really felt like nuclear missiles were falling from the sky. The noise and the shattering of glass freaked me out. My girlfriend at the time seemed to have a bit of a mental break. Afterwards I wanted to go back to sleep. She wanted to look around so we went outside and every time we passed a cracked section of sidewalk she laughed nervously in the way bad actors pretend to be crazy people on the TV show Quincy. We broke up soon after when she cheated on me with a sports writer. A year later I tried to win her back but she refused my advances because she was dating a pot dealer.

I got freaked out when George Bush beat Al Gore for the Presidency because he was so terrible in the debates and I assumed everyone in the country saw what I saw, a man who clearly was not equipped to lead our country. Apparently a fair amount of people saw something different.

July: 1. Aforementioned birth of baby. 2. That girlfriend you had who had a mental break during the earthquake? That might have been me. I was in bed and the next thing I know I’m on all fours growling in the corner. I was so scared I turned into a dog for a moment. 3. Various flights with extreme turbulence. I grab the stewardesses, the people next to me – I pretty much do the dog/earthquake thing but without going down on all fours because the floor’s gross.

July: Can you try to give a little running narration of what it’s like in your head, how the thoughts come and go. Are there fully formed words and sentences? Is it incessant and talky? Do you compose emails in your head? Or are you more in the moment than that?

Apatow: My mind is a noisy place. I tend to look for problems so I can solve them before they blow up in my face. I am like a lookout for disaster. I also have a voice that tells me to calm down. I have a TM mantra and every once in a while I try to breathe and think about some piece of advice I have heard or read, usually from the book The Power of Now by Eckart Tolle. Then I will think about my mantra. About one second later I am worried that I will never have a good idea again, or that I have wronged someone in my life and I try to figure out what to do. Sometimes I am really hungry. Other times I am moved by a piece of music or a deeply felt thought and I cry. Laughter has happened too but less often. My great love for people and my family is pushed up close to terror and my existential crisis. Occasionally I think of a great dick joke like when Steve Carell tries to pee with an erection and I get very proud of myself and feel like I am adding something very positive to the world. I can almost feel people forgetting their troubles and laughing, and for a moment I feel like there is a God or a higher purpose and I am truly happy. God gave me that dick joke. It all makes sense. Then I get scared again and it all starts over.

July: Many words and fully formed sentences. Whole emails written out in my head. Lots of planning thoughts – like every single moment planning what I’m going to do in the next moment, the next hour, the next day, week, year. I have the next ten years planned, work-wise. I also think a lot about washing the dishes or vacuuming. The more boring the task the more of my mental space I have to devote to it. I also instruct myself a lot, like: “Robot, go brush your teeth.” I lay in bed and think about what I’ll bring in my carry-on bag on a trip I’m going on in five months. Sometimes I instruct myself to “free fall” – that’s exist without thinking. It feels like falling through space. I can also get super-duper focused, wormhole style. That’s the space that I go into when I’m working – about five hours a day. It goes by in a flash. Also, because my mind is so relentless, I feel really high when I get a break from it. This happens when all my senses are engaged like in a new city with new food and sounds and sights. I feel ecstatic and relieved. I don’t even have to go very far away – it could just be some strange part of LA I’ve never been to before. Also some people make me feel like this, there are a few people who are so intoxicating they just make my mind stop.

July: We don’t know each other very well at all. Say your impressions of me previous to this interview, being very honest, no matter how superficial. When was the first time I entered your consciousness?

Apatow: I became aware of you when I saw your excellent film Me and You and Everyone We Know and it touched me deeply. It was very different than the movies I make but it felt like it was trying to communicate many of the ideas and feelings I obsess over – love, loneliness, how strange and beautiful life can be. Then I read and admired a bunch of your short stories. I also felt inadequate about how simply I see the world. Sometimes I do not feel very interesting and wonder if my view of reality is too simple and straightforward. My work seems to be getting more and more stripped down, raw and direct (and hopefully funny). But then I think some bands sound like Radiohead and some sound like Badfinger and I love them both.

After sleeping on it I realised I envied you. So please add Miranda July to my people I envy list. Now this article has perfect symmetry. We started and ended with envy. We have an ending!

July: Though I loved Freaks and Geeks I don’t think I knew the name of the guy who did it. I first knew your name from Mike Andrews, who was the composer on my first movie, he works with you regularly and so I heard Apatow this and Apatow that and I suppose I thought of you as the Hollywood professional who was actually paying him so he could afford to do a project like mine. Next I remember laughing so hard at Superbad that I felt out of control, hysterical. So that impressed me. I also really loved Funny People. I haven’t seen the new one yet but I’m going to watch it tonight. I remember seeing a picture of you a few years ago and being surprised that you weren’t ugly. I had just assumed you were one of those very powerful ugly men with gorgeous wives. But you’re actually quite handsome and youthful-looking. Currently I think of you as a new friend of my husband’s and the executive producer of my friend’s TV show [Girls, by Lena Dunham] and these are positive, warm associations.

I Found This Funny, a compilation of comedy writing edited by Judd Apatow, and It Chooses You, by Miranda July, are both published by McSweeney’s.