In “The King of Staten Island” Pete Davidson plays Scott, a 24-year-old pothead who has attention-deficit disorder, Crohn’s disease, and lives at home with his single mother in the outermost of New York’s outer boroughs.
Obsessed with tattoos, he’s the son of a New York firefighter who died in the line of duty. Several of those things Davidson and Scott either have in common or used to.
The comedy-drama is available for streaming starting June 12. Marisa Tomei plays Scott’s mother, with Bill Burr as a firefighter who becomes her love interest, and Steve Buscemi as a senior firefighter. Davidson wrote the script with Judd Apatow and Dave Sirus.
Apatow, who also directed, is a king of American comedy. On TV in the ‘90s he worked on “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Freaks and Geeks.” He then helped reshape American film comedy, directing “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005) and “Knocked Up” (2007). His 70 producing credits include both highly successful TV series (“Girls”) and highly successful films ("The Big Sick”).
“King” is very much an Apatow comedy: often extremely funny, sometimes crude, sometimes sad, predictably unpredictable in how those elements combine.
On Wednesday, Apatow, 52, spoke by telephone from Los Angeles about the new film, the difficulty of getting Buscemi to laugh, and the deepening of American comedy.
Q. It’s been five years since your last feature film [“Trainwreck,” 2015].
A. I was looking for something I felt passionate about. In between I did three documentaries [“Doc & Darryl,” about baseball stars Dwight “Doc” Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, 2016; “May It Last,” 2017, about the Avett brothers; “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling,” 2018]. We also were focusing on the end of “Girls” and “Love,” so I got pulled into the television vortex for a while. I’d been working with Pete since 2014 with a couple of different ideas and landed on this one. I’m glad we hung in there.
Q. With theaters closed, there have been a couple of big digital-first releases from the major studios, both animated. You’re the first live-action one. How does that feel?
A. I had two choices. One was wait a year to release it, in a very crowded field of delayed movies or to release as video on demand now. I made this movie to make people happy, maybe be moved by Pete’s story. It felt wrong to hoard it for a theater. Also it’s very emotional, very moving. It will benefit the movie to be seen in people’s homes. I love movie theaters and it’s sad most of them are closed right now, but when it’s safe I’m sure I’ll make movies for theaters.
Q. Tonally, this movie is highly — various. How conscious were you of that in the writing, and how much of a challenge was it in the directing?
A. I think life changes moment to moment. You might wake up and you’re grumpy. You start having a hilarious run with your friends. Things turn dark. Suddenly you rebound. That’s what life is like. It changes every 15 minutes. For me, I just wanted it to be authentic to Pete’s world and credible. It’s definitely a comedy, but primarily a drama about grief and trauma and how people deal with sudden loss. It’s the most personal movie I’ve worked on with someone.
Q. How hard was it making a film that so closely resembles the lead actor’s life?
A. In a lot of our movies and TV shows we collaborate with people in the same way I watched Garry Shandling [on “The Larry Sanders Show”] mine his life to create fiction that created some deeper truth. So this movie is fictional but hopefully it’s authentic. Hopefully it’s honest.
Q. This may sound crazy but Scott reminds me a bit of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s title character in “Fleabag”: the way both characters are so compelling in their frequent awfulness.
A. All of her work is so inspiring. It’s hard to watch it: It’s so good it makes you feel bad about your own work. I have to pause it at times: “Wow, that scene is so good!” When someone is nailing it like that you just want to applaud your TV. I wouldn’t have thought about that connection, but that show is also about grief, how that loss affected her life and relationships.
Q. How much of a role did improvising play in the final product? I can’t believe that [Canton native] Bill Burr’s character started out as a Red Sox fan.
A. For me, the process is always the same. I try to write a script as well as I can write it. We read it out loud, talk about it, improvise. I rewrite the script, we improvise, and I rewrite it again. We start to film. Everyone remembers all that other stuff, then we loosen things up and let it play. The actors know I don’t mind if we let things drift. A lot of Bill’s best lines came from Bill.
Q. “He should have his face on a nickel in Bolivia”?
A. Yes. That one made Steve Buscemi laugh. That is not easy to do.
Q. The movie has a really interesting rhythm: It’s loose and unhurried, but far from formless.
A. We definitely had in mind a certain type of 1970s movie — like “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore" , the great Sidney Lumet movies. I’m always thinking of [the director] Hal Ashby. In my mind the movie was a bit of a manic episode. Scott’s life changes when his mom starts dating another fireman. We watch a meltdown and see him head for a better place.
Q. So here’s an easy question. Your first writing credit on IMDb is from 1990, writing for that year’s Grammy show. How has comedy changed over the past 30 years? Or has it?
A. I think comedy has deepened. When I first started there was more comedy based on high-concept ideas, like “Ghostbusters” . When I was a kid I loved movies like “Diner,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” [both 1982], “Terms of Endearment” , later on “Say Anything” . But in television especially we’re getting real character stories now, and people are doing incredible work. Look at “Fleabag.” Look at “Ramy.” I think it’s a real golden age for comedy. There aren’t enough [comedy] films being made. The studio system tends to chase big international hits. So a lot of comedy minds have jumped to television. But that’ll change, I think. Or hope.
Q. What’s next?
A. I’m about to start work with my partner Michael Bonfiglio on a documentary about George Carlin. So I’m looking forward to watching a lot of Carlin interviews and specials. I think his work turned out to be very prophetic.
Q. You really have become this kind of curator of American comedy
A. The way the world works now, if you don’t organize someone’s history it disappears down the digital drain. There are other people out there with a similar strong interest, like Marc Maron, who are part of the podcasting world and the standup world. Maybe I’m just the most obsessed.
Interview was edited and condensed.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.