Judd Apatow on Pulling Off Pandemic-Themed ‘The Bubble’ During the Pandemic

”You certainly have moments where you think, ‘Is this the stupidest thing I ever decided to do?” filmmaker tells LA Mag

Leave it to celebrated filmmaker Judd Apatow to bring light to the darkness of COVID-19 with his star-studded pandemic-themed comedy, The Bubble, (directed by Apatow and co-written by Apatow and Pam Brady), currently streaming on Netflix.

Shot on location in England during the pandemic at the beginning of last year, The Bubble finds a group of actors shooting Cliff Beasts 6: The Battle For Everest—Memories of the Requiem, the sixth installment of the Cliff Beasts (a.k.a. flying dinosaurs) blockbuster action franchise.

Of course, nothing goes as planned, and as the pressure of moviemaking and the stress of following strict COVID protocols builds, the production starts unraveling with almost everyone losing their minds and sabotaging the filmmaking process.

Beyond the challenges of shooting during the pandemic, The Bubble pokes fun at celebrities with its ensemble of archetypal characters: a TikTok superstar (Iris Apatow), a self-help guru (Keegan Michael-Key), a divorced actor and actress entangled in a toxic on-and off-again relationship (David Duchovny and Leslie Mann), a star (Karen Gillan) who is resented by her castmates after sitting out the previous installment Cliff Beasts 5: Space Fury, an overwhelmed film director (Fred Armisen), a method actor and lothario who overdoses on cocaine (Pedro Pascal), and a smug studio head (Kate McKinnon). 

The stellar cast is rounded out by Maria Bakalova, Samson Kayo, Peter Serafanowicz, acting newcomer Harry Trevaldwyn, and Ben Ashenden.

In addition to The Bubble, Apatow, who just signed a multi-year TV and film deal with NBCUniversal, recently released his book Sicker in the Head: More Conversations about Life and Comedy, in which he interviews a variety of fascinating subjects including Cameron Crowe, Lin-Manuel Miranda and David Letterman.

Over the phone from Los Angeles International Airport, Apatow talked to Los Angeles magazine about The Bubble and Sicker in the Head.

Were you nervous to shoot a film during the pandemic?

I was nervous. I certainly questioned whether or not it was worth the risk for me and anyone associated with the movie to do a movie. That was the weird meta part of it. The movie is making fun of people thinking it’s important to make a movie at this time but we are making a movie, so it’s all a very hypocritical endeavor. (Laughs) But that’s what I think everyone in the country was dealing with: ‘How do I keep working?’ ‘I need to do what I do and I need to make a living and support my family.’ The crew wanted to have a job…We believed that if we followed all the rules we could keep everyone safe, and that is what happened but you certainly have moments where you think, ‘Is this the stupidest thing I ever decided to do?’

The Bubble. (L to R) Maria Bakalova as Anika, Director/Writer Judd Apatow, Pedro Pascal ax Dieter Bravo in The Bubble. Cr. Laura Radford/Netflix © 2021

Your film is meta on several levels, including that your characters are binge-watching, stuffing their faces, and losing their minds while quarantining, just like the rest of us during lockdowns.

Yeah, exactly. They’re just doing it in a nice hotel which is what is ridiculous about it. All these people were sent around the world to provide content to distract everybody from something that was really horrible and they’re put up in these lavish places but really they’re isolated and alone and not with their families and they’re cracking.

It’s also meta that everyone binged Netflix throughout the pandemic and your film is streaming on Netflix.

Exactly. I tried to think, ‘What do I wish was on Netflix?’ That was really my approach to the movie. I was thinking about how I’m always looking for something funny to give me a break for a few hours and especially at this time. We need that. But when I was making the movie, I was watching tons of Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso. It was really getting me through a very stressful time so I think that in my head I thought, ‘I’d like to provide one of those.’

There has been speculation online that the film’s narrative was inspired by Jurassic World: Dominion which went through some setbacks while it was shooting during the pandemic. Is that true?

The real inspiration was the NBA Bubble. That was the one that was making me laugh. There was that basketball player (Lou Williams) who had to go to a funeral and on his way back he stopped at a strip club and got chicken wings, and he told everyone that it wasn’t about the strip club but it was just that the strip club had really good food. Everyone was mad at him and he got in really big trouble and I thought, ‘That could be a play. That’s a funny theater experience — a play where everyone acting in it was 7 feet tall.’ (Laughs) And then I was aware that a lot of movies and TV were starting back up and having a lot of problems keeping their productions going. The main reason why it has flying dinosaurs is because I wanted to shoot the movie in only two locations —  the hotel and a green screen stage, and I knew I needed it to be some sort of green screen monster attacking them. So I thought, ‘It’s usually a T. rex so maybe it’s a flying T. rex and the set is them at the top of a mountain.’ That was the real inspiration. I’m friends with Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World: Dominion filmmaker) and I spoke to him a lot during the process. He even let me watch them record the score for the latest Jurassic film. He’s been a friend to the project but it wasn’t based on anything specific that they went through as much as what everyone was going through which is, ‘We have to keep shooting no matter what.’ You know, these things are very expensive to shoot and they’re very hard to shut down because they’re so expensive to start back up.

The Bubble. (L-R) Keegan-Michael Key as Sean Knox, Karen Gillan as Carol Cobb in The Bubble. Cr. Laura Radford/Netflix © 2021

How did you know how to write about COVID safety protocols on film sets before you started shooting your film?

I had friends working on different productions telling me what they were asking them to do and how people were responding, and a lot of it was very difficult for people. You have to fly somewhere and then sit in your room for two weeks, and then a lot of times people would get out of their rooms and two days later there would be a positive test and even if you weren’t positive, if you were near that person, you had to go back in your room for two weeks, and that certainly tested people’s mental health.

Did you have specific actors in mind when you wrote the characters?

Yeah, I wrote it with Pam Brady, an amazing writer who co-wrote the South Park movie and created Lady Dynamite. We set up the idea of making the movie and were casting it as we were writing it, so we had certain archetypes that were falling into place, but the process was very fast. We started writing it at the end of October (2020) and we were shooting at the top of February. I looked at it like the Christopher Guest movie. I think he works off an outline so I thought that maybe I could work off a rough script and then work with the actors and improvise and figure it out as we go along. The difficult part was adding in massive special effects with dinosaurs. (Laughs) You can’t really do that when you’re trying to do a small improv movie so it kept getting bigger and bigger. But that part was fun to try to figure out because I had never done movies like that before, and all of my movies are just people sitting talking to each other at restaurants and on couches. (Laughs) Flying dinosaurs is all new for me.

The Bubble makes fun of actors’ self-centeredness and highly strung temperaments, but it’s equally a love letter to them and filmmaking.

I’ve always been fascinated with the process and the people who do it. Everybody is very creative and interesting and flawed. It’s fun to see their struggles. I think that’s why we beat up on actors and actresses in movies because we all feel like they’re self entitled and spoiled but in a lot of ways we’re all like them so we can examine a lot of the stress of this time. We all got stressed out and had breakdowns in similar ways. They’re good avatars to experience and make fun of our common meltdowns.

The Bubble. (L to R) Director/Writer Judd Apatow, Iris Apatow as Krystal Kris in The Bubble. Cr. Laura Radford/Netflix © 2021

During filming, did you ever worry that everyone would be so exhausted by the pandemic by the time your film was released that they wouldn’t want to watch a movie about it or joke about it? 

I thought that the whole time. Sometimes when you tell a joke, people say, ‘Too soon’ and, for this, it’s not even too soon. It’s now. We are still basically in the middle of it but I did want to do something big and funny as a way for people to laugh about how hard this has been on everyone and their families. I’m trying to focus on the isolation of it and how it makes you think about the choices you make in your life and your relationships. It is a purgatory that we’re all experiencing, and I’m also satirizing Hollywood’s approach to keeping the boat moving forward even in this type of situation…I’ve been writing about Hollywood occasionally since working with Ben Stiller on our sketch show. As a fan, I’ve always been obsessed with the minutiae of it. I learned how to do this type of work with Garry Shandling because in a lot of ways, this is a nephew of The Larry Sanders Show. That program was all about egos and stress and pressure and all the ways they make people behave badly 

Was The Larry Sanders Show your initial connection to David Duchovny?

Yes, that’s when I met David. We were always so blown away by how hilarious he was with Garry (Shandling) and we wanted to do something together for a long time. So when I started writing this, I thought ‘Oh, this is a perfect idea to collaborate with David on.’

He and your wife (Leslie Mann) are really funny together in The Bubble. Is it ever strange to watch your wife with another man as her on-screen romantic partner?

I couldn’t find it more amusing. I wish all people had that experience, to see how that would play out with other men, and how she would get along or not get along in different situations always makes me laugh. She’s the funniest so I never look at it in terms of, ‘That feels uncomfortable to me.’ I just enjoy watching her in different situations and the comedy and conflict that comes out of it so when we say, ‘Let’s give Leslie an on and off again husband in some sort of weird Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton situation,’ that becomes very amusing to me to watch. And her pitches were always hysterical because the writing is a real collaboration. I’m not just handing pages to her. We’re in this together.

The Bubble. (L to R) Leslie Mann as Lauren Van Chance, David Duchovny as Dustin Mulray in The Bubble. Cr. Laura Radford/Netflix © 2021

What’s it like to work with your daughter Iris? 

I worked with Iris for three years on Love. She’s a great actor and she’s really funny. She told me what this character should be. I didn’t understand the world of the TikTok megastar so she explained it. It was really fun to have something to collaborate with Iris because, at that point, she’d been on Zoom at school for a year and, as a family, we were thrilled to have common purpose and an activity because we were in the bubble with each other for so long. At some point. you’re playing a lot of board games. At first, that seems really exciting: ‘Look, we’re spending time together’ and then you realize, ‘Oh, we’re spending so much time together just making soup. We need to do something.’ (laughs) So having this project was a great family experience.

Was your daughter, Maude, also on location with you?

No, Maude was about to head into the second season of Euphoria so she had to be ready to begin when they started. 

You’ve been busy doing interviews to promote not only your film, but also your book in which you are the interviewer. How does it feel to be the person who is asking the questions?

I always like doing interviews because there’s so much I still want to learn from other people and it is a way for me to trick people into thinking that this isn’t all just for me. (Laughs). When can I really grind Sacha Baron-Cohen for two hours about how he works and what his approach is? You can’t really do it even if you are his friend. He’ll give you five minutes. But if you really want to get into the granular details, it has to be in the interview format.

Your new book is a sequel to Sick in the Head (2015). Why did you start doing these books?

I was trying to think of a way to raise money for 826 which is the organization that Dave Eggers started that provides free tutoring and literacy programs to kids. So I said, ‘I did all these interviews as a kid. Maybe we can put them in a book and I’ll do a couple of new ones.’ It sold really well and, for a lot of people, it’s been a real comedy bible because it has all their favorite people in it telling their life stories and explaining how they approach their work, and they are very instructive. For the second one, it’s all new interviews except for John Candy. I was trying to interview a much more diverse group of people. 

How much research do you do about each person?

I usually read a bunch of their interviews but I try to make them conversations more than interrogating them. I share my approach and what’s happened to me on my journey and then people are very willing to open up, especially at that time. I did most of the interviews during the pandemic and people were home in lockdown so they were all very reflective and very thoughtful about what was happening in the world and how it applied to their creativity.

Are you already planning Sickest in the Head, a third book in the series?

I did another book called It’s Garry Shandling’s Book, an oral history and a scrapbook about everything from his life. I think I’m going to do one of those about my career. I loved the Saturday Night Live book when I was a kid. It had all the photos and script pages and ephemera. There was also one about the Marx Brothers called The Marx Brothers Scrapbook, so I think I’m going to begin to put one together about all the different projects I’ve worked on.

In your Jeff Tweedy interview, you told him that one of things you appreciate about comedy is that when bad things are happening you can put them to good use so “the worst things in life at least have some value. They’re not just terrible.” The Bubble is a perfect example.

Yeah, I am always trying to think of what we can learn from the bad things that happen. It’s a Buddhist idea: “Use everything for the path.” I’m not always very conscious that that’s what I’m doing. I think, consciously, I’m thinking that I either have to make up a fantasy world or write something nostalgic about a different decade, or I could just deal with what’s happening now, and is it too dangerous to try to encapsulate this in a comedy? Is it inappropriate to try to find the humour in it? But I think that is how we all process what we’re going through and there must be a way to find comedy in this common experience. It’s challenging but it’s also really fun because we’ve been through something that’s so painful but also so weird and challenging. I hope the movie works in that way. It’s not supposed to make you feel bad. It should make you feel like, ‘Oh yeah, everyone has gone through this.’ We’re identifying the common aspects that we went through. I’m also happy that it’s not a political movie. There’s nothing in it that anyone on either side of the political spectrum would feel like they were being called out for. I certainly love political humor but I’m weirdly proud that it’s not a political movie.

That’s interesting because you Tweet a lot about politics.

Yeah, I do. I think it’s important that we all speak out but I didn’t want that to be what this experience was about. I wanted it to be a place we would go to to laugh about it and all feel together in the moment, where everyone’s trying to figure out where our common ground is, and wanted the movie to work in that way. We’re all the same. We all struggled through this. 

It might be too soon to determine but how has the pandemic changed you permanently?

That’s a good question. I think we all benefit from downtime where we consider our values and how we’re treating people and how we use our time, and I hope that I’ve made some progress there because there was time to pay attention to it, as opposed to my usual gear which is probably some sort of light workaholism that allows me to be more detached than I should be.

I was going to ask if you see yourself as a workaholic so you just answered that.

You know, I thought I was acting reasonably during most of the downtime of the pandemic and lockdown but now that I have the movie coming out and the book and, in May, the two-part George Carlin documentary (“George Carlin’s American Dream”) that‘s going to be on HBO, I realize that I probably wasn’t resting and reflecting (Laughs) as much as I tricked myself into believing I was.

Well, it’s a coping mechanism so it probably helped you get through all of this.

Yeah, absolutely. 

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