Who is Pete Davidson and why is he so good in Judd Apatow’s new comedy-drama, The King of Staten Island?
Director Judd Apatow’s movies generally champion the slacker and serve as vehicles for established comics like Seth Rogen (Knocked Up) and Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), delivering comedy that’s improvisational, gross-out funny and bittersweet.
For his latest film, The King of Staten Island, Apatow’s muse is Saturday Night Live regular and stand-up comic Pete Davidson, who also co-scripted what is essentially a semi-autobiographical story. Davidson was seven years old when he lost his firefighter father to the 9/11 tragedy, and his character Scott Carlin is similarly grappling with the fallout of his dad’s death during a heroic rescue attempt in a burning building.
Set in New York’s less trendy borough of the title (the one with the famous ferry), the film explores the impact of grief, PTSD and social withdrawal, while plotting a circuitous road to self-improvement for its floundering protagonist.
Davidson had been mulling the possibility of turning elements of his personal experiences into a film, and turned to friend and SNL writer Dave Sirus. The pair agreed to partner up on a script, although neither had written a screenplay before, so the search for an experienced guide began.
It was Amy Schumer who had first put Davidson on Apatow’s radar, leading to a cameo role in Trainwreck (2015). “Amy was making me aware of comedians she liked,” Apatow recalls. “And one night she said, ‘You’ve got to see this guy. He’s 19 years old and crazy funny.’ We watched a video of him and knew we had to put him in the movie.
“I always want to plant a flag, just so I can say I knew someone was going to be big before anyone else,” he adds dryly.
Of his involvement in the co-writing of The King of Staten Island, Apatow says, “Pete and Dave wrote a script for me that didn’t pan out. Then one day, Pete mentioned that he wanted his mom to be in a relationship and to be happy. We started kicking around this idea, what would happen if Pete’s mom started dating a fireman… and how would that affect Pete’s character? What would that bring up? There’s nothing funnier than hating your mom’s boyfriend.”
As a semi-fictionalised account of Davidson’s trials and experiences growing up, the film required more than just jokes, with Apatow providing the crucial character arc and story that enabled the script to resonate on a deeper level.
“Judd showed us the importance of treating a comedy with the same level of respect that any story should deserve,” Sirus says. “Judd helped us learn how to keep things organic and real, as well as to never feel like you’re cutting and pasting.”
Adds Davidson: “Our first draft was just 90 pages of jokes; once Judd dug in with us it became 120 pages of jokes with emotion.”
The filmmaker was also keen to balance the humour with a positive message about healing. “I wanted for our character to open up to love,” Apatow says, “as well as have the potential for a father figure in his life.”
Apatow admits that his films are usually comedies with drama, but with The King of Staten Island he wanted to make a drama that has comedy in it. “I tried to reverse my priorities,” he says. “The most important thing here was the story and the characters and the people. I thought, ‘Well, I’d like it to be funny, but it doesn’t have to be riotous in every scene. Let’s just tell this story with very entertaining people in it, and we’ll see where it lands comedically.”
One of the initial conversations between the three writers was how honest the story should be. “We decided that it could be completely fictional but use all the real emotions, and some of the events, of Pete’s life,” explains Apatow. “This isn’t a story about 9/11, but it is a story about a young man whose firefighter father died while fighting a fire.
“In a lot of ways, it’s an imagining of what Pete’s life would have been if he didn’t find comedy and was still in Staten Island in his mid-20s, going nowhere.
“When we started writing together, Pete, Dave and I would sit down and just talk,” he continues. “We would spend hours talking about all of the things that Pete’s been through and how he feels about it. Our story evolved out of those conversations.”
“My character in the movie is probably about 75 per cent me,” Davidson says. “Maybe more, I can’t really tell.”
The director believes that no one but Davidson could be this raw. “When I first met Pete, I was just amazed at how funny he was,” Apatow says. “He was very advanced and mature, as both a writer and a comic thinker. It was immediately clear he’s a special person. He’s someone that people are interested in and sympathetic to. He’s charismatic, and we are interested in his struggle. People want to know how he’s doing. This movie is a way for him to express what he’s been through, and how’s he’s fought through it.
“It’s an incredible thing to share something that’s this hard with others. It’s a real gift. I don’t know if Pete thought about that a lot while we were making it. But I am always aware that it’s beautiful to be willing to open up to the world with what you’ve gone through. I think it makes people feel a lot better about their own struggles. This story is a way for him to connect with people and to say, ‘I’m struggling but I’m getting better. It’s hard and here’s what my path looks like; you’re going to be okay also.’”