Judd Apatow has produced 10 movies in the Hollywood studio system in the last five years. The films have grossed nearly $1.1bn worldwide and that excludes most of the revenues for this summer's releases Step Brothers and Pineapple Express which opened in North America this month. It is a dizzying ascent to movie monarchy for a man who made his name on TV shows such as The Larry Sanders Show, The Critic and his own creations Freaks And Geeks and Undeclared.
But Apatow does not sit on a studio lot surrounded by hordes of development executives and burdened by overheads. His Apatow Productions has deliberately avoided an affiliation with a single studio and it employs just six people.
'I don't have a deal at a studio,' says Apatow, who has made movies at Sony, Universal, DreamWorks and Paramount. 'I think it's better to be flexible so the right idea can land at the right studio. To me it's always about the enthusiasm of the studio because I've worked on projects in my distant past where I felt the studio executives didn't understand what we were doing and we would fight the whole time. It's about being careful that your collaborators are in sync with you. I don't have a set plan for anything whatsoever. In every situation I'm playing it by ear and making things that I am personally interested in or amused by.'
Apatow has not stopped working for several years and is only now slowing down. 'We wrote a lot of movies we couldn't get made and then because movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin did well, suddenly all of our passion projects were getting the green light,' he explains. 'I didn't feel like it was my place to tell all the people who worked on these movies that we couldn't do them this year because I was tired.'
Not that Apatow was hands-on on every picture, especially since Walk Hard, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express all shot at the same time. He works closely with producers Shauna Robertson and Clayton Townsend, and his role is often more the project's godfather than on-set producer. Pineapple Express, for example, was written by Apatow's frequent collaborator Seth Rogen and Rogen's writing partner Evan Goldberg in 2002 from an idea by Apatow. Rogen recalls: 'Judd came up with the simplest notion of a weed action movie, a pot dealer and a stoner getting chased by guys, and Evan and I took it from there. We started around 2002 and were trying to sell it from around 2003 onwards. Nobody wanted to make it.'
Rogen adds that Apatow's involvement was mainly in pre-production, in casting and rewriting. 'Once (director) David (Gordon Green) came on, Judd didn't watch over us that closely.'
Likewise on Step Brothers, Apatow took a more consultative role. 'The three films we've done with Judd are really, I think, McKay-Ferrell films first and foremost,' explains Will Ferrell, referring to director Adam McKay. 'We asked Judd to help produce Anchorman and we came up with all the original ideas for Talladega Nights, but we had so much fun working with Judd. He has a lot of influence and can help out in situations you need help with.'
Apatow has three more films in the pipeline. Prehistoric comedy Year One starring Jack Black and Michael Cera is in post-production at Sony for release in June 2009; he plans to shoot his next directorial project, Funny People, with Sony and Universal this autumn with a cast including Adam Sandler, Rogen, Jonah Hill, Eric Bana and (Apatow's wife) Leslie Mann; and in spring 2009 he will produce Nicholas Stoller's Get Him To The Greek which reteams Russell Brand and Jonah Hill after Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
'There's nothing else on the launchpad after that,' Apatow says. 'We have five to 10 scripts we're noodling with but that's all. I'll make a movie with Nick Stoller and then I hope he'll bring me another one, and he did. There's no sense of order to it.'
He does not sound like an empire-builder, but then again the appetite for his brand of comedy seems to be growing. So what makes it work'
'I don't know,' he muses. 'Seth always said to me that if people made movies where people spoke the way me and my friends speak, they would be very popular. We don't feel represented in modern comedies and maybe the only person who has done that well is Kevin Smith starting with Clerks, which opened our eyes to making movies with those types of characters. I think there's some truth to the fact people want someone they can really relate to because they are seeing people on the internet and on TV that look like them. They don't need someone to look like Cary Grant to enjoy something at this point. They'd happily watch some weird kid in his room 100 times.'
Rogen adds that Apatow's films 'have that similar feel of dirty conversational humour mixed with everyday relatable storylines'.
If Apatow comes off as a laid-back character, he certainly does not play the ingenue when it comes to the release of his films. 'We test the movies a lot,' he says. 'We don't think they work unless the audience loves them. These aren't hardcore arthouse movies. If the audience doesn't think it's great, we think we've failed. Then again, we won't go (just) anywhere the audience wants us to go because there are many things they would enjoy that I wouldn't be comfortable making.'
Apatow's movies have not quite cracked the international market in the same way they have North America. So what kind of attention does he pay to the powerful audience outside the US'
'I'll be aware of not having too many American pop-culture references or try to make sure they lean towards things that are popular around the world,' he says. 'Every once in a while, there's something that's so funny in America that we leave it in and it gets replaced for the international dubs. In terms of the story, I hope they are all universal enough to translate.'
Besides, says Rogen, Pineapple Express cost just $26m to produce, 'by far the cheapest of these big summer movies they're sinking promotional dollars into'.
'It's not such a big risk for them,' he adds. 'Tropic Thunder cost $200m. I mean, that's a risk.'