Though he has only directed three films in the last five years, Judd Apatow has become a quintessential name of modern comedy. When not offering up the likes of over-the-hill virgins and unplanned pregnancies, Apatow is a creative machine. On top of those three films, in the last five years he's busied himself with a handful of additional writing gigs plus over twenty producer credits.
It's because of Apatow that we've got funny men like Seth Rogen (who dates back to the 'Freaks and Geeks' days) and Jonah Hill on the big screen. He made Steve Carell a leading comedic star, and helped bring Paul Rudd out of the comedy shadows. But along with success and hand-crafting modern cinematic comedy, there has been a cloud of complaint about his one-note female characters, to the point that 'Knocked Up' star Katherine Heigl even called her breakout role "a little sexist."
But the tide seems to be turning. After the male-centric push of his earlier collaborations, Apatow has gotten involved with not one, but three notable female productions created by women -- 'Bridesmaids' with Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph, 'Business Trip' with wife Leslie Mann and the upcoming Lena Dunham series for HBO, 'Girls.' (And, one might also add, to a lesser degree, the upcoming Wain/Marino comedy 'Wanderlust.')
Could it be that a filmmaker is learning from his audience and directly filling the holes in his creative resume?
It certainly seems like it. While producing a film for his wife to star in might be an unsurprising turn, it's teamed not only with a film that finally lets the universally underused Kristen Wiig be a star, but with a television series touted as a more realistic 'Sex and the City.'
Lena Dunham quickly grabbed Apatow's attention with her semi-autobiographical SXSW indie 'Tiny Furniture,' which she wrote, directed and starred in. With the new series, 'Girls,' she's still the all-in-one powerhouse, but not for the type of fare we're used to seeing; it's a quest to use her own experience to make female characters more realistic.
As Dunham described it to Cinematical last month, the series is "about a girl in New York. I like to sometimes say it's as if 'Tiny Furniture' and 'Sex and the City' had a baby. It's a half-hour comedy, with some drama, about three friends who are about two years out of school and are trying to navigate living in New York. They each have different struggles with the city; they're three very different girls who were all brought together by college and they each have very different approaches to life after school. It's a less-glamorized version of the whole making-it-in-New-York narrative."
The rising filmmaker has now elaborated on the project with Coming Soon, who have outlined the cast. There's the "Carrie" type of character, Hannah, who wants to be a writer (and will be played by Dunham), Marnie, a feisty woman who wants to be a lawyer (a la Miranda) and Jessa, a flakey artist. (Coincidentally played by Jemima Kirke, whose character in 'Tiny Furniture' was named Charlotte ... and Charlotte was the arty one in 'SatC' before the quest for motherhood.)
Dunham explained that she's driven to make 'Girls' because "I've never seen a series about girls like me or girls my age depicted in a way that felt accurate and honest."
Considering that, Apatow certainly seems like an odd choice for producer of the series. However, Dunham hit the nail on the head last month in our chat with her, explaining that though "he's not known for female-centric stories," Apatow's "aesthetic has worked really well for this really girly story."
That's really the heart of the issue. Most discussions that revolve around his use of women in film bring up the fact that he is a man, and writing what he knows. Yet Dunham feels that his cinematic aesthetic would perfectly with something "really girly." Though she doesn't say it outright, it definitely relays the notion that there isn't so much of a gender divide as society often outlines. (And it also leads one to wonder how great his cinematic women might be if he just wrote them as he writes his male characters.)
Regardless, Apatow isn't creating the female-centric fare himself right now, but he is dedicated to getting it out there, which -- in some ways -- seems like a self-imposed learning experience. These new films cover work, love, friendship and everyday life -- in other words, a very large portion of the female (and human) experience. It's as if he wants a front-row seat to see how his women vary from the creations of Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo ('Bridesmaids'), Stacey Harman ('Business Trip') and Dunham.
But Apatow swears that the criticism lobbed at his female characters doesn't phase him. Unfortunately, he goes as far as saying any critiques of said characterizations are nothing more than writers looking to create drama, which is a rather disappointing deflection of the critique. As he told Jezebel last month:
"I don't hear any of the criticism when I test the movies and talk to thousands of people. I think the people who talk about these things on the Internet are looking to stir things up to make for interesting reading, but when you make movies, thousands of people fill out cards telling you their intimate feelings about the movies, and those criticisms never came up, ever, on any of the movies, so you have to be careful of what to listen to, because it could also take you off your own point of view."
Nevertheless, something has stirred the change in him, and whether it's a desire to take the criticisms to heart or blow them off as false and petty accusations, there's a real sense of possibility here. We can hope that this helps him evolve with his own work, but either way, Apatow is fostering some really great advancements for women on the screen. He's helping expand the big-screen scene for female comediennes beyond Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and giving Wiig a chance to shine. He's helping the career of Dunham, who is quickly becoming an all-in-one wonder primed to help thematically diversify mainstream female filmmakers. And finally, simply giving us more leading women to chew through on both the big and small screens.
Do you think it will bring about a change in his work? Is Apatow really not phased by the critiques, or do you think his current projects are a direct reflection of the critical reactions?