“I like it here. It’s safe.”
I like the full spectrum of cinema. I like the high-brow stuff – diving into profound subjects that startle me and keep me on my toes. I also like commercial fare. I like escapism – the idea of disconnecting and letting someone else do the driving for a while – to laugh and cry or just smile. I’m not a snob about movies – I like the whole gamut of choices. I connect with the lyrics to that tune Ella Fitzgerald sings … “Some find it pleasant dining on pheasant / Those things roll off my knife /Just serve me tomatoes and mashed potatoes /Give me the simple life.” As I have mentioned before, I also don’t like to judge a movie by preconceptions. There’s a side of me who likes to make up my own opinion about things. Which leads me to “The King of Staten Island” (2020) directed by Judd Apatow and starring Pete Davidson, loosely based on his own life. What a surprise it is – what an unexpected delight. What on paper may look like something tactless and superficial (ok – full disclosure there is crass humor usage, but it works, and I laughed till I snorted and tears were streaming!), it sneaks up on you – and becomes stirring and mature. It has stayed with me. It enveloped me into a warm and comforting feeling that has lasted for a few days after the credits rolled.
Pete Davidson is the comedian who has been a regular on “Saturday Night Live” since 2014 when he was twenty years old, making him one of the youngest cast members ever. His appearances – especially those on the “Weekend Update” section – mine aspects of his life with a sense of irreverence and honesty, touching on subjects like his marijuana use, his depression and romantic life. He’s self-deprecating and riffs about delicate subjects like the loss of his firefighter father during the 9/11 attacks. In 2015 he told the “New York Times”: “Heyyyy, I just want to talk about this, that everybody’s uncomfortable about. I like doing that. I like making things that are dark, awkward, weird things that you don’t really find funny, funny.”
The first scene in “The King of Staten Island” finds our main character – Scott –sconced in the basement of his mother’s home smoking pot with his friends. Since the loss of his father, his life has been in a form of suspension. He’s contentedly stuck in his subterranean lair. He jokes about the anti-depressants he’s on. “I like the lifestyle,” says Oscar, one of his cohorts. Scott dreams about being a tattoo artist and has a cockamamie plan to open a “tattoo restaurant.” He’s been using his friends as sketch pads – and they all display tragic inkwork – including a cat permanently etched on one their bellies with the feline’s behind enhanced by a belly button. (The humor is head shakingly funny and absurd.) In his midst is Kelsey – a childhood friend – who provides quite a contrast with his laid back personality. She’s driven – determined to make it big and also passionately in love with Staten Island and Scott. She’s endearingly played by Bel Powley who reminds you of Melanie Griffith from “Working Girl.” “I don’t know what I want. I’m still trying to figure things out,” Scott tells Kelsey when she presses him about their relationship. In the meantime, upstairs, Margie – Scott’s mother – has also been wallowing in a form of stasis since becoming a widow – and her languor gets exasperated when her daughter Claire heads to college. Marisa Tomei is sensational in this role – adding so much pathos and warmth to a character who could have easily been a throwaway. She anchors this.
One day while bumming on the beach with his cronies, he gives a tattoo to a nine-year-old kid who is wandering around on his own. This scene teeters on disbelief and outrageousness. Kudos to writer/director Apatow for handling the tone with aplomb. This leads to the introduction of the boy’s father – Ray – who turns out to be a firefighter. He will become a game changer for both Scott and Margie.
The second half of the film is truly magical – and unanticipated – as we witness Scott’s reawakening – and his journey from the lower depths of his basement until the very last shot of the film where we see him look at a whole world of opportunities in front of him. There’s also beauty in the cinematography by Academy Award winner Robert Elswit which taps into the lyricism of everyday life – shooting in natural light and in widescreen. It adds a soulfulness and depth to the visuals. The curation of songs for the soundtrack do more than just create atmosphere – they delineate Scott’s trajectory. The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight” is used in a cathartic moment where Scott finds himself surprisingly dancing and bonding with a group of firefighters.
“The King of Staten Island” feels like a much-needed cinematic hug.
Scott: “Alright, can I just tell you something? But can you like not tell anybody? Well, people probably know, but there’s like something wrong with me. Like mentally. Like I’m not okay up there. You know? Like I get all mad, acting like crazy, and I make really insane, impulsive decisions. And I’m scared of myself, and I don’t want to like scare you, or me, or like hurt anyone, you know?”
Available to stream on HBO, HBO NOW and HBO Max and for purchase on Amazon Prime, Microsoft, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNOW and Vudu.
Written by Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson and Dave Sirus
Directed by Judd Apatow
Starring Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow and Steve Buscemi
Judd Apatow on His Introduction to Pete Davidson
“When I was working with Amy Schumer on Trainwreck and we were casting, I asked her if there was anyone I should know about and she said, ‘There’s this guy Pete Davidson who’s 20 years old and ridiculously funny.” And we cast him in the movie in a cameo because we just wanted to plant our flag and say, “We knew he was funny before anybody else.” When I don’t have anything great for someone, sometimes I just try and put them in the movie somewhere, because I believe in them but don’t have a great part yet. And then he was so funny that Bill Hader said to him the next day, “I’m going to tell Lorne Michaels he should put you on Saturday Night Live,” and then Pete auditioned for Lorne and got Saturday Night Live.” ( (ew.com)
Brining “The King of Staten Island” to the Screen
The movie is heavily based on Davidson’s own life. His character is struggling with the death of his father, a firefighter who died in the line of duty. When Davidson was 7, his firefighter father, Scott, died on Sept. 11. In the film, Davidson’s feelings of heartache and anger are challenged when his mother (Marisa Tomei) begins dating a firefighter (Bill Burr). “It’s something that’s been weighing on my chest for a very long time,” says Davidson. “It allowed me to heal on a personal level. My main goal in doing this was to grow out of it.” Apatow, the filmmaker of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Funny People,” first became acquainted with Davidson when he was making 2015’s “Trainwreck,” with Amy Schumer. Apatow has shepherded the careers of several young comic talents, like Seth Rogen (“Knocked Up”) and Lena Dunham (“Girls”), but Davidson’s seemingly lackadaisical, bug-eyed version of stunted maturity is more plainly wounded than his previous collaborators. At Schumer’s urging, Apatow gave Davidson a small role in “Trainwreck.” Then they began kicking around movie ideas. One of their first scripts, a college comedy, fizzled. “Pete hadn’t been to college and I had only been for 18 months,” chuckles Apatow, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. Then they inched toward something more personal. “As soon as we said, ‘Let’s make a movie about his character’s mom dating a firefighter,’ we knew that we’d have to address everything,” says Apatow. Davidson hasn’t avoided his father in his comedy. In his recent Netflix comedy special “Alive From New York,” he recalls learning his dad did cocaine. “I knew he was a hero,” he says with a grin. “But I didn’t know he was a superhero.”
And the comedian had contemplating mounting a one-man show about his father. Instead, “The King of Staten Island” became his autobiographical outlet. They took it slowly. The writing, Apatow could tell, was cathartic. “Pete had to write scenes from the point of view of other people. If he was writing a scene with him confronting his mom, he had to write in her voice and he had to write in his sister’s voice,” says Apatow. “I think that allowed him to see himself in a new way.” Davidson could have been seen by some as a risky bet. In 2018, a troubling Instagram message prompted a police visit to the “SNL” offices. But Apatow believed that Davidson should also be a producer on the film, making him responsible for the entire set. “I’ve been through a lot and to have someone believe in you and still have your back even when it might not be popular to do so, it really means the world to me,” says Davidson. “I’ll never forget that.” For those who know him more from the tabloids, “The King of Staten Island” will certainly reveal a different side to Davidson. It has as much emotional pain and tender family drama as it does clouds of weed smoke and man-child jokes. Like Davidson, it’s full of the messiness of life. Tall and lanky with sunken eyes, Davidson is covered in tattoos; he’s literally an open book, though all that ink can work like a mask, too. But he counts two as his most important: He has his father’s badge number, 8418, tattooed on his arm, and a fire helmet with 343 on it for the number of firefighters who died on 9/11. “They were very healing for me to get,” he says, before noting he has some he regrets, too. Stewie from “Family Guy” is on his hands and neck. Davidson shrugs. “I’m an impulsive person,” he says. “You just get to learn.” (abcnews.go.com)
Judd Apatow on Casting “The King of Staten Island”
“I really enjoy casting. I try to build it around the lead. Pete was very involved in all of those choices. Bill Burr was someone who has been a friend and mentor to him for a long time. They already had a special dynamic we could tap into. Bel Powley is a good friend of his, and I felt like their admiration for each other would help with their onscreen chemistry. Steve Buscemi was a fireman before his acting career took off, and we all look up to him, he’s one of our heroes. I thought that Maude would be really strong as his sister, who is the opposite of him and dealing with her trauma by trying to excel in life. She’s getting great grades and going off to college, and challenges Pete on all of his stuff and all of his issues. Marisa Tomei did a cameo in Trainwreck and is someone I’ve always wanted to work with. She really is the heart of the movie. A lot of the movie is about someone who has not looked for a relationship because she’s worried about her son, and she starts dating for the first time but is really scared of not being there for Pete’s character. So there’s all sorts of people who we love in the movie. I loved Moisés Arias since Hannah Montana. He used to always make me laugh so hard. I used to talk about it to my kids, I’d be like, “What is with that guy? He is so riotously funny!” Ricky Velez is a fantastic comedian and one of Pete’s best friends. Pamela Adlon is someone who I’ve been a fan of, her show [Better Things] is brilliant, and we were lucky to get her. It’s always so fun to try and surround yourself with the best possible people.” (ew.com)
Apatow on Cinematographer Robert Elswit
Judd Apatow makes big commercial comedies, and “The King of Staten Island” is no exception. However, while developing the project with Pete Davidson and drawing on the comic actor’s personal life, Apatow decided he needed to capture the rough-and-tumble nature of the character’s experiences. As a result, the movie has a more naturalistic quality than Apatow’s other work, with a restless camera that hovers alongside the jaded twentysomething with documentary-like finesse. To develop that quality, Apatow turned to one of the most respected cinematographers in the industry. Robert Elswit, the Paul Thomas Anderson DP revered for his work on “There Will Be Blood” and “Boogie Nights” among many others, played a key role in developing the new direction that “The King of Staten Island” represents in Apatow’s filmography… ““I had wanted to work with him for a very long time,” Apatow said in a recent phone interview with IndieWire, “but he’s rarely available, because he’s off making some of the greatest movies of all time.” As it turned out, Elswit was attached to shoot Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” last year when the project went into turnaround, just as Apatow was developing “The King of Staten Island.” So he pounced. “I jumped on the phone and met him and I was really so excited to have him join the team,” Apatow said. “He shoots in a style that I have always wanted to use in one of my movies. I’m a big fan of all of his work because there’s a lot of energy and movement.” (indiewire.com)
Apatow and Davidson on their Love and Connection to Comedy
Apatow: “We’re both complete comedy nerds. We’re fans of comedy in addition to people who started doing stand-up at a young age. I know for me, I first became aware of Pete when we were casting Trainwreck. And I ask Amy [Schumer], “Who should I know? Who might we want to put in the movie?” And the first person she mentioned was Pete. And then we just went on YouTube and watched a bunch of clips of Pete, and they were hysterical. And then she told me he was 20 years old, which angered me, because I was so unfunny at 20. And it just seemed crazy how sophisticated and riotously funny his act was at such a young age…I think the thing that we all love about comedy is whenever anything bad happens, for a normal person, it’s just bad. But when a bad thing happens to a comedian, they go, “This is gonna make a good bit.” And anything terrible in life actually has a positive function to a comedian.”
Davidson: “I grew up having very few friends and I wasn’t invited to a lot of parties and school and stuff like that, so it was the first time that I was able to speak freely and people would actually listen to me, and I really enjoyed that. And I liked how freeing it was. So it just felt really good to have anybody listen to what I had to say…Comedy is a beautiful escape. It really just frees my mind from focusing on things that might be upsetting to me. And I think it really helped me grow as a person. And I’m really grateful for comedy and having it in my life.” (npr.org)
Apatow and Davidson on “The King of Staten Island”
Apatow: “The movie is an imagining of what Pete’s life might have been like if he never found comedy. Comedy really was his savior, it gave him direction. And in the movie he’s someone who is flailing about, not sure what he should do with his life. He wants to be a tattoo artist but he really hasn’t tried that hard. A lot of what we discussed was how when you have a loss in your family it brings up all of these issues that take a long time to work through. By writing this movie and thinking through his life, he hopefully had a cathartic experience trying to let go of a lot of the obstacles that have complicated his life.” (ew.com)
Davidson: “You know, it was really freeing and very healing. This is a story I’ve always wanted to tell, and I always wanted to show my side of things. And I thank Judd for allowing me to do that. What it allowed me to do is heal personally in my own life. I made this so that I could move on and become a better person, and maybe that chapter of my life won’t weigh so heavy on me. So, that was really the main goal of the film for me.” (screenrant.com)
About Actor and Writer Pete Davidson
Stand-up comedian Pete Davidson returns to “Saturday Night Live” for his seventh season. Davidson, 26, is the youngest member of the current cast as well as the first “SNL” cast member to be born in the 1990s. Davidson shot his first one-hour stand-up special for Comedy Central in 2016 and was named one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” in 2016. He made headlines as one of the featured comedians on the 2015 Comedy Central “Roast of Justin Bieber.” In 2020, he released his stand-up special, “Pete Davidson: Alive From New York,” on Netflix. Davidson co-wrote and starred in the critically acclaimed film “The King of Staten Island.” He also starred in the 2019 independent film “Big Time Adolescence,” Netflix’s Mötley Crüe biopic “The Dirt,” Paramount Players’ “What Men Want” and Netflix’s “Set It Up.” Upcoming projects include John Turturro’s “The Jesus Rolls,” “The Suicide Squad” and “Worst Man.” Davidson is from Staten Island, New York, and his birthday is Nov. 16. (nbc.com)
About Writer Dave Sirius
Dave is a comedian originally from New York and New Jersey who began doing stand up in high school and sketch and interview comedy at Syracuse University. He is most known for his videos interviewing the Westboro Baptist Church as “Brick Stone,” and has been a guest on RT’s The Alyona Show, The Opie & Anthony Show on Sirius/XM, and HuffPost Live. He’s also a featured comedian on season 1 of NuvoTV’s Stand Up and Deliver and has written for Saturday Night Live and the Triumph specials. (newyorkcomedyclub.com) Sirius’ most recent projects include “The King of Staten Island” (2020), “Let’s Be Real” (2020) and “Saturday Night Live” (2016-2020).
About Writer and Director Judd Apatow
Judd Apatow was born in Syosset, New York, on December 6, 1967, to Tami Shad and Maury Apatow. Judd worked at his local high school station, hosting “Club Comedy” and interviewing talent like John Candy, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and Weird Al Yankovic. Apatow was also an avid TV watcher, immersing himself in comedic fare like “Taxi,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda” and “Saturday Night Live.” Apatow went west and attended the University of Southern California for a time, where he studied screenwriting. He worked as a stand-up comedian, including a stint on the TV series “Comic Strip Live,” before realizing that he was better equipped at penning material for others. He wrote for comedians like Roseanne Barr, Jim Carrey and Tom Arnold, and by 1992, had earned an executive producer position with the sketch/variety series “The Ben Stiller Show.” Though the show ran for one season, Apatow won an Emmy for his writing. Apatow then became one of the writers and executive producers for Garry Shandling’s “The Larry Sanders Show” for several seasons, with Apatow earning several additional Emmy nominations. He continued his journey in TV by creating the series “Freaks and Geeks,” which debuted in 1999. Though Apatow dealt with another show being cancelled after one season, “Freaks” earned critical acclaim and provided a platform for actors who would work with the creator on future projects. By the mid-’90s, Apatow was also getting into film, serving as executive producer and screenwriter on “Celtic Pride” and producing “The Cable Guy,” both comedies from 1996. He met actress Leslie Mann on “The Cable Guy” set; the two married in the summer of 1997 and have two daughters.
Apatow made his big-screen directorial debut in August, 2005 with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” starring Steve Carrell as a sensitive, somewhat alienated soul taking his first steps to becoming sexually intimate. The film, which Apatow also wrote and produced, was an unexpected smash, earning almost $110 million in the domestic box office and another $68 million overseas. Apatow’s next film as a director, 2007’s “Knocked Up,” co-starred Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen as a mismatched couple who end up becoming parents. “Knocked Up” became another hit for Apatow, earning $219 million worldwide. Apatow was cementing a reputation for creating popular work around men coming to terms with growing up. In addition to his directing, Apatow has served as the producer and/or screenwriter for a number of big-screen comedies during the early 2000s, including “Anchor Man” (2004), “Superbad” (2007), “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” (2008), “Step Brothers” (2008), “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008), “Get Him to the Greek” (2010) and “Bridesmaids” (2011). Apatow went on to direct 2009’s “Funny People,” starring his former roommate Adam Sandler as a mega-star comedian dealing with a terminal illness. The film, which co-starred Rogen and Mann, focuses on the world of stand-up comedy. During the December holiday season of 2012, the next Apatow-helmed film project arrived in the form of “This Is 40,” said to be a semi-autobiographical look at family life from the perspective of a Californian couple and their two daughters. The film stars Paul Rudd, with his character’s wife played by Mann and the film couple’s children played by Apatow’s own daughters. Apatow has continued his TV duties by executive producing the hit HBO series “Girls,” starring Lena Dunham. He also oversaw the first comedy issue of Vanity Fair…and directed the comedy film, “Trainwreck,” starring Amy Schumer. (allamericanspeakers.com) A few of Apatow’s most recent projects include “May It Last” (2017), the TV series “Love” (2016-2018), “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” (2018) and most recently, “The King of Staten Island” in 2020.