‘Maybe I’ve made a terrible mistake’: Judd Apatow and David Duchovny on Covid comedy The Bubble | Judd Apatow

TOt the start of the pandemic, Judd Apatow slacked. Two-hour strolls, then home for Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso. “In my mind, I had tons of downtime. But lately I’ve realized I must have been in full lunatic-workaholic mode. Because I wrote a book and made a documentary and made this movie, all within a very short amount of time. Which sounds to me like a nervous breakdown that had some productivity to it. “

He grins down the line from Los Angeles, 54 now and at the exact physical intersection of Seth Rogen and Garry Shandling. “This movie” is The Bubble, a meta comedy about a group of film stars holed up in Cliveden House hotel, Berkshire, in late 2020 to make a dino franchise flick. Cliff Beasts 6 is claptrap; The Bubble is the biggest film yet to grapple with life in the time of Covid.

Why have so few directors dared? “It just ruins everything with storytelling! No one wants to watch Idris Elba do a new season of Luther wearing a mask. This is our nightmare as consumers.

Gillan, Leslie Mann, Duchovny, Guz Khan, Iris Apatow and Pascal Photograph: Laura Radford / Netflix

“So I just thought: if I do it, I’ll do it 100%. Be dumb enough to try. Maybe I’ve done something people enjoy or maybe I’ve made a terrible mistake. ” Bingeing comedy helped him through the lows: he might as well get stuck in, “given the only contribution I make to society is a pleasant couple of hours every few years”.

Five and a half thousand miles away, in London, Harry Trevaldwyn was thinking something similar. The 28-year-old has spent the past two years building a devoted fanbase with snappy sketches to camera, released on social media, mostly playing delightfully craven versions of himself. “Every time a big, scary announcement got made on the news, my gut instinct would either be to watch something funny or try to write something funny. Often while crying. “

In The Bubble, Trevaldwyn plays Gunther, an inept Covid protocol officer. His casting di lui is testament to Apatow’s antennae – and willingness to experiment. For this film feels a bit different to Knocked Up and This is 40. Some Apatow regulars are present and correct: his wife di lui, Leslie Mann, and their daughter Iris. The Saturday Night Live veterans Fred Armisen and Kate McKinnon don’t seem out of place, nor does Keegan-Michael Key. But then Peter Serafinowicz pops up. And Pedro Pascal. And, er, Donna Air.

Trevaldwyn in The Bubble.
Trevaldwyn in The Bubble. Photograph: Laura Radford / Netflix

The biggest name is probably David Duchovny, as a grizzled Harrison Ford type increasingly weary of the series’ daftness. Duchovny did not watch a lot of TV during the first wave, he says, squinting down the camera from some sort of log cabin. He tried two episodes of Tiger King, then quit. “Sentimentally, I was touched by it, because I think everybody was trying to find community. Like: at least we can all agree that this is fucking fantastic and let’s all watch it. Like a pacifier. “

Duchovny warms to his theme. “Tiger King was this juggernaut! And now that the fictionalized versions are coming out, I don’t think anyone cares any more. These things get so hot and so big, then they’re just gone. “

Duchovny is now 61 and writes novels (four) and albums (three). He too is less hot and big, but today at least, that sexy dyspepsia remains pretty robust. Yes, the pandemic drove people to escapism – but it also popularized the opposite. Documentaries boomed as real-life drama reduced the relevance of storytelling. Both are fine, but, yikes, he hates the hybrid.

“Fictionalized documentaries” – he mentions Pam & Tommy as well as Joe vs Carol – “are not what we do best. I’m very bored by that. What it means is that fiction writers like myself, or people that try to make original stories on film, are now in this weird space, figuring out a way to exist. “

Serafinowicz and Duchovny.
Serafinowicz and Duchovny. Photograph: Laura Radford / Netflix

This is why he was fine with quarantining before The Bubble: “I’m usually in my room anyway, looking at the walls.” Having food shoved through a hole in the door for a fortnight was “slightly depressing. But everything gets normal. Humans are amazingly adaptable. Or forgetful. “

The film was shot about a year ago, when the UK was in a strict lockdown and few of the cast had yet been jabbed. Post-quarantine, they still couldn’t mix in the evenings. According to Mann, who calls from New York, remaining “really lonely” only enhanced the happy days. Actors flogging a film always enthuse about the shoot. This time it feels genuine. “I did not stop smiling,” says Mann. “I was on top of the world.”

Trevaldwyn says it felt like “rehearsing for a uni play: very collaborative, very level ground, everyone mucking in. And it was such a gift, meeting people that weren’t like my immediate family. I probably walked less than I’ve ever walked in my life. You’d get driven from place to place and have a full meal every two hours. It was a glorious life. I was I know sad when it was over. “

Duchovny, Via Das, Pascal, Gillan, Key and Harry Trevaldwyn
Duchovny, Via Das, Pascal, Gillan, Key and Harry Trevaldwyn. Photograph: Laura Radford / Netflix

The film’s apparent target is actors: their self-absorption and vanity, the bubbles that insulate them – and their blindness to them. In an early scene, Serafinowicz’s producer briefs the hotel staff that they will be handling “animals” who “literally lie for a living” and require constant cosseting.

Legitimate criticism, thinks Duchovny. “You’re thinking about yourself a lot. The job is to be vulnerable and somewhat self-obsessed. On top of that, there’s career anxiety and shaping and branding and all that shit. We’re overpaid and overwatched and people care way too much about us. Nobody deserves any of that. “

He sips on something. “But, for the most part, actors are just human beings doing a job. A silly job – but a job. ” And, actually, now that he thinks about it, the lying part isn’t true. “We’re all acting in life. We all put on a face to meet the faces. Actors just try to lie truthfully. “

In fact, the longer The Bubble goes on – particularly if you take a break to watch President Zelenskiy on the news – the more it starts to feel like a defense of the profession. A caution not to underestimate the clown.

“You can’t know what a person is capable of,” says Duchovny. “Shakespeare was an actor. Reagan was a mediocre actor. If he’d been a great actor, he probably wouldn’t have been a good president. Great actors try to see both sides of everything. I think Reagan couldn’t do negative capability. He was an actor who played the line. Zelenskiy is clearly a legitimate, grown-up human being and is trying to rise to the occasion. “

At one point, Mann’s character calls actors “some of the toughest people I know”. Does she think it is unfair how much the profession is ridiculed?

“It totally is, but actors aren’t allowed to complain, ”she says. “You just have to suck it up and keep it to yourself. I can’t say anything, because people would hate my guts. At the end of the day, it’s a great job and we’re lucky to have it. And that’s all you can to say. Leslie will get into trouble. “

Even their wildest follies are not entirely lampooned. In the film, Karen Gillan plays an actor fresh from starring as a half-Israeli, half-Palestinian woman who unites both sides to battle aliens in a film that she believes may help secure peace in the Middle East.

Are such delusions commonplace? Yes, says Apatow – and they are not delusions. “I don’t know if you could say for sure that they’re not [changing the world]. Young people are much more enlightened, discriminate less, are less prejudiced, because they’ve seen things like South Park or The Daily Show their whole lives – shows that have mocked hateful people. My gut has always been that culture changed. “

Key, Pascal, Gillan and Mann.
Key, Pascal, Gillan and Mann. Photograph: Laura Radford / Netflix

Duchovny demurs. Making grand claims for your project is just another way of bolstering it. “I’m a fan of the work standing on its own. But we don’t live in that world any more, ”he says. “It’s impossible to judge a work on its own merit. There’s just too much that you’ve heard, mostly from the fucking people who made it. I should be disqualified from talking about my work. Not only because I’m gonna lie to you, but because I’m not outside it. “

Flagging a film’s political credentials is also an attempt to second-guess criticism, he thinks. “People are scared. You kind of have to gird yourself against imagined attacks. That seems probably fairly recent. When Mel Brooks made The Producers, I don’t think he had to field questions about making light of the Holocaust. ‘What are you saying to the 6 million Jews? How dare you! ‘”

I put this to Apatow a night later. He leans back in his chair and hums. You could make The Producers now, he thinks – you would just need an enlightened executive. Yes, the climate is sensitive, but for good reason: this is a time for righting wrongs, giving opportunities to those previously denied them, seeing how things shake down. He sits on the fence when I ask what he thinks about Helen Mirren playing Golda Meir and enthuses about making a romcom in which all the cast and crew were LGBTQ + (Bros, co-written by and starring Billy Eichner), including the actors playing straight people.

His big concern when it comes to the future of cinema turns out to be a curious one, given The Bubble was bankrolled by Netflix. “Metadata! They know the second you pause to go to the bathroom; if you watched the second half of the movie three days later, or never finished it. And it’s changing which movies are greenlit. They’re saying: oh, people love crime. People love when you murder people. People love kidnapping. People love swindlers. So, suddenly, you’ll see a lot of that.

“But there is no algorithm that will make The Graduate or Harold and Maude. The special things usually go against all the rules. It’s not a talented executive working from their gut about art that moves them. You need some flesh and blood there. “

Anyway, Apatow seems to be doing OK. He is not going to attempt “my big Saudi Arabia comedy” any time soon, but he is clearly getting projects over the line (up next: This Is 50).

As well as the relentless work, he says he is “reading a lot of Buddhism” and getting comfortable with the concept of “groundlessness and the idea that you’re never really in control”. Is he more optimistic than when he was relying on strolls and sitcoms? “I can go either way. If you want me to go down to a dark well, I’ll go there with you and Google ‘long ‑ haul Covid’.

Apatow on set.
Apatow on set. Photograph: Laura Radford / Netflix

“I don’t think that our minds are designed to be under this level of stress and fear for this long. That’s why you see people having meltdowns on airplanes. Life is hard enough in the good times. “

As for Trevaldwyn, he no longer relies on awful news bulletins for inspiration. “That would really put a lot of pressure on the world to go to shit. ‘Another pandemic’s gotta happen, otherwise I’m not gonna generate content!’ “

And Duchovny? He is fine, he says, just fine. Fiction writers will muddle through somehow. The pandemic hasn’t changed the fundamentals of entertainment. “Whatever a pandemic story could tell us would be about what it is to be human, not about what it is to be human in a pandemic.”

One final thing: what has he lied about today, given that he always does, when he talks about his work? Oh, he says, looking briefly bashful. Nothing. “The lie is whatever angle you’re doing. Or: ‘This is the best work I’ve ever done.’ I used to watch Arnie go on chatshows and say that about every film he made. And I believed it! It was said with such conviction.

“I love Judd and his work, so I’m happy to be in that world and making a big comedy at this point in my life. But sometimes you go out there and you’re like: this is not the best movie I ever made. So am I gonna salvage my own sense of integrity as a person? Or say: buy this thing! Buy it! And then be like: oh, sorry … ‘”

The Bubble is on Netflix from 1 April

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