This Friday, The King of Staten Island will be available on a TV screen—or laptop—near you. In Judd Apatow’s latest, 24-year-old Scott (played by Pete Davidson) spends his days living in his mom's house, smoking weed and dreaming of becoming a tattoo artist—while grappling with the death of his firefighter dad. It's a re-imagined version of Davidson's own “very tumultuous, and ultimately inspiring, journey,” producer Barry Mendel said.
With King of Staten Island, Mendel continues a years-long collaboration with Apatow, one that started in 2009 with Funny People. That then led to Bridesmaids, The Big Sick, This is 40, Trainwreck (in which a young pre-SNL Pete Davidson plays a small role), and now this.
“I think that like minded-people do find each other,” Mendel said. “A really influential movie for both Judd and me is King of Comedy, and it’s the movie that Pete has sat in his basement and watched more than any other film. He knows it chapter and verse.”
A career built on a love of film
Mendel speaks passionately about the movies that changed him, as though they helped chart the course of his career. One of them was Apocalypse Now. “When I was 15, there was this movie coming out and there was a lot of controversy around it,” Mendel recalled. “It'd been delayed by a year. It had gotten massively over budget. It was a disaster. It was going to sink the careers of everybody involved. But, it was ambitious.”
“I remember going to the mall to buy a ticket at Ticketron and sticking it up on my bulletin board with a thumbtack a month before opening day. I waited and counted down the days. I lived in Mamaroneck, New York, and took a train into Manhattan, went to the Ziegfeld Theatre, and watched Apocalypse Now and it just blew my mind. Bill Graham, the Playboy bunnies, Colonel Kurtz, Robert Duvall. The scope of it, the darkness of it, the intensity of it, the psychedelic nature of it. It all blew my mind.”
Since then, Mendel has always been intentional about his self-education in movies. When he first started out in the film industry, working in the mailroom at ICM, he embarked on a list of 500 films in the canon: “You have to watch these four Kurosawa films, these three Bergman films, and these films by Alfred Hitchcock... I had the list, but I found that there were certain things that I was drawn towards and certain things that were more like eating spinach for me.”
“I just allowed myself to roll with that,” he said. “I loved Barbara Stanwyck. Even if it was a bad movie, if she was in it, I loved it. Same with Robert Mitchum. The same with Marlon Brando. Certain writers, certain directors, and certain actors spoke to me. It just started to blossom into a really nice body of work that I consumed and integrated. Through that, I learned what I like.”
That's when Mendel's first producing gig came up. Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson were looking for someone to produce Rushmore.
“At the time, I was really in love with the films of Powell and Pressburger: Stairway to Heaven, Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus. When Wes was looking around for who to produce this film after Bottle Rocket, he had been going through the same phase. We were both kvelling about those movies.”
“Sharing a love of certain films and speaking a common language really helped build the relationship between two people who are socially awkward and very shy—if we're not talking about movies, that is.”
These movies, Mendel said, had a huge influence on Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, which Mendel would go on to produce for Anderson.
“I always have to credit Wes and M. Night Shyamalan with really taking a chance on me,” Mendel said. (Shyamalan approached Mendel to work on The Sixth Sense, shortly after he started working on Rushmore.)
“They had nothing to go on,” he added. “We knew each other, we talked about movies, but I had no track record at the time. I'd literally not produced a single thing. Those were huge gambles that they took and it really changed my life. I will always be grateful to each of them.”
The power of movies (and the movie theater)
To this day, a great movie, or a great performance, will stick with Mendel for days. Some even require annual viewings. He's revisited a lot of classics while in quarantine, movies like Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, Otto Preminger’s Laura, and John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana.
“Out of the Past reminds me of what a perfect ending to a film is, and how explosive that is in terms of your memory of a film,” he said. “When I watch Laura, it's about the perfection of plot, the perfection of dialogue, and tautness of screenwriting and direction and storytelling. To me, it's almost a perfect film. Then, with The Night of the Iguana, it's really about wanting to experience the poetry of life and the majesty of our imperfection. So there are different things that I'm yearning for in each case.”
Even so, he’s eager to get back to the theater. “I don't think there's anything that can ever replace going to the theater,” he said. “I'm very optimistic, actually, about what the pandemic's going to do to the theater-going experience because I think that people are going to really understand the difference between watching something at home, which will feel old hat.”
“I think that the amount of isolation that people feel in a more Internet-driven world will draw people to the theater.”
“Even the experience of watching a comedy in a full house... When we previewed The King of Staten Island, just seeing the audience laugh so hard, and yet be so moved together, is a magical experience, not just for us, but for everybody in that room. We're a communal species.”
In a twist of fate, The King of Staten Island is not debuting in theaters as planned. “Pete was the first one to say we should [release it digitally], before Judd or me or the studio,” Mendel recalled.
It soon became clear that they would have to shift the release to a now-crowded late summer, save it until next year, or make it available online. “Universal was incredibly bold in saying, ‘Let's do this. Let's be the first adult, R-rated, serious-minded comedy, or just major film, to come out where there's no question that they're not dumping it.’”
What began as a disappointment (“Robert Elswit shot the movie. Jay Cassidy edited the movie. If there ever was a big-screen Judd Apatow movie, this is it.”) turned into acceptance and, ultimately, enthusiasm.
Mendel recalls thinking, “Everybody's sitting on their couches. There are no new movies and people are at home anxious and scared and bored. Maybe this is something we can do to help.”
“The movie is about an ER nurse and a fireman. It's not out of tune with what's actually going on in the world. It all of a sudden began to feel very right. For the last month, I've just been so excited that we're doing it. You can feel it being engineered for the big screen, and yet you get it at home.”
After a new release, Mendel typically goes around to a few theaters to pop in and listen to the laughter. It’ll be strange, this time around, to not stand by the ticket office and hear people say, “Two tickets for King of Staten Island.” But he finds a different form of gratification in this unexpected process.
“Movies are here to give people a way to escape from their predicament and to reflect on their life. This is the service that we can provide now, giving people something fresh to watch that's hopefully engaging, where they can forget their troubles for a couple of hours and dive into someone else's.”