With his singular mix of comic absurdity, incisive observation and genuine empathy, director, writer, and producer Judd Apatow has mastered the art of tackling fraught subjects—adult virginity, unexpected pregnancy, self-destructive behavior, life-threatening illness and middle age. With The King of Staten Island, a fictionalized version of autobiographical events, he takes audiences on a deeply personal and darkly funny journey based on the life of his star, Pete Davidson.
When Davidson was a boy growing up on Staten Island, his father, firefighter Scott Davidson, died while responding to the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001. The death of his father at that age had a huge impact on Pete Davidson’s life. In the film, Scott Carlin, a fictional character based on Pete, is also grappling with the childhood loss of his firefighter father and is coping with it in ways that hold him back from becoming an adult and that are stressing out his mother and sister.
The King of Staten Island speaks to a generation of young people who are increasingly open about their own damage, challenges and addictions.
Pete and Dave – Writers and Friends
Long before meeting and working with Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson had been tossing around the idea of shaping elements of his experiences into a screenplay.
Davidson first met his fellow screenwriter, comic and writer Dave Sirus, when Davidson was only 18. They bonded over a passion for Los Angeles’ sneaker shops, and Sirus drove Davidson around L.A. to get a feel for the city. They got along well and started writing together for Comedy Central. Soon after, Davidson began to work on Saturday Night Live, and Sirus followed the next year as a writer on the show.
Reuniting on the SNL platform, Davidson and Sirus solidified their partnership. “Dave is the funniest person I know; he’s the sweetest and smartest man in the world but alarming to some,” Davidson says. “He’s finally getting his due, which makes me really happy. I would not be here without Dave for sure.”
As time went on, they began to think about a screenplay based on Davidson’s life. “It felt like the right time, both for where I am in my life and where my career is at,” Davidson says. But neither of them had ever written a screenplay before, so they needed an experienced guide.
From 90 Pages of Jokes to a Feature
Dave Sirus and Pete Davidson consider humor the strength of their writing talents, and it would take writer/director/producer Judd Apatow to round their script into something more than a series of connected comical scenes.
Known for his work on some of the most successful dramatic comedies of the past two decades, Apatow’s ability to engage an audience with equal parts humor and pathos began with his theatrical debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The filmmaker has a gift for capturing honest emotion in comedies that deal with deeply personal issues in an authentic, raw way.
Right before Davidson arrived on Saturday Night Live for the first time in fall 2014, he caught the attention of Apatow when Apatow directed him in a cameo on Trainwreck starring Amy Schumer. “Amy was making me aware of comedians she liked,” Apatow says. “And one night she said, ‘You’ve got to see this guy. He’s 19 years old and crazy funny.’ We watched a video of him and knew we had to put him in the movie.” He adds, dryly: “I always want to plant a flag, just so I can say I knew someone was going to be big before anyone else.”
Shortly thereafter, Schumer encouraged Apatow to get back on stage and try his hand at stand-up again. That’s the night that two-time Academy Award®-nominated producer Barry Mendel—with whom Apatow has worked on five prior films—saw what Davidson could do. “The night Judd was going up at The Cellar, we went and saw Pete perform first,” Mendel says. “It was as if he was a different animal than anybody else in that universe. He did not care whether people thought he was funny or not. It so stood out because almost all other comedians are desperate for you to like them. But Pete didn’t care. It was refreshing and fun, and he just seemed like a super funny guy.”
After working with Davidson on Trainwreck, Apatow suggested that Davidson work on a screenplay of his own. “Pete and Dave wrote a script for me that didn’t pan out,” Apatow says. “Then one day, Pete mentioned that he wanted his mom to be in a relationship and to be happy. We started kicking around this idea, what would happen if Pete’s mom started dating a fireman…and how would that affect Pete’s character. What would that bring up? There’s nothing funnier than hating your mom’s boyfriend.”
Because the script would be a semi-fictionalized account of Davidson’s trials growing up, Davidson didn’t feel jokes would be enough. Apatow was able to fill in the voids. “Judd gave the script an arc and a story,” Davidson says. Sirus and Davidson credit Apatow with bringing the script to a place where it would connect on a deeper level. “Judd showed us the importance of treating a comedy with the same level of respect that any story should deserve,” Sirus says. Adds Davidson: “Our first draft was just 90 pages of jokes; once Judd dug in with us it became 120 pages of jokes with emotion.”
Like 8 Mile and The Big Sick, The King of Staten Island is a fictionalized version of autobiographical events.
“My character in the movie is probably about 75 percent me,” Davidson says. “Maybe more. I can’t really tell.” One of the initial conversations the three writers had was how true-to-form the story should it be. “We decided that it could be completely fictional but use all the real emotions, and some of the events, of Pete’s life,” Apatow says. “This isn’t a story about 9/11, but it is a story about a young man whose firefighter father died while fighting a fire.” He pauses. “In a lot of ways, it’s an imagining of what Pete’s life would have been if he didn’t find comedy and was still in Staten Island in his mid-20s, going nowhere.
“When we started writing together, Pete, Dave and I would sit down and just talk,” Apatow continues. “We would spend hours talking about all of the things that Pete’s been through and how he feels about it. Our story evolved out of those conversations.” The filmmaker was keen to mine the comedy there, but also interested in the healing that could happen. “I wanted for our character to open up to love,” Apatow says, “as well as have the potential for a father figure in his life.”
Mendel adds, “Judd will always encourage people to mine what is presently happening in their life and use that as something to work out,” Mendel says.
Sirus credits the team for never sticking to one treatment, and instead editing and improvising throughout production. “Judd helped us learn how to keep things organic and real,” Sirus says, “as well as to never feel like you’re cutting and pasting.” Adds Davidson: “Judd draws the best out of everybody.”
The director felt that no one but Davidson could be this raw. “When I first met Pete, I was just amazed at how funny he was,” Apatow says. “He was very advanced and mature, as both a writer and a comic thinker. It was immediately clear he’s a special person. He’s someone that people are interested in and sympathetic to. He’s charismatic, and we are interested in his struggle. People want to know how he’s doing. This movie is a way for him to express what he’s been through, and how’s he’s fought through it.”
The filmmaker admits that he usually makes comedies with drama, but, with The King of Staten Island, it was time to make a drama that has comedy in it. “I tried to reverse my priorities,” Apatow says. “The most important thing here was the story and the characters and the people. I thought, ‘Well, I’d like it to be funny, but it doesn’t have to be riotous in every scene. Let’s just tell this story with very entertaining people in it, and we’ll see where it lands comedically.”
For his first major film project, Pete Davidson surrounded himself on set with close friends, family members and longtime idols alike.
He made it a point to showcase rising stars, many long overdue for their break. The warmth of these real-life relationships on and off screen give resonance to a story of family that is as painfully relatable as it is funny.
Davidson plays troubled twentysomething Scott Carlin, named for Pete’s real-life dad, a Staten Island native unable to process the untimely death of his father when Scott was a young boy.
The character of his mother was inspired by Pete’s real-life mother, Amy, who was born and raised a Staten Islander herself. Oscar winner Marisa Tomei homed in on a central emotional truth about Margie.
Apatow believes that this character is a real love letter to Pete’s mother—for what his mom has done to take care of him and what she’s been through. “It’s also a tribute to his father,” Apatow says. “It’s a way to talk about his family, who he loves, and to pay tribute to how important they are to him.”
Comic actor Bill Burr portrays Ray, Margie’s boyfriend, and was cast long before he even realized he was up for the part. The first boyfriend Margie has had in decades, Ray mirrors her late husband; he’s even a member of the FDNY. Burr was chosen for the role not only because of his comic talent, but also because of his intriguing history with Pete Davidson.
In Burr’s jokes, Pete found a comic who translated pain into catharsis, with a set that wowed audiences. So, at 16, Davidson’s mom took him to see Burr at one of his shows in Atlantic City, and the following day, when they happened to run into Burr near the elevator, she forced Davidson to introduce himself. Almost 10 years after their first meeting, Davidson still describes Burr as “the best comedian of all time, and a real-life hero.”
Cast in the role of “Papa,” the veteran firefighter at Ray’s station—who knew Scott’s father when he was alive—Steve Buscemi gives a voice to seasoned members of the crew. And the legendary actor had a special connection to the role.
Before he became an actor, Buscemi was a firefighter in New York in the 1980s. After he became an actor, he returned to volunteer with the force after 9/11, joining his comrades for the most important job he’s ever had. “He understands the sacrifice these men made, because he went through it,” co-writer Dave Sirus says. That proved particularly valuable during a firefighting scene in the film. “You know when you’re watching a pro,” Bill Burr says. “The way Steve did it, the muscle memory was there.”
In one of the most biting scenes in The King of Staten Island, Scott meets Papa, along with other firefighters, at a baseball game, and at a certain point, proceeds to tell Papa why he thinks emergency responders should never have children. During the shooting of that scene at the baseball park, you could’ve heard a pin drop as Davidson spoke from the heart. “It was almost like he forgot he was filming a movie,” firefighter consultant John Sorrentino says. “He was not acting, he was venting.”
The Real Staten Island– Capturing Authenticity
While many modern films portray glamorous places such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles or Manhattan, this story tells of life from what is referred to as the “forgotten borough.” Staten Island is a close-knit community and one rarely seen on screen, so capturing its essence was important to the filmmakers.
Most of the production’s shooting locations were done on Staten Island itself, including on the iconic Staten Island Ferry and at St. George Park (home of the Staten Island Yankees).
Dave Sirus thinks the blue-collar borough gets a bad rap. “If Staten Island were between Delaware and Maryland,” Sirus says, “it would probably be considered a cooler place.”
The filmmakers wanted to make sure that they captured the reality of life of New York firefighters accurately, too, so Production designer Kevin Thompson spent a great deal of time scouting out firehouses and immersing himself in the community. “We researched and went to 20 firehouses on Staten Island,” Thompson says, “educating ourselves about how they work, how the trucks and engines work, and how many firefighters are in the station at a time.”