The director talks about making the film, not enjoying success and his next untitled movie

Judd Apatow has seemingly made a career out of taking the uncomfortable experiences we all share, and finding the humor within them so that we can laugh at ourselves. Getting his beginning on the groundbreaking "The Larry Sanders Show," Apatow would go on to be one of the creative forces behind the respected TV show "Freaks and Geeks," as well as the much lauded and laughed through Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. However, it would be The 40 Year Old Virgin, that would seem to perfectly fuse his talent for mixing comedy with the more serious aspects (and seminal moments) of life.

Directing Steve Carell as Andy Stitzer, a 40 year old man who has not yet made love to a woman, seems like a situation that would be ripe with comedy. And it is, yet The 40 Year Old Virgin is not a film filled with mindless laughs and scenes of sexual attempts. It is the story of a man coming to terms with who he is and what he wants from his life. Amidst this there are many laughs and some sexual attempts, however, Apatow seems to have found the perfect middle ground between being funny and being honest.

Was there ever any resistance from the studio over the title The 40 Year Old Virgin?

Judd Apatow: You know, there wasn't. We just handed it in with that on the cover. There might have been one moment where somebody said, "Are we happy with this title?" And I probably said, "Yes." I'm all for incredibly obvious titles. Anchorman, The 40 Year Old Virgin. As a filmgoer I need that type of clarity.

How did you and Steve Carell come up with the movie and all of these characters because they're all individually unique?

Judd Apatow: Well, how I approach it is I start casting early in the writing process, so I can tailor the script to the gifts of the actors. I knew that there would be a bunch of friends at an audio/video store. I was open to anyone playing the friends, and then I figured I would rewrite the script to what's funny about those guys. I'd seen Paul Rudd and Romany Malco in this independent film called The Chateau, and I remember thinking I didn't understand why Romany Malco wasn't a big star? And I was excited to hire someone I thought was great whom nobody seemed to know. It just makes the thing seem much fresher. Seth Rogen is someone who I've championed for many years. He was on "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" and is another person I thought could be a big comedy star. And Paul Rudd and I had a lot of fun on Anchorman, so it was pretty easy to realize I should hire those guys.

And then Steve worked with Jane Lynch at "Second City" so he recommended her. And Leslie Mann is my wife, she played Nicky the drunk driver. And Elizabeth Banks, we thought was great in movies like Wet Hot American Summer. She just came in and auditioned and Catherine Keener was the first choice. When I said, "So who do you think you should play the female lead?" He said, "Oh, it would be a dream to get Catherine Keener." And oddly, we tricked her into doing it.

So it sounds like you do multiple drafts of a script pertaining to each specific character?

Judd Apatow: Well, basically I'll bring everybody in and improvise with them. We'll just play around and talk about the best approach to creating the characters. So it's not like I have the character all figured out. I don't. I might know I need one guy who's good with women, but that's about it. And then me and Romany will start talking and improvising, and slowly we fill in all the holes.

Was there a lot of improv done on the set?

Judd Apatow: What I tend to do is shoot the script and then really let them go far afield. I just let them say whatever they want to say. And if it seems like they're heading in an interesting direction, we'll hone it as we go. I definitely want to know what their take on it is.

I remember reading in Entertainment Weekly before the movie even opened that you had been a bit nervous about how the film would perform. At what point do you personally stop being nervous? When the good word of mouth starts? When box office numbers come in?

Judd Apatow: I think what I do is I start thinking about the next movie before it's a success, so I can never have one moment of happiness or peace. I'm instantly thinking about the next one. Even now as I look back you realize how much you let that moment go. (Laughs) You didn't really take it easy and relax and enjoy the success. When the movie came out I was moving to North Carolina to produce Will Ferrell's Nascar movie. So I was in complete overlap mode. I get happy when when we start showing the movie to audiences for the first time, and people laugh and respond. All the previews were really positive. It was great fun to see that we weren't crazy and that the movie was working well.

Is it possible that we'll ever see a sequel to The 40 Year Old Virgin?

Judd Apatow: I think that there's no way that you could have a sequel. I think the deed has been done.

No pun intended.

Judd Apatow: Yup.

When you're writing how do you discern whether something is funny? If it makes you laugh? Do you solicit opinions?

Judd Apatow: It's basically an instinct you get after many years of thinking about it. I do this with my kids. They'll make certain jokes and I can tell that if I laugh at that joke that will become part of their joke arsenal. So I can see how their sense of humor develops. And that's something you learn. I was a stand up comedian for a long time. I've worked on a lot of projects, and you just slowly figure out what your point of view is, and you get a gut instinct about it and you hope you're not crazy. One of my fears is that I'm suddenly not going to be funny, but still think I am. That's like my nightmare that I can wake up in a cold sweat from.

What do you have coming up next?

Judd Apatow: The next thing I'm gonna do is a movie that stars Seth Rogen who played Cal in The 40 Year Old Virgin. It's an odd romantic comedy that also stars my wife, Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd.

Does it have a title yet?

Judd Apatow: It is untitled at this moment. And the Nascar movie with Will Ferrell is gonna come out in August, and it stars Sacha Baron Cohen, John C. Reilly, Gary Cole and Michael Clarke Duncan. It's really fun.

The 40 Year Old Virgin comes out on DVD December 13th, 2005.

Evan Jacobs