Since the movie stars his wife and daughters living in a house in Apatow's own Brentwood neighborhood, it's not surprising that the writer and Mann draw inspiration from their own lives. The director explained, "We talk about the movie for years together and that's where a lot of the scene ideas come from and it's a little bit of a coded conversation where we're really debating about our own problems with each other. So Leslie can complain about Pete, but not about me. So I'll say, 'Don't you think we should have a scene where we really point out how controlling Debbie is?' And then she'll say, 'Yeah, but maybe there should be a moment where Pete admits he knows he's a dick." And we go back and forth like that, kind of, subtly talking to each other for a long time and then at the end, it mutates into this other thing, which is a weird combo of me and Paul's worst traits into one monster husband that Debbie has to deal with."
"I agree. That's how it works," said Mann. "Do I have anything to add to that? It's like what I would fantasize about saying to Judd. Debbie can say these things to Pete, but Leslie can't really say these things to Judd. So it's fun. And also, like, yelling at the mother, at Melissa McCarthy. I would never do that, but that's what I fantasize about doing. You know, I would love to do that, so it's fun to have this character to live through."
Rudd also pointed to years of conversations as a crucial part of building the film, saying, "Obviously the situations are different, but there are certain aspects of marriage, parenthood, all of that stuff that seems relatable. We spent years talking about all of this stuff and we're gotten together, my wife and Leslie and Judd, we've had many dinners, we've talked about it. We did this going back to Knocked Up, too. So there are aspects of the character that are very much a part of me."
All three interviewees are now over forty and dealing with aging in their own ways. Rudd is characteristically laid back, recalling, "I remember, as a kid my dad always told me, you know, 'Getting older beats the alternative.' Although my father actually is the alternative, so I don't know what he would say."
"I think every day is different," Mann said of crossing into her forties. "Some days I feel fine and other days I feel like crying all day. I have lunches with my girlfriends who just turned 40 and some of those lunches were crying and screaming about our husbands and saying we want to leave them and run away. Then other days, other lunches were fine and we love our husbands are happy with our lives. I keep asking women who are a little bit older, asking them, like, 'When is this going to pass?' And they're like, 'It doesn't pass, it just gets worse.'"
In the film, Pete is still working in the music industry, but it buckling under the pressure of owning his own business. As the owner of a record label, Pete deals with financial stresses that aren't outwardly apparently in his seemingly idyllic existence. Like his character, Rudd has achieved a rare level of success, but identifies with Pete's frustrations, saying, "Oh, sure. Yeah. Everything's a struggle. Everything's relative, too, so I still feel like I feel like I'm struggling in many aspects. I'm not worried about paying my rent next month, if that's what you're asking, but in about two months, we'll see."
Pete's difficulties at his boutique record label concern his attempt to successfully release a new record from Graham Parker, of whom he's been a lifelong fan. Pete discovering that working with many of his musical idols isn't the dream he anticipated led to questions about surprisingly terrible jobs, and Rudd to tangentially delve into a particularly bad job. "Some of the worst jobs I've had. One of the worst was I glazed hams, which I did for half a year," he said. "Doesn't get worse. I was trying to get money to go to acting school, I was in college. It was in Kansas City before I moved to go this theater school. You get paid in ham. I got paid four or five dollars an hour. I got paid a little more than, I think, the minimum wage. It was an all-day affair. I'd unload a truck at about five in the morning and then I'd have to – oh, this is a boring process – I'd have to unwrap, ham was wrapped in cryovac. I'd undo it, I'd have to cut it, put it on a metal spit. There was a propane torch that hung down from the ceiling. I had wristguards to protect myself and I would kind of go back and forth between heating the ham and then using a sugar-sifter. They're not glazed, there's another step involved. There's human involvement. That was one of the worst. I've had several bad jobs."
Working with their children on set would seem to present a conflict of interest for Apatow and Mann. The expletives shouted by one character represented the one instance in which that was true, as Mann said, "It's fun, like for Maude, we don't allow her to curse at home. I know she does at school. So it was fun for her to be able to do that at work, which I didn't think was a great idea, but Judd thinks it's funny. So that's fun for her, but then she gets home from work and tries to say the f-word or whatever and we have to shut her down."
A subplot in This Is 40 finds Maude's character Sadie binging on the ABC series Lost, watching episodes incessantly enough that her parents are concerned. Eventually, one character even explicitly decries Lost co-creator and Star Trek director J.J. Abrams. Asked whether or not he had an axe to grind with Abrams and Lost, Apatow replied, "No, our daughter watched Lost in about six weeks and was crying a lot and emotional. We thought, 'Are we bad parents for allowing this?' But we're too lazy to keep up with her to know what the next episode is, like if it's inappropriate. So we just kind of let it happen and we realized there was some bad parenting happening. It was out of control, and I thought, 'I really don't know what to do here but it probably makes for a good couple of jokes in the movie.' That's what I usually do when I should make a strong parenting decision. I let it play out to see if a joke results from it. Probably not a good idea. But J.J. read the script and came to previews and I made sure to show everybody the footage and how we were doing it to make sure that he was was happy. But he is a geek who has ruined our lives."
One scene finds Pete exposing his most private of areas to Debbie in order that she might inspect him for the anal fissure or hemorrhoid causing him distress. The staging of the scene suggests that it must have been massively uncomfortable for Rudd. Asked if Apatow has ever presented him with a scenario for which he was not down, Rudd was at a loss, answering, "Somebody asked that me that and I'm sure there has been. Has there been anything that comes to mind?"
Mann chimed in, "Yeah, you wouldn't take off your shirt on the toilet."
"Oh, that's right, on the poster," Apatow said. "On the poster we asked him if he would do it also without his shirt. That's the only time you've ever drawn the line."
"Here's the thing," Rudd said with a laugh. "I'm not excited about any of it. I thought it would be funny. It's embarrassing and horrifying but in the context of the movie, and I think what we're all trying to go for is, you know, some kind of reality. And also if it's funny, there's certainly no room for vanity. I was laughing as I was doing it, as I was dying on the inside."
Though the movie balances earnest drama and more outrageous comedy, some scenes fall very much in one camp. When Pete and Debbie are called into the principal's office at their daughters' school over a dispute with another child and parent, Melissa McCarthy dominates the scene as Catherine, a mother with no love for the couple.
Mann singled out that scene as the most difficult to perform without laughing, saying, "Melissa McCarthy was the hardest to do. That was impossible and it was the weirdest thing. I've never experienced that. Maybe one time I crack up and then I can hold it together from then on, but with her, it was hours. Hours. We just could not keep a straight face and finally we just gave up and Judd said that he was using more than camera so we could just laugh because we couldn't keep a straight face. And the crew were all laughing. I mean it was ridiculous. She's just the funniest person ever."
"I've seen people on tears before, but that was something otherwordly," Rudd agreed. "People were leaving the room. Crew had to leave. it was impossible and she just kept her composure through all of it."
"It was a combo of rehearsals," Apatow said of the scene, which consisted of scripted material and improvisation. "Our executive producer Paula Pell is from Saturday Night Live, she's been there for like sixteen years. She's one of the funniest people ever, she had a couple really funny ones. It was a combination, but what happens on scenes like that is we know the scene should be like four minutes but by the end of it the script is about eight minutes. We can kind of tell how we could compress it but we're not sure yet, so we just let it be a big scene. Melissa's maybe one of the best improvisers there. I've never seen anything like that other than, like, Chris Farley. If he looked you the eye, like if you had to do anything with him, you would bust up. There's this kind of madness for certain people that you can't—it's hard to look into. You just stare at their foreheads."
"That didn't work either. Nothing worked," Mann said with a laugh.
This Is 40 opens everywhere on Friday, December 21st.