VICE Sports Q&A: Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, Directors of "Doc & Darryl"
Comedian Judd Apatow makes his documentary directorial debut with the ESPN 30 for 30 film "Doc & Darryl".
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Darryl Strawberry joined the Mets as a 21-year-old in May of 1983, drilled 26 home runs, and won the National League Rookie of the Year award in an absolute cakewalk. The following season, 19-year-old Dwight Gooden reported to Shea Stadium, went 17-9 with 276 strikeouts and won the ROY by an even bigger margin. Both players were spectacular in '85, with Strawberry belting 29 dingers in 111 games, and Gooden throwing up an otherworldly 24-4 record with 268 Ks, a 1.53 ERA, and winning a Cy Young in his second season. The next year, of course, Gooden and Strawberry were cornerstones for the hardest-partying, 108-regular-season-game-winning, 16-inning-Astros-NLCS-beating, Kevin-Mitchell-freeballing, through-Buckner's-legs-Vin-Scullying, World-Series-championing New York Mets.
Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. The two young, uber-talented, African-American, Gotham superstars destined for Cooperstown who succumbed to the cocaine-fueled Bright Lights, Big City era-New York City. Dr. K. and The Straw Man lived seemingly parallel lives, right down to the oddity of sharing the 1980s nerd-signifying middle name of Eugene, but they didn't share a mind, body, or soul. An addict's rock bottom is theirs to live alone.
Sad similar stories for sure, but Gooden and Strawberry have never even been that close of friends, and it took the funniest of men to bring them together. Long Island native Judd Apatow, America's one-man comedy conglomerate, is a lifelong Mets fan (see: Quinn, Colin; Trainwreck) who's been itching to get into the non-fiction film game. He joins the documentarian ranks with Doc & Darryl, the first in his career. Apatow, 48, enlisted the help of Michael Bonfiglio, 40, the director of You Don't Know Bo, and a behind-the-scenes guy on renowned docs like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and the Paradise Lost series.
Even taking into account most of Apatow's directorial efforts are that most Reagan-era of words, dramedies, fans of This is 40 and the like might be surprised how somber, unsentimental, and painful Doc & Darryl can be. It's about the struggles of two difficult men—a hard-nosed NA meeting set in a Goodfellas diner—who happened to be all-star baseball players and teammates. Apatow and Bonfiglio spoke with VICE Sports about their entry in the 30 For 30 series.
VICE Sports: I'm guessing people don't generally think of Judd Apatow as a sports guy, but throughout your career there are multiple instances—Celtic Pride, the secret fantasy baseball league in Knocked Up, Talladega Nights—what role has sports played throughout your life?
Judd Apatow: Sports had a big effect on me as a kid because I was bad at them. Being picked last every day was the humiliation which turned me into a comedian. It made me question how everything worked because it felt so cruel. It also gave me compassion for suffering. But I was okay at tennis.
I thought LeBron was really funny in Trainwreck. Curious how you went about getting such a great performance out of him...
Apatow: I think athletes are generally pretty funny. They give each other a hard time all day long and they travel a lot, so they watch tons of comedies. LeBron showed up to the set a very good actor, and a hilarious improviser. He took the job seriously, but was flexible and up for anything. He really put his trust in me. I think the confidence he built working on Trainwreck was probably the main reason why the Cavs won the championship this year.
There are plenty of decent sports dramas, biopics, and family films, but the list of great sports comedies is short. Bull Durham, Bad News Bears, Slap Shot come to mind, but on the whole, not a lot. Any theories as to why there are so few great sports-centric comedies?
Apatow: Done well, I think sports comedies are the best, but it rarely happens. I don't think they're harder to make than other types of movies. It's really difficult to make a good movie about anything. It's not like asteroids-about-to-hit-Earth movies are easy and sports ones are hard. Any time a movie works, it's kind of a miracle.
Doc & Darryl is your first documentary film, what appealed to you about doing a non-fiction project at this point in your career?
Apatow: I love documentaries. I like them way more than scripted fare. Documentary is the category I always check first when searching for something to watch. I have enjoyed making docs for DVD extras about our films, and have always wanted to make a real one. I met my co-director Michael Bonfiglio when he directed an episode of Iconoclasts featuring myself and Lena Dunham. He was so talented that when I thought of this idea I knew he would be a fun collaborator.
I'm always trying to capture the truth in a story. In a documentary that's clearly the goal, so it feels natural to me.
How did you help Judd transfer his comedic filmmaking skills to the the non-fiction realm?
Bonfiglio: I don't think I helped him in any way — if anything he helped me. Judd is so associated with comedy, but almost all of his work is really about people and how life works — especially the difficult and uncomfortable things it throws at us. To me, Doc & Darryl feels like a real part of Judd's canon, there are just way fewer jokes.
Tell us a bit about your Mets fandom...
Apatow: I was a fan of the Mets since the early 70's, dad used to take me to see games at Shea. They were terrible for my entire childhood, which I loved. They won the World Series two years after I left for college, but I liked it when nobody was at the games. It felt like a private club of diehards. I liked showering affection on the Mets when they couldn't win. I probably wished someone would have done that for me when I was awful in gym class.
Bonfiglio: I grew up in a small town in Central New York called Clinton. To be honest, I've never been much of a sports fan, so my memories of Gooden and Strawberry were more as cultural figures. I was aware that they were superstar players when I was a kid, but my main context for them was jokes about their troubles on late-night comedy shows. I knew they were heroes to many who had been reduced to caricatures and punchlines. So when Judd told me the idea, I immediately wanted to know who they were as human beings. What it's been like for them to live such extreme lives. It's exactly what Judd was interested in, too.
Getting Gooden and Strawberry together at the diner, and building their intertwined stories out from there, gave the film a humanity that I don't think your garden variety talking head doc would've had. How did bringing them together shape the film?
Apatow: Our primary interest was in their friendship. Are they friends or do we tie them together because they were the two young saviors of the team who later crashed on drugs? We wanted to see what it would elicit if they spoke to each other and not just to the camera. I don't remember ever seeing them speak at length before this; it felt like a unique approach. They've had common triumphs and problems. We felt like they would have a lot to say to each other about those experiences.
Bonfiglio: Getting them together was a centerpiece of the film from conception. They agreed to do it as a prerequisite to beginning the film—we shot their individual interviews first—so we always had this in mind. The whole conversation at the diner took place over the course of about 2-3 hours, with breaks. It was clear from the beginning of their conversation that there was some awkwardness. They hadn't sat and talked to each other in a long time and hadn't ever discussed many of the things they covered that day. Initially, I think they were somewhat reluctant to have a substantive conversation. It took prodding to get them to take the conversation into the places we wanted it to go. We were shocked that while they've known each other for over thirty years, there were so many things they'd never discussed. The fact that Darryl had never asked Doc what happened to him the morning of the '86 World Series victory parade completely blew me away.
Doc and Darryl are obviously linked in the public eye in so many ways, but as Strawberry says, that's on us, not them. They weren't best friends by any means, how would you characterize their relationship, then and now?
Apatow: I think they care about each other. I know they would help each other if called upon, but I don't know if they will put in real work to be friends. It remains to be seen.
There are a few smiles in Doc & Darryl, and one great kosher joke by Howie Rose, but it's a heavy trip. Plenty more darkness than light. Did you know that's what the film was going to be be, or was there a point where it became clear that there's no escaping these are two tragic figures who've lived deeply troubled lives...
Apatow: When we started, I thought it would be about two guys who survived tough times, kicking around those experiences in a way maybe they hadn't before. I didn't realize how tragic, how many, and how recent some of those moments were. It's not about something that happened decades ago, this story is still very fresh. They're both in a day-to-day struggle to stay sober and healthy. Darryl has two rehab clinics and made his life work helping people and himself. Doc appears to be having a harder time. I have great compassion for them. Addiction is a terrible disease and they've worked so hard, for so long, to overcome it.
Bonfiglio: There are definitely a few laughs, but we were always interested in going to the darkest places because that's their collective story. This was never going to be a fun 80's nostalgia romp. At the outset, Judd and I thought we'd have a more purely inspiring ending, but the recent nature of Doc's troubles made it more complex. This is a more truthful portrait of addiction — it doesn't just go away.
One thing I admired about Doc & Darryl is that the drinking and drugging—including "greenies" which were nearly mandatory—and the domestic violence is presented thoroughly and rather matter-of-factly. How did you approach their personal horror stories without being exploitative or melodramatic, while still giving the full picture of both Gooden and Strawberry's aberrant behavior?
Apatow: Some of the incidents are really awful, but we didn't want to judge. We just wanted to tell the truth and let these two men tell you how they feel about these terrible moments in their lives. Sometimes, you can tell they are truly ashamed at things they have done. Other times, it's hard to tell if they truly understand the pain they've caused. They lost a lot as a result of their behavior and part of Doc & Darryl is showing how they tell this big story to themselves, and to us. It took a lot of courage for them to allow this movie to be made. It's a giving gesture. I hope it helps some people avoid their troubles.
Bonfiglio: We worked very hard to achieve what we thought was the right balance. Doc and Darryl did some truly horrible things — it wasn't just that they were doing tons of coke and fucking up just their own lives. They've hurt a lot of people along the way, and we didn't want to let them off the hook for the things they did. Especially with the domestic violence and the rape allegation, we thought it was very important not to ignore or sugarcoat anything. I'm sure some viewers will see some of that stuff and conclude that these guys are unforgivable villains. As filmmakers, it's not our job to judge. So much of the way they've both been publicly presented is as either hero or monster, but life is much more complex than that. From the beginning, we told them we would be truthful and not pull any punches. Regardless of what anyone thinks of these guys after having seen the film, I think their willingness to discuss everything was an incredibly brave decision on their parts.
Did making Doc & Darryl take any of the joy out of being a Mets fan, or of the memories of the '86 season?
Apatow: Not at all. It was another time. Doc and Straw talk about how it was before the Internet, before entertainment news, so they were pretty much able to do anything they wanted and people would never hear about it. It's what led to a lot of their problems. Nobody held them accountable until they crashed.
The Bo Jackson 30 For 30 was great, but had a totally different vibe. Although Bo's career was cut short, it was football itself, not his demons that cut it short and he seems to have lived the life he wanted. Can you compare/contrast what it was like retelling the stories of these three 80s sports icons?
Bonfiglio: Yes, the vibe of that film was completely different. With Bo, I wanted to explore the phenomenon of a person who appeared to be more than human, and have the feeling of the film reflect that unrealness (is that a word?). It was purposefully over-the-top and idealized. With Doc & Darryl, the approach was the opposite. We wanted to dig as deeply as we could into the most human qualities of these men. In some ways, I think of the Jackson film as the other side of the coin of Gooden and Strawberry. Bo is a folk tale. It's about how dreaming and having heroes can bring us positivity and inspiration. Doc & Darryl shows how failure to accept difficult realities — on the part of the individual as well as the fans — can be extremely dangerous.
I think teams like the '86 Mets, the mid-70's Raiders, early 90s-University of Miami Hurricanes, or performers like Belushi, Farley, Pryor, and too many musicians to count, are still revered not just because of their enormous talents and success, but also because they lived these lives of massive dangerous excess that you don't see much anymore in the public sphere. I don't know if it's nostalgia, but there is certainly a cottage industry for stories of celebrity debauchery of relatively recent yore, isn't there?
Apatow: People are always fascinated by how talented people handle their success, in both good and bad ways. These guys were basically kids who came to the biggest city in the world, almost straight out of high school, to play a high pressure sport in the 80's era of cocaine and excess with no supervision. Coming from dysfunctional situations, they were not equipped to handle all that came at them.
Bonfiglio: Without question. We open the film with a William S. Burroughs quote, one of the most celebrated junkies of all time. I'm not sure what draws some of us — as a culture — toward these figures who live on the edge, but I do think lives of excess seem a little less romantic than they used to. Maybe it has something to do with TMZ, social media, the exposure of the ugliness of a lifestyle that degrades one's humanity... It just doesn't seem like fun. Maybe I'm getting old.
The '86 squad is far from under-covered—both Lenny Dykstra and Ron Darling have books out right now—what made you think there was enough new material here to carry a documentary and how did you keep it from being yet another rehash of those wild and crazy Animal House Mets?
Bonfiglio: We made a conscious effort not to make this a film about the '86 Mets. We really wanted to focus on these two individuals who lived bizarrely parallel — though very different — lives. We weren't specifically interested in uncovering new stories about the past, even though we did stumble across a few that are in Doc & Darryl. We just wanted to see these two guys together, talking about their lives with one another. It was something that hadn't been seen before. We put a lot of faith in the idea that if we could get them together in the same room, something interesting would come out of it in terms of understanding who these guys really are.
Are you more concerned for the futures of Gooden and Strawberry, and their families, than if you had never made Doc & Darryl?
Apatow: I have known a lot of comedians with similar problems. Many survive, some don't. So as a fan and a human being, I hope they triumph over their addictions and find happiness and peace.
The film features Jon Stewart and Bill Maher and could've included Chris Rock, Hank Azaria, Jerry Seinfeld, yourself... What is it about New York comics and the Mets?
Apatow: I know, so many comics love this team. I thought it would be fun to have comics speak because I'm a comic and it seemed like it would be a nice change from the usual talking heads you see in sports documentaries. Jon Stewart was very eloquent about the issues these men face.
How do you think Judd did in his maiden voyage as a documentarian?
Bonfiglio: It's hard to say, because I'm too close to Doc & Darryl to know whether it's any good or not. In terms of working with him on it, he knocked it out of the park (pardon the pun). Judd is so tuned into the human condition, so fascinated and curious about life, how we behave and struggle to make it through, and those qualities — coupled with his storytelling skills — taught me a lot, even though I was the one with documentary experience. Judd is one of my favorite filmmakers, so it was a genuine thrill for me to work with him in a new form.
Lastly Judd, what is your greatest Mets memory of the Doc and Darryl era?
Apatow: My best memory was seeing Dwight Gooden pitch and the fans going nuts with every ball he threw. It was like a three-hour ninth inning. Pure joy joy to watch.