The Brentwood set of "Knocked Up" has been decorated for a kiddie birthday party, complete with white tents, pink balloons, tiny chairs and decorative butterfly wings, but what's happening in front of the camera is far from child's play.
Stars Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd (wearing a crown that looks suspiciously like one that might be worn by a Burger King) and Leslie Mann (in a tiara fit for a princess) have completed what director Judd Apatow describes as the "nice version" of a scene. The three actors hit the assigned dialogue and the major plotpoints -- Rogen's character is surprised and disappointed to discover that the couple played by Mann and Rudd have reconciled -- but the humor is missing, minus Rogen's party gift, "a doll that pees." Then, though, Apatow turns his leading men loose to improv.
Several cracks about Rogen's shorts evolve into a wildly profane series of dialogue in which each man impugns the other's masculinity and brings the other's sexual preference into question. As children play outside, Rogen and Rudd tear into each other (and into a number of celebrity icons) with enthusiasm as Apatow lets the cameras roll, periodically shouting helpful cues like, "Do the Vagisil one." The "40 Year-Old Virgin" veterans seem to have an unlimited supply of ammunition and it's not surprising that the scene evolves into something very much like the "You know how I know that you're gay?" sequence from "Virgin."
"You know what the headline of their article is," Apatow says, glancing at the small pack of journalists watching from the side. "'There Are No New Ideas.'"
As the writer of "Cable Guy" and executive producer on "Freaks & Geeks" and "Undeclared," it's not surprising that Apatow is eager to follow the blueprint for "Virgin," which made more than $175 million worldwide.
"It felt nice because so many of our projects have been critical favorites and financial failures and in the last few years, a lot of the projects that we've been working on have been successful in the way we always thought they might be if we were given a chance to do them the way we thought they should be done," explains Apatow.
In "Knocked Up," Rogen plays an aimless schlub who has a one-night stand with a beautiful E! reporter (Katherine Heigl). When she becomes pregnant, the unlikely couple is forced to see if they have anything in common and if they have a future together.
"I look at it as part of my Pat Robertson moral trilogy: The first movie is the anti-sex before marriage. This is the anti-abortion movie. Soon it'll be the anti-Jew movie and then I'll realize I'm Jewish and get all confused," Apatow jokes. "Because I keep making these movies and saying wow they're dirty but they have these really moralistic messages. How's this happening?"
However strangely conservative the messages, Apatow's films have a liberal production process, an anything-goes methodology that has earned him support from Kodak (he shoots a quantity of film usually reserved for four-hour epics) and from the actors in his ensemble.
"I like doing comedies like this because when something organic happens, it can be so weird and funny," says Rudd. "And just from a creative stand point, it's fun to go to work everyday because you don't know what the scene will yield."
Rudd and Rogen, supporting players in "Virgin" elevated to leads here, have a particularly strong rapport.
"Me and Rudd are amused by very similar obscure referential types of things; we will degenerate any scene to us arguing about 'Back to the Future,'" Rogen notes.
Rudd agrees that that bond may have something to do with Apatow's surplus of footage.
"We both have the same kind of useless, encyclopedic knowledge of the most random facts or people," Rudd says. "So no one will laugh, but me and Seth will just amuse ourselves; it's just burning a lot of footage."
On one hand, the "Knocked Up" shooting style seems freeing, but if can be scary if it isn't way you're used to working.
"I was really terrified, because you're putting so much more of yourself out there and if it's not funny, it's on you. It's not because the lines weren't funny, it's because you weren't funny," says Heigl ("Grey's Anatomy"). "So that's a little intimidating. I've tried, as we've sort of gotten into the flow of things, to be more risky and to take more chances with it and just to get into the fray and I definitely feel more confident about it than in the beginning, but I don't know."
Heigl has at least won over her romantic foil.
"She's awesome -- she's really, really, really funny," Rogen raves. "I'm blown away and terrified by her at the same time; we spend half the movie screaming at each other, and she screams a lot better than I do -- she could tear me a new one."
Viewers will have to wait a while to find out how "Knocked Up" turns out. The Universal comedy isn't scheduled to go wide until August 2007.