Home Film Dave Sirus on the Real Life Implications of ‘The King of Staten Island’ – Exclusive Interview

Dave Sirus on the Real Life Implications of ‘The King of Staten Island’ – Exclusive Interview

by Frankie Gilmore

Dave Sirus has just made a major break with The King of Staten Island. The writer has a notable reputation for his more “insulting” approach to comedy. Before writing The King of Staten Island alongside director Judd Apatow and star Pete Davidson, Sirus was mainly known as Brick Stone. Under the alias, Sirus notoriously infiltrated and interviewed hate groups, such as the Westboro Baptist Church, for the sake of much-needed comedic content. Sirus would soon after gain a nomination in the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards for his writing contributions to Saturday Night Live. Sirus is also a writer for the one and only Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

The King of Staten Island is a semi-autobiographical telling of Pete Davidson’s upbringing. The film tackles Davidson’s mental struggles that have been manifesting since the loss of his father, who passed serving as a firefighter during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Judd Apatow returns to directing a narrative feature after a 5 year break (Trainwreck), making for one of 2020’s must-see films. The Universal production was originally set to debut at SXSW, but the premiere was postponed due to the ongoing pandemic. Thankfully, people now get to experience this unconventional, yet powerful comedy through a VOD release safe from home.

For Dave Sirus being such an unconventional writer with an out of the ordinary feature debut, it’s only fit to have an unusual conversation for an exclusive interview. We break down what the film means for him, star Pete Davidson, and others out there who are sure to connect with the lead character’s attempts to catch-up with a world passing him by. Spoiler Warning for our conversation unveils specific inspirations, alternative scenarios, and the layered writing process behind The King of Staten Island.

Pete Davidson, Dave Sirus, Judd Apatow, and cinematographer Robert Elswit on the set of ‘The King of Staten Island’ . Courtesy of Universal

The King of Staten Island combines a lot of stuff that we’ve seen before in comedies, like those of the “schlubby” guy finding his way in life. However, this is a lot more honest, dark, and poignant. Congratulations on that.

DS: Thank you. I think when people see this, they will recognize that Judd has really branched out from what we expect of him, which is doing movies about chubby/ lanky potheads (laughs). I mean, I want people to like it. I’m glad you were able to see it. I’m glad you liked it. It was a very ambitious movie for Judd, especially because as you can see in the movie, he is absolutely not his comfort zone. He really expanded his purview as a filmmaker, the way he wanted this to be a nontraditional story and to make a more original movie out of it.

His movies, as far as demographic, tend to skew to younger audiences. Being on the younger side and still finding my own may, the film genuinely spoke to me in that sense. A lot of other young viewers will feel that way as well. Were you and Pete Davidson intentionally trying to channel that in writing the film? Did it just come naturally from both of your own experiences?

DS: We never went into it thinking, “This is who’s going to like it, this is who we’re going to attract”. It was always just trying to make the best story out of the material we had, which was mine and Pete’s past. Just trying to make a story that was true. That it was real experiences despite being fictional. I think we always knew that it would appeal to the people who identify with him and that’s what was naturally going to happen. So we never thought of it in terms of demographics or who was going to like it, our attitude was always: it’ll be liked by people who like this kind of movie. If you like a realistic, heartfelt comedy – this is something we think will appeal to you. But that was never a conscious discussion, just like my opinion. This is the kind of movie that can appeal to those who enjoy both Pete and Judd’s work. I’m sure that if there are any people out there who like mine, I assume they will like this too.

Your stand-up and YouTube channel Brick Stone are also hilarious. Some of that humor can be identified within the film. Like that moment in the tattoo shop where Pete is making fun of the guy with the Confederate flag tattoo…

DS: I actually drew a lot of the tattoos myself, I went to art school. From that scene, that guy’s dead brother is my brother’s face. 

Oh really?

DS: Yeah… Someday we’ll do something that’s a little bit more aligned with that side of my writing. That will be more of a full-scale insult movie I think. 

Were there any films that particularly inspired The King of Staten Island in writing or even during the filming process?

DS: To be honest, in making this movie, I can’t say that there was anything that specifically informed it. There were movies that we were aware of being in line with what we were doing, which specifically would be like Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick. That’s just another example of a fictionalized version of a real-life event and trying to just use the most poignant parts of a person’s life to make a story that shows you who they are. Then again, Judd obviously was involved in The Big Sick. So it’s not like we were totally inspired by it. It’s more like, “Hey, this is a good movie to look at”.

There are even shades of Scorsese in the film, as far as the lone New Yorker trying to find his way. Yourself, Judd, and Pete also play with a lot of really interesting genre elements. The drugstore robbery scene, which has engaging action beats, being one example. Was this intentional?

DS: It’s hard for me to speak to that because I think when making this, there was a lot of reinventing the wheel involved where you’re just saying: we’re not doing a traditional plot, we’re not doing one that is going to be particularly recognizable. It’s important when you’re doing a movie like this, so that they don’t see the bones of it. There was never a conscious decision about what the genres were. It was really about us with Judd at the helm. Us all brainstorming about how we can explore this person and just try and use the rules of making an honest story.

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One writer that Judd is a huge fan of his is David Milch, the writer of Deadwood. He actually had me read all of David Milch’s speeches that he gave while teaching a filmmaking class. Milch really just goes into how to organically create characters that are real, that are accurate, that are whole, and I really learned a lot from that. It really showed me that to do this right, you have to really open your brain. You can’t be in a box. You have to really be willing to make mistakes. You have to be willing to look at things from very far away and see it all at once. It was a really great experience.

So, I can’t say that we ever talked about things that nitty-gritty like you mentioned. We weren’t saying, “This is going to be an action movie at this point”. It was all just trusting the process and trusting ourselves – putting together something that felt real, that felt like who Pete would be. Really, who would this person be without the luck that he’s had in his career? Without all the benefits that came with his comedy career?

That definitely makes sense. Another thing that has a lot of eyes on the film, particularly, is the fact that Pete is such a big star right now. He’s been very open and vulnerable about how tough it can be in that spotlight. Was there a sense of trying to explain himself for anything that he might have received heat for? Nowadays, he sneezes and there are articles about it.

DS: To be honest, I can tell you that we never really had a discussion like that. We never talked about it in that way. It was never about explaining himself. It was always just about using what he’s experienced to try to make something positive out of it. It’s a therapeutic movie. I think you would agree in many ways and for him, especially, because he really wants to move on from this. And he gets criticized even for that. People think he’s milking it even. If you think that he wants to think about this all the time, you do not understand him. 

Oh definitely.

Davidson and Apatow on the set of ‘The King of Staten Island’. Courtesy of Universal

That’s something that people really don’t get. It’s not an act. None of Pete’s vulnerability, none of Pete’s emotion is an act. It is a daily struggle that he deals with of being traumatized. And it’s not about Pete’s pain. If there’s anything about who this is for, it’s supposed to be for anyone who had trouble dealing with loss. Also about the concept of a hero. The concept of the sacrifices that people make to be regular day heroes, to be first responders and things like that. We never thought of it as an explanation. We always thought of it as just wanting to make something good out of this pain. We wanted to make something that will help other people and that will help him.

That genuinely comes across in the film. That sincerity really tracks and you guys did a great job with that.

DS: Thank you. It’s very hard to do anything without a blueprint.

My favorite moment in the entire film is when Claire and Scott are talking about her leaving for school. She’s wondering, “Well, if I leave are you going to hurt yourself?” And he says probably. It’s a funny moment, but it’s also really heartbreaking and vulnerable. There are movies that allude to things like that and are about these heavy things, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it explicitly stated like that…

DS: I honestly don’t remember who wrote that line because everything was written so many times over and over again. There are only a few lines that I can specifically say who wrote because it was just such an organic process. But my thinking in that line where he says probably, what he’s really saying to her is that it was going to happen whether she left or not. That it’s not her fault. A lot of the pain the character has, a lot of when the character is rejecting people – is just like any real person in that situation would do. There’s a sense of guilt like, “Look, if I do this, I want you to be able to live your life”. At that point in the story, Scott is someone who, yeah, he might kill himself. He doesn’t want to, but he might and he knows he might. He loves his family and he’s basically saying that he doesn’t want that to be the end of them either. 

Just like in real life, you don’t want someone like that to feel like their only reason for living is for someone else, but you also don’t want them feeling like their death isn’t going to devastate that person. You can’t explain it away. You can’t excuse it. It’s going to hurt people. A lot of people out there understand the instinct of living for someone else. They’re living because they don’t want to hurt someone. What I hope they understand from this movie is that those feelings at the moment feel permanent, but they’re probably not.

Absolutely. When Scott is kicked out of the house by his mom, he realizes that he has to find something for himself. He was there for his mom and his sister is gone now too. Him going to the firehouse, many might have expected the arc to end with him becoming a firefighter. Or maybe you would start to see him train to become a firefighter, but it’s more so the catalyst for greater personal change. What was the thinking behind that?

DS: We shot certain scenes that did not make the final edit, things that would have taken place after the last scene. There was a lot of discussion about an ending that is both uplifting and realistic. We never wanted the movie to say, “This is it! You can just get over it” because he doesn’t. He just gets a little better. That’s the message, he’s open now. We see that for the first time, he’s actually willing to be better, grow, and move on. 

I wonder watching this new cut, if people thought we were implying that he was going to become a fireman, which he’s not. That was never really what we considered. Whether or not I’m allowed to tell you what is supposed to happen to him afterward, I can tell you that it does involve him doing the hard work to reach his goals and actually finding a place where he belongs. Finding a purpose, and it’s not in the firehouse. Because you think you’re going one way, but actually it’s about what he learns in the firehouse. It’s not about being a fireman. It’s not just about becoming his dad. But at the end of the movie originally, it was just going to show that he’s taking steps in the directions he finally should be going.

Davidson and Apatow on the set of ‘The King of Staten Island’. Courtesy of Universal

That final shot, which is genuinely gorgeous, is really layered with meaning as far as looking up to see the One World Trade Center in the background, which is really sweet.

DS: Well, Robert Elswit is an amazing director of photography.

He’s incredible. When you realize that he was also the DP for stuff like Boogie Nights, that explains why it looks so gorgeous.

DS: The Bourne Identity, There Will Be Blood, I mean, talk about using a bazooka to hammer a nail. The guy who did some of the greatest action scenes ever and getting to see him just focus on this was really pretty cool. That’s the great thing about your first movie being directed and produced by Judd Apatow, you get the best people. Somebody who knows how to treat people. Also what’s great about this is, I’ve spent my entire life doing mostly projects where I was literally every person in the crew. I was a one-man crew. When I did Brick Stone stuff, I did literally everything but hold the camera myself. So it’s really great to even be on a set where everyone is a professional and has a job.

And it’s not like even a smaller kind of crew where you have people running around like crazy, everyone trying to keep up with each other. We actually had the money to have a real machine, not the kind of process where everyone’s just frantically trying to get shots – I’ve certainly been there too. The only other set I’ve really spent much time on was Pete’s other movie, Big Time Adolescence, which I wasn’t involved in, but I was there simply because Pete and I had writing to do while filming. Then I also spent some time on the set of The Suicide Squad, just hanging out once again. Pete was there and we had to work on this movie.

Do you have any other projects that you’ve been working on? Or even just speaking to stuff that you would want to do, if it’s in the same vein or something wildly different?

DS: Well currently, I also write for Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. We have a bunch of stuff going on right now. For other non-Triumph related things with the writer Robert Smigel, we have a project that was delayed because of COVID, but we’ll hopefully still be on the air in the next several months, maybe by next year. Hopefully, before the end of the year, we’re doing some stuff with TBS and Funny or Die, which is all coming out. That’s a good thing that’s kept me busy during this time. Pete and I are also working on other scripts, things that could potentially go somewhere. It’s a very weird time because you want to get writing, but there’s not a lot of stuff getting greenlit. So you’re not really sure what’s the best thing to spend your time on. 

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I love the Triumph stuff. I’ve judged a few roast battles and comedy fight club battles online. That’s been the bulk of my time. That was, of course, previous to the last week or so where I completely stopped paying attention to anything else except for what was going on with the George Floyd protests. Honestly, even right now, I feel like a huge as*hole talking about a movie. Even asking anyone to think for a second about this movie. I haven’t d much promotion. I haven’t tweeted or posted much about it or anything else aside from the protests. So it’s a very weird situation just because the last thing I wanted was to try to pull attention away from that, or even make it seem for a second that I thought that this was of comparable importance.

You sincerely don’t want to feel like you’re ignoring it or pretending like it doesn’t exist. I totally understand what you mean.

DS: You can’t help but feel guilty even. This is my job and the movie still had to come out on a certain date and I really do hope that people enjoy it. But I want to be clear that I haven’t been really thinking about the movie at all these last few weeks.

What can be said though, the movie really is hilarious. People will really enjoy it and it’s going to speak to a lot of people the way it spoke to me. One final question, do you have any advice for aspiring comedians, actors, or filmmakers in terms of really making yourself heard?

DS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I spent a very long time struggling and trying to get even close to this position. Trying to get in this industry is so hard. I can just say to anyone out there that feels the same way, that desperately wants in this industry. My advice to you, find a much more famous comedian to become your best friend and just make sure he knows he’ll never be anything without you (laughs). That’s the attitude. Try to become indispensable to someone better than you. I think that’s the best advice.

Read our review of The King of Staten Island and rent on the film on VOD today!

Follow writer Frankie Gilmore on Twitter: @yahboyantman

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