“Surviving A Trauma” Says Dave Sirius Co-Writer Of “The King Of Staten Island”
SNL’s Pete Davidson semi-autobiographical The King Of Staten Island with co-writers Judd Apatow and Dave Sirius finally made it to the big screen after a long gestation. “It is a love letter to my mom. It was a way of letting go of that part of my life,” declared Davidson. Other than a creative triumph, the movie means a lot to him.
A screenplay was originally written (and rewritten multiple times) by Davidson and Sirius over many years. Later Judd Apatow came on board and reworked the entire project as a trio to become The King Of Staten Island. It is more than a stoner coming of age film.
“When you’re carrying such a trauma, it makes you more attuned to yours and other people’s pain. Pain makes people writers. You feel more when something awful happens to you. Pete Davidson made his pain honest and funny. It’s hard to share something so personal with other people, but it makes them feel better about their struggles,” said Judd Apatow.
One-third of the writing team, David Sirius spoke to us about his journey from stand up comedian and SNL sketch writer to fully-grown feature screenwriter.
Comedy has always been a part of Sirius’ DNA. “It’s the only thing I’m good at,” he joked. “I don’t even respect the idea that writers should be jumping genres. They should stick to one thing because there’s always room to get better at it.” This doesn’t suggest that all comedy is the same or even writing one style of comedy indefinitely. Joke writing for sketches is markedly different than the warm character comedy of King Of Staten Island.
“It’s about adapting. As a comedy writer, I’ve had to write in many people’s voices.” Although Sirius bills himself as a joke writer, he stresses the need for having the discipline and professionalism to restrict his jokes to those which best serve the emotions of the story. As he switched comedy hats, he enjoyed the more serious moments in the film.
Sirius takes his comedy very seriously. “Comedy is the art of being funny without forcing the audience from the suspension of disbelief within the parameters of the universe you created.” You can’t break the rules for the sake of a joke. You need consistency, appropriateness, and believability. Whether you’re writing comedy or drama, you’re changing a person through story and you need to use that time on screen effectively. “You can’t push the character arc with jokes. It can be a tightrope balancing the two because everybody enjoys a laugh.”
Dave Sirius spent many years in the screenwriting wilderness before receiving his first screenplay credit. He attributes this milestone to putting himself out there on as many platforms until he finally got noticed.
Adapting Pete Davidson’s Life Story
The simplest approach to adapting Pete Davidson’s story for the big screen would have been for him to write it on his own. After all, Davidson is the most intimate with the source material. But Pete Davidson is a real person and Scott Carlin (who Davidson plays) is a movie character. We asked Sirius about the process of dramatizing Davidson’s life and adding some fictional elements.
“You don’t usually write a story about a real person with the real person, let alone if that real person is your friend,” mused Sirius. “It’s not a strict autobiography. You have to create some distance to tell your version of the story,” he continued. Adding his perspective to the story meant that Sirius could be objective. There are also a lot of things about Pete Davidson that Sirius understands as well as Pete, sometimes with greater clarity, through distance. “Sometimes I can explain things more simplistically than Pete because they didn’t happen to me,” he continued.
Conversely, there were some complexities in Peter’s character that I couldn’t see, but he could. It was inherently difficult for Pete to portray himself through Scott because he had to define himself in a negative rather than a romanticized or legendary way. Character nuances and intricacies aside, “There were things that Scott would do that Pete wouldn’t.”
Enter Judd Apatow
Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, and Dave Sirius were going to write a movie together in 2014, so Judd was already in the fold. Then Pete Davidson joined SNL and their plans were temporarily derailed.
Another screenplay that Davidson and Sirius worked on was called Mommy, and it was about a boy trying to get his mom a date after being widowed over a decade prior. Although some remnants of this storyline remain in The Kings Of Staten Island, the ‘Apatow Effect’ was significant to the story.
Judd said, “Let’s start over and talk about who you [Pete Davidson] are.” Apatow dug deeply into Davidson’s childhood and the positive and negative experiences that made him into the man he is today. “Once you really understand Pete/ Scott equally, you can dissect Scott’s struggles in an educated and realistic way.” It’s a portrait of someone dealing with their trauma and trying to emerge from it safely.
The concept of The Kings Of Staten Island evolved in a very non-linear, open-ended way. “It was always a matter of asking what Scott would do in a particular situation,” said Sirius. Scott’s love interest with Kelsey (Bel Powley) was a fictitious aspect of the story that Judd Apatow introduced. “Judd thought a love interest would allow us to do a lot more with Scott’s character,” added Sirius. It was something Dave and Pete didn’t originally think about.
Scott Carlin is just trying to figure things out
The writers also had to consider what Kings is really about thematically. It had to be more than a slice of Scott’s life story or getting his act together. Sirius finally settled that the film was a story about survival in difficult circumstances. “Surviving as yourself while discovering who you are. Scott is not comfortable with who he is. He needs to get out of his own way and become comfortable with who he is,” stated Sirius.
Writing is a challenging process for most screenwriters, including Dave Sirius. According to him, “The hardest part is the earliest part. Nothing is written down yet and everything is a possibility.” At this stage, writers must “figure out the most basic laws for your universe. You need to focus because there’s nothing tethering you to the story yet. It takes a while to get to the place where you’re breathing the story.”
Curiously, Scott Carlin is not portrayed as a hero or anti-hero. “He is more the damsel in distress and Kelsey is the hero. The heroes of the movie are more the female characters including Scott’s mother Margie (Marisa Tomei).” Sirius describes Margie as Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) in Twister and Scott as the tornado.
The screenplay for The Kings of Staten Island is deliberately not overly regimented or slavishly compliant with any screenplay paradigm. “It has a non-traditional structure to make it non-formulaic.” There are scenes that aren’t vital, nor do they strictly progress character journey and plot. “If they were taken out or rearranged, the story would still work.” The story was more a character exploration to mine Scott’s trauma coping strategy. Having a traditional story structure wouldn’t have given the respect that Scott’s trauma deserved. “It’s not something that an event could fix,” declared the screenwriter.
The ending was also consciously vague, “To imply that Scott’s life might get better. The alternative endings showed “more concrete representations of an improvement in Scott’s life.“
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