How Netflix's 'The Forty-Year-Old Version' Riffs on Judd Apatow and Transformers

Writer, director, and star Radha Blank chats about her inspirations for her first feature, 'The Forty-Year-Old Version.'

the forty year old version

The logline of Radha Blank's The Forty-Year-Old Version -- a struggling playwright takes up rapping at 40 -- doesn't tell the full story. Blank's semi-autobiographical movie is painting on a much bigger canvas than that. It's a portrait of Blank's New York, where she works teaching high school students playwriting while trying to get her own work produced. "A lot of people compared it to 8 Mile and I say it's more like 2 Mile because she doesn't really go that far," Blank says. "I don't think the film is about someone trying to be a hip-hop star. I think the film is about someone who is leaning on hip hop as a mediation to get her through her frustration." 

In the movie, Radha, frustrated with an encounter with an entitled white theater director, starts to spit verses alone in her apartment. Realizing she's found the creative outlet she desperately needs, she heads from her Harlem apartment to Brooklyn to lay down some tracks with beats made by the quiet D (Oswin Benjamin), who eventually becomes her love interest. 

The Forty-Year-Old Version tackles gentrification, appropriation, and midlife crisis all with a loose funny vibe that made Blank an immediate star when the film premiered at this year's Sundance. We hopped on the phone to talk about her title, the movie's aesthetics, and how Optimus Prime inspired her rap name.

Thrillist: I wanted to start by asking about the title. Why did you want to reference The Forty-Year-Old Virgin
Radha Blank:
I'm very simply appropriating the title. People appropriate Black culture in pop culture all the time. So it was my way of doing that and also at the same time saying, "Well, why don't we have a self-deprecating protagonist of a certain age who has a moment of self discovery?" I'm absolutely appropriating [Judd Apatow's] title and his running time. 

What do you mean by his running time? 
He makes two-hour movies that aren't action, that aren't called "blockbusters." They are journeys through the lens of comedy about someone having a moment of self discovery. I just don't see us doing that. And I feel like when it comes to our storytelling, we're always told to cut things back and make it shorter. It's a New York film. I can't tell that kind of story chock-full of all these characters in 90 minutes. It never was a 90 minute film. I just was kind of emboldened by him and other filmmakers. I saw a film, [A Ghost Story], with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck where he's a ghost. He's her lover, he dies, and to get over him she eats a pie on camera from beginning to end. There's no cutaway, there's no jump cuts, eats a whole fucking pie on camera. People who take time to tell a story -- I was inspired by that. I feel like we are always trying to do something fast-paced when sometimes we need to slow down and get to the humanity of it all. 

You're juggling a ton of different storylines: the school, the rapping, the theater. How did you see all of them intersecting in the process of writing? 
I'm doing a send-up of my life. So all of those things are present at some point in my life, especially my students. I was a teaching artist for 20 years in New York. I did it as a supplement to my career as a writer. I was a stand-up comic. I did all of these things and teaching was always the job that I could depend on. But I think I took it for granted because it wasn't my art, so to speak. It wasn't until many years later I realized there was an art to doing this and there was always a loving and excited audience there that I took for granted that I'm trying to show an appreciation for in the film.

To me, I wanted it to be an authentic New York tale. I've seen more and more recent New York films where the story and the streets were sparse. I am like, I don't know that New York. My New York is congested, whether it's on the train or the street, 125th Street crosswalk and all of those bodies. I just wanted it to feel full. I also think it's what a lot of first-time filmmakers do: They put everything in there. I was just like, well, I don't know will get this chance again. I could get hit by a bus and never seen my own film, so I am going to put everything in there. Yes, I am the face of the film. I own that. You have one economic strata and another and this character kind of vacillating between two worlds. For it to feel like that, it has to be populated. 

You mentioned congested and I thought about that opening scene on the bus. 
True story: Me going across town and teaching in the Bronx and taking the BX19. And the bus would stop at every stop to let on another person with a cane or a walker or a shopping cart of groceries. I was like, I have to put this in the movie

forty year old version

It's in black and white, you break the fourth wall, there are man-on-the-street interviews. How did all those aesthetic choices come about? 
I'm a born and raised cinephile on films like The ApartmentThe Lost Weekend, and Shadows by John Cassavetes, who is one of my heroes. I felt like if I shot this film in black and white, it would retrofit the narrative with a time when New York was more authentic. I just love the way black and brown, different people of color, the way they look on black and white. It definitely was paying homage to these older New York City films, from Manhattan to The Apartment to She's Gotta Have it. But I also am a big big big Christopher Guest fan. I love mockumentaries. Him, Rusty Cundieff who did Fear of a Black Hat.

I wanted to do something that felt as urgent as a documentary. We weren't going for perfection; we were going for authenticity so that the camera felt like a person who was walking into the room as the conversation was happening. Documentaries always do talking heads. I wanted the Greek chorus of New Yorkers who are always chiming in, whether you want their opinion or not, from disses to "What you doing? What is that?" to compliments. I just wanted their voices in their because that's my New York, engaging with me whether I want it or not. That's where the homeless guy comes in. I've encountered a number of folks like that. I'm going to speak their truth. That's what I wanted it to feel like: A city where nothing and no one holds back. 

The satire of New York theater is so spot on -- jokes like "female 12 Angry Men," "all-male Steel Magnolias," "interracial Fences." 
If they haven't been done, they will be. Because what I find with theater is, because it's so reliant on the patrons' dollar, a financier coming in to do a rebuild, what goes on the stage is less about risk and more about what's going to pack the house. This is just my opinion. Every once in a while, a new fresh voice like Michael R. Jackson who did A Strange Loop will pop out. Like, oh my god, this is everything I didn't know I needed in a stage play with music and it's just so raw and rich and it's almost like speculative fiction. It was just so good.

Most of the time I think there's a sure bet and the sure bets are revivals, chasing the race or the gender of an all-blank version of a play. And then doing plays that I think these theater directors think these silver haired patrons want to see. So their version of Black life that makes them feel comfortable with their whiteness. There's not a whole lot of risk taking on these main stages. You have to go to underground theater, hole in the wall, DIY, fringe festivals, stuff like that to see really amazing work. I just feel like by the time it gets to Broadway, it's something that the producers feel are going to pack the house. I don't know where these places are now. COVID has changed so much. COVID may end up leveling the field, so to speak. Maybe everyone has to start from ground up again. I don't know. I would not be surprised, though, if at all of these houses they do classic plays so they can recoup whatever it is they lost.

There was a big open letter to "White American Theater" that many people signed. Do you see a change on the horizon because of moments like that? Obviously, it's hard to tell because of COVID...
Yeah, COVID is, I think, the great equalizer and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. People don't want to wear masks because they haven't had to to suffer like the rest of the country because of their affluence or access or privilege. I didn't get to sign that letter because I was so busy doing stuff in post, and I was pissed at the time but then I realized that my movie is the signature. I think it's brilliant that the artists of "We See You" are crying out and calling out the White American Theater. I think it's brilliant that they do this and they have this moment of reckoning that "you haven't been treating me right."

I think the other thing to keep in mind is that if someone has been in a seat of power for a long time, even if you are calling them out, they have been very comfortable in that place so it's going to be hard for them -- I mean, look at the current president -- to relinquish that power. My thing is to stop giving so much power to a gatekeeper and focus on what's outside of the gate, like DIY, build it and they will come. Yes, I do feel like if you're calling it American theater, if it's not reflecting what America really looks like, then you're a fucking fraud. But in the meantime, while they get their shit together, let's come together, coalesce and talk about creating theater in the spirit of Joe Papp, who would put a play up in a park and would make theater free for everyone. What do we do so we can subsidize tickets so that the people who are in the play or reflected in the play are in the audience? Otherwise it does become Black spectacle for white theater patrons. Maybe COVID is this opportunity to look at these different stages and how we can create a version of our own so we are not dependent and reliant on this person's moment of clarity or their moment of, "Oh wow, you mean we haven't been equal?" even though it's only white men running those theaters. I did see that a number of theaters, regional theaters, put Black women into those gatekeeping positions and it feels like an immediate response to some of the calling out. Now we have to see what happens. There can never be too much inclusion and diversity. People from all walks of life should be in those positions of power because it does help when it comes to greenlighting and programming diverse shows on those main stages. 

forty year old version radha blank

I wanted to pivot and ask about the funny but painful sequence at Radha's first rap performance where she can't stop saying "yo." Did this come from your life? 
I got to see it in an awesome socially distant screening and the painful groans when she's on the stage having that moment were just funny. That hasn't actually happened to me. My goal for that scene was for the person who thinks they are going to see an 8 Mile scene where she is victorious on stage, womp womp, that's not happening. You see her have victories where there is no audience, where it's just her in the mirror or she's with these amazing rappers, but when she gets on the stage... For some reason, that's the only time art is heralded, when it has an audience and it has spotlights on it. I wanted her to have a complete Icarus moment. She flew way too close to the sun and her melting carcass is falling down to the ground.

I think it also speaks to the risk you take when you say you want to do something that involves an audience. It was like that for me as a stand-up comic or a performer on stage in theater. It was like that for me being behind the camera as a director on my first feature. Whenever there's an audience, there's a risk of people not getting it or things not going well. The important thing is to return the next day, and she doesn't return the next day because she let it get the best of her. I've been in that situation where I shot or attempted to do something and it ended in failure. I think for me, the beauty of the moment is, after I wiped my tears, I came to set the next day and was like, I want this more than I want to believe I'm a failure. I hope that people get that message: You're going to fuck up. There's no perfection in this life, in the life that we lead. I think the point is to just show up the next day.
Where did your rap name RadhaMUS Prime come from? 
Well you know I've been a rapper since I was a kid, since I was like 12 years old. I've had many monikers over the years: Wordblaze, Hot Rod, Big Rah, Della Grease, you name it. That's how I open my show: I pay tribute to all the different rap monikers I've had before. RadhaMUS Prime, you know, I grew up on cartoons after school. Like many people, I grew up on the Transformers. I had kind of forgot there was almost kind of the second coming of Optimus Prime in this character Hot Rod, a.k.a. Rodimus Prime. To me, the Transformers were a totem. Optimus Prime is a semi-truck and then also a robot and so this idea of transforming yourself. That's where that look to camera comes also. RadhaMUS Prime is in there even if Radha doesn't know. The audience knows and RadhaMUS Prime is like, "Hey, guys, help me get out of here. I see you." You see me? Even if Radha doesn't know there's this other part that's waiting for the transformation so to speak. Just like the Transformers, they don't stay in that position all the time. When Optimus needs to get down the road quicker, he turns into a truck. It's not about the permanence of the identity, it's about taking something on for the time that you need it to get through whatever the adversity is.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.