Film & TV

Judd Apatow’s Guide to Writing a Great Screenplay First Draft in 7 Steps

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 28, 2019 • 3 min read

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Judd Apatow Teaches Comedy

When it comes to comedy in Hollywood, Judd Apatow has the Midas touch. In the last 20 years, he has written and directed the hit films Knocked Up, Funny People, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and produced the likes of The Big Sick, Superbad, Bridesmaids and both Anchorman films. His TV credits include Freaks and Geeks, Girls, and Crashing.

Apatow is a firm believer in the “vomit pass,” which is a practice of getting all your material down on paper without judgment or self-editing so that ideas can emerge from your unconscious. Below, Apatow shares his process for getting a movie script to a finished first draft.

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Judd Apatow Teaches ComedyJudd Apatow Teaches Comedy

Judd Apatow teaches you how to write, direct, produce, and perform comedy for film and television.

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Judd Apatow’s Guide to Writing a Great Screenplay First Draft in 7 Steps

Writing the first draft of a screenplay can seem daunting at first. But it becomes much easier when you break it down into simple to execute steps. Follow Apatow’s process below:

  1. Begin with a thought. For Apatow, the creative process begins with a thought, and in that thought is a thematic idea that he would like to convey to an audience. Once he has the thematic idea or premise, his first step is to write down scene ideas on note cards, without thinking about how they’ll connect.
  2. Write everything down. Apatow also records small ideas in a notes app on his phone. He doesn’t have to use all of the ideas he captures—as was the case with Knocked Up—but the process of writing those ideas down is crucial.
  3. Do your research. When Apatow has created 100–200 cards, he sits down with them and searches for the story. At this point, he forces himself to outline the movie. He knows it’s not going to be perfect—and that’s ok, because he’ll spend time revising it.
  4. Revise the outline. Revising the outline usually entails focusing on the characters’ problems—making them more complicated, and either resolving them or not resolving them—and arranging them rhythmically.
  5. Start writing scenes. Once he finishes the outline, Apatow sets a goal for himself of writing a certain number of scenes each day. He works through the outline—not necessarily in order—crossing off scenes until there are no more to write. He urges you to not let the writing process intimidate you. Setting small goals of a certain number of pages or scenes each day will help you to not become overwhelmed.
  6. Set an achievable goal. Apatow recommends that you strive to write five pages per day. At that rate, you can write the first draft of an entire movie in five or six weeks.
  7. Utilize the “vomit pass.” Apatow is a firm believer in the “vomit pass,” which is a practice of getting all your material down on paper without judgment or self-editing so that ideas can emerge from your unconscious. He keeps his writing time separate from his editing time because if you edit yourself as you write, you’ll likely end up paralyzed.

Whether you’re a budding filmmaker or have dreams of changing the world with your stand-up, navigating the world of film and television can be daunting. No one knows this better than Judd Apatow, who, at age 15, took a dishwashing job at a comedy club to watch the acts. Today, he is the comedic genius behind hits including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Bridesmaids, and Freaks and Geeks. In Judd Apatow’s MasterClass on comedy, the Emmy Award winner relates all he knows about creating hilarious storylines, writing great stand-up, and directing movies that leave audiences in stitches.

Want to become a better filmmaker? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master filmmakers, including Judd Apatow, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Spike Lee, and Aaron Sorkin.

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