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Arts & Entertainment

Structuring Films, Part 1

Judd Apatow

Lesson time 17:49 min

Judd reveals how he cracked the code on story structure and shares the basic template that he uses for many of his projects.

Judd Apatow
Teaches Comedy
Judd Apatow teaches you how to write, direct, produce, and perform comedy for film and television.
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I think when I first began to take writing more seriously, a comedian I looked up to, Mike Binder, was having success as a screenwriter. And he said something I never forgot. He said that the first screenplay he sold was his tenth screenplay. And that had a huge impact on me. I thought, oh, so you have to write a bunch of these. You don't sell the first one. And that took the pressure off. Oh, I'll write one, and then I'll write another one. And that's what he said. He said, Judd, the second you finish a screenplay, start the next one. A lot of people finish a screenplay, and they just talk about it for years. And they don't sell it, but they keep talking about it. And they keep showing it to people, and no one wants to make it. You have to start the next one immediately. And then I bought his Apple portable computer. He had the first Apple portable computer, and I bought it from him. And that's when I started trying to write more seriously. And part of that process was watching movies and outlining the movies. I would watch a movie, say "The Graduate." I remember I sat down with Owen Wilson. We were talking about writing a movie. And one day, we said, let's take notes on what "The Graduate" is. We didn't have the script, so we just wrote down what happened in every scene. What happens? What do we know about this guy? And how are they telling this story? It seems like such a unique structure. And I remember we noticed, oh, we don't know anything about him from college except he ran track and he worked on the school yearbook, or the school newspaper. That's the only information we have. We don't meet any of his friends. That is it. And that was an important thing to learn. Wow, I don't know anything about him, but I'm fascinated by this character. And I'm learning about him based on how he interacts with his parents and his friends parents. But I'm not seeing him in his world with his friends. So it just made me think, there's all sorts of ways to tell a story and to meet characters. You don't have to do it the normal way where the guy would come home from college, and then he'd be with his 15 friends. And he'd be at a party, and we'd know everything about him. We don't get to see any of that. We were fascinated by how little happened in "The Graduate." He comes home from school. He's a little lost. His parents friend is hitting on him. He has an affair with her. And then he falls for her daughter. And then her daughter goes back to school, and she's engaged. And then he decides, I'm going to go after her. That's the whole movie. But yet it's so much more than that. And everyone who saw it, you realize, oh, all these structures that they teach me about how stories work and how movies work, they are there to learn from, but you also sometimes have to toss them out completely because there's always a unique, innovative way to do these things. When I was in college, Syd Field taught the screenwriting class. And Syd Fie...

Get serious about comedy

No joke: at age 15, Judd Apatow took a dishwashing job at a comedy club to watch the acts. Today, he’s the comedic genius behind hits including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Bridesmaids, and Freaks and Geeks. In his first-ever online comedy class, the Emmy Award winner teaches you how to create hilarious storylines, write great stand-up, and direct movies that leave audiences laughing.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Judd gives so much terrific advice in here for the aspiring comedian. Whether you're a stand-up, screenwriter, or director there's something for all in this Masterclass. I really feel like this is going to help improve my screenplays. Thank you Mr. Apatow and thank you Masterclass.

I learned how to think of a joke, with a punchline first

Really learning a lot about comedy production.

It definitely helped with the perspective of thinking I should be in when writing content.


Chris S.

Would love to see a movie set in 1980's Action Park (only in NJ!) which was designed to test the limits of liability insurance.

A fellow student

Ha. I'm glad JA namedropped the closing sequence for '40 Year Old Virgin." I went to youtube and watched it. What a pisser.

Tara R.

I do have one of Syd Field's books on my shelf, I am yet to open it but after hearing this lesson I probably should take some time to read it.

Kennon F.

This is a great lesson, but doesn't dive very deep into the structure. I love the case study point of view, but I HIGHLY recommend people reading Save The Cat by Blake Snyder and Story Maps by Daniel P Calvisi. Also, Lessons From The Screenplay on YouTube.


It is so refreshing to hear Judd the person, and not his stage persona talk to you.

Mia S.

"What you're trying to do when you're in a structure like that is, you're trying to do something unique and original in every scene. Sometimes, I'm working with a conventional Syd Field-inspired structure, where it is following traditional rules and just trying to do it in a very original way. I also like movies where you really don't feel classic structure. The fact that you don't know where a movie is going is what's pulling you into the movie. Funny People, you would assume it would be about a guy who gets sick and then he gets better and then it's over. But really what it's about, it's a guy who gets sick, gets better, and you realize he's even more screwed up when he's better, and he needs a bit of a beat down to reorient himself to be a less selfish person. The structure is odd in the sense that the movie is about two hours and ten minutes and nothing lands where you think it would; it doesn't have that sense of, 'Here's the problem, now I'm in the complications and I feel the solution coming.' You don't even know what the problem is, really. It's about two people becoming friends and a man struggling with his mortality. In the face of his mortality, he wonders if he's made mistakes about how to live his life, but he's so immature that he keeps making more and more terrible mistakes. The structural leap we take is right when you think the movie might end, and right where it might be the amount of time in a movie when a movie would end, he gets better. Then suddenly, the movie is a completely different movie - it's this nightmare. He loses his naive mind by watching how the world really world really works: there's damaged people, and your heroes aren't what you think they'll be, and a lot of times they disappoint you and it's a loss of innocence. Everything goes wrong, and it just ends badly. They just leave - that's the second half of the movie. It's a strange structure, because you're not really rooting for him to get the woman, and you're happy he's healthy, and you're not really sure what you want, you're just kind of bummed that he's not as cool as you thought he was - and then the story reveals all of who he is."

Mia S.

"The third act, page 90 to 120, is her finally saying, 'You know what, forget the 20 dates, I want to have sex now' - him having a complete meltdown, because he's so scared that it will be bad that he will lose her. 90-120 is him in meltdown dealing with the fact that she wants to have sex, which finally ends with her thinking he's a serial killer and running away, and him chasing after her and then getting in this terrible bike accident. When she sees him on the ground, injured from the bike accident, he finally admits the truth, that he's not a serial killer, that he's a virgin. Her response is, 'Oh.' That's something that she can handle. Then we see them have sex, we see them get married, and over the credits we do a big Baliwood dance number. It's exactly the Syd Field structure. It's very complicated at the same time, because you're using a simple structure, but you try to d everything scene for scene in an innovative, original, hilarious way. Every beat of this we're saying, 'How can we do this in a way that we haven't seen before?' We've seen the sequence where you take the virgin and you try to make him hipper - new clothes, new haircut, it's the makeover montage. It's been in a zillion movies and we knew that and we wrote it, and then we said, 'Well maybe we don't need to do all of those things, we can just do one.' The one was that he decided he needed to be waxed. Even that, maybe not the most innovative idea - and then one day, Steve Carrell said, 'You know, the only way this is funny is if we really do it. It will hurt so much that I'll be funny.' We came up with this idea that he would curse out the woman tearing the hair off of him, which is based on when I was a kid: You'd have to go to the nurse, and the nurse would put something on it that kept it from getting infected, and it hurt so much that as she did it, every single person was like, 'You motherfucker!' I always remember how funny that was, because she was like, 'OK, this is going to hurt a little bit,' 'That's OK - fuck you, you bitch!' We thought, 'OKs that's the joke, the cursing.' We just wrote out a list of curses, some filthy, some just 'Kelly Clarkson,' and we did it for real, semi-improvising as we went. We were trying to do something innovative, and it certainly worked."

Mia S.

"You start a story, you've got to meet people, and you have to explain the world you're in and the rules of this world. Then at some point, whether you like it or not, you're introducing a problem. Then at some point that problem is going to get worse. Then at some point, you're either going to solve that problem or you're going to shoot that guy in the head, and it's over. There really aren't that many ways to do this; it feels like there are, but there aren't. 40-Year-Old Virgin, you can look at it structurally in a Syd Field way: the first act is a lonely person, and we get to know him, we get to know that he lives alone, that he has a job where he basically hides in the stockroom or a stereo store, and his life is stuck. By the end of the first act, everyone else he works with in the store figures out that he's a virgin. The first act is, we learn who he is, other people find other, then they say, 'We're going to help you lose your virginity.' The beginning of the second act is their quest to help him. In one form or another, it's a series of bad dates. (We were trying to say, 'The worst thing you could do is try to prey upon a drunk woman,' so we should have him get hurt as a result. He thinks, 'I'm going to prey on this drunk woman,' and then he winds up in a terrible drunk driving accident. A lesson slipped in there.) So by the midpoint of the movie, that has failed. You could say, page 1 through 30, we find out who he is, his friends discovered his problem. 30 to 60 is the friends' attempt to help him lose his virginity. At the end of that act, he decides 'I'm going to do it on my own' - so page 60 to 90 is now a story about him dating a woman who has a teenage child and is also a grandparent. He goes from hiding in a stockroom to being in an intense relationship. Page 60 to 90 is the relationship."

Mia S.

"Every once in a while, you realize, 'All these structures they teach me about how stories, how movies work - they are there to learn from, but you also sometimes have to toss them out completely, because there's always a unique innovative way to do these things. Very simple theory about how stories work: first act, second act is two pieces, third act; 25 to 30 pages a section, and at a certain point, this is where the story is revealed, this is where it gets more complicated, this is the beginning of the resolution. That simplicity is very helpful. His theory was, every movie works this way, whether they want to admit it or not, every movie is using this structure - even the movies that you think are super weird have a very simple structure. Knowing that makes you less nervous because you feel like, 'OK, this is doable. This isn't something mysterious and magical that I will never crack the code on, this is something that I can figure out.' Sometimes when I make a movie I will completely stick to it, I will put up the Syd Field paradigm and I will hit every spot where he says the story is supposed to move or change. Other times I toss it completely, because I think, 'I don't want the audience to have any sense of where this is going, so I need to go against the natural flow of how these stories unfold.' I do think it is true that you should understand all of these ideas and then be willing to toss them. If you understand them, in some way, it's going to help you with some fundamental issues."

Mia S.

"The first screenplay he sold was his tenth screenplay. I thought, 'Oh, so you have to write a bunch of these, you don't sell the first one.' And that took the pressure off. 'Oh, I'll write one, and then I'll write another one.' He said, 'The second you finish a screenplay start the next one. A lot of people finish a screenplay and they just talk about it for years - and they don't sell it; they keep talking about it, they keep showing it to people, and no one wants to make it. You have to start the next one immediately.' I would watch a movie - we just wrote down, what happened in every scene. 'What happens?' 'What do we know about this guy?' 'How are they telling this story?' [The Graduate] 'Wow, I don't know anything about him but I'm fascinated by this character and I'm learning about him based on how he interacts with his parents and his friends' parents, but I'm not seeing him in his world with his friends' - it just made me think, there's all sorts of ways to tell a story and to meet characters. You don't have to do it the normal way, where the guy would come home from college, and then he'd be with his 15 friends, and he'd be at a party and we'd know everything about him. We don't get to see any of that. We were fascinated by how little happened in The Graduate. He comes home from school, he's a little lost, he has an affair, he falls for her daughter, her daughter goes back to school, she's engaged, he decides, 'I'm going to go after her.' That's the whole movie, but yet it's so much more than that."