More than any modern day comedy director, Judd Apatow can be considered an auteur.
Auteur Theory, first written about by Francois Truffaut in the 1950s as a way to show the value of the lesser-respected American Hollywood filmmakers in comparison to the more artistically respected French filmmakers (later popularized by American critic Andrew Sarris), states that the director is the primary artistic visionary behind a film and that a consistency in his vision over a series of projects proves greatness.
In the most basic sense, Apatow falls under this definition not only because he's created a visual style that is distinctly his own and consistent throughout his directorial efforts, but also has created a unique world of performers, subject matters, and sensibilities. Anyone familiar with his work would make no mistake in identifying a film, scene, or even shot as distinctly Apatow.
Currently recognized as an accomplished director and producer, Apatow came up as a writer, which seems to inform his filmmaking style heavily. While he's still credited as a writer on his films, much of what we know as his style of comedy draws heavily from improvised performances and thus his style must leave space to get the material necessary. Apatow has said that his films often come together in the edit, where they realize how much funny material they have and how they can use that material to put together a cohesive, two hour story. The silent-era French filmmaker Alexandre Astruc developed a theory of the camera-stylo, or “camera-pen”, which puts forth the idea that the director should treat filmmaking as the writer treats a pen and create and find original material on screen without the hindrance of traditional storytelling. In a way, Apatow’s films are written three times: on the page, on set, and in the edit room. What makes him a unique talent is his aptitude in controlling and finding his material in all three phases.
Apatow achieves his comedy by creating a sense of looseness and familiarity within a scene. Part of this comes from his consistent and trusted stable of performers, many of whom he has worked with since the very nascent stages of their careers on shows like Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared.
In this scene from his first feature, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow frames the scene in order to be able to juxtapose comfort and discomfort between both his audience and his characters. The camera sits at eye level with the men seated in the poker game and floats handheld rather than fixed on a tripod. We are not watching from far away or being told where to look, rather we are being allowed to participate in the game, and eventually in giving Andy (Steve Carell) a hard time before his big reveal.
On a performance level, this type of floating, static framed camera allows the performers the most possible flexibility in comedic performance. They are not asked to replicate a bit for a close-up or mimic complex blocking, instead playing the whole scene off each other in wides, with second and third cameras catching more organic close-ups. Of course, this setup also allows Apatow to engage many takes and maintain the consistency in performance necessary in shaping a scene with the type of collaborative improvisation present in his comedy. In making directorial choices that serve the dual purpose of creating the look he wants and bringing out the humor in the way he prefers, Apatow exhibits his skill.
What makes Apatow unique as a comedic director is his commitment to the edit room and to the story of his film. Though often criticized for making his films 40 minutes too long, that meat is almost never because he packed in jokes at the expense of narrative. His films are cinematic because he forms a story and then edits around jokes that serve his story. This is opposed to a sitcom, which in many ways can function as simply a joke machine. In the above scene, Andy is discussing what he’s done with women, and while his lines are graphic and hilarious, the real humor is in knowing what the title of the film tells us: he's a virgin. The audience’s awareness of his story is what takes the scene to the next level, and watching his co-workers slowly realize that Andy has no idea what he’s talking about is pitched perfectly. Apatow directs the scene so that we simultaneously have sympathy for the character but are also willing to laugh at him.
Richard Brody recently wrote about Apatow in a New Yorker article pegged to the release of his most recent film, This is 40. The title is apt: “Judd Apatow’s Unnoticed Artistry,” and in it, Brody breaks down Apatow’s directorial trademark of long, static takes. He writes, “[Apatow] divides the physical space analytically, catches characters reacting to each other within the frame, and recombines the action psychologically through a play of glances.”
In this scene from Knocked Up, one can see exactly what Brody means in the above quote. Similarly to the 40-Year-Old Virgin scene, Apatow keeps the viewer engaged and immersed in the comedy of the scene by avoiding sweeping camera moves or quick cuts. Apatow’s comedy often plays in the uncomfortable or the awkward and by keeping his camera hidden in the scene rather than ostentatiously revealing itself through over-stylization, he forces the viewer to have visceral reactions to his characters’ presented discomfort or buffoonery.
Beginning with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, through Knocked Up, Funny People, and This is 40, Judd Apatow developed and maintained a very clear comedic style that permeated throughout the comedy world. His looseness as construction and commitment to the static frame serves perfectly the comedy style he works to create and builds a trust and familiarity between performer, director, and audience that radiates off the screen.
Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you'll regret it during Knicks games.