“Directors perform a vital function in scenes that are improvised, for they, in a sense, represent the audience.”
Back in college, I attended a conservatory program for dramatic writing. Students took both playwriting and screenwriting courses for the first couple of years, and then they chose the path they wanted to follow.
I chose screenwriting.
Although I had my heart set on filmmaking and wanted to devote all of my time to studying the screen, I now see how studying the stage exposed me to many different writing and performance approaches that impacted my film work. Improvisation is case in point.
During my sophomore year, decorated playwright and Guggenheim Fellow Dan O’Brien filled in for our usual playwriting professor, who was on leave. O’Brien’s work, teaching style, and overall approach were very different from our professor’s. For starters, he brought me and my class to the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City, where his wife, Jessica St. Clair, was staging a play with fellow UCB alum Jason Mantzoukas. The show was called “We Used to Go Out”, and it was funny, honest, and exciting to see.
Even more exciting was that O’Brien was able to get us backstage to meet St. Clair and Mantzoukas, who shared how they created the show and spoke more broadly about the craft of improvisation. For context, UCB is a sketch comedy troupe with several theatres in New York City and California. It was founded in 1990 by some famous people whose names you may recognize – Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, and Adam McKay, to name a few. Today, UCB is where many performers go to learn improv.
To make sure we’re on the same page, let’s define improv as “a performance in which most or all of what is performed is unplanned or unscripted, created spontaneously by the performers.”
That night backstage at UCB, St. Clair and Mantzoukas understood that we were playwrights-in-training, so we had an open conversation about how writing for the stage relates to improv. Some in my class felt that improv flies in the face of what we were learning to do. We were taught to write what we want our actors to say, while improv effectively encouragers performers not to have a plan or a script.
What gives? ?
Mantzoukas said something that has stuck with me ever since. He shared how – in his experience and from what he’d heard anecdotally – on many sets, a brilliant script or even a well-formed-but-unscripted plan inspires actors to truly know their character; to embody them and the world they inhabit. When the on-set atmosphere allows, actors can come up with stellar but unanticipated lines and other pieces of performance.
As a group, we concluded that there are moments meant to be written by a writer and then performed as written by an actor. But there are other instances in which allowing for the art of improvisation can lead to genius that otherwise would go undiscovered.
Both scripting and improv have a place, sometimes in the same production. It’s not necessarily one or the other. Depending on the project, they can coexist in a play – and in a film.
Let’s take a closer look at improvisation in context of filmmaking here today. What is improv, and how can it factor into the filmmaking process? Are there any well-known instances of improv out there? And how can we, as filmmakers, unlock the potential of improvisation?
What Is Improv and How Does it Relate to Filmmaking?
As we’ve already suggested, improv is a form of performance in which the players have no script. In theatre, they make things up live in front of an audience. In television, you may have heard of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, an improv sketch show. In film, improv is much the same – actors are encouraged to perform without a script, but the audience is the camera.
Naturally, there are varying levels of “unscriptedness ” that can take place.
You Can Stick to the Script for the Most Part.
On some productions, actors adhere to the script as written, but the director has made it clear that it’s fine – encouraged, even! – for actors to add lines and pieces of performance that aren’t on the page but which they feel compelled to contribute. This stems from the belief that when an actor is in character, new ideas may occur to them in the moment that can make the movie better.
Go in with a Plan but No Script.
On other productions, the director has decided that they want to more fully incorporate the serendipitous spontaneity that improvisation provides. They don’t want to tie actors down to specific words in specific scenes. Instead, when a scene is filmed, the director and actors are clear on what needs to happen, but the way they get there – what each person says, how they say it, how they interact, etc. – is not prescribed by the script. It’s found in the process.
Bear in mind that you don’t have to choose between “entirely improvised” and “no improvisation at all”!
Each and every production is its own world, and as the filmmaker, you can and should make it your own. For example, you could blend an openness to improvisational techniques with a desire to honor the spirit of the script, taking performances scene by scene. Or you could set out to honor the words on the page as written, looping in the occasional improvisational moment.
It’s a spectrum, not a dichotomy, and there is room for a middle ground according to what makes the most sense for the project and the people involved.
1,000,000 Famous Examples of Improv
Okay, not quite a million, but there are many examples of successful improvisation out there in the film world! Auteurs including Christopher Guest, Robert Altman, and Adam McKay – one of the founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade – make improv an essential part of their directing approach.
Case in point, Guest shares more about his “faux documentary” films in a fantastic interview with Charlie Rose. Even though improv is at the heart of how he makes films, Guest points out, scripting still needs to occur. “Is narrative a problem at all?”, Rose asks. “No,” Guest answers:
“In some ways this has to be more strictly adhered to than ever. If you don’t have at your disposal as an actor every single detail of what happens in a scene and your back story, you can’t begin to work. It’s not just people yapping and coming in and saying whatever they want.”
The entire interview is worth a watch:
Parker Posey, who’s collaborated with Guest on several of his films, relates the process to jazz:
“Everyone is a different instrument and adds a different element. [Guest is] very much a maestro, an auteur… On Waiting for Guffman we’d do these long improvisations until the mag would run out – that was back in the day, when we shot on film. For like seven minutes, we’re just lying on the floor, doing some acting exercise where everyone is talking and ‘Yes-and-ing’ each other” [an improvisational technique meant to help a narrative build… Though sometimes, that loose, freewheeling technique could backfire:] One day, Eugene just walked out of frame; he just left the scene… I asked him afterwards, and he just said he was done, that he had to leave.”
The director “definitely created his own formula with actors that only worked in a specific kind of way,” Posey continues. “It had to do with the creating of a certain character or persona. And you don’t know what you’re going to say – you’re just going to be in the moment with someone else… and then something happens.”
Robert Altman, too, encouraged improvisation on set. As professor Virginia Wright Wexman recounts in A Companion to Robert Altman, edited by Adrian Danks:
“Altman’s distinctive stylistic techniques grew out of his desire to enhance the atmosphere of abundance and animation that group improvisation could create. To maximize the actors’ improvisational opportunities, he developed a loose shooting style, moving the camera freely to capture serendipitous bits of business as the actors moved about to their own rhythms rather than hitting predetermined marks. ‘He never blocked a scene, and we would move around the way it was natural to, and he would shoot it,’ recalled Rick Jason, who worked with Altman on the 1960s TV series Combat! ‘It was totally organic. We would do whatever felt right to us, and he would arrange to put the cameras where they would cover the action.’”
For his part, Adam McKay went on to write for Saturday Night Live and eventually directed several films cowritten with Will Ferrell, including Anchorman. Famously, McKay embraces improvisation on set, but not without a script. He has his actors shoot the scene as scripted first, and then all bets are off as improv takes over:
“As each actor thinks of every single funny thing his character can say at a given moment, McKay continually raises his mic, calling out additional impromptu lines. In other improv-heavy projects, like Christopher Guest movies or Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes, there aren’t scripts so much as outlines that the actors riff around. But Ferrell and McKay write dialogue as tight and detailed as possible. Ferrell says, ‘People would be shocked to see that the movie has a 122-page script. But for us, the writing spurs on the improv.’”
Mike Leigh also leans heavily into improv. On 2014’s much-lauded film Mr. Turner, Timothy Spall recalls the experience of losing himself in the character. One time, he walked into a pub and started speaking as his character to the bartender: “I said to the barmaid, ‘Are you a provider of wine?’ I heard this thing come out of me and thought, ‘Holy shit… This way madness lies.’”
As he’s wont to do, Leugh improvised the entirety of Mr. Turner by following an intensive rehearsal process, which Spall loved, hailing his director as one of the “great, interesting, original filmmakers.”
So far, we’ve been highlighting the improv auteurs, but there’s an abundance of examples of brilliant improvisation in productions that followed the script for the most part, as well. In fact, improvised lines can become some of the most well-known and most-quoted lines in cinema history! Think Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy: “I’m walkin’ here”!
Curious for more? Here you go:
And if that’s not enough to demonstrate the power and proliferation of improvisation in filmmaking:
The point at which these improv gems originate in the filmmaking process varies. As we’ve already discussed, improvisation is embedded in some auteurs’ approaches, while it arises in other contexts for other directors.
For example – unlike, say, Adam McKay – legendary director and Making Movies author Sidney Lumet didn’t encourage improvisation on set. Instead, he embraced it during the rehearsal process. “I find most improvisations wind up being rather self-indulgent,” Lumet shared, “And what takes seven minutes to say in an improv could actually be said in a minute or thirty seconds. And time is precious on the screen.” However, in the case of Dog Day Afternoon, where Lumet set out to strike a very naturalistic tone, he instructed his actors to use their own words:
“I told the actors ‘Look, as long as you don’t change the meaning of anything, or shift the scene to another direction, use your own words.‘ And by the way I did this with the complete approval of the writer, Frank Pierson, who was there and wrote a wonderful screenplay. And we never changed the structure of anything… much of what we used were Frank’s words. But he saw the advantage of that.”
The bottom line is that improv can take many different forms in many different directorial approaches across many different projects. There’s not a “one size fits all” answer to the question of when and how you should embrace improvisation as a filmmaker!
If You Want to Embrace Improv, Then Let It Happen!
There is, however, one thing you and your team need to have in common in order for improv to work: namely, an openness to the possibility. If your priority is to get your actors to land every word in the script exactly as written, then they’re naturally going to focus on that instead of branch out into more experimental territory.
Said differently, the attitude you adopt is the attitude your actors will reflect. I once was on a set where the director encouraged improvisation by laughing at actors’ comedic spins on the script’s dialogue. Although he never explicitly said “I’d like you to improvise,” his obvious enjoyment of their improv encouraged more moments of play throughout production.
In her essay “The Rhetoric of Cinematic Improvisation”, Wexman discusses the director’s role in improvisation in depth:
“Directors perform a vital function in scenes that are improvised, for they, in a sense, represent the audience: it is their responsibility to insure that the contributions of their actors blend with other elements in a scene to create a unified overall effect, to make the improvisation public rather than private. Though actors may understand their individual roles, they cannot be expected to grasp the ways in which these roles relate to those of other actors in the scene, to the camera angles employed, or to the mise-en-scène that forms a background to their activities. Only the director is in a position to perceive these relationships. And the director must have a clear sense of what particular quality the scene should project in order to arouse an appropriate emotional response in the audience. If the actor’s improvisations add vitality to a scene, it is the director’s sense of artistic form that gives these contributions an impact.”
When you think about it, there are actually many moving parts in play when it comes to creating successful improvisation. The director must trust the actors to follow their instincts, and the actors must trust the material – as created by the writer and interpreted by the director – understanding it so deeply that they’re able to explore and add to it naturally.
Improv can be a really exciting addition to all aspects of filmmaking, from screenwriting to outlining to rehearsing, all the way through production and into post.
If you’re a director who wants to embrace improvisation in your filmmaking process, then it’s a good idea to refine your sense of the craft. Take improv classes. If they’re not available where you live, watch and read about it as much as you can. When you’re ready to jump in, consider facilitating improv exercises for your cast – and possibly even your crew! A total embrace of the spirit of play that characterizes improvisation will help you establish the right mood on set and beyond.
What do you think?
Have you ever had an actor improvise a line or bit of performance that elevated the film, aiding in the translation from script to screen? Have there been any surprises on your film sets? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below!
Lauren McGrail, with
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