It’s no secret that the film industry is notorious for praising perfection. But somewhere in-between giving awards for meticulously planned shots and flawless studio animations, it can be easy to forget that some of the most extraordinary moments in cinema history were completely unplanned. It’s funny how writers can spend up to a year working on a script only for an actor to show up, go completely off the rails, and come up with something incredible on the spot.
The first notable case of improvisation happened on the set of The Jazz Singer back in 1927. At the time, Warner Brothers wanted to make musicals as a means of revolutionising the movie business. However, as soon as Al Jolson finished his piece, he took everyone by surprise when he started talking, and the producers embraced it. Crazy to think that the whole concept of dialogue in film started from an ad-lib.
When most movies these days are overly scripted and carefully structured, there is something quite unique and captivating about improvising. Directors that give their actors even the smallest of margins to do so are often rewarded with some of the most iconic one-liners of all time. Take Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny” in The Shining for example, or Roy Scheider’s “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” in Jaws. If you think of Jaws and that one line doesn’t come to your mind, well, it might be time to rewatch Jaws.
Sometimes this window of opportunity for improvisation is a narrow one, but every once in awhile, you’ll stumble upon a director that fully embraces the concept. When directing Blue is the Warmest Colour, Abdellatif Kechiche pushed his actresses to their limits. At various points during production, they wouldn’t even know they were being filmed. On a train to Lille on her day off, Adèle Exarchopoulos woke to Abdel filming and asking her to buy some snacks and eat while they kept the camera rolling, and that somehow made its way into the final cut. It’s somewhat hard to grasp that a scene featuring someone sleeping and mindlessly eating snacks on a train can add meaning to a story, but somehow that makes it all the more intriguing and all the more beautiful.
Completely taking in a script to the point where you’re comfortable enough to act within those guidelines while still adding your own interpretation to it is applaudable. An actor performing dialogue lines and reading out a character that’s outlined in front of them is one thing but understanding them so deeply that they’re able to wholly embody them and add to it naturally, now that is pure talent. There is no right or wrong answer because this is filmmaking after all, but maybe Abdel’s method of letting actors do their thing and hoping for the best has just enough merit as Kubrick’s notorious practice of filming just under 100 takes of a door slamming to get the perfect shot.
After spending four consecutive days filming slightly different versions of the home invasion scene in A Clockwork Orange and still not satisfied with the outcomes, Kubrick asked Malcolm McDowell to try something outrageous for the next take. Not only did McDowell start dancing, but he also started humming and chanting verses of “Singin’ in the Rain”. What a classic. In a later interview when asked why he chose that song, McDowell said it was the only one that came to mind. And that my friends, is the story of how Kubrick, one of the most meticulous and controlling directors of all time, turned to improvisation as a last resort to create one of the most emblematic scenes of his career.
While one-liners, monologues, and eerie dance moves are very impressive, perhaps the most authentically improvised moments on screen come from actors reacting to others’ spontaneity. Whether it be something as simple as Johnny Depp running around the set of Pirates of the Caribbean 2 screaming “I’ve got a jar of dirt!” much to Orlando Bloom’s confused stares, or something as complex as Rae’s response to Pascoe’s mobster story in Goodfellas, genuine reactions can be infinitely more compelling than scripted ones.
But an article on improvisation wouldn’t really be worthy of that title if it didn’t mention Robin Williams, now would it? Coming from a stand-up comedy background, his entire body of work (in varying degrees) is an ode to the art of improvisation. Most of the dialogue in the therapy scenes of Good Will Hunting is entirely unscripted, and Williams took full advantage of that. At one point he shares that his wife used to fart in her sleep so loudly that it would wake the dog up, and Matt Damon breaks down laughing in what became an extremely touching and funny moment. Allegedly, you can see the camera shaking in that scene because even the cameraman was in hysterics. Let that be a perfect illustration of how real laughter outshines scripted chuckles any day, even (and perhaps especially) in earnest dramas.
Every major actor coming from a traditional acting background has probably spent countless hours mastering the art of improvisation but being an A-list actor spitballing line after line in front of 250+ crew members is a different story. These scenes can not only elicit heartfelt performances that every film longs for, but also provide a sense of genuine authenticity that audiences didn’t know they needed. If you don’t believe me, start by watching Robin Williams’s uncut thirteen-minute radio broadcast of Good Morning, Vietnam on YouTube. You’ll thank me later.
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