Take risks – you can transform a scene
Improvisation during filming happens more than you would think. Some films do not even have a complete script when filming begins, Jaws and Annie Hall are two big examples. Some directors love giving actors freedom to play with the scenes and lines during takes, Tarantino and Scorsese for example – whilst a director like Mike Leigh will allow his actors a huge amount of improvised freedom before the camera starts rolling but once they are filming it is very much scripted.
You are an actor, you know your character inside and out and you are also a master of creativity why shouldn’t you be allowed to create and be in the moment? Often something you think of in the moment can be a terrific idea which can really make a scene. Some of the most iconic movie moments have come out of an actor’s spontaneity.
Be careful – sometimes a director will hate ad-libbing, you should be able to judge this for yourselves on a set.
I always think about who the focus of the scene is and what the overall purpose of the scene is. If something I add through impro is not going to be off putting for the other actors and not detract from the scene, story or character then I will always try and keep it fresh and spontaneous for takes.
Here are some of my favourite moments in movies which were created by actors being given the freedom to truly be in the moment.
Dirty Dancing – Ryan Gosling | Crazy Stupid Love
The romantic comedy Crazy Stupid Love was mainly scripted but the director also allowed a lot of room for impro.
This scene where stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone bond was mostly improvised.
“Well when I go out dancing with my friends and we get drunk, we try and do the Dirty Dancing lift,” explains Gosling. “That’s where it came from and it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Emma Stone made Ryan practise time and time again with a stunt woman because she didn’t believe he would be able to do ‘the lift’!
Emma had this to say about improv in movies “It’s like a muscle. Obviously, conversations are all improv, but to be on a stage or a setting to do improv is getting scarier for me now. With Ryan, it was easy. We were able to bring in things from real life, and bounce back and forth with those. So it was a nice welcome back into improv.”
Tears in the Rain – Rutger Hauer | Bladerunner
This final monologue from Blade Runner is perhaps “the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history”
The original script had a death speech for replicant Roy Batty played by Rutger Hauer but the actor felt that this script was “Opera Talk” or “Hi-tec speech” which had no place at this point in the film and so he took a knife to it the night beofre filming and reworked it alone. He wanted these final lines from Roy Batty to show how the character wanted to “make his mark on existence … the replicant in the final scene, by dying, shows Deckard what a real man is made of.”
This scene came at the end of shooting and the whole crew applauded afterwards with some even moved to tears both from the power of this speech and also the end of a tough shoot.
The line “Tears in the rain” is perhaps the most human and poetic line in the whole movie and is one of my personal favourite moments in film.
Party Scene – Bill Murray | Tootise
Bill Murray was already a big star when he agreed to play the role of flat mate (and best mate) to Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, he even agreed that his name should not be in the opening credits so audiences wouldn’t expect a “Bill Murray Movie!” He had come direct from the comedy troupe Saturday Night Live, which is famed for it’s impro and off the cuff fun.
Director Sydney Pollack gave Murray freedom to impro in this hilarious party scene. Bill Murray’s character is a playwright and his lamenting of the state of his plays during this scene is a really funny moment in such a funny film!
Pollack gave Murray freedom to improvise “a monologue” not informing the other actor’s so that there responses were genuine.
I love the way the scene is cut together to look like Murray has just been going on and on all night and that his diatribe has lasted the whole party. Look at the large wine bottle on the table throughout!!
Mirror, Mirror – Robert De Niro | Taxi Driver
This little scene from the Scorsese masterpiece Taxi Driver has gone down in movie history and the phrase “You talkin’ to me?” is in the AFIs top ten Movie Quotes.
Travis Bickle is looking at himself in a mirror and imagining a situation which might require him to draw his gun.
The script for this scene only read “Travis speaks to himself in the mirror” allowing De Niro to improvise the entire scene. Writer Paul Schrader claims that De Niro’s performance here was inspired by a routine from an underground New York comedian who had used this signature line.
Whilst saxophonist Clarence Clemons who coached De Niro for the 1977 movie New York New York claims that De Niro had seen Bruce Springsteen say this line to a crowd who were screming his name at a concert and thought it would be perfect for this moment in Travis Bickle’s decent.
Whatever the inspiration for this iconic line – the performance, timing and menace of De Niro’s acting is pitch perfect and makes this imporvised moment an all time movie great.
Farting Wife – Robin Williams | Good Will Hunting
I have chosen this moment in Good Will Hunting as one of my favourite improvised moments on screen becuase of the genuine responses from both Williams and Matt Damon.
The camera goes out of focus because Damon couldn’t keep still from laughing at William’s story about his wife (which was considerably longer than in the final cut) – it is also said that the camera man starts to laugh as well which is why the camera shakes slightly!!
I just love the genuine laughter in this scene but then I love how William’s brings that to a screaming halt with the line “Oh, she’s been dead for two years and that’s the shit I remember” at this moment Matt Damon is brought crashing back to the scene and his face is pure raw emotion and makes this scene even more moving.