Off-Script: Which Movies Are Actually Improvised?

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You often hear that movies are “improvised” or that beloved sequences from major Hollywood movies were made up on the spot. But there’s a huge difference between a couple of goofball actors riffing off the bare-bones of an idea (Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta in the “funny guy” sequence from Goodfellas) improvised scenes or ad-libs (Robert De Niro, going totally Method, asking “You talkin’ to me?” in Taxi Driver), completely revamped characters (Marlon Brando totally rethinking every aspect of Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now), and films that ignored their scripts completely.

Perhaps the greatest and most memorable movie off all time was reportedly improvised: Marlon Brando’s “I could’ve been a contender” lament from the climax of On The Waterfront. However, usually, fan and critical speculation about improv in films is reminiscent of parents suspicious of teen promiscuity – they’re certain there’s much more of it going on that there really is. Let’s set the record straight:

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The One I Love 

The verdict: Yes.

Master improviser Mark Duplass joined Elisabeth Moss for this memorable 2014 film, the plot of which I’ll keep secret. Duplass himself told Indiewire: “Every scene is carefully detailed: the plot movements of A, B, C, D, and what the characters are doing. But there’s no dialogue written, so every piece of dialogue in the film is improvised.”

 

American actors McLean Stevenson (left) (1927 - 1996), as Lt. Col. Henry Blake, and Gary Burghoff, as Corporal Walter Radar O'Reilly, appear in a scene from the television series 'MASH,' California, 1975. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

MASH 

The verdict: No.

This is perhaps the most misunderstood film on the list. In fact, everything in the Altman canon is offhandedly referred to as “improvised.” That reaction often comes off as derogatory because it detracts from the fact that Altman was an eagle-eyed, fully confident artist who used every aspect of cinema, including many tools he invented, to build his masterworks.

MASH in particular seems improvised because it’s the first and finest example of Altman’s belief in giving actors free reign of the scene. Famous examples include the first use of overlapping dialogue in the early lunchroom sequence, where seemingly more than a dozen actors, some not even on camera, are audible. But almost everything is in the script except, ironically, the entire feel of the movie, which is pure Altman, who wanted more credit for the Oscar-winning screenplay. (Had he been credited, it would’ve been the only Oscar Altman ever won outright).

 

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Caddyshack 

The verdict: Yes, but only partly.

While the story and much of the dialogue is in the script, there are two major exceptions which means this can be considered an improvised film: two of its biggest characters, played by Rodney Dangerfield and Bill Murray, created virtually all of their dialogue. In addition, their scenes were continually expanded as both actors were allowed to straight-up steal the movie.

 

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Bridesmaids, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek 

The verdict: Yes.

Like other Melissa McCarthy-driven films, the cast of Bridesmaids was given carte blanche to improvise every moment of the film, thanks to a two-camera setup that caught all back-and-forth exchanges and ad-libs without having to create a second take. Director Paul Feig specifically hired cinematographer Robert Yeoman because of his previous experience with the technique on Get Him to the Greek. That film’s precursor, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, also had enough improv for it to qualify here – according to director Nicholas Stoller, just under half of the dialogue was completely unscripted.

 

TriStar Pictures' sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9.

District 9 

The verdict: Yes and no.

For years, fans of this South African sci-fi film have debated whether the film (nominated for an Oscar) was improvised. The consensus seems to be that while amateur lead Sharlto Copley was asked to wing it so as to seem more natural, the rest of the script went mostly unchanged.

 

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Shadows and other films by John Cassavetes

The verdict: No.

The groundbreaking 1959 Shadows, which arguably kicked off the independent film movement, ends with a startling title card: “The film you have just seen was an improvisation.” Shadows, however, actually grew out of acting workshops Cassavetes, then a major TV star, conducted in which the maverick director developed characters for his students, wrote a bare-bones outline of scenes for them, and shot everything over several months, lacking a proper budget to shoot endless rolls of film. After a disastrous preview screening, Cassavetes rethought the entire project – and then reshot it. The official version of Shadows is completely scripted, right up until that shocking closing credit. His later movies were filmed word-for-word, albeit with room for the actors to interpret the characters however they saw fit.

 

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Blue Valentine

The verdict: Yes and no.

This is a tricky one. Technically, the film was entirely improvised – but writer/director Derek Cianfrance discarded a reported 60 drafts during a staggering seven years of preproduction. Leads Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling therefore knew Cianfrance’s vision and what he wanted from the story and its characters – even if the drafts may have contradicted those ideas at times – but everything that happens between their characters, including their conversations, was the work of two acting titans.

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