Your editor is probably a nice person.
So maybe he doesn’t call his mom enough. Or she switches lanes without using a signal. Or he farts on a crowded subway.
Whatever the case is, he or she probably doesn’t deserve the hell you’ll put him through if you turn in footage that’s completely improvised.
I get the appeal of doing it. Filmmaking and improv are two of my biggest passions, and the thought of combining them makes life seem so much more simple. No scripts. Incredibly realistic dialogue. The advantage of having multiple writers (aka your actors and improvisers) come up with the dialogue for you. Damn it! Why doesn’t every director just do this?
You might have heard that Curb Your Enthusiasm does it. The League does it. Eddie Murphy improvises a lot in his movies. The chest waxing scene in 40 Year Old Virgin was mostly ad libbed. And you maaaaybe you’ve heard some of these quotes:
“You talking to me?”
“I’m walking here!”
“You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Yep. All of those lines, some of them the most famous lines in movie history, were improvised.
So again, what’s the problem? It seems like the way to go.
Well, actually, it can be the way to go. But having improv in your film doesn’t mean less work. It means more.
The Casualties of Doing an Improvised Show or Film
When I created the web series Tragedy Club, I decided to go the fully-improvised route. Most of my cast was improvisers, and for the ones who came from an acting background, we carefully vetted at the auditions to make sure they had the improv chops. The scripts weren’t traditional scripts per se, but they were outlines, saying what happens in a particular scene, some of them heavily detailed, while others very roughly sketched.
INT. BATROOM -NIGHT
Natasha walks into the bathroom. Tony is in there. She makes some backhanded compliments that makes him feel self-conscious about his body.
I discovered that this is the typical way a lot of people who shoot films with improvised dialogue will operate. At least this was the “impressive” way to improvise that people talk about. Curb Your Enthusiasm has done this, and many times guest actors have come in without any idea of what they were going to do or what the episode was about.
During the actual shoots of Tragedy Club I often did the same. I didn’t insist that the cast learn what they were doing ahead or even read what the episode was about. After all, it would seem more on the spot if they came in with no idea. And who needs to memorize dumb lines or directions when we’re doing improv?
And the crew? They didn’t need to know much more either.
This was a great idea in theory, but when it came to execution, it caused a helluva lot of problems.
#1 You will hurt the script
My actors were fantastic. I lucked out and had an amazing cast for what I shot. However, none of them were experts in the scripts or storylines—especially since I didn’t insist that they memorize lines, and I often didn’t send them scripts until a day or two before we began shooting. This meant that no one in the cast knew exactly the information we needed to convey in each scene.
We discussed it before we shot, but asking an actor to incorporate some crucial information or move the plot along when he or she is essentially winging it, is a tall order for any actor. They have to stay true to the character, know where that character’s head is at, make up engaging lines with their scene partner, hope what they’re doing is funny, and, oh yeah, move the plot along (sometimes not even being privy to the whole plot).
I can guarantee that crucial pieces of information will be dropped with this approach , and you’re not even going to realize it until it’s too late. Even with a script supervisor on top of everything (another lesson I learned: ALWAYS have a script supervisor) your scenes are going to drown in chaos.
So many episodes we made had to be readjusted because we didn’t get some crucial information in a scene.
#2 You will hurt your actors
I know part of the appeal is that the dialogue and acting will come off sounding more natural because of this whole impromptu approach, but that doesn’t always happen. In fact, it can actually make it go the opposite way.
As I mentioned above, you are asking your actors to do a lot. They’re patting their heads, rubbing their tummies, doing a tough mudder, and live tweeting at the same time. Getting into their heads about how they’re going to hit specific plot points is not going to make acting easier for them.
Especially if you have the same laissez faire approach we had to it, the actors might not be able to do much preparation beforehand. If they do try to prepare, they might have been rehearsing with a very different understanding of the story and with different character motivations than what is needed.
Sucks for all!
#3 THE BIG ONE: You will destroy your editor
We went through several editors for this project and with good reason. I couldn’t understand why some of them wanted to run away from this project with two middle fingers in the air.
My director then took over most of the editing, and worked some magic. It wasn’t until I decided to edit some of the episodes myself when I discovered what a Mad Max hellish landscape we had setup for ourselves.
First, we had very little matching footage. The actors would be doing way different things from take to take, so often it was difficult or even impossible to edit between them. “He’s standing on a chair in one take, and he’s not wearing in pants in the other.” This left us having to use a single take many times, and so often, we had to choose one because it had fewer flaws, or it was the only usable one. Lesser of two evils is no good for editing.
We also had some incredibly long takes. It’s hard to be concise on the spot, (especially if you’re having to incorporate specific information while being entertaining). So sometimes the only useable shot of something went on a minute or two longer than we wanted it to go. And guess what! We had to use the whole thing because there was’s important information at the beginning and at the end of it.
The editor was also left with stories that didn’t make sense because a vital plot point was missing or altered.
This means that the editor is left with a task no one should have to do: revise the story into something cohesive from the takes you leave her with. Good luck with that!
We had a lot of big problems and I’ve heard other producers having similar issues when using improv this way. And it’s not the fault of the director, the actors, the story, or any of the crew. It is a problem with the approach. Having an improvised series doesn’t mean you eliminate work like writing scripts; it means you add a ton of complexity.
The Way to Do It
So contrary to popular belief most of the improv you see in movies or shows isn’t “ just hit record and sees what happens!”. There is still a script. There’s still a table read. The actors do still rehearse. Those lines and beats are still shot.
It is, after all the usual preparation is in the can that, improvised versions are shot. At this point, the actors are very familiar with what plot points to hit,. They’re even more familiar with the characters and motivations, so the acting becomes easier (and this is where the dialogue becomes less stilted). And even if the improvised bits are a shit show, there’s still the original footage, so there will be no crisis mode in the editing room.
Even Curb Your Enthusiasm, which took an outline approach similar to ours, compensates for this by having a very detailed outline and ensuring that the director, AD, and other powers that be know the script well and have planned out the production meticulously, so even if the actors aren’t versed in the story, the directors know exactly how they can lead the actors to where they need to go. They can then let go a little more too. Just like the other approach, it still boils down to preparing in full, making sure you know what you’re doing, and getting what needs to be shot recorded. Then on subsequent takes--once everyone knows what they’re doing and what should be happening--loosening those reins and letting the improv magic happen.
So the bad news to writers who don’t want to write a script: you still have to write one.
And the bad news to actor’s who don’t want to memorize lines: you still have to memorize them.
And the good news to the editor: you won’t have to try Rumpelstiltskin-ing a bunch of messy footage into something good. Just stop farting on subways, alright?