Being a writer or filmmaker means that you can do this really awesome thing. I don’t mean making a profound movie that touches people’s hearts – although that is really ace. I don’t mean getting to work with amazing cast and crew and all working together to make something beautiful – although that rocks.
I mean being able to sit around and watch loads of movies and call it research.
It is seriously one of the best things ever. What’s even better, for me, is that a few projects that I’m working on at the moment are romantic comedies. So I get to watch a lot of good ones that I can learn what to do right and a lot of terrible ones which are almost better to watch because it’s easier to figure out what they’ve done that you’d do much much differently.
I’m working on a feature film concept at the moment with the effervescent Anton and we meandered out to the cinema last week to see ‘Like Crazy‘ as research for the film. This actually was a film for research, as we’d heard that the ‘falling in love’ section worked really really well. If we’d been going to see something like ‘The Artist‘, it might’ve been less research and more ‘research’ – although, a silent rom-com, anyone?
The cinema was completely empty which was great for us as it meant that we could easily talk through the film and pull it apart and figure out as we went what we liked and what we didn’t. But about ten seconds in to the first scene where the leads have any proper screen time together, I tilted my head to one side, paused thoughtfully for a second and said ‘This is improvised.’
And it was. As was most of the film.
I don’t know if it did it any favours. There were definitely three massive story beats missing so it seemed to skip over huge spaces of time in the story. It also meant that some scenes felt like they were over really quickly or too long or hitting the same beat again and again. There’s a scene where they’re arguing and Anna keeps repeating the same line of dialogue over and over again in different ways. The scene stalled and it didn’t really make sense in the context of the story, either.
This scene really sticks in my mind because it doesn’t work. There was no build up to the height of the argument, the pair of them just kind of jump to the main point of the scene – where she accuses him of having feelings for someone else.
I think that this can often happen when all the actors improvising are thinking about is the core plot point of the scene and not the build up. Arguments can often be fantastic scenes to write, to act and to film when they are done dynamically. One way that I like to do this is before the argument explodes, one of the characters is trying NOT to get into the argument, even though it’s brimming under the surface. They contain themselves for as long as they possibly can and the other character is completely unaware, until the argument bursts into being at the smallest thing.
This is a really great way to tackle improvising arguments with actors and you can get some wonderful character moments in them. If you tell both actors what the core plot point of the scene is – she accuses him about having feelings for someone else – then take each actor aside privately and give them direction that the other doesn’t know about. For example, tell her that she wants to confront him about it but doesn’t want to make a scene. Tell him that he wants to go out for pizza because he’s organised a surprise dinner for their anniversary. Then you create a moment that is driven by the actors surprising each other – she surprises him with the argument and he surprises her by insisting that they should go out and get pizza. The more he blocks the argument with dinner, the more she’ll attack him and the more she’ll attack him, the more he’ll block until eventually, one of them will break and you’ll hit the high point of the scene – even if you don’t know what that high point will reveal.
You don’t need actors to do this. You can do this as a writing exercise too. Place restrictions on your characters a scene to see how they react under pressure. It doesn’t even need to be an argument, although it is often a surprising and fast way to get character and exposition across. Try writing a scene like the one above with your two main characters and see what you get out of it.
I think the key with improvising is that it should be done in the rehearsal/development stages. We played with improvisation during the rehearsals of ‘With A Little Help From Our Friends’ and the film is definitely the better for it – some moments became even bigger and more hilarious and the improvised moments became a part of the film, a part I wrote into the script which we shot on the day. I had to tweak it a little to make it work, but adding those improvised moments to the structure of the main film definitely gave it a little more sparkle.
It’s very gutsy to improvise a whole film, mostly just because that actors are often not writers. They can craft amazing characters and create wonderful moments, but the doesn’t make a story. However, if they’ve got the skeleton of a fantastic script underneath them, the improvised pieces become beautiful flourishes on a fantastic film and not a film that had so much potential but didn’t quite get there.