On Going Off Book: When Improv is the Best Option

Thanks to Pajiba for actually bringing this video to my attention. I'm torn between many worlds when it comes to improvisation. As a writer, I cringe when an actor decides that they know better than me but really don't. However, when they stumble into something great--even in flubbing a line--I'm more than happy to fold that into the script. As a music director, I will stop a rehearsal dead in its tracks if someone misses part of a rhyme scheme or decides they know better than the composer, the lyricist, the librettist, the musical arranger, the licensing company, the director, and me. And as a performer, I like to work with a director/writer to figure out what works best for a scene. Sometimes, it's everything exactly as written; other times, it can be as simple as changing a stage direction or inserting a comma in a sentence; other times still, something needs to be changed or kept free to be believable.

This is more of a hot button issue than you would think in the performing arts. You have writers who beg you not to alter their work. You also have directors who think they get the final say on every word said or sung onstage and actors who think that embodying the character justifies changing everything that was written for them.

Sometimes, letting that guard down is appropriate. In this video from mewlists, twenty-five moments of unscripted dialog action and/or dialog are ranked. It's an eye-opening experience to say the least. I would have bet money, for example, that the famous "Oh warriors, come out and play" dialog was written. It's too perfect not to have been planned. Same with "game over, man. Game over," and the taxi scene in Midnight Cowboy. Watch below and we'll get further into this.

There are certain situations where improvisation and experimentation is a necessity. Stanley Kubrick's casting of former drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey is the perfect example of that. Kubrick didn't feel comfortable writing the dialog for the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, so he brought on Ermey as an expert to guide the process. Kubrick liked Ermey enough to actually give him the role and have him improv all of the insults in the film. It's a great use of a very specific type of person to get just the right dramatic effect. People are still shouting these insults out twenty-four years later.

Another situation where improv is essential happened with Midnight Cowboy. Dustin Hoffman, being an excellent character actor, refused to step out of character when a taxi cab driver decided to ignore the barricades/signs/crew people yelling at him to get off the film set. The result is a quintessential NYC moment captured in perfect detail. You could not script this authentic New York rage and get everyone to react like someone almost died due to driving stupidity. That's because someone--Dustin Hoffman--did almost die because of New York driver stupidity. If they cut the reel and reshot the scene according to the script, we wouldn't have that great real moment.

Then you have a moment of experimentation like in The Usual Suspects. This is a film that required strict adherence to the script to work. The variations come from letting certain scenes be done in a natural way. When a director tells you to play around with the delivery, that most likely means they're looking for something very specific but can't articulate it quite right or aren't entirely sure that's the right direction. You let the actors play around with what they're saying until you get something that's just right. In this case, we get the hilarious moment where the suspects are improving on the line of dialog in the line-up. The actors are having a ball playing characters who are supposed to see the whole thing as a joke. It just works.

One situation that happens more than you would think is improvisation by necessity. Kubrick had to ask Malcolm McDowell to sing something--anything--he knew during the rape scene in A Clockwork Orange because the dialog he scripted was distracting. Whether this was based on the far wordier novel or an invention of Kubrick's is beside the point. The director decided the screenplay wasn't working and told his actor to try something crazy. Now we have that brilliant juxtaposition of the happy "Singin' in the Rain" with the brutal crime being committed. It matches the actions of the Droogs perfectly because they're culturally literate ultra-violent hooligans. Why wouldn't they be singing while they worked?

The last type I like in this kind of improv by necessity scenario is reaction. Whether it's responding to Princess Leia by saying "I Know" or completely losing it with "Game over, man," when the odds seem insurmountable in Aliens, the hardest thing to get an actor to do naturally is react. If it takes a little improv here or there to get them fully invested in someone else's moment without distracting from the action, it's worth it. It's even more impressive when it's a bit of physical business. Probably my favorite unscripted scene in the video is Heath Ledger reacting to the explosives at the hospital. That's being in the moment without necessarily knowing what you are going to do. Ledger was so in-character that every way he reacted was going to create a powerful moment.

This isn't to say I like all the examples in this video. Woody Allen lucked into getting enough of his snuff scene done to keep it in the film after sneezing. The bottle throwing and random insults don't work for me. I still doubt that the actor in The Warriors came up with that chant off the cuff as it's just too perfect; I'm suspecting a script doctor on set or the director pitched the line and ran with it. If Saving Private Ryan and Good Will Hunting really relied that heavily on improv in certain scenes, you have to wonder how many takes it took to get the version that was good enough to fit the tone of the film. This, in turn, would mean that the actors had already started memorize and habitualize the scene so that they might as well have been working off of a script.

I think there is a time and a place for improv in performance situations. I do think, though, that it should be controlled as much as possible. If you let an actor know that they can play around with a certain moment or in a few one-liners at certain points, it can be powerful. If you insist the actor keep going no matter what, it can work beautifully. But if you just let the actors change every line and go completely off script, you've just lost control of the actual concept of the film. Very few performers can do that much improvisation and stay on top of the actual concept. It's a high risk proposition that doesn't always pay off in a worthwhile or usable way.

What do you think? Are you pro or con improvisation? Favorite improvised moments in the video? Not in the video? Sound off below.

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