In ‘the industry’, tens of thousands of dollars are invested into the task of creating a film script, often with annoying re-write after re-write after re-write to get it seamless and picture perfect.
But as precise and polished as a script may be, it’s needless to say that once the director yells action, actors have a tendency to improvise a little, often leading to major hits and classic scenes.
Today I’m going to go over my top 10 favourite improvised movie moments that have resulted in some of the most well-known and remarkable scenes to date.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
The most iconic scene from Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects centres on a police line-up on the film’s main cast. Famously, writer Christopher McQuarrie was given the easy job of producing only one line of dialogue: “Give me the keys, you fcken ccksucker!”, to which it was up to each of the individual actors to deliver however they pleased. And of course, there was some friendly competition involved too. Each actor tried to outdo one another, which in turn resulted in one hilarious work of improvisation.
Even McQuarrie got in on the action as the police officer on the intercom, asking Benicio Del Toro’s character to offer the line “In English please”, getting an authentic unscripted response. Supposedly, the entire cast continuously broke out into laughter (which can be seen) after Del Toro had trouble controlling his bowels while filming. But hey, what works works I guess.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Robert De Niro talks to himself in the mirror of his New York City apartment through the eyes of mentally unstable Vietnam War veteran Travis Bickle. This entire monologue is centred on an impromptu question, “You talking to me?” The actual script simply stated that “Travis talks to himself in the mirror”, but De Niro took it upon himself to deliver a stellar performance that not only flung his career into the big leagues, but also turning it into one of the most famous and off-quoted scenes in cinema history.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
There are a lot of things that went wrong in the making of this film. One of them being the fact that Marlon Brando, genius as he was, refused to read the script, consequently shutting down production for a whole week in a mere attempt to get him to learn his lines. Director Francis Coppola had to literally sit there uttering Brando his lines prior to the shoot, just to get him to understand the context of the scene. But when that didn’t work, Brando pretty much just said he’d wing it.
While it still amazes me how this film did so incredibly well, Brando (and I re-emphasise ‘genius as he was’) somehow got up and improvised 18 complete minutes of dialogue, before literally admitting to Coppola that he had no more to say and if he wanted more, he could hire another actor. Although saying Brando was difficult to work with is a massive understatement, he miraculously produced a masterpiece of a monologue out of thin air. Now that’s a magic trick I’d like to learn.
The Dark Knight (2008)
No one could have predicted the darkness and insanity Heath Ledger would bring to the Joker, and no one could have predicted his improvisation on set either. Although Ledger improvised several scenes throughout the film, the one that takes the next spot on my list takes the tension to a new level. As the police station fills with applause after Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) is promoted to Commissioner, our attention is taken by a slow, mocking clap from the lone-celled Joker. This unscripted clap transforms the scene to an unsettling level, as Ledger’s Joker steals the spotlight, just as the Joker would.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
While chasing down the kidnappers of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Indy runs into a real on-screen bad guy, armed with a machete. As written in the original script, Indy was supposed to engage in an epic choreographed sword fight with the show-offy swordsman, which I assume would have been won by disarming him with his iconic whip. Unfortunately the night before this big scene, Harrison Ford came down with a bad case of food poisoning, leaving him absolutely drained the day of the fight. Although this wasn’t an on-scene improv, in a last minute decision, Steven Spielberg re-directed Ford to pull out a gun in a sword fight, and with one swift bullet, defeat the sword-wielding assassin. Fortunately enough, this move impacted the franchise in a big way, adding humour to a character that is full of charm and wit, and creating what is considered a classic Indiana Jones moment.
The Shining (1980)
We all know the scene of Jack Nicholson’s piercing face through the splintering axed bathroom door. But what you may not have known is that his famous line was previously made popular by TV presenter Ed McMahon on ‘The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson’. And although the scene itself was scripted, Jack Nicholson’s psychotic phrase “Heeeeere’s Johnny” was indeed an on the spot shinning success, making for one bloodcurdling sight. You can even see his on-scene companion Shelly Duvall scream her lungs out of actual shock and horror. I suppose if we want to take an action out of this improvisation, it can be not to play hide and seek with Jack Nicholson.
Although the film itself had a pretty killer script, considering the cast, which includes Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, it was almost certain that even a killer script would be moved aside. Supposedly there is a 20 hours version of the movie locked up somewhere with all the laugh-cry worthy deleted improvised scenes. But among many, the scene chosen for my list takes place between Melissa McCarthy and her real life husband Ben Falcone, who plays an undercover US air marshal. Prior to such scene, director Paul Feig told the two to “just talk” and see what happens, resulting in very funny and crude dialogue between the two.
Among many things, Martin Scorsese’s genius as a director comes from his support for actors to invent their own dialogue, and then retroactively add into the script. In return, this improvised scene comes off the back of a true story that happened to actor Joe Pesci growing up. Working as a waiter (like all good actors will do at some point) Pesci was involved in a tense dispute with a mobster after admitting to him that he was funny. Needless to say, this wise guy didn’t take the compliment too kindly. Over hearing this story on set, Scorsese of course jumped on board the idea, telling Pesci, who plays a high end mobster Tommy DeVito, to do exactly what he explained in his story, without telling his scene partners such as Ray Liotta. Inevitably, this lead to one of the most memorable scenes in the film, even earning Pesci a well deserved Oscar. In the end, the moral of the story here is not to call any mobster funny… unless you ‘wanna swim with da fishes’.
Daa Daaam… Daa Dammm, da-dam, da-dam da-dam da-dam. Another Steven Spielberg favourite hits the list today with one of the most (if not, the most) well-known movie line ever: Police Chief Brody’s “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”. Heard of it? Yes? Well this line was indeed said as a brilliant piece of ad-lib by actor Roy Scheider. This line comes just after Brody gets his first real look at the deadly beast of the sea, as he stands up stunned and startled at the sheer size of the long sought after shark.
Iron Man (2008)
When studio executives gave the green light to the first Iron Man film, they got a little too caught up in the special effects to actually make a half decent script. In an interview with Jeff Bridges, who played the role of Obadiah Stane, the film’s main antagonist, he confessed that pretty much the entirety of Iron Man was improvised – including Robert Downey Jr’s leading loudmouth role as Iron Man. He explained, “They had no script, man… They had an outline. We would show up for big scenes every day and we wouldn’t know what we were going to say.” Saying that, having the special skill set of Bridges and Downey Jr. obviously does have its perks, in that they were able to get together before each scene and improvise the basics of what they were going to say.
And that’s the 10. Pretty cool, huh? Let me know if you think I’m missing any of your favourite improvised movie moments from my list.