Sometimes you’ll hear that a movie used “a lot of improv,” but when pressed the director will reveal that at most a handful of lines of dialogue were made up on the spot. All these extended and/or scenes from Step Brothers show up on Funny or Die with improvised dialogue and they’re funny but too long to have made the final cut of the movie and so, you know, who cares?
Long-form improv, such that is done in theaters like Second City, iO, UCB and Groundlings, has its own style separate from the fact that the performers are making things up. There’s an aesthetic that goes along with the improv mantra of “yes, and” that creates certain kinds of high concept scenes which alternate between absurd premises and truthful slice-of-life moments.
What I mean is: moments in movies that feel like long-form improv have little to do with whether or not they were made up on the spot.
Here are some examples of moments in movies that, despite being scripted, felt like decisions an improviser would make:
(The 1985 Michael J. Fox movie, not that weird MTV show.)
Improv moment: When Scott Howard first turns into a werewolf in his bathroom, his father pounds on the door, demanding to be let in. “Ok, Dad, you asked for it,” says the wolfed-out Scott, who opens the door to discover that his father is also a werewolf! (That’s a spoiler. I should have said, except I shouldn’t need to since the movie is 27 years old). That is what an improviser calls an if this is true, what else is true moment.
And then, for the rest of the movie, being a werewolf is treated no differently than being a super-popular teenager. There’s no press coverage, there are no scientists descending with dissection kits, there are no crowds with torches. There’s a basketball game and a big dance and high school play with a 50-year-old teacher wearing a black turtleneck who looks like Art Spiegelman. That is called follow the fun.
Other evidence of improv sensibility: Teen Wolf screenwriter Jeph Loeb (who wrote the script with Matthew Weisman) later worked on the television show Lost, which definitely felt like it was being made up as it went along.
Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums
(And most Wes Anderson movies.)
Improv moments: Almost always, whenever anyone is asked a direct question they tell the truth. That honors the common improv mantra don’t be coy.
Example, when Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) asks Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) if he told Margot that Richie is in love with her, Eli admits it:
Richie: Did you tell Margot about that letter I wrote to you?
Eli: Why? Did she mention it? Yes, I did. Why would she tell you that when I specifically asked her not to?
Richie: I might ask you the same thing.
Eli: Yes, and rightfully so.
Also, in Rushmore (1998):
Herman Blume (Bill Murray): Why did you ask me to come here?
Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzmann): Oh, I was going to drop that tree on you.
Herman: That big one?
Max Fischer: Yeah.
Herman: (admiringly) It would have flattened me like a pancake.
In addition to not being coy, Herman choosing to admire Max’s plan rather than argue is an example of avoiding the fight.
Other evidence of improv sensibility: Bill Murray is famously an alumni of Second City, where he studied under improv guru Del Close. He didn’t write Rushmore, but he’d certainly have appreciated direct conversations like these.
Improv Moment: After Bill Murray’s character John Winger decides to join the army, he asks his best friend Russell Zitsky to go with him.
John: You sign up too.
Russell: Sure, what the hell.
That is a moment of saying yes in order to move the scene forward.
Other evidence of improv sensibility: Co-Star Harold Ramis was the third credited writer on this screenplay, and he was also an alumnus of Second City training.
Improv Moment: Between Renault (Claude Rains) and Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart).
Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.
That’s what we call a justification and is something you do often, especially to reconcile apparently contradictory facts. Bogart would have been a great improviser.
Other evidence of improv sensibility: Casablanca was a notoriously disorganized production, which screenwriters changing and finishing the script after shooting had begun. Ingrid Bergman did not know which character she would end up with throughout much of the shooting. Though not improvised, the actors had to perform in the moment with genuine ignorance of where events were taking them. This movie is amazing.
A Few Others
Talledega Nights (2006) — When Will Ferrell drives the jackknife into his own leg, they go through a series of attempts to remove it, including driving a SECOND KNIFE into the wound.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) — A hit man returning to his high school reunion is typical big juxtaposition you’d see in an improv scene, and a character with identity issues named “Blank” is the sort of deliberately chosen name you’d see in shows.
Rookie of the Year (1993) — A 12 year old who develops a major league fast ball because his tendons healed “a little too tight” is a classic made-up-on-your-feet justification to make a fun thing happen.
Besides Casablanca, I have a child’s taste in movies.
Special thanks to Erik Tanouye, Kevin Hines and Corey Brown for helping me think of examples.
Will Hines is an actor and writer at the UCB Theatre in New York.