A talented writer can turn a good story into a great script. A talented director and creative actors can turn that great script into an epic movie. It seems pretty straightforward. However, many do not know that some of the greatest scenes in film were improvised.
Some of the most memorable moments from both epic favorites and cult classics have been a surprise combination of many elements not in the script. Improvisation happens more frequently than some viewers would expect on most film sets, however, the audience usually doesn’t hear about it unless the cast and crew decide to part with that information.
An exhausted cast, an actor’s health, a drunk extra, a determined director or just plain great chemistry are all reasons which have allowed cast and crew ensembles to explore different directions than the writers had originally intended.
Both a box office success (with $39.8 million) and a cult classic, 1980’s Caddyshack had so many quotable moments, it’s hard to choose one. Co-writer and director Harold Ramis is a film legend for his work in Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and many other hits. The friendship and trust between Ramis and a young Bill Murray allowed Murray far more freedom to improvise than generally allowed in any one film.
Bill Murray filmed for a total of six days, and all of his dialogue was completely improvised. In fact, the only script direction for what became his “Cinderella speech” was “Carl cuts off the tops of flowers with a grass whip.” Murray came up with the entire speech on the fly, including taking out the flowers one by one with the golf club. Bill Murray soon became well known for his creative improvisation and many directors gave him freedom to lead scenes and ad-lib, including Sydney Pollack on Tootsie.
Raiders of The Lost Ark
Many have heard the rumor of the most famous improvised scene in Lucas and Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, but few know how much time and training went into the scene that was just dropped. Harrison Ford spent a great deal of time training for the precise choreography of hand-to-hand sword fighting in order to carry out the complicated sword and whip battle that was scripted to take place in the marketplace when Marion Ravenwood was taken.
Unfortunately, when it came time to shoot the scene, Ford and much of the crew were suffering from dysentery. Ford was pale and sweating in the heat and could barely spend more than 10 minutes away from the bathroom. It was rumored that he felt so bad after the camera started rolling that he didn’t even consider performing the duel. Of his own volition, he simply took out the pistol and shot the Arab Swordsman. Spielberg loved the improv and kept it, and then excused Ford to the loo. Spielberg and Ford continue to make great movies together.
High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story is a cult classic released in 2003 chronicling the career of Stu Ungar. Ungar was one of the most gifted card players in history, winning the World Series of Poker in 1980 and 1981. He then suffers from a long losing streak only to come back and win it again in 1996. Michael Imperioli, known best for his role in HBO’s The Sopranos knew he had to go deep into the world of poker to realistically understand and face what this champion went through.
Writer and director A.W. Vidmar allowed the actors to spend time learning the rules and strategies of poker. They needed to learn the art of bluffing while trying to not fall for the bluffs of others. He allowed a lot of freedom of dialogue and action during the filming of the poker games. It was important for the actors to play realistically even though they, of course, knew the outcome of each hand. This freedom allowed for realistically intense moments between the characters. What’s more, the appearance of the late Pat Morita – Mr. Miyagi himself – adds to the cult status of the film.
The Empire Strikes Back
This should be called “Lucas and Ford Strike Again,” as it seems that Harrison Ford got more improve time in Spielberg and Lucas films than any other films he did. Their professional relationship spanned decades and there was a real trust between directors and actor.
It is one of the final scenes of The Empire Strikes Back, and Han Solo is about to be lowered into the carbon-freezing chamber to test it before Skywalker arrives. It is obvious Darth Vadar couldn’t care less whether he lives or dies, but Leia does. The original script called for him to respond to her “I love you” with “I love you too.” Neither Ford nor Lucas thought this was congruent with Solo’s usual cocky bravado in the face of death and danger.
Lucas gave in and told Ford to say whatever felt right. In true Han Solo form, the very first take captured Ford’s iconic line, “I know…” This line was, of course, written in reverse for the third film when Leia rescues Solo, and the Star Wars franchise continues to be one of the most popular series in film history.
Being John Malkovich
The memorable improvised moment in this iconic cult classic from 1999 was not due to a talented lead actor or freedom from the director, Spike Jonze, but rather something more unexpected. The scene takes place shortly after John Malkovich meets John Cusack on the side of the road and then wanders off mad.
The passing truck was scripted; the drunk extra throwing a can while shouting, “Hey Malkovich! Think fast!” was not. The can hit Malkovich square in the back, causing him to cry out in surprise and pain. Jonze thought the scene really fit with the character’s frustration and left it in. Rather than being fired, the drunken extra got a SAG card and a raise, and Being John Malkovich became one of those strange movies you have to see.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Chest thumping… chest thumping… chest thumping. Nothing more needs to be said. Although The Wolf of Wall Street follows Leonardo DiCaprio, and Matthew McConaughey has a more minor role, no one can forget the pivotal scene when McConaughey takes DiCaprio to lunch to teach him how to be successful on Wall Street.
Before filming, DiCaprio saw McConaughey humming and thumping his chest on the sidelines. When asked, Matthew replied it was something he did to relax, get his voice lowered and prepare for scenes. Fascinated, DiCaprio asked Scorcese to put it in the scene. He agreed and it left a lasting impression on moviegoers everywhere. This film was well known for having many improvised scenes.
With shooting deadlines, tight budgets, limited film permits and pushy producers, oftentimes it is difficult for a director to take the time to give the cast a little freedom to create. When they do, however, the scenes usually become deeper, richer and more memorable.