In the history of film, there are a handful of iconic scenes improvised during filming, or born from unscripted moments on set and kept in the final edit of the movie.
I have come to realize that in the last few years, some of my favorite films happen to be (almost) entirely improvised. It certainly seems to be a more prolific style among independent filmmakers and I find that it can mean success when they cast the right actors.
Let’s go through some of the best improvised movies — that is, those which not only have a few improvised/unscripted scenes, but most of the feature has been created from the actors’ own interactions, with a minimal script outline. In no particular order:
DRINKING BUDDIES (2013)
Joe Swanberg has become a reference when it comes to improvised films. He’s had a prolific directing career since 2005, but the first movie I saw of him was Drinking Buddies.
It was fairly evident that it was ad-libbed for the most part, and I don’t mean that as a negative thing. The chemistry between Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson made it so easy to stay engaged. Even supporting actors like Ron Livingston, Anna Kendrick and Jason Sudeikis were surprisingly good at this, and the story stays fresh and realistic throughout. It will make you crave some beer, for sure.
After Drinking Buddies, Swanberg released Happy Christmas (2014), which honestly didn’t rise up to the expectations. It had the same improvised formula, an interesting plot, but the actors didn’t seem to be at their A-game (especially repeater Kendrick), and they’re the ones the director needs to rely on the most. I will say that Melanie Lynskey stole the scenes she was in, though. There’s a special charm about her that I love.
Despite this, I’m very much looking forward to seeing Swanberg’s latest film Digging for Fire (2015).
LIKE CRAZY (2011)
Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones lead this wonderful movie by Drake Doremus. He admitted to only having an outline for the script and the dialogue being improvised. The young actors aced it, crafting this story about a long distance relationship in the most meaningful way. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Messina also starred in minor roles in the film.
Doremus recently directed Equals (2015), a sci-fi drama which was received at this year’s Venice and Toronto International Film Festival with mixed reviews. It is led by Nicholas Hoult, Kristen Stewart and Guy Pearce.
THE ONE I LOVE (2014)
This is Mark Duplass at his best and Elisabeth Moss doesn’t stay behind. Essentially, the script for this movie lacked all dialogue except for the few scenes where they required some kind of special effect, when they were given a few more guidelines. All in all it is a solid, intriguing and at times funny debut feature by Charlie McDowell that will grab your attention from the beginning.
Duplass also starred in Your sister’s sister (2011), a highly improvised film by Lynn Shelton, who has directed several episodes of comedy shows like New Girl, The Mindy Project and Fresh Off the Boat.
BLUE VALENTINE (2010)
This film took several years to be made and director Derek Cianfrance wrote over sixty drafts for it, but decided to scrap them all right before shooting and let the actors improvise their scenes. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling had been attached to the project for 7 and 5 years respectively, so they had an idea of the story. They filmed the first part of the movie chronologically, when the main characters meet each other, and then Williams and Gosling spent a month living together before the filming resumed. Cianfrance wanted to wait six more years for this but producers refused. The result is an extremely powerful movie about falling in and out of love.
My love story with this incredible micro-budget film can’t be summarized in only a few lines. It’s in my Top 3 favorite movies of all time, and if you haven’t seen it… well, I’m disappointed. If you like sci-fi and subtlety brilliant filmmaking, check it out without knowing anything about it. No trailer, no nothing.
I didn’t know this the first two times I saw it, but the movie was shot in a way in which only one of the actors (because he was the “co-writer”) and the director, James Ward Byrkit, knew where they wanted it to go. They fed the actors some small directions and clues, and the rest was all for them to develop. Mind-blowing.
Ward Byrkit is also credited as one of the creators of the story for the Gore Verbinski’s first animated feature, Rango (2011).
BONUS: AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)
What I’ve come to learn from my research about improvised films is that the only way they can work is when, apart from the right actors, you have a somewhat solid story you want to tell… with a defined plot.
I thought American Hustle was the most overrated movie in 2013. There, I said it. At some point David O. Russell had a script and a good idea for this. When he gave the actors some free rein the project took a turn, but Russell stated that he cared more about the characters than the plot. That’s why his film turned out to be the mess that it was, but it was an improvised movie nonetheless, so it could have made my list.
BONUS #2: VERA DRAKE (2006)
I can admit to not having seen this movie, but I remember it being nominated for several Academy Awards. Truth be told, director Mike Leigh is known for utilizing improvisation in his films, drawing dialogue from conversations with the actors during pre-production, for example. He actually won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2005 with Vera Drake, and he admitted to having sent a script for the Academy, but “actually the screenplay that was nominated doesn’t exist. The film is the screenplay.”
BONUS #3: SHADOWS (1959)
This was John Cassavetes’ debut feature film. He’s been named the pioneer of American independent film because he directed and wrote a dozen movies that were partially self-financed, and he was also the first to use improvisation.
At the end credits of Shadows you can read: “The film you have just seen was an improvisation.”
What do you think of this style of filmmaking? Have I missed any entirely improvised films?