Not all film or television scenes happen as they are written in a screenplay. Sometimes things happen that nobody intended, yet become the parts that everyone in the audience remembers long after the show or movie is over. Here are 43 incredible facts about improvised scenes.
43. How Gangsters Talk
When preparing the film Goodfellas Martin Scorsese would let his actors improvise during rehearsal, take the best bits they came up with, and put them into the final version of the screenplay. The script—along with Scorsese and actor Joe Pesci – was later Oscar-nominated.
42. To Script or Not To Script
The lingo “to go off-script” is a term when an actor either forgets his lines and says something different, or deliberately improvises an action or a line which isn’t in the shooting script.
41. Those Wacky Italians!
Improv as a form of art was first recognized in Europe as part of an art form known as commedia dell’arte. Popular in Europe in the 18th century, it featured comedic masks and stock characters put into classically comic scenarios.
40. A Light-Hearted Romp
According to Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, Thor: Ragnarok was filled with scenes that included some form of improv from the actors involved. He stated the third movie was a chance to experiment and be more creative, and the effect definitely shows on screen.
39. For The Kids
Improvisation has been a part of the world of theatre for a long time. In the early 20th century, it was a mandatory part of children’s education in the arts. It allowed children to tap into their imaginations in a class environment.
38. And the Crowd Goes Wild!
It’s safe to say that Caddyshack is one of the funniest films ever made, in no small part to Bill Murray and his hilarious portrayal of the deranged groundskeeper Carl. One of the more famous scenes of the movie is when Carl practices his golf swing on a row of flowers while narrating his own “Cinderella story” at the Grand Open. The entire scene was improvised on the spot by Murray, proving once again what a great comedian can do with even the barest amount of inspiration.
37. Just Like Old Times
Improvisation was used in films ever since the silent era. Legendary film stars Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin weren’t above fixing up their jokes on the fly while their films were in the middle of production.
36. Anthony Hopkins was Unavailable for Comment
In the movie The Cable Guy, Chip (Jim Carey) takes Steven (Mathew Broderick) to Medieval Times, and while they’re watching the tournament, he puts chicken skin on his face and imitates Hannibal Lector. Watch that scene again and you’ll see Broderick laughing at Carey’s actions because he wasn’t expecting Carey to do that. The scene worked, though, so they kept it in the film.
35. The Original Title was Turkey Soup, but They Ad-Libbed That Too!
When the Marx brothers started out in vaudeville, they quickly became known for their improvisational comedy. They would challenge each other’s wit by throwing random distractions in the middle of each other’s bits. They took this flair for improv and going off-script with them when they went to Hollywood.
34. Cooler King Loses His Cool
In an older example of improvisation in a film, The Great Escape features an actor actually break character in response to an ad-lib. When the American prisoners are celebrating the 4th of July, Goff (Jud Taylor) declares “No taxation without representation!” In the finished film, Steve McQueen actually stops his line to react in astonishment before continuing.
33. All Part of the Method
Another group of artists who encouraged improvisations were the actors who were taught the Stanislavski system. Konstantin Stanislavski—whose system would inspire method acting—was interested in actors embodying their characters on an emotional and psychological level, which meant they could improvise and still stay in character.
32. Road Rage
It’s well known that Dustin Hoffman was trained in method acting, which allowed for improvisations if the opportunity came about. On the set of Midnight Cowboy, that opportunity came in the form of a guy nearly hitting Hoffman with his car while they were filming. In his fury, Hoffman screamed that he was “walking here!” rather than “filming a scene!” or “gonna call the cops, you psycho!” That improvised line has outlived almost every other part of the film today.
31. A True Artist
One of the most famous faces in improv in the history of Hollywood was John Cassavetes, who was also a friend and inspiration to Martin Scorsese. Cassavetes was not only a successful actor, but like a gritty Edward Burns, he used his fortune from acting to finance an indie filmmaking career. It’s been misunderstood that he encouraged full-on improv in his films, though. The dialogue was always scripted, but the delivery wasn’t, and as any actor will know, delivery can change an entire film’s atmosphere.
30. An Actor’s Director
Robert Altman has gone down as one of the great directors in American film history. One of his directing styles was focusing on his characters rather than a plot. When making films, he would come up with a basic ‘blueprint’ story and encourage his actors to improvise while filming. By all accounts, actors loved working with him because he was a director who put them first and gave them room to be creative.
29. Director-Approved Improvisation
Rob Reiner has directed some of the most famous films of the 20th century. One of those films is the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. Reiner and his team tried writing a script but gave up after just a few days. The entirety of the dialogue was improvised by everyone involved, so Reiner tried getting everyone credited as the writers of the film!
28. This Boat’s Gotta Be Waaaaaaaaay Bigger!
By the time Jaws finally reveals the titular shark, there’s been a lot of buildup about how dangerous this creature is. After the creature is revealed, a shocked Brody says an ominous yet hilarious quip to his shipmate. Allegedly, the quip was a complete improvisation on Roy Scheider’s part.
27. Two for One
In 1995, Wayne Wang and Paul Auster were filming the movie Smoke. In between takes, the actors—including Harvey Keitel, Giancarlo Esposito, and Victor Argo—improvised while staying in character. Wang and Auster filmed enough of these improvisations—and added in several new characters on the fly—that they managed to cobble together a sequel of sorts titled Blue in the Face. Both films were released in the same year for the price of one.
26. You Break It, You Buy It
When you fill a cast with highly trained method actors, you get a brilliant movie like The Godfather, which ended up including some great improvisations, including some that made the final cut. When Sonny Corleone grabs an FBI agent’s camera and smashes it, it seems perfectly in character for Sonny, but James Caan improvised the action, getting a genuinely shocked response from his fellow actors. He also ad-libbed throwing money on the ground to pay for the broken camera, creating a perfect moment early on that explains Sonny’s character to the audience.
25. Just Having a Laugh
Rob Reiner continued his support for improvisation when he filmed the fantasy film The Princess Bride. Carol Kane and Billy Crystal were allowed by Reiner to improvise during their scenes. Mandy Patinkin, who played Inigo Montoya, claimed that he cracked a rib from suppressed laughter during the filming of that scene.
24. In The Flesh?
Singer Bob Geldof was cast to play the lead character of Pink in the movie adaptation of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. During the crazy production, Geldof was seized by inspiration several times. When Pink is supposed to lash out, Geldof threw a bottle at Jenny Wright without forewarning her, leading to her spontaneous, and completely genuine, reaction. In another scene where he was meant to only shave his eyebrows, Geldof suddenly began shaving his entire body, despite his deep fear of blood.
23. On the Boob Tube
Improvisation has frequently been used in comedy. Even aside from the occasional improvisation in comedy series, a whole show was formed around improvisation in the United Kingdom titled Whose Line is it Anyway. The show was later remade in the US, only to be rebooted recently with a new host.
22. Make Him Laugh
According to Usual Suspects co-star Kevin Pollack, the famous lineup scene in the movie was a pain to film for director Bryan Singer, but for the actors, it was a riot. Singer wanted a serious, detached scene, but the cast kept bursting into laughter while they goofed around trying to make each other laugh. Eventually, Singer gave up and put their genuine takes in the final film. We assume the entire cast chanted “Told you so!” when the scene was hailed as one of the best in the film.
21. A Diehard Fan
Before he sold his soul to The Price is Right, Drew Carey was one of the leading figures in the world of American improv. He was the longtime host of Whose Line Is It Anyway in the U.S. and then continued creating improv shows after the former was canceled. He created Drew Carey’s Green Screen Show and Drew Carey’s Improv-A-Ganza, featuring most of the same people who had worked with him on Whose Line.
20. Troy and Abed Improv-i-sing!
By all accounts, Donald Glover is probably the most talented actor/comedian/writer working in television right now. He’s made his mark with shows like Atlanta and Community, and he’s made guest appearances on other shows as well. One of his signature traits is his gift for improvisations, as one can see based on his incredibly dramatic monologue on Girls or his excellent lines on Community.
19. A Star is Born
Robin Williams owes much of his career to improvisation. As a young man, he auditioned for a small part in Happy Days, that classic ‘70s sitcom all about the ‘50s. Williams proceeded to make up everything about his character during the shoot. Rather than finding someone who would stick to the damn script, the producers gave him his own show to goof around on. Mork & Mindy further cemented Williams as one of the funniest comedians of his day.
18. Frustration with Firearms
In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Tuco holds a store merchant hostage as he searches for a new pistol. The scene is regarded as one of the film’s highlights, and it was unscripted. Eli Wallach, a trained method actor, was told to do whatever he wanted, while the disgusted and impatient responses of actor Enzo Petito were apparently genuine!
17. Let Him Talk
Robin Williams continued to improvise his way on film sets as more people found ways to harness this power for cinema. Talking about the film Good Morning Vietnam, producer Mark Johnson said they “just let the cameras roll” when Williams was on. Later on, the role of the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin was written specifically for Williams so that he could spout jokes and impressions off the top of his head.
16. Let’s Wing It
The Breakfast Club was filmed almost sequentially, it turns out. So by the time they got to the big conversation the group has in a circle about their inner conflicts and struggles, Director John Hughes let them ad-lib based on what they knew about their characters.
15. An Improvised Career
Rob Reiner wasn’t the only man behind the genius of This Is Spinal Tap. Not satisfied with writing and starring in that masterpiece, Christopher Guest has spent his entire professional career making mockumentaries where the actors had no rehearsal time and simply improvised their lines during filming.
14. The Suit Was Improvised Too
When Marvel wanted to get serious with their movies, they were so obsessed with how the special effects looked that they forgot about the script. Director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr. ended up improvising a lot of the dialogue in Iron Man, much to Jeff Bridges’s surprise. But thankfully, the Dude abided.
13. Mark From “Rent” Called It
Like Crazy director Drake Doremus has dabbled in improvised films throughout his career. According to Doremus, actors respond very positively to the opportunity to improvise their scenes. It allows for a creative environment which challenges their skills.
12. The Script Said “Checkmate, Dude!”
Aliens was the first sequel to the classic Ridley Scott sci-fi horror film starring Sigourney Weaver. James Cameron had big shoes to fill, and he knew he needed to up the game for the second film. One of the additions he brought to the table was actor Bill Paxton, who made Private Hudson one of the most memorable parts of the movie. According to Paxton himself, the majority of his lines in the film were improvised, including the five words for which he will go down in cinematic history: “Game over, man! Game over!!”
11. I Could Have Been a Contender? The Horror!
One of the most famous actors in film history, Marlon Brando, was trained in the Stanislavski style by Stella Adler and was no stranger to improvising. Whether it was for On the Waterfront or Apocalypse Now, Brando would avoid memorizing his lines and try to make up something off the top of his own head, even if it drove everyone around him crazy.
10. Why Don’t You Answer?!!!
A trained method actor, Robert De Niro did an incredible job portraying the unhinged Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver. At one point in the film, Bickle looks into the mirror and starts asking his reflection if he’s talking to him. This scene—one of the most iconic in all of De Niro’s career—came entirely from De Niro’s imagination while playing Bickle.
9. Creating Characters
British director Mike Leigh is a fan of improvisation. He even works with actors one-on-one when making a film to best develop their characters before filming starts. Often the characters are based on people Leigh or one of the actors has known in their life, which adds to the realism in the film.
8. Controlled Chaos
Even Stanley Kubrick, a perfectionist to rival all other perfectionists, wasn’t above using improvisation in his films. Comedic legend Peter Sellers often got to ad-lib on the set of Dr. Strangelove, Jack Nicholson came up with The Shining’s most famous line right on the spot, but the most legendary of all was Gunnery Sgt. Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. Retired army man R. Lee Ermey wasn’t even supposed to play Hartman, but his incredible ability to come up with rapid-fire insults made it impossible to not cast him.
7. Thank Goodness He Gave Up on Video Game Adaptations
Infamous German director Uwe Boll spent a large part of his career making the very worst kind of schlocky video game adaptations, but what few people realize is that he spent the last third of his career making low-budget films that challenged him creatively. Stoic is a prison film based on a graphic true story. Boll presented his four main actors with a brief film treatment rather than a script. He allowed them to improvise almost all the film’s dialogue.
6. Surprise Somersault
One of the most famous onscreen entrances of all time came from the mind of Gene Wilder. He only accepted his role in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory if he could slowly limp out of the chocolate factory as Wonka, only to suddenly somersault the last part of the way to the gate. Wilder got his wish, and a classic moment from all our childhoods was born.
5. Something Very Shocking
After Stoic, Boll doubled down on improvised filming, with what is arguably one of his few good films, Darfur. He cast actual survivors of massacres in Sudan in the film, and rather than give them scripts on what to say about their stories—which he considered arrogance on his part—he encouraged them to improvise and re-enact their horrific experiences for the sake of realism. We would make a sneering joke at Boll’s limitless appetite for exploitation, but Boll’s intentions seemed sincere for once, and even Amnesty International has admitted that Boll was surprisingly on point in his portrayal of the genocides.
4. Just Shoot Him
Everyone who has seen Raiders of the Lost Ark will tell you that the best scene in the film is when Indiana Jones is confronted by a skilled swordsman during a chase scene. Instead of picking up a sword and dueling with him as the script said he should, Harrison Ford improvised by pulling out his pistol and shooting the swordsman instead. It was all thanks to a bout of food poisoning that left Ford too sleep-deprived and sluggish to do another big action scene.
3. Why So Serious?
It’s pretty well-known at this point that Heath Ledger went to great lengths to immerse himself of the character of the Joker, and his dedication to the role made the character absolutely unforgettable. But many people don’t know that his talents at improvisation led to two of the memorable actions taken by the Joker character. One was when the Joker claps from behind the bars of his cell. The other was actually the result of a technical problem. In the scene where the Joker bombs the hospital, he was supposed to walk away, not looking back, as the hospital explodes. However, the explosion didn’t go off as planned, and so Ledger mumbled and played with the detonator as if, yes—the explosion didn’t go off as planned. It eventually went off, and his improvisation made for a memorable scene that would’ve never made it in the film if he’d broken character.
2. Funny Filler
It’s no secret that Blade 3: Trinity was a mess of a production, thanks in no small part to the behavior of Wesley Snipes. He would spend a great deal amount of time in his trailer, leading them to film around him as much as possible. In one scene, Blade enters a car with Ryan Reynolds’ character. Reynolds proceeded to improvise several different jokes for Snipes to barely react to, and the filmmakers went with the one they liked best. No wonder he wasn’t laughing—after the film was released, Snipes sued the writer/producer/director and the production company, claiming that the studio didn’t pay him his full salary, that he cut out of the decision-making process during filming despite being listed as a producer, and that he co-stars got more screen time than he did. On top of that, the next year, he was indicted for tax evasion.
1. Good Thing He Didn’t Swear
In Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, there is a scene where Aragorn believes that Merry and Pippin have been killed. Furious with himself, he kicks a nearby orc helmet and howls with rage, falling to his knees. As emotional as that is, Viggo Mortensen was channeling real pain into his scream, because kicking the orc helmet had broken one of his toes. Like a true professional, Mortensen decided to act through it rather than call “cut.”
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