Improvisation is a lost art form of wonderous magic. It's esoteric because the rules go out of the window, and it's incredibly hard to wield in a cinematic environment.
I've found that improvisation, from my own experiences as an actor & as a director, comes best in projects where you are completely and utterly wrapped in the project, knowing every inch of the story & character. By doing this deeply intimate research, you'll be able to set yourself free - living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.
Sadly though, directors & actors don't seem to trust improvisation enough, or even worse - due to a lack of time & resources, cannot feasibly justify it.
And yet, improvisation in film has been responsible for the some highly iconics moments in film like...
You talkin' to me?
She farted so hard, she woke up
I'm walkin' here
With that in mind, I decided to take on the challenge of improvisation in cinema, as I'm captivated by it's power which will be put to good use in my next project titled 'Melbourne After Dark'. This will be an improvised short film, with 20 actors, in 1 to 2 minute vignettes, in the style of Richard Linklater's Slacker as well as using Mike Leigh's directorial method.
Method to my Improv Madness
I've worked on numerous scripted projects, but lately I've felt constricted by the confines of scripts. A lot of the time, they're great when they work, but as a director & actor, I find that the problem of getting caught in the lines turns acting from a physical/vocal/emotional art into an painfully obvious, intellectual recital.
It is terrible for audiences to watch this (see Sophia Coppola's acting in Godfather 3)
This is where the aspect of 'giving up and letting go' that is innate in improve, frees the actor & audience.
Another issue I've had, is it largely sucks trying to rehearse short scenes with any more than 3+ actors for short films. No one is ever available on the one night, they all have multiple projects being filmed and no real deep work gets invariably done, unless you're all committed to working on it for a while.
Improv as a Solution to my Filming Woes
With all of that in mind, I've chosen 20 actors in Melbourne to collaborate with. I've discussed with each, the in-depth requirements that improv needs, with 3 to 4 weeks of character research, as well as scene story development.
To help them, I've created a guide for my actors to read & study alongside in order to nail their scene story & character.
This doesn't touch on any of the improv rules that will be done on the day, it's merely a way into the character, so that they can be focused and confident with acting.
Character + Story
Both the character building & the story elements are so crucial to the actors process of utilising improv. They're incredibly married to one another, so you cannot have either neglected in the actors work. They must know or have some freedom with the story elements, if they are to truly collaborate and shine.
This isn't to say give them input or have a final say, but they need to feel some skin in the creative game if their performance is to be good.
One Sentence Summary
Imagine being a sculptor trying to describe their statue. They wouldn’t stop at saying it is made out of marble, but they also wouldn’t describe the minute details – only the essentials.
Having a One Sentence Summary of your scene & story is crucial, as it helps you understand what the core journey of your character is.
This should be your scene in a microcosm with all the non-essential details stripped clean.
For example – After a horrible Tinder date, a drug addict begs his dealer for a free fix at a public pay phone.
The environment you choose to work within will have a strong influence on the staging of your scene work, as well as the energy you feel on the day.
It’s crucial to pick a environment that is realistic to your character & their arc, as well as being easy to record within, not trespassing on private property (shopping centers, the casino), and free of noise pollution (no busy highways).
For example – The public pay phone in the housing commission flat works perfectly, as it is could be an indicator of the character’s lifestyle (lower class, drug user, cramped residential area).
The fact he would use a payphone, in the day and age of mobiles shows his social status.
Payphone booths are also generally well lit & sound insulated which can help create a cinematic feel.
The Scene Story ====
The beginning will take 10 to 25% of the total filming time on the day.
This plot point should contain two elements
1 – Warming up the audience to your scene / character / slice of life (i.e Drug addict stares down the street, checking if anyone can see him, then begins rifling through his pockets for drugs, then finally change for the payphone – all the whilst talking about the terrible date he had been on)
2 – Begin the first plot point
(i.e The first dealer won’t answer his phone. In desperation, he remembers the second dealer he owes money to and calls him out of desperation.
Remember to Keep It Simple but Specific – meaning, give yourself enough clues as to the trajectory of what you are doing, but not too many that it becomes a mental exercise of memory)
On the day, I’ll be there to help prompt you of which story point we’ll be entering to relieve you of the stress of keeping track.
Be very particular about having extras in your scene. If you must have extras, keep them to 1 to 2 throughout the entire scene. I would much prefer if you acted solo though as we want to demonstrate, deeply affected acting.
The middle of your story will take up 50% to 80% of your story.
It should deal with how your character navigates through the situation – demonstrating truthful behavior in the aim of overcoming any obstacles (if any), to achieve their goals (if any).
Again – stick to bullet points, which are concise and not over-expository so that you aren’t robbed of the freedom to explore in the improvised scene work. This should also cover any emotional beats / plot points / actions.
Your character, however, may or may not achieve their goals.
For example – The drug addict over the course of the phone call…
- Tries to make small talk with his dealer about his terrible date
- Then asks kindly for a free taste
- When rejected – he proceeds to beg
- When rejected again – he proceeds to threaten & bashes the phone on the box
- A bystander passes as the addict composes himself
- Again, pleads with the dealer – opening up about what really happened
The final section will take up 25% to 10% of your scene.
The end or conclusion of your story, should either neatly tie up all the loose threads of your narrative, or leave it completely ambiguous.
Again, keep this in dot points and in loose steps.
Find a poetic way to end your story – it may leave a powerful statement, or it may simply fade out.
There can be a catharsis here, or there might not be.
For example – The dealer is very touched by what the addict has said, and offers him some sound advice as to how to proceed forward out of his relationship mess. Without having truly listened, the addict asks again for drugs. The dealer ends the call by not being able to give him a free fix of the drugs. The addict then rages it and storms out of phone to find another fix
Back Story & After Story
Develop a back story for what has happened that day & week for your character to find themselves in the situation they’re in.
You can be as detailed as you want to be for this part. It is more, for you to access an invented memory, so that you aren’t caught unmotivated & without feeling like a justified reason for being in your situation.
Remember Writing is Rewriting
This is magical quote by Stephen King. I live by it, and most writers worth a damn, do too.
Nothing great is ever written in it’s first draft. It takes the other re-written drafts to find the gold in the story. This is where your discipline and love of the story must fuel your refinement of it.
The process of redrafting the above story elements, will take at least 3 drafts, of which 90% of it must be completed by this Sunday night.
The other 10% of story elements will be continued to be refined & worked upon, leading up to the day of filming.
Obstacles are very important if you’ve chosen to do a plot driven scene, rather than an improvised slice of life.
I’ve adapted elements of Susan Batson’s character building principles from her seminal book ‘Truth’. I had the pleasure of working with her son Carl Ford, using the top 3 elements (Public Persona, Need, Tragic Flaw) in an acting workshop.
For a fuller description of these principles – watch this video of Susan discussing the elements https://vimeo.com/95083377
Public Persona/Private Persona
Public Persona relates to how the character presents themselves in life – which can be completely different to how the public looks at them.
Everyone has a label – whether it’s jester, politician, feminist, party-animal, soldier. This public persona is the mask that the human being hides behind.
For instance – Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver would identify as a taxi driver, despite harbouring a messiah complex to assassinate the president or save the teenaged prostitute in the movie.
Another example – Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather would identify as a businessman/family patriarch, regardless whether outsiders would look at him as a Mafia boss.
Try to find the public persona that your character wants to project, as well as the label that the public would give them. The truth of your character is somewhere in between.
For instance – my character would be labeled by society as a drug addict, but I believe that he would identify himself as a casanova loverboy.
Need / Goal (And why do they work for it?)
Everybody has an underlying need that drives them through life. Take myself for instance. My underlying need as a human being, is to create novel art, for an audience’s entertainment & personal development. There aren’t bigger aspirations for myself.
But what lies behind that goal? What is the human need? If I was at my most honest… perhaps I make art because of the need to be recognized or successful. That’s at the root of what I do.
And this need carries through me, when I’m shopping at the supermarket, driving my car, working at my day job, on a date, at the doctors, having a drink. It’s always there in the background of why I’m doing what I’m doing.
Your character will have a very specific goal or need – and it can be completely interpreted how you feel (the need to be loved, the need to not feel pain, the need to journey, to need to save others).
Then, understanding why they work towards that goal is also important to understand your characters motivations.
For example – My character, the drug addict, has a need to not feel pain. He seeks this in the form of comfort & security in relationships. He then seeks this in the form of relief via drugs.
If I were to make up a need, perhaps it comes from a dysfunctional family life as a child.
Again, make it concise, but specific.
Tragic Flaw (And how does it manifest?)
The tragic flaw is what makes your character human. Superman wouldn’t be entertaining unless his tragic flaw of kryptonite was so powerful at nullifying his invincibility.
Your tragic flaw can be tied in with your public persona or need/goal – but perhaps it also doesn’t tie in at all. Whatever you decide, you
For example – The drug addicted character’s tragic flaw, is that he is far too desperate at getting what he wants – which repels women, whilst angering his drug dealers.
This tragic flaw is something that my character cannot see, and perhaps doesn’t manifest until specific behavior or outcomes trigger it. This however, makes my character fallible & reactive.
An example would be Macbeth’s Tragic Flaw – would be a mixture of his ruthlessness, ambition & loyalty.
His loyalty to the King, mixed with his ruthlessness as a warrior, is what fuelled his rise to become the trusted Thane of Cawdor. Deep down inside, his ambition was fuelled by his wife (whom he was loyal to). This then drove him to ruthlessly kill his King, in order to take the throne himself.
Costume / Make Up / Props
We will deal with these in the final weeks of preparation. Do not worry about this for now. The story is far more important than these areas.
Optional elements that help
- Name of your character
- Accent of your character
- What is your character interested in?
- Point of View (Attitude)
- Is your character an active participant in life or a passive experiencer?
- Do they have any quirks?
- What have been the formative events in their lives?
- Is your character in a relationship?
- How much money does your character have in their wallet?
- Where does your character live?
- What car do they drive?
- Who is the most important person in their life?
- What is their greatest fear (what are they running away from?)
- What is their current job?
- What element are they? (Fire, Air, Water, Earth)
- What would their spirit animal be?
Final Note on Improv
I don't expect this project to be easier by virtue of directing the actors with the improv process, but I do expect that the issues I've faced on previous scripted projects will be replaced by other issues, that comes with the improv process.
This is all welcomed however, and I'm delighted in anticipation with the footage that is to come out of this.
But what do you think? Comment & Share!
What are you thoughts? Do you have experience with improv? What can I expect, in your opinion?
Comment below and receive a reply!