A guest post from filmmaker Michael B. Allen:
Encouraging actors to go off-script and improvise their own dialogue can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, you can capture amazing, organic comedy or drama. But on the other hand, you risk your cast botching specific story beats or reaching for comedy that just doesn’t work in the scene. It’s also probable that heavily improvised scenes will leave your editor with the time-consuming headache of sifting through long-winded improvised takes in hopes of finding a few parts that actually work with the rest of the scene. With all the pros and cons of improvised dialogue, knowing how much to let your actors wander from the script can be tricky. Luckily, my latest production taught me how to get the best of both worlds. In my new short, The Get Together (co-written/directed/produced with Will Bakke), we tell a story about an introvert stuck at a shallow party. In order to make the party feel hyper-realistic, we chose to shoot the entire 9-minute film as a single, unbroken tracking shot with no cuts or special effects.
To add to the realism of the short, we planned to have our actors improvise all of the dialogue. Our script was nothing more than a basic treatment of all the story beats and characters because we thought it would feel more authentic if the actors were delivering the scene in their own words. Once we settled on this plan, we cast our film primarily based on the actor’s improv abilities. When our first rehearsals rolled around, we taught the actors all of the complex blocking for the 9-minute sequence, and they picked it up pretty quickly. Everything seemed to be running smoothly going into our first night of production. But, as soon as the cameras actually started rolling, it became clear that improvising the dialogue was not going to fly. The actors were so focused on remembering their choreography and hitting their marks that they couldn’t focus on being funny and in the moment. At times, we did capture some great improvised moments, but that usually led to actors staying in a scene too long or going off-book with their blocking assignments. In either case, our plan just wasn’t working. On top of that, one of the largest thunderstorms in Texas history began pouring down on us…
After the first night of production, we were in a sort of panic. We had to somehow rectify the mess we’d created with our terrible strategy of trying to improvise a highly choreographed scene. Our solution? Ditch the improv and write a script instead. We’d wrapped production around 4am that night and immediately started penning ten pages for the second and final day of production (we slept maybe an hour that night). It was a stressful situation, but we soon learned something pretty magical. As futile as the actors’ improvisation was for the overall flow of the scene, it was the perfect inspiration for writing the screenplay. Through writing the script, we were able to solidify every great thing the actors had improvised as well as direct them away from the things that weren’t working. Best of all, we didn’t have to question whether our actors could pull it off because we’d already seen them perform the bulk of what we were writing. The next evening, the cast was able to memorize their lines quickly, as it was merely a refined version of what they’d already been saying. And once we started rolling on round two, the whole production ran 1,000% smoother. Not only that, but our final product included both the realistic moments and the technical precision we’d envisioned all along. You can watch the finished short film below:
The experience of producing this film taught us two major lessons. The first is a new process for how to work with improvised dialogue:
- Write a loose script or treatment with an open mind as to how the dialogue will be performed. Just make sure the story beats are nailed down.
- Cast your film.
- Listen to your actors rehearse the material, taking note of what they add to it and where they tend to go off course.
- Write a tighter script that implements your notes from Step 3 before going into production.
Of course, this strategy may not apply to every style of writing or directing. And, you may not have the time in your production schedule to accommodate this process. So use it as it fits. The second, more general lesson we took away from producing The Get Together was to always stay open-minded to changing your approach when you see a better way forward. Our willingness to recognize that our original plan wasn’t working, and pivot to a new direction, ended up saving our short film. And it may save your next production too. In other words, filmmakers should be willing to improvise too. NOTE: These lessons are two of many we learned took away producing The Get Together.
Michael and Will wrote an eBook about pulling off an epic tracking shot called, “How to Shoot a Great Oner”. You can download it for FREE here.
Michael and Will are repped by manager Michael Botti at Industry Entertainment.