I talk about improv, and movies, and sometimes both at the same time.
I didn’t audition for Harolds this year, but when I look at my friends who got callbacks, and especially those who did make the final cut, they all have one thing in common: when you see them on stage you’re not conscious of the fact that they’re performing. They’re all funny people, but even more so, every one of those improvisors who made it looks totally natural on stage, as if they’re living their lives up there. You never feel like they’re inventing or playing a wacky character, you feel as though they’re just being themselves, even when they’re being a wacky version of themselves.
We spend a lot of time worrying about the mechanics of improv, and rightfully so. But those who made the cut (and everyone I know who got a callback) manage to make the mechanics seem like second nature, so that their personalities are able to shine through. They play with a level of comfort that makes improv look easy and natural, the way a professional baseball player can make hitting a home run look easy and natural. Thousands of hours of practice are involved in that one swing, but in the moment, confidence trumps skill, and that home run (or that “weird farting grandma” character you’re playing) fails or succeeds based on your level of commitment, your level of comfort in the zone.
So as I grow the balls to audition next year, every time I practice or perform, my focus will be on improvising without seeming like I’m improvising, on feeling comfortable on stage, on committing to the scene completely. And really, all the mechanics we’re taught, from “yes and” to “react in an honest emotional way,” are there to help us look comfortable and natural on stage, instead of looking like performers doing a job. If the improvisors who made it this year are any indication, the key is to improvise without looking like you’re improvising at all.
Among the pleasures of reading or watching fiction are the odd details and evanescent moments of everyday life that we often forget until we see them in a book or on a screen. Actors and directors store up these impressions through constant observation, and this is one of the things you hope to uncover while collaborating. Often the pressure of the shooting process gets in the way of tapping these small bits of behavior, which the actor must incorporate intuitively. When this happens, actors and directors tend to fall back on the obvious in their creative choices. It is the director’s job to create an environment in which the actor can connect with his adventurous impulses and find the unexpected and unpredictable in their work together. It is this, more than anything else, that contributes to creative staging (and all other aspects of performance). Once the actor locates within himself the quirkiness of everyday and makes it his own through action, the director has only to compose it within the frame.
— Film Directing: Shot By Shot, p116
This quotation speaks to so many improv concepts: finding the unusual thing; object work; playing from a true, emotional place; honest reactions; incorporating specifics into scenes; avoiding cliches; avoiding “jokes.” It also highlights the notion that through creative visual endeavors we can shed light on the strange realities of our lives. I’ve always felt that the best improv is that which isn’t just a funny yet forgettable ha-ha. The best scenes are the ones that are specific, gut-wrenchingly emotional, and feel real.
In the process of developing a script I used always to try to have an exact picture of the film in my mind, even down to the sets. Now, however, I am more inclined to work out a scene or shot only in a very general way, so that it will emerge spontaneously during shooting. For the life on location, the atmosphere of the set, the actor’s moods, can prompt one to new, startling and unexpected strategies. Imagination is less rich than life. And these days I feel more and more strongly that ideas and moods should not be all predetermined in advance. One should be able to depend on the feeling of the scene, and approach the set with one’s mind open. There was a time when I could not start shooting without having devised a complete plan of the episode, but now I find that such a plan is abstract, that it restricts the imagination. Perhaps there is something to be said for dismissing it from one’s mind for the time being.
— Andrey Tarkovsky, from his treatise on filmmaking, Sculpting In Time
I’ve adopted this method while shooting sketches, and it’s the best way to find what’s really funny about an idea. It keeps the process collaborative and alive, instead of myopic and scripted. Yeah, Tarkovsky’s language is dry, but it’s not fault Russian comes across that way after translation!
I hear this just about every time I go to an improv show, whether it’s 101 level students or pros. It’s such a tired phrase, and is probably one of the most common button lines used in improv right now.
Obviously there’s a formulaic element to improv, but the equation:
“crazy thing” + “strange wording” = “I’m having a stroke”
needs to go the way of alchemy.
A stroke quip is a symptom of ironic detachment. If a character were really having a stroke, he or she should exhibit major physical side effects. But improvisors regularly rattle off, “I just had a stroke!” to justify a game (or merely a verbal misstep), then continue on with their lives as usual. The audience laughs, not because there’s any truth or reality to the scene, but because it’s obviously NOT true. It’s a form of irony: a statement that contradicts reality, since the improvisor is saying, “I’m having a stroke,” but the character isn’t really having a stroke. It’s detached because it’s the improvisor casually calling out his or her own lack of justification, not a character calling out the behavior within the scene. If you really saw someone act out a stroke on stage, it’d be unsettling. They wouldn’t calmly announce, “Oh, I’m having a stroke.”
I’m sure I’ve laughed at stroke lines before. And I’ve seen improvisors I look up to use that justification over and over. But it’s really a crutch. It’s an easy out, a line you can use any time you’re in a pinch. If developing a unique comedic voice means trying to find your own truth in every scene, we all need to delete cliches like this one from our collective improv vocabulary.
Maybe it’s because I’m dumb, but when I was starting out at improv, I had a serious problem dealing with dumb characters, whether it was a character I decided to play, a character that someone else decided to play, or a character that someone else decided to make me play.
By “dumb” I mean someone whose is unable to comprehend something obvious, or lacks knowledge of everyday life. Someone who is so stupid, the audience loses its suspension of disbelief.
For example, if someone starts a scene by asking me, “Why’d you throw all that chlorine in the pool while there were still people in it?” novice improvisors have a tendency to justify the act by giving some kind of, “I didn’t understand what I was doing” line. Something along the lines of, “I didn’t know the chlorine would hurt them,” or, “Why were they in the pool in the first place?” or, “What is pain?”
I’ve seen scenes where improvisors play characters who are so clueless, they literally don’t know what everyday objects are (wheels, bread, whatever), or worse, where one improvisor paints another improvisor’s character as the stupid one, forcing the latter into an impossibly obtuse corner. That corner is dull and lonely, almost always unfunny, and most novice improvisors aren’t equipped to claw their way out of it. (When I was forced into that corner as a beginner, I always felt frustrated and the worst kind of helpless.) It makes the character so stupid, so incapable of basic human understanding, it’s hard to believe he would even be able to figure out how to get out of bed each morning. Someone that dumb could not exist.
25 Great Unscripted Movie Scenes.
Interesting compilation, but it’s dangerous to assume that improv for film is the same as improv on stage. When you’re improvising in a movie, you know who your character is way before your performance begins. You know who you are, where you are, who else is in the room, and you know how the scene will end. It’s just a matter of living as that character in an honest way. On stage we have to find those things, while living as a character we didn’t know two minutes ago.
Improv for film and stage are close cousins, but not the same entity.
One of the best explanations of improv for film is given by Albert Brooks in the Taxi Driver DVD extra features. Couldn’t find that on YouTube, but here’s an interview from Coming Soon with Albert Brooks discussing Drive and Taxi Driver…
CS: I want to get further into the process of working with Nic. Had you ever done anything like this before where you met with the cast at someone’s house? He mentioned to me that this was part of developing the movie.
Brooks: This process was a similar process in “Taxi Driver.” It wasn’t Marty Scorsese’s house, but the character that I played in “Taxi Driver” was not then fleshed out, so what we would do… because the idea of improvising while the film is being made is silly. It never works out. You know, when cameras are rolling, improvisation doesn’t feel natural. The pressure is too great. You’re on a time schedule. You’ve got 60 crewmen. I’ve done it in my own movies that I’ve written; I would myself, maybe carry on a speech a little longer and say all the things I have, but I would never ask another actor to do that. The place to do it is before. I’m thinking of “Taxi Driver,” we spent weeks in a hotel and Marty recorded everything and the best of what we did became the script, so when we shot it, we stuck to that. It was funny because at the wrap party, (screenwriter) Paul Schrader said to me, “I want to thank you. That was the only character I didn’t know.” I said, “It’s the only character that didn’t kill 15 people.” (laughs) That’s sort of scary.
“‘Yes, and’ is about agreement. Agreement doesn’t necessarily mean you literally say the word yes all the time… In fact you more often probably do say no. Agreement means I’m agreeing with the improviser, not that I’m agreeing with the character… Agreement is I’m agreeing to your premise.”
— Matt Besser, Improv for Humans (via improvmovieparty)