Writing for Improvisation: Is This an Oxymoron?

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Improvisation in the service of making movies can allow for an organic and naturalistic quality of performance that is otherwise extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

Actors are forced to genuinely react to their scene partners, since they never know precisely what’s going to be thrown at them, and it’s pretty much impossible for an actor to phone in an improvised performance. There are splendid moments of actual surprise, flashes of on-screen electricity that ripple through an entire audience.

But working with improvisation also presents a number of challenges for a moviemaker. A prominent one is casting. Everyone has heard the adage that casting is 90 percent of directing.  It’s more like 99.9 percent for an improvised film. Many actors absolutely need pre-written dialogue as a spine upon which to build their performances. There is no shame in this—they are actors, after all, not writers. But finding the right performer-collaborators to work with on an improvised movie is even trickier than the normal casting process, which is tricky enough as it is. Even those actors who are totally game to attempt working in this way, may not, as it turns out, have a propensity for it.

Of course, not all improvisation is alike. The kind of improvisation that I ask of actors is not the same kind made popular by such comedic institutions as Second City or Upright Citizens Brigade. There may be some overlap in the kind of flexibility and fluidity required of the practitioners, but a key difference is that with purely comedic improvisation, circumstances and character profiles are generally being thrown at performers on the fly, requiring them to instantaneously build a narrative structure on the spot, again and again. When a moviemaker approaches creating a film with improvised performances, on the other hand, months are spent prior to the film shoot meticulously creating detailed backstories for each character and relationship.

This rich background work is absolutely key to unlocking successfully believable and grounded performances onscreen. If an actor understands what her character’s history is, what has happened up to the present moment between her character and her scene partners, and what her character wants in this scene, the likelihood of her feeling at a loss for words or actions is greatly reduced. I never want to rehearse before shooting an improvised scene, because I don’t want to lose that “first time” magic that has the potential to occur—but we spend an inordinate amount of time talking to make sure that everyone is on the same page before we turn on the cameras.

I refer to this technique as “upside-down” filmmaking: Since detailed backstory work is key to creating a successful improvised performance, and since I want the actor to be involved in that work whenever possible, the actor needs to be attached before that work has been completed.  The goal is to get the actors involved when the story and characters are still loose, so that they can contribute personally to the development process.

Which brings me back to the problem of casting. The traditional audition process is, by default, thrown out the window; I basically have to rely on instinct. It helps, of course, if an actor has already worked in this way before. But I’ve also cast folks who have never improvised before in their lives, both of us just taking a leap of faith (This worked out beautifully with Allison Janney, for example; then again, it was Allison Janney.)

There are several advantages to this:

  1. Because of their personal involvement in developing the character, the role ends up fitting them like a glove and the level of naturalism goes way up.
  2. The actors take real ownership in the project.
  3. A level of comfort and trust is established between the actors (and the director) which is wonderful once we’re all on set, as real risk-taking can only take place within a safe, intimate environment.

As this collaborative character work comes along, the treatment/outline/script is developed at the same time. Each time I create a new draft, I share the current version with all the actors, so we can always be on the same page. Often, ideas for the plot will bubble up during these backstory spitball sessions. It’s then my job to rake through all these ideas and shape them into a workable narrative.

There is a natural back and forth between character development and the film’s narrative, but the backstory ultimately has to serve the narrative. Often, I want something to happen in the movie and need some reason for it to happen believably, so I drum up a piece of backstory to serve that occasion. Alternately, sometimes I realize that a backstory suggestion doesn’t serve the narrative and I’ll need to prune it away. The floor is open for everyone to contribute ideas, but, in the end, I’m the writer, and the buck has to stop with me.

My first foray into this world was with My Effortless Brilliance. My friend, Sean Nelson, played the lead character (based on his personality). I assembled the rest of the cast around him (casting an actual friend of Sean’s, Basil Harris, to play the friend in the movie so we could capitalize on their real-life chemistry), and began conversations with all the actors to develop backstories. As I came to understand who these people were, I could write how they would believably behave within each scene.

The script format I used was based on the outline structure that Joe Swanberg introduced me to when I played a role in his web series, Young American Bodies. It was a simple Word document that consisted of a list of scenes and a brief description of what would unfold in each one. No dialogue was pre-written whatsoever. We shot in order as much as possible, and cross-covered the performances with two cameras, one on each actor, so that genuine reactions would never have to be recreated.

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