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Improvising the Perfect Script

Improvising the Perfect Script

Articles - Directing

Moviemakers Leigh, Jaglom, Duvall and Loach are latest
in a long line of “naturalistic” directors or nearly as long as
cinema has existed, moviemakers have believed that their artform
is a worthy rival of the novel and the play as a vehicle for revealing
and exploring the truth of the human condition. The Italian Neorealists
believed it, as evidenced by films like Vittorio De Sica’s The
Bicycle Thief
, which showed that the story of an average man
could be as poignant and powerful as any studio epic. Later, American
mavericks like John Cassavetes showed they believed it, too, by
rejecting the comfortable narrative conceits of a previous generation.
Today it isn’t difficult to trace the lineage of directors who place
a premium on realism in their work—which is intended to confront
audiences as much as entertain them.

l to r: Mike Leigh, Henry Jaglom,
Robert Duvall and Ken Loach are just four contemporary moviemakers
following in the naturalistic style of such auteurs as Vittorio
De Sica and
John Cassavetes.

Cassavetes re-cut the end of Shadows after
watching it with a preview audience… because they’d gotten up
and cheered! Artists like him know what audiences expect, but want
to give them something different. They believe cinema should cast
a light into places we might otherwise turn away from. Their films
can be funny, exciting, boring and even frustrating—but never conventional.
It is invariably marked by a level of authenticity and naturalism
which sets them apart from the mainstream. Mike Leigh, Ken Loach,
Henry Jaglom and Robert Duvall are four of these contemporary moviemakers.
They all work in this “naturalistic” spirit, constructing narratives
from a unique synthesis of improvised and scripted material.


For Mike Leigh (All or Nothing, Secrets and Lies),
writing and directing have essentially become one process: he constructs
his “script” over the course of extended rehearsals, which generally
last between five and six months. Working from an outline plotted
beforehand, Leigh builds the characters and situations of the film
in collaboration with the actors, until he has constructed a scenario
that he feels is ready to go before the cameras.


To Leigh, this use of improvisation is essential
and extensive—but it takes place almost entirely before principal
photography begins. “I arrive at something very tightly structured,
in which there is seldom any improvisation in front of the camera,
but all of which has evolved organically from extensive rehearsal.
The world of the characters and their relationships has been researched
and discussed, employing millions of improvisations, through which
[the actors] come into the characters. I’m absolutely in on the
ground floor and responsible every step of the way in terms of how
the characters develop. For example, who the characters are and
what sort of people they are is very much my responsibility, though
it’s all about giving the actors endless amounts of space to explore.
In no way do I let people go off and come back with random characters,
then merely sculpt the story from there.”


Offers actor Timothy Spall, who has worked with Leigh
on All or Nothing, Topsy-Turvy and Secrets
& Lies
: “He is absolutely the dramatist, because he’s put
all the seeds and all the component parts in place.” Yet, amazingly,
Leigh never puts a script down on paper. “It all comes out of very
comprehensive improvisations.”


For Robert Duvall, whose Assassination Tango was released this spring, improvisation serves to augment—and in
some instances, replace—previously scripted material. His latest
picture is the story of an American assassin (Duvall) whose work
brings him to Argentina. While on a prolonged stakeout, he becomes
involved with a beautiful Argentine woman (played by real-life girlfriend,
Luciana Pedraza). “There was a complete script,” relates the director.
“In the American part of the film, it was all scripted, though there
was a little bit of improvisation to embellish if it made it better…
I try to treat the text itself as an improvisation, and let it go
any way it wants. But when we got to Argentina we made three [characters]
out of one, and therefore had to find a way of doing things a little
different. It was imperative to have an improvisational—and at times
semi-improvisational—approach.”


A key scene for the two lovers takes place in a coffee
shop. The material, though called for in the script, was essentially
improvised. Duvall and Pedraza used the location to rehearse ahead
of time, then, having established a basic outline, allowed the scene
to unfold, unscripted, as cameras rolled. “We would sit in this
one coffee shop, all hours, rehearsing,” recalls Duvall. “Luciana
had a line: ‘Where are you from?’ If at the moment we did the scene
I had an edge she’d say ‘New York.’ If I didn’t, she wouldn’t say
anything. So the day we did it I had a bit of an edge so [she said,
‘New York’]. It was up to the other person to reply in a way that
felt authentic for their character, in the moment; it’s partially
improvised. We used two cameras; I told everyone to sit down and
just see what happens. I think we only shot the scene three times
and then went home for the day rather than covering it to death.
We got the freshness we wanted, and the points were made. But you
have to set it up so that the people working within that imaginary
set of circumstances are able to talk and behave as if it’s life…
I’ve seen people be natural but there’s no impulse; there
have got to be impulses with the naturalness, otherwise it’s just
an empty style.”


The key, from Duvall’s point of view, is for the
actors to be in the moment. “I’ve seen improvisations become a little
indulgent, a little heady, a little cerebral… You only have yourself.
From a certain angle you appear as if you’re the character—but it’s
always you, whether you play Stalin or Hamlet. You only have one
set of emotions, one psyche. It’s being in the moment that works.”


For Ken Loach, whose new picture, Sweet Sixteen, is imbued with a seemingly effortless aura of realism, the script
is the most important creative act in the moviemaking process. Though
he may use improvisations extensively during rehearsals and auditions,
he keeps fairly close to the text during production.


“It can become indulgent very quickly,” he
says. If it works, it has to be very focused and very tight—not
just rambling for the sake of rambling. We shoot our films in six
or seven weeks at the most, so you’ve got to be very tight in what
you’re doing and I think actors respond better if they have a strong
sense of where they’re going in each scene.” Loach will often use
improvisations to play out what happens to the characters just before
the scripted scene begins, or he may keep the camera rolling after
the written dialogue has run its course, fishing for whatever turns
up. “It’s changing the odd line or two—or just letting a scene continue
rather than cutting. I try not to say ‘cut.’ The two words we don’t
use are ‘action’ and ‘cut.’ Every take should have a kind of natural
start: you never pick up in the middle of a scene; you need to have
gotten there somehow. It’s a question of starting each take where
people feel comfortable starting. The text is the line of the melody
and you sometimes work like a jazz musician who will skit around
it. There should be a sense of freedom about the words you use,
but invariably you end up coming back to the words in the script
or a close approximation of them.”


One of Loach’s primary objectives as director is
to give the actors the sense that they can play with the material.
“They should feel in control; they should feel ‘I can express myself
in this.’ The test of the writing is if the way the actor expresses
him or herself is absolutely down the center of the way the writer
has written it. So that [the writer] has judged the writing so finely
that it’s in tune with the instinctive response of the person playing
the part.” Sweet Sixteen, like many of Loach’s pictures,
contains moments that are the direct result of this brand of disciplined
freedom. “There’s always the space for people to do whatever feels
like the right thing without even thinking about it. I think if
that works you can touch the actors’ own responses and get a three-dimensional
response.”


This sense that the actors’ own impulses and history
represent an enormous pool of possibilities to pull from is at the
heart of what led Henry Jaglom (Festival At Cannes; A Safe Place)
to do away with a conventional, scripted approach his work. For
Jaglom, who may start production with a loose, 70- or 80-page script,
improvisation is central to the moviemaking process. By casting
actors with whom he is already well-acquainted and whom he believes
are right for the material, Jaglom works with his cast to create
a sense of who the characters are, the general curve of the story
and what needs to be achieved in each scene.


“Outside of that, I don’t want to write for
them; I don’t want to force them into my thinking.” Jaglom’s method
is, on one level, the exact opposite of Leigh’s approach: in a Jaglom
film, every moment that appears on-camera is to some degree improvised
by the actors while the camera rolls. Whereas Leigh works
through improvisations toward a finely-tuned structure during rehearsals,
and Loach or Duvall may use improvisations to augment the script,
Jaglom frequently creates his films in the editing room.


“I think I protect the moments that don’t work
and the actors give me great moments that I could never in a million
years write and try to squeeze somebody into,” says Jaglom. “The
actors are, in that sense, the authors of that moment. You have
to create the circumstance where they really feel open and vulnerable
and willing to give all that. It’s really their moment. In every
one of my movies there are moments that are particularly resonant
with the audience: an actor says something I couldn’t in a million
years write, because they have a different history, they have a
whole memory and language of their own… I know how I want the
movie to feel at the end, but I don’t know what I want it to sound
like.”


The camera on a Jaglom production is, by necessity,
handmaiden to the actor, as you can’t plot out the visuals on one
of his films. Jaglom frequently conducts the DP while shooting,
panning and zooming according to his sense of where the juice of
the scene is at any given moment.


“I love old Hollwood movies,” says Jaglom.
“But when I was in college, someone took me to my first screening—Cassavetes’ Shadows—and I saw real life on the streets. I was thinking
already about becoming a director, and I thought, ‘This guy is telling
the truth. It’s awkward, it’s rough, the actors aren’t very good,
the lighting is terrible and the sound is off, but there’s something
very truthful that doesn’t exist in all those wonderful Hollywood
movies that I love… I wanted to try and capture the life that
I knew all around me, rather than create a sort of artificial Hollywood
world. I wanted to try and create the world that I know and get
bits and pieces of it up on the screen.”


This aspect of what moviemakers like Jaglom, Leigh,
Duvall or Loach are able to achieve—this ability to mirror life—is
what attracts people to their singular, unflinching brand of cinema.
“What I always felt my goal was,” enthuses Jaglom, “was to share
with audiences something about their own lives which would make
them feel less alone, less crazy, less isolated. It’s about giving
the audience an experience that is truthful and lets them know other
people are going through the same problems; that’s the goal.” MM

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