What is Improvised Film?
The Impro Film Club is about discovering what improvised film might be by doing it, but also by talking to other people who know about it. This is an outline of what we know so far about where improvisation and film co-exist.
Film and television are complex operations that require lots of people to coordinate technical tasks, like sound recording and camera movement, simultaneously. This doesn't usually allow for making things up as you go along. However, film makers also aim to capture performances by actors that are 'in the moment', unrehearsed and unexpected: that show the kind of unpredictable spark people have in everyday life. Hence the appeal of actors improvising in front of the camera.
Improvisation can also be used to make up (or 'devise') the screenplay for a film. If the actors have been involved in this process they may benefit from using their own words and notions rather than those of a pre-existing script. In this case the improvisation may take place mainly before filming starts. This is part of the methodology of the director Mike Leigh.
The history of film is full of anecdotes about memorable moments resulting from actors going off script (for example Orson Welles' cuckoo clock joke in the The Third Man) but an improvised film will include more than an occasional ad lib. Rather than a slight variation of an agreed text an entire scene can be created for the first time through an actor's invention. Films that include improvisation are often notable for establishing a new stylistic vitality or informality. Examples would include films of the French New Wave like those of Jean-Luc Godard and recent American comedies by Judd Apatow (there are many other examples).
For every Alfred Hitchcock that has meticulously preplanned their films there have been others that encourage or embrace spontaneity. Improvisation has been a constant part of the history of cinema and been used in films of contrasting style. John Casevettes was a major figure in American independent film in the 1970s who let his actors improvise and influenced many subsequent directors. The genre of 'mockumentary' owes much to the improvised films of Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest like This is Spinal Tap (1984) and Waiting for Guffman (1996) (even if they don’t like the term). And the Dogma movement – based on a manifesto insisting on a simplicity of means in film making – has produced films that rely on improvisation like The Idiots (1998) and The Boss of it All (2006).
Television has been even more constrained than film to stay on script but recent shows like The Thick of It and Getting On have used improvisation in the devising of screenplays and series like Quick Draw, Outnumbered and Curb Your Enthusiasm have involved extensive improvisation in front of the camera.
Improvisation is also about more than just spontaneous invention, it is an ancient skill in theatre, central to traditions like commedia dell’arte, and has consequences beyond achieving realism in performance. In the 20th century, theatre-makers like Joan Littlewood or the Berliner Ensemble, emphasised the collaborative nature of their productions and therefore the contribution of actors to the creation of a show (as well as the director and script). Since the 1980s companies like Complicité and Improbable, have incorporated mime, clowning, dance, puppetry and improvisation, making devised theatre, often without any script.
In the English speaking world, two figures have been particularly important in describing an approach to improvisation: Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin. Johnstone's teaching and 1979 book Impro have been particularly influential in the UK and Canada, meanwhile Spolin's founding of the Second City Company in Chicago and her book Improvisation for the Theater have been the foundation of a tradition of American comedic acting. There is probably at least one improvisation group or theatre in your nearest city that can trace their lineage back to these roots, possibly via the TV series Whose Line is it Anyway?
Theatrical or comic improvisation has permeated film and TV in different ways. Actors like Peter Sellers developed their ability to improvise in variety before becoming screen actors and in recent times performers like Bill Murray and Amy Poehler (and many more) either studied or performed at The Second City. Mike Leigh developed his way of working in the theatre before applying it to film. Peter Hall's Akenfield (1974) shows the experimental methods of post war theatre translated to the screen. And Rivette’s early films like L’Amour Fou (1969) often show theatre rehearsals as well as employing theatrical actors that could improvise.
Improvisation can also happen behind the camera in films that may have no actors in them at all. Experimental film makers like John Smith might allow chance to dictate what they film. Improvisation can also be a part of the editing process, can play a role in the creation of the soundtrack to a film with improvised dialogue or music recorded independently of what is filmed. Improvisation can be part of the film making process in many ways.