Using Improv as a Screenwriting Tool

Using Improv for screen-story development Despite the justly celebrated virtues of planning, most filmmakers make at least some use of impromptu creativity, such as an actor’s ad lib or a director’s on-set inspiration. More-extensive improvisation, at any phase of the project, offers the writer-director substantial benefits, but with some significant drawbacks to mitigate. Improv can be used to help write or enhance a script. Or, for the daring, it can be something of a script substitute, a means to shoot with a partial or even a non-existent script.

Since the heyday of Chicago’s Second City, improvisation has proven its worth as a fast path to creating lively sketch scripts. Today, Christopher Guest and Larry David famously use scenario-based improv in movies and TV to create an idiosyncratic, lived-in feel that’s difficult to achieve by a writer with a blank computer screen or pad of paper. In my new indie feature, Inventory, improv was fundamental to our process.

After we chose a situation—a retail-store inventory day, with a group of slackers disinclined to count goods—we didn’t start by writing a script. We began with casting.

We built an ensemble of the best improvisational actors we could find, and we asked each of them this question: What character would be fun for you to play… and fun for the audience to watch you play? From there, we experimented with different relationships between characters, different scene concepts, and so forth, taking copious notes along the way. Eventually this coalesced into an amalgam of both scripted scenes and story beats to improvise on set.

For me, this approach—with living, breathing, dialogue-riffing humans before me—is an ideal complement to what I consider my writing strengths: plot, story, and editing.

Whereas a Robert Altman would, on location, discard swaths of a screenwriter’s work in favor of actors’ improvisation, our script and story beats grew out of working with the actors in rehearsal. It was my job, along with three other “story team” members, to make sure it evolved into a coherent story, always the biggest risk factor when improv is part of the mix.

In such a process, writing becomes (for better or worse) less pure imagination, and more observation, interpretation, re-imagining, and organizing. Unlike with ordinary writing, casting, and directing, one doesn’t dream up a character and hope the ideal interpreter of that role walks through the door. The actor walks through the door first, and the story grows up in and around him or her.

Actually, one could start improvising even earlier in a film project than we did.  Improv games can be fantastic idea generators, whether longform structures like the Harold or simple games like This Is the Story, where an improviser spits out one premise after another: “This is the story of a tree that drank lemonade, this is the story of a woman who ate snowshoes….”

And improvisation can continue as the project progresses all the way through shooting, with as much or as little writing down of story beats and dialogue as suits the writer-director.

Improv can also start later in the project. For example, to add gusto to a fully written script, a useful technique is to have actors perform a scene using their own, improvised words. This can inform rewrites or can be utilized on-camera, depending on preference.

Pros of using improv in your movie:

  • It’s unpredictable. With quirky dialogue and characters being a major draw in modern films, the spontaneous inspiration of a great improv actor can add flavor to even well written scenes.
  • It’s fast. Content is generated in real-time, and even if the material is subsequently shaped into a script, it’s liable to develop much faster than writing from scratch.

Cons of using improv in your movie:

  • It’s unpredictable, which is especially challenging if you use on-camera improvisation. If you don’t have as many cameras as performers, you may miss something if a character away from the camera starts doing something unexpected and important.
  • It also makes it difficult to do fine lighting setups, since performers may move unexpectedly about the set.
  • On-camera improvisation can be difficult or downright impossible to edit, as connective shots and dialogue might not jibe, or a story can ramble or disintegrate entirely.
  • Improv is not for everyone. Some brilliant actors are not skilled or comfortable with it. Some brilliant improvisers freeze up or get stale when trying to repeat (“reimprov”) an important line or beat when you need a retake.
  • Most of the cons can be minimized by judicious decisions about how much to rely on on-camera improv and on good selection of and communication with cast and crew.

My own preference is, aided by improv and reimprov, to develop and catalog story beats and dialogue as much possible before shooting, and when we do on-camera improv, to work toward a preferred, repeatable version that’s covered from the necessary angles.

One could save media-processing time and storage space by not shooting the early takes, but some improv magic is hard to repeat, so I’d rather shoot all the takes and edit patiently, if resources permit.

Does making a fully improvised movie scare you? In my opinion it should. It is difficult to tell a coherent story without any planning, so I’d suggest using improv as a screenwriting tool and not a total substitute.

The key to using improv well in script development and shooting is to be experimental but critical about where it does and doesn’t work well for your project and your team.  Improv might, for example, be perfect for perking up an under-performing scene in rehearsal, but it may be totally frustrating to you and your team on set.

Use improv to enliven your story at any juncture that makes sense to you as a filmmaker, and stay the heck away from it in any place where it doesn’t.

If you find a suitable way to include improv in your writing, rewriting, and directing you may find it creates an exceptionally fun and collaborative dynamic that pays off on-screen as a special freshness and charm.

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   christian Kurpiewski said on March 22, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Agreed. I think it really lets the actors work to their strengths as much as possible. They are invested in the character because they played a large part in creating them.

   Improvisation film | Charlestonslip said on November 14, 2011 at 5:36 am

[…] Mastering Film » Using Improv as a Screenwriting ToolSep 2, 2011 … I wanted to make you all aware of an opportunity on campus, particularly those unable to take Music 1421 but others who might be interested. … […]

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