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Films that are entirely or partially improvised

PostPosted: July 10th, 2014, 11:48 am
by Jer
When I saw Anchorman and Anchorman 2, I left feeling a little unsatisfied. I felt this, despite having laughed several times and enjoying the experience overall. Yet, something was not quite right. It didn't really feel like a movie. It felt like a combination of sketches and acting exercises. The fact that both films had unofficial "bonus movies" created entirely out of deleted material bother me and I'm not sure why. Was there not a strong, specific vision? Then, why was it still funny?

That made me think about all the films I love that do heavily employ improvisation. I am a huge fan of Christopher Guest's films, which are both funny AND have a central narrative drive. Thinking about it, I realized that the plots of Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show are essentially unrelated scenes that lead up to a big event, which is a loose enough structure to allow wild tangents. The Anchorman stuff doesn't really lead up to anything.

What are some other good improvised or partially improvised films? I really like Mike Leigh's stuff, especially Naked, and love Curb Your Enthusiasm. In both cases, it seems like the narrative structure is as tight as it can possibly be.

So does the tightness = ultimate looseness? Do more restrictions give one more freedom? Am I high?

Re: Films that are entirely or partially improvised

PostPosted: July 10th, 2014, 1:55 pm
by Spots
I think the answer is that it's a matter of balance.

Inmediately I could name Blair Witch and how it had such a fantastic hook. A whole mythology in fact to keep you on the edge of your seat. (including the hoax that it was real).

Best In Show has that overhanging question of who will win? What will the contest do to the relationships of the people in the contest?

Those tensions serve as a hook and a driving force.

Shows like Curb have the same kinds of over-arching questions that tease you just enough structurally that the audience gets to live in the moment to moment.

Still, the actors are dealing with a great sense of certainty. They know their characters, their relationships, and the gist of the scene.

The majority of these scenes become tangental to tge overall film or theme. Easily 80 percent of adlbbed scenes feel tangental, right?

I haven't seen Anchorman 2 but I can only imagine. There are lots of films with bonus features demonstrating how much the actors can improvise. (Vince Vaughn etc)

However I've found that this has become its own culture:

Actors adlibbing within a given constraint: a character, scene, or situation. And then just calling that improv.

The Apatow acting pool like Michael Sera and Jonah Hill do this really well. They incorporate the riffing into the structure of the film.

But ultimately it's just riffing with dialogue, which is a great skill to have but often has no semblance to the creation of characters, relationships, games, and environments onstage. Actively and dynamically.

Adlibbing and improv are obviously related but the relationship has been overhyped.

I think many imps would be thrilled to hear about any projects that could be filmed guerilla style and somehow capture the essence of improv. Like "Trust Us" in the wild.

Am I correct that Mike Leigh goes one step further by dropping his actors into unknown environments and situations? Because that is brilliant, and like I said one step closer to what improv is. ... similar in creative structure to The Blair Witch Project.

As far as adlibbing within certain scenes, Jerry Lewis and Robert DeNiro have some great adlibbed scenes in King of Comedy. And they handpicked those scenes for adlib because they knew how much narrative freedom the scene allowed them within the theme. This process was used as recently as There Will Be Blood. That film had whole days of shooting adlib scenes.

So both of these examples implemented adlibbing much better than any Will Ferrell film.

If only for having a sense of purpose, rather than being too showy.

So let's revisit the 80 percent of adlibbing that feels tangental. Lets call these "Inbalanced scenes. " Certainly the best adlibbed scenes are the ones that blend in magically with the overall piece ... without being noticed alone.

Jerry Lewis in King of Comedy or Daniel Day Lewis in some random scene on the cutting room floor that you and I will never see.

You'd agree that it's the Imbalances that we notice, and therefore the Inbalances that we celebrate.

Re: Films that are entirely or partially improvised

PostPosted: July 11th, 2014, 1:03 pm
by Spots
Are you familiar with the Mumblecore movement?

I'm not a huge fan because the narrative engine of those types of films are weak. And they're really self indulgent films.

But a few filmmakers stand out. In particular the Duplass brothers who made Cyrus, a huge budget film considering how much was adlibbed.

They've been steadily building upon their successes. When I saw their film "Puffy Chair" at SXSW, I knew there was something amazing brewing under the surface.

You most likely are familiar already. I think the Duplass brothers are also on the cutting edge of this type of narrative experimentation. One day they might edge up right alongside P.T. Anderson.

Re: Films that are entirely or partially improvised

PostPosted: July 23rd, 2014, 1:11 pm
by Jer
Spots, you just articulated everything I was feeling. I do agree that if the structure is solid, there will be more freedom to go off on wild tangents. Best in Show is a great example because, you're right, it's set up that there is this contest so who is going to win? How will someone winning or losing affect their relationships with the other characters? So there's real stakes there, sure. Anchorman and the Apatow films rarely have such stakes and are really just vehicles for friends to goof off and riff. Yes, it's usually funny, but it doesn't feel like a movie.

I am actually a fan of mumblecore and it seems like those directors are evolving with each new film. I haven't seen Computer Chess, but I liked Andrew Bujalski's movies in the past and I hear Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies is really good. Have you seen Kelly Reicherdt's Old Joy? I have no idea if it was actually improvised but, as a mumblecore film, it certainly feels that way. On one hand it's about two friends going camping but what it's REALLY about is those same two friends growing apart.

Re: Films that are entirely or partially improvised

PostPosted: August 14th, 2014, 6:37 pm
by Spots
Andrew Bujalwski teaches right down the road at the University of Texas. I'll have to revisit his films.

If you wanted to meet him, I recommend auditioning for student films on a regular basis. There may be a time you end up performing in front of him and a whole room of students.