4 Tips for Filming Improvised Scenes

I’ve been shooting (or helping to shoot) a lot of scripted films lately. I’m excited to share them with you. But I also want to illuminate any lessons I learned during their making.

We recently wrapped filming a 3-part promotional film series for Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, GA. We created a comedy series to promote the church’s “All in” campaign. This was a campaign to get the congregation to be “all in” as it relates to volunteering, community service, tithing, etc. The videos were to be funny and relate to the topic of being “all in.”

This is actually one of the scenes left on the proverbial cutting room floor.

The third and final piece is called “Tailor ‘Maids.” It is best described as church-friendly “Bridesmaids” (it is definitely inspired by that film). It explores what happens when a bride is having trouble getting into her dress the morning of the big day. I knew I wanted the actors to have free rein in their execution of their roles. Improvisation would play a big part in the success of the piece.

Improvisation in filmmaking is nothing new. Christopher Guest (the filmmaker behind “A Mighty Wind,” “This is Spinal Tap,” and “Best in Show”) is one of the best known filmmakers for producing improvised work. When you have the right cast, the right story, and the right script, you end up with an overall experience that is transcendent. I highly recommend filmmakers explore this aspect of the craft.

Here are the top four tips I can provide when shooting highly improvised scenes and/or scripts.

1. Start with the Right Cast

Successful improvisation falls largely on the shoulders of the actors who will be improvising. They not only have to be able to act well, they also have to in essence be good “writers.” They have to take what you’ve written, expand on it, and even come up with completely new stuff. All on the fly. We had a wonderful cast for “Tailor ‘Maids.”

Mary Ellen Fiddler in “Cheater”
  • The Bride (“Mary”) was played by Mary Ellen Fiddler. She gave an amazing and emotional performance in the short film “Cheater,” written and produced by my biz partner Phil Stevens for his “Pressure Points” film series (he and I co-directed the piece.) When you get a chance, check it out. The contrast between her in that film and this is a testament to her talent.
  • The pregnant bridesmaid (“Ana”) was played by Ana Bright. Again, another terrific talent. She gave a tour-de-force emotional performance in “Angry,” another film from the Pressure Points series (directed by me and written, produced and even starring Phil).
  • “Miss Bossy” was played by Abigail “Don’t Call Me Abi” Williams, a local drama coach. This was my first time working with her, and she nailed the character.
  • Finally, “Mona Man-Hands” was played by Simone Luke-Forbes. You may recognize her as the wife from my marriage spoof “Lawn.”

2. Create a Backstory for the Actors

This was going to be a very short script. It could really play as a scene in a longer film (something I’m seriously considering). Since there is nothing else for the actors to play on but what’s in the short script, I created a backstory for them to take into consideration when playing their characters. Here’s what I came up with:

This is a small wedding. Bride’s family doesn’t have a lot of money. Father of Bride is kind of a penny-pincher to boot.
Mary couldn’t decide on a maid of honor, so she made her three closest friends all maids of honor. This didn’t sit well with Mona or Abi who each think they should be the sole MOH. They don’t like each other and never really have. Ever since childhood they’ve been rivals. Mona feels Abi thinks she’s “all that” because Abi gets any guy she wants and she’s from a wealthy family. Abi secretly has severe self-esteem issues and envies Mona’s strength and self-assuredness.  Ana is totally laid back and thinks they’re both silly.
This whole marriage is happening rather quick. The bride and groom have only known each other six months, but knew from the get-go they were right for each other.  Ana was already 3 months pregnant when asked to be a fellow maid of honor (there was no way Mary was NOT having her in her wedding). But, given the circumstances, Mary’s having second thoughts given Ana could “pop” at any moment.

The actors could use this background info to play on each other, think up new dialog, or react in a way that suggests something deeper is going on.

3. Use Multiple Cameras

You absolutely should shoot with at least two cameras when filming improvised scenes. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Since the dialog and action could change from take to take, it’s going to be difficult matching cuts from two different angles of the same scene shot with only one camera. Mona might say one thing during the time the camera is on her, but say and do something entirely different when the camera is on whomever she’s acting against in the same scene. If you roll two cameras simultaneously (one camera for each actor), then for each take you’ll have the paired performances, making it easy to cut back and forth in the editing if you have to.
  2. You never know when you’ll get an amazing line of dialog or hilarious action from an actor during the improvisation. It would suck if you had only one camera and it wasn’t on the person who did that amazing thing.

4. Let ‘er Roll

Once you start shooting, let the cameras roll. Don’t be afraid of long takes. If an actor flubs a line, keep going with it. Improvising is kind of like exercising. It may take a while for everyone to get warmed up.

Compare the Finished Product to the Script

Below is the finished film. Compare it to the script and see how close they are, where the actors diverged, and even the scene we cut out. Most of the improvisation comes in the beginning. I hope you enjoy it. (Script is copyright Dare Dreamer Media. All rights reserved.)

Are there any tips you can give that I may have missed?

A few of my favorite improvisations:

  • Abi trying to clasp the dress from underneath and Mona’s reaction.
  • Mona’s line about crisco the Ana’s follow up about baby oil.
  • Mona’s last line before the URL shows.

7 thoughts on “4 Tips for Filming Improvised Scenes

  1. Great article Ron! Excellent advise all around. One suggestion I would add. If possible, have someone taking script notes who can write fast or take shorthand. Inevitably, something may need to be matched – and it will help to know what the improvised line or action is. Of course, one can always play a clip back, but that always seems to take too long. Often it’s important to keep the shooting pace quick while the actors are hot.

    In addition to shooting long takes as you suggest, if possible, consider shooting with an improvised moving camera. A skilled steadicam or handheld camera operator could capture a master shot that continuously evolves – motivated by the actors movement. This is not easy to do (lighting, etc), but the results can be incredible. Check out “Rachel Getting Married,” directed by Jonathan Demme, for a brilliant example of an entire feature with all improvised scenes.

    Ron, thanks for suggesting improv as a directorial approach. I would also suggest that filmmakers incorporate improv as a pragmatic tool for casting and rehearsal. Auditioning is always awkward for actors because they are usually still “on script.” Often they are too focused on getting the words right – so they are not in the moment with the other actor. Every director wants to hear the dialogue from the script, but if one really wants to see how well actors act, take away their scripts and ask them to improvise the scene. You will then see how well the actors truly “listen” to each other as well as their “intention” choices.

    Judith Weston’s book “Directing Actors” has amazing techniques for using improv to bring life to a scene as well as other brilliant insight into the art of directing actors. A must read for all directors who really care about performance.

    1. Great advice Randolph. Particularly the part about improvising during casting and rehearsal.

      Your points about having a script supervisor are also on point. I think this is a a role that often gets overlooked on low budget shoots. But he/she can be a huge help in keeping shots consistent and providing feedback that will help the editor.

      Thanks again for adding to the conversation.

      1. My pleasure Ron. I’m an avid follower of your blog. You provide thoughtful articles that that are unique in content and focus. You cover a perspective on the filmmaking process (both business and aesthetic) that is refreshingly different from the rest of the filmmaking blogosphere.

        1. You’re welcome Phil. Ms. Weston has also written a second book “The Film Director’s Intuition.” But read “Directing Actor’s first. She is an amazing teacher – the very best I believe at teaching directors how to best work with actors. She has had some very famous directors as alumni of her workshops. I’ve taken two of her workshops in LA as well. Not cheap – but worth every penny. Definitely worth exploring: judithweston.com. Good luck with your project!

          1. Great article Ron! And great advice Randolph. I will also be purchasing that book and maybe the 2nd one as well. I just finished competing in a 48 Hour Film Project here in Minneapolis and the backstory could have really helped our production, I think we kinda did a backstory but it was accidental if anything, so a little intentionality would have great benefits! And I need to start to have a script supervisor on my shoots, that would save the time of surfing through footage because you couldn’t remember what someone said and when they said it. Keep up the brilliance guys!

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