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.”
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.”
- 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:
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:
- 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.
- 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.