“You Talkin’ To Me?” The Power of Improv in Scripted Work

Did you know that some of your favorite movie scenes were not scripted at all, but completely improvised?

Of course you did –  you’re probably an improviser or at least interested in improv, and it’s pretty safe to assume you have some Internet Leisure Time to research such things yourself. Because c’mon, you’re reading this, aren’t you?

But what you might not know is this: It’s not just the Steve Carrells and Will Ferrells of the world who are doing the make em’ ups in front of the camera – there’s plenty of ad libbing going on in even the most dramatic of moments, by even the most Serious of Actors. (Pronounced “Act-ores.”) So without further ado, here are some pretty badass movie scenes, that you might not have known were totally improvised.

  1. The Dark Knight: That slow clap. Heath Ledger’s Joker is sitting in jail quietly. The officers in the room start to applaud Gordon’s appointment to commissioner and then, like the awkward dude at the party, Ledger starts the slow clap, never changing his expression. Unlike most slow claps that don’t take, though, this one is creepy AF.
  2. Dumb and Dumber: “Hey, wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?” Yep, that entire scene was improvised. The original script simply indicated that this was the point where Lloyd and Harry would test the hit man’s nerves over an argument about jelly beans. Of course these two Yes Anded that suggestion, leaving us with one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.
  3. Saving Private Ryan: Ryan’s story. Private Ryan and Captain Miller are sitting down, taking a break on this demolished street. There shooting the… breeze, and Ryan tells a story about his older brother who once got caught making out with a girl in a barn. It’s such an endearing moment where we get just a glimpse into this man’s life – his real life – and it was totally improvised.
  4. Reservoir Dogs: “You hear that?” That moment after Mr. Blonde – a.k.a., Vic Vega – has just, erm, removed the police officer’s ear, and then he holds it up to his face and asks, “Hey, what’s going on? You hear that?” Yep, not even Tarantino thought of that messed up little gem.
  5. The Godfather: That cat. We all know the scene: Vito Corleone is sentencing a man to be beaten as punishment for beating another man’s daughter. It’s cold and cruel and – oh look, there’s a cat! He can’t be all bad! The cat wasn’t included in the original script – and rumor has it, Brando simply found the cat wandering around set that day and gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
  6. The Empire Strikes Back: “I know.” Yes – your favorite response to “I love you,” and perhaps favorite line of the OG Star Wars movies, was completely made up on the spot. The original script called for an “I love you, too,” but no way was Harrison Ford going to let Han Solo show compassion. So birthed the famous line, “I know.”
  7. The Godfather: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Another famous scene in The Godfather – that was improvised. The original script just said “Leave the gun,” however, the actor decides to play off the previous scene where his wife had asked him to run the errand.
  8. Jaws: “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” You know the scene: Cheif Brody has just gotten his first look at our villain, at the sheer size of him, and stunned, he utters the words, “you’re going to need a bigger boat.” It’s a simple observation, really – but has since become one of the most famous lines from the film. The moral of this story: some of the best improv keeps it simple.
  9. Knocked Up: “You know how I know you’re gay?” Yep, no surprise here, really – Judd Appatow is famous for mixing scripted and improvised acting all the time. Fun fact, though – the “know how I know you’re gay?” shtick actually started between Paul Rudd and Seth Rogan back when they were filming 40 Year Old Virgin. They simply carried it on over into Knocked Up– making it the longest, dumbest joke. Ever.
  10. Taxi Driver: “You talkin’ to me?” YES. One of the most famous lines from any movie, ever, was improvised. The original script simply said “Travis talks to himself in the mirror.” And thus, one of the best one-liners in cinematic history was borne.

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One comment

  1. Kevin Miller said:

    Also Anthony Hopkins improvised Hannibal Lecter’s creepy sucking sound at the end of his monologue about eating a man’s liver “with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

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