Improvisation is not just the realm of pretentious posh drama student types, it’s also a tool used by actors and directors today in the creation of some of the silver screen’s finest moments. Here’s a rundown of some particularly good examples of the craft in use….
1) Empire Strikes Back (1979) – farewell scene between Han Solo & Princess Leia: The space smuggler turned intergalactic hero is about to be frozen alive in carbonite after being betrayed by his old pal Lando Calrissian, and sold out to helmet-headed bounty hunter Boba Fett. Han Solo’s last words to the love of his life, the feisty Princess (played by Carrie Fisher), when her final words are “I love you”? He responds with “I know”. Ford changed the reply to be in keeping with the macho rogue’s cocky, confident persona, and the result is one of the most memorable moments in movie history.
2) Reservoir Dogs (1992) – the ear cutting scene: The film which brought the worlds’ attention to uber movie-geek Quentin Tarantino is most well-remembered for the moment where Michael Madsen’s character, Mr Blonde tortures an undercover cover detective while dancing round the room to “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Stealers’ Wheel ; The rather cheerful tune forms a freaky counterpoint to the psycho action on screen. 4 takes that were improvised of Madsen chopping the fella’s ear off. In the one that made the final cut, the actor managed to up the ante by committing the heineous act (at which point the camera pans away) but then went one step further proceeding to speak into the unattached appendage once he had it in his hands! For an interview where Madsen talks about his work on the scene, check out:
3) Borat : Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) – the whole damn thing: Almost all of Sasha Baron Cohen’s breakthrough international hit is improvised, though the makers clearly set up situations designed to make the best of the charms of the fictional Kazakh television personality. Best bits? Borat explaining to three eminent feminist academics that a leading government scientist had proof that women were clearly inferior to men as they had “brain the size of squirrel”. In another gem he upset the genteel attendees of a polite private dinner in America’s Deep South by telling one aging lady she had an “erotic physique”, and announcing after returning from the restroom that he had enjoyed a “good shit”. With so many good memorable moments, the film is a masterful work of improvisational comedy.
4) Blade Runner (1982) – Replicant death scene: (NB For those who don’t want a movie spoiler, look away now). The final scenes of this landmark science fiction movie culminate in the death of Rutger Hauer’s character, leader of a group of rebel “replicant” androids responsible for escaping and killing countless humans. Hauer’s character shares his final moments with Harrison Ford’s Deckard, a police officer assigned to track him down and “retire” him, with the android declaring to his human counterpart of all the amazing things he has seen in his life, and that “all these moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain”. Hauer has since described his work on the movie as the best he had ever committed to film.
5) Apocalypse Now (1979) – Brando’s Colonel Kurtz : Francis Ford Coppola’s epic, insane war flick follows Martin Sheen’s rather green footsoldier Benjamin Willard making his way up a river with orders to “terminate with extreme prejudice” Brando’s AWOL military leader Kurtz. It ends with his finally meeting the great man. Brando, was by the early 70s a fading, errant star, much known for misbehaving and squandering his prodigious talent, and turned up on set 220 pounds overweight and not having read the source material, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness despite having being told to turn up slim and fully briefed on it. As a result, he had to improvise most of his appearance, except for the payoff line “The horror, the horror” – Coppola asked Brando to stay back a further hour after his initial 1 weeks' work, so he could do a closeup of this. The maverick actor agreed, charging an additional $75,000 for his trouble.
Tucked in amongst this summers blockbusters is the new film by much lauded director Guillermo Del Toro. The man responsible for the award-winning visual feast of Pan’s Labyrinth has this time contrived a similarly stunning piece of artful cinema, cleverly disguised as a mainstream box-office winner for mass audiences in this follow-up to his 2004 introduction to this franchise.
Ron Perlman reprises his role as the lead character, a comic-book creation who is a demon originally brought to earth by Nazi Occultists, and who now works for the US government as undercover agent for the top-secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence. Big, dumb and brutish as he is, the macho man-mountain isn’t the sharpest tool in the box, and suffers from being insecure and short-tempered, but what he lacks in brains he makes up for in heart.
The film sees the big man in the early stages of his relationship with Selma Blair’s character Liz Sherman, a woman who has the gift of being able to turn into fire at will. Jokes about being too hot to handle aren’t too far wide of the mark, as the action sees the new couple partaking of the petty arguments that accompany moving in together, and adjusting to one another’s differences and flaws.
This domestic stuff is mostly handled with a light touch, and unfolds whilst the world once more needs saving from the forces of evil. This comes in the shape of no less than Luke Goss, who almost exactly reprises his character in Blade II, as a long-haired pale goth-like Prince Nuada. He seeks to reunite the pieces of magical crown which gives the holder the power to control the mythic clockwork ‘Golden Army’, and allow his Elven creed to rule over the human race.
All this mythic stuff gives Del Toro licence to play to his strengths and create a rich visual world of characters combining the weird and wonderful likes of creatures in the Lord of The Rings trilogy and the Star Wars movies. Aesthetically, a lot of it utilises puppetry and prosthetics over CGI, which does play a part in augmenting rather than dominating the screen.The effect is magical, and stunning.
Perlman is excellent as the misunderstood, overly sensitive giant, rejected by an unsympathetic human race yet willing to fight for it’s survival, while having more in common with the otherworldly creatures he is sent out to destroy. The rather sexy Selma Blair (previously seen snoggging Neve Campbell in Cruel Intentions) is there for more than decoration also, as a strong female in a mans’ world.
Overall, then it’s a beautifully baroque creation of elves, trolls and demons battling it out, but somewhat let down by a lack of urgency and pace, but still worth it for sheer escapism, beauty and fun.