How Film Directors Can Use Improv on Set

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“We did improv!” 

It’s a common phrase you’ll hear from actors when doing promotion for a movie. Sometimes it’s a brag about one’s creative influence, but on other film sets, directors really do encourage improvisation.

Improv can work in both comedy and drama

Improv has long been common in comedy – sometimes the best jokes are improvised by skilled comedy actors – but improvisation can yield exciting results in more dramatic films, too.

How improv helped Endings Beginnings

Actor Jamie Dornan recently told Variety that a lot of his new film Endings Beginnings, directed by Drake Doremus and now available on digital, was improvised. 

But how can you encourage improvisation without getting off track or off schedule? Isn’t it important to stick to the script you or the screenwriter worked so hard to perfect?

When Dornan found out about Doremus’s process of using and outline but then having actors fill in dialogue on set, he wanted to “run for the hills.” He continues: “I was terrified, because you’re so out of your comfort zone…I just felt so exposed, and I was like ‘F_!’ I sort of had no idea what was going to happen.”

Improv was a major technique in filming Endings Beginnings.

But Dornan says the fear eventually gave way to “truth,” and that “You’re suddenly standing there trying to tell the story of these two characters and these two situations.” 

He goes on to call the improv style “crazy,” “beautiful” and “amazing.” 

Other improv techniques

Actor Matt Walsh of Veep told Deadline that improv was also an important part of the Emmy-winning comedy. And this might sound surprising – but being the funniest wasn’t the goal.

“We had to get over trying to be funny because it was really about discovering the character and the relationships, and almost how to create that connective tissue between jokes that doesn’t have to be funny.”

He continues: “A large part of it was listening and responding as you would in those situations, and putting away your ideas and responding to what’s given to you.”

Walsh also says that this improvising was done in rehearsals and in the writer’s room; on set, things were mostly shot as written (but those improvized jokes would go into the script). This surely kept production running quickly and efficiently.

You can also try the technique of having a complete script but doing two takes – one that sticks completely to the script and one that allows for improv. This way, you’ll have plenty of options in the editing room.

Improv Tips for Directors

Given both Dornan’s and Walsh’s experiences, here are a few things to keep in mind if you’re a director who wants your actors to try improv:

  • Make sure you have at least an outline of what needs to happen by the end of each scene
  • Consider doing improvisation at a rehearsal or table read but sticking to the script when cameras are rolling
  • Give your actors positive encouragement so they feel confident
  • Be open to the possibilities

Have you ever shot something and let your actors use improv? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

Lessons and Tips