Monday, December 03, 2018

A Friday Question that turned into a Monday Rant

It’s from Jim S.

I seem to have read that many of today's modern comedies are sort of half-written and the actors, such as Steve Carrell, are expected to improv lines. I saw the outtakes of Get Smart and you'd see Carrell giving multiple different lines for one shot. This improv technique didn't work for Ghostbusters.

So my question. Shouldn't a script be tight before going to film. I recall a Mark Twain saying - the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Part two of the question. If actors are expected to save/contribute/improv, is that fair to the actors who are just actors and is it unfair to the writers?

For all the reasons you list I personally don’t adhere to the practice of just using the shooting script as a blueprint.

I will concede that in some cases it works – if you have the right actors, director, and all the planets line up. But with millions of dollars at stake to go into production with your fingers crossed that divine intervention will occur does not seem a feasible game plan. But that’s just me.

First off all, there’s the pride issue. As the screenwriter I would like to think that I have provided the actors a solid story and all the tools necessary to make a strong cohesive movie that everyone can be proud of. I’m not giving them a half-completed job and saying “Here. You finish it.” My name is on the screen. I take a certain pride of authorship.

And even though I do believe “the best idea wins” I don’t feel it’s fair to expect others to bail me out.

When my scripts go to the stage I don’t want them to just be “good enough for now.” As you mentioned, a lot of time goes into choosing just the right word or concept or order of words within a sentence. And that’s fine. That’s my job as a writer.

Now the reality is in many cases the writer does turn in what he feels is his best, tightest screenplay, and the studio and director just shit on it. Does the improvising then improve the script or cheapen it? You get a sense of how Hollywood values screenwriters that they feel day player actors can do it better.  So I also find the practice insulting.

Another thing, movies should not just be about stringing gags together. Comedy needs to be crafted out of character and setting up comic situations. Laughs come from attitudes and emotions. There’s always the danger when actors start improvising that they may come up with funny lines but they undermine the character or story. The director has to always be aware of the big picture.

As for the actors, you’re right, it’s unfair to ask them to also improvise and fix the script. For many that’s not their training or process. It's like saying, “I hired you to paint this room. But you’ll also have to build cabinets.”

My motto is always hire the best actor. I don’t want to pass on a better actor because he can’t improvise. It seems to me it’s a better bet to enlist the best writers and best actors rather than okay writers and UCB graduates.

But Judd Apatow would disagree and between us, who has made more successful movies? So there you go.

26 comments :

Brian Phillips said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: In your scripts, all characters serve a purpose, but are there particular types of characters that you like to write?

Chip O said...

The proof is in the product.
Last year The Garry Marshall Theater screened all of the Marshall directed movies, followed by a Q&A with some folks from the movie (saw some interesting folks some 25+ years later).
Based on the Q&A, in many of his earlier movies, Marshall frequently saw the script as an outline and turned folks loose to improv for the shoots.
The result, imho, what Ken said.

Steve Bailey said...

As your hero Larry Gelbart believed (either he said it or he had it framed somewhere), If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage. I admire Whose Line Is It Anyway? and other improv performers, but I don't think I'd want to see an entire feature film based on that premise.

Cowboy Surfer said...

here, let me improvise...aaahh...aaahh, ok, I got nothin...are those donuts??

E. Yarber said...

I suspect at least some of the backstage improv footage we get these days is PR, just like the filmed testimonials where everyone on the set declares that everyone else involved with the project is an absolute genius. It makes for a more interesting story to suggest that everyone appearing on screen is just winging it, which fits in with the popular view that actors just say whatever comes into their heads as soon as the cameras begin to roll.

Billy Wilder, whose name was on the scripts, was adamant that actors deliver his lines note-perfect. John Ford, on the other hand loved to show his disdain for his writers by stunts like the famous incident where upon being told he was a day behind schedule filming the script, tore a handful of pages out of his copy and said, "We're ahead now." Ford's casualness reinforced his authority over the work, though members of the crew noted that the discarded pages might still wind up in the finished project after his demonstration for the front office. Even the supposed improvisors like Cassavetes and Altman kept their actors in the service of the story while allowing a level of leeway. And there have always been lines that an actor blurts out in rehearsal that are deemed funny enough to be incorporated into the finished scene.

Yet I find it hard to seriously imagine that people are wandering onto movie sets these days with an "What will we do today?" attitude from start to finish rather than certain moments for the outtake reels. If it's actually happening, it's not just disrespect for the writer but insecurity about the quality of the preparation that went into the story. If you go right up to the wire unsure if you've gotten the best work, second guessing at the last moment is unlikely to produce anything any better.

Curt Alliaume said...

I would think the amount of improvisation used in a movie would depend on who's involved. Steve Carell has a history of improvisational and sketch comedy; Anne Hathaway does not. I doubt much of the dialogue with Hathaway was improvised. (Although that's not always the case, either - Billy Crystal improvised part of the museum dialogue in When Harry Met Sally; Meg Ryan can be seen glancing at Rob Reiner offscreen at one point for guidance.)

The movie version of Get Smart had a legendarily lousy script; Mel Brooks reportedly offered to punch it up (Brooks cocreated the series, but only cowrote three episodes).

Janet Ybarra said...

What if the script is perfectly good as written but as rehearsing or whatever an actor is inspired by something or some point to riff on their own that doesn't subtract from the script as presented but rather adds to it?

Rob Dames said...

Now let'
s reflect a moment on the late William Goldman -- "Nobody knows anything."'

Anthony Hoffman said...

If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.

Aaron said...

More successful movies, maybe, but are they going to stand the test of time? I still watch movies from 30, 40, 50 years ago. Character based comedy resonates. That comes from the writing. Gag and improv based comedy is funny once or twice, I guess, but the stuff that resonates has real lasting power. Foghorn Leghorn isn't funny because it's a chicken beating the shit out of a dog with a two-by-four. It's funny because it's THAT chicken beating the shit out of THAT dog.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Pardon the redundancy, but every time this subject comes up I have the same reaction. Its one thing to have trained improvisors making up lines, its very different when non-improvisors improvise. As you said, "...there's the pride issue." When directors encourage non-improvisors to improvise it devalues what we do. Its like saying all our training, all our practice, all our performances were in vain since ANYBODY can improvise. Its personally insulting to me as well.

As for Steve Farrell, he is an alumnus of The Second City, Chicago. So, he is a trained improvisor. There is an improv game called "New Choice." (There are regional variations) This is where during a scene, the director will yell out, "New Choice!" The performer says a different line. This goes on until the improvisor comes up with a funnier line or until its run into the ground. Its an exercise designed to help one be quicker on his or her feet. That's probably what Jim S. was seeing.
There is also what's called the "Scenario Improv." This is what Larry David or Christopher Guest do. You start with a scene outline. You have to get from point A to point B. Your dialog is improvised to that end. However, the main purpose is to serve the scene. By the way, both David and Guest hire trained improvisors for the most part.

Finally, this is also makes me very angry. Ken isn't the first person to say he'd rather hire a good actor over a good improvisor. But, being a good improvisor and a good actor are NOT mutually exclusive. Especially with The Second City. Since it was founded by "theatre people" it puts much more emphasis on producing a good, real scene. The goal is for the humor to come from the truth of the scene and from the relationships of the characters. It doesn't always work out that way, but that's the ideal. We're also taught to respect the written word. Since we understand how much work it takes produce a good, final script.
M.B.

P.S. I have never seen a good reboot of GET SMART including the ones with Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. Zucker/Abrams/Zucker probably came the closest with POLICE SQUAD & THE NAKED GUN franchise. That is, the hero that succeeds despite his own ineptitude.

Please excuse the length of this post.

John in NE Ohio said...

As Curt said above, it depends upon who's is in the movie. And, I would also suspect that if you are Judd Apatow, you hire actors that write and/or improvise, and hopefully are straight with them about the fact they will be expected to do this.
I think it could work if it is part of the plan. And I suspect that even for him there are scenes with improv options and scenes without.
I can easily see where you could leave details out and just direct two actors who are accomplished improv performers or writers to "do 3 minutes of talking about something you did together years ago to convey to the audience how close you are and how you've known each other forever". Tell me you wouldn't want Brooks and Reiner to help with that.
I also think that if you just tell 2 actors to rag on each other, you might get a lot of funny lines. You might not want to cut any of them. You might have a movie that runs 35 minutes too long. Maybe that is the core of JAs editing issues.

William Patrick Corgan said...

If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.


Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.

Buttermilk Sky said...

There's a famous story of George S. Kaufman standing in the wings talking to the stage manager while the Marx Brothers enacted one of his plays. Suddenly he held up his hand and said, "Hold it! I think I heard one of the original lines!" He is also supposed to have posted a notice backstage: "There will be a rehearsal at 10 to remove all of the improvements made since the last rehearsal." Nevertheless, the play was a hit because people came back multiple times to hear what Groucho would come up with this time. So I guess it's a question of who's doing the improvising.

CRL said...

I think there's a difference in ad-libbing a line and keeping it in and ad-libbing 40 lines and picking one because you really don't know what's funny.

Lemuel said...

@Aaron: I loved that comment. Reminds me of Spike Jones' remark "if you replace a C-sharp with a gunshot it has to be a C-sharp gunshot or it sounds terrible".

Stephen Marks said...

Baloney. Jim Carey, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Lucy Ball, Melissa McCarthy even as far back as Charlie Chaplin, these people never stuck to the script. We've all seen their movies and liked them in most cases because they were made funnier by the actors trying different lines out. I get what Ken is saying but "pride" is not a great excuse for not at least giving an actor a chance to try and ad lib a line or two. In respect to being happy just sticking to the script come hell or high water, perhaps we need to curb our enthusiasm.

sanford said...

I go back way farther than the 50 years Aaron does. But many of those comedies are still great. There is no one like Buster Keaton, or Chaplin or many other silent film comedy stars.And most Laurel and Hardy movies are still great. Speaking of which I hope the movie coming out will be good.

Ralph C. said...

Christopher Guest had three great films in a row, to me, that were all improvised: Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show and A Mighty Wind.

Gary said...

I've never bought the idea that anything an actor makes up on the spot is bound to be funnier than what's in the script a writer put hours of time and effort into.

Myles Warden said...

I see what you did there!

Mark said...

Dick Cavett provided the second half of that anecdote. He said that Groucho loved to tell with great pride that Kaufman said that Marx was the only person he allowed to adlib with his dialogue.

Mark said...

A music historian once told me a cool bit of Spike Jones trivia. Jones was a very successful straight musician before he started making novelty Tunes. One of his specialties was always unconventional percussion like cowbells. Since cowbells are impossible two exactly tune and since he use the same set throughout his career, there are any number of serious hit records that sound strangely similar to"tea for two"

Mark said...

on the question of tight scripts versus loose Scripts. Rodger Corman who knew how to handle people told Peter bogdanovich there are basically two ways to make a film. You can plan everything out to the Last Detail like Hitchcock did or leave things loose and open like Howard Hawks. He then said he wanted things done the Hitchcock way because it was cheaper.

Mike Schlesinger said...

This is why God invented the wild take. After we finish a scene to my satisfaction, we go again and the actors can ad-lib to their heart's desire. And often they come up with funnier stuff than what I wrote, and I end up using it. Yes, pride of ownership is important, but as Jack Benny famously said, "I don't care who gets the laugh--it's still my name on the show."

brian t said...

I read that the script for the first Bad Boys film was so poor that Michael Bay essentially relied on Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Téa Leoni & co to improvise much of their dialog. I think it worked, overall.