I'm a huge fan of improv. People in LA like to complain about it, but I'm that friend who is actually excited when her friends invite her to their improv shows. It's a no brainer that some of the best improvisers in the game are famous actors, which explains why they act in the first place.
One of the problems with watching a movie after it has made its way through production is that, unless you're lucky enough to be on set, you don't get to see most of the filming process. All of the takes that it took to make a movie, that movie. So that's why I want to discuss some of my favorite improvised movie moments. This is far from a definitive list, but do you know how long it would take to list every great moment of improv in cinematic history? Neither do I, and I don't intend to find out.
1. 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest' - Jar of Dirt
This is just some of the Johnny Depp goodness that we know and love. After taking a spectacular fall down some stairs of the ship, Captain Jack wants to make it known that he's got a jar of dirt. This scene wasn't even in the script, but Johnny just thought it felt right to taunt Davy Jones with said jar of dirt. Thank goodness he did because this scene is awesome!
While Orlando might not look totally on board (pirate puns) with Johnny's improv, Keira knows just to play along with whatever he's going to do with that jar of dirt.
2. 'Zoolander' - "Why Male Models?"
One of my favorite movie lines of the early 2000s. Not only is it an incredibly funny premise acted out by one of the best casts, but it's also one of the most quotable movies in history. I find myself saying, "What is this? A [fill in the blank] for ants?" pretty regularly. Especially when looking at my portions of food.
This improvised line had me seriously cracking up in the theater. Much to my delight and surprise, Zoolander himself (Ben Stiller) confirmed in his Reddit AMA that the second line of, "But why male models?" Was actually improvised.
I literally was listening to what David Duchovny said, and I'm not really that much smarter than the character of Derek, and I honestly forgot, I hadn't followed what he was saying, I said it again and got my lines wrong, and David (who's a very funny guy) improvised the "are you serious? I just explained that." Which just goes to show you that Derek and I are actually closer than you might think.
Even Ben's mistakes turn into comedy gold.
3. 'The Usual Suspects' - The Lineup
This one is a classic. The famous lineup scene from The Usual Suspects was supposed to be a serious one. But after many, many takes, this group of gentlemen just couldn't keep a straight face around each other, much to the dismay of the director Bryan Singer.
Kevin Spacey admits in his interview on the Special Edition DVD, that Benicio Del Toro kept farting. Naturally, this made the laughing even harder to control. Eventually, Singer just went with it and let the scene stay lighthearted. And thus, with a fart, a classic scene in cinematic history was created.
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4. 'Taxi Driver' - "You Talkin' to Me?"
This is another iconic scene that came to be through improvisation. Robert De Niro's line, "Are you talking to me?" wasn't in the original script. What was written instead just said “Travis talks to himself in the mirror.” Martin Scorsese just let De Niro run with the character and see what he could come up with.
Not only does it represent Travis's downward spiral into insanity, but also De Niro's serious acting chops. The simple utterance that came out is now a standby for acting students everywhere as well as anyone who happens to catch their reflection in a mirror.
5. 'Annie Hall' - The Sneeze
Annie Hall, also known as one of my favorite movies of all time, also includes one of my favorite improvised scenes of all time. The cocaine sneeze. For people who don't consider this a comedy, I defy you to watch that scene and not crack a smile.
Apparently, the script called for an entirely different scene. But when Woody Allen's allergic reaction to the powder brought on one of the funniest sneezes of all time, the cast could barely keep it together. Allen agreed that this was much better and kept it in the final cut of the film.
6. Harry Potter: Deathly Hallows Part 2 - Draco/Voldemort Hug
Ahh yes, the most awkward hug to happen on the face of the planet ever, of all time, forever. This thing had entire theaters cringing and then cracking up at the strangeness of it all. Not since I came up and hugged someone from behind that I thought was my best friend, but was actually a stranger, has a hug so awkward occurred.
During the panel at Dragon-Con in 2011, Tom Felton explained that he and Ralph Fiennes had done about 25 takes of that scene having different interactions each time. Then for one of them, they just....hugged. And that ended up being the take that they used. The audience responses range from stunned silence in some countries to laughing in others. Mainly laughing.
7. 'A Clockwork Orange' - Singing in the Rain
Stanley Kubrick is known as a man of many takes. A perfectionist almost to a fault. But dammit, the man makes good movies. Once he shoots a scene the way he imagined it, he sometimes lets the actors roam free a bit to see if they can come up with something better. The disturbing rape scene in Clockwork Orange wasn't panning out as he had expected, so he told Malcolm McDowell to just do whatever came to mind.
The first thing that popped into McDowell's head was the song "Singing in the Rain" which he sang while he and his droogs beat and rape their victims. The juxtaposition between the cheery song and their depraved acts created just the eery feeling that Kubrick wanted. He immediately bought the rights to use the song, specifically to keep that scene.
*Warning: The scene below is extremely graphic.*
8. 'Good Will Hunting' - Farting Wife Bit
You can't mention improv without talking about certain actors (that's another article in itself). But I would be remiss if I didn't mention Robin Williams. I mean, the man was great. One of his better improvisations, in my opinion, is fairly well-known because it is both funny and heartwarming. The classic Robin Williams mix.
When playing psychologist Sean Maguire, Williams told stories which ended up helping Will trust him more and let down his walls a bit. An integral plot point. The story that really sticks is one about his late wife's idiosyncrasies, specifically how she would fart in her sleep. The bit was made up for and done in one take (you can even see the camera shake a bit from the cameraman's laughter), but Matt Damon's reaction was completely real. There's no doubt that Robin Williams deserved his Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the film.
If this goes to show anything, it's that sometimes, but not all of the time, actors are best left to their own devices. You can't plan every genius moment. Even frustrating mistakes can turn into something awesomely unexpected that will make the final cut.
Like I said, these are just some of my favorite moments, but there are plenty others. If I didn't put it on my list, let me know your favorite improvised movie moment in the comments!