When unintentional improvisation makes it to the final cut of a movie

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Directors sometimes go to great lengths to get an unplanned reaction from their actors – and here are a few examples, for better or worse, of that happening.

A spoiler for He Got Game lies ahead.

One of the most memorable scenes in Paul Thomas Andersons Boogie Nights takes place in the garish living room of a drug dealer, played by Alfred Molina. In the scene, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) sits on a couch with two friends as Molina dances around them to the song ‘Jessie’s Girl’ and smokes crack from a glass pipe.

Off to one side a young man, Cosmo, haphazardly tosses firecrackers that explode with random snaps. As the song blares the camera holds for a full minute on Wahlberg’s face as it goes into a kind of trance, his deadpan eyes perfectly conveying the weight mounting on Dirk and the slow realisation that he needs to change his life’s course, fast.

It might be the best acting of Wahlberg’s career. It also, in this case, happened completely by accident.

Anderson was filming the scene in a chaotic environment that genuinely got under the skin of his actors. The firecrackers were real, and being thrown randomly during takes; the noise they created was loud enough to make the actors jump, except Molina who had an earpiece in so he could hear the music. The result of this, after a long day’s filming, was that everyone felt tired, nervy and frustrated, especially Wahlberg who was much younger and less experienced than the rest of the cast. During one take, amidst the chaos, he just zoned out, either forgetting or not caring about what he was supposed to say. But Anderson kept the camera rolling and when he watched the footage back knew immediately the take was going in the film.

This kind of unintentional improvisation happens all the time on film sets, sometimes accidentally and sometimes because a director, like Anderson, is trying to get something different out of an actor by tricking or surprising them. Sometimes it’s even baked into the core of a film’s production, such as in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.

For certain sequences of his 2013 sci-fi film Glazer had Scarlett Johansson, playing the disguised alien protagonist, drive around Glasgow in a van and try to pick up local men, while being filmed by hidden cameras. The men had no idea they were on film until being told by the crew afterwards, so all of the dialogue in those moments is real and unscripted, including Johansson’s. Even without knowing how they were shot, these scenes have a menacing, off kilter quality, partly because you can’t tell who’s acting and whose not.

The layers of lies and performance tie into the film’s broader themes of uncertain identity and power dynamics, which is why Glazer chose to film covertly.

Another story of actors being taken by surprise comes from the finale of Spike Lee’s feature He Got Game, starring Ray Allen as a young basketball prospect and Denzel Washington as his paroled father. At the end of the film the father challenges his son to a game of one-on-one, to decide the boy’s academic future. In the script Allen, who was a professional basketball star in real life, was supposed to win convincingly 11-0. When the day came however, Spike told the two stars to play a real game so he could get more convincing footage.

To everyone’s surprise Washington hit his first shot. In fact he scored five times on Allen who at one point went over to a stunned crew to ask what was happening. Spike said keep playing and Allen came back to win the game, but his confusion and wounded pride play beautifully in the final film. It’s probably Allen’s best scene in fact; he’s a better basketball player than he is an actor, and the competitiveness between him and Washington is palpable.

Coaxing authentic reactions from performers can be a useful tool for many directors, but there are instances where the pursuit of something real has led to abusive, even dangerous behaviour. Maybe the most famous example is Stanley Kubrick’s treatment of Shelley Duvall during production of The Shining. The two would argue constantly about line readings, script changes and Duvall’s performance during the year-long shoot, leading to the actor becoming physically ill from the stress. The way she looks and behaves during some later scenes is a result of real mental strain, not just great acting.

Kubrick was a famously difficult director but his attitude towards the rest of the cast was notably better than the constant berating of his leading female star, as shown in the behind-the-scenes documentary made by his daughter Vivian. Some have tried justifying this by saying Duvall is incredible in the film, and that her hysterical breakdown towards the end would not have been possible without the prodding of Kubrick, who liked to push his actors into performances they could not ordinarily give. Whatever the qualities of the film are however, it has become impossible to separate its most famous moments from the behind-the-scenes abuse that was wrought upon them.

Look too to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. In the documentary The Fear of God by Nick Freand Jones and Mark Kermode, the cast and crew of the 1973 horror classic recall all kinds of dangerous tactics employed by the director in order to shock a reaction out of various actors. Friedkin slapped, lied to, and fired guns around the cast in order to elicit real responses. At one point Ellen Burstyn was yanked to the ground by a cable and injured her coccyx, requiring a trip to the hospital. Her agonised screams can be seen in the finished film, as can those of the 13-year old Linda Blair, who was also thrown around violently for some scenes.

This is clearly not okay, and makes re-watching The Exorcist quite an uncomfortable experience, given the genuine pain shown onscreen.

Still, it’s worth finishing this piece by looking at one more example of deception being used in a positive, creative way.

For the production of Mel Stuart’s 1971 adaptation of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory a hugely elaborate set was built for the ‘chocolate room’, with plants made of candy, rainbow coloured pipes and a river of molten chocolate flowing through the middle. Other than Gene Wilder (who played Wonka) none of the cast was allowed to enter the room until cameras were rolling for the first take. When that scene comes up in the finished film the reactions on the faces of the kids and their parents, all the joy and wonder and gobsmacked disbelief, are as real as can be, adding a little extra magic to film that’s stuffed with it.

Whether orchestrated by a director or not, moments where actor’s honest emotions are caught on camera still wind up in movies to this day, like Viggo Mortensen breaking his toe in a Lord of the Rings scene or Harrison Ford accidentally punching Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049. It’s worth keeping an eye out to try and spot those times when acting isn’t really acting at all…


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