The 10 Commandments of Directing Improvisers for Film

This year, I wanted to start a project called “The 12 Shorts of Christmas.”  For this effort, I recruited some of my favorite improvisers.  Here’s the first of the series.

Scott Morehead and Karisa Bruin work fantastically together.  (They should.  They’re engaged.)  Part of having a successful project is selecting the right people.

Most improvisers are lovely to work with because they bring a wealth of ideas.  If you’re ever stuck, they can help you out.  Brainstorming comes very easily to our kind.

The downside is that most improvisers also can’t focus or remain disciplined.  I have shot things with improvisers and they turn into bit-fests.  For something like a video, you need a relatively narrow focus.  The tone is this, the premise is this, the following must happen. Good actors will heed those marks, knowing there will be time for discovery and surprises along the way.  Bad actors will discover a bit or a game midway through and sell out the integrity of the piece.

Thankfully, Scott and Karisa are good actors.  The day we created this short, I showed up and Scott said he wanted to do a bit where he decorates a tree that isn’t there.  A simple idea.  The three of us went to the Dollar Store and found some glass ornaments, then returned to their condo.

So you’ve got an action: decorating a non-existent tree.  Now what?  Why are they doing this?  Perhaps to prove a point, I thought.  What if there was no tree because there was something wrong about having a tree?  The idea started taking hold.

We improvised a bit about percentages – nonsensical statistics.  But if they were delivered straight, they might almost seem legitimate.  (That is the great gift of “Airplane!”)

Karisa suggested the line about an old German tradition.  “Great,” I thought.  “That adds a strange air of jingoism.”

Building this scene was very collaborative.  Someone would suggest a bit, someone else would heighten, someone else would tweak a line.  The momentum was always forward.  I don’t believe we questioned anything.  That’s the best of improvisation, right there.

Because we only had a limited number of ornaments to smash, we took the time to write out the lines and rehearse the bit a few times.  Once we’d ironed out the giggles, we did two takes.  Success!

When you direct improvisers for film, you will get an endless series of options.  That’s brilliant.  But when you’re editing, you’re usually screwed.  All those endless options tend not to match from one shot to another.  That’s why I absolutely recommend trying to get everything in one continuous shot.  (Alternately, shoot with several cameras at once.  But that’s a luxury most of us don’t have.)

You’ll usually need to push the improvisers to get to the bit faster.  It’s fine to meander a bit in live performance.  On screen, any indecisiveness is deadly.  Time is of the essence.  If the laughs aren’t coming quickly enough,  you’ll need to edit, and that will often mean jump-cuts.

One of my first experiences directing involved trying to recreate an improvised scene between Karisa and Amy Speckien.  They played young girls bragging about sexual experiences neither of them had really had. When they improvised for the camera, the scene went on for maybe five minutes.  Of that, 90 seconds were great.  But since we shot it all in one take, editing was a nightmare.  You couldn’t cut from a 2-shot to a very similar 2-shot.  Too jarring.  Cutting from one woman’s close-up to a 2-shot rarely worked because their hands and heads had changed position.  I solved the problem by adding very fast pushes as edits.  They were still jump-cuts, but when the video rolled up the screen, it was less distracting.

That experience taught me how important it was to try to get everything in one shot, and to hit the bits quickly.  If you don’t feel a laugh line every ten seconds or so, do another take.  Be ready to move the camera to catch any sudden physical movements.  Keep the actors focused on the premise.  Give them an end point or push them to reach some heightened emotion or physical action.  Encourage them to go faster than their normal, comfortable speed.  It’ll all seem slower on screen.

I like to foster an air of invention, even though some of the ideas you get will be awful.  Improvisers get bored and will try to make a totally left-field move to entertain themselves.  That’s fine when you’re screwing around at the bar, but it usually results in unwatchable video.

It’s important to shoot quickly with improvisers so they don’t get bored and think of another/newer/”funnier” bit.  When their brains move on to the new thing, they’ll hate doing the old thing.  I might indulge them by shooting their idea, then doing a take that actually works with the flow of the piece.

Remember, as the director, you have to find a tone that works for the entirety of your piece.  And while your piece may be three minutes on the screen, it may take three hours (or more) to shoot it.  Hell, most of us improvisers can’t maintain a character for a half-hour show, let alone three hours with stops in-between.

So heed these Ten Commandments and enjoy the endless rewards of working with improvisers.

1. Select good, reliable performers.

2. Set landmarks for your scene, but let your actors take small detours along the way.

3. Push them to go faster.

4. Combat boredom by minimizing time between shots.

5. Continuity is key.  Try to shoot everything in one shot, if possible.  If not, try to keep the shots short and make sure you have something to cut to when the shot ends.  (Physical continuity is a huge problem with 2-shots.)  Write down any names or facts that are established.  You don’t want to sit down to edit only to learn that your actors call each other two or three different names over the course of a scene.

6. As hard as you push your improvisers while shooting, completely lay off them between scenes.  Their brains will wander.  They will get loud.  As long as the last scene is in the bag, let them decompress.

7. Be nimble.  Prepare to follow sudden physical movements.  Make sure everyone has a mic so you don’t miss that sudden bit of gold that gets tossed out.  You need to be prepared to capture everything the way a live audience would.

8. At least 25% of the scenes you shoot will be absolutely worthless.  Let ’em go.

9. Shoot more footage than you think you’ll need.

10. Remember to laugh along the way.  This is comedy, after all.

I encourage you to stop by my YouTube page as the 12 Shorts of Christmas are rolled out over the coming days.  You will see successes and failures, but in the end, shooting these bits brings us closer together.  That’s my ultimate goal.

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

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