Mike Leigh, Christopher Guest and The Power of Improvisation



Comedy in the cinema for fifteen years has relied heavily on improvisation to make people laugh. A plethora of special “Line-O-Rama” DVDs accompany these films to show how many alternate jokes performers and filmmakers try at any given time, be it the films of Judd Apatow (In blister, Rail accident), Adam mckay (Half brothers, The big court), Where Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, To spy). Often times these moments are shot in a pretty basic reverse shooting setup with multiple cameras in order to throw so many options on set. This way the director and editor can determine the best in post-production. Although these are talented people who frequently laugh through this method, implementing the improv tends to stop the film in its tracks, as we watch an actor looking for a joke rather than sticking to it. moment for a scene.

If you’ve ever taken an improvisation class, you know that the goal of successful improvisation is to exist in the moment, completely outside your own head. The humor in an improvised scene comes from investing the people in that scene in the truth of the moment, rather than someone trying to nail it down a bit. Moreover, improvisation should not only be used for comedy. While this remains its most popular form, improvisation has the ability to create thoughtful and moving stories out of thin air. In many ways, the brand of improvisation “line-o-rama” goes against many of the principles of the form. It works more like a writers’ room, where everyone sits down to present material until the best wins.

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A few filmmakers manage to implement improvisation in the making of their films, which demonstrates its effectiveness as a storytelling tool. In particular, the Palme d’Or, the independent British darling Mike Leigh and specialist in false documentaries Christophe Guest, two very different filmmakers, both build their films through improvisation. Their methods of using it vary wildly, but each method allows the form to be more than just jokes and feel completely organic to the stories and characters at hand.

Mike Leigh, the director of films such as Secrets and lies and Happy-Go-Lucky, creates his stories in a completely idiosyncratic way, and quite frankly, his method of creating would never be enlightened by anyone today for the budgets they need if they hadn’t transferred from a previous generation of directors. Leigh just has an idea of ​​what the movie will be like when it starts, whether it’s a movie about WS Gilbert and Arthur sullivan for Upside down or just a middle-class British family seen in several of his films. No scenario. No characters. No outline. Just an idea of ​​what he wants it to be. He then assembles a troupe of actors, who often work with him over and over again as Jim broadbent, Lesley Manville, and Timothy Spall, and Leigh and the actor meet one-on-one to create a character from scratch. Leigh then brings her performers together in various combinations and begins improvisational rehearsals, both in rehearsal spaces and in the real world. This whole creation process can take anywhere from six weeks to several months depending on the project. Leigh will then factor in the hours and hours of improvised storylines he’s witnessed and create an outline for the film, while the actors still aren’t sure exactly what they’re going to shoot.


Image via Pathé Distribution

Upon arriving on set, Leigh and her actors improvise the scene they are going to shoot, and once they have decided on the direction of the scene, they repeat it over and over again until their improvisation turns into a scripted scene they all have. collaborated. When the camera starts rolling, nobody improvises, and the scene that started out as something amorphous is now incredibly specific. Leigh’s use of improvisation comes more from a theatrical tradition, where to place your performers in different scenarios as certain characters allow them to know more about the people they are playing and don’t draw them out of the moment, bit. it doesn’t matter what is thrown at them. Building the story of the film with this method gives authorship to everyone involved, so everyone is invested in achieving the same goal. Improvisation also allows the film to unfold at its own pace and to have character interactions that one could not have thought of writing, alone in a play. In the first scene between Jim Broadbent’s Gilbert and Allan Cordouneris Sullivan in Upside down, much of the scene each takes the time to compliment each other in order to delay discussion of their next show as much as possible, and this kind of material could only be generated by Broadbent and Cordouner understanding the relationship of these two characters so well. .

Where Mike Leigh chooses to use improvisation as the basis for building his stories, Christopher Guest operates almost in the exact opposite. Most often invited and co-author Eugene Levy, go and create detailed biographies for each character in the movie. Similar to Leigh, Guest also has a stable of actors he works with on a regular basis, such as Parker Posey, Michael mckean, and the end, big Fred willard, and makes sure that the actors completely internalize these biographies by themselves. They also create a scene-by-scene shot for the film. Once on set, every word spoken in front of a camera is spoken for the first time. No repetitions at all. Basically, Guest gives them an idea of ​​what needs to happen in a given scene and how the actors accomplish those tasks is how the scene plays out. For example, A mighty wind presents a scene where the folk group “The New Main Street Singers”, led by John Michael Higgins, repeat a song, and the only direction of the stage was for their manager (Willard) to interrupt them. Because they know these people inside and out, no further information is required to make this scene compelling, eye-opening, and absolutely hilarious.


Image from Warner Bros.

Christopher Guest tends to make films like mock documentaries, a format perfectly suited to total improvisation on screen. In order to capture the real-life polish, the fact that everything that happens on camera is the first time it has happened adds invaluable authenticity to the formation of the documentary style. If something looks awkward and not rehearsed in the movie, it is positive because real life is not rehearsed, and if someone wants to act on camera and maybe try to be funny, people would try. to do this also if a camera was following them everywhere or an interviewer prompted them to ask questions.

Almost nothing connects the feeling of watching the films of Mike Leigh and Christopher Guest together. Leigh often does kitchen sink dramas about family and class, and Guest does silly comedies about overconfident people in bizarre community situations. What connects their films is a feeling of authenticity. Each character, whether tragic or mad, comes across as a multidimensional human being with a fully realized inner life, and you wouldn’t be shocked to see any of them walking the streets. Their processes of using improvisation as the foundation of the story, as opposed to a tool for trying to laugh, invest filmmakers and performers in the people they bring to light and, in turn, bring audiences to identify more deeply. within these characters. Mike Leigh has even been nominated five times at the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay despite not writing a traditional screenplay at all. Christopher Guest directs comedies, which makes Oscar nominations difficult, but he still has a few Indie Spirit and WGA nominations without writing a line of dialogue. Improvisation for them is their writing process, and it gives their films a sense of life that few other filmmakers can capture.

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