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No Script, No Problem: 8 Great Movies That Were Mostly Improvised

Rule of thumb, when developing a film project a filmmaker is supposed to have a couple of things planned ahead. From hiring a crew and equipment to casting and scheduling, lots of important business take place in a movie’s pre-production stage. And while anyone would think that scripting is an essential part of the process, one would be surprised to know how many greats began filming with little to no script.


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From indie romances such as Like Crazy to timeless classics like Jaws, here are some of the movies that mostly relied on improvisation.

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‘Like Crazy’ (2011)

Filmed without a script, Drake Doremus‘ romance movie was mostly improvised. Starring Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, the film follows the devastating love story of a British college student and her American love interest, from whom she is separated when she’s banned from the U.S.

Yelchin revealed that improvising all the lines was, in his own words, extraordinarily liberating. “As an actor, I think you dream of having the kind of freedom that we had in this film. Once we had the parameters of who these people were and knew the structure of the story, we then had total freedom to express all of that and to experience all that and live through that.”

‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999)

'The Blair Witch Project'

Found-footage film The Blair Witch Project, directed by Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, was the horror movie of the moment when it first came out. According to Myrick, the spooky innovative film that is nowadays considered one of the best of its sub-genre was clearly supposed to be improvised from the very beginning.

“The treatment covered what happens, but it had no dialogue – we wanted it all improvised.” As it turns out, the three leads were only given a 35-page summary about the fictional Blair Witch legend. Every line in the film was completely unplanned.

‘Jaws’ (1975)

Roy Scheider in Jaws

The American thriller summer blockbuster directed by Steven Spielberg, Jaws, is undoubtedly one of the many greats. What some may not know, though, is how turbulent the behind-the-scenes actually were for such a buoyant film. Aside from starting production without a shark, the movie initially lacked a cast and a script as well, according to actor Richard Dreyfuss.

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Apparently, the screenplay went through significant changes since the mechanical shark was built on the other side of the continent where Spielberg was filming. Also counting with improvised lines, including Roy Scheider‘s “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” Jaws remains a huge part of pop culture even today.

‘Casablanca’ (1942)

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in 'Casablanca'

1942’s Casablanca surely is one of those films with dialogue so good and unforgettable, you can’t help but quote each line that has been engraved in your memory since you first watched it. But what if we told you that the screenplay of Michael Curtiz‘s iconic movie constantly changed under several writers up until its last day of production?

Turns out that the cast and crew began shooting the cinematic classic without a complete script. So naturally, there were lots of improvised lines, including Bogart‘s iconic “Here’s looking at you, kid.” According to the BBC, the actor decided to improvise a bit since the screenwriters were rushing up until the very end of the film.

‘Lawrence Of Arabia’ (1962)

Peter O'Toole in 'Lawrence of Arabia'

David Lean‘s legendary movie Lawrence of Arabia is arguably one of the most famous films to date and potentially one of the industry’s best. With an impressive IMDb rating of 8.6, the 1962 classic has won a good number of moviegoers and critics over. Given its huge success, one would naturally think that its pre-production was meticulously planned — except that wasn’t exactly the case.

The script of Lean’s movie has been through a lot, and by “a lot” we mean a lot.Although blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson wrote the original draft for Lawrence Of Arabia, Lean disliked it and hired playwright Robert Bolt to write a new one — this wasn’t the only factor to cause delays in shooting; Bolt’s arrest during a nuclear disarmament protest also contributed to that. Since then, another English playwright named Beverley Cross was drafted in until Bolt was released.

‘Blue Valentine’ (2010)

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine

The fact that Derek Cianfrance‘s heartbreaking romance drama starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as a married couple was almost entirely improvised may come as a surprise to some. According to Williams, one of the reasons why she accepted the part was its script. And then there was an unexpected turn of events.

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“I show up to set for the first day and Derek says to me, ‘I wrote that script twelve years ago, that script is dead and if you say any of those words you’re going to bore me, so go out there and surprise me.’ And I was aghast, I’m here because of the script. He wanted me to improvise.”

‘Iron Man’ (2009)

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark tests his equipment in Iron Man

It appears that the iconic first installment of the Iron Man franchise equally relied on, to amazing results, improvisation for a good amount of time — yes, this includes that one “I am Iron Man” line. According to Jeff Bridges, the film provided Robert Downey Jr. his biggest role to date and cemented his legacy as Tony Stark did not have a script ready.

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“They had no script, man… They had an outline. We would show up for big scenes every day, and we wouldn’t know what we were going to say. We would have to go into our trailer and work on this scene and call up writers on the phone, ‘You got any ideas?’ Meanwhile, the crew is tapping their foot on the stage waiting for us to come on,” Bridges said in an interview with InContention.

‘Before Sunrise’ (1995)

Before Sunrise 1995

Although Before Sunrise is known for being improvised thanks to its incredibly realistic dialogue, Richard Linklater has actually revealed that he doesn’t resort to the technique in his movies — at least not in the traditional way. The main reason why the thoughtful conversations between Ethan Hawke‘s and Julie Delpy‘s characters feel so genuine has to do with the fact that the director prefers to carefully rehearse and rewrite dialogue until it actually feels like it was improvised.

Nevertheless, the beloved romance movie did not have a solid script from the beginning either. According to Hawke, a wonderful combination of scripting with improv was the secret ingredient for the films’ remarkable real-life feel: “There were a lot of scenes like that. It was mostly scripted improv. We would improvise, talk about it and Rick would go home and write a scene.”

NEXT: Movies That Had Multi-Year Delays


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