When we talk about the greatest movie scenes of all time, sometimes it’s easy to forget all the work that goes into them – and all the takes.
That is, what you see on the screen, that couple of hours that’s burned into our memories, all those beautiful, epic, heart-rending and iconic moments we all remember down to the nanosecond? Yeah, they are often the result of hours and hours of different takes, various inflections, emphases, rewrites – and even changing up the lines on the fly.
Best of all, a lot of times what we finally see on the screen, the very best take that the director, editor and often even the actor agree is The One turns out to have been improvised.
One of the hardest things for newer actors to learn is how to stay in the moment, to stay engaged with the other characters you’re interacting with even long after you think the scene is blown. It’s easy to say, “Don’t stop until they yell ‘cut,’” but the truth is it’s a really tough habit to get into. It’s super easy to let yourself relax or slouch, or break character when you THINK the scene is over, but you just never know what the director sees on the other side of the camera!
Here’s a few examples to motivate you for the next time you’re on a shoot, and to remind you that what actually makes it into the film, television show or commercial may not always be the way your sides were originally written.
1. Kicking It With My Homies
In Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, when Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) comes across the smoking remains of a number of people who died in a battle while he is trying to track down his hobbit friends, he kicks a helmet and lets out a roar of grief and frustration. Mortensen then drops to his knees and hangs his head in grief in what seems like an overwhelming emotional moment at the prospect that his friends might be dead.
Turns out however, that after several takes of Mortensen kicking a heavy steel helmet, that last one proved to be too much: Mortensen broke two of his toes, which helped motivate his reaction, you might say.
That didn’t stop him from playing out the scene however. Director Peter Jackson recalled, “I thought, ‘Wow, Aragorn is just in total grief at what’s happened to Merry and Pippen, this is really cool!’”
2. A Real Barn-Burner
In Saving Private Ryan, what stands out as most memorable for a lot of people is the brutal, confused mayhem of the scenes of the landing at the beach at Normandy. Director Steven Spielberg has been rightly praised for his solid attempt at conveying the real horror and madness of war.
But as the titular character, a stand-out moment in Matt Damon’s tiny bit of screen time is a story he tells Tom Hanks’ character about a hilariously ridiculous accident that took place in the family’s barn. Damon cracks himself up throughout the telling, and for good reason: it’s hilarious, for one, plus he was making up large chunks of it on the spot.
It’s a charming, truly funny story, and a genuine moment for the two men to get to know one another, but Damon takes the improv to the next level by tying it back to the reality of the story, remembering that that was the last time his character had been together with his entire family, particularly all of his now-deceased brothers.
3. Do You Kiss Your Mother With That Mouth?
The 40-Year-Old Virgin propelled Steve Carell’s career into the stratosphere, in large part thanks to his impeccable comic timing, not to mention writer/director Judd Apatow’s hilarious screenplay and direction, as well as a stellar supporting cast including Paul Rudd, Seth Rogan, Catherine Keener and Romany Malco.
However, one particularly memorable scene was largely unscripted, and has become iconic in its own right: the chest-waxing scene in which Carell’s actual chest hair is waxed. Keep in mind, Carell has never experienced a waxing before, so his reaction is straight from his hairy, hairy gut!
Watch this behind the scenes footage of the actors and Apatow trying not to break on set that day as Carell is tortured via waxing, and cuts loose with epic strings of insanely inventive curses directed at the poor aesthetician/actor who was waxing him – and probably at himself as well.
Because bonus bit of hilarity: the whole thing was Carell’s idea.
4. Time to Die
One of the most memorable scenes in 1982’s Ridley Scott-helmed Blade Runner, and quite possibly one of the most quoted lines from any sci-fi film in movie history, was largely improvised. When replicant Roy Batty, played by the late, great Rutger Hauer realizes his short, intense life is winding down, he waxes philosophical on a rainy Los Angeles rooftop with replicant hunter Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard.
While the script adapted from legendary sci-fi author Philip K. Dick’s short story of the same name had been through numerous tweaks and alterations, Hauer really brought home the tragedy and truth of his character’s pre-planned, pre-manufactured death with his “tears in the rain” monologue. Film critic Mark Rowlands described it as “perhaps the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history,” high praise indeed for a largely improvised speech in a film relegated to one of Hollywood’s “genre ghettos,” science fiction.
5. The Most Annoying Road Trip
Finally, while Hauer’s Blade Runner moment was amazing, comedy seems to be the more fertile ground for movie improv, and Jim Carrey is one of the masters of the genre. In 1994’s Dumb and Dumber, Carrey’s Lloyd and Jeff Daniels’ Harry share an epic and hilarious road trip, encountering a slew of odd characters, including a hit man who has been sent to kill them (Mike Starr.)
Naturally they give him a ride, but before he gets a chance to off the pair, they drive him to the edge of sanity with sing-alongs and other stupid road trip games. But one of the most iconic improvised moments in movie history came when Carrey asked Starr, “Do you want to hear the most annoying sound in the world?”
As Carrey proceeds to let out a weird and piercing high-pitched whine, you can see co-star Jeff Daniels briefly breaking, as he wasn’t expecting that at all – because it wasn’t in the script. Starr, the target of the noise is amazingly stoic however, and somehow rides it out – although his lines right after to shut Carrey up were also improvised!