Capturing Lightning On Screen: Improvisers Pick Their Favorite Unscripted Scenes

Sometimes, stories don’t follow a script. And that’s when they become really memorable.

A group of Austin, Texas-based improvisers (with more than 75 years of experience among them) shared their thoughts on favorite scenes that were made up while the film and TV cameras were rolling. Here’s what they chose:

This Is Spinal Tap 

Michael Jastroch has been improvising for around fifteen years and is a co-owner of Austin’s ColdTowne Theater, where he teaches and performs. He is also a writer and commercial actor. 

“The best thing for me is just how grounded and believable the character work is. They’re able to take these ridiculous situations and make them feel like they’re really happening. That’s what sells the whole thing and makes it a cut above the rest. In a lot of improvised movie scenes, you can tell two people are playing themselves and riffing and the editor has cut it into a scene. This really feels like they captured what was happening live versus assembling it after the fact.

“This is one of the ending scenes in the movie where David and Derek are talking about their futures. Just watch the tiny expressions on their faces. The moment when David starts singing the song, Harry Shearer as Derek Smalls starts cracking up. But then rather than break character and wink at the camera, he took that spontaneous laughter and incorporated it into his character moment. I had the opportunity to interview Harry Shearer once, a long, long time ago before I started doing improv. We were talking about the Christopher Guest movies, and he said ad-libbing is making up jokes on the spot and improv is about listening. This scene, to me, is amazing listening and connection.”

Taxi Driver

Dave Buckman has been improvising for more than 25 years, starting with a workshop he took in Falls Church, Virginia, during college. He is currently executive producer at ColdTowne Theater and produces the Out of Bounds comedy festival. Buckman has appeared in films including The Ultimate Guide to Flight

“The improvised scenes that I am super drawn to are the Martin Scorsese dramas. In this scene, Robert De Niro’s character is getting himself psyched up. He’s figuring out a contraption where the gun will run down his sleeve underneath his coat, and all of a sudden it’s in his hand. He’s gone off the deep end.

“De Niro just improvised in a mirror, psyching himself up. It becomes the most iconic line he’s ever said on film, certainly the most iconic line in the movie, and maybe one of the most iconic lines of the ’80s. De Niro’s at such a high level of method acting. At that point, he was at the height of his powers. He’s been trained in so many different methods and worked with some of the most brilliant actors of our time. It’s not amazing dialogue. But it’s so authentic and real and basic. I think that’s why it’s so connecting. It’s basic dialogue and acting. It’s not creative, but it shouldn’t be creative. It should be animal and guttural.”

The Carol Burnett Show 

Jo Chauvin has been improvising for more than a decade and teaching Improv 101 at The Institution Theater for four and a half years. She previously worked as house manager at the Hideout Theater for three years. Her troupe, the Better Half, has been performing for seven years. 

“One of my favorite things about The Carol Burnett Show as a child was how they would break, how they would crack each other up. I didn’t know what that meant but I loved it. They’ve got writers who work so hard but it didn’t really matter to me. It was the breaking that I really enjoyed.

“Tim Conway improvised this scene, and it’s really to the director’s credit that they let it go on so long because, surely, they knew this was not going to make the show simply because of the length of that story. Vicki Lawrence, Carol Burnett, and Dick Van Dyke were clearly supportive of their teammate, because he pauses a lot and no one interrupted him. You could see it was the setup for the next thing he was going to say. They’re paying attention to where this was going and to the credit of the other three they were like, ‘Okay, he does not need help. He’s got some sort of wacky idea.’

“It looked like Vicki Lawrence wasn’t laughing and I don’t know how she did it. Dick Van Dyke’s got his hands between his crossed legs. Was he trying to not pee? Because I was laughing so hard I might have on that couch.

“Conway gives great details, which I think is really important in improv: it inspires your teammates and can inspire you. So, not just saying that the monkey danced across the trunk, but it danced the Merengue. I don’t know what that looks like, but I got a really delightful image. He said it with such a straight face — he really committed. That’s what you need to do in improv, because you’re often talking about something ridiculous. Or you make a big mistake, and as long as you commit, it looks like maybe you meant to do that.”

Blue Valentine

Asaf Ronen began improvising in October 1990 while attending college in New York. Following a move to Austin eleven years ago, he became education director at The Institution Theater. In addition to teaching improv, he most recently directed Immigrants: The Musical with part two scheduled for November. 

“Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are characters in a toxic relationship. They go through a lot of ups and downs. Most of that movie was improvised, in particular, this scene on the bridge. In certain improvised films, they run the camera for a while hoping to get a few good moments. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams were on that bridge for about an hour and a half playing out the scene with people just passing by and not knowing what was going on. No one expected Gosling to climb the fence and threaten to jump off the bridge, which was a really bold fucking move. That really ups the ante. I think he was given a prompt before filming began that Williams’ character has something she’s not telling him. So the director pushed them, each with their agenda: ‘You have to maintain the secret. He’s got to get the secret from you.’ Gosling knew he was going to get the secret out of her. That’s where he fucking went with it. That’s crazy.

“A few years back, I went to an Austin Film Festival panel discussion about improv in the movies. I asked if prior to a scene, they do any exercises with the actors to get them ready. The panelists said, ‘No, we just run the camera and hope to get lightning in a bottle.’ That was so strange to me, that you would not gear up your actors to play that way and instead just run the camera for an hour and a half hoping to get two minutes of good footage. As a theatrical improviser, every minute counts. We’re trying to get an hour and a half of good footage on stage every fucking time.”