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Hollywood scripts are especially known to provide the most comprehensive blueprints of how exactly a scene or a dialogue should look and sound. Almost nothing of what happens on a high-budget movie set is spontaneous. And when it comes to dialogue in particular, in the overwhelming majority of cases every word of even the most naturalistic, overlapping dialogue is precisely scripted.
That said, some of the great directors that work together with great artists often seem to strive for the sense of discovery that comes from the unplanned and unpredictable aspects of human behavior. Directors sometimes go to great lengths to get this unplanned reaction from their actors, and the actors themselves frequently show the wits and initiative to expand the scripted moment. These efforts often result in iconic screen moments that end up becoming much more famous than anything else in the movie.
Here is a list of 7 moments that hold a very special place in film history thanks to these quick improvisations:
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Bloody Hand in ‘Django Unchained’
During one of the most climactic scenes in ‘Django Unchained’, when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Calvin Candie smashes his hand on the dinner table, the actor accidentally crushes a small, stemmed glass with his palm, which really begins to bleed. DiCaprio ignored it, stayed in character, and continued with the scene. With his hand bleeding quite visibly, DiCaprio kept going, even waving his hand, as if using it as a new dramatic prop.
Quentin Tarantino was so impressed that he used this take in the final print and when he called cut, the room erupted in a standing ovation. DiCaprio’s hand was bandaged and he suggested the idea of smearing blood on Kerry Washington’s face. Both Tarantino and Washington liked this, so Tarantino got some fake blood together and that’s how the scene made the final cut.
The Unscripted Gun Scene in ‘The Departed‘
Martin Scorsese’s love of spontaneity started early in his career and has a strong presence in this list as well; however, even he was startled when Jack Nicholson pulled a real gun on Leonardo DiCaprio while filming the “I smell a rat” scene in ‘The Departed’. “He didn’t tell me he had a gun,” Scorsese later said. “It was great… we took a lot out, but Leo’s reaction is real-time.”
“The prop guy sort of tipped me off that he had a gun and a fire extinguisher and a box of matches and whiskey under the table, and he had no idea what Jack was gonna do,” DiCaprio recalled. “Nicholson ended up pulling a gun on my face and lighting the table on fire.”
Nicholson drops the gun, clumsily picks it up with a “damn, I forgot I even had this thing” look after being threatened and shoves it in DiCaprio’s face, taking the threat posed by DiCaprio’s character in that moment and immediately rendering it insignificant. DiCaprio, though completely unaware of what was happening, took all this without breaking the scene, probably making it one of the iconic “yes, and” acceptances in the history of improvisation.
Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny” Line in ‘The Shining’
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film ‘The Shining’ is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most important horror movies of all time. It sets an unmatched standard in capturing atmosphere and tension that was achieved by means of the strict and almost unbearable, excruciating work put in by some of its cast members. Jack Nicholson’s character had to be crazy and angry all the time, while Shelley Duvall described her traumatic experiences as her character “had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week.”
As controlling as Kubrick was, Nicholson’s most famous “Here’s Johnny” line – when he breaks down the door with an axe – is improvised, and younger viewers, as well as non-US residents, might not know that Nicholson is actually referencing ‘The Tonight Show’. By 1980, it was a well-known fact that before Johnny Carson stepped out from between those curtains at the beginning of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson he’d be introduced by this very quote and that has been happening since 1962, so the quote was a piece of American everyday life at the time.
Neil Young and His Soundtrack of Jarmusch’s ‘Dead Man’
While it’s neither a line nor a performance delivered by an actor, Neil Young’s atmospheric guitar score for the 1995 film is an absolute delivery of improvisation and intuitive meditation over Jarmusch’s hallucinatory black and white Western.
Neil Young recorded the whole soundtrack alone in a recording studio, as he watched the newly edited film and mostly played guitar solo improvisations over the visuals. Equipped with an arsenal of instruments, he stood surrounded by screens of varying sizes as they played an early cut of the film from start to finish. The “perfectly imperfect” minimalistic chords and riffs that came out of his guitar were for the most part an extraordinary act of improvisation, which is an ideal spirit guide to Johnny Depp’s dark odyssey.
Harrison Ford Shooting the Swordsman in ‘Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark’
In probably the most famous “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight” scene ever shot, Harrison Ford, instead of engaging in an epic duel with a master swordsman in Cairo, simply shoots the guy and moves along. The scene in ‘Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark’, besides being a perfect “screw you” moment to the dramatic standards of adventure movies, was also an improvisation by Steven Spielberg and Ford, but not because of artistic aspirations:
In the AMA, Ford said the scene was actually supposed to be a lengthy sword fight. However, he was suffering from food poisoning at the time, and he could only film scenes in 10-minute increments before having to run to his trailer. So, he proposed the shooting solution to Spielberg, who agreed. The result was a happy outcome for everyone, except maybe the British stuntman who had practiced his sword skills for months in order to do the job and was quite surprised by the idea that he would be dispatched in seconds. As Ford recalled, “he flourished his sword, I pulled out my gun and shot him, and then we went back to England”.
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Robert De Niro’s “You Talkin’ to me?” Line in ‘Taxi Driver’
The iconic “You talkin’ to me?” line that sealed Travis Bickle’s descent into alienation and a crisis of masculinity in one phrase, which remains one of the most recognized lines in modern cinema to this day, was completely unscripted. Initially, there was not meant to be any dialogue in that ‘Taxi Driver’ scene and Martin Scorsese recalled asking Robert De Niro if he could say something while looking in the mirror.
“He kept saying, ‘You talkin’ to me?” Scorsese remembers. “He just kept repeating it, kept repeating it…and the assistant director was banging on the door saying, ‘Come on, we got to get out of here.’ And I said, ‘No, this is good, this is good. Give me another minute. It was like a jazz riff. Just like a solo.’”
Needless to say, the two extra minutes in that room brought about one of the most memorable lines in film history. Robert De Niro’s copy of the ‘Taxi Driver’ script includes his handwritten notes and provides insight into how he constructed his performance and how improvisation is incorporated into the filmmaking process. One page shows him as Travis Bickle, alone in his apartment. “You talkin’ to me?” is recorded only as a note – “Mirror thing here?” – at the bottom of the page.
Joe Pesci’s “Funny Like a Clown” scene in ‘Goodfellas’
Martin Scorsese has been often described as a director that prioritizes focusing on the actor rather than the plot or even the characters. This way, the director builds a foundation from which both the plot and the character can spring. No wonder, then, that improvisation and spontaneity are cornerstones of almost every Scorsese film, as he structures the entire film around what this method can bring out in the actors.
‘Goodfellas’ has no shortage of scenes where the profound acting of Scorsese’s A-team set new all-time high stakes, but the “Funny How” scene definitely stands out as it is a reminder that the psychopathic mind of Tommy can turn at any moment. The dread and nervousness that Henry shows is due to the fact that in the back of his mind, he knows that Tommy is completely capable of killing him just for a joke that pushed the wrong button in his brain. The entire scene is a textbook example of how a bully’s mind works when it smells even the slightest scent of compromise – Tommy is just adding one step of intimidation to another as the whole room is alarmed that this is ultimately leading to something terrible.
Working as a waiter in a New York restaurant as a kid, Joe Pesci once made the mistake of telling a notorious mobster that his joke was “funny,” and the compliment didn’t make the mobster happy – in fact, it angered him. Pesci shared this story with Scorsese, who liked the story so much that he wanted it included in the script: “However, he did not tell anyone outside of Pesci and Liotta that the scene would be improvised, because he wanted to see their genuine surprised reactions.” And the reaction of other actors in the scene, their surprise turning to fear at a situation that could turn explosive in the blink of an eye, is absolutely matching, turning the whole scene into a masterpiece of acting and improvisation.
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David Tsintsadze is a music industry executive, investigative reporter and a film enthusiast. As far back as he remembers, he always wanted to be involved in the entertainment industry. When that started to happen and he began to really understand how it all worked, he found that his love of both the creative arts and the relevant industry allowed him to move between the two worlds and make them relate to each other. David’s belief in meaningful entertainment coincides with Hollywood Insider’s values and in his vision, cultural intermediaries play a crucial role in shaping and exchanging culture, which he firmly believes is one of the main contribution in creation of a free and vibrant society that people want to live in.