Mike Leigh, Christopher Guest and The Power of Improv - VRGyani News and Media

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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Mike Leigh, Christopher Guest and The Power of Improv

Comedy on film for the past fifteen years or so has been heavily reliant on improvisation to generate laughter. A plethora of "Line-O-Rama" DVD special features accompany these films to show just how many alternate jokes the performers and filmmakers try out for any given moment, whether it be the films of Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Trainwreck), Adam McKay (Step Brothers, The Big Short), or Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy). Often, these moments are shot in a fairly basic shot reverse shot setup with multiple cameras in order to crank out as many options on set. That way the director and editor can determine the best one in post production. While these are talented individuals who do frequentally come up with big laughs through this method, the implementation of improvisation does tend to stop the film in its tracks, as we watch an actor search for a joke rather than remain in the moment for a scene.

If you have ever taken an improv class, you would know the goal of successful improvisation is to exist in the moment, completely outside of your own head. Humor in an improvised scene comes from the investment of the people within that scene to the truth of the moment, rather than a person trying to nail a bit. Also, improvisation does not just have to be used for comedy. While this remains its most popular form, improv has the ability to create thoughtful, moving stories out of thin air. In many ways, the "line-o-rama" brand of improvisation goes against quite a few of the tenets of the form. It works more like a writers room does, where everyone sits around pitching material until the best one wins out.

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A few filmmakers manage to implement improvisation into the making of their films that do showcase its effectiveness as a storytelling tool. Notably, the Palme d'Or winning indie British darling Mike Leigh and mockumentary specialist Christopher Guest, two enormously different filmmakers, both build their movies through improv. Their methods regarding its use vary wildly, but each method allows for the form to be more than just coming up with jokes and comes across as 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 creation would never be greenlit by anyone today for the budgets he requires had he not been carried over from a previous generation of filmmaking. Leigh merely has a notion of what the film is going to be when he begins, be it a film about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan for Topsy-Turvy or simply a middle-class British family seen in a number of his films. No script. No characters. No outline. Just a notion of what he wants it to be about. He then assembles a cast of actors, who often work with him time and time again like Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, and Timothy Spall, and Leigh and the actor meet one on one to build up a character from scratch. Leigh then brings in his performers together in various combinations and begins improvisatory rehearsals, both in rehearsal spaces and out in the real world. This whole process of creation could take anywhere from six weeks to several months depending on the project. Leigh will then take account of the hours and hours of improvisational scenarios he has witnessed and creates an outline for the film, while the actors are still unsure of what exactly they will be shooting.

Upon arrival on set, Leigh and his actors improvise the scene they are going to shoot, and once they have decided the direction of the scene, they rehearse it over and over again to the point that their improvisation turns into a scripted scene they have all collaborated on. When the camera starts rolling, no one is improvising anymore, and the scene that once began as something amorphous now is incredibly specific. Leigh's use of improvisation comes more from a theatrical tradition, where placing your performers in different scenarios as certain characters allows them to learn more about the people they are playing and does not pull them out of the moment, no matter what is thrown at them. Building the story of the film with this method gives authorship to everyone involved, making everyone invested in achieving the same goal. Improvisation also allows the film to flow at its own unique pace and have character interactions one could not have thought to write down, alone in a room. In the first scene between Jim Broadbent's Gilbert and Allan Cordouner's Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy, so much of the scene is each one taking time to compliment the other in order to delay speaking about their next show for as long as possible, and that kind of material could only be generated from Broadbent and Cordouner understanding these two character's relationship so well.

Where Mike Leigh opts to use improvisation as a foundation to build his stories, Christopher Guest almost operates in the exact opposite way. Guest and co-writer, most frequently Eugene Levy, go off and create detailed biographies for every character in the film on their own. Similar to Leigh, Guest also has a stable of actors he works with consistently, like Parker Posey, Michael McKean, and the late, great Fred Willard, and has the actors completely internalize these biographies on their own. They also create a scene by scene outline for the film. Once on set, every word spoken in front of a camera is being spoken for the first time. No rehearsals at all. Basically, Guest gives them idea of what needs to happen in a given scene and however the actors achieve those tasks is how the scene goes down. For instance, A Mighty Wind features a scene where the folk group "The New Main Street Singers", led by John Michael Higgins, are rehearsing a song, and the only direction of the scene was that their manager (Willard) interrupts them. Because they know these people inside and out, no other information is required to make that scene compelling, revealing, and absolutely hilarious.

Christopher Guest tends to make films as mockumentaries, a format suited perfectly for total on screen improvisation. In order to capture the veneer of real life, having everything occurring on camera be the first time it has ever happened adds invaluable authenticity to shaping the documentary style. If something comes across as awkward and unrehearsed in the film, that's a positive because real life isn't rehearsed, and if someone wants to play to the camera and perhaps try to be funny, people would try to do that too if a camera was following them around or an interviewer was prompting them with questions.

Almost nothing connects the feeling of watching Mike Leigh and Christopher Guest's films together. Leigh often makes kitchen sink dramas about family and class, and Guest makes silly comedies about overconfient people in bizarre communal situations. What does connect their films is a sense of authenticity. Every character, however tragic or looney, comes off as a multidimensional human being with a fully realized inner life, and you would not be shocked to see any one of them walking down the street. Their processes of using improvisation as a bedrock for the story, as opposed to as a tool to try and get a laugh, invests the filmmakers and performers in the people they are spotlighting, and in turn, brings in the audience in deeper to identify themselves within these characters. Mike Leigh has even been nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay five times despite the fact that he doesn't write a traditonal screenplay at all. Christopher Guest directs comedies, making Oscar nominations difficult, but he still has a couple 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 not many other filmmakers can capture.

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