How much ad-libbing do you write into your scripts?
Some very funny movies have a lot of ad-libbing, which can give the
viewer the impression that there wasn’t really a script — the actors
just showed up and decided what they were going to do and say. But it’s
just not the case. The script may have been terrible, but something about
it was good enough to attract the actors and director in the first place.
If you happened to watch the second season of HBO’s "Project Greenlight" —
and if you’re reading this column, there’s a pretty good chance you’re
enough of a film masochist to watch it — you saw directors Kyle and
Efram defend their approach to an upcoming scene by saying, "We
were just planning on letting the actors improvise." To me, this
is analogous to saying, "We were just planning to let the children
Planned ad-libbing is like hoping for a white Christmas. Maybe it will
snow, or maybe it won’t. Your sleigh better have wheels just in case.
While I would never type the words "ad-lib" into a script,
there are occasions where people need to say something, but it’s not
exactly crucial who says what. For instance, in BIG FISH, there’s a scene
where the whole town has come to send Edward Bloom off on his journey.
Important lines are singled out to individual characters, but "the
crowd" gets just this:
THE CROWD (VARIOUS)
Goodbye Edward! / See ya! / We’ll miss you!
"Various" is a good word to choose when you need to indicate that there’s a range of possible options, be they in action or dialogue. For instance:
VARIOUS SHOTS: Contorting his body in strange positions, Joe tries to get his candy out of the vending machine, but to no avail. Finally, he’s stuck in a half-pretzel as Jenny walks up.
Whatever you do, don’t use "ad-libbing" or "improv" as an excuse not to write the best possible version of a scene. If you really think the actors will come up with better dialogue than you can, find a better writer.