Ask any film lover to name their favourite moments in film and it’s a certainty that at least one will be something with a secret – it was improvised.
Since films and television series were first made, the actors who starred in them have often changed lines from the scripts as they go, sometimes because they forgot their lines, other times because they just thought something would work better and in rare occasions because something happened on set and they just reacted in character.
And often, the result makes movie history.
Action film fans, for example, will never forget the moment Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) is racing through a middle eastern bazaar and confronted by a sword-wielding enemy. The pair face off, the swordsman whips his blade through a complex pattern and everyone knew Indy was about to get into the fight of his life.
Harrison Ford, however, had been having a tough day and wasn’t feeling up to a complex fight scene. So instead of fighting back with his whip, he just shrugged, pulled out a gun and shot his attacker.
One of the key moments in romantic comedy Pretty Woman was also a spur-of-the-moment decision by actor Richard Gere, who snapped a jewellery box shut on co-star Julia Roberts’ fingers as she reached for a necklace in the scene that showed her completed transformation into a sophisticated lady.
Roberts’ reaction – a jump back and enthusiastic laugh – was completely unplanned, but so perfect the film’s director couldn’t imagine cutting it out.
Closer to home, the Australian (and now American) series No Activity star Patrick Brammall admits: “we had scripts … but not really” with great stretches of the hilarious series made up on the spot.
And those moments aren’t alone. Here are five scenes that helped make films the classics they are that were completely improvised.
The movie: Taxi Driver
The line: Are you talking to me?
How it came to be: Playing trouble cab driver Travis Bickle, Robert DeNiro was given the job of showing how the film’s anti-hero might prepare for his one-man war against corruption. The script simply read: “Travis speaks to himself in the mirror”, and DeNiro’s “Are you talking to me? You must be talking to me?” flowed out to become one of the most-quoted lines ever.
Check out Taxi Driver here: https://www.stan.com.au/watch/taxi-driver-1976
The movie: Midnight Cowboy
The line: Hey! I’m walkin’ here!
How it came to be: Filming on the streets of New York is never easy, so when Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight walked down a busy street saying their lines while traffic and crowds moved around them it was already tough enough. When one cab tried to cut through, Hoffman just snapped, hit the taxi and yelled the first thing that popped into his head. And the line fit.
Check out Midnight Cowboy here: https://www.stan.com.au/watch/midnight-cowboy-1969
The movie: Zoolander
The line: But why male models?
How it came to be: In the comedy about male models being targeted, Ben Stiller’s Derek Zoolander was intended to be handsome, but not particularly clever. And that fit perfectly in a scene when co-star David Duchovny explained just what was happening to the fashion icons. Stiller completely forgot his next line, so he just repeated his last one, just as Derek would have.
Check out Zoolander here: https://www.stan.com.au/watch/zoolander-2001
The movie: Silence of the Lambs
The line: Sluuuuuuurp!
How it came to be: Undeniably one of the world’s best actors, Sir Anthony Hopkins brought cannibal killer Hannibal Lector to chilling life. When he told FBI agent Starling (Jodie Foster) how he had eaten a census taker’s liver “with fava beans and a nice chianti” he added a sinister sucking “Slurp!” noise with a grin. It wasn’t in the script and stunned her – exactly as it should have.
Check out Silence of the Lambs here: https://www.stan.com.au/watch/the-silence-of-the-lambs-1991
The movie: Good Will Hunting
The line: My wife farts in her sleep
How it came to be: Notorious for improvising entire scenes just to amuse his co-stars, Robin Williams went off on a complete tangent in the scene where he tries to explain love to a young Will (Matt Damon). The result was so genuinely funny Damon collapsed into a fit of laughter that showed just how much he enjoyed his friend’s company.
Check out Good Will Hunting here: https://www.stan.com.au/watch/good-will-hunting-1997
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