If you have ever been on a film set, then you know that they are hotbeds of organized chaos. Everyone and no one seems to know everything and nothing all at the same time. There is a lot of waiting and a lot of yelling and an enormous bedlam of opinions and directions all aimed at the same goal: to make a piece of entertainment for the public. The crew spends innumerable hours, days, weeks, and months preparing for that moment when the microphones turn on, the camera rolls, and the director yells, “Action!”
And then, for a few seconds, the actors do their jobs and everyone else waits quietly for the director to call cut and the pandemonium to commence once more. Generally speaking, those few seconds see the pretty faces take what is written in the script and relay those words in the lens of the camera. Sometimes, however, that is not how it goes. Sometimes the actors have no idea what they are getting into when they step onto the set, thanks to the improvisational chops of a fellow cast member, a surprise from an overly ambitious director, the ballsy actions of a drunken extra, or simply a fortunately timed accident.
Often, these unforeseen curveballs result in some of the best moments ever captured on film. Other times, however, the results are less than fantastic, and sometimes even deadly. The effects on the actors themselves vary widely as well, ranging from giddy outbursts of delight to lifelong trauma to… well… death.
15. Fight Club – The Punch
David Fincher is one of the most technically precise directors working in Hollywood and the results of his obsessive attention to his craft are obvious; his resume reads like a list of some of the best dramatic thrillers of the last couple decades: Gone Girl, The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Game, Se7en, Panic Room, and, of course, Fight Club.
It might come as a surprise that a director who is known for demanding dozens upon dozens of takes from his actor in order to elicit the perfect performance occasionally turns to less than conventional methods. A classic example comes during the first fight scene in Fight Club between Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in the parking lot outside the bar when Pitt tells Norton to hit him as hard as he can. 99% of punches in movies are faked, but in this case Fincher instructed Norton to punch Pitt for real— right in the ear. Pitt’s reaction to the strike is priceless.
14. Titanic – The Water
For those of you who aren’t the most knowledgeable when it comes to the ocean, it should be noted that the water in the Northern Atlantic is stupidly cold. Like as cold as water can get without turning to ice. In fact, due to the salt content of the ocean, the surface temperature can actually dip down to -2 °C (28 °F). It’s so cold that there are these giant ice cubes called icebergs floating around up there, one of which is famous for sinking the Titanic— an event that James Cameron then exploited in order to create one of the highest grossing movies of all time. During the filming of Titanic, Cameron didn’t always allow his actors the luxury of warmed up water to film in, but kept things real damn frigid on set. Kate Winslet was not aware of how cold the water really was, which is clear from her all-too-real reaction when first slipping in on her way to rescue Jack from the sinking ship.
13. Raging Bull – The Mother
Martin Scorsese‘s classic boxing movie is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, largely thanks to the incredible performances by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. In order to create the close, brotherly bond between the two characters, De Niro and Pesci actually lived and trained together for a while leading up to production and have been good friends ever since.
During the scene when Jake (De Niro) repeatedly asks Joey (Pesci) if he had sex with Jake’s wife, Vicky, the director felt that Pesci’s reaction wasn’t strong enough, so he had De Niro ask Pesci if he had sex with his mother instead, garnering a genuinely shocked response. As the scene progresses, Jake eventually goes into Joey’s home and attacks him. Scorsese, however, failed to mention to Pesci that De Niro would be physically assaulting him during the take. Pesci’s surprised and angry cries in that scene are about as real as it gets.
12. Noah’s Ark – The Flood
In 1928, director Michael Curtiz, who would eventually go on to direct Casablanca a.k.a. one of the best pieces of cinema ever created, released Noah’s Ark, which, if you were a good Sunday School student is the bible story that involve a worldwide flood and the death of almost the entire human population. It’s a real cheery tale. Curtiz’s version paralleled the biblical story with a narrative about soldiers during World War I.
Back in the 1920s, computer generated effects were somewhat difficult to come by, so grandiose scenes were often created through the use of miniatures and trick photography. Curtiz, however, was not interested in faking it for the flood scene, choosing instead to do it at a life-sized scale with real actors. Clearly, health and safety regulations were not as stringent back then as they are now because Curtiz neglected to inform the actors that an enormous amount of water was about to be dumped on them. As a result, three extras died. Hey, that’s one way to achieve realism, right?
11. Alien – The Chestburster
The chestburster! One of the most iconic moments in the history of science fiction cinema! Director Ridley Scott‘s first Alien movie turned Sigourney Weaver, who was relatively unknown prior to the film, into a legitimate movie star. It also terrified audiences… and the cast.
During the infamous scene where the baby alien puppet explodes from the chest of Kane, the script called for the other crew members to be truly scared. Which seems appropriate. It is not every day that you witness an unknown life form burst from the chest of one of your coworkers in the middle of lunch. It would be rather distressing.
But to make the actors react as if they were truly, truly horrified, Scott neglected to inform them exactly how the action would play out. Instead the rupturing chest and spurting blood surprised them all, evoking performances that were hardly performances. It turns out that the best way to get your actors to act scared is simply to scare them for real.
10. Being John Malkovich – The Extra
Being John Malkovich is a strange movie. Whether you like it or hate it or have mixed feelings about it, the fact remains that it is just really, really weird. John Malkovich stars as… well… John Malkovich, or at least a version of John Malkovich whose mind becomes a tourist destination for people who have found a mysterious door that allows them to experience what it is like to be John Malkovich (hence the title.) John Cusack plays the dude who discovers this weird door and also who keeps Cameron Diaz in a cage… or something. Like we said, it’s a strange movie. But that’s what you get when you let Charlie Kaufman write your screenplay.
One of the funnier scenes in the film occurs when the passenger of a car driving past Malkovich yells, “Hey, Malkovich, think fast!” and chucks a bottle at his head. Onscreen Malkovich seems bewildered and pissed off, and for good reason seeing as that was unscripted. It was just a drunken extra who thought it was a good idea. Apparently the director agreed and kept it in the film.
9. Last Tango In Paris – The Butter
“Get the butter.”
Even if you haven’t seen Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris, you know that line, and you almost definitely know that it leads into an unconventional and uncomfortable (to put it lightly) sex scene. Okay, let’s just say it out loud: it is a rape scene. And for years Maria Schneider claimed that the scene was not consensual, not only on camera, but off camera as well. She stated that Brando and the film’s director, Bernardo Bertolucci, improvised the scene without telling her and forced her to perform it, humiliating and violating her in the process. Finally, in 2016, Bertolucci admitted that the scene was not entirely consensual igniting plenty of controversy. He justified his actions by saying that he wanted Schneider’s reactions to the rape to be genuine and not acted. He may have gotten his wish, but it resulted in the actress hating him for the rest of her life, and for good reason. Some of the scenes on this list are awkward or unpleasant, but this one is downright despicable.
8. The Exorcist – The Vomit
Horror movie directors have a long track record of messing with their cast in order to evoke the reactions they desire for the camera. William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist (the original 1973 film, not the recent TV series), was no exception to this rule. During the infamous projectile vomit scene, the special effects team had to rig a pump with plastic tubing so that it would spray Jason Miller, who played Father Karras, in the chest. There is some disagreement over whether or not Friedkin had a hand in the readjustment of the tubing or if it was simply an accident, but regardless of intent, the fake vomit ended up hitting Miller in the face. His disgust as he wipes the vomit off himself is sincere.
Rumor also has it that Friedkin kept a loaded gun on set that he would fire off at random to keep the actors on edge. Which is borderline psychotic. Apparently Miller got into quite the argument with Friedkin about this technique, stating that he was a talented enough actor not to need live gunfire in order to act scared.
7. The Birds – The… Birds
Alfred Hitchcock was the master at scaring the living hell out of people. Seriously, who hasn’t watched the original Psycho and then been unable to take a shower for a week afterwards? Apparently Hitchcock didn’t just terrify his audience, but also his leading ladies. In 1963, he released The Birds, a film detailing the story of a small town in Northern California that is suddenly besieged by all sorts of birds who take it upon themselves to ferociously attack the town’s human residents. It might seem like a silly concept, but under the skilled direction of Hitchcock, The Birds is a real freaky film. It must have been even freakier for Tippi Hedren, the lead actress, who was told that mechanical birds would be used for her scenes. When she showed up to set, however, the crew informed her that the mechanical birds malfunctioned (although, in reality there were never any mechanical birds) so real birds were used instead. In order to get the desired effect, crew members threw the live birds at Hedren, causing them to claw and peck at her. The actress was hurt so badly that she had to be carried off set to a doctor.
6. Good Will Hunting – The Fart
Good Will Hunting shot Matt Damon and Ben Affleck into superstardom. Not only was the film a huge critical and box office success, but the two youngsters managed to wrangle themselves an Academy Award for the screenplay.
Damon and Affleck can’t take all the credit for the film’s script, however, since Robin Williams (RIP, Genie) was a major character and one of the best improvisational actors of all time (RIP, Mrs. Doubtfire). One of the most notable improvised moments in Good Will Hunting happens during a conversation between Will (Damon) and Sean (Williams – RIP, Mork) in the park. Totally off script, Williams (RIP, Popeye) tells a story about how his wife farts in her sleep. The unscripted lines were so funny that Matt Damon laughed so hard he cried and even the cameraman was giggling— you can see the camera shake slightly during the scene (RIP, Bicentennial Man).
5. RoboCop – The Blood
You probably best know Kurtwood Smith as Red from That ’70s Show, but the “dumbass”-slinging actor has a long resume, including a role in the original RoboCop movie back in 1987. He’s basically playing the same character, except a lot more, you know, murdery and scary.
In a scene where the ruthless, homicidal criminal played by Smith is hauled into the police precinct, he spits blood on the paperwork he is handed and demands his “f***ing phone call.” Some years later, Smith admitted that the spitting and swearing were his suggestions and not in the original script. Director Paul Verhoeven liked the idea and let him do it, but failed to inform the other actors in the scene. If you watch closely, you can see some genuinely shocked looks from the actors playing cops around Smith. Honestly, it seems like a perfectly believable back story for Red— a psychotic gang leader who eventually settles down in Wisconsin and raises a comically dysfunctional family.
4. Pretty Woman – The Box
Originally Pretty Woman, the movie that made Julia Roberts a bona fide celebrity, was conceived as a dark cautionary tale about the dangers of the sex trade, but it was eventually reworked into the romantic comedy that everyone knows and loves today.
One of the most endearing scenes in the movie comes when Richard Gere‘s character Edward Lewis presents Vivian (Roberts) with a fancy necklace in a fancy box because he’s a fancy man trying to turn her into a fancy woman. It’s all very Pygmalion. When Roberts reaches for the necklace, Gere startles her by snapping the box shut, causing her to burst out laughing. The little box snap was improvised by Gere, but the reaction from Roberts was so genuinely endearing that it stayed in the final cut of the movie.
Interestingly enough, Pretty Woman is credited with helping kick off the resurgence of rom-coms in the early 1990s— a genre that hadn’t been popular since the 1960s. Although that resurgence has yet to die off, which is making us wonder what it would take to kill it.
3. Annie Hall – The Sneeze
Woody Allen is the reigning king of awkward and neurotic comedy. His masterpiece is undoubtedly 1977’s Annie Hall, which has Allen starring as a New York comedian who falls in love with a woman portrayed by Diane Keaton. The film is filled with an array of quotably hilarious moments thanks to Allen’s Oscar winning screenplay.
Midway through the movie, Woody Allen’s character attends a typical 1970s party. You know, friends, booze, mindless chit chat, and, of course, cocaine. After inquiring as to how much the white powder he is holding costs (about two grand per ounce, for the record), Allen promptly sneezes, turning the set into a snowy winter wonderland. According to legend, Allen’s sneeze was real and unscripted and the take wasn’t even a real take but a rehearsal. Fortunately the cameras were rolling and the hilarious moment was caught on film.
2. The Blair Witch Project – The Whole Damn Thing
If you want to find a project where the directors really, truly screwed with the cast in order to get the best reactions out of them, look no further than The Blair Witch Project. Released just before Y2K brought forth the apocalypse back in 1999, The Blair Witch Project reinvigorated the found footage horror genre with its low budget approach to filmmaking. Rather than giving the actors a full script, the directors chose to give them nothing more than a rough outline each day, and then turned them loose in the woods with nothing but a video camera, meaning the vast majority of the movie is improvised. While the crew checked in daily with the actors to give them food and a bit of direction, they spent the rest of the time messing with them in order to amplify their performances, including shaking their tent in the middle of the night, throwing sticks and rocks around their campsite, and giving them less food each day.
1. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory – The Entrance
Gene Wilder was a comedy god who graced the screens in classic movies such as The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. In 1971 Wilder appeared on the big screen as the titular character in Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory based on the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
Early in the film, the children meet Willy Wonka outside his factory’s gates. Wonka limps out, aided by a cane. But when the cane gets stuck in the ground and stands upright by itself, Wonka slowly keels forward, and just before falling flat on his face, does a somersault and bounces to his feet with a big smile. This sequence was developed solely by Wilder who claimed it would force the audience to question whether or not the character was lying for the rest of the movie. Additionally, the children were reportedly not allowed to meet Wilder until the filming of that scene so that their reactions to it would be real.