Although they orchestrate the entire concept of a film, screenwriters tend to receive fewer public accolades and less media attention than do actors, actresses and directors. A film’s screenplay is essentially its backbone – without the dialogue, stage directions and set designs incorporated into a screenplay, a film couldn’t exist. While screenwriters and directors collaborate to produce the entirety of the dialogue and stage directions, actors and actresses are also known to improvise, whether it’s because they forgot their lines or because they had a stroke of genius. While these ‘faux pas’ generally cause directors to groan, shake their heads and order another take, occasionally, these mistakes have stupendous results. The sheer wit, spontaneous nature and confidence necessary for a brilliant unscripted moment to succeed, result in some of the best scenes in film. This list consists of the ten greatest and most memorable unscripted moments in film history – if you don’t recognize these, it’s definitely time to have a movie marathon!
10. Full Metal Jacket
Director Stanley Kubrick apparently utilized unscripted moments to their finest – 1987’s Full Metal Jacket is one of three films directed by him on this list. Actor R. Lee Ermey improvised a vast majority of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman’s lines, including the famous scene where he yells a string of horrifying and graphic expletives at a row of soldiers. Ermey worked as a drill sergeant in the United States Marine Corps for two years, which explains his unparalleled prowess in spewing out insults to soldiers. In fact, Ermey wasn’t even supposed to have this part – Kubrick only gave him the role after seeing Ermey’s self-made video, in which he adopted his drill instructor persona and ranted at extras from the film. Improvisation made Ermey’s character one of the most famous in film history.
Robin Williams was one of the world’s greatest improv actors – he could ad lib for days. In fact, he improvised so many of his lines in Disney’s 1992 film Aladdin, that film creators had nearly 16 hours of material and the screenplay was ultimately rejected by the Academy Awards for a “Best Adapted Screenplay” nomination. Additionally, screenwriters didn’t even bother writing a script for the opening scene that features Williams as a merchant – instead, Williams described several items that were covered with a sheet, and this improv was used. Williams’ notorious skill in improv acting is only one of countless reasons he will be fondly remembered for years to come.
8. The Shining
Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s 1980 film, The Shining. He portrayed the character with the perfect combination of creepiness and cunning, and even improvised one of the film’s most famous lines. When he chops down the bathroom door with an axe in order to catch his wife Wendy, he pauses to look through the door and announces, “Here’s Johnny!” This line was unscripted, and most likely stems from Johnny Carson’s use of the phrase, as a catchphrase. Jack Nicholson improvised by taking a harmless phrase and punctuating it with an incredibly sinister vibe.
7. The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film, The Dark Knight was so fascinating that he garnered an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role. Unfortunately, his award was accepted posthumously, as he perhaps delved into the twisted character of the Joker too deeply. Although Ledger spent six weeks constructing the character of the Joker, he also improvised many of the Joker’s quirks, including the notorious slow clapping scene. Ledger improvised slow, derisive clapping, as Gordon is promoted, and Nolan kept the cameras rolling. It’s moments like this that made The Dark Knight – and Ledger’s character especially – stand out.
Although Casablanca made its debut in 1942 – a totally different time, when the Second World War was raging – it remains beloved, worldwide. The film’s most famous line, “Here’s looking at you kid,” was delivered by Humphrey Bogart, who played Rick Blaine. The story behind this unscripted line is incredibly charming: during breaks, Bogart often watched Ingrid Bergman, who played Ilsa Lund, play poker with other actors and actresses from the film. Bergman was still learning English at the time, so Bogart suggested the line “Here’s looking at you” to improve her poker game. Bogart said the line during the Parisian scenes, and viewers gained one of the most recognizable lines in film.
5. The Godfather
Marlon Brando plays Don Vito Corleone in this iconic 1972 film. The chilling nature of the film’s opening scene, where Corleone lovingly strokes a cat, while ordering the brutal beating of a man, is exacerbated by this juxtaposition. However, the cat was never supposed to be in this scene: it was actually a stray found lurking on the set that was immediately given to Brando. Although the addition of the cat highlighted Corleone’s callous and detached character, the cat purred so loudly during the scenes that many of Brando’s lines were looped. Although the cat’s presence made some aspects of filming more difficult, it’s now a legendary – yet unscripted – scene.
4. A Clockwork Orange
The song “Singing in the Rain” is a recurring trope in Kubrick’s 1971, A Clockwork Orange. However, Malcolm McDowell, who stars as Alex, improvised one of the most famous scenes featuring the song. During one of the most horrifying scenes of the film, Alex and his gang viciously attack a man and rape his wife. Kubrick reportedly poured over the scene for four days but was unable to think of the right detail to polish it off. Eventually, Kubrick told McDowell to get creative with the scene, and McDowell promptly began singing “Singing in the Rain,” complete with a tap dancing routine. Kubrick was pleased enough to immediately buy the rights to the song for $10,000.
3. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Harrison Ford certainly has a knack for ad libbing memorable lines – he earns two spots on this list. His first is as Han Solo from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. When Princess Leia tells Han Solo, “I love you” just before he’s about to be frozen, Ford was supposed to deliver his scripted line: “Just remember that, Leia, because I’ll be back.” However, the scene ended up taking a different route when Ford instead replied, “I know.” It’s debated whether his cheeky response was improvised or suggested by Ford in advance, but one thing is sure: this famous moment was entirely unscripted.
Everyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock for the past forty years, is familiar with this iconic line from Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film, Jaws: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” After first seeing the shark that has been terrorizing Amity, Roy Scheider, who plays character Brody, slowly and fearfully backs into the boat’s cabin and delivers the line. According to the screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, this line was entirely unscripted. Perhaps Scheider was caught up in the moment and simply uttered what he believed to be factually true: they most definitely did need a bigger boat.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
One of the most famous scenes in Steven Spielberg’s 1981 film, Raiders of the Lost Ark is when Harrison Ford, as the rugged Indiana Jones, shoots a flashy and menacing swordsman instead of engaging in a combat with him. However, this scene was entirely unscripted – originally, Ford was supposed to use his whip to rip the sword from the man’s hand. Fortunately for viewers, but unfortunately for Ford, Ford was suffering from a vicious bout of food poisoning and found the scene too difficult to shoot. Instead, he improvised by pulling out his gun and shooting the swordsman, leaving viewers with one of the most surprising and hilarious scenes in film: the rest is history.
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