Monday, January 27, 2014

Questions About Improv, Brought to you by American Hustle's Non-Existent Script

I wouldn't say I have a lot of dramatic training - I did it all through school with considerably good grades and both performed in and directed several stage shows - but there's one thing that we're trained to do: stick to the script. Many days and nights are spent going over the lines, with annotations adorning the margins, and when it comes time to do the performance, the only worry is if you're going to stuff up one of those meticulously learned lines. One of the greatest things that can happen is if someone does end up stuffing up, who will take the initiative to improvise and cover up the missed line so the audience is left none the wiser?

If you're that person (as I have been quite a few times), there's nothing that can rival that sense of achievement and pride.

But that's only a line. What happens when you're given a story and a character and you have to make up everything they say?

This week I had the interesting experience of viewing both Drinking Buddies and American Hustle, two films that were heavily improvised by the actors. As someone who doesn't think cinema gets much better than The Social Network's script and with ambitions of becoming a screenwriter myself, wonders how you can get an improvised feature made, I have a few conflicting thoughts about fully improvising films.

It is always cool to look on IMDb's trivia and see how some great scenes weren't in the script - i.e. the Money Chant from The Wolf of Wall Street, Tom Hardy saying "you mustn't be afraid of dreaming a little bigger, darling" in Inception and becoming the best life motto of all, Leonardo DiCaprio cutting his hand and using it to a vicious extent in Django Unchained. You could easily say that either Matthew McConaughey, Tom Hardy or Leonardo DiCaprio are acting geniuses who lifted their respective movies into being a cultural phenomenon. But what about the stars of American Hustle? Yes, they all have their Oscar nominations, and well done to them for being able to essentially make up a whole movie with David O. Russell "method directing" from behind the camera. But...this is a movie that could have used a script.

Originally titled 'American Bullshit', Eric Warren Singer, who had only previously written The International, wrote a mostly true screenplay detailing the Abscam operation in the 1970s, which made it onto the Blacklist (best unproduced screenplays). David O. Russell got a hold of it, and rewrote the characters as caricatures of the real people involved with Abscam, gave those characters to people he wrote them specially for like Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and his golden girl Jennifer Lawrence, and slapped a "some of this actually happened" title card on the front of the movie.

Improvisation is an interesting thing, because it shows just how much you understand about your character. We used to do it all the time when we did "hot seating" exercises to build whatever characters we were given. Granted, we didn't have an admittedly complicated story to go with our characters. So yes, it is great if you can immerse yourself in a character enough to decide what they'd say and what they wouldn't. And to some extent, I'm sure a lot of actors do look at scripts with their vision of the character and go "hmmmm, maybe not that". Sometimes I wonder if Daniel Day-Lewis follows a script, because he's that immersed in his characters.

The actors of American Hustle? Not so much. The big problem, I found, with the film, was that it was incredibly hard to find a coherent plot, and I admit to looking into the real Abscam operation to get some answers. This is a story about con-men - essentially what movies are in general, but when you add an extra layer of conning, you've gotta be careful about how you do it - who are dealing with quite a complicated con. Sure, I'm not a fan of over-exposition and more a fan of subtlety. But American Hustle can't afford to be subtle. The plot has really got to give audiences something to latch on to, because the characters themselves are quite hard to reach because they're so over the top. And we have Jennifer Lawrence in it, which promises teens blinded by The Hunger Games to come in to the cinemas in gaggles, but we'll get to that later.

Films like Your Sister's Sister and the aforementioned Drinking Buddies work as improvised features because the characters are real, they can sit down and chat about real stuff, and they really don't have that much going on in their lives to explain to us. American Hustle has characters who are dealing with a lot more, yet they only seem to skim the surface of what they're doing. When Christian Bale commented on how with the improvisation, the film was likely to change a lot down the track, David O. Russell said "Christian, I hate plots. I am all about the characters, that's it." All well and good, if you're making a film like Silver Linings Playbook, which doesn't have an amazing plot but has a sufficient amount of charm from both the characters and the actors playing them. American Hustle needs a plot, though. And while the actors do a good enough job, are any of them ever more than caricatures? Not really.

Christian Bale is a balding, overweight con-man who does look a little overwhelmed by everything he's doing. He's the guy who propels most of the stuff that's going on in the plot, standing like a post and having everything bounce off him. Bale is immersed in his character, but I'm not sure if I ever found him interesting. Then you have Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence fighting over him, even though they both go off to get other boyfriends in the process. While Adams' Sydney is the great partner of Bale's Irving and does have a lot of fun pretending to be Lady Edith Greensly, at the end of the day, most of her problems revolved around the men in her life. Same with Lawrence's Rosalyn, who feels all alone and deserted and doesn't really serve much of a purpose to the plot in the grand scheme of things. Yes, all of this stuff does provide amusement by being familiar territory. But Sydney spends far too long crying over her relationship with Irving, at the expense of us really being aware of what the heck Robert De Niro is doing in the film (maybe I'm stupid, but I was genuinely stumped for quite a while there). Then you have Bradley Cooper as a crazy FBI guy who seems just a little bit too aggressive with his actions. Amusing, yes. Anything but a caricature? No. The only guy who has been outside of awards contention has been Jeremy Renner as general good guy Carmine Polito. He gets to have a lot less fun, but he's a bit more relateable than the skittish improvisation that comes with the rest.

The actors do quite a good job. Aided by whatever physical changes they were given, whether it be Bale's combover, Adams' exposure of her v-neck boobs, Cooper's perm or Lawrence's updo, you could tell that the actors were immersed in their caricatures (save for maybe Lawrence, who I felt like, most of the time, was just being herself - apart from in her bedroom scene with Bale, which was crazy good). But it is the kind of achievement, on their part, which would be better if the script helped us, the audience, know what they were doing and why they were doing it. At the end of the day, actors have their job: acting. Writers have their job: writing. If you can marry the two together, that's great. You give one side a bit too much creative leeway, you might run into issues. And that's the big issue I have with American Hustle: there's no balance, it is all just a big mess. Perhaps that's because it is every actor's dream to play big bombastic characters with big bombastic hair and big bombastic costumes. Apparently it is David O. Russell's dream to be Martin Scorsese, and to also have Jennifer Lawrence play a ditsy, sexpot housewife. I have nothing against these kinds of dreams, as you can do or be anything in cinema, but when it is strung together with Hollywood cliches - including a reductive happy ending which ties everything up, unlike the gritty, 'real world' ending of The Wolf of Wall Street - and is masquerading about with a thin veil of American history over it, it doesn't really make for the fascinating piece of cinema that it is supposed to be. In the end, though, another few days in the editing room, maybe a bit of recasting (Jennifer Lawrence, though she's good, just...wasn't Rosalyn), and god forbid, a script, would have made American Hustle the movie it was supposed to be, and definitely the movie deserving of 10 Oscar nominations.

But it does leave me to wonder, though - is improv the way of the future? I just couldn't imagine shooting a scene that hasn't been meticulously rehearsed, with heavy storyboarding and knowing exactly where thing are supposed to be and when they're supposed to happen. Perhaps that's because I've been trained for over-rehearsing stuff until I'm sick of it.

In American Hustle, Irving Rosenfeld points Richie DiMaso to a forged painting that everyone believes in real, and asks who the real master is: the painter or the forger. In a film that could be filled with allegories, this one particularly sticks out. Who is the real 'visionary' director: the one who can follow around his actors with whatever it is they do, or the one who meticulously plans everything out? Atonement would be a very different film if Joe Wright's actors were given free range. Drinking Buddies, with it's brilliant performances, particularly from Olivia Wilde, may have been a very different film if it had a script. Even though David O. Russell is all about his characters, American Hustle is not. Sometimes you can take one over the other, but other times you need both. American Hustle needed both the painter and the forger, because the forger, no matter how good, still leaves too many flaws.

(also, mega congrats to our Kiwi girl Lorde for her two Grammy awards today - to see a teenager with such amazing creativity from little old New Zealand do so well up against the big leagues is, well, for lack of a better term, the best thing ever. So incredibly proud, and definitely feeling inadequate as an 18 year old, haha)


  1. Good post. I think you've hit the nail on exactly what my issue with this film was. It was just too much and nothing at the same time and I think that came from a lack of script.

    And I know everyone's like "Oh they were *supposed* to be overacting 'cuz they play conmen" but I am genuinely confused about what to feel about the actors in the movie. The only "performance" I truly liked was Cooper's because to me it really felt like it wasn't Bradley Cooper as so-and-so but this crazy police guy because I could feel his sincerity.

    For everyone else, I was really, really aware. I really thought Bale was the fakest followed by JLaw.

    The thing about JLaw was that she *was* being herself and since JLaw the personality is so much fun, we have fun with that character. Also, I get what you're saying about Rosalyn. To me, Rosalyn was the most paper-thin role of all of them in terms of script and on one level, it is commendable that through sheer star power and screen presence, JLaw makes us believe that there is more to the character. But there really isn't. I think Russell brought her into the film solely for the movie doing more business. Performance-wise, I would have preferred if she got wrongly nominated for Catching Fire instead because you can see the effort in that role and she does become Katniss instead of Katniss becoming her.

    As for Adams, I was wayyy too distracted by her lack of bras to focus.

    It was just such an empty movie at the end of the day, and it is the lack of a coherent script and all these crazy empty characters. Improvisation or not, you can't get something real out of nothing. This film lacks that something.

    1. I share that confusion. I also would place Bradley Cooper as my MVP, because he just *was* who he was supposed to be. Sure, Christian Bale looked the part but I was kinda like "meh, look at him with all that weight and looking totally different, but you still are Christian Bale". Mainly because I thought his character was extremely boring.

      Yup, Russell definitely brought in J-Law to do more business. The film could have done without her character. While JLaw does okay, she was painfully miscast. She should have been nominated for Catching Fire - I really adored her in that film.

      Amy Adams was one of the more interesting points for me, as I felt with a bit more of a script that character would have become one of the best female characters of all time. However, she kept retreating back into the whole "Irving doesn't love me boohoo" thing. I did like her a lot, but yes, I was distracted by her lack of bras too.

  2. Great post!
    This was my biggest issue with the film and what stopped me from enjoying it. Improv can be great but this film really needed a tight focus, and instead we got scenes that drag because everybody's competing to be the most outrageous character.

    I'm sad to see Renner is getting so little attention because he really was the only character and performance I felt was worthy of praise. You can see exactly where Russell's comment about this kind of film being a holiday from The Hunger Games for JLaw came from, all she had to do here was play up her fun public persona and make her hair bigger.

    1. I agree about Renner and I think Bale was doing his best to ground the story. I would have been happy with significantly less Cooper and no Lawrence. I know people liked them and they have been very important in terms of box office, but to me the Lawrence and Louis CK scenes were an irritating distraction from what could have been a facinating drama. Don't get me wrong, I would have been happy to see those scenes in a sketch show or a different film, but I wanted to see more of Irving, Carmine and Sydney, with Richie as a genuinely supporting role.

    2. YES! Everyone was competing to be the most outrageous character. But the film could have done with some grounding. And yes - agree about Carmine. It was just such an interesting dynamic - conning the good guy etc, that really wasn't explored enough. Instead, I was genuinely confused about that whole storyline.

  3. Nice! You said exactly what I wanted to about it, though I think I liked acting in it a tad bit more. At the end of the day, however, I was thrown out of this so many times that I didn't really care for it. Lack of any script made it so much more superficial than it already was.

    And then it got nominated for Best Original Screenplay! I can't even laugh at that.

    1. Yeah...that Oscar nomination? Doesn't make any sense at all. I'd like to read the original American Bullshit, and see if that makes a better movie.

  4. Great write up! I really enjoyed American Hustle, and I didn't realize until afterwards that it had been mostly Improv. I don't see that as being a popular technique in future films, not many directors can pull that off. I always wonder if certain directors hate improv. I know George Lucas does, and if I was an actor, I wonder what my boundaries would be in improv. Like, do you make a suggestion before you do it, or do you just do it, and is that rude? lol

    1. Those are the questions I have about improv. When I was doing The Crucible me and my partner improvised a great deal of our actions and it worked out for the better, but I'd be a bit pissed if someone changed my directions. I guess if I didn't like it I'd do another take. I think you have to trust your actors, but I think perhaps Russell was a little too trusting here.

  5. This is why you blog, this is great. I have seen both movies you mention and agree 100%. American Hustle has great characters but the story is just.. being completely honest, didn't even understand some of the things that were happening. And I loved Silver Linings Playbook, loved it!
    Drinking Buddies, yet again, the simplest of stories, totally worked.. I think it was full of charm and just .. awesome. Again, great characters but since it was simple, it didn't need anything else to support the great characters. And yes, Hustle needed a backbone.. it really did.

    1. Thanks! Thank goodness someone else had issues understanding it. I was confused through most of it, and I felt so dumb.

      I really liked Drinking Buddies also, mainly for the performances and the characters. It was really simple, but it worked.

  6. doesn't have a premise, like at all. the actors are just running around aimlessly doing really good caricature impressions. as for drinking buddies, i found that completely bland to watch. while i think american hustle is a not a good movie, it was at least entertaining. drinking buddies isn't entertaining nor is it a good movie.

    1. I really liked Drinking Buddies, but it certainly wasn't anything that strayed away from the norm. And yes, there were some great caricature impressions in American Hustle. Unfortunately not the makings of a good movie.

  7. Fantastic post, really beautifully written and I agree with everything here.

    While some movies could work with improvisation in the place of the strong script this is not this type of movie. You cannot do a movie about a con, where the con is not explained and the audience is in the dark - Scorsese always established the rules, gave us clear outlines and AH is just a feeble wannabe of his movies. A bit of improvisation is always nice in such films with subplots, intrigue and lots of characters but this much improv? Awful idea.

    The characters were caricatures indeed, I felt as If I was watching cartoon. Out of all the things said about Lawrence I find the claim of some that she is playing 'complex' character absolutely laughable.

    1. Thanks! American Hustle was definitely a feeble wannabe of a Scorsese film. You could just tell all it wanted to do was be a Scorsese, but there just wasn't anything to hold onto. Oh man, Rosalyn was not complex. I wish we knew where her son came from, though.

  8. I was surprised and honestly, sad about how little I cared about Hustle. I absolutely agree with O'Russell - I'm all about characters, too, both in films and literature, but it's also the reason I couldn't write complex plots, and maybe O'Russell should get into my boat and stick to character study instead of trying to do something like Hustle, because, as you said, it's incredibly hard to find a coherent plot there. Marvelous post, and point, Stevee!

  9. I liked the film overall, but I also thought it was a big mess. Lawrence was miscast, and though I liked Adams, I think she was arguably miscast too.

    It's not a film that deserves so many Oscar nominations, but it's possible that it goes home empty-handed.

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You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.


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