Monday 27 April 2015

Opening Other Doors

I recently attended the Amsterdam premiere of Another One Opens, a movie made in Vienna by The English Lovers, a widely-respected English-language improv group there.

It’s a fully improvised movie. Or, at least, as fully improvised as a movie can be, which is quite a lot in this case.

Improvising in movies isn’t new, but it’s usually very limited and rarely part of the greater process. There is a growing trend for allowing actors to improvise lines in comedies, but this was always the norm for Christopher Guest’s awesome mockumentaries. Certain directors of drama and social realism have used improvisation to discover the specifics of the characters and to generate naturalistic dialogue. In the case of comedies, it allows the actors to come up with funny lines organically, which can really work when you have a cast of great comedians.

Another One Opens began as a concept with a set of locations and seven actors and the story came about through things that happened during the preparation and process itself as well as during the scenes. It harks back to the days where a movie was made by pointing a camera at a park bench and a policeman, and having Charlie Chaplin come along and try to sit down.

Still from
The result is interesting. It is a great-looking movie, nicely acted and professionally made. Maybe because it has its roots in improvised long forms, the genre seemed to veer about a bit. It was basically a “coming of middle age drama” but with some comic interludes and an element of magical mystery. The characterisation was good, but didn’t feel deep enough, somehow. I think movie goers are used to getting more back story and psychological insight into the changes rather than in improv where, as long as a character commits to the change, we’ll buy almost any reason.

Clearly improvisation is only a major tool of the movie as not everything on screen can be improvised in the sense that it’s used in improv. Scenes often require multiple takes, for example. Also some scenes were, by necessity, shot out of sequence, which is really difficult when you don’t already know the story. It means a lot of scenes didn’t make the final cut, but then that’s true of movies shot with lots of planning. Plus many of the scenes with moments of character discovery did not make the final movie. This however, mirrors the work of directors such as Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes who use and used a lot of improvisation to find out about the characters.

The story, which is usually pretty darn fixed in a movie, was one area where the improvisation method was followed. The story not really being set until near the end of filming, but being worked bit by but out after the end of that day’s filming. Very much how in a long form, it’s only after a scene you can see where a story is heading and use this to decide what needs to happen next or at least who needs be the focus.

Still from
The talk after was very interesting and brought up one of the important things about improvisation: improvisation is a process. It is an alternative method of putting on a show (or in this case, making a film) to writing a script and rehearsing it. Now this has many implications: One is that the expectations from improv is that it won’t create as good a result as the other process. And in general, I would agree.

Much of the enjoyment people get from an improv show is because the audience is in on the fact the actors are making it up. The audience is much easier on them. Improv audiences are much more accepting than theatre audiences and certainly more than stand-up audiences. The same joke for example does way better if it happens during an improv show than if it is part of a stand-up routine or a scripted play. In fact, I would go a lot further and say that much of the laughter in an improv show comes from the process being visible to the audience. An actor being momentarily lost for words, a mistake being pointed out as a mistake rather than made part of the world, a gag that breaks the reality, that look many actors give to the audience to show them they are just mucking about and not taking any of this seriously… all of these contribute to much of the comedy in an improv show. It’s easy to think that this sort of thing are part and parcel of improv comedy rather than the crutches many improvisers find make sure it’s funny no matter what. It makes it harder to (a) use improv for anything other than comedy and (b) take the craft to the next level.

I do believe a cast of actors fully in tune, really working towards the goal of creating a great theatre piece (or whatever they intend to create) can create something as good as many scripted efforts. But I think that is the goal if you want to take the art further than it is. Until that is the focus of enough troupes, improv will always be treated like the lazy step-child of theatre and stand-up.

Still from
And although it seems the effort to create an improvised show is much less than to create a scripted one, it’s more that the efforts are placed differently. The build-up is not focused in a short period on a specific show but over a longer period on the process in general and on the building of the team. Plus an improviser capable of improvising a whole play-like structure needs to have had more stage-time than most actors need to be able to play a role effectively, because there’s a lot more going on, in my humble opinion. Not to take away from the craft of acting, which is a skill often lacking in improvisers and the reason believably is often not seen as a big requirement of improv shows.

This “improvisation as theatrical process” approach is definitely the one of The English Lovers as can be seen in their commitment to making a movie and the quality of the movie they made. A movie that more than proves the concept that a movie can be made this way if you have the belief and are willing to take the risk. Because, like everything improvised, there is a risk, and a movie is a much more expensive risk than most you are likely to take. And the more it is tried, the more chance that it might become a respected way to make low budget, reality-based movies.

More details of Another One Opens can be found on the website and IMDB.