The greatest of actors, working with the best of directors, can make any scripted moment on film seem genuine, real, and as if happening or spoken for the first time. The most skilled writers, too, can create dialogue on the page that is so wonderfully honest, it’s impossible to believe we aren’t just hearing the thoughts of its characters in the moment.
Even so, for me, rarely do those films contain the stutters, false-starts, and verbal hiccups of a genuine conversation, or the overlapping dialogue of people arguing as everyone tries to get their point across. Over the years, however, more and more of the films I have loved, though vastly different in their content and tone, seem to have one thing in common – natural, spontaneous, and completely immersive performances, with dialogue, reactions, and moments of comedy and drama that I believe could never have been dreamed up in advance. Films such as Like Crazy, Drinking Buddies, and Monsters – a romantic drama, a comedy, and a sci-fi road trip – are worlds apart as far as genre, yet they all have the same honesty, the same sense of realness about them. Why? Each and every one of them featured completely improvised dialogue.
So many famously loved, stand-out scenes in popular cinema, in fact, have been moments of improvisation in scripted films, where actors ad-lib in character, and give us something unforgettable – Anthony Hopkins, in The Silence of the Lambs, famously licking his lips, while Jodie Foster looks on in fear; Pretty Woman’s Richard Gere snapping shut the jewellery box resulting in Julia Roberts’ spontaneous burst of laughter; the entirety of Robert De Niro’s “Are you talkin’ to me?” sequence in Taxi Driver; and virtually anything and everything in the films of directors Drake Doremus, Christopher Guest, or Joe Swanberg.
It’s for this reason, in search of presenting a movie that feels as if we are really witnessing the lives of its characters, in the hope of capturing the essence of those true and genuine moments, that I have long wanted to create a film with completely improvised dialogue, and finally, Dan & Alice is that film. Not wanting to launch in to the shoot entirely blind, however, a long writing process resulted in a script of sorts – a scene-by-scene breakdown of the story, character arcs, and an intended end-point. We worked from this on each shoot day, planning and discussing each beat as much as we could without actually rehearsing the scene, making sure that every word that came out of the actors mouths would be spontaneous, raw, and unexpected.
Of course, making an improvised feature film did throw up a unique set of challenges. In a more traditionally-shot scripted film, for example, scenes can be filmed out of chronological order, based instead on the location or availability of cast. For us, though, it was necessary to shoot the film in sequence as much as possible, beginning at scene one and working through to the end. Without doing so, it would be almost impossible for our characters to reference relative events in the film that had happened previously, unless the cast had literally already experienced and shaped those moments. Being improvised, we also didn't have the benefit of being able to replay scenes over and over, moving the camera to an alternate angle and repeating the action and dialogue. Since each take was always different in some way every time, the only way we could get multiply angles to play with in post-production – and not give our editor a nervous breakdown – was to constantly shoot on two cameras at once, giving us alternate shots of the same take. It was an exciting and, at times, terrifying process, but hugely rewarding. It produced the exact aesthetic I had had in my head and, as we head in to the edit and the rest of post-production, we are still discovering the many possibilities and alternate ways to fall in love with our characters and tell their story.