Published by ShawnKinley on



Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Jonah Hill

It wasn’t in the script. It wasn’t planned. These are the moments the Director says “CUT!!! – Where did that come from??!!  Let’s keep that!”

It’s getting more and more common for directors to trust the worth of improvisation. In fact, there are some directors who plan time for spontaneous creation.

  In 2021, director Adam McKay gave a dedicated day of shooting for improvisation in his Sci-Fi –  DON’T LOOK UP.

With the caliber of actors involved in the movie; Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jonah Hill, it’s notable that improvisation was given the respect as a creative partner in its own right and not just a warm-up technique in acting class.

The freedom McKay gave to his cast is a little jaw-dropping considering the 75 million dollar expense to make the movie.  That single day of improvising alone was a million-dollar investment into spontaneous play and creativity.  

Jennifer Lawrence noted that they were all capable of “improv—ing” during shooting, but made special note of Jonah Hill and Meryl Streep for their special skills.

“It was really hard filming with Jonah and just not ruining take after take laughing. It was amazing. He and Meryl are the only ones who should do that kind of improv. He’s a comedic master. We all did some stuff, but not as well as Jonah.”

McKay allowed for liberal doses of improvisation throughout the planned shooting and found what was possibly the biggest flaw with the tactic. He had way more material than he could use.

The first scene in the White House with the President of the United States took more than 2 days to shoot and left the director with a 16-minute scene that had to be cut down by more than half, regardless of how good the spontaneous dialogue was.

The improvised moments affected more than extraneous bits of dialogue in the movie. The entire ending of the film was re-written because of an improvised moment that Mark Rylance made earlier in the filming. 

Rylance’s character says he has created an app that can reliably predict how people will die. Director, Adam Mckay liked the idea so much that he altered the end of the film to make sense of the inspired offer.

I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen the movie yet, but here’s a video telling you more about Rylance’s improvisation and how it affected Mckay’s ending. (Watch the movie on Netflix before watching this clip)  

No one would think of Meryl Streep as an Improviser but Mckay gushes about her skills. “It was a tour-de-force of Improv that I have never seen before”.  At one point Mckay remembers a particular scene where Streep, playing the President of the United States, delivers different phone conversations over thirty times for the multiple shots in one scene. An actor who gives you that gift of flexibility is invaluable to any director.

Director Mckay, improvised for about 6 years in Chicago, says of himself, he’d have a hard time coming up with 6 or 7 unique conversations where Streep surpassed that effortlessly. In the “new choice” game, many improvisers start stumbling with variety after 3 or 4 offerings. Hats off to Meryl.

Streep is no stranger to Improvisation. The 2020  Stephen Soderberg movie “LET THEM TALK”  based on a screenplay by Deborah Eisenberg was more improvised than structure. 

Paid a WHOPPING 25 CENTS to make the film, the performers were handed the end moments of a scene and told to “get there”.  Shot in a one week crossing of the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2 surrounded by 2600 passengers, Streep and the others seems to have had a great time noting:


 Check out MEMORABLE MOMENTS 3 – Let Them ALL Talk in next month’s focus on Improvisation with  Meryl Streep, Diane Weist, Candace Bergen, and Steven Soderbergh  
And what happened on that day devoted fully to improvisation?

Hill, playing the President’s son, spent the day hurling insults at Jennifer Lawrence’s character. Fun Fun. (read on to find out how she responded to the experience).

Ariana Grande – 
Singer Ariana Grande leaps bravely into the Impro experience as well. On the spot, Grande created the song used in the film on the first take. Considering Mackay was uncertain about the singer’s ability to improvise, he was blown away and especially impressed with the spontaneous lyrics: “Turn off the shitbox news. ‘Cos you’re about to die.”

Jennifer Lawrence
Lawrence possibly enhanced or limits her improvisation skills (???) when the actor is actually high in a scene where her character is stoned while talking to the president (Meryl Streep). Mackay promised that he wouldn’t make her improvise in that state but it not everything that happened was fully planned in the experience.

And how did she respond to the day devoted to improvised insults at her expense by Jonah Hill’s character? 

“It was really really hard filming with Jonah…”  says Lawrence. BUT it wasn’t that she disliked the experience. The problem was that she couldn’t keep herself from laughing at the things he came up with.

Kate Blanchet and Tyler Perry,  bounce off of each other in a sparkling example of connection and concrete character creation. Their improvised moments ring true in the circle of expectations for the personality types of superficial, American light news broadcasters.

And Leonardo DiCaprio? When he quietly asks if Ariana Grande seems smaller in real life, he’s just saying what was actually on his mind which makes the line more believable.

There’s a scene with DiCaprio’s character appearing on the children’s show, Sesame Street.  Not only is the moment hilariously (angrily) improvised but the child in the scene responds appropriately with “I don’t like him. He makes me sad.” in an obvious reaction – also improvised.

DiCaprio, enthused by the improvised atmosphere says, “Anything went! – We had every opportunity to try anything and he (McKay) encouraged it and that was really a gift… to let loose like that.”

And it doesn’t all have to be comedy. With the improvised line, “We really did have it all” before the end of the world, the director’s eyes reportedly teared up because DiCaprio’s improvised expression in the moment summed up a deeper theme that was not in the script but lived in the essence of the story.

Actors may be dismissed as props or subtly despised by directors.  Some directors demand that Actors speak only what is in the script. The output from Don’t Look Up and the process of Adam McKay’s direction are valid arguments that improvisation is the ideal tool to bring the partnership of the entire cast into the experience. 

“There was a lot of great improvisation in this movie,” says Adam McKay. There was a lot of great improvisation because the space for it to happen was allowed. Hopefully, we’ll see more of this.


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