Where's the Script? Improv Grows in the Movies

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The recent DVD release of the blockbuster comedy movie "The Hangover" highlights the growth of improvised acting. Another new movie, "They Made That Up!," goes a step further and eliminates the script completely. Director Lee Godden explains why the spontaneity of improv comedy acting can be funnier than anything screenwriters can achieve on paper.

“The funniest moments are often when improv-trained actors go off-script,” said Godden.

After director/producer Lee Godden read Kate Ward’s recent Entertainment Weekly interview with "The Hangover" co-star Zach Galifianakis, he triumphantly pumped his fist in the air and yelled, “I knew it!” During the interview Ward asked Galifianakis, “Was there a lot of improvisation in the film?” “Yes,” Galifianakis replied. “A lot.”

“The funniest moments are often when improv-trained actors go off-script,” said Godden, a longtime improviser and stand-up comic. “So, as an experiment, I put together a cast of seven professional improvisational comedy actors, and we made a movie.” Godden’s movie-making experiment took over two years to complete, and the result is appropriately titled "They Made That Up!"

“It’s a collection of spontaneously created sketches, and everyone who’s seen it so far has laughed through the entire ninety minutes,” Godden said. “I think our experiment—can a funny movie be made without a script?—was a success.”

Improv in movies is nothing new. Younger directors like "The Hangover’s" Todd Phillips and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s" Judd Apatow grew up watching heavily improvised films such as veteran director Rob Reiner’s 1984 mockumentary "This is Spinal Tap." From Will Ferrell to Steve Carell, many of today’s comedic actors have strong backgrounds as improvisers.

Lacking a big name star for "They Made That Up!," Godden auditioned and hired a cast of improv pros with backgrounds that included Second City, Improv Olympic, National Improv Theater, Comedy Central, Disney, MTV, stand-up comedy and off-Broadway plays and musicals. The seven cast members are Bret Calvert, Lori Jablons, Dan Jablons, Jeff Klein, Eve Savona, Elvis Winterbottom and Godden himself.

Improv’s on-the-fly nature means that scenes can be hit or miss, so Godden spent over eighty percent of the movie’s production time on the editing process. “Of the hundred or so sketches that were originally taped, only the funniest twenty-four made it to the final cut,” Godden said. “Those sketches were then edited down to an average of less than four minutes each, to keep the laughs moving at a fast pace.”

"They Made That Up!" is now on its way to film festivals and distributors, seeking a final home on DVD sales and rental shelves alongside its better-known, partially-improvised cousin "The Hangover." A website of the same name, http://www.TheyMadeThatUp.com, contains the movie’s trailer, still photos and additional production information.

The use of improv in performance art dates back the 1500s in the streets of Italy. Filmed comedic improv began with silent filmmakers Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and expanded through the era of the Marx Brothers. Dramatic use of improvisation in films started with John Cassavetes’ "Shadows" in 1959. Modern era, improv-utilizing filmmakers include Robert Altman (his 1975 Oscar-nominated "Nashville" featured largely improvised dialogue) and Mike Leigh (the improvised dialogue of his 1996 "Secrets and Lies" also resulted in multiple Academy Award nominations).

About Lee Godden and Telsius Productions: Lee Godden produces and directs movies and television programs. After years as a performer and stand-up comic, Godden founded Telsius Productions LLC. His improvised comedy show "Not Quite Right" became a top draw in the Southern California television viewing market, winning Charter’s Best New Program award. Godden later produced and directed the movie "SketchFlick." He’s written over 100 articles for publications including The Los Angeles Times. His latest book has been translated into several languages. On Saturday evenings Godden performs improvisational comedy on stage with a Los Angeles-based troupe. Godden can be reached for interviews by calling (562) 986-5163, or by emailing him at Lee(at)TheyMadeThatUp(dot)com. Photos are available at http://www.TheyMadeThatUp.com.

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