By Ben York Jones
It’s hard to describe to someone what your role was as co-writer, on a movie they read in the New York Times, “Was Filmed Without a Script.” There’s no succinct answer. I couldn’t Tweet a properly inclusive explanation. Well, I tried. This was after I received a Tweet that seemed to accuse me and by association, my co-writer (the film’s very talented director, Drake Doremus) of self-aggrandizing – for awarding ourselves writing credit on a reportedly script-less film. I remember feeling dismissed. Frustrated. Worse yet, I began seriously doubting my abilities when I read the offending Tweet:
“Is it true the dialogue was all improvised on Like Crazy? That's the word on the street...”
Alright, so it wasn’t as bad as I remember. Actually, they’d heard correct. But when it’s late, and you just lost that one seminal gig, and the Times chose the sub-heading, “What Writer?” to describe a film you poured so much into… you start to question your value. I had to publish my own headline. I had to describe to this stranger, in 140 characters or less, exactly what it meant to write an improvised film. And I would make those 140 characters (or less) shine! If it took all night! I replied 5 minutes later:
“The actors worked from a very detailed "scriptment" written in prose. On set, they were asked to put things in their own words.”
Well… Not exactly dazzling as far as headlines go, and no points for a lack of alliteration, but at least it was a little more accurate.
I vividly remember seeing Christopher Guest’s film Waiting For Guffman for the first time in junior high. Noted for being improvised, there was something so organic and honest about that film. It was unlike any comedy I had seen. The characters were so complete, and at the same time completely unaware of themselves, as was the camera. Intimate, but objective – Guest trusted an expression, an inflection, or silence to do the talking. Around this time, because the guys on the VHS jacket looked so weird, I rented and watched American Movie. To this day, it is my favorite film. I didn’t think I was interested in documentaries at that time, but what struck me like no narrative film had before, was the pencil-line it danced between it’s highs and lows. It was at once the funniest film I’d ever seen, and one of the more tragic. This is real, I thought. This is visceral. This is the human condition. I knew then, documentary or not, this was the affect a film should have. Finding a parallel in Guffman was kind of a personal mini-revelation. Things clicked. This is how it translates to a narrative.
After establishing the specifics were going to be improvised, writing Like Crazy was like giving driving directions to someone by landmark (it’s by this one tree… you’ll know it when you see it) rather than street names. As it was to be a movie largely built on moments between moments, we decided what would be important to communicate was not what the characters should say, but what they should withhold. This lead to the good stuff – back-story and inner monologue found it’s way onto the page to accompany the action. We also included music cues; most didn’t end up in the film, but I think helped set the tone. And every once in a while we suggested some dialogue, but it was only ever suggested. It was always Drake’s intention to provide the cast with plenty of space to discover on set. To capture them truly listening and responding. It was for this reason he wisely made certain they fell just short of finding the scenes in rehearsal. At a very dense 50-pages, the script read more like a short story with scene headings. And like any screenplay it had required many drafts and jam sessions with our producers, right up to production in order to get it there. Actually the revisions never stop. They just sort of peter-out for one person, then change hands – now it’s up to the cast… now it’s up to the editor. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s editor, Jonathan Alberts.
As it turns out, when you ask your cast to improvise, you’re also asking the crew to adjust accordingly. A focus-puller’s task, for example, becomes a lot more demanding when the actors have no marks to hit. Several of us in key roles had had some experience with this improvised process on our previous film, a lo-fi comedy called Douchebag. But it’s fair to say we approached that far more casually. Almost as an experiment, the result of which was a great deal of trial and error, and re-shoots, and pick-ups that included adding scenes to fill gaps. The stakes were higher on Like Crazy. It had to pack some serious punch and deliver across the boards, first time out. Fortunately, the synergy was right, the phenomenal cast was brave and trusting of their director, and it came together.
It’s widely acknowledged, a film is written three times: On the page, on set, and in the cutting room. This adage is never more appropriate than in reference to an improvised film. And as I’ve branched out to develop more traditional screenplays with new collaborators, I find them pleasantly surprised by my eagerness to work with fitting ideas thrown my way. Provided everyone’s going the same direction, the improvisers mantra: “Yes, and…” applies here too.
Ultimately, writing film’s that are to be improvised has taught me to see the pages of a screenplay for what they are: a work-in-progress. I don’t aim to negate the artistry and impact of well-written dialogue. I just mean to say, embracing this idea reminds me that as a screenwriter, my method of delivery is not a bound tome, but a living, breathing cast and crew.
An improvised film has many writers. And if there is trust, it’s amazing to see how they may bring your concepts to life – often in surprising and wonderful ways.
Ben York Jones was born in Englewood, New Jersey, but grew up primarily in Southern California. Both of his parents were New York stage actors, exposing him to a variety of art forms from an early age. After studying screenwriting and directing at Chapman University, Jones worked as a video artist, notably directing music videos and creating branded content. Having maintaining a passion for performance based arts, Jones has appeared in a numerous theatrical productions and is an avid fan of improvisation and sketch comedy. Douchebag marked his first leading role in a feature film, and reunited Jones with childhood friend and collaborator, Drake Doremus. In January 2010, Douchebag premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the US Dramatic Competition. The Hollywood Reporter and New York Magazine praised Jones’ performance, and the film was released theatrically in October 2010. Having shifted his primary focus to writing, Jones has recently co-written the 2011 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, Like Crazy. The film hits theaters in the fall of 2011. Jones is currently underway on several projects including the screen adaptation of a soon to be released novel, and his third collaboration with Doremus and producer Jonathan Schwartz in as many years.