Nathan Silver is the writer-director of the upcoming film "Uncertain Terms."
I began working with improvisation in the hope that it would destroy the rigidity that had crept into my early films. I have now made three semi-improvised features, and I’m happy to report that no matter how rigid a film set is, improvisation rejects order. Improvisation also rejects a set of guidelines, and this is what I’d like to talk about. With each new movie, I’m forced to rethink my approach. Simply put, improvisation is a matter of improvising with improvisation. As you fall further down the rabbit hole of production, you keep or discard what comes up according to situational necessity, and the situation at hand should dictate the course of the film. Films capture life; allow life in.
These movies always start the same way—actors and an outline—but from there it’s anyone’s guess how things are going to run. With my second feature and first improvised film, “Exit Elena,” we had a 12-page outline, which laid out the actions and hinted at the dialogue. We stuck to this throughout and the finished film is structured identically to the outline. With “Soft in the Head” we had a similarly detailed outline, but we tossed it out the window three days into the shoot because of an unforeseen action by one of the actors. This episode forced us to rewrite the movie on a napkin in the middle of the night, and we ended up following the scribbling on the napkin for the remainder of the shoot. With my latest film, “Uncertain Terms,” we scripted a lot of the dialogue and then had the actors riff on our ideas. This was due to the fact that we had far less preparation time than with the previous two features.
I guess this is all to say that improvisation does not mean recklessness; it means adjusting—adjusting to the actors, the crew, and most importantly the situation you’ve gotten yourself into. It’s up to you how to deal with the situation, but trying to impose order is not necessarily the answer. I say, allow the situation to play out, film it, then see what sense can be made of it in the edit. You just might find that one ineffable thing that every filmmaker is after, whether they know it or not: life.
“Uncertain Terms” premieres at the Los Angeles Film Festival June 14.