How Spike Lee, F. Gary Gray and 6 Other Directors Improvised Critical Scenes

10:00 AM 12/2/2015

by Gregg Kilday

Whether it was cracking the beginning of 'Love & Mercy' or nailing the ending of 'Concussion,' eight filmmakers reveal the intuitive leaps of faith and last-minute improvisation that brought crucial moments to life.

'Spotlight,' Courtesy of Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films
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    Tom Hooper

    'The Danish Girl'


    Shortly after Lili (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) have fled to Paris, Lili goes to a peep show. The striptease artist realizes that Lili is not your typical client but is needing something else, an affirmation of her femininity. Rather than the male gaze centered on a woman as an object of lust, it’s a woman’s gaze centered on another woman with longing to be accepted as a woman. Eve Stewart built this brilliant set with glass windows, and we realized we had this opportunity for a reflection. So there is this beautiful series of pull-focuses that [cinematographer] Danny Cohen did where we superimpose the reflection of the striptease artist on the reflection of Lili. We’re almost suggesting a merging of feminine souls.

  2. 2

    Spike Lee


    Courtesy of 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks

    There’s a eulogy/ sermon delivered by John Cusack for an 11-year-old girl murdered by a drive-by. John’s character is based on the real-life Father Michael Pfleger, a white Roman Catholic priest who’s head of St. Sabina church, which is where we shot the scene. We did two takes facing John and two takes from behind him. John had to reach the levels of Father Pfleger because many of the extras also were from the church. Even though we weren’t filming an actual funeral, he had to bring it or people wouldn’t respond. But John did. And that scene lays out in no uncertain terms what the moral foundation of the film is.

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    F. Gary Gray

    'Straight Outta Compton'

    Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures

    There’s a scene where the group N.W.A gets confronted by Torrance police. It wasn’t the strongest scene in the script. My approach generally with this movie was to try to be as authentic as possible. I hired real cops to play the cops in the scene, and I actually hired my assistant, Inny Clemons, to play the black cop. We shaved his beard and gave him an ’80s mustache, gave the great majority of the dialogue to him. Early in the morning, when we blocked it and shot the master, it was actually awful. Dr. Dre was on the set watching from the video village, the producers were watching, and I’m thinking to myself, “Wow, this is not working at all.” In the scene, the actors have food in their hands. So I took Inny and the cops aside, and I said, “Listen, do me a favor. Why don’t you guys take a different approach? Knock the food out of their hands and really go hard-core on these guys.” The actors [playing the N.W.A members] didn’t expect it because we’d rehearsed something different. But I told them, “Whatever happens, stand your ground, have dignity.” My assistant and the other cops really went at it. There was a lot of real, natural tension that came out of this improvised moment, and it ended up becoming one of the best scenes in the movie.

  4. 4

    Tom McCarthy


    Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

    In one of the last scenes of the movie, in Marty’s [Liev Schreiber] office, Robby [Michael Keaton] comes clean that he’d received a list of 20 priests [accused of sexual abuse] in the ’90s. Robby raises the question, “Why didn’t we act sooner?” It’s a delicate scene where you have six actors, all of whose characters have different objectives. It was all about the emotional, intellectual value of the scene, getting everybody on the same page. We rehearsed it for four hours, which is highly unusual for one of my sets. I could feel the ensemble was fragmenting. They were on different sides of what they thought the scene was about. We shot it from one side of the room, but it became one of those rare times when I had to push a scene into the next day. I went home, not happy with myself. Maybe we were tired, collectively, but I felt the wheels were coming off the wagon. But the next day, Liev was in a different energy and ready. Liev did his speech three or four times, and we were done. Sometimes you can’t rush these things.

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    Danny Boyle

    'Steve Jobs'

    Courtesy of Universal Pictures

    In part two of the film, there are two arguments between Steve [Michael Fassbender] and John Scully [Jeff Daniels] that happen across multiple time frames. It’s like 15 minutes of superb actors locked in face-toface battle. As we did each section, the crew applauded and congratulated us. But when we cut it together the way Aaron [Sorkin] indicated in the script, it didn’t have that majesty it had on the floor. Our brilliant editor Elliot Graham couldn’t quite lick it. So after we finished the whole film, I forced the unit back into part two. Michael was exhausted because of the mountain he’d just climbed. We shot a single close-up of his face passing across the screen. He said, “What am I thinking about?” I said, “Just imagine what you’ve been through for the past six weeks.” And he cries; there’s a tear in his eye. I had no idea how it would help. It was purely instinctive. But when Elliot put it in, it made Steve’s revenge, which is the theme of the second part, not just tactical but deeply personal, based on the loss of Apple.

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    Lenny Abrahamson


    George Kraychyk/Courtesy of A24

    Danny Cohen, our director of photography, and I decided on a strict rule: We wouldn’t cheat; we would limit ourselves to real perspectives, available from inside the walls [of the set we called Room]. But with only 11'x11' to work with, we needed to be able to get the lens right to the edges. The usual way to do this would be to take out walls as needed, allowing the camera body and crew to operate outside the boundary while keeping the lens inside. But there was another major constraint: time. A small child means limited hours, and flying a wall takes time. The solution came from production designer Ethan Tobman. Using the cork tiles to disguise the seams, he constructed the walls from individual 2'x2' panels that could be removed or put back in less than a minute. Our set ended up as a kind of inverted Rubik’s Cube, and the capacity to shoot from the edges was a lifesaver.

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    Peter Landesman


    Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

    Concussion ends with a valedictory speech by the movie’s protagonist, the forensic pathologist — played by Will Smith — who discovered the concussion disease in American football players. The speech, in front of 600 extras, is his moment of vindication. I’d written a long version of the speech, knowing I could edit it down in postproduction. But notes were flying in from the studio while I was shooting, and, worn down, I’d rewritten the speech to a fraction of its original length. After I shot a couple of takes, it was clear to me the speech was crap. It lost its poetry and its shape. And the end of the movie wasn’t going to work. With daylight waning, I took a walk to figure it out. I grabbed my laptop and wrote a speech from scratch. Twenty minutes later I handed Will the new speech and just started shooting. Will added some stuff. I added some more stuff. Kept shooting, from multiple camera positions, and I got every word. Most of it survived the cut — as if it were always there — and I had the end of the movie.

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    Bill Pohlad

    'Love & Mercy'

    Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

    As originally scripted, Love & Mercy was going to begin with the character we call Brian-Present [John Cusack] in bed, and we’d travel around this mysterious guy and then start to hear what he hears in his head before we go into the Beach Boys era. But after we shot it, it just didn’t work. In the edit room, you’re always looking for different opportunities. There was a scene we’d shot of Brian-Past [Paul Dano] in the studio, playing piano, that hadn’t ended up in the movie, but there was one little bit of it, of Brian sitting by himself, appearing to talk to himself. It had a mystery about it that intrigued me. So we tried that at the head of movie, and from the moment we laid it in, it just felt right. It’s really exciting when you hit on those things spontaneously.