When I was younger I did a lot of improv. Starting in college (with a wonderful seminar with the legendary Del Close - who at the time I did not know was 'legendary') and then with a late night group in NYC in the East Village. I enjoyed it a lot. I was not bad at it. I learned the basic rules and arcs of the form. Never deny. Always augment but don't top. Push for the full story rather than the quick laugh. That sort of thing.
Frankly, I'm appalled when I audition for a new piece, be it a television pilot or a film of some kind, when the director says, "Why don't you just improvise for a bit here. See what you can come with?" My first thought is always, 'No.' I mean, I'd be glad to, but pay me as a writer first. I'm not here to give your writers free ideas and dialogue. I'm here as an actor.
I once auditioned for a piece, some while back, and a few days later got a callback on the piece. During the original audition, they had asked me to improvise. I did so with gusto. Then the dimwits called me back and lo and behold the stuff I'd improvised was now in the script. As they used to say in the beginning of the old Hill Street Blues series, 'Be careful out there.'
There is no protection, union or otherwise, for the actor that is especially good at improvising dialogue. None at all. So nowadays whenever I'm asked to improvise something, I'm always in a bit of a quandry. The truth is, I'm pretty good at this sort of thing. So when I let loose and really do it, it's usually better than the crap on the page. The quandry, of course, is do I let them take my dialogue or do I just go ahead and do my best and shoot for the acting job? It sucks.
A little while back I was asked to improvise WHILE THE CAMERA WAS RUNNING in a new film. The papers had been signed and I was in the midst of actually shooting on the set. I balked. I made a decision. Nope. I purposely took a submissive back seat in the scene and let the other actor flounder around a bit while I simply agreed with him. The scene struggled to an end and they didn't ask again.
Here's an interesting and true story. An old, old friend of mine in NYC was in the original Broadway production of Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson. Now, let me say up front that I happen to be a huge Lanford Wilson fan. He died recently, which I was very sad to hear. My friend is still a little bitter about that production. Apparently during rehearsals (they opened it first at Circle in the Square downtown and then later moved it to Broadway) there was a huge chunk in the second act that simply wasn't working. So Wilson and the director, Marshall Mason, asked the cast to improvise some of the dialogue. They gave them a beginning and end and told them to just take off. That dialogue, word for word, ended up in the final production and in the published version of the play.
Which brings me to my next honorable mention this morning. Angie and I have been watching the new mini-series on televison, The Kennedy's. It's well acted (although Barry Pepper is about forty years too old for 'Bobby Kennedy' and Katie Holmes has all the charisma of a head of cabbage) but badly written. I keep watching it, though, because I'm fascinated with the subject matter. I don't know what it is about that family that Americans are obssessed with, but I'm one of them. I love the serpentine lives of that cursed yet gifted family. But with regards to the series I can't help thinking how extraordinary it could have been with someone like Aaron Sorkin or David Kelly at the helm. The writing is coarse and broadly painted. Bad stuff, for the most part. The actors, especially Tom Wilkinson, mostly rise above it, however, but it's really fairly pedestrian stuff. Biopics, with a few exceptions, generally are.
Anyway, sitting here at home and watching this thing, I, like many other writers in LA, keep thinking, "Who greenlighted this thing? Did someone actually read the script and say out loud, 'We have to do this!'" I'll never understand the myriad workings of Hollywood. Time and again, for nigh on 100 years now, good writing is ignored and bad writing is celebrated. Now and then, all too rarely, a good piece of writing slips through the cracks and gets made. But not too often. Yes, there is some good television mini-series writing out there - Holocaust, Roots, - a few others, but it's just rare. Just very rare.
See you tomorrow.