How Being a Film & TV Buff Has Influenced My Improv
The other day someone described me as a movie buff. I’ve never really thought of myself as any sort of ‘buff’ but after thinking about it a bit I realised that I am interested in movies and I’m the sort of person who, when they get interested in something likes to find out all about it.
The internet era is a great time to be interested in anything really and especially pop culture. With YouTube channels such as Every Frame a Painting and Lessons from the Screenplay, you can get insight and commentary of any form of entertainment from music to TV to movies.
This got me thinking, (to borrow a phrase from Sex in the City), how does my interest in film affect the way I improvise?
I’ve never overtly used my love of film to inform my improvisation, but on reflection, I realised that there are a lot of elements of film in the way I improvise.
I think the first lesson I got from film is that you should shamelessly steal from things you love and then put your own spin on it. All the greats did it, Quentin Tarantino films are famous for it. His films are a mishmash of basically every movie he has ever loved. But rather than just straight copying (which he does too) he adds his unique interpretation and mixes it with other interests he has, such as banal dialogue, fast food and women’s feet.
He isn’t the only one. Star Wars is basically a summary of all the 40s serial science fiction that Lucas remembered from his childhood with the plot from a samurai movie. The Matrix films merge twenty years of Hong Kong action movies into one amazing and two okay movies. And all the great directors steal shots and plots from movies and older stories that they enjoyed.
Another thing I like to do when I need a character is to just impersonate a character I remember from a film. I am not a good impersonator at all, so no-one even notices that I am doing it, but it gives me a voice, physicality and attitude that is easy to get into. I lean into any differences between the character I am trying to impersonate and what I am actually doing to make the character new and unique. If I need to play a lawyer, I’ll use a mix of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird and the Chicken Lawyer from Futurama. Sometimes I just pretend to be Christopher Walken.
easylaughs does a murder mystery show. When I play the detective I do a version of David Suchet’s Poirot from the BBC adaptation. Characters large and small are a great starting point if you then let them take a life of their own when you are on the stage.
In the same way, plot points can be used in scenes. Why not have a mystery suitcase, a mountain made from mashed potatoes, or a character getting vertigo going up a staircase? As long as this is the starting point, not the endpoint, it can be great inspiration, rather than just a wink to the audience to show how clever you are.
I could go on and on about things from film I use on stage (and I probably will) but I think there is also a larger lesson that we should draw from all our loves and obsessions. If you are into golf, play that guy from the course who yells when he swings. If you like tacos, have a scene with five different pico de gallos. Use what you love to help you make unique, honest choices that inspire you and odds are the audience will be inspired too.
Hasta la vista. Baby.