When watching a scripted television show or movie, the assumption is that all was planned and everything was acting. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, what you see on the screen is far more real than you know.
Situations like these stem from two major sources. The first is a technique used by directors known as enforced method acting, which involves surprising actors with unscripted material or setting up particular conditions, usually to breed either friendship or contempt. A notable example would be Stanley Kubrick’s verbal and mental abuse of Shelley Duvall to evoke a more compelling performance as a broken, terrified wife in The Shining.
The second technique is where an unscripted moment, either an ad-lib or accidental happening is used in the final version because it fits the scene well. In both cases, the reality evoked, be it surprise, fear or simple spontaneity, creates scenes that are both memorable and compelling. Here are 10 of our favorites:
In the Judd Apatow comedy The 40 Year Old Virgin, Steve Carell’s famous chest waxing scene was actually performed. Carell wanted to perform the scene himself, actually waxing his sasquatch-pelt of a chest, thinking it wouldn’t hurt too bad. Obviously, this was not the case, as Carell’s incessant stream of curses notes the true pain he was experiencing. We’re still trying to figure out why he screamed about Kelly Clarkson though.
Martin Lawrence and Will Smith’s follow up to their buddy/badass cop movie featured a solid mix of explosive action with hilarious banter. In one memorable scene, Lawrence and Smith harass a teenager, Reggie, who had come to take Lawrence’s daughter on a date. What you don’t know is that Dennis Greene, the actor playing Reggie, was told to never look Lawrence in the eye or speak to him. Lawrence became deliberately mean to Greene, causing Greene to be genuinely afraid of the starring actor. This made for a hilarious scene in the movie, especially considering Greene wasn’t informed he would be interrogated by Smith either. Or that Smith would pull a gun. We’re sure it was all in good fun.
The famous chestburster scene from the original Alien movie produced some particularly realistic responses from the characters in the film. How? The actors were simply told that something would happen, but not explicitly what. They had no idea that a creature would burst from John Hurt’s chest, or the extent to which they would be showered with blood and gore. Needless to say, Veronica Cartwright’s arm-flailing and terrified screams are completely genuine.
Season three of AMC’s acclaimed drama Mad Men came with quite a few surprises. Most notably is a now-famous scene involving a guy, a girl, and a lawnmower. When the incident occurs, the startled looks upon onlookers faces were completely real. The four were told they would be sprayed with blood on “3” but to get a more genuine reaction, the blood splattered on “2”. They were surprised.
As an added bonus, here’s the moment of truth emblazoned as a gif for you to enjoy over and over and over.
In The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers there’s a scene when Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, searching for their lost Hobbit companions Merry and Pippin, come upon a pile of slain orcs. With no sign of the lost Hobbits, the pair are assumed dead. In a fit of rage, Aragorn kicks an orc helmet and breaks down screaming. It turns out that after a number of takes, kicking that helmet caused actor Viggo Mortensen to break two of his toes. The screaming fit of rage was actually pain, a pain that he channeled into a fantastic performance. The broken-toe take is the one seen in the movie.
Throughout the re-imagined series of Battlestar Galactica, Admiral William Adama is seen building an incredibly intricate model ship. During the episode “Maelstrom” late in season three, Adama, played by Edward James Olmos, is delivered some bad news. Olmos proceeds to go off-script by smashing the model ship in a fit of rage. The only problem? The ship was an actual model ship on loan from a maritime museum. It was valued in the tens-of-thousands.
A number of unscripted moments appear in David Fincher’s Fight Club. Toward the beginning of the movie when Brad Pitt and Edward Norton have their first fight outside the bar (the famous “You hit me in the ear!” line), Norton was not supposed to actually hit Pitt. However, before the scene, Fincher pulled Norton aside and told him to hit for real. Norton complied, and Pitt’s stunned reaction was entirely genuine. In another scene, the pair are seen drunkenly hitting golfballs from the yard of their derelict Paper Street home. This scene wasn’t in the script at all, and was simply the work of Norton and Pitt getting drunk and thinking it would be fun to hit golfballs at the catering truck. Both scenes can be seen in the movie’s trailer.
In Luke Skywalker and Han Solo’s daring prison break of Princess Leia, the pair disguise themselves as Imperial stormtroopers. Upon securing the prison block, Solo attempts to dissuade additional reinforcements by answering the comm, but fumbles his way through the dialog, invoking suspicion and summoning more guards. To ensure the scene looked genuine, Harrison Ford deliberately did not look at his lines for the comm conversation. Instead, he simply made up the dialog on the spot, ensuring an organic portrayal of the hurried, frantic scene.
2. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
The classic version of Willy Wonka contains the famous scene where Gene Wilder, portraying the eccentric titular Willy Wonka, shows off his magnificent chocolate room to the factor guests for the first time. The scene, the musical number “Pure Imagination,” is filled with the characters looks of amazement as they explore the world of oversized gummy bears, candy cane trees and of course the river of chocolate. When filming this scene, though, none of the actors were allowed to see or even know about the set of the chocolate room and candy gardens. When the characters enter the room, it’s the actors seeing the set for the first time, creating genuine looks of amazement and wonder.
1. Apocalypse Now
In perhaps the most famous example, the brutal breakdown of Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard in the opening scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is far more real than you can imagine. Explained in the documentary Hearts of Darkness made about Apocalypse Now, the scene was shot on Sheen’s birthday. Sheen was extremely drunk and actually smashes his hand for real. The mental breakdown was genuine and the blood that he smears upon his face is entirely real.