There are many different approaches one can have when making a film, and one can certainly stick to the script and to whatever gets planned in pre-production. Many directors are known for wanting to plan in advance everything that will end up in the film, down to the last line.
But sometimes, a great cinematic moment comes from something that could not be planned ahead, when the movie is being written and pre-produced, and there are many memorable scenes that actually feature actors that are not acting but reacting spontaneously to a certain situation.
This can happen for a series of reasons, but we can identify three main ones. Sometimes the director decides to intentionally surprise the actors by not disclosing something about the scene that is about to be shot, in order to capture a natural reaction to something unexpected.
Another case is when in the spur of the moment, a spontaneous reaction is caught on camera, and is eventually left in the film. The other case is when an incident occurs on set, and the actors have an immediate and unintentional reaction, which is then kept in the final cut.
This list looks at some great scenes, some of which have become truly iconic, that have remained in a film after one of these cases occurred.
10. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
The first film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children novel, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” despite being an uneven picture, captured the attention of the public and soon became a classic. Many of its peculiarities, like the bizarre Oompa Loompas, soon entered in the cultural landscape and stayed there, as did some of its songs like “Pure Imagination.”
The stories behind its production are many and very interesting, from the shooting in Munich (of which there is some trace in the sets of the supposedly American town where the film is set) to the dislike of Roald Dahl for the picture.
As for the subject of this list, Mel Stuart went to great lengths in order to get natural reactions from some of his actors, especially the child actors. He hid from them the Chocolate Room, and captured their surprised reaction to it, and he did a similar thing by avoiding to tell them how dark the boat scene was going to be. Gene Wilder then sang a creepy song that actually scared the children.
Moreover, near the end of the film we see Wonka erupt in a rant towards Charlie and his grandpa; this scene was performed by Wilder in a much more frightening way than in the rehearsals, resulting in a truly frightened reaction from Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie. Still, Wilder’s real touch of eccentricity (and genius) remains the introduction of Willy Wonka, with his fake limp and fall, which was an explicit request of his to the director.
9. Fight Club
“Fight Club” belongs in the relatively small group of films that absolutely require a second viewing to be understood, like “The Prestige” or “The Usual Suspects.” Its ending gives a whole new meaning to Edward Norton and Brad Pitt’s performances and makes them even more appreciable. Their dialogue and interactions are the main part of the film, as is Fincher’s ability to address the peculiar nature of their rapport without giving away too easily its real origin.
Norton and Pitt worked well together, and sometimes joked together, like when they randomly found out they both hated the same kind of VW Beetle, which they urged Fincher to use in the scene where the two characters have to wreck a car.
Another scene in the film comes from a genuine moment between the two of them: the scene where Durden and the “narrator” (the name of Norton’s character is never actually revealed) hit golf balls toward some cars actually seems to have been improvised by Norton and Pitt, who just had the idea of trying to hit a catering truck (interestingly enough, this scene has a clue regarding Durden’s real nature: when he hits a car, the alarm does not go off).
Another scene is actually the most known for featuring a natural reaction: when Norton punches Pitt’s ear, his surprised reaction is completely natural. Norton had to hit the shoulder, but Fincher secretly told him to go for the ear in order to surprise Pitt. It paid off, since the “You hit me in the ear!” line has become sort of a fan favorite. Ironically, Pitt’s line just before the punch is “Surprise me!”, something that Norton and Fincher actually did.
8. The Blair Witch Project
To this day, “The Blair Witch Project” remains one of the most fascinating experiments in horror filmmaking. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez worked with a very small budget, but still managed to create a truly terrifying experience for the viewers and the cast alike. This is because they opted to market the film as “found footage,” which meant making the actual film as raw and natural as possible.
The story follows a crew of college students investigating a creepy town legend, and the film is supposed to be the remains of what they have filmed in the woods. What the directors did was actually release their cast in the woods with a camera and as few indications as possible, and then using what they ended up filming.
The lack of clear directions left the cast to be actually lost in the woods most of the time, and their recorded interactions are often real. Not only that, even the scariest moments, when it seems like a supernatural force of evil is attacking them, actually captured the cast’s reactions.
At one point, the tent with the students inside it violently shakes: their horrified reaction is true, since the directors did not warn them before shaking it. They also followed them during the shooting and created other scary moments; for example, by throwing rocks and objects out of nowhere.
Another aspect of the film that is very real is the progressively worn-out and stressed look of the actors, which was caused by the increasingly small amount of food that was given to them by the directors.
7. The Exorcist
A masterpiece of horror with some strong psychological undertones, “The Exorcist” is one of William Friedkin’s best works. Friedkin is known for having experimented with different genres, from horror to crime thriller, and his touch is one of great class. He has a deep understanding of cinematic techniques and masterfully employs them to give his genre films a special, auteur touch.
This is certainly true for “The Exorcist,” which would not have had the success it garnered had Friedkin not given the film a special kind of attention often left out when it comes to horror movies.
This method stands behind a few peculiar moments on set, which led to spontaneous reactions by the actors, which stayed in the film. In the scene where Father Karras talks to young Regan and suddenly she vomits on his face, the surprised reaction from actor Jason Miller is caused by the fact that the vomit was supposed to go on his chest, but Friedkin chose to change the target without warning the actor, hence the very natural surprised reaction.
It is also reported that he would occasionally shoot firearms on the set, in order to keep everyone on their toes. Another spontaneous moment comes when Ellen Burstyn gets hit and falls. She was told it would have been a not so strong hit, but Friedkin was lying again, and the actress actually fell and broke her coccyx. All in order to get a strong reaction to eventually keep in the film.
6. The Usual Suspects
In 1995, Christopher McQuarrie, now an accomplished director of his own, was the writing partner of director Bryan Singer. The two debuted with “Public Access,” and then worked on a project that would give them both critical and public recognition, “The Usual Suspects.”
With a stellar performance by Kevin Spacey and an ensemble cast that includes Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Pollak and Benicio Del Toro, the tightly-written caper/criminal drama captured the audience, particularly due to its surprising final twist.
Aside from the Keyser Soze reveal, which maybe is the first thing that most people associate with the film, The Usual Suspects works perfectly as a whole, and never ceased to be compelling and entertaining. The production of the film was entertaining as well, as some now-famous set stories reveal.
The pivotal line-up scene, which appears in the movie as a lighter moment, was conceived as serious, but Stephen Baldwin improvised its line as over-the-top and full of expletives, and after that Del Toro actually started farting repeatedly. The laughs left in the scene are completely real, since Del Toro inevitably made them break character.
Aside from this famous scene, another few moments show a natural reaction from the actors, like when Pollak asks Del Toro, “What’d you say?” after not understanding his slurred manner of speaking, a character trait he conceived and convinced Singer to keep. In another scene, Baldwin gets a cigarette flicked in his face, and his physical reaction is natural, since it was actually supposed to end on his chest.