Movies are long and difficult to make, which is why proper planning is so crucial. There are hundreds—even thousands—of cast and crew members involved with lighting, camera, special effects, catering, logistics, and so much more. But it all starts with a script!
...except when it doesn't.
What happens when you don't have a finished script but production must commence? Or when actors keep altering an existing script on the fly? Oftentimes, that's when improvisation plays a big role—which can be risky, but can also result in a film's best moments.
Here are several amazing improv movies that started without scripts or relied on improvisation for a good chunk of their stories.
15. Like Crazy (2011)
Directed by Drake Doremus
Starring Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence
Drama, Romance (1h 26m)
Love stories can often benefit from that natural improvised quality, as we'll see in Before Sunrise and Blue Valentine below. Taking away the restrictions of a script allows the chemistry to bubble freely, as it did between Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones in Like Crazy.
Rather than recreating his own past relationship moment-by-moment, director Drake Doremus used his personal experience as more of a guideline that organically drove Like Crazy's narrative.
A 50-page outline was given to the actors, and that's it. No script! Felicity Jones plays a British exchange student who falls in love with a guy from Los Angeles. Then, her student visa runs out...
14. Boyhood (2014)
Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Drama (2h 45m)
If you've seen Boyhood, then you know of its unusual production. Filmed over 12 years, Richard Linklater allowed the characters to grow up in real time in this slice-of-life, coming-of-age epic.
Unable to predict exactly how the cast would age—especially Ellar Coltrane, who plays the central boy growing up in Texas—Linklater eschewed the use of a script. He just knew he wanted to make a realist film about a parent-child relationship.
But to tackle a project this long and unprecedented, the crew obviously needed something to go on. So, he compiled character profiles and finale plot points for each year, then wrote the rest according to the flow.
12. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Directed by Billy Wilder
Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim
Drama, Noir (1h 50m)
Sunset Boulevard isn't just a classic of Hollywood's Golden Age, but also a metanarrative of the industry at the time.
Born in Austria, director Billy Wilder was fascinated by American culture, especially as seen in the movies. This got him thinking: What happens to Hollywood starlets when they're no longer stars?
Producers and directors, especially back then, tended to leave actresses behind after they reached a certain age. Inspired by the faded "predatory silent movie queen" stereotype, Wilder came up with the character of Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson).
Unsatisfied with his rough drafts and worried that the Hays Code would restrict his imagination, Wilder wrote the script for Sunset Boulevard a few pages at a time. In fact, Paramount Pictures thought it was some made-up comedy called A Can of Beans the whole time!
12. Before Sunrise (1995)
Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Andrea Eckert
Drama, Romance (1h 41m)
Technically, Before Sunrise wasn't improvised despite all the rumors that it was, which arose from its true-to-life realism. That said, Before Sunrise didn't have a solid script from start to finish, either.
In fact, director Richard Linklater worked closely with writers and actors to continually rework the scenes as they went through filming.
As the first film in the Before trilogy, Before Sunrise was shot in chronological order on a tiny budget, often relying on Vienna's public transportation system to emphasize its wandering traveler themes.
Linklater even stayed up until 3AM rewriting the finale the day before shooting, alongside stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
11. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
Directed by Judd Apatow
Starring Steve Carell, Catherine Keener, Paul Rudd
Comedy, Romance (1h 56m)
Like many comedies, a large portion of The 40-Year-Old Virgin was improvised. Actress Catherine Keener stated that director Judd Apatow never really told the cameraman to cut, which allowed many scenes to unfold and evolve naturally.
One particularly memorable scene is when Steve Carell—who plays the titular 40-year-old virgin—has his chest waxed. His reactions to the pain weren't scripted, and the grimacing laughters of his co-stars Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd are genuine. Comedy gold!
10. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Starring Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest
Comedy, Music (1h 22m)
Rob Reiner's cult mockumentary (stylized as This Is Spinal Tap: A Rockumentary by Martin Di Bergi) received acclaim for its humor and smart direction. It basically gave birth to the mockumentary subgenre.
Around 50 hours of improvised footage were recorded by the end of production, which were then relentlessly whittled down to less than an hour of screen time.
Rob Reiner, alongside starring actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, even went to the Writers Guild to ask that the performers be credited for their script contributions!
9. Iron Man (2008)
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 6m)
Given our current world full of superhero and multiverse movies, you'd never guess Iron Man was made on a whim. Today's big-budget Marvel blockbusters take tons of meticulous planning and choreography, but Iron Man didn't even have a full script to begin with.
Back then, Robert Downey Jr. was having a tough time in the media. About 30 writers passed on penning the script, and the studio wasn't entirely sold on the idea that a superhero film could be successful. So, director Jon Favreau pretty much went in blind.
In fact, Downey Jr.'s co-star Jeff Bridges confessed to arriving on set without a clue of what to do, and he was surprised to see the film end up being a box office success that launched the entire MCU.
8. Borat (2006)
Directed by Larry Charles
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell
Comedy (1h 24m)
Borat (or Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) is the second mockumentary on this list, and it's another iconic film built on improvised comedy and real-life gags.
While the sequel had a stable script, this first entry in Sacha Baron Cohen's comedies was born from unscripted interactions with the public.
Under Larry Charles's direction, Cohen poses as a Kazakh television journalist traveling through the US. The black-comedy stirred up lots of shocked, appalled, and hilarious reactions—and all of them were real!
7. My Son (2021)
Directed by Christian Carion
Starring James McAvoy, Claire Foy, Tom Cullen
Crime, Drama, Mystery (1h 35m)
Christian Carion's mystery thriller did technically have a script, but not all of the actors got to see it. The crew and most of the cast—including Claire Foy—were given a copy of the screenplay and months to rehearse. The main star, however, was given nothing.
James McAvoy admitted in an interview on The Graham Norton Show that all of his dialogue was made up on the spot as he improvised against his co-stars' scripted reactions.
With nothing but a loose outline to his name, McAvoy did an exceedingly good job, even if some scenes didn't go as planned.
6. Blue Valentine (2010)
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Starring Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, John Doman
Drama, Romance (1h 52m)
Derek Cianfrance's romantic drama Blue Valentine bites with realism, and he successfully tapped into its grainy and authentic feel by filming the scenes with a handheld camera.
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams star as the young and old versions of a couple whose marriage falls apart. In preparation, the two actors rented a home together and bought groceries on the same minimal budget that their characters had.
Why did they do this? To really know their roles and leave much of the dialogue to improvisation. Cianfrance even confessed that he got annoyed when the actors followed script without adding anything new.
Fun fact: The Blue Valentine scene where the two wander New York together? Completely unscripted!
5. Jaws (1975)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss
Adventure, Mystery, Thriller (2h 4m)
Jaws was essentially the first summer blockbuster ever made. The endlessly quotable classic, based on the 1974 novel by Peter Benchley, was the second in Steven Spielberg's lengthy filmography.
The young director wanted a natural feel to the thriller flick, so he often let the actors make up their own lines. In fact, they didn't even have a finished script before they launched out to sea and began filming!
Co-stars Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw practically hated each other on set, which translated well onto screen as rivals Hooper and Quint.
4. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez
Starring Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard
Horror, Mystery (1h 21m)
This one's probably not much of a shock given its iconic found footage style of filming that made it so famous.
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's iconic supernatural horror became an instant cult classic thanks to its use of gonzo filmmaking techniques that achieved its "recovered footage" atmosphere.
Myrick and Sánchez came up with the idea of the "Blair Witch" myth back in 1993, and five years later produced a micro 35-page script.
Actors Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard were left to improvise most of the dialogue—and with their success, The Blair Witch Project spawned a whole genre of found footage horrors.
3. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Directed by David Lean
Starring Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn
Adventure, Biography, Drama (3h 38m)
The lasting success and epic scope of Lawrence of Arabia may trick you into thinking that everything was meticulously planned, when really nothing could be further from the truth.
Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating. A lot of the production was thought out quite well. However, it's also true that director David Lean began filming Lawrence of Arabia without a finished script in hand.
Something like that might be a reasonable approach for small-budget indie flicks and free-flowing comedies. But an almost-four-hour historical epic as ambitious as this one? Now that's certainly risky.
Funny enough, once a finalized script was scrambled together, co-stars Peter O'Toole and Jack Hawkins still ended up improvising their scenes together, much to Lean's frustration!
2. Casablanca (1942)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid
Drama, Romance, War (1h 42m)
Though now considered one of the greatest films of all time, Warner Bros. assumed Casablanca would be just another run-of-the-mill war film, so they didn't waste too much energy on pre-production.
What's surprising is that there's still no completed script for Casablanca in existence. In fact, the film's most famous line ("Here's looking at you, kid") was made up by Humphrey Bogart on the spot!
After it was chaotically compiled into a loose screenplay and then filmed, Michael Curtiz's drama was rushed to release for publicity reasons ("Operation Torch" had just broken out in North Africa). It was never expected to be considered one of the greats, yet here we are!
1. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
Drama, Mystery, War (2h 27m)
Apocalypse Now had a famously hellish production, involving all manner of issues from drunk actors, to heart attacks on set, to bad weather destroying sets entirely.
Due to its multitude of problems, much of the movie had to be reworked in real-time. Francis Ford Coppola filmed for hours at a time to allow Marlon Brando to ramble (as he was unable to remember his lines).
The famous opening scene of Martin Sheen drunk in the hotel room didn't follow a strict script, either. The actor really was drunk, and he really did cut his hand punching that mirror. Yikes!