Unscripted Madness: 10 Unexpected Improvisations That Made the Final Cut

Unscripted Madness: 10 Unexpected Improvisations That Made the Final Cut
Image credit: Legion-Media

Sometimes, the script is just a suggestion.

1. Being John Malkovich (1999)

Director Spike Jonze's surreal comedy-drama, Being John Malkovich, is remembered for its bizarre plot, but one standout moment was completely unscripted. In a scene where John Malkovich's character angrily walks along the side of the New Jersey Turnpike, an extra in a passing car yells, Hey Malkovich, think fast! and hurls a beer can at his head. The extra, it turns out, was an off-duty construction worker who had been drinking, and his improvised line was so perfectly timed that Jonze decided to keep it in the film. The movie, with its oddball premise and unforgettable performances, holds an impressive 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

2. The Usual Suspects (1995)

The lineup scene in Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects has become one of the film's most iconic sequences. What many don't know is that the laughter and camaraderie displayed by the cast in this scene was largely improvised. The actors kept breaking character and laughing due to Benicio Del Toro's uncontrollable flatulence. The director liked the genuine interaction among the actors so much that he kept the giggles in the final cut. The film earned Kevin Spacey an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and enjoys an 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

3. Zombieland (2009)

Zombieland is an entertaining mix of horror, comedy, and Bill Murray. In one scene, Woody Harrelson's character asks Bill Murray if he has any regrets, to which Murray responds, 'Garfield, maybe.' This off-the-cuff response referencing Murray's regret over starring in the critically panned Garfield movies was entirely improvised. The zombie comedy was a box office hit, earning more than $102 million worldwide, and holds a solid 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while Garfield has a measly 15% 'Rotten' score.

4. Good Will Hunting (1997)

While Good Will Hunting is known for its brilliant screenplay by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, one of the film's most touching scenes was completely improvised. Robin Williams, who plays therapist Sean Maguire, tells a story about his wife farting in her sleep. The anecdote was not in the script, and you can see Matt Damon genuinely laughing and the camera shaking a bit from the cameraman chuckling along. Williams's unscripted humor added a layer of authenticity to the film, which earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

5. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

In the midst of the bustling New York City streets, a taxi driver nearly runs over Dustin Hoffman's character. Hoffman, fully immersed in character, bangs on the hood of the taxi and yells, 'I'm walkin' here!' That exclamation has since become one of the most famous improvised lines in film history. The film, a grim portrayal of a wannabe hustler and a con man, ended up winning three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, despite its initial X rating.

6. The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is filled with iconic scenes, but Jack Nicholson's improvised line, 'Here's Johnny!', in the infamous door-axing scene, is one for the books. This was not in Stephen King's original novel, nor was it in the screenplay. Nicholson, channeling the intro of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, decided to inject a bit of dark humor into the terrifying scene. The Shining, although initially met with mixed reviews, has grown to be a revered classic with an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

7. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

In another Kubrick-directed film, A Clockwork Orange, there's a chilling scene where Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of droogs break into a writer's house. During the brutal home invasion, Alex begins to sing Singin' in the Rain while dancing and causing havoc. McDowell improvised the song and dance on the spot, and Kubrick liked it so much that he quickly bought the rights to the song. The film, notorious for its graphic violence and disturbing themes, is considered a landmark in motion picture for its exploration of dystopian youth culture.

8. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Continuing on the Kubrick train, in Full Metal Jacket, the foul-mouthed, insult-hurling drill sergeant, played by R. Lee Ermey, stole the show. Ermey, a former Marine drill instructor himself, was initially hired as a technical advisor but ended up getting the role because of his improvisational skills. His relentless and creative insults were largely improvised, giving the film an element of brutal realism. The war film, split into two parts, remains a significant entry in Kubrick's repertoire, earning a respectable 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

9. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

In Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, the scene where Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, dances around before torturing a cop was originally much simpler. Tarantino's instructions were just to play with the cop, but Madsen decided to take it one step further. He improvised the disturbing dance to the tune of Stuck in the Middle with You, turning the scene into one of the film's most memorable.

10. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

The chest waxing scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin was an unplanned moment of comedy gold. Steve Carell's character was originally scripted to get a small patch of hair removed, but Carell, who had never waxed his chest before, suggested doing the entire thing for real. His painful reactions and improvised expletives were all too real, adding to the authenticity and hilarity of the scene. The film, a breakout success, made over $177 million at the box office and solidified Carell's reputation as a comedic genius.