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Filmmakers: Ivan Malekin & Sarah Jayne
Story: How We Shot Our Improvised Feature In a Single Night
Not only did we shoot a feature in a single night. And not only was it entirely improvised (no script, no shot list, no regrets), but we decided to do it on the craziest and most chaotic night of the year... New Year’s Eve.
The film is called Friends, Foes & Fireworks and it explores relationships, love, friendship, and the truths we try but fail to keep to ourselves.
We have been asked one question numerous times: “How did you actually manage to shoot this in a single night?”
The second question, often unspoken, but lingering on lips nonetheless is “…and have a story and structure that actually makes sense without a script?”
This won't come as a surprise, but planning is the key.
There might be no script, but there is an outline, a breakdown of each scene, story beats to hit, and detailed character histories and relationships developed first by ourselves as directors, then refined over multiple back and forth discussions with our cast.
Below, we take you through a few key stages in how we managed to make the film with a heavy focus on rehearsing and preparing the cast, as we believe the art of working with actors is often overlooked by new filmmakers, and we even see rehearsals sometimes skipped all together.
We may have filmed in one night. But we took months to prepare for that night.
Before we even begin discussing the concept, we need to find the right actors for the film.
Not every actor can handle improvisation. It’s understandable, as we come from so much structure in film—hit your mark, say your line like this, don't tilt your head so much, etc. So releasing all shackles and letting actors do their own thing and carry their own conversations is a big ask.
That’s why we needed to actively search for actors comfortable in such a free flowing environment.
We do this by testing actors in auditions, speaking to them in character, seeing how they respond when forced to think on their feet.
We also ask a lot of questions. Hear the actor’s views on the history, the relationships, the opinions and values the character holds.
We stress there are no right or wrong answers—we are as open to learning what the character could be and where they could go as the actor themselves.
Once we have our cast locked in, we begin with one-on-one discussions, breaking down the entire character background and scene by scene outline.
With the actor we analyze what drives their character, what they are feeling behind each interaction, and where they believe they stand in each relationship. We record everything and make detailed notes.
Then the actors meet. They compare notes, histories, ideas. They role-play in character. For example two characters from the film, Lucinda and Summer, who have a long history of friendship including a sexual affair, meet at a favourite cafe and share a coffee date in character.
Then the actors come back to us, and as a group, we go over notes again, addressing any inconsistencies, answering any lingering questions, making sure everyone, including us, is on the same page.
As a whole group we also play improv games to break the ice and build team camaraderie; sometimes even tailoring the games to play in character or learn more about each others histories.
But what else can you do in a rehearsal apart from play games and hold discussions when there is no script to learn?
The answer is recreate history.
We film scenes from the past that the characters have shared to give each actor common ground. These scenes might refine history or fill in any gaps.
One such rehearsal scene in Friends, Foes & Fireworks was a dinner party that went horribly wrong and instigated tension in the group. Our actors improvised for 45 minutes while we captured it on camera, the party degenerating into tears. It was emotional and it was powerful.
Then, the two characters at the heart of the tension, Fiona and Zoe, were the first to meet as the film begins. The awkwardness in the opening scene is palpable, a direct extension from the rehearsal.
It is powerful, as your history isn’t just written on a page, but it is experienced as a group, like a vivid collective memory with exact lines, exact reactions, exact same experiences to draw upon for each actor to hone their performance.
You can view more info about recreating history, examples of improvised games, and additional exercises with cast in this bonus video from our Udemy course .
Choosing the right crew is just as important as choosing the right cast.
Our Director of Photography, Stephen Ramplin, came from a news background so he was already familiar with the 'run and gun' style of shooting we wanted to use – a fly on the wall type of look, as if we were eavesdropping on the conversations of real people. So being at the right place at the right time is what Steve does best.
Following this mindset, we hired people who had strong skills in at least two aspects of filming – indie professionals – as we knew we would use a tiny crew to move quickly and be inconspicuous in the anarchy of New Year’s Eve. So our crew taking on dual or even triple roles was a must.
Scheduling was also vitally important. Not only did we have an overall schedule, but everyone involved had their own individual schedules with separate breaks, locations, timings all factored in. But how to you schedule without a script?
Well this one comes from a bit of experience. We’ve worked on a lot of sets, seen good and efficient teams in action and seen the opposite – inexperienced teams or egotistical individuals wasting too much time.
You get to know how long things like setting up lights, actors in make-up, getting mic’d up, etc. should take. As a rough guide, give a minimum 45 minutes for any new lighting set-up, more or less double that for the first set-up of the night, and have room in the schedule (for your own peace of mind) to take a little longer because it will generally take a little longer.
So do a schedule, give times that you want everyone to be ready to go, but have a secondary time as a back-up in your own head so you will still be comfortable and feel in control of the schedule without letting it get away from you and panicking.
As the directors (and in our case producers and assistant directors and caterers and editors and B camera operators too) we always wanted to remain calm and confident as our attitude affects the morale of the entire team. We are asking our cast and crew to pull off a mammoth task — shoot a feature in a single night. We needed to be self-assured and lead by example.
Co-directing and using two cameras also made it possible to shoot certain scenes simultaneously which was a very big help.
Even when we were all in one place such as the apartment in the opening scenes, one director would film a scene on the balcony while the other director would film a scene in the bathroom. And we also kept things limited to two or three takes at most—there simply wasn’t enough time for more.
But despite the best laid plans, there was still trepidation going in. Could we really do this in a single night? Could we make this improvisational approach work without the story falling apart? Would we have enough footage (and would it be usable) to edit a feature film?
It was that intense dinner party rehearsal mentioned earlier that boosted our confidence. The cast nailed it, characters bouncing off each other, listening and reacting. It was emotional and it was powerful. And it was proof of concept for us. This story would work.
In our experience we’ve always found you don’t need to wait for everything to be perfect and the stars to align before you take the plunge. Prepare as best you can, of course, but take that first step, take positive action to make your film happen, and inevitably things will fall into place.
Trust yourself to learn as you go. Back yourself to find a way. Improvise.
We go into much more detail about the entire process, including coming up with story ideas and the hook, specific crew positions and equipment, post production, troubleshooting, distribution and marketing, legalities and more, in an online educational course we have constructed for Udemy called “How to Shoot & Direct an Improvised Feature Film in 24 Hours.”
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