While everyone knows that movies are made from carefully crafted (and constantly rewritten) screenplays, film is still an artistic medium and there’s always room for improvisation. In fact, some of cinema’s most memorable moments have come from things that either weren’t written at all or were tweaked by a writer or director in the heat of the moment. This is just one more reason why they call it “movie magic.”
Paste Magazine has gathered ten classic moments wherein the action onscreen was either real, improvised on the spot, or enhanced through a director or actor withholding vital information from a performer – and the results are amazing. From the behind-the-scenes story of Alien’s infamous chestburster scene to the genuine looks on the actor’s faces when they see the chocolate room factory in Willy Wonka for the first time, it’s hard to imagine any of these scenes being nearly as memorable without the improvisation and secrecy that inspired them. Here are a few of our favorites.
Apocalypse Now is an amazing film filled with unforgettable moments, but the opening, chronicling Martin Sheen’s complete mental breakdown, wasn’t just another case of great acting. Sheen was celebrating his birthday when the film was shot and was genuinely drunk during the filming. When he smashes his hand, that was 100% real – as are the ensuing blood smears. We’ve heard of method acting and getting into a character’s skin, but this scene goes above and beyond when it comes to cinematic realism.
Sheen wasn’t the only actor to suffer for his craft, though. Comedian Steve Carell’s infamous chest-waxing scene in the Judd Apatow comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin was disturbingly real. Yes, that was Carell’s actual chest hair being yanked off with waxy strips – and in typical male fashion, the actor had no clue how much it was going to hurt before shooting the scene (hint: ask a lady next time). In the clip, Carell assures viewers that he thinks it will hurt, but significantly less than everyone keeps telling him. He’s quickly proven wrong, with hilarious results, as we see shot after shot of him having hair violently ripped from his chest – with each tear being followed by a hilariously vulgar stream of profanity. There are some real gems in there, but our favorite is undoubtedly his scream of “Kelly Clarkson!” We’ve uttered that name in anger on more than one occasion ourselves.
Finally, there’s the fascinating tale behind the chestburster scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien. John Hurt has unwittingly become the carrier for the Xenomorph baby and it’s delivery time in one of the film’s most iconic sequences. Shot during a dinner scene, the hideous beast literally explodes from Hurt’s chest in a shower of blood and gore. It’s a fantastic sequence, made even more impressive because the cast didn’t know what was coming. Scott and the crew kept the effect a secret – allowing the actors to know that something would happen, but not what. So, when the little monster pops out of Hurt's chest before scurrying off into the bowels of the Nostromo, the horrified reactions of the cast are real. Who needs acting when you can genuinely gross out and terrify your performers?
For more scenes, be sure to head over to Paste – who’ve done an excellent job cataloguing these scenes for your enjoyment.