26 November 2008

69. Dog Day Afternoon

Let's talk about improvisation. It probably doesn't mean what you think it means. What it doesn't mean is actors making up the story. What it does mean is actors using a very specific structure with very specific limits to world-build -- with their own dialogue (often corollary to what is already written), their own actions, their own character traits -- in aid of a very specific goal. In cinema, oftentimes that goal is naturalism.

That's the case here. We get a montage of a hot summer day in New York to set the stage, and we get a pretty little Elton John song on the soundtrack. Whoops! Turns out the music is actually diegetic: it is on the radio of a car with three men in it, parked in front of a building.

Those men are robbers, and that building is a bank.

The director, one of our absolute finest, Sidney Lumet, had a screenplay that he liked. That's because the screenplay is good -- the set-up is economical, the structure is quite sound, it represents the true events in a purposeful way, the twists and reversals are startling, and it is even pretty damn funny at times. But what Lumet wanted to do is make the film as realistic and ground-level as possible. He wanted to put the audience inside the bank with those men to show that, even though these men are not to be admired, there are reasons for them to do what they are doing and they are humans too. To get us into the moment with those men, there are various cinematic tricks used: an almost real-time narrative, no soundtrack, natural lighting.

But the most important is the improvisation.

Lumet rehearsed his actors for weeks before the shoot began. He stuck them in a room and worked with them over and over to embody the characters and know them inside and out. He gave them a scene, maybe like this: "Sonny says goodbye to his male lover over the phone" or "Sonny dictates his will to one of the bank tellers" and had them work the scene out from the ground up, figuring out blocking, movement, action, and sometimes, new dialogue. By the time they shot the film, some things had changed from the shooting script, but it was still the same movie that Pierson wrote -- the same intentions, the same structure, the same story beats and character arcs. Now it was fleshed out and the actors were able to embody the characters as closely to flesh-and-blood human beings as you can get in filmed cinema, with tics and stammers and mood swings and sweat stains and spontaneous bursts of language and humanity.

And that's improvisation.