You can sometimes use improvisation to solve a writing problem, and sometimes an acting problem. The party scene near the start was scripted, but it never worked and eventually everyone gave up trying to fix it. Elaine May said, “You’ll just have to throw a party.” You can’t make it real on paper. So I called an ex-student of mine to bring his acting class to the set for the party scene. The only person who literally improvised was Bill Murray. You can’t write that stuff. What I did was make a list of what had to happen in the scene. To Dustin and Bill I said, “What are your obligations here?” What do I, as a director, want the audience to know by the end of the scene?
One of the things, for example, is that Michael’s roommate is a playwright who is so esoteric that his work is essentially unsalable, and that Michael is going to try to raise eight thousand dollars and produce his play. Another is that Michael has to be established as a chauvinist. This is a guy in his mid-forties; he’s unmarried and lives with a roommate. He is incapable of treating women with any respect. This was important because it works against the change that happens by the end of the story. I went back to the spine of a man who becomes a better man for having been a woman. I wanted to set that up at the party and show how that character was not entirely wholesome. By the end of the film, we see how he’s changed. We wanted to start him out as far away as possible from where we wanted him to end up. One of the ways was to show him dealing ineptly and caringly with a baby, and then we had him make passes at three different women using the same line with each of them.
I began to visualize the scene in two sets of three beats. Dustin and Bill have three beats each. The whole structure of the party is a series of intercuts between the two of them. For Bill I needed a table of people that slowly deserts him. I asked him, “Can you make up something that sounds dangerously close to being profound but is actually nonsense?” He said, “Sure, I can do that.” I didn’t know what he was going to say. With Bill Murray what you see in the film is the first take every time. The extras in the scene didn’t know it was meant to be nonsense. I didn’t tell them. Take one he says, “I wish I had a theater that was only opens when it rains.” As soon as take one was over, I told some of the extras to step out of the shot. I added some more empty beer bottles, messed up his hair, unbuttoned his shirt, and he was ready for the next take with “I don’t like it when people come up to me and say they liked my play.” The third is, “I did a thing about suicides of American Indians.” With Dustin it was as simple as telling him to say the same thing to each girl: “You’re an actress?”
Excerpt from The Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation, compiled and edited by George Stevens, Jr.