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Hey, that ad-lib wasn't in the script!

With writers on strike, those on set walk a fine line when improvising.

December 01, 2007|John Horn and Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole had been riding all day, chasing bad guys across the chaparral in the western "Appaloosa." As actors Viggo Mortensen (who was playing Hitch) and Ed Harris (Cole) sat around a campfire filming a scene on the Galisteo, N.M., set, Mortensen improvised a line. "I'm about ready," he grumbled, "to make a pair of chaps out of that Godforsaken mule."

It was the kind of ad-libbing that happens on almost any movie and, given Mortensen's cranky but erudite "Appaloosa" character, a perfectly fitting riff. But was the actor being a quick-on-his-feet movie star or a strike breaker?

As it happens, Mortensen's new dialogue was kosher, but it illustrated the gray area affecting scores of movies in production. If Mortensen had been a Writers Guild of America member, as many actors including costar Harris are, and if he had typed up his new line, he might well have been headed to the WGA cooler.

Most of the drama surrounding the 4-week-old WGA strike against movie studios and television networks has unfolded on the picket lines and across the negotiating table. (Although bargaining is set to resume Tuesday, the parties appear as far apart as ever.) Yet even as writers and studio chiefs clash over Internet reruns and TV networks scramble to fill their prime-time schedules, the real work of making movies has pretty much continued unabated.

Several high-profile movies have delayed the start of production because of unfinished screenplays (Ron Howard's "Da Vinci Code" prequel "Angels & Demons" among them), but scores of other films have plowed ahead, with dramatically different on-set dynamics. The strike has eliminated habitual daily script rewrites and left filmmakers -- and even some WGA members -- unsure about what is permissible.

Ben Stiller, who is directing, producing and starring in the comedy "Tropic Thunder," walked the WGA picket lines late last month during his lunch break from filming the comedy. Asked if all new writing on the film had ceased, Stiller was hard to pin down, suggesting some ad-libbing was still going on.

"It's a fine line," Stiller said. "We had to do as much writing as possible before the strike hit, [but] at the end of the day, this is how the process works."

The strike has affected film comedies in particular, because many of Hollywood's funniest lines -- Steve Carell's nonsensical, expletive-laden tirade against an aesthetician in "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," for instance -- are made up on the fly. Although actors are still free to improvise, they can't be directly coached into what to say, creating bizarre situations in which writers and directors are using every technique short of hypnosis to get actors to change dialogue.

In the pre-strike world, when A-list writer-director-producers Adam McKay and Judd Apatow were making their comedies ("Knocked Up," "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby"), they typically shouted out new dialogue during filming. Now they've had to zip their lips.

"We all had a bit of a moral dilemma over it," said McKay, who recently finished directing "Step Brothers." The comedy, produced by Apatow, was written by star Will Ferrell and McKay, both of whom are members of the WGA.

"I'm not kidding -- for the first two days when the strike started I was sick to my stomach," McKay said.

The director added that he, Ferrell, costar John C. Reilly and Apatow briefly considered walking off the movie, but they decided instead to curtail McKay's directing to stage direction, mood and "corralling and cajoling, as opposed to outright spelling it out." McKay and Ferrell would usually hang around the monitors and kick around ideas, developing new material during scenes, but they had to force themselves to stop.

"It was really unpleasant," McKay said. "We were joking about that. 'I have an idea, but I'm not going to say it. But can you guys go into this area a little more . . .?' "

Case in point: During a Christmas dinner scene in "Step Brothers," McKay desperately wanted actor Richard Jenkins to say a certain line, but rather than shout the new words out as he would normally, McKay wandered on set and danced around the boundaries of the strike rules.

"I would phrase questions," McKay said. "I wanted him to say, 'I'm sick of all these liberal tax raisers.' I wanted him to become a Republican. And I couldn't say that. So I had to kind of just suggest it. 'What else would happen to this guy? Would his politics change . . .?'

"It was an incredibly fine line," the director said, adding that he was angry. "Not at the Writers Guild, but just at the strike situation. It was really frustrating. But it's certainly the least I could do."

It's unclear whether McKay's approach violates guild policy. In the guild's collective bargaining agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, certain provisions allow non-WGA members, such as actors, to make small changes to a film's content during shooting.

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