Bowfinger: Movies, Improvisation, and The Art of Keeping It Together

Universal Pictures

In college, I remember hearing a story that goes something like this: a professor gives out an art assignment to students by giving them each the same size blank canvas, the same brush, and a pot of the same paint. Their assignment is to paint whatever they want, but to be ready to hand it in at the end of the hour. At the end of class, one student has done nothing, seemingly having used the time to nap. When the professor comes by and asks what the student is doing, the student sits up, picks up the brush, dips it into the pigment, and makes one stroke of color across the canvas.

Okay. Just put that in the back of your mind, I’ll come back to it.

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When I was studying theater in college, most of the time I was studying it right alongside a young man named Nate. By the end of our time at school, Nate and I had spent a lot of time together in classes and doing projects, and I knew he was ready to head west and pursue a life in the movies. Good-looking, smart, talented, ambitious, and charming, if anyone from our little liberal arts college was going to make it in Hollywood, it would be Nate.

So, about five years after he’s moved out to L.A., finally feeling confident he knows how to handle himself as a professional actor, Nate gets a call to audition for a small part in an upcoming feature film. A few days after his audition, he gets a call back, but it’s with a twist he hasn’t encountered before: He is going to meet the director. Nate remembers thinking at the time, “Why is the director going to be there? That doesn’t usually happen for these smaller roles.” And then the kicker: the director is Frank Oz. Nate thinks, “What?!” But, being a professional, Nate shows up to the callback, prepared with his lines and audition skills, ready to take on whatever comes his way.

At the callback, Oz watches Nate do his audition, and then he asks him to do something unexpected: to put the script down and improvise a scene. Oz wants to see if Nate can make up a scenario only loosely based on the script. Yet again, Nate finds himself thinking, “What?! I’ve never been asked this before.”

Now listen, we spent four years at a good school learning how to read a script, focus a Fresnel, design a costume, memorize a monologue, direct a play, and hone our paper-writing skills. Though we were often encouraged to interpret texts, we were not encouraged to improvise. Nevertheless, there stands Nate in front of a famous movie director expecting him to do just that. So, calling on all his skills, Nate makes something up that impresses Oz enough that he lands the part. Nate will be “Store Clerk.”

The movie Nate has landed a part in is called Bowfinger. Written by Steve Martin, the idea for the script was rolling around in Martin’s head for more than 10 years before he finally wrote it. Oz and Martin had worked together before on Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Housesitter, so this was their fourth collaboration. As with the previous films, the overall tone is warm and lighthearted, but the script wacky and absurd, cleverly concealing sharp sticks of humor and satire.

Essentially the plot of Bowfinger is as follows: Down-on-his-luck movie director Bobby Bowfinger (Martin), is up late at night reading a sci-fi screenplay. Written by his Iranian accountant/part-time receptionist Afrim (Adam Alexi-Malle), Bowfinger is convinced this script is his ticket to the big time. He frantically makes calls to his crew for an emergency morning meeting. Bowfinger’s got $2,184 in cash, a couple of tenuous industry connections, a healthy dose of optimism, a massive store of bravado, and a certain degree of ethical flexibility. Throw in a similarly flexible ingenue (Heather Graham), an aging actress (Christine Baranski), a movie studio gofer with access to executives and their fancy cars (Jamie Kennedy), and a crew of amenable Mexican guys, and Bowfinger’s film—the absurdly titled Chubby Rain—is off and running. They just need to secure an internationally famous action movie star to seal the deal.Enter Eddie Murphy, playing the part of Kit Ramsey, an internationally famous action movie star. Bowfinger finagles a way to meet Ramsey personally and pitch the script to him, but the meeting does not go well. Ramsey may have money, fame, and charisma, but he’s also paranoid, manic, and hears Ted Kennedy’s voice telling him that the Laker Girls need to be “taken down a notch.” He is under the “care” of Terry Stricter (Terence Stamp), the head of an organization known as MindHead. Though it is inferred that MindHead is a sort of dubious wellness cult/institute, Stricter actually gives Kit decent advice, assuring Ramsey that there are no aliens, that he should stay away from cheerleaders, and strive to “keep it together.” Ramsey repeats rapid-fire: “keepittogether, keepittogether, keepittogether.” Of course, Bowfinger doesn’t know any of this about Ramsey, he only knows that he needs him for this film, and he’s going to get him one way or another.

Bowfinger needs this film because, in his mind, he doesn’t have a lot of time left in Hollywood. He tells a buddy why he thinks his time is running out, saying: “I’m 49 years old. Admittedly, I could get away with 44, 41, maybe 38, but when you hit 50 they don’t hire you anymore. It’s like they can smell 50.” Bowfinger’s got a dream, and making it come true is going to require some fancy footwork.

Keepittogether, keepittogether, keepittogether.

*

Okay, so back to Nate. A few months after he lands the part, he is on location at a small boutique serving as the clothing store in the film. The scene is simple—Nate as “Store Clerk” is selling an outfit to Murphy as Ramsey. It’s close to go-time and the cast is rehearsing, but there’s no Murphy. Nate is rehearsing with a rehearsal double, once more finding himself wondering “What?! Is Eddie Murphy such a big star he doesn’t even rehearse?” As it turns out, having a rehearsal double is part of Murphy’s process. The star has a limited amount of time for this shoot, and he’s going “method” to convey a real feel of spontaneity. So, lights are up, gaffers tape is down, focus is pulled, the cameras and sound are rolling, and finally up rolls Murphy in a town car. He walks into the boutique, sits down, and Nate looks at him and says: “How can I help you?” Nate remembers with a laugh that Murphy was supposed to say something like, “I’m looking for something in the latest style.” But instead the first thing he says, looking right into Nate’s eyes is, “So. You got some cool shit?”

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Nate has been around a lot of movie folks during his 25 years in the industry. He said that he’s seen his share of actors who show up on set like it’s just any old job, like they can’t wait for lunch break. They’re good at their job, but there’s not a lot else. Nate told me this was not the case with Murphy. “He just has this natural intensity. It was just obvious that he’s so smart and there’s a reason he’s a major star. On a movie set, there is never any question when you are a peon—you are completely aware that you are small fry. As an actor though, you have to do your job. You may be freaking out that Eddie Murphy is talking to you, but your job is just to say ‘Yep! Yes, whatever you want.’ I was completely in awe of him.” And with good reason. Murphy was not only doing a shoot with limited time, he was playing two characters.

About halfway through the film we meet Jiff, a man who looks identical to Ramsey, except for dorky glasses, sticky-out ears, and a goofy haircut. He is a gentle, bashful sweetheart who would rather get coffee for the crew than act. He is the polar opposite of Ramsey’s manic leading man. Jiff is—as Bowfinger calls him—an “innocent.” And Murphy nails the portrayal. When faced with the bared breasts of his Chubby Rain co-star, Jiff grins widely, showing off a full, silvery set of braces. With all the awe and embarrassment we would usually ascribe to a 14-year-old, a wide-eyed Jiff whispers to her, “You’re doing great! You’re gonna be a star!” Bowfinger, as an insider film about movies, goes after everything. It skewers Hollywood actor types from sexy starlet to waning diva. It jabs at studio executives who only care about their cars and reveals the surprising savvy to be found in even the lowliest of crew members. It films on locations we associate with the high-life, like gated mansions, sunny sidewalk cafes, and Rodeo Drive. But Bowfinger also cleverly comments on racism, immigration, questionable self-help gurus, and even one of Martin’s exes. It is a movie that reveals ever-deeper levels of insider jokes and satire with each successive viewing, all the while bursting with the singular glee and lunacy of Steve Martin, as seen through the compassionate lens of Frank Oz.

*

So, back to the shoot and the “cool shit” line. Nate remembers being a bit shell-shocked, but also knowing, “Okay, we’re improvising again. I’ve heard about this. I think it’s ‘say yes, and,’ come up with something else.” So, he works this scene with Murphy a couple hours, and as Nate recalls it, “NOTHING the guy said was from the script. It was ALL improvised. I remember thinking that there’s all these people, and all this money going into this complicated process, and yet we’re just making stuff up!’” So, Nate does his best to not fuck up, staying focused on improvising with a major movie star as his improv partner. It was Nate’s turn to try and keepittogether, keepittogether, keepittogether.

At this point, I should clarify the boutique scene as it relates to the rest of the movie. Bobby Bowfinger is actually outside the boutique in a parked van, waiting for the star to emerge from the store so he can film him. You see, Ramsey will be in Chubby Rain, he just doesn’t know it: Bowfinger’s crew is secretly following Ramsey, filming the star’s daily comings and goings with the plan of incorporating the footage into scenes of their movie. Meanwhile, Bowfinger is telling the cast and crew that camouflaging the camera and keeping hidden is part of Ramsey’s acting method. The Chubby Rain cast is impressed by Ramsey’s commitment, and how he’s able to make his fear and paranoia “look so real” when he interacts with them.

It turns out that there is a method to all this madness, because in the right atmosphere, spontaneity and fear can lead to brilliance.

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Improvisation is a word worth its weight and worth a wait. True improvisation is something that takes experience, time, and patience. It’s a skill that professionals recognize in other professionals, and it has absolutely nothing to do with faking or winging it. Improvisation is an amazing act of creation, and when you see someone who really knows what they’re doing, it is beautiful.

Improvisation is not something we normally think about with movies. It takes a helluva lot of planning, people, and resources to make even an independent movie on a shoestring budget. But artistic improvisation is essential to creating any movie with soul. At the center of Bowfinger are Martin and Murphy, two A-list actors and celebrities, both of whom first gained notice as stand-up comics. It takes a lot of work to be a successful stand-up; you can’t wing it. You have to know your material, you have to work it, edit it, and practice it. You have to hone it, you have to own it, and then, when you put your material in front of a live audience, you have to be prepared to think fast on your feet, because a joke can bomb, or a heckler can get disorderly.

But sometimes, as is the case with Martin and Murphy’s careers, the stand-up transcends the venue and becomes more than just a performance, and it moves into the realm of a “moment.” Martin’s “A Wild and Crazy Guy” and Murphy’s “Delirious” were platinum-level performances, the result of the hard work and talent of two unique humorists, and each became cultural benchmarks. In the hands of people such as these, the written screenplay for a film is sometimes merely a jumping-off point.

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I had the opportunity to speak with Frank Oz directly about Bowfinger, via a phone interview, and I asked him specifically about improvisation. He said, “People love the idea of improvisation, and they often take it too far. You can’t really improvise unless you have a script to improvise from. The majority of what Eddie did was written by Steve. The majority of what everybody did was written by Steve. But, once we had done a take, I did encourage them to try something on their own.” In fact, Oz estimates that only about 10 percent of Murphy’s lines in the final cut were improvisations, but they were scenes that Oz chose for a reason.

Oz said that in any film, his goal is always for a scene to be “alive.” If a moment isn’t “alive,” the director will use all the tools in his crafting kit to help get it there: whether it’s extra takes and repetition, reworking the dialogue in a read-through session, speeding up a scene or even the occasional post-production edit, like adding a slow-motion effect. With Bowfinger, one tool that worked to Oz’s advantage to catch that “alive” feeling, was Murphy’s choice to “go method,” and his willingness to riff on a scene.

In the scenes where Murphy as Ramsey is approached by other actors from the Chubby Rain crew, the fear and paranoia expressed by the confused film star are real. Oz said, “When you have feelings that are fearful, you can’t really do lines that make sense. When you are afraid, or you’re scared or excited, you really don’t speak in a logical manner. That scene was the perfect time for him [Murphy] to riff, because he was scared to death of this crazy woman (Baranski).”

A scene where Jiff is being interviewed to stand in as Ramsey’s double was also entirely improvised. Oz and Martin had prepared about 20 interview questions for Murphy to answer as Jiff, though they ended up only using a couple of jokes in the final cut. There’s also a scene early in Bowfinger when Ramsey is shouting at his manager to find him a decent script, blaming not only his manager for failing, but society as well. Murphy spouts off an epically funny, improvised rant on systemic racism that foreshadowed the #OscarsSoWhite moment 18 years later.

Of course, improvisation has been an influential part of the way Frank Oz works. Researching this essay, I ended up watching Muppet Guys Talking, a one-hour documentary starring Oz and four other actors who helped bring the beloved fuzzy creatures to life. A major theme in the documentary is how the actors developed their characters by just playing around with each other and seeing what happened. They were encouraged to give new things a try—to improvise. When I asked Oz about this, he said “Jim [Henson] was the boss, but he encouraged everyone to be a part of the creative process.” Oz said that while collaboration is the key to all his work now, it was not always the case. “I got that all from Jim,” Oz told me.

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Bowfinger is essentially the story of a desperate band of Hollywood would-bes, outsiders, and optimists who all want to succeed, and who are all trying to keep it together. The cast and crew of Chubby Rain may be working on a wing and a prayer, but they are not unprepared. They are ready for anything to happen, and ready to seize on the opportunities that may come their way. And trust me, it will pay off.

Inevitably, the climax occurs at that beloved Hollywood film location, the Griffith Observatory. In a brilliantly choreographed scene of chaos, paranoia, and frantic pacing, Terry Stricter and his MindHead goons descend from their black helicopters a la deus ex machina, exposing Bowfinger’s camera and crew to the hapless Ramsey. Bowfinger’s charade has been revealed, and we fear that the little-movie-that-could, won’t. But we should know better than to count Bowfinger Pictures International out of the game. In the end, the dedication of his crew to getting the shot, Ramsey’s inability to follow Stricter’s advice, and Bowfinger’s ethical flexibility come in handy. They cut a deal to get Chubby Rain released, complete with red carpet premier and Ramsey as the star.

When I told Frank Oz that I was focusing on improvisation for this Bowfinger piece, he said that while it was an interesting angle, he disagreed that it was the film’s main theme. “These people love the movies, and they believe in this movie. Their only sin is they have no talent. Steve’s face at the premiere of Chubby Rain, when Bowfinger realizes his dream has come true—that purity—that is the pure and happy heart of the movie.”

*

Near the end of my conversation with Nate, he told me another story from his day on set: It’s lunch time, and he walks to the craft services tent. Steve Martin is sitting at a table with Christine Baranski, and there are some other cast and crew (including a young John Cho). Over by the food, Nate spies Gary Coleman, the actor who gained fame as a child on Diff’rent Strokes. Coleman is wearing a security guard outfit, and Nate says he remembers thinking “Oh, now that is killer! I wanna talk to him.” So, he goes over and says “Hi, man! What are you doing here?” Coleman replies “I’m doing security.” Nate says “Oh, when are they shooting your scene?” Coleman says, “No man, I’m working. I’m a security guard.”

Fascinated, Nate ends up having this long chat with Coleman over lunch, just talking about how hard it is to be an actor, the realities of life, fame, money, family—the whole wild ride that was his real-life story of trying to keep it together. Nate recalled this story with a bit of introspection, noting that it was strange to remember the conversation knowing the final arc of Coleman’s life, which culminated in the actor’s death in 2010 at the age of 42.

Last year, Nate moved out of L.A. to Atlanta. Though he and his wife are still working actors and film editors, one part of their decision to leave was wanting to raise their two young children up a bit away from the very real pressures and influences of La La Land.

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Improvisation is a life skill. And like other life skills, you have to learn how to do it. I spent the better part of 20 years learning how to play the violin. I started by practicing how to hold a margarine box taped to a plastic ruler, but eventually I got a real instrument, learned where to place my fingers, hold the bow, and how to read music. As I improved, I learned how to play musically, prepare a solo piece, play with others and how to “be” a musician. The reason you put in all this time is that in performance, the proverbial shit happens. Sometimes, what happens is your own deal, like when I didn’t spend enough time memorizing a piece. Sometimes, there’s the unexpected, like the time a gust of wind blew our entire orchestra’s music off our stands during the middle of an outdoor concert. But sometimes, what fate throws your way is an opportunity to make all your hard work and preparation transform into something sublime.

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So finally, let us come back to the art professor and the student.

The student puts down the brush and says, “There. I call it ‘Improvisation Number 1.’” 

The professor responds, “You’re not good enough to do that yet.”

In other words, come back when you got some cool shit to show me.Bow