The Stories Behind 6 Iconic Movie Moments That Were Made Up on the Spot

wonder woman
Wonder Woman | Warner Bros. Pictures
Wonder Woman | Warner Bros. Pictures

Though actors are in the business of memorizing scripts, iconic movie moments often come from improvising. Sounds counterintuitive, sure. Unscripted riffing should yield more bloopers than gems, but all one has to do is look at The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Casablanca, and any Paul Feig movie for proof of popular scenes not detailed in early drafts. Read on to discover more such examples -- including this summer's Wonder Woman -- and the stories behind them.

Midnight Cowboy

Actor: Dustin Hoffman
Moment: "I'm walkin' here!"
What happened: Believe it: A real New York cab almost took out Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy. Given a shoestring budget, director John Schlesinger had to use a hidden camera, radio mikes, and lots of patience to capture the documentary-like shot of Ratso and Joe Buck (Jon Voight) walking and talking down Sixth Avenue. It took several takes to get the timing of their crossing right, and on what felt like the 50th attempt, the above happened. "This is the way the brain works," Hoffman explained at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. "What was in my head was, We're making a movie here! Just as I'm about to say that, I realize, Oh, you can't do that, so the brain changes, and I do, 'I'm walkin' here!' But what was really being said for me was, We're shooting here!"


Actor: Roy Scheider
Moment: "You're gonna need a bigger boat."
What happened: Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb told The Hollywood Reporter this line stemmed from "an overlap of a real-life problem combined with the dilemma of the characters onscreen." The issue was a tiny support boat that was supposed to steady a not-so-tiny equipment barge. "You're gonna need a bigger boat" soon became an inside joke for other things that went wrong during production. "If lunch was late or the swells were rocking the camera," Gottlieb said, "someone would say, 'You're gonna need a bigger boat.'" Scheider tried to sneak the line in multiple times during shooting, but the only instance that made the cut was the one you see above, "so appropriate and so real and it came at the right moment, thanks to Verna Field's editing."


Actor: Bill Murray
Moment: "What an incredible Cinderella story... "
What happened: This scene was written as an interstitial camera shot, according to Harold Ramis, who toldThe New Yorker that Murray's character was supposed to be "absently lopping the heads off bedded tulips as he practices his golf swing with a grass whip." Before staging it, Ramis asked Murray, "When you're playing sports, do you ever just talk to yourself like you're the announcer?" The seasoned improviser said, "Say no more," and delivered the monologue in one take.


Actress: Melissa McCarthy
Moment: "Uh oh, somebody found a souvenir."
What happened: This air marshal exchange was added later to the script, according to Kristen Wiig, who told Entertainment Weekly that McCarthy and Falcone "improvised a lot with each other," given their close rapport as husband and wife. Falcone toldGQ he ruined millions of takes by breaking. "In the scene outside the bathroom, [McCarthy] had to say, 'Let's go to the restroom -- and not rest,' and after that she was free to improv," he said. "She had such good ones that I ruined. Like she said, 'Do you like this leg? I got another one just like it. I can put them both over my head and comb my goddamn hair.'"

Reservoir Dogs

Actor: Michael Madsen
Moment: The torture dance
What happened: Madsen was too intimidated to try the dance in rehearsals. "In the script it said, 'Mr. Blonde maniacally dances around,'" the actor recalled recently. "I kept thinking, What the fuck does that mean? Mick Jagger?" So the dance happened spur of the moment during production. In fact, when you see Madsen break into it in the movie, that's the first take. "I heard the music, and I said, 'Oh, fuck, I better do something,'" he explained. "I remembered this weird little thing Jimmy Cagney did in a movie I saw -- I don't remember the name of it, but he did this crazy little dance thing, and it just popped into my head at the last second."

Wonder Woman

Actors: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine
Moment: The boat scene
What happened: Director Patty Jenkins said in a Reddit AMA that there was plenty of improvising on set for DC's latest superhero movie -- it was encouraged actually. "Great lines arrived every day, and particularly the boat scene" was ad-libbed. Pine toldEntertainment Weekly that star Gal Gadot had a tough job as the scene's straight man, but she nailed it. "She's delivering lines like, 'My father is Zeus' -- shit that is just so ridiculous," he said. "And she has to say it with a straight face, with a certain amount of innocence and earnestness. I get to react like any human being would to hearing something as ridiculous as that. So I had it easy."

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Sean Fitz-Gerald is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. Find him on Twitter: @srkfitzgerald.