Christopher Guest: The Humorless Humorist
Interview by Dan Kapelovitz
In the comedic masterpiece “This Is Spinal Tap,” Christopher Guest blew people’s minds with his brilliant portrayal of lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel, a dimwitted English rocker whose amp goes all the way to 11. The film, directed by Rob “Meathead” Reiner and co-written by Guest, was almost entirely improvised and shot in a documentary style.
Five years later, Guest directed his first film, “The Big Picture,” a disappointment, especially compared to “Spinal Tap.” Guest then redeemed himself by returning to the ad-lib-heavy mockumentary format with 1996’s “Waiting For Guffman,” in which Guest plays Corky St. Clair, a flamboyant off-off-off-off-off Broadway director hired by Blaine, Missouri, to put on a play celebrating the small town’s sesqui-centennial (150th) anniversary. Unfortunately, for his next film, Guest again abandoned the mockumentary and created the disastrous “Almost Heroes” (Chris Farley’s last major film role). Thankfully, Guest since made two more critically acclaimed pseudodocumentary comedies, “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind.”
This all brings us to Guest’s latest directorial endeavor, “For Your Consideration.” Like “Guffman,” “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind,” this film was co-written with Eugene Levy and stars much of the same ensemble cast: Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge, Michael McKean, Bob Balaban and more. But unlike those films, “For Your Consideration” is not shot as a documentary. The film is about the making of a film in which some of the actors learn that their performances may earn them Academy Award nominations.
In his movies, Guest is an improvisational comic genius, but in real life, the actor/writer/director/composer keeps his humor buried deep down inside. In fact, he got downright defensive after being asked some pretty benign, softball questions. (I won’t even mention some of the questions I decided not to ask out of fear that he would have gone into a conniption fit). But I guess when you’re the creative force behind so many comedy classics, you have a right to be overly sensitive.
HIGH SOCIETY: Why did you give up the documentary format?
CHRISTOPHER GUEST: Well, we did three movies in that form, and we both agreed—Eugene and I–that it was time to kind of try something new. And I think if I make another movie, it’s going to be different again. I’m not sure how right now. It’s more interesting to branch out and try something else.
HIGH SOCIETY: Was “For Your Consideration” improvised as much as your other films?
GUEST: Well, this was partly improvised. Eugene Levy and I wrote sections of the movie. We wrote the movie within the movie, which would be probably obvious. We wrote a lot of the sections where people are on television doing things. We wrote the dialog for the other movies that you see, and then the rest of it was improvised, but since it wasn’t done in a documentary form, it was quite a different thing to put together.
HIGH SOCIETY: You didn’t have to shoot as high of a ratio?
GUEST: I wouldn’t say that so much as in terms of the technique in putting it together because, in a documentary, you have interviews, and you can cut away to a still photograph or whatever you need at any time. We dispensed with that because we wanted to just have a narrative; so it makes it very different in editing. The choices become different, more like a conventional movie. That’s quite a huge thing. It may not be apparent to people watching it, but it’s quite a big thing to deal with.
HIGH SOCIETY: This film seems closer to your pseudo-documentary films than your narrative films like “The Big Picture” and “Almost Heroes.”
GUEST: I think it appears to be that way because of the cast. It’s the same cast that you see in the other movies, and because it’s improvised, it may have a similar sensibility.
HIGH SOCIETY: Have you ever worked on a film, such as when you acted in “A Few Good Men,” where there was an Oscar buzz like you portray in your new film?
GUEST: If there was, I tend not to hear it or know about it.
HIGH SOCIETY: So the film isn’t based on some experience you had?
GUEST: No, no. It was just based on being in the business for a long time, knowing a lot of people who have been through this thing and knowing what they’ve gone through. And it’s more generic than being about the Academy Awards; it’s about really any awards. I was first nominated for an award when I was quite young, 23 or 24, and anytime that happens, you’re put through something you’ve not really asked for. You’re thrust into a situation where you’re feeling very vulnerable. It’s not that much fun because people put pressure on you and say, “I bet you’re gonna win.” And you can’t do anything with that information. You can’t really process that in a very healthy way. You could pretend and say, “Oh, well thanks,” but whatever. But the fact is that anyone will take it into their bloodstream–it’s kind of like crack–you really kind of go out of control. You really can’t do anything until you’ve either won or lost, and then it’s too late basically.
HIGH SOCIETY: Did you ever write an acceptance speech before an award ceremony?
GUEST: I’ve never written an acceptance speech. I’ve won awards and I’ve lost awards; so I felt that I at least wasn’t writing it from the standpoint of someone was just some bitter person. I’ve been lucky enough to have both sides of it in a way so that you really do see the two different words of it; so I thought that was at least a basis for something that had some truth.
HIGH SOCIETY: What do you think of the Academy Awards, in general?
GUEST: I don’t watch award shows. It’s not really my main thing, I guess. Again, having been in the position to sit through some of those things, it’s a disrupted thing. I think this movie says it: I really would prefer just to concentrate on the work. You see in this movie, what happens to people, and it’s really kind of painful at the end. It’s meant to be; it’s meant to be kind of poignant at the end. It’s not a happy ending and I think that’s a comment about–and it’s not just a given awards show, it’s just the whole notion of honoring people in that way.
HIGH SOCIETY: A lot of your films have these poignant endings.
GUEST: I guess I find–It’s another dimension in a story that makes it more interesting for me, and it has a little more substance than just a series of jokes and then you go home. For me, it’s more interesting and ultimately it’s more interesting for the actors playing it because they have other places they can go. HIGH SOCIETY: In the film, you play a director. Were you spoofing yourself at all as a director?
GUEST: [Very offended] I don’t think so. If you’ve seen my films, I hope not. That would be–wow–that would be a little sad. No, that’s a TV director, and this is his first feature, in the movie–and, uh, you know, I don’t know if you–well, no. That would be, uh, that would be, uh–wow–I don’t even know what to say.
HIGH SOCIETY: Perhaps you had some inside jokes, for instance, the way your character dealt with the actors.
GUEST: There are no inside jokes in the movie at all at any time. You’re watching behavior. I don’t believe in doing movies with inside jokes. It’s just observations on people’s behavior that I’ve seen. I think it’s interesting, because when people talk about movies that have to do with show business, they talk about inside jokes or something inside, but when people make movies about anything else, no one says that. It’s kind of interesting because if you have a TV show about doctors, no one says that no one’s going to understand what they’re saying because their talking about some procedure, but no one cares about that, or if it’s about the military, no one says it’s too inside. They just go about their business and do it. For some reason, in show business, people have this illusion that that will be a problem. Of course, people know more about show business than anything else.
HIGH SOCIETY: And, of course, in cases of show business movies, the people making the films are in show business themselves, which might lend itself to more inside jokes.
GUEST: Well, I don’t know. I’ve been hearing that for 30 years, and it never really makes sense, but there you go.
HIGH SOCIETY: Obviously, some of the characters were based on real people.
GUEST: No. That’s what I’m saying; they’re not based on real people. All of the movies I’ve done–even going back to “Spinal Tap”–were not based on specific people. They’re based on having spent a lot of time looking at many, many different people, and you take that in and you create a character where some element can be used from some person and then maybe from a completely different person that did something else. You could walk into a store and see a shoe salesman who had a bizarre sort of tick or something or a behavior and you can overlay that onto something else. But invariably people look at these movies and say, “Oh, I know who that was.” And you’ll say, “Who was that?” And they say so and so, and you say, “No, I don’t even know who that is. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So no. No one is based on any specific person.
HIGH SOCIETY: For example, in your film, there’s one interviewer who obviously reminded me and probably anyone who watches him of Charlie Rose. You don’t see that?
GUEST: Well, no, I can see how if you see a set that’s in limbo with a guy at a table, that’s going to bring that up. It’s really more about the style of these different interviews in these show-business shows where many times it’s more about the interviewers than the people they’re interviewing. Either they don’t give them a chance to talk, or in Fred Willard’s case, it’s much more about his ego, about him. It’s not about the people. The people can just be tossed down the toilet essentially and his job will continue, but stars will come and go and sort of fade. It’s kind of an interesting, bit of an indictment on the business.
HIGH SOCIETY: How did you first meet Fred Willard? He’s always brilliant in your films.
GUEST: I was in a play with Fred in 1969. So I’ve known Fred a long time. I’ve worked with him for many years. He’s a great improviser. and he’s great in this film, I think.
HIGH SOCIETY: Are there any actors that you’ve tried to get in your films who won’t do it?
GUEST: It’s the opposite actually. The people who are in these movies–the reason they’re in these movies is because they’re great, great improvisers. People approach me about being in them, and they may be great actors, but they can’t do this kind of work which is very specific kind of work. And it’s not as if there are a hundred thousand people out there who can do it. To my mind, these are the best people there are really.
HIGH SOCIETY: What do you say to them when they approach you?
GUEST: I don’t really say that much. I say, “Oh, let me think about that.” It’s somewhat awkward, especially if the person is famous. It’s a compliment, but because I put these films together, it’s up to me who’s in the movies, so if you think about it, if I thought you were right, I would have approached you. A lot of them are really fine actors, but I just have some kind of intuition that they may not be able to do that. When actors come to do my films, there is no reading because there is no script. I sit and talk with them for 20 minutes, half an hour, and I can tell from that meeting if they can do this.
HIGH SOCIETY: Does your wife [Jamie Lee Curtis] ever ask to be in your movies?
GUEST: Again, she’s very funny and good, but we’ve never worked together, and we’ve kind of made an agreement to just be husband and wife, and she also doesn’t do this kind of work.
HIGH SOCIETY: Why was Eugene Levy’s part smaller than usual? Was that on purpose, or did you shoot a lot of footage and just chose other stuff?
GUEST: No, no, it was always intended to be that. It was just that was the part. That was it. Those were all the scenes. I think for both of us, in a funny way, we’re trying to diminish our presence in a sense. For me, the important thing is doing the movie, it’s not having the biggest part, and I think he feels the same way.
HIGH SOCIETY: Have there been a bunch of other subcultures that you’ve wanted to explore?
GUEST: These things come to me in very strange ways. I don’t have a filing cabinet that’s filled with ideas. But you could literally pick anything–anything in the world would have some interest to me. Even something that seems unbelievably dull. In many ways, that would be most interesting. Because it isn’t about something that is flashy or funny in a way that sounded like something that sounded like a plot for a movie; the stuff that’s interesting to me is a much more subtle thing; so it could be people who work on a tug boat. It really doesn’t matter the profession that they do; it’s what is the story within that. So I don’t really have an idea for the next one. They’re not lined up on the runway. I’ll think for awhile.
HIGH SOCIETY: Do people like tug boat operators often come up to you and say, “You have to make a movie about tug boat operators”?
GUEST: Everyday. Every single day someone will come up and say, “I’m a dental hygienist. That’s really what you should be doing a movie about,” and I say, “Oh, that’s possible.”
HIGH SOCIETY: Last night, I was at a party with a bunch of Satanists, and one of them told me that “Best in Show” was one of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey’s favorite movies.
GUEST: There you go. There’s what you want on your poster. That’s the endorsement you want.
(This article first appeared in High Society Magazine)
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