Best in Show
Interview with Christopher Guest
feature by
Elias Savada, 13 October 2000

Ah, a nice firm handshake. No fey small-town theatrical idealist Corky St. Clair in sight. No extra finger attached to the hand of dastardly foil Count Rugen. No rock guitar blaring "Stonehenge," as it did on Jay Leno the other night, where Nigel Tufnel was joined on stage by band members David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls. No musty smell of Harlan Pepperís faithful bloodhound lurking behind an overstuffed chair in the back reaches of the Four Seasonsí lobby. And, alas, no sighting of his gorgeous wife of nearly 16 years selling long distance service, as I and my guest wait (too long) for our cappuccinos to arrive.

Shame on you if you donít recognize Americaís most recognizable (Christopher) Guest. King of parody, consummate actor, stone-faced comedian, low key director, comic writer, cartoonist, and family man. So you wonít have to scroll to the bottom of the page and turn your computer upside down, the answers to todayís pop quiz are Waiting for Guffman, The Princess Bride, This is Spinal Tap (now back in theaters and on bonus-feature-laden DVD, and still bringing audiences to their knees in laughter), Best in Show (garnering well deserved raves), and Jamie Lee Curtis. The interviewee is visiting Washington in between New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, on behalf of his new film, but the only evidence of jet lag are slightly creased beige khakis and a weakly crumpled pin-stripe shirt. No tie. His dark jacket appears as well-pressed as his straight-forward demeanor. And while the hair line may be receding, his sense of humor is still strong after more than a decade bringing comedy to the masses.

As to his enduring relationship with Jamie Lee, thatís a great fairy tale story. She had seen his photograph in Rolling Stone, showed it to her mother (Janet Leigh) and said she was going to marry that guy. And they are living happily ever after.

Our initial conversation covers the obscure French phallic animated comedy Tarzoon Shame of the Jungle, released in the U.S. in 1978 and for which Guest earned his first near-top-billing credit (behind Johnny Weissmuller, Jr.! and fellow SNL compatriots John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Bryan Doyle-Murray) for providing four voices to this x-rated cartoon spoof that incensed the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Pack-rat that I am, I found a pressbook for the film and offer it as a groundbreaker.


Christopher Guest: Wow, this qualifies as a major tchochke. I remember the sessions. We basically were improvising all this stuff and I at least played six characters (heís credited with four).


Elias Savada: My first recollections of you are with Spinal Tap, although your initial film roles were such generic credits as "policeman" and "resident."

CG: Well the (National) Lampoon was my first real gig in 1970, way prior to Spinal Tap. I did radio shows and helped to create Lemmings, somewhat of a departure in the world of comedy. I think everything came out of the Lampoon experience. Iíve been working with Michael McKean since 1967. In our family tree of comedy, which has a lot of overlaps and connections, Michael then went to work with Harry Shearer while I got together with Rob Reiner. We all rejoined and Spinal Tap was formed, which, contrary to some peopleís understanding, did not start out as a short film. The original Spinal Tap was actually a scene on a a 1978 tv show called The TV Show, that Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, me, Billy Crystal, and Martin Mull wrote. It was a special for ABC, with Tapís first appearance mimicking the popular show The Midnight Special. Loudon Wainwright was the keyboard player and Russ Kunkel was the drummer. He didnít spontaneously combust at that time (for those of you familiar with the bandís tragic history), although he later appear in the film as Stumpy, one of the guys who did. We went to Marble Arch Productions (Sir Lew Grade), who offered x-amount of money to write this film. We of course knew weíd never write the film because it was going to be completely improvised. Instead we actually started shooting Spinal Tap with the development money that he gave us, ending up with a 20-minute film. After he saw our footage, he showed us the door. ("Please get out of my office.") We then took this film around town and got pretty much the same answer. They didnít know what the hell it was. They didnít know what a documentary was. The next step was Norman Lear at Embassy Pictures, who took a chance. Albeit a low budget movie, there was no script. And we shot it.


ES: Quickly I assume?

CG: Five weeks.


ES: One of the alternate audio tracks on the CD-ROM version of This Is Spinal Tap suggested the film had a four- or five-hour first cut.

CG: I donít remember. It took about 10 months in the editing room. Pretty much the same ratios I use. Waiting for Guffman was five weeks to shoot and a year and a half to edit. Best in Show: five weeks to shoot and eight months to edit. Thereís a pattern here.


ES: Are there any plans for additional segments of the tour further to the 25th anniversary reunion show back in the early 90s?

CG: Weíre going to play some concerts.


ES: How involved are you with the resurgence of the band on the internet? Thereís the official website, merchandise, even mp3ís and auctions!

CG: Well we just cut a song (appropriately titled Back From the Dead), which I like very much (it can be downloaded (http://www.tapster.com/). We did Letterman and House of Blues. Weíll do others sporadically. We like to play music, so thatís an excuse for use to get together. Spinal Tap has remained this legacy which is difficult to explain.


ES: I think itís like Bela Lugosi, whose Dracula icon has embedded itself on the American public.

CG: Well thatís very nice. At the same token, itís really fun to go back and play. Because we have this added dimension of playing music. Other movies may be like Spinal Tap, but you donít have the actors doing the actual music. There was a very strange episode that happened on our last tour when we played the Royal Albert Hall, a dream we all had. I came off stage after the first night and there was a little boy who asked for my autographed. As I was signing, I looked up and saw his dad. George Harrison. It was one of those quintessential moments. I got the chills. This was so eerie because The Beatles had played the Royal Albert, we did this movie about this fictitious group which is now a real group playing the same hall, and now one of The Beatlesí sons is going to see the real fictitious group influenced by The Beatles. Itís way chicken and egg.


ES: Segueing into Saturday Night Live, was your involvement with that show a direct result of Spinal Tap?

CG: No. Not at all. Actually before we even did the movie, SNL producer Bob Tischler, a friend of mine from the Lampoon days, when he produced and edited our records, asked me to join the cast. I rejected them initially. While we were shooting Spinal Tap, he and (executive producer Dick) Ebersol then asked me to do just the Weekend News Update. "But Iím making a movie!" I told them. They wanted me to fly in from Los Angeles, where we were shooting. Finally, when the filming was done, they asked me, Michael (McKean), Harry (Shearer), Billy Crystal, and Marty Short to be on the show. Michael, because of his family, opted out, but became a regular ten years later. The rest of us signed one year contracts. We got to do a lot of interesting stuff. Most people (on SNL) donít have the luxury (of setting contract terms), but because we were somewhat established, we set our own deal.


ES: Sir Denis Eaton-Hogg, the fictitious owner of Polymer Records in This Is Spinal Tap, proclaims it was time to "Tap into America!" which seems to be your credo in your films. Youíve taken these really quirky, often bizarre, characters that are either ripped from the headlines of Americaís tabloids or walking the aisles at a K-Mart.

CG: Exactly.


ES: Whatís your springboard for creating such endearing characters as Corky, Nigel, and now Harlan Pepper.

CG: Well I would say that from the time I was a child I would watch people. Their behavior. Their voices. The way they walk. I didnít know what this was at the time -- I just enjoyed it. As a child I would look out the window and make up voices for the people as they walked by. My mother would ask what I was doing, and I said "nothing." I think my family thought I was funny. I have a four-and-a-half year old son and heís really funny. He makes me laugh more than anyone. There is something going on in his eyes, something mischievous. Part of that is external forces and some of it youíre born with. Anyway, thatís what I remember when I was growing up, and I still do it. I see people and something about them gets lodged in my brain. There was a character I created on Saturday Night Live that originated 15 years earlier at a New York City hotel. I was checking in and there was a completely bizarre guy behind the desk. While I donít consciously have a library of memories, they are triggered when someone, somehow, makes me remember. While I canít remember exactly where Harlan Pepper comes from, Iíve heard that voice, Iíve been in the South, and I was intrigued by the musicality of that accent. (At which point he riffs into that nearly indecipherable drawl before returning to normal.) I have to feel comfortable that I can sustain that through the film.


ES: When you prep a film, how much load do you place on the actors? Obviously thereís a lot of improv here.

CG: Itís ALL improv. 100 percent. Which is hard for people to understand. (Co-writer) Eugene Levy and I have a story (his latest was originally called Dog Show) with a first, second, and third act. Thereís a linear flow through the movie. The characters all delineate. We know their histories, their names, their relationships to the friends and family. I give the actors the ability to expand even on that. But there is no dialogue written down whatsoever. The exceptions are, for instance, the scene with Rob Reiner in Spinal Tap, where I point to the number 11 on the sound amplifier and we had to construct that joke in order to have the prop. With that exception, Spinal Tap is completely improvised. In Best in Show, as with Waiting for Guffman, there is no rehearsal. You canít, because you might blow the whole deal.


ES: How much of this film is first take? Second take?

CG: Fifty percent is second take. 25 percent is first take. Generally we never went beyond that. At the most we had some third takes, because you start to lose the spontaneity. What makes this film special is that the audience is hearing something spoken for the first time. It may be a subliminal reaction, but somehow they know this is something different. That this is the way people really talk and react in real time. In any other reel film you have a master shot, then an hour breakdown before a two-shot, followed in another hour by a close-up. At the end of the day, youíd have 20 seconds of dialogue recorded and maybe two-and-a-half minutes of footage. In a given day on Best in Show weíd have an hour-and-a half of dailies. Ultimately I had 60 hours of material. We shot it on Super16mm and our budget was around $7 million. Guffman came in at $4 million. The increase was partly a function of quite a bit bigger cast. These actors are the best at this type of work. Everyone gets scale.


ES: Almost Heroes (which Guest directed) got drubbed at the box office and by the critics. Was it because of the script?

CG: (an emphatic) No! Simply because Chris Farley died right after we made the movie. Iím now in a position of doing a press junket about a guy who died. I think his performance is incredible in that movie. Truthfully, I think itís the best thing he ever did. He had huge potential above the dopey movies he did. He had some profound talent that people never had a chance to see. We had a glimmer of that in this film. I liked the script. The movie just didnít work. You never know whatís going to work.


ES: As an actor, youíve often embraced non-comic roles, particularly in A Few Good Men and TV's Blind Ambition. Do you approach those characters any differently than your comic ones?

CG: I donít know that I approach them differently at all. I like acting. I donít look for acting work. I donít think there are any characters Iíd like to play (as he scrunches his face in thought). I donít even think of it. If someone comes along and offers me something I find interesting, Iíll do it. I like doing any acting, but thatís a secondary consideration at this point. I said several years ago I wouldnít even mind being on a tv show. Not as the main lead, but as the guy who comes in from next door every once in a while, does his little thing, and then leaves. But no one can understand that.


ES: Back to Best in Show. As in Waiting for Guffman, you donít see the filmmaker. Thereís no conscious effort to show a Marty DiBergi lurking behind the camera?

CG: No. Right.


ES: Regarding some of your more obscure television work is the short-lived series Morton & Hayes (Guest offers up an affectionate laugh). Was that more than just a summer replacement? [Telecast in 1991, this series within a series showcased the fictitious and too-often forgotten comedy team of Chick Morton (Kevin Pollak) and Eddie Hayes (Bob Amaral). Each week, Rob Reiner introduced some of their forgotten Max King-produced 2-reelers to the adoring fans at home.]

CG: That was one of those shows where if people catch on to the idea, then you do more. It was a very bold idea, first of all because it was in black-and-white. It was incredible fun to do. It was also very difficult. I directed five of the six episodes. I was in probably five of the six. I think I wrote four of the six. And I was producing the show. Which was insane. To be totally honest, if CBS has picked this up, I donít know what I would have done. Kevin and Bob were terrific. The atmosphere was completely insane. People wrote in and asked "Why is Rob Reiner pretending to be Max King III?" So you know youíre in trouble.


ES: Which is exactly what happened with Spinal Tap.

CG: Exactly. When we previewed that, the audience was wondering why we made a movie about stupid people. So youíre dead. Obviously Morton & Hayes was before itís time or after itís time. It just wasnít itís time. People couldnít comprehend this subtle comic premise.


ES: I found reference to a 1981 pilot called Likely Stories that you directed and co-produced with David Jablin? What was that? Did it air?

CG: Oh yes. This was when cable was really cable (and before all the award-winning originally programming of today). This was not HBO, but something like oak cable, and something genuinely bizarre. I was approached by David, who wanted to get all our friend to contribute to the show. Rob Reiner directed his first short, called The Tommy Rispoli Story that featured the limo-driving chauffeur later embodied by Bruno Kirby as Tommy Pischedda in Spinal Tap. Billy Crystal and I did a short called Prizefighter. I did some animation for the program. My first thing I ever directed is there, in which I play all the parts. I did it in a film noir style, a Ď40s detective story in which Iím the private eye, the woman who hires him, the murdered husband, the Indian guy with a turban who hits the detective over the head, and so on. No one had told me you shouldnít play all the parts. Richard Belzer, Stephen Collins, and other friends were on the show. Harry Shearer and Michael McKean did a bit.


ES: Aside from Spinal Tapís London Sell-Out Anniversary television show that aired on NBC, have you and your wife ever acted together?

CG: No, weíve made a decision not to do that. We wanted to keep our careers separate. Her part on the show was just a short bit in which she is interviewed about how much Spinal Tap has meant to her.


Click here to read Elias Savada's review.

 

 


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