Iconic, Laconic, SUPERSONIC!!
[Read the sidebar to this story where Harry Shearer and Michael McKean discuss Christopher Guest here.]
(How I Plumbed the Depths of a comedic MASTERMIND in Just 23 Minutes!)
I’m a pretty fast typer but I’ll be LUCKY if my fingers can keep pace with my thoughts. My mind is racing. My mind is Jeff Gordon. There are streaks of burnt rubber smoking faintly on the inside of my SKULL! This is afterglow. This is heaven. Seventh heaven. No, wait…SEVENTY-SEVENTH heaven! Hey mom and dad! I’m having a TICKLE fiGHT with seventy-seven spotless virgins in seventy-seventh heaven!! Confucius say best: “Oh my my, oh hell YES!”
I should’ve GUESSED I’d end up dreaming about Christopher GUEST, most famous for his HILARIOUS portrayal of dimwitted lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel in the 1984 comedy Spinal Tap, but also for directing and acting in a handful of DEVASTATINGLY funny documentary-style comedies—Waiting For Guffman (1996), Best In Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003). It’s hard to believe, but not a SINGLE one of these films employed scripted dialogue! I KNOW! CRAZY! They relied 100 percent on the actors’ improvisational CHOPS! Guest’s career highlights also include a writing gig at National Lampoon in the ’70s and a brief stopover at Saturday Night Live (or SNL, for you KIDS out there!!) in the early ’80s! Not to mention the fact that he plays several instruments and was part of the DECADE-DEFINING New York folk scene in the ’60s. PHEW!
Why WOULDN’T I have a dream about Guest? Of course I would. I mean, C’MON! After an interview as good as the one I just nabbed yesterday, you’re all but handed a notarized form ENTITLING you to a blissed-out fever dream. It’s like an acid trip where the drug is instead grade-A, career-making journalistic PAY DIRT! That’s right, baby, this pint-size 23-minute interview is going to catapult me to the BIG TIME! (I need to HURRY UP and learn how to hold a Cuban cigar between my TOES!!)
The details of the dream are sketchy but I remember we were in a house. Wait, yeah, definitely a house. And I could hear Christopher Guest upstairs talking in a hushed voice to the one-and-only MICHAEL MCKEAN (who played bandmate David St. Hubbins in Spinal Tap). Granted, I couldn’t make out what they were saying. It was kind of like Charlie Brown’s mom talking with the volume turned way down. I think it had to mean something about how they share this KINSHIP, how they understand each other IMPLICITLY but people in another room 30 feet away just can’t seem to RELATE!
But, GET THIS, in the dream I’m lounging on this pullout hide-a-bed next to HARRY SHEARER! That’s right, the final piece of the Tap trio! Or should I say…TRINITY! Anyway, for some reason Harry’s got a blanket pulled up to his chest and he’s watching the first Harry Potter movie on network television, a highball of Maker’s Mark in his right hand.
I’m not quite sure what the Harry Potter bit means, but I think it’s significant somehow. When Shearer played Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap, they did that one song about DRUIDS and I think druids and wizards are really part of the same ILK! And it has to be significant because—guess WHAT, Einstein—they’re both named HARRY! The subconscious mind is smarter than you think. Despite what you learned in high-school Latin class, the “sub” part here doesn’t mean INFERIOR!
Anyway, I just woke up from the dream a few minutes ago and my pulse is still racing. It’s 4 o’clock in the morning and I can’t get back to sleep to save my LIFE. I told myself I was going to get a good night’s rest and start transcribing the interview tomorrow, but what if the magnetic tape in the cassette gets demagnetized somehow while I’m SLEEPING? I mean, if cassette tapes were super-reliable, the CD never would’ve taken over, right? I’ve got to start the transcription ASAP!!
You don’t understand. This interview was a once-in-a-lifetime THRILL. It was amazing. SPECTACULAR! I was an idiot for listening to all the crybabies, all the mommy-clutching journalists who warned me Christopher Guest was a tough interview. That he was uncooperative, closed-off, evasive, curt, defensive, untalkative, condescending. After listening to them, I thought getting him to open up about the creative process was going to be like pulling TEETH! I guess those other (LESSER) journalists simply didn’t have my skillz! I don’t mean to brag, but if I’d had just five more minutes, I could’ve gotten the BIG CONFESSION!! What kind of confession, you ask? Hello, dummy! The BIG one! Can’t these other journalists TELL when a person is simply MISUNDERSTOOD? And to think I was THIS close to buying into their jive-talking nonsense after observing Guest at the photo shoot for this story.
Because of all the photographer’s high-wattage lights, it was STIflINGLY hot in the second-floor suite at the Sutton Place Hotel—ground zero for press activities during the 2006 Toronto International film Festival. The cast of Guest’s BRAND SPANKING NEW film, For Your Consideration, were in town for the world premiere.
The director’s first words after walking into the room were NOT “Hello, I’m Christopher Guest, it’s nice to meet you” but, instead, a gruff “where do I STAND?” Then I realized: This is how you get movies MADE, people! (Be careful here, you just might LEARN something.) Whether it’s a movie or a photo shoot or whatever, you don’t get a successful finished product by trading dumb pleasantries. You get results by STANDING places and, by extension, showing the rest of the crew that they need to stand someplace and do whatever it is they DO! And those two seconds spent saying “Hello” could go to much better use getting the PERFECT shot!
And get this: the rest of the cast is cutting up, having a good time, thinking this is some sort of Canadian MARDI GRAS! Jane Lynch is a ball of friendly energy, smiling and chatting up anyone she doesn’t already know. Later when the photographer instructs four of the crew squished onto a small couch—Eugene Levy, Christopher Guest, Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer—to exaggerate their discomfort by drawing in their shoulders, Catherine quips, “If you want to see CLEAVAGE, just ASK for it!” Without missing a beat, Harry volleys back, “Ask for it by NAME!” I’m sitting off to the side, DYING! The photographer’s laughing so hard he can BARELY hold the camera still! Guest just grimaces and crosses his legs tighter. He drapes his hands (one of them cradling his cell phone) across his lap as the peripheral flash bulbs pop again. He assures the photographer, “We don’t need to ACT uncomfortable. We’re ALREADY uncomfortable."
Now THAT’S what you call a TANGENT, ladies and gentlemen! Forgive me!! I tease you with the promise of an interview that—if I may be so bold—unlocks all of Christopher Guest’s life and work, only to begin prattling on about a silly PHOTO SHOOT!? Let me grab my voice recorder already and tap this keg of PULITZER-BAIT. I’ll pause it every so often to explain the significance of certain portions that may seem unremarkable to the less-perceptive listener. At points when you feel like your mind’s on the verge of being BLOWN, just massage your temples vigorously until the sensation retreats.
Ok, FINALLY, we’re rolling!
ME: It’s been nearly a month since we met in Toronto. What’s been occupying your time since we last spoke?
Christopher Guest: Well, it’s kind of been the same as it was the week before we met. Nothing very different. Just doing what I do.
BAM! Right off the bat! This is what I LOVE about Christopher Guest! He respects his audience’s intelligence and realizes that no one likes being spoon-fed all that “open WIDE, oozhie-BOO, airplane- coming-into-the-hangar silliness.” An artist not only has a responsibility to deliver you the fruits of his or her imagination, but also to stoke the fires of your OWN imagination. What do YOU think Guest’s day-to-day work involves? Now turn that into a short story or a painting or a ballet. He understands the importance of MYSTIQUE. If you start regurgitating all the particulars of what you do then there’s no mystery left and the honeymoon is OVER! We’re barely out of the gate and he’s already told us VOLUMES about himself and the importance of humility. “Just doing what I do.” This is not someone who’s drunk on the glory of his accomplishments. Not even TIPSY, I’d wager!
ME: You’ve made the film and I suspect you’re caught up in the gears of the promotional machine. How do you cope with this phase of the process?
CG: In between now and the next few weeks I have, I would say, probably 200 interviews, so that’s what I’m looking forward to.
I almost feel SORRY for the guy! Can you even IMAGINE having to conduct 200 interviews in a single YEAR, never mind a few WEEKS?! If each interview lasted just 20 minutes, that’d take over three solid days of NON-STOP talking. GAH! You’d have to have a cell-phone surgically attached to the side of your FACE and be talking almost around the clock!! And you wouldn’t be able to sleep because you’d have all those interviews with the Chinese and Australian press in the middle of the NIGHT!
But the reason he submits himself to this almost never-ending stream of interviews is SIMPLE: he believes in his movies and he wants the world to KNOW about them, even if it means he has to sacrifice the convenience of anonymity, even if it means allowing people he’s NEVER met to form an opinion about not just his work, but also what kind of person he is in the FIRST place! He’s not afraid to be KNOWN!
ME: Given the fact that For Your Consideration skewers the whole “Oscar buzz” industry ritual, was it strange taking this particular film to the Toronto festival, which has a reputation for starting so much of that chatter?
CG: Well, it wasn’t strange for me because I don’t really get caught up in that other world. I’m not really that connected to the media so I’m not really aware of what’s going on in that regard so it didn’t really affect me.
ME: So you’re fairly disconnected from your movies’ receptions once they’re out in the world?
CG: Yes, I’m entirely…yes, that’s true.
ME: I’m sure that’s a healthy way to keep insidious mental hang-ups from creeping in, at least.
CG: I find it works for me, I can’t say anything about other people. I don’t read anything about my movies before or after I do films, or any part of show business. I think that keeps me in a kind of place where I can do the work that I need to do.
I don’t know about YOU but I find this part FASCINATING!! He SHATTERS the stereotype of the insecure comic who grew up being the class clown, acting out for attention every day just to get other kids to notice him, CRAVING that affirmation. Guest doesn’t seem to CARE about all that. You almost get the sense that he’d be more than happy making a $12-million comedy and just showing it at family gatherings! His sense of self doesn’t HINGE on whether or not you laugh while watching his movies. For me, personally, there’s something incredibly FREEING about that!
And in case you were wondering if this same technique works for TERRY GILLIAM or WOODY ALLEN or STEVEN SPIELBERG, you’ll have to ask THEM! Guest isn’t so presumptuous that when you ask him a question about himself, he starts telling you what works for JERRY BRUCKHEIMER! He doesn’t want to be the spokesperson for ALL actors and directors EVERYWHERE. You almost get the sense that he’s tempted to apologize for being the spokesperson for HIMSELF!
ME: Even if you’re unplugged from the media coverage of Hollywood, as a director you must be a connoisseur of film.
CG: I wouldn’t say I’m a connoisseur of film. I like certain films but I don’t pretend to be a connoisseur of films, no.
ME: Does it surprise you then that you ended up in this line of work, since most artists tend to gravitate toward the medium they’re most passionate about and consume most avidly?
CG: Well, my passion is more specific, in the sense that I’ve always liked doing comedy. I’ve always liked doing music. I like acting. And apparently you need those things in movies.
This is why the vast majority of magazines can’t AFFORD me! I didn’t even have to come right out and ASK Guest the secret of his unique approach to filmmaking and he’s already forking over the BLUEPRINT! If you’re not frantically scribbling notes in the margin right now, you’re INSANE!! He’s all but printed you out MAPQUEST directions on how a person can START out reading a magazine on the toilet, PROCEED a quarter of a mile and then BEAR RIGHT into the pantheon of Hollywood’s most visionary auteurs! Going to film school and seeing THOUSANDS of movies CONSTRICTS the mind! (If you don’t believe me, there are multiple scientific studies that PROVE it’s quite possible!)
You’re not going to guide movies through their next evolutionary leap if you follow the worn-out path of what’s been done by everyone BEFORE you! If you become a connoisseur of film and every picture you see is filmed with the camera trained nice and steadily on the actors and whatnot, you’re naturally going to MIMIC that approach. However, if you limit your movie intake and keep your mind open to the possibilities, you can direct the first EVER war epic where the camera operator jerks the camera VIOLENTLY back and forth the entire three hours and seven minutes (even during the love scene where the SEXY queen Isabella begs the lowly mud-caked archer Horatio to RAVISH her!). Viewers who like metaphors will shit themselves TWICE!
Speaking of cameras, everyone mindlessly uses them to make their movies. What about a movie made with NO cameras?! It just KILLS me—these copycat filmmakers are scared to DEATH of innovation! Not that Guest has done EITHER of the things I’ve mentioned; they’re just examples (which I’m only SHARING because I happen to hold what I like to call “patents”), but you get the general idea.
ME: Let’s talk about music, which, as you’ve mentioned, is a tremendous passion of yours.
CG: I play every day. I record a lot at home. I’m looking to do some live playing in the coming year after I finish all of the work on this film. Harry Shearer and Michael McKean and myself are going to do some shows together.
ME: Will you do those as Spinal Tap?
CG: Nope, we’re going to do them as ourselves. We did one about a year-and-a-half ago at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.
ME: Tell me about the show.
CG: Michael, Harry and I played a lot of things we’d written over the last 25, 30 years. I’ve been writing songs with Michael McKean since ’67 so that’s almost 40 years. It was the first time the three of us had ever played without getting dressed up in bizarre clothes.
And you didn’t believe me when I said I’d managed to crack Guest open like a big juicy MELON! This is SYMBOLIC, people! He’s undressing his SOUL for you, rendering himself emotionally NAKED! For all these years he’s been hiding behind these personas—these “MASKS”—that have allowed him to express his eccentric inner world and music through other PERSONAS!
I neglected to mention earlier that Guest—though his mother is American and he was born in New York—is a full-fledged British LORD! After his father, the 4th Baron Haden-Guest of Saling in the County of Essex, passed away in 1996, Guest (who dropped the “Haden” early in his acting career) inherited the title, becoming the 5th Baron Haden-Guest. There’s subconscious “BAGGAGE” that goes along with occupying such a vaunted political station—you become somehow RESPONSIBLE for embodying the inherited mythical notion of royalty.
You DON’T act like a “silly billy!” You DON’T dance around in your tighty-whities in Trafalgar Square with empty potato-chip bags on your hands, singing the words “God save the Queen mother” over and over to the tune of the theme song from Gilligan’s Island!" You DON’T make funny faces at the palace guards, trying to get a SMIRK out of them!
Guest came to EMBODY the staid, unsmiling, palace-guard straightness of British royalty out of an unconscious, deeply rooted OBLIGATION! But his inner world was a menagerie filled with lions and bears and roosters that were CAGED but silently longed to sing and dance and juggle bowling pins in the CIRCUS! So he turned to comedy and acting where he could finally let down his GUARD! Don’t you SEE?! He was DYING inside!
Man, I need a napkin…I am sweating PROFUSELY!
Where was I? Oh YEAH. But now the costumes are coming off and he’s playing music as HIMSELF! It’s beautiful! Age has brought him more than a silver mane. It’s brought him the comfort of truly OWNING his identity. WAIT! I just put something ELSE together! Maybe he dropped the “Haden” part of his surname as a cry for HELP, as a subtle means of untethering himself from the ponderous weight of his royal pedigree. Oh SNAP!
ME: For Your Consideration is the fourth project for which you and Eugene Levy have collaborated on the story outline and character backstories. How has your process of working together been refined over the past decade?
CG: Well, I’m not sure it’s refined. It may be. I don’t know if I’d be the one to say that, but—we share a similar comic sensibility, and that’s good, because we work together. So we do really what we’ve always done. I think, if anything, the one thing that’s changed is the bigger part in these films for an emotional story. I think that has increased film by film. And I think that’s been important for both of us. It’s more satisfying.
The manner in which Guest and Levy construct these films behind closed doors STAYS behind closed doors! If you’re not aware of what they’ve “always done,” then you’re outta LUCK! (Sorry, bud!) To put it in terms you’ll better understand, it’s like two parents going into a comfortable, private chamber with LOTS of cushions and nine months later a cute little infant is born. It would be UNCOUTH to pick apart exactly what HAPPENS in that place. This is the creative PROCESS we’re talking about here. More to the point, it’s none of your damn BUSINESS!
But he couldn’t be MORE right about expanding the emotional core of his work with each successive film. He is absolutely FASCINATED with the strivings of fame-hungry people who really don’t have the charm, talent or charisma to reach the BIG time but are beyond ELATED simply to be (as Guest would say) doing what they DO!
THINK about it! In Spinal Tap you have a British heavy-metal band that thinks it’s going to take over America but gets stuck opening for a PUPPET SHOW (!!) at an amusement park. In Waiting For Guffman, the cast of an inane community-theater production deludedly believes its patriotic musical is going to be snapped up by a Broadway producer. In Best In Show, which almost appears to buck the trend, a tackily dressed couple ends up WINNING the prestigious Mayflower Dog Show, but the fame really belongs to their pet terrier (in other words, they’re upstaged by their DOG—OUCH!). And in A Mighty Wind, a trio called The Folksmen thinks its moment has come with a PBS-style reunion concert but the film ends with them competing to be heard over slot machines at a CASINO gig!
In Guest’s newest movie, For Your Consideration, the people being seduced by fame are the cast of a low-budget film called Home For Purim. Catherine O’Hara’s character, Marilyn Hack, hears that a reporter from a website called filmtattle.com has deemed her performance OSCAR-WORTHY! This juicy bit of news sends her into a neurotic freefall, SCREWING with her brain chemistry. The desperation O’Hara conveys is so GUT-wrenching that you want to drag Hack out of the Valley by her Botox-inflated lips and nurse her back to (mental) health. And the tension between her and two of her fellow actors—played by Harry Shearer and Parker Posey—who are also getting buzzed about is PALPABLE!
ME: Catherine O’Hara’s performance was exceptionally moving.
CG: I think so, too. I only have a couple more minutes. I’m running out to meet with my wife.
ME: Was there a point when you realized you were good at making people laugh?
CG: That’s always a dangerous subject, if you assume that. I think that people who do comedy have some sense that someone must react to them in some way; otherwise I guess they wouldn’t keep doing it.
ME: Given your reputation for having a rather staid personality, do you feel that it heightens the comedic impact for your audience when you inhabit a character onscreen who has an exceptionally flamboyant or eccentric personality?
CG: Well, I don’t think people know me personally so that wouldn’t really track.
ME: It’s not unreasonable to think people would gain a sense of your personality from stories about you and interviews you’ve done.
CG: I couldn’t really say what people’s perception is of me. I don’t really do a lot of interviews and I’m not out there to do that. But most people I know who do this work are not people who put on funny hats at a party or do broad things. They’re quite serious people. When they do their work, they can do it in a broad way. You know, it’s dangerous talking about comedy; it gets to be very tedious and presumptuous. Well, I hope you have something to work with. Bye now.
Are you KIDDING me?! I have a TREASURE trove of material to work with here. This is FANTASTIC! YOU heard him—he almost NEVER does interviews and I got what is quite possibly the best on RECORD! Man oh man oh MAN! You’d think a person of Guest’s stature would have HUNDREDS of interviews to slog through!
Anyway, I think the reason he warmed to me was that he could sense I was as serious about my work—JOURNALISM!—as he is about his filmmaking and music. That’s why he opened UP to me and carved 23 minutes out of his busy schedule to talk to me for this cover story. I just hope whatever fame comes my way as a result of this piece will indirectly help HIS career. Maybe a few hundred-thousand extra people will check out For Your Consideration as a result of what I’ve written, if not simply because they all of a sudden feel like they know what makes Christopher Guest TICK!
You know WHAT? I just thought of an AMAZING parallel! Interviewing and writing is its OWN form of improvisation. Sometimes you’ve got no CLUE what the hell you’re going to say next! Or how you’re going to fill those MILES of white space on the page! But hopefully whatever comes out strikes a chord.
And hopefully Guest will reconsider his policy of not reading his press—just this ONCE, please God!—because, without being too presumptuous, I think if he reads this, he just might fire Eugene Levy and ask ME to co-write his next movie! I’m already envisioning a slapstick comedy about an inner-city school for the blind that forms a rugby team (I KNOW, it sounds offensive at first, but we’ll get around that by having the team go UNDEFEATED!). Then again, this insightful profile by itself might not be enough to win me the gig. He’ll probably want to see some samples of my HUMOR writing. I’ll have to see what I’ve got lying around.