Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy have established their own cottage industry, devising characters and writing scenarios that become comedy films (directed by Guest) built on improvisation. After working on Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap, Guest directed Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind, all with Guest and Levy sharing screenplay credit and the screen as they embody wacky losers. I spoke to Guest and Levy at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where they were promoting their latest collaboration, the Hollywood-skewering For Your Consideration.
Groucho: You guys are obviously very well capable of pounding out a full, brilliant screenplay. So when you work together, what makes the creative form of scenario and improv so appealing?
Christopher Guest: Well, I think beginning with a film I worked on called This Is Spinal Tap, we really had a lot of fun doing that movie, and it occurred to us that that particular format was something where we could be funny. And when I did Waiting for Guffman, it occurred to me that maybe we could try that again. So we did three in that format. This one is a departure because it's a narrative. It's not done as a documentary, but there's something about improvisation—the spontaneity of it—which sparks the actors that we work with here. There's a different feel. The comedy is different. It's just fun.
G: And the scenarios are creeping a little bit longer each time, right?
G: The press notes claim they are.
Eugene Levy: Well, a little longer than the first one.
G: Well, the first one may have been fifteen pages; this one is maybe twenty-something pages, but that's about it.
EL: And the movie within this movie was scripted, in fact...
G: This film brushes with the idea of failing upward, or the possible success that these fools might have. But when it comes down to it, is all comedy pretty much about failure?
CG: Well, it's about versions of failure. If you look at...you don't make comedies about people who do things well. You know, going back to silent films with Laurel and Hardy—they're totally incompetent. Each one thinks the other one's stupid. They're breaking things. They're falling down. Things are falling on them. You know, there is no movie if they just move a piano, and it's just they move it and they deliver it and they leave. Something has to happen. So ultimately, I think that's true. And in this case, I think we want to go as step farther, and in this film, certainly, Catherine O'Hara—. Catherine is one of—not many actresses that could pull off both sides of this, where she's incredibly funny, but can also shift into an emotional area that surprises people. It's just amazing, that transition. So I think there's some poignancy at the end that's very important.
G: Tragedy is also about failure.
CG: Yeah, but it's not funny.
G: But poignant, as you said.
CG: So I think, you know, we've worked in comedy, and I think to be able to touch on both areas is more interesting to us than just a series of jokes and then you go home...
G: The film within a film is—it looks like a '30s or '40s melodrama.
G: Why did you choose to sort of set that against the very modern Hollywood foibles?
CG: Well, we picked these two writers—Michael McKean and Bob Balaban play these two writers who are these kind of hack writers that write these bad plays and teach at a community college. We just thought it was a funny idea to—that they would—the pretension of them saying—. Well, it would clearly be to them more important if it was period, because that just has some class involved.
G: They think they're Clifford Odets.
CG: That's right. You know, "Costumes—that makes it better," you know? "We have Jews in the South. That's kind of arcane. And we have a gay couple." So they cram everything into it, basically. And so there was something funny to us about that idea—really overloading this. It's very melodramatic. And yet, they can't write. So you have this kind of funny—
EL: They teach at Staten Island.
CG: They teach on Staten Island. If you're not from New York, it's one of the boroughs.
EL: And the big claim is that they've written thirty-eight plays—one more than William Shakespeare.
CG: That's in their backstory.
EL: That's in the backstories that we write.
CG: We write all the names of the plays that they've written. So they knew all the plays that they had written—they knew the whole...
G: Where does that collaboration between you as the writers and the actors in developing their characters—how does that meet? And in addition to that, you've got the craftspeople like costumers who might want to throw in their—
CG: Well, yes, that's true. Again, having written this backstory, in the case of these two writers—they know all the plays they've written. They know their lives, basically. What the actors—with that information, they base their characters. They can—their looks—I always say to them, with the costume designer, instead of, on a regular movie, they'll say this is the palette you're going to be wearing. Here's your suit. The actor says, "Okay. Thanks." In this case, I want the actors to really pick out what they wear in conjunction with the costumer. Or even with the props, and say, "This is what I want to have." Rather than "You're going to have a pipe. You're going to have a watch," they pick their watches. They pick their shoes. They pick—you know, it's a great deal of freedom once they know and have looked at this backstory.
G: Does that happen on the production? Do they go through a costume shop, like at a toy store, and pick through—?
CG: Sometimes they do. It's prior to shooting, obviously. And occasionally, on the set they will say—that's why these guys have these huge trucks with weird things on them. Someone will say, "Oh, I need that rubber foot." And they'll look for a rubber foot.
EL: It's wardrobe and also the look, the makeup and hair. In this particular case, our hair stylist...was kind of deluged, I would think. Everybody, when they were creating their characters, had some kind of hair or look that they were thinking of—
CG: Much more than usual. That's true. I looked at this list. Because she is probably the best at doing this ever. And I could tell, her head was exploding. And I said, "What's going on?" She said, "Everyone wants a wig." And a wig—you don't just put on a wig. You know, it's a major deal for people to get prepared. So I looked at this list. It was virtually every actor thought it was funny to wear a wig. And I thought, "Awwhhhh, now I am going to have to talk to people and say, 'Ohhhh.'" But it's like talking to (whining) "I want a wig!" I thought, "Okay, let's see. Okay. You know, three fat suits, nine wigs, and you know...
G: Do people pitch you all the time on what they think—?
CG: On the street. No, no, no one pitches because I don't go to a place to pitch, because I come up with these ideas. But on the street, every day. Every day.
G: "It would be great if you did—".
G: Thank you.
[For Groucho's review of For Your Consideration, click here.]