Just over 30 years ago, Christopher Guest recorded an album with Lenny And The Squigtones, a fictional band who first appeared on Laverne And Shirley and featured Michael McKean on lead vocals. Guest was credited as Nigel Tufnel, but that wasn't the last time that name appeared. Guest used a character of the same moniker in his 1984 This Is Spinal Tap, a mock rockumentary film about three aging musicians. There wasn't much of a script; Guest and the ensemble—including McKean and Harry Shearer as the other band members—improvised a large portion of the film. Guest repeated the same process and style in his later films, including Waiting For Guffman (musical theater), Best In Show (dog shows), A Mighty Wind (folk music), and For Your Consideration (Purim-centric cinema). Now, in honor of Spinal Tap's 25th anniversary, Guest, McKean, and Shearer embarked on a tour April 17 dubbed "Unwigged And Unplugged"—the trio play songs from their films, acoustically, and not as characters. Before the tour kicked off, The A.V. Club snagged a few minutes with Guest, hoping to chat about the songs themselves—starting with those from Spinal Tap. But as it turns out, Guest has moved on, so the conversation turned to his filmmaking process, be-bop jazz, and his feelings on the term "mockumentary."
The A.V. Club: What was the first song you wrote for the film? Do you remember?
Christopher Guest: The first song as Spinal Tap that we wrote was “Rock ‘N Roll Nightmare.” And that’s not in the film. It was on a television show in 1978, so that’s a whole other thing. Michael is kind of the guy that remembers stuff way better than anyone… What I’m trying to stress for our purposes in all the interviews that I’m doing is, obviously the show that we’re doing is a show as us, and we’re not coming out in weird outfits and wigs. So it’s really important that people know the difference, because if there’s confusion we can all go home. People tend to veer toward questions about Spinal Tap, but this is going to encompass A Mighty Wind and Waiting for Guffman music that we’ve written.
AVC: It's only natural, though, because the peg of the tour is the 25th anniversary of This Is Spinal Tap.
CG: That’s right. It’s a little bit of a confusion, and we’re trying to not make it that. But if the thing is loaded toward Spinal Tap, then people will subliminally get the message that this is a Tap show, believe it or not, and then they’re going to be disappointed.
AVC: We can talk about other songs, too.
CG: The generic premise for writing songs as characters is what we do, and I’ve been doing that since National Lampoon in the '70s. Not to be [pause] weird, but you write songs the way people would play them. I don’t play the guitar the way that Nigel Tufnel plays—I don’t want to get into an Andy Kaufman thing here—he plays sort of in a more pretentious way, and that’s who that is. So the songs are crafted as those people would craft a song—whether in the case of Spinal Tap that has this pretension, or in the Folksmen with this sort of corny aspect to it. And in Waiting for Guffman, that show was presented by Corky St. Clair. Again, that’s not the way I would direct a show. That’s not the way I would do anything. That’s what kind of keeps the interest up, in terms of saying, “Well, we have the ability to play and sing in many different ways,” and it’s a great treat to be able to do that. I guess.
AVC: How fleshed out do the characters have to be before you start writing the songs?
CG: If we feel we can improvise very easily as those people, then that would extend into the writing of the songs. In the movies, which are improvised, the camera turns on and there is no rehearsal. You just go.
AVC: When putting together a film, do you have an ensemble in mind going in? Or does the concept come first, then the ensemble?
CG: Well, I think of an idea—and because the movies are improvised, you’re not in the same position as people who are doing a conventional movie, because with that situation there are many, many actors that could play those parts. In the kind of films that I do, there is an extremely limited number of people that can improvise. The reason the ensemble continues in the movies is because those are the people that can do that kind of work. It’s not just an accident those people are in the film. It’s important to realize that, in the same way you want to play with good musicians, there’s a reason people play with the same musicians because they can do what they’re supposed to do. That would be true for the films as well. But the concept comes first: I think of an idea, I call Eugene Levy, we start to work on it, and then we start to craft a story, obviously populating with the people that can do that work.
AVC: Is there any thought behind varying up which actors are paired together?
CG: Absolutely. Believe it or not, a lot of work goes into those movies. It’s highly considered what combinations of people work with each other, because if people see Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara as a couple, then in the next movie you don’t want to do that again.
AVC: It's often difficult for improv to translate onto screen—people seem to be afraid of there not being enough jokes, so they cut right to them. How do you—
CG: I would make a huge distinction between theater improvisation and film improvisation. There isn’t much improvisation in film—there’s virtually none. The people that theoretically could be good at this in a theater situation don’t necessarily do this in a film in a way that will work, because it’s much broader on a stage. Whether you like it or not, you’re inevitably going for punchlines [in theaterical improv], even though that’s not the basic premise of how all of that started in the 1950s. The truth of it is that people are not going to want to go to improvisational theater if it’s not funny. You can succeed in doing all the things you’re supposed to do—be truthful to scene—and if it’s not funny, I’m telling you that no one’s gonna care. But in a movie, it has to be real, and the characters have to look entirely real because it’s being done as a faux documentary, so there are even fewer actors that can do that on film.
AVC: Is it difficult to get film producers on your side, to do things without much of a script?
CG: It began with doing Spinal Tap where Norman Lear said to Rob Reiner, “I’m going to give you the money. Just go ahead and make the movie.” He trusted him. And when Rob was part of a company—he is still—called Castle Rock, he said the same thing to me. He said, “Go and make the movie.” From then on, I present them with an outline so they can see what the story is, but they just say, “Go and make the movie.” In a regular scenario out here, there is no way anyone else would trust anyone with that. You could walk in, and you could have a track record and it wouldn’t matter. They don’t get it. They don’t truly understand it, so you’d be out of luck.
AVC: Why is it there aren’t more improvised films?
CG: I run into people all the time who say—and it’s a term I don’t use, but they say, “I’m doing a mockumentary.”
AVC: Why don't you like to use that term?
CG: Someone made that up because they just don’t know what else to say. It’s easy for a journalist to use it, because it’s one word, but that’s not how I would describe my documentary movies. I would say, “I’ve written it in a documentary style,” but that’s three extra words and they don’t like to do that. Anyways, people come up and say, “I’ve just written a mockumentary.” I say, “Well, what do you mean?” They say, “I’ve written a script.” I say, “You can’t have a script if it’s not real.” They don’t begin from a stable of people who can do that kind of work. It just sounds cool. That’s like me saying, “I’m going to play be-bop jazz.” Well, sure it’s a cool idea, except I can’t do it. It takes more than what people understand to actually do it.
AVC: At least with staged work, a big thing with improv is getting over fears, and working through those fears to become a better improviser. Does that factor in for you?
CG: Doing these movies is not therapy. The people have to come to the set, the camera comes on, and you’re doing what you see in that movie. If you can’t do that from one millisecond in, you’re not in the movie. People say, “Well, how does this work when you rehearse?” and I say, “There is no rehearsal.” They go blank. Their eyes just dim. You can’t explain how this happens. How do you explain that people know what to say? In the same respect, people who are playing music know what notes you’re gonna play next. They just come out. It just happens in jazz. It happens that a guy will take a solo. But there isn’t all this craziness about, “Well, how did that happen?” In this context, people just flat-out don’t understand it, and I don’t think they ever will because if you can’t do it, you would never understand it.
AVC: You had no improvisational experience before your films. What was the appeal of that style, then?
CG: Well, because it’s real. When you hang out with people who are funny and you’re theoretically making people laugh when you’re 18-years-old… there was no name for it. We weren’t doing it in a theater, and I was not in any improv group. Eugene and Catherine came from Second City. Michael McKean wasn’t in an improv group, and Harry Shearer wasn’t in an improv group. This is something we just did in Spinal Tap, and it hadn’t been done before. We found it funny because it was so spontaneous and had a different feel to it. When people look at it—it’s a subliminal thing, I guess, but you realize you’re hearing this for the first time, and there is something different.
AVC: To go back to the tour for a moment, are there any songs you're particularly looking forward to unearthing?
CG: I would say the way we’re doing “Big Bottom” now is a departure from the way we’ve done it which puts a whole new light on it, but I’m not gonna tell you how it is.