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Christopher Guest, best known for his role as Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tapas well as his stint on Saturday Night Live during the mid-'80shas been directing movies for several years, including The Big Picture and HBO's Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. His latest is the Spinal Tap-inspired mockumentary Waiting For Guffman, the story of a talentless drama teacher in Blaine, Missouri, who produces a bad musical for the celebration of the town's 150th anniversary. The locals cast in the play, including SCTV favorites Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy, as well as Spinal Tap alum Fred Willard, are swept away by the glamour of show business, especially when an important man from New York with Broadway connections promises to attend their performance. The Onion recently spoke with Guest about his new movie and his diverse career.
The Onion: This Is Spinal Tap is the mockumentary by which all others are judged. Why would you choose to make such a similar movie when faced with such a daunting comparison?
Christopher Guest: There's a simple answer: There's a kind of comedy that can only be done, I believe, in the same way we did Spinal Tap. And this is a discussion which, when we have been talking with journalists, is a difficult area to talk about because people get confused and/or it somehow gets misrepresented.
O: Try me.
CG: We didn't have a screenplay. Eugene Levy and I wrote an outline the same way we did with Spinal Tap. We wrote an outline, and it took quite a long time to delineate all the characters and show how they would all interact in this town. There were no rehearsals of any kind, other than for the actual show within Guffman, for the "Red White and Blaine" show, which was obviously a written piece.
O: And well-rehearsed.
CG: Not well-rehearsed. No. We actually rehearsed for three days. We didn't have a lot of rehearsal time because we only had 28 days to shoot the entire film. It was probably not enough time, but we were doing the best we could. We weren't trying to perform badly. And getting back to your question, improvisation on film is not something you see very much, certainly in comedy. And Tap was a way for usMichael [McKean], Harry [Shearer] and myselfto do that kind of comedy. It's different because you're hearing it for the first time. You're seeing the auditions you see in Guffman; those are the first time I ever saw them. It's not so much to try to do another documentary as to facilitate a certain way to do comedy. The people I chose to cast in Guffman are real masters, I believe, at that kind of comedy: Fred Willard, Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara. There's no outlet for that. There's no other way for them to do that. What I meant in the beginning, I said it's confusing to people because if something is billed as an improvised movie, people don't know what that is. The connotation, if anything, is bad, because it sounds glib in some ways. It's just people fooling around. And if it weren't in the hands of the actors I just mentioned, it perhaps would be. But these people are the best at what they do. If a jazz group gets up and plays, no one questions the integrity of that. They get up and they play, and everyone knows how to follow them and drop back when they have to. And that's another analogy I use.
O: The fact that the movie is about a staged production, is that in some way a connection to the fact that the only improvisation left is on stage now?
CG: It has no connection at all. It was just a story idea. I had gone to see a junior-high production 10 years ago of Annie Get Your Gun with 13-year-olds playing grown-ups, basically. And I was very moved. I thought it was very poignant, the whole idea of the seriousness with which they took this task. The director afterwards came up and he was crying, and they gave him roses. This is no different, really, because we're not trying to parody a small town in this. It's really to show that in human nature, this is something that would happen. And I make the point sometimes that if you were to go backstage at a Broadway theater and say that Woody Allen was sitting out there, people would just go insane. People would be falling all over each other, even though they're professionals. And they would make the same leap in their logic to say, well, obviously he's here to see me and put me in a movie.
O: The other reason the two movies [Waiting For Guffman and This Is Spinal Tap] compare is that they seem to be about the same thing, the incompetence of the main characters. They're always making fun of someone making bad art.
CG: It's obviously inherently funnier to have in a comedy someone who isn't doing something very well. That is the basis of most comedy. If you're showing people where it's smooth sailing, where is the joke? If you go back to any movie, even a conventional movie, with any comedians, they're either not terribly intelligent or they're not doing something well.
O: How did you get into making movies? Was The Big Picture about your own struggles trying to make movies?
CG: That is absolutely not autobiographical. I got into it in a very circuitous way. I started working in New York City as an actor and did many plays. I did regional theater, smaller theaters, children's theater. I painted sets before I ever performed. Then, after about five or six years of that, I joined up with the National Lampoon. The first years it started, I started writing. We did stage shows in which I was writing and performing and doing music. And then I did the Radio Hour. And when I did Saturday Night Live in 1984, part of my deal was that I got to direct all the movies that year. I directed nine or ten short films that year with Billy Crystal. This kind of interested me because it's really a natural extension of having some control over what you do. So it wasn't the normal approach, which is where people go to film school. I didn't go through that. I didn't go to film school. I had been an actor in movies, I had been in plays, and then I just sort of jumped into it.
O: Did anything about making Guffman make you think about The Big Picture, and how hard it is to make a movie?
CG: Well, I think there are truths in The Big Picture that keep coming back, that are universal things. But I've been very lucky; I haven't gone through those kinds of situations. I haven't had to do anything outside of show business my whole life. I've never been a waiter. I've only worked and gotten paid. It hasn't been a classic example of someone slogging through the business. But yes, again, it's a universal thing. With Guffman, we picked this small town. It was a fairly arbitrary thing. If you take it literally, then... [Pauses.] I've been asked by certain people, "Boy, I bet those people in Missouri are going to be mad." And it's like, try to maybe broaden your mind just a little bit and see that... [Pauses.] This happened to Spinal Tap. People said, "Boy, I bet Black Sabbath is going to be pissed off." And I said, "Look, it's kind of a generic thing here." I'm not any particular person. [Spinal Tap is] not supposed to be a particular group, in the same regard that Blaine is a typical town. Now these people are semi-psychotic, but you have to make them funny. That's the bottom line. People tend to laugh at this movie; that's the whole idea. And there's some reality to it. That's the other important thing we were trying to invest in this, is a sense of reality, which again comes from the fact that you're doing it as a documentary. You cannot behave in a way that is artificial, 'cause that's gonna just... Then it's over.
O: You were involved in National Lampoon in its heyday. What do you think of the state of National Lampoon today?
CG: Is it still being published?
O: Yes. They publish every six months just to keep the name in ownership.
CG: I'm honestly unfamiliar with the product now, so it wouldn't be fair to say.
O: So you haven't been involved at all.
CG: I haven't been involved since 1975. If there was a heyday. [Laughs.] I started at the very beginning in 1970, and I did five record albums for them, and we did stage shows and whatever, but that was it.
O: How do you feel about answering personal questions?
CG: Oh. Well, if it's too personal, I may hang up on you.
O: Well, it's kind of personal. But we'll give it a shot and see. If you don't like the question, you don't have to answer it. You're married to Jamie Lee Curtis, right?
CG: Okay, see, this is an area. No. I don't talk about the family. This is kind of an on-going thing that gets, honestly, to be kind of tiresome, only because, you know, you meet people in Boston and they say, "Boy, what's it like to wake up with Jamie Lee Curtis?" Well, you know what? We've been married for 12 years, and we have kids, and it's not like we're living some bizarre life here. We go home and we wear sweatpants and the baby takes a dump and we change the diaper. I don't mean to put you off here, but I just tend not to talk about it.