Mockumentary king explores new style

Journal staff writer Phil Brown visited the Toronto International Film Festival last September and attended a press conference for Christopher Guest's new film, For Your Consideration

Jane Lynch and Fred Willard have been part of the ensemble casts for many of Guest’s films.
Jane Lynch and Fred Willard have been part of the ensemble casts for many of Guest’s films.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of rottentomatoes.com
Guest and Levy intended the film as a light-hearted comedy.
Guest and Levy intended the film as a light-hearted comedy.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of rottentomatoes.com

Interview: Christopher Guest, director of For Your Consideration @ Empire Theatres—Capitol 7,

Nov. 22 to 23

It’s 1984. A documentary filmmaker is interviewing Nigel Tufnel, the guitarist from a popular British heavy metal band. He notices something odd about the dials on the band’s guitar amps and requests an explanation from Nigel, who smiles and responds “Oh, these ones go to 11 … it’s one louder, innit?”

And with that simple exchange, a comedy legend was born. Nigel is, of course, Christopher Guest and the film is This is Spinal Tap, the project that ushered in the mockumentary genre.

Christopher Guest had been around for years before Spinal Tap, writing for The National Lampoon Radio Hour and performing on Saturday Night Live, but he had never found an appropriate venue for his unique sense of humour until that iconic film.

Even after it became a perennial cult favourite, Guest did not make another truly artistically or commercially successful movie for over a decade.

After seeing the format of Spinal Tap ripped off countless times in many lesser films, Guest returned to the genre with Waiting for Guffman in 1996, and then continued to play with the format in Best in Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003).

Guest’s movies offer a subtle intelligence that makes his work distinct from most American comedies and has earned him intense loyalty from his actors.

Over the years, he has collected an impressive ensemble that includes the considerable talents of Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, all of whom were anxious to sing his praises at the world premiere of his most recent film For Your Consideration at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

“People really love working for him in front of the camera because they never get the chance to have this kind of freedom anywhere else,” said Levy. “[He] has one of the most brilliant creative minds that I have ever met.”

And Levy should know since he’s been Guest’s co-writer on the last few films. Fred Willard says that when “Chris and Eugene get together, it’s a lethal combination. They’re the driest, funniest people I know.”

Yet, despite the fact that Waiting For Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind bear the pair’s distinct imprint, they have never actually written a screenplay.

“Eugene and I write the stories and all of the parts are specifically made for these actors,” said Guest of the pair’s creative process.

“The characters have a backstory that Gene and I bring. Everyone [learns] that, but there are no lines, the dialogue is improvised. So there’s a lot of input from the actors.”

Guest’s casts thrive on this unconventional filmmaking approach and are always excited to be involved with a new project.

“If lobbying means offering money, then yes,” said Shearer of how the actors lobby for roles in

Guest’s films. “But seriously, there’s just a lot of praying. You hope that Chris and Gene want to do another one and then you sit by the phone and hope that they call.”

The phones were ringing last year as Guest and Levy put together For Your Consideration.

“After doing three films using the documentary format, Eugene and I decided to make a narrative film and not use [that] format,” said Guest of his decision to change his style.

The challenge the duo then faced was determining a topic.

“There was the Western idea and the Medieval idea,” said Guest. “Those were the first two. The Western lasted a day I think. Then we had the medieval one because we thought the clothes were funny: the tights and those feathers. And then it wasn’t so funny the second day.”

“The idea of doing something related to show business came up as a little bit of a surprise,” said Levy.

“Normally we’ve tried to stay away from show business. It just seems too easy.”

What made them change their minds was an experience Levy had after the release of A Mighty

Wind. His performance in the film was singled out in many reviews and he received numerous awards from critics.

As a result, his name started being included in the Oscar rumour mill.

Despite knowing he would never be nominated, Levy claims that “once it’s in your head, no matter how you shake it, you can’t get it out. You try to talk yourself out of it, but it’s still there.”

Levy found the whole experience surreal, and both he and Guest felt that it would be an ideal target for their brand of humour.

The result is For Your Consideration, a movie that examines the experiences of the cast of an independent film Home for Purim after the project starts generating Oscar buzz.

The sprawling, Robert Altman-esque ensemble style that Guest has developed allows the movie to mock the effect Oscar rumours have on all levels of the film industry, from studio executives to entertainment gossip show hosts. That’s not to say that the movie is a heavy-handed satire.

“There’s something fun about the subject matter,” Levy said. “We’re giving it a very light, funny approach. We’re not zinging the business here. We’re just having fun with it as people who are in the business.”

The resulting film is as delightful and hilarious as any of Guest’s previous work. While the mockumentary style may be missed, none of the humour is lost.

If there is anything bad to be said about the movie, it’s that with so many actors, including new addition Ricky Gervais—the star of the BBC version of The Office—the movie lacks a clear focus.

Although there’s a narrative, it’s very thin and exists only to link together the characters. But with a cast that works as well together as this one, it would be hard to decide who to cut. The camaraderie between the actors is evident on screen and it translates directly to the audience.

“It wrecks our lives,” Guest said of working with friends. “Most days you need to be very disciplined. On set, I hope people are having fun, but it’s not a party atmosphere.”

“People seem to think that because it’s improvised there’s a lot of farting around,” said Shearer

“But it’s not; it’s hard work in the sense that we’re all there working together to tell the story … There’s no other job to be done and we’re not fighting to get the most laughs or competing.”

The movie earned a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival, but whether the film will connect with a large audience remains to be seen. Guest’s films have garnered a cult following and are all relative commercial successes, but on a small scale.

For Your Consideration will not disappoint his fans, but it’s unlikely to earn him any new ones either. Still, it’s nice to see a comic filmmaker willing to take risks and try new things.

In addition to dropping the mockumentary format, Guest and Levy produced a far more detailed outline than ever before and even scripted a few scenes. The film was treated more professionally than the others and as a result it appears more polished.

“We opened a whole new door,” said Fred Willard. “[On] Waiting for Guffman, I don’t think there was any outline. With Best in Show, we had about a 12-page outline. Mighty Wind had a 16-page outline. This time we had make-up sessions, camera tests, hairstyle meetings and rehearsals. This time it’s like a real movie.”

But, a bigger budget and a greater attention to technical detail do not make any comic film funnier.

Still, For Your Consideration is a delight, and hopefully the team will continue to work together for years to come.

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