Christopher Guest - Making It Up As You Go Along

Submitted by Paul Fischer on Tue, 12/16/2003 - 02:44
Christopher Guest as banjo player for fictional Sixties band The Folksmen in A Mighty Wind

LOS ANGELES The secret to mockumentary master Christopher Guest's art is letting the actors do "their thing".

On screen Christopher Guest completely disappears into the world of a Sixties folk-singer making a comeback in his latest ensemble comedy, A Mighty Wind. As hilarious as these films are, Guest doesn't translate on-screen satire into his everyday world. You interview Mr. Guest and you’re meeting a serious artist who happens to poke fun at popular American culture. 

As the actor-writer-director did with This Is Spinal Tap (which he did not direct), Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, Guest wrote the film's premise in three pages, then had his cast of regulars make up scenes on camera, creating the dialogue as they went. 

A Mighty Wind, which Guest "wrote'' with Eugene Levy, is a mockumentary about three folk acts from the Sixties that stage a televised reunion at Manhattan's Town Hall in honour of the passing of fictional folk music producing legend Irving Steinbloom. 

The groups include the romantic folk duo of Mitch & Mickey (Levy and Catherine O'Hara); a troubadour trio, the Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer); and the blatantly commercial New Main Street Singers, led by John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch and Parker Posey. Other Guest regulars include Fred Willard as an agent, Jennifer Coolidge as a folk enthusiast and Bob Balaban as the most peculiar of Irving Steinbloom's sons. 

"It's very lucky because the actors are so busy and without them there's no movie,'' says Guest. 

Guest became interested in the subject matter of "Wind" because of his early interest in folk music. “I played a lot of folk music as a kid in New York where it was actually happening in the Sixties and so it was something I knew. So basically that was the place to start. I wanted to do some music in a film and I started to talk to Eugene about it and Eugene has always been a musical person.”

Anyone who knows anything about Guest knows that seeing him sing and play an instrument comes second nature to him. 

A woman was interviewing me the other day and she said, ‘What was exciting about this?’ And I said, well, it was exciting to play as (I played music for about forty years) and it was exciting to play in a movie “live”; no one ever does that. You don’t hear “live” music in movies.

And she said, ‘Oh, do you play an instrument?’ 

And I said, ‘Well, did you see the film?’ 

She said, ‘Uh huh.’ “ 

He recalls with amusement, but also with clear distain. 

In A Mighty Wind, what you see is exactly what you get, an all-singing folk troubadour, no lip-synching, no pretending. In an age of youth-oriented films, Guest is unconcerned that his satirical comments on Sixties folk music will be far too sophisticated for today’s youth market. 

“What we worry about is whether or not it’s funny, pure and simple, because if you start worrying about what kids are going to like, then that’s different business. Some other people are in that business but Eugene [Levy] and I try to make each other laugh and do something fun and, you know, hope it works out. I think if you sit at home and start thinking about that then we’re out of our realm.”

Guest contacts his regular group of fellow improvisers six months in advance and each actor shoots eight or nine days in a period of 25 days. For the cast, the attraction is not only being part of a clever comedy troupe that has a huge cult following but also the opportunity to stretch their comedic muscles. 

"This gift they have to improvise, you never see it anywhere else,'' Guest said. "So it's fun to come to this set. People love watching others work. When we're filming, they don't go to their trailers; they stay on the set. It feels like a gang of old friends because it is a gang of old friends".

"I've been working with McKean 25 years and Harry Shearer 20 years,'' he continues. "What's so nice about doing this is they seem to be genuinely having fun and they say, 'Come see what Fred Willard is doing,' and everyone comes to see Fred do his thing.'' And so, too, do audiences who can’t enough of Guest and Co's unique brand of comedy.