“Well, actually, I’ve been in show business about 20 years and you tend to be interviewed,” said Christopher Guest when I asked him if he, like me, felt uncomfortable. “No, I mean on the phone. Have you done many phone interviews?” I continued, foolishly. “Millions,” he replied. Oh, let’s see, I thought, where else can I put my foot?
Long before his collaborative—co-writing/acting—role in This is Spinal Tap brought him to the foreground of national consciousness, Christopher Guest was a legend among the cognescenti in the world of comedy. A classically trained actor at Bard and NYU, which in ’67 meant studying with Andre Gregory and “a guy named Grotowski,” as well as learning circus skills; Guest began working in ’69, performing Little Murders eight times a week while finishing college. Then, after writing one article for an early issue of The National Lampoon, it was suggested that he use his musical and performing skills as well, writing and performing on National Lampoon albums. He complied and completed five before turning his attention to Lemmings—a topical, rock and roll review also starring Chevy Chase and John Belushi, in which he “portrayed” James Taylor and Bob Dylan.
1978 was a pivotal year for Mr. Guest. After excelling once again as a writer performer on National Lampoon’s Radio Hour, as well as continuing his work in theater, he debuted in his first feature film, Girlfriends . ’78 also marked the premiere of his band, Spinal Tap on The TV Show, a satire of all forms of television where cast members, including Guest, acted all the parts, including commercials. And, guest-starring on All In The Family, Guest met Rob Reiner, who helped bring Spinal Tap the movie into fruition. “It probably took four years, from the inception of the idea to finishing the film,” says Guest. "Most studios didn’t want to take a chance on an idea with no script. The whole movie was improvised. Finally Norman Lear let us try it and we shot it like a documentary and ended up with 40 hours of film."
Though no one has seen a penny of residuals, the edited version, which opened in ’82, became an instant classic, appealing to an incredibly diverse audience, including my mom and some of the very bands it parodies—it’s a video staple on tour buses all over the world.
Throughout his career, Guest has always alternated between comedy and drama, which includes a stint on Saturday Night Live, as well as roles in films like Sticky Fingers, Princess Bride, and Beyond Therapy. The Big Picture, which opened in limited release (New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Texas) in mid-September, marks his first effort as a feature film director.
Lynn Geller God, The Big Picture made me laugh. I saw it last week with a friend who has also had some dealings with Hollywood. It was so dead on. What was the process for getting it made: did you write the script first or, like the hero, get a development deal?
Christopher Guest We made a deal at Paramount, wrote the script for them and it ended up in ‘turnaround.’ You know what that means, right?
LG Yea, on “pause,” temporarily on the shelf. But were you always attached as the director? That’s a hard sell, first time director.
CG Yes, but I’d written a lot, which is an easier imaginative leap for them to make, than if I’d just been an actor. Not that that makes sense necessarily. But when the film went into turnaround, there was a period of time when nothing was happening and I went off to do Saturday Night Live in ’84.
LG Did you ever audition for the original show?
CG No, I never did. I guess I probably would have wanted to do it, but it just didn’t happen. I was first asked to do the show around ‘82 and I felt then that that was the wrong time. In ’84 I made a deal, along with Harry Shearer and Billy Crystal, saying we’d do it for a year and I had a clause which guaranteed that I would direct the short films. Because we’d all done things already we were able to have some kind of control. Normally, when you start there you’re younger and they basically put you in wherever they want.
LG There’s an impression that it’s a fun place to work.
CG It was never a fun place to work. I think it might have been fun in the early days if you took a lot of drugs and weren’t professional. But it was hard for all of us, including Marty Short; it was just difficult.
LG It’s a difficult thing to pull off, a live show every week.
CG I’ve talked about this before, but there’s no real reason to do a live show. They made a big thing about it, but it really doesn’t add up to anything and in fact, takes away from the amount of time you have to write. SCTV was always funnier. The reason it was funnier was because they had six weeks to write the shows and then do them right. It’s fun performing live, but I think there’s something false about the whole premise of it, on television. Even in terms of the first show, there’s been a kind of retroactive brainwashing about how good it was. If you look at those sketches, they go on too long and don’t really hold up. There’s always the same percentage of good stuff, about eight minutes, and that was true when we were doing it, as well.
LG It’s kind of like people having a reverential attitude about bands of the ’60s based on “Best of” albums, but if you actually buy the records one by one, you have to wade through a lot of dreck.
CG Yeah, it’s funny, your memory plays tricks on you. SNL was unique for people who weren’t in the business of comedy, but for people who’d been doing stuff like that for years, it wasn’t. It just happened to come at a time when no one outside the business had ever seen that; and no one had ever managed to package it before. But comedy is so subjective and when you’re in the business it becomes even more specific about what you like and don’t like.
LG When your year was up, where was the film?
CG Two companies, Handmade Films and Columbia under Puttnam expressed interest. I’d written the film with Michael Varhol [Pee Wee Hermann films] and then Michael McKeon [co-writer/actor, Spinal Tap] came on.
LG Were you asked to make a lot of script changes á la Big Picture?
CG It didn’t change much. But after meeting with Puttnam, we made a few changes and at the next meeting he said, “You have a movie. Go shoot it.” I was stunned. Two weeks later he was fired. Then it got totally weird because we had written the story three years ago and it was coming true. So the less intelligent people out here were saying that the film was about what actually happened.
LG Aha, a prophet.
CG I’ve had to say, I know your version is more interesting, but it’s not true. In any case, during the transition at the studio we made the movie, which is unusual. Normally when a new executive comes in, they just throw everything out. In this case, because they were going through a transition, we were virtually left alone. So it’s quite ironic and it will probably never happen again in my life. Then the film got two good reviews from trade papers and I think that created some interest.
LG I know you improvised a lot of the scenes in Spinal Tap, was there any improvising in this movie?
CG No, every single scene was written.
LG That scene in the restaurant with Short was priceless; it said everything about relationships and patronage in Hollywood, where even the waiter is connected. What about the story meetings, were they based on real experiences?
CG It’s more of a composite, though I have been in meetings where people have said things that were so unbelievably stupid, so much more stupid than what appears in the film, that you couldn’t put them in a film because no one would believe it.
LG Why do you think that happens?
CG I don’t know, but it’s always been true and probably always will be. There are a lot of people in the business who like to be in control and it’s an age old thing, battling that. I guess the issue is whether or not you can work around it without completely compromising. In this case, invariably people would say, “No one wants to see movies about show business.” I’d argue that it was no different than seeing a film about the medical profession where they use medical terms. They didn’t have an answer for that. In fact, we were careful to eliminate any inside jokes; people out here see that because they’re so consumed with the business.
LG In my opinion, those reactions are also about maintaining the mystique of the business. It’s like the AMA, which professes to monitor its own, but also preserves the mythology. The same is true in journalism, where you rarely see anything actually debunking the profession, except, of course, in the movies.
CG Yes, it’s the same thing. And there’s really no difference between the characters in this business and any other business. The head of a studio is probably not much different than someone running a car company. The difference is that in the film business, no one ever knows what’s going on. If these guys had their own feelings initially, they’ve been replaced by marketing experts’ opinions. Now the business is filled with people who hope not to make movies, because then their asses would really be on the line. It’s sad. There’s a distance and lack of humanity.
LG And it seems the more powerful people become, the more removed. I won’t name names, but I’ve gone to test screenings, the ones they have in malls and once I happened to be sitting in a row of studio execs. At one point I exclaimed because I recognized one actor to be a friend’s ex-boyfriend. Later I overheard an executive mention “one woman who liked so and so.” Sure I liked him, but that’s not why I pointed him out. I mean I’m happy to help the guy’s career, but it struck me as being rather arbitrary.
CG That’s why in The Big Picture you see how one phone call where the guy says, “I can’t talk right now,” completely changes his whole life. And your experience shows that they’re not really listening, watching, or feeling the movie itself.
LG When I was really poor I used to participate in “product” surveys. You’d sit around and eat something or try out a toothpaste and then talk about it. It seemed like such a bogus “science.”
CG I believe that to be true, that marketing is a total Wizard of Oz situation, an absolute hoax. And the biggest danger is that before you even have a product, you’re trying to determine what to do. Like in the movie when it’s, “Well, people like Babe Ruth and they like Abe Lincoln, so let’s make a movie with both.” So it’s not about people having organic connections to their material and saying “This is what I want to do” and it’s actually funny but about packaging.
LG But lately there have been some wonderful independents.
CG Yes, it was an interesting summer if you look at those movies as opposed to the huge cheeseball blockbusters, the small movies that have made a mark.
LG I just saw an interesting movie, Drugstore Cowboy, which was one of the most honest portrayals of drug addiction I’ve ever seen. And that’s amazing given the climate of the country where there is a vast amount of denial. Lots of denial and lots of grandiose statements; “Just Say No.” Now there’s a solution.
CG I have a problem with the word, “just”. There’s something so glib about that idea, like what are you talking about? Just kick heroin?
LG Maybe because it has nothing to do with reality and that’s also true about a lot of movies that purport to be sociologically accurate. It’s like you can hear the story conference while you’re watching; “No, too downbeat, not enough drama, pep it up.”
CG Again, the more money spent, the more involvement of all kinds of people and the more they have to protect. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an expensive comedy that works for me. There’s something inherently wrong with spending over 20 million dollars on a comedy, something starts to get not funny very quickly—you lose your spontaneity. You lose that sense of we’re just gonna go out and do what we do, which is what makes people laugh, because there’s suddenly a lot of people in Armani jackets telling you what to do. It’s not about money or big jokes, it’s really about something that needs to be fairly contained.
LG I feel really sad about the direction the culture is going in, but I guess we should feel happy about the exceptions to the rule, like your movie and some of the independents we talked about.
CG You know, there are probably 10,000 people out here who say to themselves every day, “I’m a really good actor, how come I’m not on a television show? I’m funnier than Arsenio Hall.” Whether or not they are or aren’t is really irrelevant. I’m playing devil’s advocate, but it’s like I’m lucky I have some forums for my work. I’m working on a project with Marty Short for Reiner’s company which I’m writing with Joe Flaherty from Second City and Marty and I get to play every part in the movie, the most surreal, weird people, about 30 apiece.
When I started working on the Lampoon most of the other guys were older than me and a lot of them had a certain anger. There’s always the feeling in comedy that “I’m much funnier than anyone else; how can you think anybody else is funny?” When you let go of that attitude and think, “I don’t care, if you think I’m funny, great,” you’re much better off. The classic thing was when someone came up to Rob Reiner and said, “Mr. Reiner, I think All In the Family is great.” And he said, “Thank you.” Then the guy went on and said, “Yeah, that and The Beverly Hillbillies are my two favorite shows.” Or people will say, “Boy, Spinal Tap, that and the new Scott Baio movie changed my life.” It’s irrelevant. There are people making two million dollars who I don’t think are funny. But that’s ok. I’m not going to waste my time being angry about it. It’s juvenile to think, “How can you be spreading your attention around when I need all of it?”
LG A friend of mine was saying recently that he hates standup comics because he feels like the comedians are really saying, “Laugh or I’ll kill you.”
CG Well, there’s desperation. It’s an awful love/hate thing, a paradox and it’s very delicate. When you get older you realize by loosening up, by letting go a little bit, that’s what makes you more accessible; that by actually throwing it away, it gets funnier and people are more attracted to that than a wall you create. But I see that attitude a lot.
LG Did you ever have that attitude?
CG I think I did in my twenties, that elitism. I was never a standup, but I definitely thought how could someone find me funny and like Silver Spoons—what could he/she be thinking? But basically, who cares, you know? Now I feel, that’s that; I’m me.
—Lynn Geller is a New York-based writer an a music supervisor on documentaries and features.