Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy could each pack a megastar's trailer with solo credentials. Working together they are the undisputed kings of the cinematic sendup.
Broadway trained, Guest scored his writing breakthrough with the 1984 heavy-metal mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," which had a generation of musicians cranking their amps up to level "11" in tribute. Canadian-born Levy – his prodigious eyebrows characters unto themselves – rose through Second City TV as a writer/performer of comedic sketches on his way to becoming a Hollywood staple. In 1985, he produced HBO's "The Last Polka," spawned from SCTV bits about – interestingly – a fictional band.
Over the past decade, they have collaborated as writers and actors – corralling a regular cast – on three subculture comedies. "A Mighty Wind" (2003), "Best in Show" (2000), and "Waiting for Guffman" (1996) took a largely unscripted, documentary approach to folk music, canine contests, and small-town community theater, respectively.
Now they have loosed their talents on Hollywood with "For Your Consideration," the story of a small indie film whose cast is giddy over highly improbable Oscar buzz. Its point of view nudges the film out of the documentary format and into narrative – a conscious decision, says director Guest. But viewers will see familiar fingerprints and faces.
The Monitor caught up with Guest and Levy in Boston for a mostly deadpan chat.
What are the implications of owning so distinctive a brand of satirical filmmaking?
Christopher Guest: I don't really think of myself as a satirist, I guess. I think of myself as a person who makes films that are really my observations about human behavior. And you could pick any area, any job, any slice of life, and have that same depth. I think that's what's fascinating. This movie obviously centers around something that we know well. But it could be about ... you know, anyone with ego issues. [A]fter "A Mighty Wind," which showed Eugene and Catherine [O'Hara] in very vulnerable states, really dangerously kind of balanced, delicate people, we wanted to keep going and not just do a series of sketches and funny things.
So how do you get it right?
Eugene Levy: We have the same sensibility comedically, which is kind of that everything has to come out of a real situation. Everything has to be grounded. So on the page, you're really reading almost straight stuff. And it's the characters that make it funny.
C.G.: I prefer doing something in a more subtle way, generally, than broader comedy. On the other hand, you can look at people like Monty Python ... one knows that there's intelligence there, but they can still do broad things, and it's an interesting balance – as opposed to a broad comedy where there are actually morons doing it. I think Gene and I do share ... this interest in showing people's behavior, which is funny to us.
In the new film, there's a shot of your character [director Jay Berman] from behind wearing these absurd shoes...
C.G.: Spring shoes. A friend of mine was wearing those shoes about a year before we made the movie, and I said: "Explain." And he said, "Well, I'm on the set all day, and I have this back problem, and somebody recommended these things...." There's a big spring that goes up the [heel]. He said "I know they're horrible, just insane-looking." So when this movie started, I remembered that and got those shoes. And I thought it might be worth it, because just that one shot, I walk up those steps ... [and] it says a lot!
Your treatment of Midwestern community theater in "Waiting for Guffman" seemed more sympathetic than your treatment of Hollywood. Intentional?
C.G.: No, no. I think there is a departure in this [film]. You need to have some connection, some investment in these characters. But we're also showing the reality of how grim that business can be. [And we] toned [it] down. If we had just pooled our resources and said, 'Well, let's think of the worst things that ... we know of in our lives in show business, it would have been sickening. You would have said, 'No one will want to watch this.'
How important to you, as a gauge of authenticity, are the reactions of members of the cultures you explore. Did dog-show people come up to you after "Best in Show" and say 'You nailed it'?
E.L.: It was positive.
C.G.: It was positive. We don't set about to do a parody. But there are people who will come up to us and say, "I know who you're doing. I know who that guy was." And I'll say "Who was it?" Because it wasn't based on one person. They will fill in blanks. I suppose that is a compliment. [I]t's very important for me to do something that is accurate. Because if it's not, then it just has no interest for me.
What about the constant: this troupe [Fred Willard, Parker Posey, et al.]?
C.G.: Well, the reason we have this group of actors is because these films are improvised. You need a very specific group of people that share that talent. This is the A-team of that world. We write these parts [and elaborate back stories] specifically for those actors. And I think it becomes a family.
Can Hollywood laugh at itself, or is it too serious and narcissistic a culture?
C.G.: They can laugh at other [people]. I mean, this happened in "Spinal Tap," where a band would come up to us, a heavy-metal band, and say [slips into voice of his Nigel Tufnel character] "I know who that was. That was that group from Swindon, right?" They could never [quite] see themselves.
E.L.: I think there are some people in Hollywood who will actually be able to look into the mirror and laugh at the business. Well, everybody's going to laugh – and nobody's going to think it's them.