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Christopher Guest of Spinal Tap fame, blows into town to promote A Mighty Wind (obviously he doesn’t write these intros) and heaps praise on his large and talented ensemble cast, as Andrew L. Urban discovers.

A failed ex-comedian without a script was the most dangerous actor on the set of A Mighty Wind, as Christopher Guest, the film’s writer, director and co-star admits. “You’ll notice I never appear in a scene with him,” Guest points out, “because the one time I did, in This Is Spinal Tap, even though I had my back to the camera, if you watch closely you can see my shoulders shaking with laughter.”

That’s Fred Willard we’re talking about, who plays Mike LaFontaine, irrepressible and agonisingly corny, totally un self-aware, a motormouth with a beaming smile and spiky hair, a comic invention that goes beyond the words. He plays the agent for the folk musos in the film. “With his character being an ex-comedian, Fred knows right away where his character is coming from. And you know, there is no rehearsal in my films; the camera turns when we get to the set, and … ‘Action’. And Fred goes until the film runs out, and then I put more film in and he still goes. And I say we’re going to cut, and he says, ‘I’m not finished’ and I say I realise that but we just have to move on.”

Guest, who blew into town to promote the film this week, explains how he works through the example of Willard. “The films I do are improvised – but people don’t really understand what that is. They understand that there is no dialogue written down, but in truth they don’t understand how that’s possible. So I compare it to jazz musicians playing a song …. they know the key they’re playing in and what the meldy is, but they depart from the melody, and then come back to it at the end. That’s the best analogy . . .”

"portray characters with such zest and depth"

And that’s how Fred Willard – and the rest of the cast – get to portray characters with such zest and depth. Guest (with co-writer and actor Eugene Levy) sketches out the characters and the story outline in some detail, and then like wind up toys, the cast is set off to fill in the intricate details, speak the words that come to them as their character, and – most importantly - to portray their emotions. 

Willard is one of a seasoned team working with Guest, a team that includes Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr, Jennifer Coolidge, Paul Dooley, John Michael Higgin, Michael Hitchcock, Don Lake, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, Larry Miller, Christopher Moynihan, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, and Harry Shearer.

Most of them have worked on Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman, the two previous mockumentary style features Guest has directed. (His first such script was for the memorable, This Is Spinal Tap, which Rob Reiner directed, with great success.) 

Best in Show is set in the world of dog shows; Waiting for Guffman in the world of community theatre. A Mighty Wind imagines what would happen if …. on the death of folk music manager Irving Steinbloom in 2003, his son Jonathan (Bob Balaban) orchestrated a memorial concert at New York’s Town Hall to reunite perfomers who Irving helped make almost famous in the 60s. 

The romantic duo Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy & Catherine O’Hara) are no longer on speaking terms but they agree; The Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer) are no longer good looking youngsters, but they also agree; and so do the scattered members of the colour co-ordinated ‘neuftet’ The New Main Street Singers (featuring John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch and Parker Posey). 

Some people may mistake this film for a satire, but Guest and team are not poking fun or taking cheap shots. “That wouldn’t have resonance for a minute,” he says. Guest is not cruel to his characters, something that makes the film seem more real – hence the documentary tone. A Mighty Wind “celebrates rather than trounces upon its characters’ quirks,” as one critic has put it. And, he says, the film was great fun (but eight months of editing) to make. The humour comes from pinpoint accurate observation. But then that’s what Guest does all the time.

"I just sit and love watching people, listening to people"

“I just sit and love watching people, listening to people…. I love watching how they walk, for example. And all that information somehow gets to my brain, then maybe three years later, some of that is in the film.”

You can imagine Guest sitting at a café, unnoticed, just watching. For one thing, he doesn’t seek publicity or fame, and has never had his own publicist, something rare for anyone with a movie profile like his. (Also, he says he gets cranky if he does too many interviews.) For another thing, he dresses and behaves “ordinary” as he says, which is a trifle unkind to his smartly understated open necked blue shirt and classic trousers. His white hair has regrown (he had his head shaved for eight months of filming and editing A Mighty Wind) and his overall appearance gives no hint to his comedic quirkiness. Nor does he act funny in interviews.

So why come all the way to Australia on a promotional tour? Because, as he readily concedes, his films have limited appeal: limited to the few English speaking audiences like North America, Britain, New Zealand and Australia. “My films don’t really translate into Japanese or German … it’s just too insane to think!” But you’d have to know his work to see the humour in that. 

New York born Guest, who inherited his father’s British Peerage (The Right Honourable The Lord Haden-Guest, Fifth Baron of Saling in the County of Essex), perhaps also inherited the common (as it were) English characteristic of understatement. It underlines his work.

Of course, he’s the first to point out that ‘his work’ is exceptionally collaborative and he relies on the entire team to pull it off. “Each one of them is remarkably talented,” he says with passion. And if Fred Willard is dangerously funny – both in terms of making everyone on set chortle, and in terms of improvising unpredictable, edgy dialogue - Guest reserves his highest praise for Catherine O’Hara. The subject comes up when we talk about the very real pain that is built into the Mitch & Mickey characters, played by Levy and O’Hara. 

“The pain in this film comes mostly from the [now badly broken] Mitch and Mickey relationship. Eugene and I talked for a long time about this and whether we could pull this off, the idea of a damaged person as he is, which is right on the line…it’s really painful. And her still longing, on some level, for him. The funny stuff makes me laugh, but my favourite thing in the film is to see Catherine looking at him when he’s speaking … and so much is going on …. In the US, Catherine is the great female comedian in the last 50 years. She is so deep it’s remarkable…”

"a special kick"

Of course, A Mighty Wind is a real ensemble piece, and Guest got a special kick out of this film, because “you’re not only acting these characters, but you’re playing and singing as these characters. That is the ultimate for an actor in terms of the dimension that you’re able to have … we’re writing these songs, we’re actually singing these songs the way those people play and sing them, and even playing the instruments. So it’s much deeper than most actors get to do.” 

Published July 24, 2003

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Christopher Guest

... In A Mighty Wind

... In Best in Show

... In Waiting for Guffman

... In This is Spinal Tap

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