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Guest Host: Christopher Guest 

Wednesday, Jan 6 2016

It's been almost 20 years since Corky St. Clair and his motley crew of aspiring actors mounted Red, White, and Blaine, the musical at the heart of Christopher Guest's 1996 film Waiting for Guffman, but their impact lives on. The film follows Guest's St. Clair, an off-off-off-off-off Broadway director desperately attempting to mount a musical celebrating Blaine, Mo., a small town preparing to celebrate its 150th anniversary. The master of mockumentaries (A Mighty Wind, Best in Show), Guest's formula for success involves improvised scripts and a reoccurring cast of players.

"I have an unofficial kind of company of actors that I've been fortunate enough to know and work with over the years," he says. "I think that they're fantastically talented people, and so the parts are created for them."

Some of the actors that have often populated the world of Guest's films include Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, and Fred Willard, all of whom will join Guest at Sketchfest's tribute to Waiting for Guffman at the Castro Theatre Jan. 9. Another frequent collaborator is Eugene Levy, who is credited as a co-writer on Guffman, a role he subsequently reprised on Guest's next three films. When Guest first had the idea for Guffman, he went to Levy, and the two of them mapped out the story, earmarking specific roles for actors they knew. Guest then turned to Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, his This Is Spinal Tap co-stars and faux-bandmates, to help pen the songs featured in Red, White, and Blaine.

Guest knew that the show-within-a-show would need to be scripted to allow it to stand apart from the improvised nature of the rest of the film. Therefore, he would need to write the musical numbers that punctuate Red, White, and Blaine. Guest wrote some with Shearer ("Stool Boom") and others with McKean ("Penny for Your Thoughts"). While the process was organic, the challenge was writing songs that were sufficiently entertaining while falling obviously short of Broadway-caliber, in order to maintain their authenticity.

"It's a tricky line that you have to hold," he explains. "It needs to be musical, but these aren't professional singers and dancers doing it."

Given the plot of Guffman — whose titular character is a heavyweight theater critic rumored to be attending St. Clair's production — and the recent spate of successful film-to-Broadway adaptations out there, there is interest in reimagining the film for the stage. While Guest says it's not a project he's actively considering, he does concede that Guffman is a fit for the musical treatment, in spite of the difficulty in turning an improvised script into a stage play.

While a Waiting for Guffman musical may not be on the horizon, Guest does have a new project slated to premiere on Netflix next year. Few details have emerged about Mascots, a film purported to center around costumed stadium figures like the Phillie Phanatic or the San Diego Chicken and featuring Guest regulars like Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, and Harry Shearer. What Guest can confirm is that he is happy to be back in the director's chair.

It's been 10 years since his last theatrical release, the awards season send-up For Your Consideration, although in the intervening years Guest has toured with Shearer and McKean, playing songs from Spinal Tap and his own filmography. He also created Family Tree, an unfairly short-lived television show for HBO starring Bridesmaids' Chris O'Dowd. While the long break between features may frustrate avid Guest fans, it's understandable when you remember that each improvised film yields 50 hours of footage that he is then obliged to compress into fewer than 90 minutes.

The immense amount of material is of course a byproduct of improvisation, a creature wholly unlike live improv (as Guest sees it). While comic actors like Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy came from powerhouse Second City, he notes there are other actors "who have never, ever worked in any improvisational situation" but who are also brilliant on camera. For Guest, the difference between stage and film improvisation lies in the former's use of blackouts, where the audience expects a scene to end on a joke or a laugh. Improvisation for his films is less structured, an experience Guest equates to playing music, where he and his cohorts often improvise as well.

"It's very freeing," he says. "The give and take of it is really fun."

Guest directed Guffman — his first time overseeing an improvised film — and doesn't recall any feelings of nervousness or concern. He credits the time he spent on the set of This is Spinal Tap for instilling in him the faith that he could make his own films sans a finished script. Guest says that he, Shearer, and McKean simply knew that they could do it: It was something they did every day already, so it wasn't remotely uncomfortable.

"There's no rehearsal," he adds. "You just make sure the cameras are turned on and you start to talk."

Twenty years after the cameras were turned on for Waiting for Guffman, the film now stands as a pioneer of the faux-documentary genre that has subsequently birthed countless films plus shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation. As far as his own inspirations are concerned, Guest looks to films like Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose and Laurel and Hardy's Sons of the Desert as works he would be willing to see given tribute. He is unsure whether he will watch Guffman when it screens at the Castro.

Recalling a 30th-anniversary screening of This is Spinal Tap he attended in New York in 2014, Guest admits to having fun at the event, but says that in general, he doesn't watch things he's done after they're finished. The problem, he says, is that he struggles to admit the projects are over, even when he's watching them decades later.

"In a funny way, in my mind, it's always a work in progress," says Guest. "It's as if I'm contemplating what I would do next time if it was the same thing, although of course that doesn't actually happen."

Still, Guest is open to taking in Guffman, a film he says he hasn't seen in perhaps 20 years. He thinks it might be fun to watch it with Posey, Balaban, and Willard, his co-stars on the project. Perhaps for one more night, the storied cast of Red, White, and Blaine will be reunited. Whether or not Mort Guffman will attend remains to be seen.


About The Author

Zack Ruskin

Zack Ruskin

Zack was born in San Francisco and never found a reason to leave. He has written for Consequence of Sound, The Believer, The Millions, and The Rumpus. He is still in search of a Bort license plate.


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