Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy have both worn a great many hats in their careers, as actors, writers, comedians, and musicians. In the three hilarious documentary-style (Guest dislikes the term "mockumentary") films they've collaborated on over the past decade—Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind—they tend to wear all those hats at once. They collaborate on the storylines, then Guest directs a talented cast of regulars through the process of improvising a script; Guest and Levy both appeared in all three films as well. This year's For Your Consideration, a freewheeling comedy about what happens when rumors of Oscar nods reach the cast of a small, tacky film called Home For Purim, was made in a similar style, with the same core cast, and appearances from Guest and Levy themselves. But Guest is quick to point out that it's a different kind of film. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Guest and Levy about the craft of their collaborations, and why For Your Consideration is different.
The A.V. Club: Has your collaboration process changed in any significant way over the years?
Eugene Levy: I would say that they haven't changed all that much since the first film we worked on together, Waiting For Guffman. I think the writing process is pretty much the same—we kind of flesh out the idea first, and along with that, the characters. We kind of figure out who we want to play which character, and then we start putting it down in a scene-by-scene breakdown for the script. And that's been the process, I think, for all these movies. It really hasn't changed all that much.
AVC: And then the actual dialogue is improvised by the actors within that scene-by-scene structure you provide?
Christopher Guest: There's a very strict blueprint for what happens. There's just no dialogue written—except in this case, for Home For Purim, the movie within the movie. We wrote dialogue for that.
AVC: How flexible is that blueprint? Do you allow the scene-by-scene improv to change the course of the movie if something interesting develops that you hadn't foreseen?
CG: They're not flexible at all. What is flexible is the dialogue that's used to convey the actual exposition that we need. Every scene has a point; it's not just people rambling. There's exposition in every scene that has to be accomplished before we can move on. And so that can't change, otherwise you have this free-for-all.
AVC: How many takes do you do of a given scene, and how do you decide when you're done with the improv process, and ready to move on?
CG: I would say it's far less than a conventional movie. In a typical movie, you have anywhere between 10 and 20 takes. For our films, we do maybe three at most. Four would be a lot. It becomes quite clear, from the standpoint of something that's funny, and in terms of what has to be conveyed, when to move on.
AVC: At what point is Eugene's part in the process finished? Is there a sharply delineated line between the writing process and the filmmaking, or is it more organic?
CG: We finish the outline, which could be 25 pages or so. That's distributed to the actors, and at that point, it turns into my job of being the director, essentially. From then on, we make the movie, obviously. After I've done an edit of the movie, Eugene will come in, and we'll talk about that. The process of editing is also for me to do with the editor.
AVC: What's the most surprising thing that comes out of the improv process?
EL: Just how brilliant and adept these people are at coming up with things that are funny. Getting the point across in the scene, and also being able to get amazing laughs. It's the dialogue aspect of this process where you realize how great, how talented this troupe really is, because they're able to improvise some amazingly, brilliantly funny lines. And they kind of know when to be funny and when not to be funny, so it's a kind of weird balancing act. You sometimes hear a line in a scene and you know how funny it is, but you don't really want to laugh while the cameras are rolling.
AVC: Since these films started coming out on DVD, fans have been speculating that you must generate a ton of unused footage, with different ways of improvising individual scenes. Yet there's very little of that on the DVDs.
CG: What I show in the film is basically what I think is the best take of a scene. Scenes that work, but only in themselves, not within the context of the final movie, those show up on the DVDs. The rest of it, takes that weren't the best ones, just wouldn't be as much fun to see.
AVC: How does your process compare to how Rob Reiner made Spinal Tap? Did appearing in that film teach you anything about the faux-doc process that carried over to your own films?
CG: First of all, For Your Consideration isn't documentary-style. When I did Waiting For Guffman and the next two, those were done like documentaries. This current movie is a narrative style—we dropped that whole documentary template. Waiting For Guffman was different right away from Spinal Tap, because we didn't show the interviewer. That person became invisible immediately. That created a different way of tuning it and ultimately editing it. There was no person to cut to, to react to the person doing interviews, merely the people being interviewed. So there's an evolution through all of these movies, and now the biggest evolution by moving to narrative.
AVC: Why did you want to move away from that style?
CG: Well, we had done three, and we thought it was time to do something different. To take on a different kind of challenge. It is quite a dramatic difference in the way you construct a movie. With a documentary, you can cut away, you can do jump cuts, cut to a photograph at any point to bridge two scenes. And in For Your Consideration, you go from scene to scene the way you would in a typical movie.
AVC: It does resemble the last three films in that it's about an insular group of people who've lost perspective on the outside world. But it's a much more expansive and less insular movie. Was that just a natural outgrowth of moving away from the documentary format?
CG: I think it is an outgrowth of that, sure. Yet I think there is a similarity in terms of the mythology of the people. You can pick any area where people have these huge blind spots and are not really aware of what's going on around them. There are some similarities.
AVC: Did changing the format change the way the actors approached the film?
CG: I don't think it did. It changes, my standpoint as director, because at the end of the scene, I have to be conscious of the script, of where that ends up and goes to. I can't bridge it with some fairly arbitrary joke. So from my standpoint, I had to watch what they were doing—look at it and say, "Is this going to be a good ending for this scene? Do we have that somewhere in the scene?" I think I can say, from the standpoint of the actors, it wasn't really different from the way they've worked before.
EL: I think the process is exactly the same. I don't think there's honestly any difference in how the actors approach this film than doing a documentary.
AVC: Christopher, you've said that A Mighty Wind was kind of a personal film for you, because it's about the folk-singing world, and you have a history there. Obviously, both of you come out of the film industry—did that make this film similarly personal for either of you?
CG: I think Gene and I have both seen these things happen over the years—I've been in this business for almost 40 years, and I've certainly seen people who, going back 20, 25 years, have been told that they were gonna win awards. And not just Oscars, all kinds of awards: Grammys and Emmys and Tonys. And without exception, it seems, in my experience, people I've known—it always ends up being kind of tragic, because it's the same scenario every time. Someone will say to someone in a musical, "You know, you better be prepared, you're gonna win." They skip over the actual nomination, I don't know why that is, but they say, "You're gonna win." And the person then believes they're gonna win. And then they don't even get nominated—that always happens. I've seen this happen dozens of times, literally. So I think what interested me in this—and it's not personal, because I have been nominated and I've won and I've lost awards—but I think what interested us was this concept that once this happens, the person cannot process this information. There's no healthy way to really deal with this. It becomes a virus, basically, and I think that was a big core to what this movie was.
AVC: Eugene, are there specific aspects of this film that come out of your experience?
EL: Well, we've both been in the business for 35 years, and I think there are aspects to this thing that have come out of personal experience. You know, my character is an amalgam of different kind of people, agents and other people that I've encountered over the years, and I think just about every aspect of this story, you've come into contact with in your life. So it's very familiar to me, as was A Mighty Wind, because I was heavily involved with folk music as well. So there is a familiarity with the subject matter with this one and with A Mighty Wind. As opposed to Best In Show, where we had to go out and actually do some research, because it's a world with which I wasn't all that familiar.
AVC: Christopher, this is your second film about Hollywood. Has your perspective on the industry changed significantly since you made The Big Picture?
CG: I don't know if it's changed all that much. I find that I'm somewhat removed from the business, even though I work in the business. I don't read anything about the business, I don't watch television shows that are about the business, so in many ways I guess it hasn't changed. But I just kind of do the work that I do.