The Man of Many Face
It has often been written of Chris Guest—or, if you prefer, Fifth Baron Christopher Haden-Guest, son of diplomat Peter Haden-Guest, who could once vote in Parliament—that he has the demeanor of cold stone and the temperament of the dead. He possesses, one often hears, an impenetrable façade, that of the serious man who comes to life only when pretending to be someone else—say, Nigel Tufnel, guitarist for a hairy hair band named Spinal Tap; or Corky St. Clair, effete director of horrendous plays on small-town stages; or, most recently, Harlan Pepper, a shopkeeper from Pine Nut, North Carolina, who loves his bloodhound almost as much as fly fishing. Guest is, as The New York Times recently wrote, “a man of many faces”—and, one assumes, none of them his own. A colleague who has interviewed him several times refers to Guest, rather affectionately, as “an odd duck” who “keeps everything close to the vest.” This friend intends the description as a warning: Christopher Guest is, to put it mildly, a difficult interview. Like talking to a pile of bricks dressed in loafers and a blue blazer. Like interviewing a corpse with good skin tone.
Guest insists he has no idea he possesses such a reputation—that of the taciturn comic who lets his characters do his goofing around while he watches stoically from the sidelines. He can see where it comes from—”If you didn’t know who I was, if I was to walk out on the street without people knowing who I am, you’d think I’m an accountant or a lawyer”—but swears he has no idea it’s the public perception, the conventional wisdom. That is because Guest has never read a single word written about him, positive or negative. He insists that he reads nothing at all about the movie business; he tunes out those who would even relay show-business news, for fear that such information would contaminate his world, his craft, his art. Guest claims, for instance, that until informed by his interviewer of this news, he had no idea that early DVDs of This is Spinal Tap, released in 1998 by the Criterion Collection, sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay. “That’s surprising,” he says, in a tone of voice that suggests he didn’t actually know or doesn’t actually care. Besides, he reminds, This is Spinal Tap was just re-released a few weeks ago for less than $20 by MGM. One need not pay so much anymore for a 16-year-old movie.
Guest doesn’t mean it all to sound so pretentious. Besides, pretentious is the last adjective one would apply to a man with Guest’s résumé, which boils down to: writer for National Lampoon magazine in the early 1970s, performer and writer on Saturday Night Live for a single season in 1984-’85, co-writer and co-star of This is Spinal Tap, and now writer-director of such films as 1996’s Waiting for Guffman and the just-released Best in Show. He has made a living in comedy for almost three decades and doesn’t need a critic to tell him whether he’s earned such a right. Instead, he contents himself with being his own critic: After the completion of any film he’s directed, written, or appeared in, Guest will jot down his own comments, among them: “I’m pleased with this film. I think we did a good job. I like it.” He says that “only twice” has he been disappointed with a film he’s made; he doesn’t name names.
“I don’t read about myself, and I don’t read any magazine that has anything to do with movies or show business,” he says, sitting in a two-story Dallas hotel suite as large as a small, tastefully decorated home. (“I got up last night, and got immediately lost,” Guest had said earlier of his accommodations.) Every now and then, Guest will indeed laugh, and the sound punctuates the room’s stately silence. Actually, it’s not quite a laugh: He opens his mouth wide (look, Ma, at all those fillings) and gags on a chuckle, until it becomes more like the sound of a cat coughing up a hairball: HA! HA! HA! But the look on his face is one of genuine delight. It’s just as well he doesn’t read his press clippings; he might too believe he’s the world’s most humorless comedian.
“I feel in some way I need to not be in that world to do what I do,” he continues. “Some instinct has told me I need to live in a world that isn’t consumed with reading about myself or anyone else or someone’s opinion about something. I need to be clear of that. It’s just healthier for me. I feel happier. I remember running into someone years ago—an actor who had just finished a movie—and I said, ‘How was it?’ He said, ‘It’s a piece of shit. It’s really horrible.’ The movie came out two weeks later, and it was a huge hit, and I ran into him a month later, and he said, ‘The movie’s great! It’s the best!’ I thought, ‘Well, he’s full of shit.’ The most important thing about my life is this integrity, and you can’t lie to yourself.”
When Guest was a child, the 6-year-old son of a diplomat then living in New York, he used to look outside his window and peer at the people walking on the street below. He would then jump off the windowsill and imitate their walks. He would also give them voices, becoming these strangers, or at least who he imagined they might be. So often during his childhood, adults would say to him the same thing: “I’m glad you’re amusing yourself, young man.” He was. He still is.
When he was in college, at New York University, Guest found himself rooming with a fellow theater student named Michael McKean, otherwise known as Spinal Tap’s singer-guitarist David St. Hubbins (and, before that, Lenny Kosnowski on Laverne & Shirley). They would arise at 8 every morning and begin “making the movie”—creating and becoming characters, performing for the invisible camera. By the time they arrived in class, they would be in the third act, cracking themselves up even as their classmates struggled to keep themselves awake. Guest and McKean annoyed those around them—”they thought we were manic”—but couldn’t care less. “To us it was funny,” Guest says, smiling, “and it’s the same thing I’m doing now, except now it has a little more structure.” Small pause. “Perhaps.”
The perhaps is a wise addendum: Yes, Guest and Eugene Levy receive writing credit on Best in Show, which is about, more or less, nine oddball dog lovers who converge at the Mayflower Dog Show and prove far less manageable than their pets. But the film was completely improvised by its stars, among them McKean, Levy, SCTV veteran Catherine O’Hara, and Fred Willard, otherwise known as the most unappreciated comic actor this country’s ever produced (just to look at him is to laugh). Levy and Guest gave them only the names of their characters and told the actors to fill in the blanks; the result is 90 minutes’ worth of gold panned out of hundreds of hours’ worth of shooting. Willard compares the process to playing tennis, a comedian’s game of serve-and-volley.
As with all of Guest’s films, including 1989’s The Big Picture (starring Kevin Bacon as a wannabe filmmaker willing to sell out himself and everyone around him) and 1998’s Almost Heroes (with Matthew Perry and Chris Farley as two bumbling explorers), Best in Show pokes gentle fun at those who take themselves so seriously they become buffoons. These dog owners are fools who eventually get in their own way; they’re delusional, naïve, earnest to a fault, dreamers who ought to stay in bed. We love them, perhaps because we so pity them: Gerry Fleck (Levy), the man with two left feet (literally) who sings songs to his Norwich terrier; Meg (Parker Posey) and Hamilton Swan (Michael Hitchcock), yuppies who met at Starbucks and believe their weimaraner was traumatized after watching them have sex; and Leslie Ward Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), the trophy wife of a fossilized old man. And then there’s Harlan Pepper, played by Guest with a Deep South accent on loan from a Civil War museum. Actually, Guest says, he came up with the voice while driving through the mountains in his pick-up truck. At first, Harlan’s voice made him sneeze, non-stop. He is not joking.
“I think my observations are about people who take themselves seriously, which isn’t even that conscious,” Guest says. “I was interviewed by a guy named Elvis Mitchell about two years ago for his NPR radio show The Treatment, and he truly was the first person—and I’ve done, oh, a thousand interviews—who said, ‘What’s interesting about these movies is…,’ and then he started to talk about how these people take themselves so seriously. I felt like Rain Man, a moron, because I said, ‘You’re right, but I never thought of that.’ I’m not being facetious. He really was the first person who said there’s a running thing here, and since that time, I’ve actually thought about it, because I operate on a very spontaneous level, which may after the fact look cerebral in some way.
“But the way I play music is the same way I do these movies. It sounds like a tangent, but when I play as Nigel Tufnel, the solos I play are not the solos I would play as me, but they’re channeled in some weird way so that it comes out as this guy. That’s the way I do these parts. They come from this blank state of mind. So when Elvis said that, I said, ‘This is interesting, because I think you’re right,’ but it comes back to this issue of people who view themselves seriously, and maybe there’s something funny about that. I hope I’m not one of those people.”
Throughout the course of this hour-long conversation, Guest will repeatedly insist he has no agenda when making his films; he doesn’t see them as parts of a significant sum. He swears he’s not kidding. And swears again. “I’m serious,” and of course he is.
As a child, Guest loved the Marx Brothers (“Groucho is the guy“) and revered Peter Sellers, the ultimate blank slate upon so much great comedy was written. He cared little for the Three Stooges, wondering why grown men would choose to hurt themselves for a few cheap laughs. He preferred instead the grace of Buster Keaton and the ballet of Harold Lloyd; Guest found his comedy in the contemplative, rather than the combative. He also loved the surreal—funny walks, funny voices. He liked smart, and he liked serious. Comedy without a tinge of the somber is merely silly, and he will have little of that. Getting a laugh is hard work; comedy is not to be tended to by the frivolous.
“I couldn’t be more serious about what I do, but having said that, I hope that it’s not pompous or pretentious,” he says. “This is what I do: I take seriously this craft, and to break that down into an improvisational craft, which I have equated over and over with music. I was asked to talk to the AFI [American Film Institute] a few years ago, and I knew it was a mistake, because I didn’t go to film school. I was from a different place. I began to say, ‘Here’s what happens—there’s no rehearsal,’ and I could see the shutters coming down in front of their eyes, like in a Chuck Jones cartoon. And I thought, ‘Well, OK, now I’m fucked.’ To me, it couldn’t be more inspirational than to sit down with Eugene and know we don’t know what we’re going to say when the cameras are rolling. It’s the same sitting with McKean playing music, which we’ve done for 30 years. Sometimes it makes you laugh when you play something: ‘Whoa, I didn’t know you were going there.’ I find this profoundly exciting and interesting, and, yes, I do take it seriously.
“There’s an amazing thing in a Truffaut movie—I think it’s Bed & Board—and it’s one of my favorite images I’ve ever seen in movies, where this family is looking out the window and they see this man in a coat during winter, and he has his collar up. He’s walking, and this family sees him, and there’s this unbelievable pissed-off, sour-looking expression on his face. Later in the movie, the family’s sitting around eating, and they see him on TV, and he’s a comedian doing the broadest thing you’ve ever seen, and it’s an absolutely incredible moment. I just thought, ‘Oh, what a great observation,’ because there are people like that.”
And one of them is named Christopher Guest.