Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, For Your Consideration

Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy’s new movie, For Your Consideration, really goes after the movie publicity process (especially on TV interviewers). Naturally, I led off by pointing out how they’d launched a pre-emptive strike against the media, and in the process, me. Guest laughed. That was a good sign. While Levy tends to do movie press more often, this was Guest’s first time through the media mill in quite some time. Seeing the two of them in a Ritz-Carlton room was daunting. But not that daunting.

So onto the regular questioning, then, shall we? First off, the production notes note that this film had more of a script than previous films by Guest and Levy (see Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind). Was that by design?

Guest: “What is different is that this is done in a non-documentary format. This is done as a narrative so it goes from scene to scene. And that was a deliberate choice that we made.”

Having the same main cast or troupe return again, does that make the improv any easier or more comfortable?

Levy: “Well, it’s, I think it’s about, we really look forward to seeing each other every three years and working on a project. Together. In terms of actually doing it, this kind of work is fun, and doing it with these people is fun. The comfort factor, I think, has been pretty much the same since the first film. It’s not easier to work with these people. It always was kind of easy. Because they’re good at what they do. But it really is a joy to work in this kind of way, in this improvisational style with these people, so the whole experience is comfortable. But it always has been.

Guest: “For this kind of work. And other people aren’t really doing this that much, but I think for this kind of work, you can do this or you can’t. You can’t go to a night school and learn how to improvise. It just doesn’t happen. They have thousands of courses in this and teachers teach it, but to be honest, you know, it’s possible to get more proficient at it, but you can tell in 10 seconds if someone can improvise.”

I guess I meant, in playing off each other. Does it get easier, then, to interact with people within the troupe from working together so much over the years?

Guest: “No, it’s the same. If you have five of these people come into a room, you just turn on the switch and it happens. You can just do it. You can do it 24 hours a day. You could just do it until you dropped, basically. Its just, it would be like getting musicians in a room that can play, that can play well, you can sit down and you can play together, you can just do it. It doesn’t change really. You’re playing a different character, but you can do it.”

Both of you won Emmys early in your careers. Going through that experience, does it make it easier to deal with press speculation or bloggers now?

Both of you won Emmys early in your careers. Going through that experience, does it make it easier to deal with press speculation or bloggers now?

Guest: “Well, I don’t read any blogs and I don’t read the press. I don’t read any show business press at all. So I don’t really live in that world, where that’s — that’s not in my world, basically. No one says anything to me. I don’t hear it. I don’t read it. I don’t watch it on television. But as a young writer, I was nominated in the 30-something years ago (Guest won an Emmy writing for a Lily Tomlin special)….before that I was nominated for an Obie award, and three Grammy awards in a row, even before the Emmy. So at 23 or 24, I had already been through four different nomination situations. It’s not much fun. There’s nothing really fun about it. And that was when there was really no cottage industry. That was just pretty tame by today’s standards. But there’s nothing really fun about it. And having won and lost, it’s more fun winning, but I think its gotten, well we show what happens in the movie basically. The movie speaks for that.”

Levy: “It was kind of fun, but we were younger (he won an Emmy writing for SCTV). And you’re really just in a state of disbelief. Well, I think for me, because I worked in Canada. Which, you’re so far removed from the actual business that the idea of any consideration for an award seemed like it was just coming from another planet. But it’s got nothing to do with — I don’t read blogs. I don’t go into Internet sites. It’s kind of a strange thing, I don’t know, it’s still kind of a dark corner to me. But it has nothing to do with these movies in doing what we do on these movies. I think just generally your experience in the business gets you to a point where you can do what it is you do. But I don’t think the actual winning or being nominated up to this point helps you that much, except when we came onto this idea, with something being planted in your head in terms of you might be up for an award, then you start thinking about.”

Considering you don’t keep up with the press, did you have to start following it to research?

Guest: “Nope.”

Levy: “I’m certainly familiar with the shows (having been on them before)…I don’t watch a lot of television, but I will turn on the first 10 minutes of Entertainment Tonight just to, you know, see what it is they’re talking about and how shallow it can actually be. Just for a fascination aspect. But it’s..I think we kind of captured the personality of all the different kinds of talk shows, television and radio.”

Guest: “I had someone make a tape for me of several different shows that I saw. It was really a montage. It wasn’t the entire shows. It was really five or ten minutes of several different shows, so I saw that. I hadn’t really seen the shows before. And I guess my main feeling was, the sad feeling was how disposable everything seems. I’ve been working in this business for almost 40 years. I do what I do, but there’s a sense on these shows that you can’t move fast enough. It just goes quickly. They eat up certain stories. They throw them out. And then you’re onto the next thing. And in my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a long career and do what I do, but there’s a sense having watched this tape, that there’s just no respect or importance for anything. Pretty much now we’re moving on to the next thing, 10 seconds later we’re on another thing, and it’s not serious obviously. It’s very light. It couldn’t be lighter.”

When do you think that all changed in terms of entertainment press coverage?

Guest: “I don’t watch it so I could be the last person who could tell you that.”

Levy: “Probably…

Guest: “Yesterday?”

Levy: “About the time when People became a section of Time magazine. When there was a section where it turned kind of gossipy. I mean, there were always tabloids, no question about it, going down through the years, but the genesis of People coming from a section of time, that they decided to make People magazine out of it.”

Guest: “That was a long time ago. And obviously with cable TV and the Internet, its 10,000 times what that was.”

Levy: “Before that it was tabloid.”

Guest: “It was just gossip.”

Levy: “It was kind smutty stuff. People legitimized the celebrity aspect of the business and made it mainstream.”

And now People is the least gossipy or smutty of all the celebrity magazines, wouldn’t you say?

Levy: “Well, now mainstream has become smutty. I mean, now it’s just who just got divorced from whom, and which 18-year-old actress is now divorced from her 19-year-old husband. You know what I mean? It’s just bizarre news.”

Guest: “Of course, no one is forced to read that news. No one is doing that at gunpoint, which I guess says something about something else, but that’s not what this movie is about.”

Right. So getting back to the moviemaking process…how do you two work as a writing team?

Guest: “The hopefully simple answer is I come up with an idea and I get together with Eugene, and we talk about whether that could be something viable in terms of its interest for both of us, and whether it can be funny and interesting, and then we set about to writing what will be a 25-page outline. Back histories on every single one of the characters. Every single character has their own backstory. And so when I meet with the actors every one of them know what that is. In this movie, we wrote the script for Home for Purim, the movie within the movie, but everything else was improvised. This process takes several months. And then we present that to the actors.”

Do you write the outline together?

Levy: “Yeah, we’re a desk. We have pen and paper.”

Guest: “As if it were 200 years ago. Pen and paper. Legal pads.”

Levy: “We go through the stories, we go through the characters, we lay it all out, we put it on cards on the board and then we attack each card and flesh it out, put it into the script. And the outline is a scene by scene breakdown, but it’s all pretty civilized. And the movies are, that’s where it happens.”

Does the improv technique result in more or less takes per scene?

Guest: “It’s way less. Way less. A typical movie as an actor if youre working you do 10 takes, 15 takes on a scene. We do probably at the most three takes. But the scenes run longer. Scenes can run eight or nine minutes, and in a conventional movie they may run tops two minutes, I’d say, maybe a minute and a half.”

Is that because you know each other so well?

Levy: “No, it’s just because the scenes are improvised. People just keep going. You usually…”

Both: “You usually run out of film.”


Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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