The writing partnership of “This Is Spinal Tap” star Christopher Guest and former “SCTV” player Eugene Levy has yielded a string of hit documentary-style comedies, from 1996’s “Waiting For Guffman” to 2003’s “A Mighty Wind.”
With their latest, the biting Hollywood satire “For Your Consideration,” the two decided to scrap the well-worn format, perhaps for good.
Gone were the broad, 15-page story outlines they used to make movies like “Best In Show,” which relied almost exclusively on the improvisational contributions of savvy character actors such as Fred Willard and another “SCTV” alum, Catherine O’Hara. Instead, Guest and Levy churned out a lengthier, 50-page script, driven by a traditional narrative.
It was a change they viewed as necessary and inevitable — though improv was hardly abandoned.
“We both agreed that, having done three films in the documentary format, we had covered that ground,” Guest said. “It was fun, but we wanted to try a different challenge, and this is radically different from the standpoint of the person making the movie and constructing the story.
“When you don’t have the tools of a documentary, you’re in a different game. You can’t suddenly jump-cut into a scene and you can’t cut to a funny photograph to bridge scenes together — you have to go from scene to scene. And when you’re improvising a movie, it’s even harder. At the end of a regular script, you can visualize a person’s last line — like, ‘OK, now we’re in the restaurant, and that works’ — but when you’re improvising, you don’t know what that last line is going to be, you only know the intention of the scene. We felt we’d done that, and it was time to move on to something else. And I don’t think we’ll go back.”
Despite the more conventional approach that produced “For Your Consideration,” fans accustomed to Guest’s famously spontaneous, off-the-cuff humor should not be disappointed. As always, he and Levy put their faith in the battle-tested regulars who fill out the cast, along with one newcomer: Ricky Gervais, who created and starred in the original, British version of “The Office.”
“Other than the movie within the movie — ‘Home For Purim,’ which Eugene wrote — and some of the television scenes, it’s all improvised,” Guest said. “It was still closer to regular filmmaking than anything we’d previously done together. And I think it was fun for our cast to act in a poorly written, melodramatic period piece [like ‘Home’]. You get to wear funny costumes, and you get to heighten that kind of acting a bit, which those people are so good at.
“It’s a very difficult thing to do, making scenes that are believably bad. And yet there was more laughter in those scripted scenes than any of the others, because they were so ridiculous. When you’re improvising, you have to constantly protect those moments, because they’ll never happen again.”
After a decade of successful collaborations, Guest and Levy seem uncertain about the prospect of working together in the future.
“I just finished approving the ‘For Your Consideration’ prints two weeks ago,” Guest explained. “Typically, I’d wait at least a year before starting anything new. But I don’t know if there will be another movie. I don’t approach my life as a series of jobs I have to do, though I probably should. After ‘Best In Show,’ it was really scary for me to go into the next movie, and every time I start a new project, I have to reassess my life and ask myself, ‘Is this what I want to do?’ And the answer is, I don’t know.”
Levy concurs, though he has no immediate plans to curtail his acting.
“When I stop enjoying the process, I’ll stop completely,” he said. “I’m getting to a point where you want to do things that are more meaningful in terms of content — less frivolous, but no less funny. Whether we write another movie, I can’t say, but acting? As long as I’m having fun, I will continue to do it.”