Monday 3 October 2022

"You Like What You Like”: Part Three of Tom Ryan’s 2003 interview with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer- Contemporary comedy,

Editor's Note: This is the third part of a transcript of an afternoon spent by Melbourne's Sunday Age film critic Tom Ryan and a trio of American funsters Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean who were in town to promote their latest movie A Mighty Wind. If you wish to read Part One CLICK HERE For Part Two CLICK HERE



Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest
A Mighty Wind

Part Three: Making the Movies 

What do you think of contemporary American comedies? The films with Robin Williams [aside to Guest: I’ll note that you laughed when I asked that], Eddie Murphy…


MMcK: The only thing about American comedy that makes him laugh is when you mention it.


HS: When you called it comedy.


CG [laughing]: To be kind….


HS: Thank you.


MMcK: You gotta be cruel to be kind… I think the best and the worst thing you can say about American comedy at the moment is that it’s all by the numbers. And it really doesn’t respect the audience very much. But it can make a lot of money. And I think there’s nothing wrong in making people laugh, even if you’re doing it by ‘Somebody covered the principal’s desk with shit’.


CG: That’s a great idea. I must write it down. 


MMcK: But, I mean, it’s all pretty easy stuff. I guess to call it accessible is, I think, to damn it with faint praise. 


CG: It’s disappointing because there’s no chance taken. Some of the performers are more gifted than the material they’re doing; some of them aren’t. But it’s not interesting to me in any way.


HS: I think the performers are way ahead of the material. I think Carrey is a marvellously gifted physical comedian. I think Eddie is a really great character comic.


MMcK: Every now and then, they make something worthwhile. Like Bowfinger, for example. It was funny with really funny comic performances…


HS: And Eddie kicked ass in that movie.

Crossing the freeway…


HS: Yes. Oh, man! I think the problem is that, as Michael suggests, the creators, not the performers, don’t trust the audience enough.


MMcK: Right.


HS: And you get this feeling that you’ve seen this movie before because the formula is always the same: some outrageously bad behaviour happens in the first half of the movie and then that person learns a lesson about life and becomes a better person. And I don’t understand what’s funny about that.


CG: And it’s nobody’s vision. You don’t look at it and say, ‘Well, that’s a…..” Because a filmmaker has not made that movie. It’s a corporate thing…


So why do Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey – we’re talking some powerful, talented people here – why do they do the projects?


MMcK: For $20 million.

But they could make $20 million whatever they did, surely?


CG: But I can’t do a movie the way I do for $20 million.


HS: Really? 


MMcK: Don’t try to cash that cheque.




CG: You’re talking about these films that cost $75 million and there’s way too many people involved…


HS: They’re in a different business.


CG: It’s not the business of making… There’s no spontaneity left because there’s so many rewrites. 


HS: That’s like saying that you can have a single restaurant owned and run by a chef who goes to pick the ingredients every morning by hand at the market, and then you can replicate that at 4,000 restaurants across the country and have it stay the same. It’s a different business. Why can’t McDonald’s food be the same as…


CG [he’s seriously mulling this over]: You’re right to some extent. You could say that these people have made their money, so why wouldn’t they want to do…? That’s a question I can’t answer. Why wouldn’t they make their own movie? Why wouldn’t they have someone good write a good script? That I don’t know the answer to. But they could certainly do that once a year without any problem. They’re making $50 million a year.


HS: Steve is the one who tried to do that every once in a while.


CG: Well, Steve Martin is so much different than anyone, because he’s an incredibly gifted writer, a very disciplined person. He has other interests, he’s written a wonderful play. And he does popular movies, but he has retained… He’s very funny, a very smart, funny guy.


So, Michael, how do you feel when you’re making The Brady Bunch Movie and you’re inside that and you’re used to the kind of freedom that you appear to get in the films Chris makes…?


CG: It’s a job.


MMcK: It is a job, but I think that’s not a great example because Betty Thomas [the director] is a good friend and had directed a lot of episodes of Dream On, and she kind of gave me the gig knowing that I’d be able to do something with it. 

Also nobody knew what it was gonna be at that point. It was really sort of ‘Let’s get this thing right. Let’s do The Brady Bunch but take the piss a little bit.’ It wasn’t until it became a hit that… I’d never thought of it as a particularly commercial thing. But these are Hollywood products. And it’s pretty funny.

Cast montage, Best in Show


OK. A jump to your being inside Best in Show. What kind of freedom does Christopher give you to pursue the character the way you want to? You said with some pride last night at the Q & A session that your character’s relationship is the strongest relationship in the film.


MMcK: It came from a lot of conversations between Michael Higgins and myself. We came up with the captain of a ship marrying us. But we had a lot of talks about what this relationship was, who we were individually…

This is all prior to coming on to the…


MMcK: Exactly. But we’re also following what Chris and Eugene wrote and wanted us to do. And, of course, in the cutting afterwards with Chris and Bob Leighton, chipping away at everything that doesn’t look like an elephant, as the old joke goes.


So Michael walks on to the set and with particular ideas about how he’s going to pursue the character and particular lines that maybe he’s thought of that he wants to use at some point. Christopher, what do you do on set then with…?


CG: While Michael’s working with Michael Higgins, I’m following their moves. These aren’t set shots. Unless you’re doing an interview, it’s hand-held. In a hand-held scene, I’m talking to the cameraman and moving in and out. Because I’ve improvised I can hear when something is developing, so I know when to go to another person. I make the choice of literally directing what the camera’s gonna do. It’s not a locked-off two-shot where people have lines and I can do it in a single. This is a very different way of making films. 

Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins and shi tzu
Best in Show

And in an interview it’s a locked-off camera with a zoom and I’m whispering into an ear-piece. That’s my job. And at some stage I’ll say, ‘Stop. We’re getting off the point with this.’ Occasionally I’ll say, ‘You need to mention this, this and this.’ That’s part of my contribution. The other is actually in editing, really editing, with the editors. 


So in A Mighty Wind, when the three of you are sitting at the picnic and chatting about the past, exactly how do you go about…?


CG: I would say to the woman who shot that, ‘I want to start with this three-shot, and then go in to whoever’s talking.’ Then, after the fact, I will shoot listening shots which I can cut in later. So the three of us will just work through the scene. Then I will change around and we’ll go through the same thing again. It’ll be different. It’s different every time. The material’s the same. When I’m not on camera, I’m behind it listening to Harry and Michael. 


So when you do the one shot have you decided what takes you want so as you can shoot the reaction shot?


CG: All the takes are printed on Super-16. In 35, you’re picking your takes and so the editor, while you’re shooting, is actually cutting. He’s putting together a rough-cut. That’s not happening with this process. Everything is printed.


HS: Chris doesn’t even look at dailies.


CG: I don’t see dailies until after the film is done. It’s in knowing the range of what we’ve done that we’re able to do the listening shots. We know basically what’s been said; we know what’s important to the listener. So I’ll say to Harry, ‘Let me see you smile. Now look back at my camera.’


HS: Yeah, we’ll cover the range of emotions that may have been covered in that scene and Chris will remember, alright, what we’ve been going through in that scene and will have reactions for whatever’s been said during that scene by each of the characters in it. That’s the only time when you’re working to some form of an agenda because you know what’s been happening emotionally in that scene. 

You’re under two obligations. One: to be true to your character and not to try to press for a joke. And two: to be true to the moment of what your character’s wants and needs are in that particular scene. As people are in real life. Everybody has something they want in a situation, but they’ve got to kind of gauge what everybody else wants and where their chance comes. It may be now; it may be later. And it’s never the same two times through.


Waiting for Guffman

CG: And it’s OK if people talk on top of each other [as he’s just done by way of illustration]. 

Which you supposedly can’t have in a movie. There’s a scene that I did with Eugene Levy in Guffman where he takes his glasses off and his eyes cross. In that scene, I had my foot on the cameraman’s foot and I said, ‘When I tap you, that means you go to Eugene.’ So while we’re actually doing the scene, I had my foot on his and I would say my lines and I would tap and he would go to Eugene and we’d go back and forth. That was the coverage of that scene. That happens a lot.

You shoot on Super-16. Why not digital video?


CG: When I started doing these films, there was no digital video. It hadn’t come out yet. And now it’s the third film and I thought that I would maybe only do three films like this. I wanted to make them even just on the basis of the way they looked. 

In reality, if you’re doing a documentary, you would only do it on digital. There’d be no way in the world that you’d shoot film. There’s no advantage to shooting film now. Absolutely none at all. It’s a pain in the arse, to be honest. Especially 16mm because I’ve been going through this now since 1995, but to have that process and go through that, there’s not many people who’d do that in the States.


Frederick Wiseman says, though, that under no circumstances would he ever go to digital video because of the mindset that creates for him in terms of wastage. That he would just shoot and shoot and shoot and never be able to…


CG: Yes, but you have to see the films on film and, honestly, I shoot as much as I want. I have 80 hours on this movie. For me, it’s much more of a very subtle, subliminal look and I happen to like the look of film. But if you were making documentaries for the most part, you’d grab one of those little cameras and you’d go out and make your movie. It’s fantastic.

Harry, you chose to shoot your feature [Teddy Bears’ Picnic, 2002] on digital video. Why?


HS: The first reason is money. The second reason is money. The third reason is the money. And because this film only really got to a starting-date at the point where all this stuff was happening. The availability of the technology was the motivating factor for me doing the movie that way at that point in time. 

did learn something a propos of what Chris was just saying about the look, or The Look. 

It was really interesting because the first few times I showed it, I had the finished picture in digital and we projected it digitally. And I thought, ‘Hey, this is the future of the business.’ Shoot digital, project digital: that’s what everybody’s saying. Things that were supposed to get laughs didn’t get laughs and I got worried. 

And somebody came out after one of the screenings and was trying to be complimentary and said, ‘Boy, that was really vivid.’ Well, on the list of adjectives that I wanna hear, that’s still down the list.


CG: ‘I could hear what everybody was saying.’


HS: Yeah. But, you know, as with most notes that you get from people, you try to listen underneath what they’re saying to hear what the real message is. And the message I took away from that is, ‘We’re gonna transfer to 35 right away.’ I was always planning to transfer to 35. And ever since then when I’ve shown it at festivals or regular screenings, those moments that I was worried about have gotten laughs.


CG: But it was really vivid.


HS: Yes, it is really vivid. But there is something about the digital experience, where you’re not having the shutter open and close 24 times a second in the projection, where you’re more present with the characters. So if you’re doing a dark comedy where you’ve got people you don’t wanna be in a room with, in a digital situation you’re scaring people. 

Whereas when they feel safe and there’s a subconscious proscenium around these characters, they feel OK to laugh at them because, alright, you’re at a remove. So that’s what I learned.


CG: It’s pretty subtle. But in the same way that analogue feels recorded, there are differences that people may not be able to express but they’re there.


HS: They can feel them.


CG: A digital recording is way different. If you were to say, ‘I want the best possible thing and price is no object,’ you would go vinyl with a great turntable and great speakers.


HS: Through a tube amp.


CG: Yuh. And you’d hear stuff you just don’t hear the way they do it now, where it’s compressed and you’re losing so much. And your ear becomes accustomed to the loss.


HS: Now that sounds like music.

I wish my ears were tuned as sharply as that. 


CG [reaching as if for implements]: Well, I can do that for you.


MMcK: But wash your hands first, though.


HS: And not after they’ve been in the salad [helping himself to some more].


I’m interested in the rules by which you operate, the constraints you impose on yourself when you’re shooting a film. On the commentary on the DVD of Waiting for Guffman, you talk about wanting to leave a shot out – I think it’s the one of Corky [played by Guest] in the bubble bath – because ‘How did the camera get in there?’


CG: Right.

So your rule is the documentary rule?


CG: No, not any more. When I first made that movie, Gene and I talked for weeks about that scene. We thought we needed it in a dramatic sense for this moment in the movie. And I said, ‘People will say, how did they know to get in there?’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. They’re not gonna be saying that. They’re along for the ride.’ At the same time, I wanted to make this a hybrid. It’s not a documentary. We had to cheat. They’re wisdom things. And, as these movies have progressed, there’s more licence taken. They are many places you wouldn’t be. You wouldn’t be where they’re packing.


Shearer, Guest, McKean
A Mighty Wind

MMcK:  In A Mighty Wind, you wouldn’t be waiting for the bus to turn up for Eugene to get off.


CG: No. So I have taken that liberty. I’ve incorporated other kinds of movie-making and I’ve realised now that it doesn’t matter. And if three people say, ‘Hey, what’s happening?’… but I don’t think they are for the most part. I think people are past that, and I’ve gotten past that myself. So what’s more important is to tell the story and to be funny.

HS: The no-spitting rule hasn’t been around lately.


CG: No, but it’s coming back.




CG: So I would say right now that I’ve worked my way to… Just in terms of the lighting of these movies, the only scenes that are really lit are the interviews. They’ve been lit the way a documentary director would do them, as opposed to walking down the street and just using daylight. 

For this particular movie, I think Arlene Donnelly did a beautiful job. It’s beautifully photographed. We had a discussion about that before the movie, but it was not based on power, on tones. This is about the people. And it’s an adjustment for photographers because they want to spend six hours lighting it, if they can. I said, ‘This is not what we do. These guys are not going to be hanging around to do their work. It’s about them, so you’ve gotta find a way to make this work.’ 

I think it looks beautiful and the blow-up was done by a guy in Pennsylvania, John Allen, and he’s very gifted. Most people would never be able to tell that was shot in 16.


I watched Mighty Wind, measuring it according to documentary conventions…


CG: Oh, you must have had fun…


I did, the second time. When Mitch arrives, I’d rationalised that the cameras were there because it was a reunion concert, that their presence had been set up behind the scenes. We’ve seen documentaries that do that now… The one that you drew attention to in Waiting for Guffman is not like that because they don’t know he’s in there. So it can’t possibly work that way. Just regarding the rules of documentary, despite what you’re saying, Mighty Wind does adhere pretty strictly…


CG: For the most part. But when I need something that is more important to the story than violating that rule, then I would break it.

I get the sense too about that in your reaction to the word “mockumentary”…


CG: Well, I didn’t come up with this term. I don’t know who in the hell came up with it, but it’s stupid. 

But it’s neat. Compressing two words…


CG: I know it’s neat.


MMcK: It just means that it’s a documentary that’s not really a documentary. 


CG: Well, I know it does.


MMcK: But you’re responding to the fact that it implies that you’re mocking and trashing people, which is not what these films are about.

I don’t know that it does. It refers to “mock documentary” rather than…


MMcK: I know. 


HS: Originally that was the derivation, but now it carries the further sense of the attitude you’re taking toward the characters.

This is Spinal Tap


CG: Yes. And, arguably, to say that Spinal Tap was…


HS: That was a rockumentary that you were doing.


CG: But also when we looked at a lot of documentaries about rock’n’roll bands, that was a funny premise in itself.


HS: That’s right.


CG: They were really pretentious and ridiculous. So that was working… People had seen dozens of those things. These films that I’m doing, you don’t see dozens of documentaries about dog shows or about folk musicians. So that doesn’t apply.


HS: Yeah. We really were reacting very directly to having seen the Led Zeppelin documentary and the Band documentary, The Last Waltz, and all of these reverent and overly respectful documentaries…


But The Last Waltz, is such a joy. And, yes, the intermittent bits when they talk are that, but when you see them on stage…


CG: Of course, but….


HS: I know, when you see Ronnie Hawkins and….

[interruption by waiter wanting to clear the table since the course we’d been eating is finished and taking further wine orders]


HS: Chris, if you’re not having your salad, I’ll have a little nibble of it.


CG: Interesting! Go for it. I didn’t put my hands in it 


MMcK: Harry, you want the rest of my salad too?

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