Christopher Guest on Returning to the Big Screen After 10 Years With ‘Mascots’

Christopher Guest Returns to Big Screen, Toronto With 'Mascots'
Peter Yang for Variety

For someone always willing to go for broke on screen, Christopher Guest plays it close to the vest in person. The actor/musician/filmmaker best known in front of the camera as brash lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel in “This Is Spinal Tap” and flamboyant theater director Corky St. Clair in “Waiting for Guffman” is, in real life, a soft-spoken man who chooses his words carefully — at least when it comes to interviews.

“I don’t do this often,” he admits. “I’m just not that person; I’m not so good at it. My wife is great at it.”

He’s referring to Jamie Lee Curtis, to whom he’s been married for 32 years, and who is always a kick to read in interviews or watch on TV talk shows. But self-promotion is probably the part of the job Guest likes the least. “Twenty-five years ago, I did 300 interviews in one year,” he recalls. “I said I could never do that again.”

Guest is taking the plunge to discuss his first movie in 10 years, “Mascots,” which premieres at the Toronto Film Festival before hitting theaters and Netflix on Oct. 13. The comedy lends a face to a group of people who inhabit full-body suits and represent brands or urge crowds to cheer for sports teams, as they themselves compete for the most prestigious recognition in their industry: the Gold Fluffy Award. As in Guest’s previous films, the characters take their dream quite seriously — not unlike the small-town residents who aspire to mount their play on Broadway in “Waiting for Guffman,” or the pet owners who treat a dog show with the seriousness of the Olympics in “Best in Show.”

Peter Yang for Variety

Why focus on mascots? The idea was presented to Guest by actor and co-writer Jim Piddock after the two had collaborated on the HBO series “Family Tree.” Guest was intimately familiar with the concept, since his son had been a mascot at his school.

“He was a falcon or something,” Guest says. “He said, ‘Dad, I look like a chicken.’”

Guest found the anonymity of the pursuit fascinating. “Some of these people are so gifted. They’re doing backflips and dunks in front of cheering crowds, but nobody knows who’s in there,” he says. “In show business, it kind of counters the normal scenario of a narcissistic actor who wants to be seen and promote themself. This is the opposite, in that you’re kind of getting off on it, but it’s missing this other element.”

Piddock originally suggested the idea as the subject of a nonfiction work. “I said, ‘If I do a real documentary, people aren’t going to know what to make of it,’” Guest recalls. “So I thought maybe I should look at this the way I do movies.”

With the exception of his conventionally scripted 1989 feature directorial debut, “The Big Picture,” Guest’s movies are all made the same way: improvised from a detailed →
← outline, shot documentary-style, and featuring large ensembles of stellar comedic actors. It’s a style that has become synonymous with Guest, whose films are instantly recognizable. He bristles, though, at the word most commonly used to describe his style: “mockumentary.”

“I don’t know where that comes from, but I never use it,” he says.

Asked what term he might prefer, he replies, “Inconveniently for people who want to describe something, they are movies done in a documentary style. I’ve been saying that for a long time, and it doesn’t seem to matter.”

Although he’s guarded in interviews, Guest can’t help but be funny, interjecting sly commentary or tossing off self-deprecating jokes. But not unlike his comedy, he does so stealthily, in a way you don’t see coming. So it’s surprising to learn that he has no formal background in improvisation.

“This isn’t just random people showing up and yapping. This is more strict than a screenplay in many ways. You have to tell the story; you can’t go veering off and just start talking about beach balls.”
Christopher Guest

“I was never in an improv group,” he says. “But when I went to school, we would do it all day long with friends, not knowing what it was called.”

He brought that style to filmmaking while working with Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer on “Spinal Tap.”

“We started writing a script and realized it should be done in a documentary form,” he says. “We said, ‘We all know how to do this.’ And it hadn’t been done before.”

Guest’s preproduction strategy is also unique in that he doesn’t hold traditional auditions. “I sit and talk with people,” he says. “And I’ve been right — except for one time in 25 years.” (He didn’t name the exception.)

Parker Posey, who’s in “Mascots” and has appeared in four of Guest’s films, first met with him on “Guffman.” She says there was surprisingly little pressure. “It wasn’t an audition at all, and it didn’t even feel like a meeting,” she says. “We just hung out and were comfortable with each other. He has a sense of who can do this kind of work, and he sensed I could.”

Though he frequently casts people he knows, Guest has discovered several actors through directing commercials, something he estimates he’s done more than 100 times. Among them are Jane Lynch, who appears in “Mascots” as a Fluffy Awards judge. The two first worked together on a Frosted Flakes commercial before he cast her as a dog trainer in “Best in Show,” a move she says changed her life.

“‘Best in Show’ blew the doors open for me in my career. I was at a whole new level,” Lynch says. “It gave me the opportunity to do so much more and be on people’s radar.”

While the dialogue in his films is improvised, there is always a deep outline, and characters have detailed backgrounds.

“This isn’t just random people showing up and yapping,” Guest notes. “This is more strict than a screenplay in many ways. You have to tell the story; you can’t go veering off and just start talking about beach balls.” He pauses. “Although, that might have made for a better movie.”

Some scenes in Guest’s movies are more scripted than others. In “Spinal Tap,” Nigel’s famous bit about amplifiers that “go to 11” was prewritten because the prop amps had to be made. But for the most part, the actors are making up dialogue.

Fred Willard, who has appeared in every film since “Guffman,” recalls when Guest told him the concept for that movie. “He said, ‘It’s completely improvised,’ and I thought, ‘Oh that’s wonderful. I don’t have to memorize a lot of lines.’ And as I was leaving the office I thought, ‘Wait, I’ll have to come up with the lines!’”

The Usual Suspects: Christopher Guest’s ensemble for “Mascots” features many actors he’s worked with on previous projects. From left: Chris O’Dowd shares a moment with some sushi; Fred Willard has a cow; Jennifer Coolidge is a face in the crowd
Courtesy of Netflix

There is no table read (“What would that even look like?” asks Guest) and no rehearsals. Yet the director says he rarely does more than a couple of takes. Unlike other helmers, he doesn’t pick his favorite take on the set but waits until he gets into the editing room. “Nothing is cut while I’m shooting,” he reveals. “I edit between nine months and a year, and usually have around 80 hours of footage I have to get down to an 82-minute movie.”

While Guest’s films are populated by offbeat individuals, his comedy is never cruel — you can tell he has a genuine affection for his characters. “If you don’t like the people, you’re just doing a sketch. Which in most cases, is comedy minus some emotional backbone,” he says. “What interests me most are the emotional lives of the people. If I don’t have that, it’s not worth doing, frankly.”

Actors love the opportunity to work with Guest and take ownership of their characters. “God bless Christopher Guest,” says Willard, “because in a regular movie, you’re trying to fit into whatever role it is. You twist yourself into a part. Christopher is the opposite: You create the role, and it forms around you, and you’re having a great time working with people you really admire.”

Lynch adds: “He’s the most decent, unaffected guy. Not just in the business, but that I’ve ever met. He’s really lovely and sincere and true, and I feel really lucky he plucked me out and invited me to be a part of his unofficial gang. I’m a true fan of not just the artist, but the man.”

Guest’s last film, “For Your Consideration,” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006. Considered a misstep by many fans and critics, the movie skewered the Hollywood awards mentality, something in which Guest has no interest. He doesn’t read reviews, didn’t attend the Grammys the night he won for “A Mighty Wind,” and — though he reads six newspapers a day — he never bothers with the arts section.

“I’m literally just doing my own thing to do it,” he says. “I’ve never had a publicist, never had a manager. I just do what I do. If you like it, it’s me. If you don’t like it, it’s me. I’ve been lucky to be able to do what I do.”

He admits that he’s been fortunate to find supporters, such as Netflix, who allow him to make films his way. “It’s scary to say you’re not going to see a screenplay at any point, and we’re just going to go off a 15-page outline. And you either trust or you don’t, and they did.”

Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos was definitely on board for “Mascots.”  “This type of project is why we believe in giving our filmmakers creative freedom,” he says. “We work with people like Christopher who are best-in-class storytellers and let them do what they do best.”

Guest warns against buying into one’s own hype, as the characters in his last movie did. “A friend of mine, years ago, got trashed by a review. And I said, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t read reviews.’ He said, ‘Well, you should read the good ones,’” recalls Guest. “If you start believing your press and someone says something negative, you’re on a roller-coaster ride.”

Sure, but what happens if he finds himself nominated for an Oscar? “Well,” he pauses, taking a moment to consider the prospect. “I think we’re safe.”