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A Mighty Wind - Christopher Guest Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q: Christopher, I know that when you shot Best in Show, you had masses of footage. Was this shot on a tighter rein and did that effect the improvisation?
A:
It’s all improvised. Every word’s improvised and we have 80 hours of film on this. The process is the same. Eugene Levy and I worked for a period of months to work out the story, the back histories for all the characters and obviously the songs were all written prior to the making of the film. Every scene is structured so we know what happens in every scene but there’s no dialogue written at all. There’s no rehearsal, so what you see is what’s happening.

Q: It must be a rare luxury to be able to shoot so much footage?
A:
Well, we only shoot for 26 days. So it’s not really a question of luxury. It’s just that a lot happens. In one day, we have more that happens than on some films in a week. A conventional movie will shoot, say three pages of a scene in a day. We will get the equivalent of 20 pages of script in a day.

Q: Given that you all know each other so well, is there a spirit of competition that exists between you?
A:
It’s only obvious after the film comes out. There’s no competitive aspect to this because if there was, we wouldn’t be able to do this kind of work that we do. It has to be a team effort.

Q: And do you happen to have more than one idea as to who might play each role?
A:
When Eugene and I sit in an office, we talk about this and it becomes apparent, quickly, as to who would be good for which part. And the parts are generally conceived with those actors in mind. They’re not terribly interchangeable. They’re not many actors who can do this kind of work, and that’s why so many of the actors have been in these last three films. All these parts are basically made for these people to do.

Q: I’m ashamed to admit that I did end up liking quite a lot of the music. Did you consider that far from spoofing the music, you were actually helping it a lot, and giving it a bigger fanbase?
A:
To look at this music, it’s a very specific folk music. I played folk music as a kid, but it wasn’t this kind of folk music. It was real folk, in contrast to this kind of commercialised folk.
We needed to write the sort of songs that were enjoyable for people to listen to while watching the movie and that were fun to play for the musicians. We’ve been now doing a tour in the States of all the bands that feature in the film and it’s fun to play these songs because they’re engaging in some way. As to what happens after this, I don’t know.

Q: Were any of you folk music fans before?
A:
Again, to be specific, I still play what’s called folk music, but it bears no resemblance to what you see in the movie, which is a desperate attempt by these people to be popular, to make something that was good a couple of hundred years ago, bad. We had to tread this line to make the songs interesting, but have a few twists in the words.
Harry Shearer: The idea was not to write bad music. Both in the performance of the characters and the performances of the songs, we’re trying to make these characters real. Nobody would pay money to watch people play bad songs. So you have to make it believable that these people had a career and that anybody would have come and seen them. So you have to hit that bar and the thing that we share with our characters is a passion of writing music, so we had to write music that we enjoyed playing and we enjoy playing.
We’ve been doing a concert tour in the States based on these characters from this movie, and we love playing the music. The people who come to see the shows love to hear us play the music. I don’t know whether it’ll help us re-form the Chattanuga (?) Trio but we’ve sold a few CDs off this.
Catherine O’Hara: I’m very proud when people say they loved the CD. There are a few songs on the CD that were not in the movie and I wish you weren’t ashamed that you liked it!
Harry Shearer: There’s probably a group you can go to, to sort it out!

Q: Having said that, is there a genre of music that each of you absolutely detest? And is there a CD in each of your collections that you’re ashamed to own?
A:
[Looking puzzled] And your name is….? Well, I have that ventriloquism record…
Harry Shearer: I would say, probably skating ring organ music. There’s pretty much good examples of any other kind of music. The easy answer is poker music, but there’s good poker music.
Eugene Levy: I agree. Organ music at a hockey game is even worse than elevator music. Something you don’t want to hear ever in your life is ‘duh, duh, duh, duh…’
Christopher Guest: Sounds pretty catchy to me.

Q: Was the idea of reforming the team a big impulse behind the movie?
A:
The main thing was, I wanted to make another movie, and I wanted to have a lot of music in the film, and the folksmen fitted into this idea. But it wasn’t built around the folksmen.

Q: For an improvised movie, what counts as an out-take? And also, how do you direct the action while you’re in it? Do you have another hat you put on, like Darth Vader or something?
A:
[Writing on his pad]. Get a hat! Well the process is different than a conventional movie, as I’ve said. When I’m not in a scene, I have a microphone and I’m talking to – in this case, it was a woman shooting the film. She’s wearing a headset and I’m actually directing her, because it’s all hand-held, where to go.
If it’s an interview scene, I’m directing where the zooms go, to two-shot, to one person… so it’s almost like doing a live television show. If I’m in a scene, I tell her what the parameters are, but it somehow has a different effect.
If I’m behind the camera, I can know what’s developing, but this is a group effort and people know how to navigate their way through what has to be accomplished in a scene, and there are times when we make each other laugh. That’s a good point about an out-take. There are no real out-takes like other movies. There are whole scenes – and on the DVD of this, there’s an extra hour of material – that are not in the movie, because they just don’t fit.
They are funny scenes but they don’t fit into the story that we needn’t to tell. So there are times when we would do one take, three would be the most we would do, but there are not out-takes in the traditional sense.

Q: Do you make up your characters as they go along or are they almost fully presented?
A:
Gene and I do a very, very heavily worked out outline, which talks about their characters and their back histories, so that’s very specific about their whole past life. The actors add to that, but they can’t change something on the spot – that’s not what improvising is.
You have to base it on a very strict structure. They have a lot of leeway in creating things on top of that, but you can’t be in the middle of a scene and start referring to your naval career if that’s not in the movie. Because that’s just going to throw everything.

Q: So there’s no temptation to subvert?
A:
There’s something called Second City, which was one of the first theatre groups in the States where there were a series of games that was built into it. I wasn’t in this group, but Catherine and Eugene were. And one of the first rules of improvisation is that you don’t violate the rules, because then you don’t get anywhere. If someone says, ‘Hi. You look well’, and you’re actually dying, you don’t have a scene.
Catherine O’Hara: You say: "Yes, I do. You’d never know I was dying."
Harry Shearer: And the thing is, as we’ve described, you all have a great creative investment in a movie like this. Whether it’s because we’ve written songs for it, or we’ve all helped to create the look of our characters, so all of the impulses are running in the opposite direction.
If you’re in a scene, you’re only thinking about what your character is thinking about in terms of what’s going on in that scene. There’s no kind of prankish impulse going on behind that, because we know there are few opportunities to get this right and we’re all in this together. No one is going to achieve anything by trying to sabotage it.
Christopher Guest: And that’s not going to make it funny. The equivalent would be a bunch of musicians and one of them says: "You’re all playing in G, but I’m going to play in C."
Catherine O’Hara: I think of Chris as a good parent. A really good parent who lets his child fly free, but guides them, so you feel like you’ve come up with everything yourself, even though you’re being guided by this script.
The finished movie is the script, but the dialogue is all improvised, and you have so much freedom in developing your character, and Chris, basically, never says ‘no’. You rarely hear Chris say ‘Cut!’ – it’s to roll-out.
You’ll do it to roll-out and you might do another take or maybe not. But the dialogue will change. It’s fresh every time and the beautiful thing that Chris does, is that he makes you feel like you can do no wrong. Because he knows he can edit it!

Q: What has the reaction been from the real folk establishment?
A:
Is there a folk establishment? I don’t think there is. There’s a current folk world in the States. It’s quite lively and every city has folk clubs, but there’s no real establishment, and it doesn’t reflect anything in the music industry in terms of record sales or something like that.
So it’s not like it was in the 60s, when it represented the peak of what was happening in recording. These were all number ones from Peter, Paul and Mary and The Kingston Trio, so there’s nothing like that now. It’s on the fringes. Harry’s heard of something but I haven’t.
Harry Shearer: Yes, I get a lot of email because I do this radio show. And people were emailing me before this movie came out to say that there were folk chat-boards wondering whether this movie was going to be good for them or not. And then somebody saw a preview and said: "Relax. It’s not about us!"
A friend of mine was attending a screening of this movie with two guys, who were in this kind of folk music way back, and one of them said of one of the songs: "They’re way better than we were." The other said at the end: "It makes my skin crawl – in a good way."

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