For Guest, Structure Key to Improvisation

Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy have documented—or, more accurately, mockumented—humanity at its most chaotic and unpredictable.

Legendary images from their films include rockers utterly incapable of finding their way to a stage in “This is Spinal Tap,” the slapdash creation of a disastrous community play in “Waiting for Guffman,” and a frantic quest for a Weirmaraner’s chew toy in “Best in Show.” Adding to the anarchy is the fact that all those scenes were improvised.

But at a recent roundtable interview held in anticipation of their latest creation, “For Your Consideration,” Guest and Levy revealed that their brand of spontaneity requires a surprising amount of structure.

“You’re always caught off-guard. That’s the whole point,” Guest explains. “But it’s not a free for all. It’s very rigid in its preparation.”

The pair have co-written “Guffman,” “Show,” “A Mighty Wind,” and this latest outing, and Guest has directed all four. Before production begins, Guest and Levy say they map out the film.

Though no traditional script exists, the duo spends around four months preparing an extensively thorough outline—25 pages’ worth of character background, scene-by-scene breakdowns, and original songs.

After that, the actors perform the story, and only then does the real spontaneity start.

“We give them as much meat on the bone so they can improvise, use the information or not. But what they bring to it in terms of look and sound and voice is their total 100 percent creation,” said Levy about the casts in the duo’s films.

But even for veteran actors, the feat of improvising through the guise of a character is a delicate one, if only in resisting the urge to laugh.

“You’re on the set improvising, hearing things for the first time, seeing things for the first time...It’s a very dangerous thing,” Levy says. “People are creating and coming up with very funny things in the scene and if you kind of laugh and make it an outtake...you’re kind of sabotaging the movie.”

Since 1997’s “Guffman,” Guest’s regular acting gang has learned to exercise control.

“Believe it or not,” Guest says, “these people are professionals.”

Professionals who like to act like idiots, that is. “We find that it’s funnier to be the pencil in the drawer that doesn’t quite have a point than it is to be the sharp pencil. It’s not much fun playing smart people,” said Levy.

“There’s no movie if everyone is competent,” Guest added. “We have this informal contest where we look at each other’s characters and try to go lower.”

“For Your Consideration,” the pair’s latest creation, explores a field with no dearth of dim people: Hollywood.

Departing from their signature mockumentary format, the film follows a more traditional narrative style, although most scenes remain improvised. It follows a gang of down-on-their-luck actors as a little internet buzz launches one of their films into the public spotlight, just in time for Oscar season.

Inspiration came, in part, from Levy’s own run-in with the internet.

He first learned of his New York Film Critics Circle award for best supporting actor for “A Mighty Wind” after a friend informed him he had read it online.

“I thought I would have gotten a call,” Levy says.

Unlike “The Big Picture,” a light-hearted 1989 meditation on the industry directed by Guest, “Consideration” examines the emotional toll of award show speculation.

“It’s just like a horse race—people are just tossed away,” Guest explains, focusing on the particularly brutal contest to predict Oscar winners.

But the writers say they’re not bitter, and that “Consideration” is not a jab at the machine that snubbed them. “Comedies don’t get nominated for Oscars,” says Guest. “It doesn’t happen. So when we set out to do a movie, it’s not what we’re thinking about.”

They also don’t let studio concerns control their work—the pair holds an unusual degree of creative control over their films by keeping costs low.

“The minute the money is more, you lose your control, so then there’s no point,” Guest explains. He says he holds the verdict over the final cut of his projects, without interference from major movie studios.

Levy, for one, said he relishes the freedom that control has given them: “I mean where else do you find this?” he says of the films he’s made with Guest. “You don’t.”

—Staff writer Lindsay A. Maizel can be reached at lmaizel@fas.harvard.edu.