The characters in your films like “Waiting for Guffman” and Best in Show are almost too real? ^ Well, they’re not too real, they’re just real enough. I think what strikes you maybe is the fact that in most movies you don’t see real people. Or maybe the contrast is what you’re seeing. I think that in a conventional film, we’re so used to seeing a manipulation of reality. I mean, you see Tom Cruise in a movie, and he’s supposed to be a spy, but it’s Tom Cruise. He’s a movie star, so you’re losing some sense of reality. These movies try to show more of a reality. And I think because they’re improvised and the nature of the way they’re performed, they feel more real. So, I don’t think they can be too real, but you’re right, they’re different.
And because it’s improvised by comedians, the results are funny- ^ But it has to be based on reality – a rock solid reality and a rock solid story. And then, yes, because of who they are, they can invariably be funny as well.
Does the actors’ improvisation affect or change the story? ^ (Guest sits up excitedly. He’s very passionate about his approach to film.) It can’t. The story is very, very important to lay out. Eugene Levy and I write these stories and there is a beginning, middle and an end, every scene has a beginning, middle and an end, and there are plot points that have to be hit. On that skeletal structure is where you improvise. But you have to tell the story. You can’t just have a roomful of people yucking it up. And this is a discipline that I would equate with great Jazz players. They can improvise, obviously, without reading music. It’s a real discipline, it’s a serious talent and, they refer to having “chops” in music. You have to have serious acting “chops” to pull this off.
(Wow! I’m impressed. There’s a method to the comedy.) It’s perhaps why the scenes resonate as feeling so true – there’s a rhythm to those scenes. ^ Exactly. The rhythm, I hope, is a rhythm of reality, of real time conversation. As opposed to a script which is: Line. Line. Close up. Close up. Two shot. Now on to the next scene which is a pattern which is manipulating and that’s a different art form. (Guest obviously is not a fan of mainstream Hollywood’s approach to comedy.) This is very different to see a ten minute scene just unfold.
To work in this improv style, do the actors observe others to try to put together an amalgam of other people? ^ It is an amalgam, but I can only speak for myself. But it’s 20 years of seeing — the way someone walked in an airport in 1982 or hearing some accent of some guy who worked in the deli in 1998 and then thinking, hmmm, okay. This is very abstract. This is not taking notes. This is something that for actors, that’s what they do, they observe. And they actually come together in a character.
What can you teach me about improv? ^ Nothing.
(As I was contemplate the true meaning of Guest’s answer – which has to be some kind of improv secret – the publicist enters and informs my time is up. “One last question?” I ask.)
How much money would you give me if I, very matter-of-factly, took off all my clothes down to my underpants, casually went over to the copy machine and xeroxed all my clothes, and then put them back on without saying a word? Just totally do it straight. Like doing this wasn’t unusual? ^ How much money? One penny.
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