If you ever happen to meet Christopher Guest, the multitalented auteur behind a string of wince-inducing, documentary-style satires, there is one thing you must not do: Call his films mockumentaries. Although the actor/author/director/composer helped pioneer the genre — first as a writer and performer (the 1984 cult classic This Is Spinal Tap), and later as a director, too, (beginning with 1996's Waiting for Guffman) — Guest detests the word. "Don't get caught saying mockumentary to Chris," warns Catherine O'Hara, who has starred in four of his films, including his newest offering, For Your Consideration, which opens today in select cities. "He calls them documentaries. To him, they're all true."
While not technically documentaries, Guest's films come off as achingly real and surprisingly humane, which probably explains why he objects to the term mockumentary. Over the years, he has poked loving fun at rock 'n' roll (Spinal Tap), theater (Guffman), dog competitions (Best in Show) and folk music (A Mighty Wind). But his current picture skewers a much more personal target: Hollywood. Although Guest and his regular cast members — including O'Hara, Parker Posey, Harry Shearer and Eugene Levy (who also cowrote the film) — aren't movie megastars, they all have experience working on A-list projects, which made shooting this parody particularly tricky. "It was more torturous, because it was a little too close to home," O'Hara admits. "It's easier to make fun of things that you think are far from you."
A send-up of the current gossip-fueled entertainment industry, For Your Consideration focuses on a trio of no-name actors (O'Hara, Shearer and Posey) who are thrust into the spotlight when their performances in a small, sentimental indie titled "Home for Purim" begin generating Oscar buzz. The film is filled with funny turns from Guest's usual suspects, including John Michael Higgins as a publicist on the verge of a breakdown, Michael McKean and Bob Balaban as powerless screenwriters, Jennifer Coolidge as a clueless producer, Jane Lynch and Fred Willard (sporting a faux-hawk) as a pair of snarky, Entertainment Tonight-type TV hosts, Levy as a low-rent agent and Guest as a very Jewish director.
Thematically, For Your Consideration harks back to Guest's feature directorial debut, the underrated Kevin Bacon vehicle The Big Picture, which followed an aspiring filmmaker desperately trying to make it in Tinsel Town. But while that movie had a screenplay, Consideration — like Guest's last three films — was improvised. "Once we know what the idea is, we start to work on the story and the characters," Guest says of his particular creative process with Levy. "After we have a beginning, middle and end, we make cards for every single scene. It takes months of work. Because the dialogue is improvised, we have to be even more stringent [than traditional screenwriters] in terms of detail."
Although Guest has been active in the entertainment industry for decades, he insists that the characters in Consideration are completely fictional, even if their experiences ring true. "They're conglomerates of 20 people that I've met. And, of course, I myself have been through their situation," says Guest, who has both a Grammy and an Emmy to his name. "We've all been up for awards and lost and won. It's a tragically bizarre situation. I've known famous actors who've heard a rumor that they're going to be nominated for some award, and when there's nothing, they absolutely bottom out. Once a rumor gets out there, it becomes reality, except that it's not real. It's madness."
Highly articulate but extremely aloof, the real-life Guest is the antithesis of the outrageous, extroverted characters he tends to play. He's probably closest to Harlan Pepper, the droopy, mumbling bloodhound owner he played in Best in Show. "He's an unusual guy. I can't even claim to know him that well," says O'Hara. "But I'm honored to work with him and be in his circle."
It turns out that many actors are clamoring to get into Guest's group. "The other day Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) asked me how he could get in," recalls Posey. But for now, Guest is happy with his company. "Known actors do come up to me and ask to work with me," he says. "But if they're very famous, they'd stick out a bit. They wouldn't really fit in. I basically say, 'Thank you, that's very nice,' and leave it at that."
As for what subject he plans to tackle next? "I have no idea," he says. "You have to realize, I can't make these movies very often. Parker, Gene, Catherine all go off and are actually in show business. I work on these films for two years, and then I take a year off to do normal things. It's weird — I'll spend 11 months in editing and then I'll talk to Parker, and she'll say, 'I've done four movies since we wrapped.' And I'm still sitting in an editing suite living in another world...."
The world of his last documentary? At the mention of the word, a smile almost crosses Guest's lips. "Thank you for saying that," he says. "Most people use another term."