New spoof started as excuse to play music

Posted: April 20, 2003

It may have been the most dissonant twin bill in the history of pop music. Two years ago, audiences waiting to hear Spinal Tap commit such signature heavy-metal atrocities as "Clam Caravan" and "Christmas With the Devil" were presented with the oddest opening act.

Three balding fogies in matching red-stripe shirts shuffled shyly onto the stage, introduced themselves as the Folksmen, and launched into the type of earnest acoustic music that hasn't been heard since the Limeliters were the toast of Greenwich Village 40 years ago.

"We got booed in San Francisco one night because the crowd wanted Spinal Tap," says Christopher Guest, director and cowriter of the new film comedy A Mighty Wind. "They didn't know it was us. It was very peculiar."

The joke was that Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean (with a little help from skullcaps, wigs and makeup) constitute both fake groups. Because the gag was delivered with Guest's characteristic understated dryness, a lot of people didn't get it.

They still don't. When the Folksmen played on Late Show two weeks ago, David Letterman did nothing to set them up. There was no funny onstage banter. They played their hoary music with exquisite seriousness and took a bow, leaving a lot of people scratching their heads.

"It's been more a performance-art piece," Shearer notes. "It's usually designed to bewilder people."

Now, though, the Folksmen will find it harder to tweak unsuspecting audiences. The trio is one of the featured groups in A Mighty Wind, Guest's affectionate spoof of aging folkies trying to recapture their brief moment in the spotlight.

Standing in a Manhattan hotel suite, Guest, 55, reflects on the film in his calm, measured voice. Over his shoulder, a virulent April snowstorm is draping horizontal curtains across Central Park.

On stage, on screen, and particularly in person, Guest is difficult to read.

"I've only known him for 36 years," McKean jokes, "so I'm just beginning to scratch the surface."

Guest's reticence may reflect his lineage. He was born in New York, the son of Peter Haden-Guest, a British peer. In 1997, after his father's death, Parliament pronounced him Lord Haden-Guest, now an honorary title.

Yet beneath that reserved exterior lies an exuberant sense of humor. As a director and writer, Guest is responsible for some of the most unusual, consistently amusing films of the modern era - Waiting for Guffman (1997), a daft send-up of an amateur theater troupe; Best in Show (2000), a biting look at big-time dog shows; and his new hootenanny.

Actually, to call Guest a writer requires some qualification. For all three films, he has adopted a singular strategy with his collaborator, actor Eugene Levy.

Once they settle on a premise, they spend months creating elaborately detailed histories for all of the characters. Next, they come up with a story outline and break it into scenes. But they never write a word of dialogue. And there are no rehearsals.

Instead, they rely on a familiar group of actors - including Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, Parker Posey and Bob Balaban - to improvise.

"It's completely impossible to explain how this works," Guest says. "It's like saying, 'How do musicians stand up there when there's no [sheet] music? How can they know what they play?' That's the analogy I always use, because we're jamming. All we know is what key we're playing in."

There are no stars in this system. Every cast member is paid the same modest fee, but receives a share of the film's profits. The studio, Castle Rock, "gave us some lovely considerations," McKean says. "We all work hard for small money upfront, and everyone feels taken care of later."

Guest's communal troupe savors working with him.

"You trust Chris because, unlike the directors of most comedies, he's never going to be pushing you for the big, exaggerated take," Shearer says. "And invariably that's the take they use. You never have to worry about that with Chris. There's no pressure to hammer the jokes home."

The other reason his friends like working with Guest is that directing brings out his more demonstrative side.

"Some people have said he tends to be on the laconic side," Shearer says. "And sometimes in his day-to-day activities, he might come off that way. But on a movie set, he has to tell you what he thinks."

A Mighty Wind sprang from a simple idea. "Let's find an excuse to play some music in a movie with my friends," Guest explains. That required no preparation for Guest, who was an accomplished bluegrass mandolin player as a teen. He has since become fluent on guitar, clarinet and banjo.

But it was a steep learning curve for other cast members. O'Hara, for example, had to learn to play the autoharp, and Posey became proficient on the mandolin.

The film has inspired a catty guessing game as people try to identify what actual folk acts the characters are based on. The speculation irks Guest to no end.

"We're playing people we've created," he says. "We're not imitating anyone. This happened a lot with Spinal Tap. People who were in bands would come up to us and say, 'You're doing us.' No. We're actually not doing you. We've never even heard of you."

Guest favors an economical shooting schedule. As with his other movies, A Mighty Wind was filmed in less than 25 days, one-third the time of a typical production.

But his spontaneous approach and endless takes result in a surplus of footage - typically 80 hours of film, which takes Guest nine months to edit. (Can't wait to see the DVD.)

The surfeit means entire performances can end up eliminated. "I had to write a lot of letters saying, 'Your work was great, but we had to cut a lot of scenes,' " he says. "That's hard, but you have to tell the story."

Having told the story, Guest will be quite content to return to the privacy of his home life. He is married to actress Jamie Lee Curtis. They have two children, Annie, 16, and Thomas, 7.

"We don't do what would be considered show-business things," he says. "We don't go to a lot of parties. We just do regular family things. Really, it's almost uninteresting . . . except to us."

It's an existence he has constructed and maintains with careful deliberation.

"Chris didn't marry until his late 30s," McKean observes. "A lot of us went out and got married right away. He's meted his life out in an interesting way. It's a feng-shui style. He's been patient and careful not to get involved in things he didn't like. I think he's happy. He deserves to be."

Of course, he may be lured out of the house to play a few Folksmen gigs. This kinder, gentler musical trio is far more inviting than another Spinal Tap reunion. As Shearer points out, "There isn't the possibility of severe and permanent damage to the eardrum."

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com.

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