Scriptless in Seattle? No sweat for pros

`Mighty Wind' cast ad-libs mightily

April 29, 2003|By Moira Macdonald | Moira Macdonald,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SEATTLE - Four actors sit around a table at the Four Seasons one afternoon, without a script in sight. But that's nothing new for director/actor Christopher Guest and actors Fred Willard, Harry Shearer and John Michael Higgins - they're accustomed to working without a script, on Guest's hilarious mockumentaries Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and the new A Mighty Wind, all of which were improvised for the cameras.

Not that there's nothing on paper. "The script looks like a script," explains Higgins (the exuberant shih tzu handler from Best in Show). "It just doesn't have dialogue in it. There are descriptions of what happens, but no lines given to the actors."

"We kind of script the movie without dialogue," co-writer/co-star Eugene Levy says of the process. "We give the actors enough information so they can improvise more freely. ... They know what they have to come out with, but we just don't tell them how to say it."

In A Mighty Wind, for instance, Bob Balaban's character - a nebbish concert promoter organizing a folkie reunion - tells the camera about the roots of his nervousness: An overprotective mother forced him to wear a football helmet while playing chess and made him ride a diminutive Shetland pony while playing youth polo - so he wouldn't have far to fall.

Guest and Levy gave Balaban the chess and polo details, but Balaban later used that background to make his character fearful of everything from hanging plants to microphone stands.

In A Mighty Wind (yet to open in Baltimore, though it was the feature at this past weekend's Cinema Sundays at the Charles Theatre), Guest, Shearer and Michael McKean play the Folksmen, an agreeably wholesome trio whose output includes the albums Hitchin', Singin', Ramblin', Wishin' and Pickin'.

"We've been doing the Folksmen for years," says Shearer. "Two years ago, we did a little Spinal Tap tour, and the Folksmen opened for Spinal Tap. I thought we had made music history - I thought we were the only band ever to have opened for ourselves. But I found out later, one other person did it, and it's mind-boggling who this person is."

Shearer groans.

It was Chip Davis of Mannheim Steamroller.

Levy and Catherine O'Hara play Mitch and Mickey, a former romantic duo whose great hit was "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow."

And Higgins and Jane Lynch headline the New Main Street Singers, a colorfully costumed nine-member group managed by Mike LaFontaine (Willard) of Hi-Class Management.

LaFontaine sports alarmingly spiky blond hair - "I thought it'd be interesting, for an aging guy," Willard says.

The characters began as ideas from Guest and Levy, who wrote a detailed outline. "Then we talk about the history of the groups," Guest says, "and where their characters have come from. Then [the actors] embellish that. By the time we get to shooting, they have a very good idea who these people are."

Guest began experimenting with the technique during his brief stint on Saturday Night Live when he, Martin Short and Shearer taped a fake documentary in 1984 about two men and their coach aspiring to turn synchronized swimming into an Olympic sport.

Shearer, McKean and Guest made their first feature-length improv movie the same year: director Rob Reiner's story of a dimwitted rock band, This Is Spinal Tap.

Guest worked mainly as an actor in such films as Little Shop of Horrors and The Princess Bride before returning to the mockumentary with 1996's Waiting for Guffman, this time as both star and director.

Guffman, about a failed Broadway hoofer and his talentless troupe of community actors, teamed him with what would become his core group of stars: Levy, O'Hara, Willard, Balaban, Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock. McKean and Shearer did not appear on screen that time, but helped write songs for the film's musical tribute to the boring town of Blaine, Mo.

Although it wasn't a big box-office hit, Guffman developed a fervent cult-fan base and was followed by 2000's Best in Show - in which the mockumentary subject was a dog contest and the odd lifestyles of the canines' owners.

In it, Willard plays a thick-headed commentator with such scene-stealing lines as "... And to think that in some countries these dogs are eaten."

Guest doesn't rehearse his actors (to keep the improvisation fresh), and takes only five weeks to shoot the film. This means things move along smoothly - even when unplanned laughter occurs.

"People have had some spells," admits Guest. "When Fred was doing his announcer guy for Best in Show, I was laughing so hard I couldn't even watch what was happening." (If you watch those scenes, he says, you'll see the hand-held camera very gently shaking.)

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