Interview: How to Write Your Own Script
Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest on Being Funny and Life Without Oscars
By Tanya Goldhaber
Prior to the release of “For Your Consideration,” writers, actors, directors, and producers Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest sat down with a few reporters from around Boston to discuss the making of their new movie.
Q: How do you decide who writes what?
Eugene Levy: Well, we write the outline. We spend some months doing this, kind of fleshing out the story, giving the characters extensive backgrounds. Very specific backgrounds, you know, very specific productions they were in. Then we map it out and pretty much lay it out scene-by-scene. What we do is we lay the story out and provide each scene with enough exposition to move the story along and the actors improvise the dialogue. And they have to get this information out, or it’s just a big free-for-all. All the dialogue was improvised with the exception of the movie within the movie, in this case “Home for Purim,” and all the television shows were scripted. Not all the television shows, but some of them.
Q: Have you been in a movie where the producers want to change the script like that?
Christopher Guest: It happens all the time.
Q: That drastically?
CG: Even more drastically than that. It happens all the time. A movie, a large movie, with a large budget, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the people making the movie to make it succeed. And the bigger the budget, the committee gets bigger, many people at the studio, several producers … more about recouping the money I guess. But it happens a lot. It happens all the time.
EL: And that thing about throwing the script away, like the scene in the movie, it happened on a film I was working on called “Serendipity.” I’m playing a salesman and John Cusack is across the counter and the we’re doing the scene as scripted and the director kept coming on set and he’d just stand there and he’d say “let’s try it again.” So we’d do the scene again and he’d say “one more please.” And this just kept going on and finally I just had to go up to him and said “look, are we remotely close to what it is you’re looking for? Why don’t we just forget the script and just improvise what it says.” So that’s how the scene was done. You know, “don’t cross the line, don’t come behind the counter.” In a strange way, he was going for something, and I don’t know what, and it got progressively more strange in terms of my character.
Q: How did you get this group of actors together? How did all this evolve? How long did it take?
CG: I would say it began with “Spinal Tap,” which was 20 years ago, and in “Spinal Tap,” Fred Willers, Harry Shearer, Michael Caine, Rob Reiner, and I wrote the film, and Paul Benedict was in that movie and he’s part of this company.
Q: What would you think if this movie got nominated for an Oscar?
CG: First of all, people who make comedies know, and we’re not really part of that process. We’re a separate industry. It’s not what makes us do these films. Some people making big-budget movies really do go after that, but Eugene and I try to make a movie that, first of all, makes both of us laugh, and then hopefully some other people. For people who do comedies, you don’t have that.
Q: [to Christopher Guest] Have you thought of asking your wife [Jamie Lee-Curtis] to become part of your company?
CG: Well, we’ve been married for 22 years, and when we got married, we decided that we wouldn’t work together, because we wanted to keep our actual lives separate from the work that we did. We’ve remained consistent.
Q: What’s the ratio of footage shot to what appears in the movie?
CG: We probably shot about 50 hours. It is a lot, because we shoot in Super 16, which no one does, basically. The reason we do that is because we shoot in hand-held and the cameras are lighter. We shoot the entire mag, basically, and everything is printed. So we do have more material. Every take.
Q: There weren’t any outtakes at the end of the film. Why not?
CG: I don’t do that in my films. It’s a terrible thing because basically what it says is that the movie wasn’t funny, so now we’re going to show people laughing. It’s the lowest Darwinian part of comedy for me. I hope that the movie is the movie, and there are no little laughing bits.
Q: The makeup was amazing. How did Catherine O’Hara get that face?
CG: She actually did it with her muscles. There’s no prosthetic of any kind. And when I talked to her about the face, she said that she couldn’t put anything on her face because her skin was so sensitive. So I asked her what we should do, and she said that she could actually make that face. And she came out and it was just perfect.
EL: It’s hard to believe. It was very tiring. We would have to break after three minutes and stop, because she does this weird thing where she literally draws up her face and does that.
Q: Is comedy easier for you to do?
EL: I wouldn’t say it’s easier. I’d say it’s maybe more rewarding. It’s just different. I’ve done movies that have been very rewarding. I try to have a good time on every movie that I do. There have been very few movies where I didn’t enjoy myself. And this one is just special because you just don’t encounter this kind of movie anywhere else. You just don’t have this kind of creative flexibility and freedom. And this is the only experience that I’ve had where the creative input is exactly what you see when the movie comes out. The studio doesn’t creatively interfere. Chris [Guest] has final cut on the movie. It’s also a very low budget movie. There’s not a risk factor for them. They know they’re going break even. That’s a big part of it. You keep the budget down, because once the budget starts rising …
CG: If someone said: “I’ll give you $50 million to make this movie,” I would say “I can’t do that.” The studio wants control to protect their investment, and I understand that, but then I can’t do my thing. And that’s why I’m doing this.
Q: Do you find yourself, when you’re directing these folks, laughing out loud occasionally?
CG: (jokingly) No, I don’t find it very funny. (laughter) We’ve done this so much, occasionally we do, but it’s work, and, as someone said, comedy is serious business. There are certain times when we laugh. I remember during “Waiting for Guffman” near the end of the movie where Eugene was playing a comic in Florida, and I was watching the movie, and of course I didn’t know what he was going to do, and I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t look at the monitor. I was literally doubled over. And I thought, as this was happening, “This is strange, I’m directing this movie, but I can’t even see what’s happening.” I had to basically not be heard. And that kind of stuff usually happens with other movies.
Q: Eugene, how did you get involved in becoming a comedian?
CG: Because he’s funny.
EL: The first movie I did was in 1971, and it was a movie called “Cannibal Girls.”
My first job was as a coffee boy. My second film was improvisationally based, and it was a horror-comedy. We didn’t even have makeup artists. Keep in mind I had an afro and mutton-chops and a big mustache, and I used to tease my co-actress because she would touch up her makeup after every scene. And I would say: “Why are you doing that? You just did your makeup. Are you crazy?” For me it was just: “Hey, they’re putting us up in a motel for a month. What fun.” I had no idea that one day it was going to come out on the big screen. Honestly, I’m a character actor, and all the work I’ve done on movies and television is character work.
Q: So you weren’t the kid making everyone laugh?
EL: No. I was never that kid. It was more with writing. It was just doing successful character work.
Q: Are you two working on anything right now?
CG: Not that I know of. After movies like this I usually take a year, year and a half off to just have a very regular life. Then maybe I’ll have another idea one day.
Q: Is writing more satisfying for you than acting?
CG: It’s a different kind of satisfaction. It’s fun coming up with a story you think might work, potentially. It’s fun acting. It’s putting on silly clothes and wigs. And it’s fun and inspiring to edit. I edit for 11 months. That’s really fun and intellectually stimulating.