In 1984, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Rob Reiner and Harry Shearer unveiled "This Is Spinal Tap," a comedy shot in documentary form that follows the life and times of a fictional metal band.
Guest refined his style in subsequent films, including "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show," and "A Mighty Wind." As an actor, filmmaker and director, Guests specializes in characters with off-beat hobbies that border on obsessions, but, he says, "I think of myself as doing projects that really have more to do with observation than anything else." While his characters may seem eccentric, Guest explains, "I see those things out in the world, and they may seem exaggerated but they're not. That's the good part -- or the bad part, depending on how you look at it."
Today, television has fully embraced Guest's pioneering documentary style, finding success in "The Office," "Modern Family" and "Parks and Recreation." Guest himself has turned to the small screen, with his new HBO comedy, "Family Tree," starring Chris O'Dowd.
O'Dowd joins a cast familiar to most Guest fans, including Michael McKean, Fred Willard and Ed Begley, Jr., but the young actor quickly learned Guest's technique. O'Dowd, Guest says, is "a sensational actor and improviser. I instantaneously thought he was fantastic just talking to him."
Improvisation plays a major role in Guest's comedic process. Guest and his collaborator Jim Piddock structure their scenes on an outline that describes the action of the scene. The actors know that structure, and, Guest gives them a long biographical sketch of each character's background, including where the character grew up and went to school.
"The words are improvised in all the scenes," Guest says. "There's no rehearsal and the actors, knowing who they are, knowing what their backgrounds are, on 'action,' begin to speak."