Since shooting to fame playing Nigel Tufnel, the mulleted guitar goof in Rob Reiner's inimitable heavy metal parody This is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest has evolved into one of Hollywood's most revered comic auteurs. Directing, writing and acting in a trilogy of improvised spoof documentaries - Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind - the 55-year-old has made a generation think twice about getting involved with community theatre, pedigree dog shows and folk reunion concerts. While his refusal to pander to big studio accountants may have slowed down his cinematic output, his stubbornness has guaranteed him something more important than ticket stub accolades - artistic respect.
One comedian who empathises with Guest's dogged approach is Ricky Gervais, a man who has been obsessed ~ith improvised character studies since he watched Nigel Tufnel turn his ampup to 11 on an early bootleg copy of This is Spinal Tap. After trying his luck as a radio DJ, pop singer and sarcastic chat show commentator, Gervais and writing partner Steven Merchant created The Office, 2001 's faux fly-on-the-wall documentary that introduced viewers to the delusional, isolated world of office manager David Brent. It's been a blur ever since. With a glut of transatlantic awards, millions of DVD sales, sell-out tours and another BBC series, Extras, under his belt, Gervais has positioned himself as Britain's most successful comic export of the new millennium.
When rumours of a collaboration started buzzing around, most insiders paid little attention. Why, they said, would Guest recruit someone outside his tried and tested inner circle? And why would the English newcomer want to do an indie picture instead' of Mission Impossible 3? .But sure enOugh, when Guest's movie satire For Your Consideration was announced, nestled snugly among trusted Guest collaborators Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard was the Beeb's best comic. As they prepared to start filming together, comedy's most exciting partnership gave Dazed an exclusive insight into their work.
D&C: Gentlemen, we've brought you together today to pick your brains ... Ricky Gervais: I'm saying nothing.
D&C: Ricky, how did you first meet Christopher?
RG: I met Harry Shearer (one third of Spinal Tap) by chance when he was promoting Christopher's last film, A Mighty Wind. I was in The Dorchester hotel interviewing Samuel L Jackson of all people. I think Christopher saw The Office some time after that. But he can verify that.
Christopher Guest: I could.
RG: But why should you?
CG: But I will.
RG: Go on then.
CG: I saw The Office and said to my wife, 'that's the funniest show I've ever seen'. She told me to call him up, but I don't do things like that. Within about 20 minutes, she had called Ricky's agent and got his mobile number. So I called him but didn't get through, and then he called me back. At the time I was doing a film in London, so we met up and hit it off straight away.
RG: Not in a sexual way. We were just like two blokes down the pub.
CG: Oh yeah.
RG: It was a big thing for me. When I first saw This is Spinal Tap in about 1983, I immediately watched it again. I can't remember a film I've done that with, before or since. To get so deep into the genre that they were spoofing, the details of human behaviour, and then to do it all in someone else's native accent just blew me away. There's just a few things that go to comedy heaven - Spinal Tap, Laurel and Hardy, The Simp sons and Derek and Clive.
D&C: Christopher, you live in America but have English royal heritage. Why do American comedians like to satirise the British so much?
CG: I don't think it's done that often because not many people can do the accent very well. Tap was just something that we found very funny - this
ageing band who played a form of music that was completely irrelevant but seemed important to them.
D&C: How closely related to the character Nigel Tufnel are you?
CG: I was a musician for many years so I played a lot of different music. I'm not a metal-head, but I was drawn to this specific type of music because it had the potential to be overblown and self-important. It's also fun to play.
RG: Nigel Tufnel is up there with Stan (Laurel) as far as I'm concerned because they both occupy a place where stupidity is allowed and accepted. But Nigel doesn't have Ollie to look at him and tell him he's stupid, because he's surrounded by stupid people. There are still people out there like him. I saw a band recently who were into wizardry. This guy came onstage wearing a wolf's head mask but he couldn't get the microphone through the mouth. He struggled a little bit and resorted to stretching the wolf's mouth over it so he could sing. They're still out there!
D&C: Do you think that your experiences in radio and on the stage helped to improve your improvisational skills?
CG: I don't think you can hone those. I believe that you can either improvise or you can't, you figure that out pretty quickly.
RG: When someone in England says 'comedy improv', it sends a chill down my spine. Like when a wacky troupe gets suggestions from the audience. It gets to the point where they get a clap for just making something rhyme. From what I can make out, it's so much harder to watch than do.
D&C: Christopher, in your Saturday Night live heyday did you ... CG: Heyday? I wouldn't have used that word ...
RG: (loses it) I think I'm dying!
D&C: .. .feel constrained by the producer's inability to allow improvisation? CG: I don't think that was the issue. I only worked on the show for a year because I knew that it was going to be difficult. We had complete control over
what we wanted to do, but although the show is live there's no reason for it to be because everything is written and nothing really unusual happens, so things are very rarely funny.
D&C: Did you feel a cathartic release when you left?
CG: Yes. I started to get into directing while I was on SNL. I directed about eight of the films in the year that I worked on it. I don't know if I even wanted to direct, I think it was a typo or something. I had written for ten years and it just fell into place. The reason I've spent a decade doing small films is because I can control them. It's important to be able to look at something and decide if it is good or bad. It's my fault whatever the case, but I'd rather do something on a smaller scale that I can control rather than something bigger that I would have to compromise on.
RG: Exactly, having control is key. And that doesn't mean power, it means artistic freedom. The fun comes from creating an idea, writing it, casting it and then putting it on your shelf and saying 'I did that'. That's the only thing that matters. Of course, if you're on TV you want your work to be seen by as many people as possible, but that shouldn't be as a result of compromising your art. If someone read a script of mine and said 'I'll give you an extra million if you change the font', I wouldn't change the font.
CG: I would.
RG: Yeah, well, I don't like your font, can you change the 'T' in Tap for me? D&C: How do you feel about your work being classified as mockumentaries? CG: The last three films that I have done - the next one is a different style were filmed in the style of a documentary. I don't think it really applies, because we're not mocking documentaries, that's just someone putting a convenient handle on something that they couldn't describe properly. I can do a movie in any style that I want to. I always thought' of doing three movies in a set based around that style. The next film was always going to be different.
RG: It's like The Matrix isn't it?
CG: (switches into Nigel Tufnel's spaced out English accent) Yeah, it's like 400 billion dollars and has a lot of people running around in big woolly jumpers, avoiding explosions.
RG: It's all computer, innit?
CG: Yeah, we're not even using film. You don't even have to think about it. RG: What, like you blink your eyes and it will be grafted on to the inside of your eyelid?
CG: Nah, you just hold a glass of water and the story will be there in the water for you. It's deep.
D&C: Do you both agree that ~omedy is carved out of embarrassment, followed swiftly by neurosis?
RG: It's one aspect that I've explored, but it's not a necessity. Misunderstanding is more important than embarrassment. Since The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, people are saying that comedy is all about the cruel embarrassment or the social faux pas but I don't think Spinal Tap was based on cruelty or embarrassment. I can't think of a moment that was jumped on and exploited. They were too stupid to be embarrassed.
CG: Delusion is pretty major. The idea that someone can't understand where they are in the world is interesting and very common. It happens in every place of work. I guess I've looked at music, theatre and films because that's all I've known for the past 35 years. But I truly believe that you can arbitrarily pick something out of a hat and find something funny about it because the same characters inhabit and face the same troubles as everyone else. I went to a model train shop just to listen to the people talking. I thought 'this is a movie in itself'. It was very deep, the way these adults were talking about their trains. D&C: Christopher, you work exclusively with Eugene Levy, and Ricky you have Stephen Merchant. Does everything come down to making them laugh?
CG: If you're not making each other laugh while you're writing, then you might as well go home as there's no point. That's the test. If you make someone who you respect laugh, that's half the job done.
RG: But you never get that feeling on the set where you're rolling around for 20 minutes and then go and tell 30 mates what you came up with that day though, do you?
CG: Well, it has happened on a couple of my movies. Because of the format, it has got to the point where we had to stop shooting because everyone was laughing so much, which is great.
D&C: Do you find that it can become sterile, putting comedy on paper, re-writing it, going to the set and saying it 20 times?
RG: I've got to be laughing at every stage. You've got to realise that half an hour of telly has taken a year and a half to produce. If you're just working up to that half hour, Jesus! I can do without laughing for that half hour as long as the rest of my life is funny.
D&C: That's quite deep Ricky.
RG: Well I'm quite a deep thinker, ain't I?
D&C: You were recently asked to do an episode of The S;mpsons, a show that intrinsically deals with the American way of life - how did you approach writing that?
RG: I got a script from the very first episode and improved upon the drawings cos they were a bit wobbly back then. No, all I did was put a down a load of observations on an email and they made it look like a Simpsons script. I'm going to get the credit, but I think everyone in the industry knows it was a joint effort. It was very daunting. I didn't worry about pandering to an American audience though, I tried to make it universal, which is all you can do really. D&C: Christopher, you actually appeared in The Simpsons as Nigel Tufnel. How does your Springfield experience compare?
CG: (assumes Tufne/'s voice again) Errr, I don't remember the experience. I'm not saying that you're lying.
RG: Say he's lying, call him a liar Chris. D&C: But ...
RG: No, I remember it, the back of your guitar says 'Hello Springfield' on it. CG: Oh yeah. It was a great experience.
D&C: As well as rocking Springfield, you've played sold-out gigs at Wembley Stadium and the Albert Hall as part of Spinal Tap, yet you're still able to walk around in anonymity ...
CG: How do you know?
D&C: It's just that you never appear on screen or onstage as yourself, you're always in disguise or behind a camera. Surely it must get a little surreal ... CG: One of the most surreal things we've done is open for Spinal Tap at Carnegie Hall as The Folksmen. That hyped the schizophrenia even more. There were people that had come to see Tap who didn't know who these three old folk guys were. We had the idea of opening for ourselves a long time ago, just because we thought it would be funny. When my son came to a show at this big venue in the States, he said to my wife, 'When are the old guys getting off and the loud guys coming on?' He had no idea it was us in disguise!
D&C: What kind of capacity crowds have Spinal Tap played to?
CG: I think we averaged about 6,000 people. The biggest one was at Wembley for that bizarre charity event. That was about 70,000 people.
RG: Were they all friends?
CG: All except one, yeah. But playing those type of crowds is where it gets surreal, you just walk out there and it's an odd, odd thing. But combining a character in a movie and then getting to play the music live is the most fun. D&C: Ricky, you experienced something on a similar scale when you appeared at Live 8 ...
RG: Let's be honest about this, it's not on a similar scale, it's much bigger than any figure Christopher has just come out with. There were 250,000 people in the audience and half a billion watching worldwide. I think my dance routine wins, okay? U2 might have helped a little.
D&C: And weren't you actually in a Spinal Tap tribute band called The Savage Hearts?
RG: No, the really sad thing was that we formed that band, then saw Spinal Tap and broke up. It's bad that I was in a band like Spinal Tap and really meant it, but it's good that I realised that before it was too late. It's like someone coming up to me and saying 'my friends say that I'm like David Brent'. That's just bad. It's bad that you are and it's bad that you like it.
D&C: So you don't plan on bringing The Savage Hearts back for a reunion tour now that you're in with the·real thing?
RG: The name alone is the worst thing ever. When I went to Christopher's house, he said ...
CG: Get out.
RG: No, you showed me some of the original band doodles. I remember one name which made me laugh for 20 minutes - Jumbo Prawns. It's the least sexy rock band name ever. Amazing.
D&C: Didn't Nigel Tufnel actually have a solo record called 'Clam Caravan'? CG: (as TufnelJ Yes, it was a typo though. It was meant to be 'Calm Caravan', they slipped the 'I' and the 'a' around. It was printed like that, so I had to change the name of the song to 'Clam Caravan'. The rest isn't really history; it's more like a bad rumour.
D&C: Christopher, your new movie For Your Consideration starts production in a few days. How has the preparation differed to that of your past films? CG: -, didn't realise we were starting. Got. .. to ... make ... some ... plans. It's different conceptually to the other films I've done. There's also a period film
within the film and so we have people working on that film within this other film. It's a huge cast - I think there are 38 people.
, RG: Make me feel special, why don't you?
CG: Well, the fac! that Ricky is doing it makes it different to anything else I've done because he's outside the circle of people I usually work with. He plays the head of a film studio called Sunfish Classic.
D&C: So, this is your wry look at the movie business?
CG: It's really about what happens to actors when they're told that they should win an award. They undergo a very deep psychological shift and anyone in show business is susceptible to it. If you go up to an actor and say 'I think you're good and should win X award' that person really can't process that in a healthy way because they will immediately think that they should win. Then they'll go through this period of change where they'll think 'well that's ridiculous'. It will go back and forth. This is what happens on this little movie - a ridiculous film that has no business being made, much less winning awards. The award talk becomes a virus that gets picked up on by the rest of the cast.
RG: It's true. Most actors can't process that information in a healthy way because most actors can't process most things in a healthy way. In England, the sort of actors that survive usually had some sort of traumatic experience when they were 14 and decided to get love from strangers instead. It's the actors who say 'it's in my blood' who have the problems. What do you mean it's in your blood? You just mean it's better than working for a living. I know actors that stay in character and everyone has to refer to them as that character. Apparently on the set of Marathon Man, one scene called for Dustin Hoffman to be out of breath. So he ran and jumped around until he was knackered before coming into the room, at which point Olivier turned to him and said, 'Why don't you try acting out of breath?'
D&C: Ricky, your character is a dodgy movie boss. Do you think you'll play him as a cross between Harvey Weinstein and David Brent?
RG: I'm trying something different. I'm going to play him as an outrageously gay Jew who goes around saying (in a high-pitched camp voice) 'Ooooh I saaaay. What's this then? Ooooh look at all you creatures, you make me wanna nousch.' This is the first Chris has heard about it.
CG: Ricky, slow down just a bit, I'm just trying to get to grips with the last sentence here.
RG: Chris has knocked me back every time. He always says 'try it in your own voice'. It really annoys me cos I can do lots of different voices. I've got a selection of wigs too.
CG: I'll be honest, I like the last one. I think we've finally hit it.
RG: Let's go with that then. I've also been working on his name, something like ... Hoochie Cohen?
D&C: One last thing Christopher. If you were offered a role in Mission Impossible 3 or a remake of Magnum PI, which one would you take?
CG: You're joking right?
RG: Oh! They're the two films I turned down to do your film. Does that make you feel good?
CG: If anyone had even offered them to me, I would have retired instantly. I don't know if there could be a bigger insult.
RG: You know what, I wasn't insulted. But what people don't realise is that I don't do this to see my fat face in a film that I think I'd ruin. There's nothing that could compete with me doing a film with the creator of Spinal Tap. Laurel and Hardy would have to come back.
CG: That's very nice of you Hoocha ..
~G: No worries.
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