- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2000

The recent revival of the superlative 1984 rock spoof, "This is Spinal Tap," is a timely reminder that one of its principal collaborators, Christopher Guest, had a new movie in the wings: a freshly improvisational comedy titled "Best in Show."

Contrived around a set of five finalists and their pets competing at a prestige dog show in Philadelphia, the film opens in the Washington area today. Easily one of the year's best comedies, it confirms the aptitude of Mr. Guest and his writing-performing collaborator, Eugene Levy, when specializing in ensemble improvisation.

Mr. Guest and Mr. Levy were previously associated on "Waiting for Guffman," a comedy about small-town thespians. They had traveled to Washington together as part of a promotional tour in January 1997. Mr. Guest arrived for solo duty on behalf of "Best in Show." He drew parts of the Midwest and Northeast, plus Los Angeles and San Francisco, while Mr. Levy and other cast members were also meeting the press in far-flung parts of the country.

In the lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel, Mr. Guest recalled how the "Spinal Tap" method had grown on him.

"Before we committed that to film," he says, "we had been doing it all our lives: Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, myself. For about 20 years, our daily lives were saturated with these improvisational runs as fanciful rock musicians. They could last for hours," he says.

"Ultimately, we thought, 'Let's get a camera, we can do this.' The movie proved that we could. For me personally, it's a very gratifying way to work."

An accomplished deadpan comedian, Mr. Guest began to emerge as a more or less familiar saturnine presence in the middle and late 1980s. "Spinal Tap" coincided with a remarkable season on "Saturday Night Live," when he was frequently paired with Billy Crystal. Mr. Reiner, who made his directing debut on "Spinal Tap," cast Mr. Guest in the movie version of "The Princess Bride" as the aristocratic villain.

Born in New York City in 1948, the actor-writer-director claims authentic aristocratic lineage. Mr. Guest is the son of an American mother, actress and CBS executive Jean Pauline Hindes, and an English father, Peter Haden-Guest, whose title as a baron in the county of Essex has passed to Mr. Guest. British journalist and author Anthony Haden-Guest is a half-brother. A younger full brother, Nicholas, is also an actor. He and Christopher appeared together in the 1980 Walter Hill Western "The Long Riders," which turns out to have had a long distance influence on Mr. Guest's role in "Best in Show."

The character Harlan Pepper, a North Carolina fishing shop owner who enters his beloved bloodhound, Hubert, in the dog show, grew out of an accent heard while Mr. Guest was on location in northern Georgia for "Long Riders." It kept echoing in his head and ultimately took up fictional residence in Harlan.

"Eugene and I were able to duplicate the working relationship on 'Guffman,' " Mr. Guest says. "As before, we took months to come up with a story where there's a spine, a beginning and middle and end. As in the conventional movie. Perhaps it's more important with this unconventional kind, because there won't be any written dialogue.

"Each scene is broken down so that the actors know what needs to happen within it. Certain character and story points have to be established, so this isn't a free-for-all situation. It demands serious discipline. I compare it to jazz improvisation. The musicians know they're playing in G or A, but they're not reading music."

There are advantages and pitfalls in the Guest-Levy method. It only suits relatively "small" pictures with casts of well-trained comic actors in tailor-made roles. Though repetition is minimized during the production, since no two exchanges of dialogue will ever be identical, Mr. Guest complicates his life in the editing stage by accumulating considerable exposed footage: about 60 hours in the case of "Best in Show."

"If people laugh at your films, is it important how you get there?" Mr. Guest asks rhetorically. "Maybe it's more than an intellectual exercise. In this kind of comedy you do see and hear words being spoken for the first time. That can have a special resonance. I'm sometimes consciously aware of wanting to protect real time in a way that the movies resist.

"It is different than an actor repeating the same lines more or less identically in 10 takes. A lot of acting goes on during the day on our set.

"I think it's one of the reasons people like to be in these movies," Mr. Guest acknowledges. "They wouldn't be able to make a living this way."

No one worked longer than 10 days on "Best in Show" and all for scale.

"It's a short stretch," he says. "The shooting schedules for 'Spinal Tap,' 'Guffman' and 'Best in Show' were about the same, 28 days. But actors get to do what they're trained to do. They won't suffer the frustrations of working in fits and starts over the course of several months."

Mr. Guest and Mr. Levy write with specific actors in mind, themselves conspicuously included. In "Best in Show," Mr. Levy is paired with his former "SCTV" colleague, Catherine O'Hara. They play a Florida couple, Gerry and Cookie Fleck, who hope the Mayflower Dog Show proves a triumph for their Norwich terrier, Winky.

"We hope the people we want will be available," Mr. Guest says. "If they aren't, there's no movie. I can't just go to the next person on the list, as you do when casting the typical script. There isn't a next person on the list.

"Not that replacement is impossible in the acting profession, but it's not a desirable solution for us. We need to be patient and wait. The incentive is never money. The actors have to make their livings on other things. What I'm asking, basically, is: 'Can you spare 10 days to enjoy yourself?' "

Mr. Guest does not rehearse.

"Rehearsals would dissipate the spontaneous magic you're hoping for," he says. "The camera starts turning and the actors go. There isn't much off-base stuff.

"Occasionally, people forget to mention certain things or fail to get to the end of the scene. Sometimes they need to be reminded to keep a particularly effective line.

"About 90 percent of the time I'm using only one camera. I can talk to the camera man through a little earpiece and give him instructions if I need to." He whispers an example: "Go in on Catherine, go closer."

Mr. Guest is married to actress Jamie Lee Curtis. They have two adopted children and have residences in Los Angeles and the Northwest. The latter serves for summer holidays and fishing or skiing retreats in other seasons. A dog park near their L.A. home is what first prompted thoughts of a comedy about dog owners and their pets.

"I became interested, gradually, by overhearing conversations," Mr. Guest recalls. "It was six months or so before I thought this subculture might lend itself to a good movie comedy. I began to notice that some people, usually childless, talked about their pets as if they were children. And there were these funny strains of condescension, almost like religious or ethnic prejudice.

"You pretend the other sort is OK, but down deep, you don't believe it. For example, I interviewed people with different kinds of setters, all very beautiful. But the Irish setter guy had this to say about another owner's pet: 'Lovely dog, but just not very smart.' "

Mr. Guest says, "It's human nature to gravitate to something and get protective or even obsessive about it. I like our dogs and find them interesting, but they wouldn't be allowed in a show. One is a half-Labrador and half-golden retriever. The other is a half-Akita and something else. They're big and sweet.

"We wanted dogs who would be gentle with kids. That's another subject in itself: the motives that attract people to different breeds, rather like they're drawn to different personality types.

"I thought of myself as a big-dog person. I was a little surprised that I felt so friendly toward all the little dogs we worked with on the movie. I could now envision myself as a small-dog owner."

Mr. Guest lived in both London and New York while growing up. He still has many cousins in England and used to visit with some regularity. He'll return next month for the premiere of "Best in Show" but remarks wistfully that the current government has eliminated his motive for earlier November trips.

"I attended Parliament for two years running," he explains, "but I don't get to do that now. They kicked us out of the House of Lords all the hereditary peers. We have titles but no votes. You know the English job description of 'minister without portfolio'? I'm a peer without portfolio."

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