As Spinal Tap lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel – wearer of anatomically correct T-shirts, owner of amplifiers that go to “11,” writer of delicate compositions like “Lick My Love Pump” – Christopher Guest, along with director Rob Reiner and his co-writers/bandmates Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, turned 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap into a devastatingly funny dissection of rock pomposity. To say that the film’s mix of off-the-cuff jokes and straight-faced parody has influenced several generations of filmmakers and funny people would be a vast understatement – everyone from Ricky Gervais to Fred Armisen has cited the cult classic as a sort of comedy ground-zero. And starting with 1997’s Waiting for Guffman, about the follies of a community theater troupe, Guest and a rotating repertory group (including McKean, Shearer, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, and many others) have used the improv-heavy formula to bring fringe-dwellers and amateurs with a flair for the dramatic – from aging folksters (A Mighty Wind) to prize dog breeders (Best In Show) – to life.
In his new film Mascots, which premieres today on Netflix, Guest affectionately lampoons another subculture: those sideline sports mascots who entertain crowds during games. As usual, the filmmaker goes far off the grid to find his oddball characters, most of whom are competing for the “Golden Fluffy” award at the World Mascot Association championship, which may or may not eventually be broadcast on the Gluten Free Network. Contestants include Posey as an armadillo with a passion for interpretive dance, Chris O’Dowd as a belligerent hockey mascot called the Fist; Tom Bennett as a third-generation plush hedgehog; and Zach Woods and Sarah Baker as minor-league baseball favorites under severe marital distress.
Guest talked to Rolling Stone about mascot controversies, his unconventional approach to casting and screenwriting, and how his comic modus operandi has left an impact on the current comedy scene.
What interested you about this particular subculture?
I think the intriguing thing to me was the idea that people are performing in various guises – whether it’s a lion’s head or chipmunk, whatever it is – but they’re invisible. They’re doing all this work, they’re tumbling or something, in front of a large crowd potentially, but after the fact, it could be anyone in there. My son was a mascot for a team when he was in school six or seven years ago, and he used to talk about it. I don’t know why he volunteered for that, but they typically have cooling devices in the fancier ones. His had a fan in the head – it was a falcon – but the fan broke right away and they never fixed it, so he was just in this suit, sweating.
That was one inspiration. And then there’s the idea of the range of acts that they have. Obviously there’s a Phillie Phanatic and a San Diego Chicken doing things that seem to be, for most adults, kind of a peripheral thing if you go to an event. In addition to that … these people obviously have regular lives when they’re not wearing their outfits, which couldn’t be more different. If you’re a hippopotamus [on the field], you basically just go home and now you are who you are. That was the beginning of this.
Is there something about losing your inhibitions when you’re in that disguise? You might be less ashamed when no one can see who you are.
Well, I guess it’s possible. I talked to some mascots, and they seemed to be fairly shy, so that’s probably a good bet. But having said that, it’s still bizarre, because you could do this at home, too. If you think about it, one could put on something and jump around to music. I don’t want to overanalyze this. I don’t want to … this movie isn’t a dissertation on some psychoanalytic premise about why people do this. I’m hoping it’s a comedy. When I made it, it was intended to be funny, especially about the people when they’re out of costume, obviously.
It is a comedy, but as with all of your work, there’s a strong emotional underpinning, too. You have to access that as well.
There’s no question that, for me, the emotional spine of this – as is true with other films I’ve made – is the key thing. It’s the main thing that keeps me interested in exploring new [ideas], and the comedy comes out of these situations. But it’s crucial for me, in doing these stories, that there is a basis in some other reality. Otherwise, it would just be a sketch. Sketches are great, but for me, they’re a limited dimension. That’s why there’s the other side of this for me.
What was the extent of your research into the actual world of mascots?
I remembered how many sporting events I go to; I have been to a fair amount. I knew the Phillie Phanatic, the original guy, who began in the 1970s and who no longer does it. There’s someone else doing it now. But he established that character, which is kind of a dragon in a baseball uniform, with a hat. I guess it’s almost sort of retroactive, in some strange way, that I remembered seeing all these acts. I did speak to some people about their experiences, the injuries that they’ve had and the challenge of the amount of work they’re doing, where people sometimes don’t cooperate or push them. And then there was a lot of research about the different types of mascots, whether they’re a creature or some sort of object, and how that affects the person inside. So it was a much bigger world than I had imagined. There are dozens and dozens of websites.
I went to a British football game and saw a Wyvern, which is a dragon-ish creature. The team he was fronting was a very low-level football team, and he didn’t even show up for the second half of the game. It actually sparked this fantasy of him just going to a pub, basically, and putting his big head on the bar and just drinking, because he was thinking, “What the fuck am I killing myself for?” There’s nothing funnier to me than when a team is losing a game and the TV cuts away to a reaction shot from a guy who’s just covered in face paint and overcome with despair. When we were writing out the premise of these things that the people were going to say, one of them was, you know, it’s easy when the team is winning, but it’s really hard when they’re losing. That’s when they kind of have to earn their money, basically.
The backstory of Parker Posey’s armadillo mascot is that it used to be the Leaping Squaw – a reference the Native American controversies of teams that don’t change their name. What does it say about sports culture and the connection that fans have to these mascots?
That could be my favorite scene in the movie, because it’s kind of this mini-tribunal of people – with the exception of Ed Begley, who corrects Jane Lynch when she says, “What’s the difference between East Indian and Native American?” And he says, “Well, that’s just one continent,” and she just kind of, you know, blows him off. I think fans are so brought up in a culture of rooting for a team since they were kids, ostensibly, and are blind to this idea that people might take offense. In the case of the Cleveland Indians, there’s kind of this grotesque caricature of an Indian with a big nose and big teeth. In the case of the Washington football team, one would think you would say, “Well, this is offensive to a group of people.” And that’s not what matters. What matters is, they say, “Well, this is tradition.” That goes to the Rebel Flag; it goes to a lot of things you could extrapolate on. They are so caught up in the sport and their team that they’ve lost their “critical thinking,” I guess you would say.
Spinal Tap was famously whittled down from 50-plus hours of footage. In the digital age, you can shoot endlessly without worrying about blowing money on film stock. How does that affect your process? How much do you think your films are made in the editing room?
They’re not remotely made in the editing room. There’s a bit of a misnomer about how these are done, as much as I’ve tried to explain this for a long time. The amount of work and time in laying out this story, breaking down a hundred scenes … The back histories of every character are pre-written – where they went to school; who they knew – and so, when everyone goes into a given scene, they know what has to happen. They know certain facts. It can’t veer. It can’t go off. It can’t become a different movie than was laid out. It takes longer, typically, to do these outlines, which are maybe 25 pages, than it has taken me to write a screenplay of 120-something pages.
In terms of the film that we used to use, that was never a concern. I would always shoot, prior to digital, Super 16. The takes were 10 minutes, many times, and I’d do two takes, maybe three. In a conventional film, people may do 10 or 15 takes. In the digital domain, it was relatively similar: we would do some takes that were five minutes, some takes were more than 15 minutes long. Because there are five cameras used in the show at the end of the competition [in Mascots], there’s a 155 hours of material. It’s a bit misleading, because there were five cameras covering those acts, and, if you strip it down, it was pretty close to what, typically, we would have – maybe 60 hours or something – and I spent about 10 months editing. I don’t do any editing while we’re making the movie. I sit down and watch it all with my editor, we make longhand notes on pads and then we begin our work.
The way you describe your process, it sounds a little bit like how [British filmmaker] Mike Leigh makes his films. Have you heard of his method?
I have. What they do is, the actors work for a long time and ultimately it generates a script. We don’t do any rehearsing at all. There’s not one second of rehearsal. So I meet with actors specifically, sometimes just for an hour, to talk with them about their characters, the premise of each scene that they’re in. Then we’re on a set, and I say, “Action.” It couldn’t be more different. His stuff, which I admire a lot, comes from a very different process.
What are the actors responsible for in the creation of your films?
A huge thing. It’s very difficult to articulate this way of working, but I try to use the analogy of music. I’ve played music my whole life, and if you sit down with musicians and play — let’s say you pick a song, “Singin’ in the Rain” or whatever, and say, “OK, we’re going to do it in A” — now you’re playing the song. Some people are playing rhythm. Someone’s going to take turns playing a solo that won’t necessarily be the exact melody; but no one says, “Hey, what the hell? How do you know what to play? Where does that solo come from?” If you’re not reading music, it’s coming from inside your head.
Now there’s a band, but it’s a band of actors, and they know the melody and they know the story, they know the song. What the actors contribute, obviously, is that there are jokes [co-writer] Jim Piddock and I had written that need to be done for various reasons, but the dialogue is not written down. So the actors are kind of inhabiting these people and the characters we’ve created have to now take off. So the contribution is huge, yet it can’t be explained because … how do you explain what that is? I always feel I’ve failed in trying to explain this, and then it feels like it’s getting very serious. In fact, it’s a very joyous experience. Not every actor can do this. You can admire a certain actor, but the likelihood of them being able to do this work is fairly remote.
Mascots has a mix of people you’ve worked with many times before and newcomers, like Zach Woods and Sarah Baker. For them, what’s the acclimation process?
It’s equally mystifying, unfortunately. I really, deeply wish I could explain this better, but I may not know how to. I have actors come in that have been recommended or I’ve seen in things. They come into my office and I talk to them for perhaps half an hour, maybe 40 minutes, but nothing to do with the movie. Obviously, at the outset, I say, “This person is this and this and this,” and then we talk about other things. Like, “Where do you come from? What do you like to do?” Whatever.
Somehow, in that discussion or that conversation, I intuit that they can do this, and I really can’t explain any more than that. There’s no test. There’s nothing to read because there’s no dialogue written down and I really do think people who come in and leave must think, “What just happened?” And it’s not as if I have some secret questions or things that are testing them. I really don’t. It’s just very organic. Many times, I can sense someone’s intelligence and sense of humor. It’s not about them telling jokes – it’s nothing like a normal audition – and, based on that, which I’ve been doing for a very long time, I make a decision. [Then] they’re part of the group and we jump in.
The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival but will be released by Netflix, through which the vast majority of people will see this movie. Does that distinction matter to you as a filmmaker?
The main thing that’s important to me is getting to do whatever project it is the way that I do what I do, and that’s different. To go to an entity – whether it’s a traditional film studio or some newer company, or HBO, Amazon or Netflix – they would have to know that I need to work the way I work. You are never going to see a screenplay. Typically, they would say, “Here’s the screenplay. We liked it, but we didn’t like the scene where …” Whatever. And then there’s a negotiation of some sort. But there’s none of that with my movies. I had a meeting at Netlfix, but I never went to a studio, and they seemed to be very excited and fully onboard with the idea that this is how I do it.
So it’s almost like two different considerations. I do love the idea of seeing the film projected. I think people will get a chance to see that, but, as you say, predominantly, people will see it at home. The other side of that, though, is that it’s there forever. That could be bad or good. It’s there for people to see or revisit in perpetuity.
Waiting for Guffman is approaching its 20th anniversary. Do you consider how your work has influenced modern film comedy, be it The Office or Judd Apatow. Do you think your imprint is there a little bit?
We had a 20th-anniversary Guffman screening in San Francisco a few months ago, and I hadn’t seen it for a very long time – maybe 15 years – and people tell me what you just asked. They say that. Now, this all started, obviously, when Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Rob Reiner, and I wrote Spinal Tap. We had started to write a script, and Marble Arch, the entity that gave us money to write a script, fell apart. We started to shoot the movie with the money they gave us to write it and ended up with 20 minutes we took around to try to sell. So we thought this was a fun idea, to do it in this fashion that hadn’t been done before.
Later, I made The Big Picture (1989), and I had written a screenplay, but really kind of longed to return this way of working because it was fun. People have said that there are things my films have influenced in some way. That may be. But most of them are written: The Office is a scripted thing, and Judd Apatow’s movies are written. It’s also different, in terms of The Office or some other shows that are meant to look like documentaries, without actually improvising, which is a different thing. It’s a choice that they’ve made. That’s not what I do, but if it looks like that to people and they don’t know the difference, I don’t know what to say.