Dog dish 

Christopher Guest targets dog lovers in new mockumentary

Add Harlan Pepper to the short but impressive list of indelible screen characters brought to life by writer/director/actor Christopher Guest. A laid-back, fly-fishing enthusiast from the hills of North Carolina, Harlan joins a select group that also includes the dim-witted British rock star Nigel Tufnel and the flaming, er, flamboyant pageant director Corky St. Clair. Virtually unrecognizable from one role to the next, Guest is the comedic counterpart to a more serious chameleon like Billy Bob Thornton. With Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and (then first-time) director Rob Reiner, Guest first drew attention for co-writing and co-starring as Nigel in This Is Spinal Tap (1984), the side-splitting satire about a touring heavy-metal band that introduced the word "mockumentary" to the Hollywood vernacular. After a couple of forgettable mainstream directing jobs, Guest returned to doing what he obviously does best. Waiting for Guffman (1996), which he directed and co-wrote (with Eugene Levy), was another hilarious mockumentary, this time featuring Guest (as Corky) staging a ludicrous sesquicentennial show.

Best in Show (opening Oct. 13) is Guest's latest slice of supposedly real life (also co-written with Levy). Set behind the scenes at the fictitious Mayflower Dog Show, the movie introduces us to a handful of the highly eccentric dog owners gathered there (one of whom is Harlan). Levy, McKean and fellow Guffman alumni Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey and Fred Willard round out the cast.

Guest, 52, spoke about the film during a recent interview.

CL: I'm assuming you have a dog.

CG: Henry. He's part lab, part golden retriever -- a mutt, in other words. It's probably not too surprising that that's what prompted the idea for Best in Show. I'd take Henry to the dog park and I'd see all these other people with their dogs. The Chow people would be checking out the pug people, or everybody would stand around talking about pedigree, you know? It's like some kind of religion; "Well, your dog is fine, but maybe my dog is just a little better." I met this incredibly patronizing poodle lady who kept looking down her nose at Henry. When I mentioned he was a mix, she sort of backed away. Just the word "mix" and she was looking at us like she couldn't believe they let us in the park. It was amazing.

How hard was it working with all the dogs in Best in Show?

You know, the funny thing is, we had something like 150 dogs in that arena during some of the show scenes. You'd think it would be chaos, right? Hardly one dog barked or misbehaved. It was the people who were insane, the owners and the handlers. One woman really objected to the fact that her dog was coming in second. I had to explain to her it was only a movie and she was only pretending to come in second, but I don't think she ever forgave me. Between camera set-ups, I'd see her brushing the dog and sort of muttering under her breath about it. She'd look at me and her eyes were like daggers. What makes it even funnier, that sort of thing happened more than once!

For Best in Show, you've brought back a lot of the same actors you used in Waiting for Guffman.

Yeah. That's because in this specific world of improvised movies that I make, we're not working from a script. The story has been all worked out, but there aren't any rehearsals. We show up on the set, the cameras start rolling, the actors start speaking and we're off. Contrary to how it sounds, though, it isn't a free-for-all. You have to be trained and very disciplined to make it not only funny, but also real. That's a limitation right off the bat because there are only a handful of people I've ever met who can even do this kind of work. I continue to work with these people because I know they can do it.

Talk a little about the fine line between having fun with these characters and making fun of them.

Well, it isn't sketch comedy. We're not winking, so it's very important for people to like these characters. If you're just making fun of them, there's really nowhere to go with that. You have to like them enough to be drawn into their stories on some personal level, and hopefully that's where the comedy comes from. Obviously there's a big difference between this type of reality-based comedy and something where you have people pulling down their pants or throwing up out of a window. I'd like to think both Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show are based in real behavior as opposed to being over-the-top.



Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Latest in Interview

Readers also liked…

More by Bert Osborne

Restaurant Review: Bread & Butterfly
Restaurant Review: Bread & Butterfly

Search Events

  1. ‘HOTTLANTA’ spotlights Atlanta’s dance culture

    Upstart producer Mr. 2-17’s first feature film chronicles local dancers and crews
  2. How Bomani Jones went from Clark Atlanta to ESPN 1

    Sports writer and on-air personality’s wild ride to media stardom
  3. 'Anomalisa' transcends artificiality of animation

    Puppet-like characters crave connection in quirky, heartbreaking tale from Charlie Kaufman

Recent Comments

  • Re: Fresh air

    • Local band Manchester Orchestra, who provided the soundtrack, probably would have appreciated a shout-out.

    • on June 29, 2016
  • More »

© 2016 Creative Loafing Atlanta
Powered by Foundation