Christopher Guest Talks “Family Tree”

“I don’t use the term mockumentary.”

This is what happens to me when I talk, either in person or now in an online chat format, with famous people. For some reason, I create an unsettling moment. It’s not intentional. Here’s an example. A few years ago I went to get an autograph from spiritual guru Deepak Chopra. Moments before, he gathered everyone’s attention by putting two fingers in his mouth and whistling. I thought this would be a good conversation starter between him and me. So, when it was my turn, I stepped forward and asked him how he did it. He looked me over, eyebrows frowned. “I don’t know. I just do it,” he said. Adding insult to injury, the pen I gave him to sign the autograph wouldn’t work, furthering Chopra’s frustration with me. As I left, autograph in hand, my friend whispered to me, “You’ve just managed to irritate the most peaceful man on the planet.”

Looks like I managed to do it again.

On Monday, I logged into my account at Reddit.com and chatted with Christopher Guest, co-creator, co-writer and director of HBO’s Family Tree. He is known for his acting in This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride and his directing of Waiting For Guffman, Best in Show and For Your Consideration. On Reddit’s Ask Me Anything (AMA) format, all I needed was an account and I could pose questions to Mr. Guest and wait to see if he’d respond. Thankfully, for me at least, he did.

In asking Christopher Guest about his mockumentary style of story-telling, he presided to stop me in my tracks. “I don’t use the term mockumentary,” he wrote. “I use the term documentary style.” Guest went on to talk about his introduction to the ‘documentary style’ in This Is Spinal Tap. “It occurred to us (meaning Rob Reiner, Harry and myself) that this was a fun way to work. And at the time, no one else had done this.” Guest followed that tradition with his directorial work in Best In Show, A Might Wind and Waiting For Guffman.

Christopher Guest

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Guest’s newest project, Family Tree, is his documentary style (see Christopher, I got it – that’s a good Boyd). In watching character reactions and their immediate reactions, I was curious whether his scripts were heavily written or if the actors had some leeway in their character’s direction. While commenting on another AMA chatter’s question, Guest responded, “Typically, there are outlines for the films, and this includes Family Tree, that are written, that describes what is happening in every scene. There are character breakdowns which give the actors their family histories. But the dialogue is not written at all.” Guest’s comments remind me of the process for Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, where much of the fantastic humor comes from improvisation.

A scene stealer in Family Tree is actress Nina Conti. She plays actor Chris O’Dowd’s sister, Bea who never goes without her small hand puppet named Monk. Monk is a monkey who speaks for Bea’s inner voice. Monk is rude, crass and fantastic. When I asked Guest about where he came up the idea for Monk, he replied, “I’ve known Nina Conti for many years and admired her talent. When Jim Piddock and I were writing the show, I knew I wanted her to be part of it.” To another chatter, Guest continued stating, “Nina Conti is a great ventriloquist and a great actress as well. The role was created for her specifically, and yes, she is doing that all live.” Though I thought this might be the case, reading Guest’s comments cements my admiration for Conti. Her wit must be inexhaustible.

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I love awkward moments in life, probably because I’m the direct cause of many of them. Much of the subtle humor in Family Tree comes from such moments. Taken from experience, they are far more enjoyable to watch than to be a part of. Seeing as they are a significant part of Family Tree, I asked Christopher Guest if awkward moments between people is something he looks for. “I enjoy observing human behavior and awkwardness,” Guest answered.  “I’m not trying to specifically concentrate on awkwardness but it is out there.” I was a little surprised at Guest’s last statement as Family Tree is so fraught with these moments, which make the show extra special. But I will take him at his word. Perhaps it is something that just happens when the right actors are combined with the right hilarious circumstances.

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