"Waiting for Guffman" forever!

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By Louis Peitzman

In honor of SF Sketchfest’s Jan. 31 screening of Waiting for Guffman (1996) with star Fred Willard in person, I tried to interview the entire cast of the film. I failed. I did, however, speak to four cast members — two of Corky’s actors and two Blaine councilpeople — who reflected fondly on their experience and humored my fanboy questions. Where are these characters now? And, of course, is Broadway finally ready for Red, White and Blaine?

Fred Willard (Ron Albertson, travel agent)

On getting involved with director Christopher Guest: “I was in Spinal Tap. I’d worked with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer before, and I knew Rob Reiner. I was doing a show called Fernwood 2 Night at the same time he was doing All in the Family. We would pass in the halls and say hello, how are you. I would say mostly it was because of Harry Shearer, who’s a fairly good friend and who I’ve worked with. So I got in Spinal Tap, and then I was in a movie that Eugene Levy wrote and directed in Toronto called Sodbusters, which is kind of a spoof of Shane. Then next I knew, I got to know Christopher Guest.”

On the improv process: “[Guest] calls you and discusses your character and kind of aims you in the right direction. But there’s nothing, no lines written down. So he films a lot and then cuts out what he doesn’t need, and puts in what moves the plot forward, as he puts it. Which always kind of frustrates me, because some of the funniest stuff that not only I do but that a lot of people do, doesn’t really move the plot forward, but it’s just stuff I’d enjoy seeing. But he likes his movies about 85, 86 minutes. And that way, I think, a lot of people I find tell me they watch them over and over, which you can’t do with a two-and-a-half hour movie.”

On creating Ron: “First, [Guest] kind of gave me everything. He said I was a high school athlete. It was his idea, the penis reduction joke. In fact, he wanted to have a scene where I was running, you know an old film clip of me running the hurdles, and each hurdle being knocked over. That never was filmed or put in the movie, which I’m kind of glad about. He pretty much told me that Catherine [O’Hara] and I were like the Lunt and Fontanne of this little town, that we’d been in every production and when we had to audition, it was just kind of a technicality. We considered ourselves the pros of all the amateurs. I can say we’re about the most annoying couple I’ve seen in film.”

On the Chinese restaurant scene: “[Guest] just said, all right, what we’re going to do is, you’re going to take Eugene Levy and his wife out, because this is their first show and you’re going to try to make them more comfortable, because they’re the newcomers. So my key there is, in making them more comfortable, we would make them as uncomfortable as possible. And I didn’t know that Catherine was going to be drinking and get kind of tipsy during this scene, which added a whole nother dimension. And Eugene is a perfect victim. … [Guest] said the Chinese restaurant scene, we’ll probably film for two hours and then cut it down. And my first thought is, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to think of to say for two hours?’ But the night we did it, it was filmed late at night. We’d finished another scene. We got to the restaurant and we started filming, and went on and on. And finally, he said, cut, that’s it. And I said, ‘Wait a minute, Chris. There’s more! We can still do more!’”

On what Corky sees in the talentless Ron and Sheila: “I would think what Corky sees is a kind of commitment that we have. We probably show up on time, we probably bring baked goods to the cast. We probably have a lot of input and show off a lot of interest. I was going to say we’re probably very good with our lines in the script, but we probably aren’t actually. We probably make up for it by discussing points in the script and pointing out how we could improve our parts.”

On whether or not Ron and Sheila have a happy marriage: “Oh, no. [laughs] You could see that there’s just so much tension, with Sheila’s drinking and Ron kind of domineering her.”

On where Ron and Sheila are now: “If they stayed in Hollywood, they’d probably be running a little acting studio out in North Hollywood where they teach acting, and spend most of the class discussing their near-Broadway adventures, and how they were probably just as glad they never went to Broadway because it would be like prostituting their talents.”

On whether or not Broadway is ready for Red, White and Blaine: “I think it might be wonderful, yes. We were doing some promotion for Chris’s last movie, For Your Consideration, and someone asked, ‘I hear rumors that they want to do Waiting for Guffman on Broadway.’ And Chris was kind of swatting away the idea. He’s not too enthralled with that. And I yelled over to him, ‘Chris, does this mean we’re going to Broadway?’”

On a possible sequel: “I wrote an idea for a Waiting for Guffman, part two, and got it to [Guest]. And he discussed it with me, and said, ‘Well, I have several other ideas.’ That was before we did the next movie. I thought that was going to be the only one, and I said, ‘Chris, come on, this is my opportunity. Let’s do another one.’”

Catherine O’Hara (Sheila Albertson, travel agent)

On getting involved with Christopher Guest: “I worked with [Guest] — it was for HBO years ago, with Fred Willard and him. And we had a great time together. And I hoped to work with him again, and then I got a call about Waiting for Guffman.”

On the improv process: “It’s thrilling and exhilarating and scary. Really scary on the first couple of days, especially the first day, when you first open your mouth. Because there’s no rehearsal and you know, you open your mouth on camera, with the camera rolling, and you hope to God that you made a good choice. You’re locked in from that point on.”

On the outlines: “[Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy’s] outlines are inspiring, because they’re filled with funny ideas about these people. Everything that’s on the page is very well chosen. I think Waiting for Guffman was just a few pages — they’ve gotten longer. Because in Guffman, we all kind of traveled around as a group, so it would say, ‘They have rehearsal.’ Whereas the other stories, we sort of split up into different couples and different groups, so there were more pages.”

On creating Sheila: “They gave us the idea that Ron and Sheila ran a travel agency but had never been anywhere. So right there, you start thinking, ‘Why would I have never been anywhere when I have a travel agency?’ And you can make whatever choices you want, and there’s no discussion. You don’t have to run anything by Chris. You just come out with it on camera, and he can use it or not. But it’s so freeing that way, because everyone’s imaginations can be limited by directors or writers when it’s fully scripted. … You are totally free to create your own world and present their ideas with whatever voice you choose. And you just start rolling.”

On Sheila’s talent, or the lack thereof: “I would like to claim that I show the least talent. I think the others were probably thinking ahead to their careers outside of this movie. [laughs] But I showed no potential in Sheila’s performance.”

On playing a bad actor-singer: “Oh, it’s fun. It’s fun to try to ride the fine line of bad acting and not be too bad. You just want to be sincerely bad. But the best is — I mean, the saddest of the best in life, is when people kid themselves. And we’re all doing it every day, I’m sure. But you know, when someone sincerely believes that they have a right to be performing or doing whatever they’re doing in life and they don’t have talent or what it takes to pull it off. But they love it, and you can’t take that away from them. They love it and they get so much out of it and they believe they’re born to do it. And God bless them.”

On whether or not Ron and Sheila have a happy marriage: “What did Fred say? [laughs] I don’t think they have a healthy marriage. I think their marriage might last, just because, who else is going to be with them? [laughs] I think it’s a sad, codependent kind of relationship. They’re so deeply into their own whatever the hell they’ve got going on, I’m not sure they’d have the wherewithal or nerve or whatever, to leave each other.”

On the Chinese restaurant scene: “I loved that we had that [Chinese restaurant] scene. … I think I maybe did run that by him right before we did that. I asked him if I could be drunk and he said yeah. It was great because, you know, there’s a lot of stuff that Sheila’s burying deep down, in my mind anyway. And some of that got to come out because she was not editing herself and not aware of being on camera.”

On where Ron and Sheila are now: “They probably are together, but then she’d still be drinking if they are. No, maybe she’s gone sober. Sober and he found a true love for her, taking care of her through her rehab. And there are a lot of people in this city and every city who are acting in maybe not big famous ways, but they’re acting and they’ve got their groups of friends who they work with, and I’m sure Ron and Sheila could survive. And Ron, he’s got such nerve, he’d get them in the door.”

On whether or not Broadway is ready for Red, White and Blaine: “Oh, sad. Sad to say. Well, you know, I’ve seen some sad stuff on Broadway. Maybe. Let’s be honest.”

Michael Hitchcock (Steve Stark, councilperson)

On getting involved with Christopher Guest: “I’m a member of the Groundlings theater in Los Angeles, which is a comedy/improv troupe. And one night I was doing an all-improv show over there, and I found out afterwards that [Christopher Guest] had been in the audience. And I was glad I didn’t know ahead of time, because I would have been really nervous. I found out he wanted to interview me regarding Waiting for Guffman. He doesn’t really do auditions, per se — he interviews people he’s interested in. He kind of scours various improv theaters and comedy places.”

On the improv process: “Chris’s movies are so different from anything else that you’d ever imagine, because it’s such a creative experience, I think, for everyone involved. You just don’t get that in a scripted thing, and there’s obviously nothing wrong with scripted material—there’s writers who are usually very good at what they do and have written great things. But on something like this, you get to create your character.”

On creating Steve Stark: “We sat down, for my part, I was a councilman and we talked a little bit about it ahead of time. And he asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, I would like to be someone who really wanted to be in the show but didn’t make it. And I’m kind of secretly in love with you.’ And he said, ‘All right, let’s try that.' I chose for myself the occupation of being a pharmacist, because growing up, I had a job in a pharmacy, so I knew a lot about that. I knew about the pharmacy life. In improv, you obviously want to have specific information, so I could draw on life experience for that.”

On what makes Christopher Guest movies unique: “You never rehearse. So there’s never like a trial run of improv information. The first time anyone talks is when the cameras roll, which I really, really like. I think a lot of people don’t do it that way. Chris is one of the few people who actually do it like that and I love it. You can’t really plan ahead. You have no idea what the next person is going to say. It just makes it so invigorating. Certainly scary but invigorating at the same time. The weird thing about watching any Christopher Guest movie if you’re in it, is thinking, ‘I don’t even remember saying that.’ It’s so weird to look at them and go, ‘Oh my gosh, I really said that?’ You kind of forget, because you obviously film it more than one time.”

On where Steve is now: “In one of the reshoots, Corky and Steve Stark end up together in New York. And that was filmed and not used. So I’ve always thought, well, maybe he did. But in my own mind, I think poor Steve is probably at the pharmacy, hoping against hope that Corky moves back to town.”

On the gay subtext: “I think in that kind of a situation, the small town kind of situation, he was married and had a wife and kids. He probably didn’t even know himself exactly what was happening.”

On the Christopher Guest family: “It’s truly like a family reunion getting together. And Chris, to his credit, in subsequent films you usually get paired up with somebody new, so there’s a new chemistry and a new kind of playing around, which I just love. And plus, what’s great, he usually hires the same crew, too, so the people behind the scenes are familiar faces, which makes a huge difference when you’re flying by the seat of your pants in an improv situation.”

On whether or not Broadway is ready for Red, White and Blaine: “I think if a chandelier fell down. If you could get a chandelier to fly down, then yes, certainly. I think Broadway would certainly be ready for Red, White and Blaine. Some of the other Broadway shows, you kind of wonder how they got up there. If you actually look at Red, White and Blaine, it’s pretty well produced. So that’s what I really liked about Chris’s approach. It’s not like people are stumbling over their lines or falling over each other. Corky was a taskmaster: those people knew their lines and knew their dances and the scenery came in at the right time. In real life, that scenery could never have fit on the stage. So I thought, good for Corky. He had it figured out.”

Deborah Theaker (Gwen Fabin-Blunt, councilperson)

On getting involved with Christopher Guest: “I had met Catherine and Eugene and all of the SCTV people at the Second City, because they’d been there over the years. I was the lead actress on a series that Eugene Levy created for George Lucas called Maniac Mansion … That was my first big job, and then, I performed out here—there was a Second City in Los Angeles back in 1990, and Chris Guest just coincidentally happened to come to one of the shows we did. And he left me a note. There was no real audition. There was never any audition. I think he just called the people he liked.”

On the improv process: “What Chris has created is a two-sided thing, because you never feel the same about a script. You rarely get a script that passes your desk or that you see that you go, ‘Oh my God, this is fantastic.’ Improvising your own material and creating your own character ruins you for the real world. It’s just so inventive and so much more fun to do a movie that way that any scripted material pales in comparison. It’s almost like he’s ruined us for real movies.”

On creating Gwen: “In the outline, I was a city councilwoman — pretty much all we knew. I decided from watching dailies with them, I better come up with something more, because it could be very easy to get cut. I decided to make myself the last surviving descendent of Blaine Fabin, so that was me. But when we were meeting, talking about the character, he said, ‘I see you as the sort of woman who wears open-toed sandals with pantyhose,’ and I went, ‘Oh, I got ya.’ I used my friend’s name — her last name was Blunt — because we could pick our own character names. And I know that Mike Hitchcock, Steve Stark, also used his friend’s name.”

On holding her own against the wackier characters: “I think you only manage to be funny in that situation if you don’t try to be, if you just kind of go so deep or invest so much in your own viewpoint or whatever viewpoint your character has. I’ve never gotten a laugh if I’ve tried to be funny, ever. I don’t know why that is, but it is, so I always find — and to me, the things that are the best material are weird nuances of people’s behavior or their strange idiosyncrasies.”

On the comedic contributions of hair and makeup: “Look at Catherine with her ‘Texas claw,’ what they called the ‘Texas claw,’ where her bangs are so high, because women in Texas would wear their hair that way. To me, that was hilarious. And then there was the inspired bit that our makeup artist Kate Shorter put in of all the performers having those red dots by their eyes when they do the stage show. That just cracked me up.”

On the reality TV connection: “It’s just about — I hate to say it — the audacity of hope, that they all think they could be Broadway stars. It’s the same kind of misguidedness that you see on American Idol with the contestants who are as flat as pancakes and couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but they’re just so convinced that this is their big moment. There’s something borderline tragic but borderline sweet about how hopeful everybody is about having a show business career without having any talent. Now you see, it’s been backed up by all these years of reality television. You see all these competitors who are so earnest and so sincere in their desire to do whatever they cannot possibly do because they just don’t have a shred of talent.”

On how difficult Gwen’s life really is as a Fabin: “I think it’s her delusional creation of a dynasty. In that little place, she’s a big fish in a little pond only by reminding everyone that she’s a Fabin. People don’t honestly care or remember, but to her, that’s all she’s got to go on, so she’s going to milk it for every ounce that she can.”

On where Gwen is now: “I think that she would now be the mayor and she’d be a despot. I think that she’d have been all sweet and congenial all the way through. And then finally, once she got a little bit of power, she’d go completely power-hungry, because she’s a Fabin after all.”

On whether or not Broadway is ready for Red, White and Blaine: “There were rumors that at some point they were trying to make this into a musical. … If they did do it as a musical, it would have to be done with a sense of irony, and I don’t know if they could pull that off. The film was presented as verite, as a documentary. The musical in and of itself wouldn’t work as a musical without the framework of the documentary, so I don’t know. Hard to say.”

SF Sketchfest presents Waiting for Guffman with Fred Willard in person

 

Sun/31, 2 p.m., $15
Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center
1118 Fourth St, San Rafael
www.sfsketchfest.org