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A Mighty Wind is a comedy. That’s worth remembering when talking to Christopher Guest, the film’s writer-director, and Eugene Levy, its co-writer.
Guest is probably best known for co-scripting and appearing in This Is Spinal Tap; Levy is an SCTV veteran who’s become a regular in dumb Hollywood farces such as Bringing Down the House. Yet they discuss their new film as solemnly as if it were a study of Third World debt. They leave wisecracks and affability to Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, who with Guest are both Spinal Tap and the Folksmen, one of the three faux-folk groups in the new movie. (The others are the New Main Street Singers, who resemble the New Christy Minstrels, and Mitch & Mickey, who are closest to Richard and Mimi Fariña.)
Guest and Levy begin by denying that the title of their new project is in any way akin to Break Like the Wind, Spinal Tap’s 1992 album. “It’s an odd thing, because some people have gravitated to that,” says Levy, who wrote the lyrics to A Mighty Wind’s signature song. “But really, it was just, The message is being carried in the wind. That’s very folk.”
“If you look at the other elements of humor in the film, that really doesn’t follow. That’s not my kind of humor,” adds Guest. “I didn’t come up with Break Like the Wind. [Shearer did.] That was a fart joke, but this one isn’t. There it is. It’s the title.”
The quartet came to town for promotional interviews and a red-carpet preview of A Mighty Wind at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Centerwhere Guest was reportedly withering to onstage interviewer Murray Horwitz. Sartorially as well as temperamentally, the director is the odd man out. He’s wearing expensive fabrics of black and gray; the other three sport corduroy, denim, and khaki in shades of brown and blue. In conversation, however, the subdued Guest and Levy seem natural allies, while the more animated McKean and Shearer play off each other.
The Folksmen first appeared 18 years ago, McKean explains; since then, “We’ve talked about doing some kind of long-form thing. If not a feature, then maybe a TV special.”
“Or an ice show,” interjects Shearer.
McKean cackles, then continues. “I think Chris got the bug a bit when we did a tour in 2001, where the Folksmen opened for Spinal Tap. That was the most time we’d spent as the Folksmen.”
A Mighty Wind’s satire of three early-’60s folk groups who reunite for a tribute concert is in the tradition of the Rob Reiner-directed Spinal Tap, but it’s more directly descended from Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, earlier products of the Guest-Levy team that feature many of the players seen in the new film, including Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, and Fred Willard.
“This is a company of actors,” Guest notes. “There’s no star of the film per se. The writing becomes something to service the cast. I look at the different people that I’ve worked with and say, ‘We have six great singers here, so let’s put those guys in this big group, the New Main Street Singers. Gene and Catherine can play Mitch and Mickey, and the Folksmen already existed.’”
The director says he didn’t consider making a comedy about a more contemporary style of music. “You’d have to look at the people who are in these movies, in terms of age and where they would fit in, in reality. Folk music is a realistic premise. I was actually playing folk music in the ’60s. I’m not sure how rave would work with men in their 50s. The other thing was that I hoped we could do this live, which we ended up doing. The film’s music is live.”
The three groups are seen rehearsing and performing, notably during the concert that ends the movie. Still, there wasn’t time to film most of the more than 20 tunes written for the project. “You can’t show each group doing more than one-and-a-half songs,” Guest says. “In Spinal Tap, you only hear maybe 30 seconds of any song. You can’t have four or five songs for every group. That’s half the movie.”
There are 17 songs on the soundtrack album, all but one composed by the performers and their friends in various combinations. McKean says the goal was not to parody specific performers but to write particular types of songs. “For example, Harry and I realized that one thing the movie didn’t have was a song about wandering,” he explains. “And no self-respecting folk act would ever put out an album without some wandering or rambling song. So we decided to write a song about ramblingbut from the point of view of a guy who never did any. That just amused us.”
The songs served as departure points, and so did the characters, whose biographies were devised by Guest and Levy. As in their previous projects, however, the two scripters did not provide the actors with lines.
“They’re improvised movies. There’s no written dialogue. There are no rehearsals,” says Guest.
“There’s a story. There’s a first, second, and third act. Every person has a history and a link they all know. They go in prepared, knowing the backstories of their characters.”
It’s because of this approach that the director works with a stock company. “An actor whose work you admired in another movie can’t just step into our movie with no rehearsal and start talking on camera,” he notes. “That’s unlikely. Given that we have the people that we’ve done some films with, and they do the kind of work that I like, that’s where we start.
“There are new people added in this film,” he continues, “and there are people out there that I’ve never heard of who can probably do this kind of work. Many well-known movie actors have called me and said, ‘It would be great to be in one of your films.’ But why isn’t Al Pacino in this movie? There’s a reason.”
The process, Guest says, “is hard to explain. I always make the analogy that if you see jazz musicians playing, nobody says, ‘Hey! wait a second, there’s no music they’re reading from. What the hell is going on here?’ In this case, we’re playing music, but we’re using words.”
One result is that Guest ended up with lots of scenes that will appear only on the DVD, if at all. Eighty hours of film were whittled down to the 90-minute A Mighty Wind. “That’s the nature of the beast,” McKean says. “With Spinal Tap, it was the same thing.”
Although Guest uses multiple cameras for scenes with large groups of people, he usually shoots with a single cinematographer, telling the operator where to go via a radio hookup. “It’s like live television,” he says. Generally, the shot goes until the 10-minute Super 16 film magazine runs out.
“You know what you have to cover in a scene,” Levy says. “You know what story line, what information has to come out. You can keep going as long as you think you have something interesting to say.”
The goal is the impromptu quality Guest craves. “You’re seeing a lot of first takes,” he says. “You’re seeing a live representation of what is happening in the room. In a conventional movie, by the end of the day, you’ve shot the scene 40 times and you’ve squeezed every ounce of spontaneity out of it.”
All four men agree that their films’ mockumentary structure is essential to the improvisational approach. “That’s also difficult to articulate,” Guest says. “For the exposition, you need the interviews.”
“It’s hard to imagine it without it,” McKean adds. “There has to be a reason for the eyes of the camera being there. It certainly helps us. It clears up a lot of stuff for us.”
“Very often,” says Shearer, “just knowing that you’ve got one of these interview sequences coming up, and you’re going to be fleshing out your character, leads you to know more about your character. Whether that stuff is ever in the movie or not.”
The night before their arrival in Washington, Guest, McKean, and Shearer appeared on Late Night With David Letterman. Or rather the Folksmen did, introduced without any hint that the trio was Spinal Tap with acoustic guitars, pasted-on bald patesfor Guest and Shearer, who shaved their heads in the filmand a toupee.
“It was a flat-out lie,” McKean says, grinning. “Here’s a group called the Folksmen. But it’s like this kind of dawning wisdom. Something that occurs to you, without being told, is always more rewarding.”
“This is akin to what we wanted to do when Spinal Tap came out,” Shearer adds. “We really wanted to approach the audience with, There’s this real band and there’s this movie that got made about them. The company we were with then wouldn’t countenance that. It kept trying to go”he winks vigorously. “This time around, we didn’t have anybody saying, ‘No, you gotta do this.’ It’s more fun to be totally into these people.”
For Guest, the ruse goes beyond the occasional late-night TV appearance. “The movies have this reality that we have made. To break that wall seems odd,” he says. “There’s no real person mentioned in these movies. It’s our own world.” Mark Jenkins