October 10, 2000
Guest shots
By LOUIS B. HOBSON
TORONTO -- It's a familiar story.

Directors lament that they have six-hour movies that they have to edit to two hours.

Christopher Guest can top that one tenfold.

Guest recalls that when he began to edit his new comedy, Best in Show (opening Friday), he had 60 hours of material.

"I spent more than six months in the editing room. A normal movie takes about six weeks, tops," said Guest, whose last film, Waiting for Guffman, is something of a cult film, but who is best known for The Princess Bride (as the six-fingered Count Rugen) and as Spinal Tap founding member Nigel Tufnel ("This goes to 11 ...'').

As befits the offbeat nature of his film work, there's nothing normal about Guest's approach to filmmaking.

"I come up with an idea,'' he explained, in a recent interview. "I call my friend Eugene Levy (SCTV) and we map out the storyline."

Guest then makes a series of calls to a group of his actor friends and asks them if they can gather to make a movie. In this case, they all met in Vancouver to make this comedic look at dog shows, the furry stars of the shows, their owners and trainers.

Guest and Levy appear in the film and the company of actors also includes longtime collaborators Catherine O'Hara, Michael McKean, Michael Hitchcock, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban and Don Lake.

"For each scene, I tell the actors what I want accomplished. There's no written dialogue; they just improvise and I keep the cameras rolling."

McKean and John Michael Higgins play a flamboyantly gay couple.

"There were days, I'd have 30 minutes of footage of Michael and John that was hysterical. I'd show it to friends and they'd say I should turn their relationship into a movie of its own.

"Instead, I have to edit it all down to a minute or two of the funniest bits that best serve the plot which is to get all the separate dog owners and handlers to the show."

Guest's films traditionally aren't box-office blockbusters but he's not worried.

"No one expects my movies to be The Big Storm or The Perfect Storm or whatever it was called, but the studio (Warner Bros.) doesn't care. My movies cost less than a director's salary on a film like that Storm one.

"When you work as cheap as I do, the studio hands you the money and tells you to go off with your friends and have fun, which is basically what we do."

Guest has been married to actress Jamie Lee Curtis for 16 years. They have two children and two dogs.

"I got the idea for Best in Show six years ago when Jamie and I were taking our mutts to the dog park in Los Angeles. I noticed a real dynamic that existed between owners and their pets. The purebreeds looked down on our mutts in the same way their owners looked down on us.

"I started attending dog shows to meet the people and to see just how serious this all could get at the top level."

On film, Guest is a hilariously droll comedian. In person he is serious and almost dour.

"People want me to be funny all the time. They think I'm being funny no matter what I say or do and that's not the case.

"I rarely joke unless I'm in front of a camera. It's not what I am in real life. It's what I do for a living."