For Your Consideration: Christopher Guest’s Spoofing the Oscars

 Christopher Guest turns the camera on Hollywood in For Your Consideration. The film focuses on the making of an independent movie and its cast who become victims of the dreaded awards buzz. Like Guest’s previous films, Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show and A Mighty Wind, this latest project features performances from his regular ensemble, including co-writer Eugene Levy.

The cast includes Carrie Aizley, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley, Jr., Jennifer Coolidge, Paul Dooley, Ricky Gervais, Christopher Guest, Rachael Harris, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Don Lake, Eugene Levy, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, Larry Miller, Christopher Moynihan, Catherine O’Hara, Jim Piddock, Parker Posey, Harry Shearer, Deborah Theaker, Fred Willard and Scott Williamson.

The film is directed by Christopher Guest, written by Christopher Guest & Eugene Levy and produced by Karen Murphy. For Your Consideration is a Shangri-La Entertainment production presented by Warner Independent Pictures and Castle Rock Entertainment.

Point of Departure

While Guests previous three films incorporated a documentary crew into the plot, this time the filmmakers eschewed the fictional documentary format for a straightforward narrative about the little indie that could and its fragile and frantic mob of actors, crewmembers, media figures, executives, and various hangers-on. Guest and Eugene Levy provided their expanding company of regular actors with a 27-page script full of scene set-ups, brief character background sketches, and occasional suggested jokes. They also included a handful of scripted scenes, with songs, for the film within the film, Home for Purim, and several entertainment news television shows.

The idea of doing something related to show business came up as a little bit of a surprise, Levy says. Normally we’ve tried to stay away from show business. It just seems too easy. The notion of Oscar dropped in relation to somebody’s performance, what it does to that person, and then what it does to everybody else working on the same project — it was a fragile premise, but I thought very funny.

The original idea did have some roots in reality. Several publications preemptively kicked around Levys name for Best Supporting Actor for A Mighty Wind in 2003, which was shocking, Levy says now. And once it’s in your head, no matter how you shake it, you can’t get it out. You try and talk yourself out of it, but it’s still there, and if somebody else mentions it: doubly hard to get out of your head.

We’ve opened a whole new door, says Fred Willard, who plays Hollywood Now co-host Chuck Porter. Waiting for Guffman, I don’t think there was any outline. Best in Show, we got about a twelve-page outline. Mighty Wind is about a sixteen-page outline. This time, we had make-up sessions, camera testing like back in the old days of Hollywood, hairstyle meetings, and rehearsals… This time it’s like a real movie.

The Idea of Purim

For Your Consideration revolves around the making of an Awards-bait low-budget movie, Home for Purim, which has attracted a group of very committed artists. The narrative is punctuated with scenes from this film within the film as they are shot in real time by the cast and crew of Purim, as played by the cast of Consideration, which is being filmed by Guests real crew.

Co-writer Levy explains the origin of the Purim conceit: The idea of setting it in Valdosta, Georgia, came from an experience that Chris had where he was working in one of the southern states and ran into some Jewish people who were using Yiddish words with a southern dialect, says Levy, who plays Morley Orfkin, the hapless agent of one of Purims leads, Victor Allan Miller. It just sounded funny, so we said, Let’s set it in Georgia and make it a period piece.

The story is about the kids coming home to see their mother who is dying on Purim, which has always been an important holiday for the mother. That holiday is fun because you get to do costumes and things, and we just saw it as a funny little scenario around a dining room table.

Unlike the more free-flowing nature of the main shoot, the Purim segments required more structure and authentic period sets and wardrobe. The set is fantastic, says Bob Balaban, who plays one of Purims screenwriters, Philip Koontz. To me it’s the essence of Christopher Guest movies. Yes, it’s funny, but it’s not funny because anybody’s exaggerating something. It’s just funny by tilting it a few degrees. It kind of looks like Donna Reed lived there.

Levy and Guest then crafted the scenes with an era-specific type of florid, mannered dialogue that the actors could really have some fun with. It’s this 1940s drama and it is insane, says Rachael Harris, who plays Debbie Gilchrist, another member of the Purim cast. It’s like an old Bette Davis-Joan Crawford movie.

Heightened Melodrama

The movie is so heightened and melodramatic, says Parker Posey, who took on the role of Callie Webb, another of Purims leads. They don’t make movies like that anymore. So I was like actresses in the 30s and 40s. They were all kind of butch, when it was okay for women to smoke and be independent and really assert themselves and be fiery that way.

The delivery of some of those lines is just outstanding, says Jim Piddock, who plays Purims British cinematographer, Simon Whitset. That’s a real talent to be able to do bad acting, and it takes really good actors to be able to do it.
A lot of independent movies have some kind of message — there’s some kind of political angle or someone’s mentally handicapped — that draws actors to these parts, Posey explains. And in Home for Purim, it’s almost like a heightened, condensed version of those kind of movies with a message.
Of course, the shifting double (or even triple) roles of Considerations director, his crew, and the actors at times caused a kind of identity vertigo. It’s just hard to keep everybody straight, you know says Harris. Like, Who are you right now Are you Catherine or are you Marilyn Or are you Esther So it’s just ridiculous, everybody going in and out of character constantly.
Piddock often experienced similar confusion. There was a time when [Chris] started laughing at something I said. And I was like, Was that Chris the director, or Jay Berman the director… I still don’t know, actually. It was one of them.
Since carving out his niche as a maker of mostly improvised fictional documentaries like Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind, Guest has attracted both his devoted regular players and comedic newcomers eager to inhabit his stories. People really love working for him in front of a camera because they will never get the chance to have this kind of freedom anywhere, Levy explains. And Chris is one of the most brilliant creative comedic minds that I have ever met.
It all starts with Christopher’s attitude and sense of humor, says Willard. He and Eugene get together and that’s a lethal combination — both the driest, funniest people. And it filters down. He gives us really tasty stuff, says Jane Lynch, who plays Cindy Martin, the other host of Hollywood Now.
Ricky Gervais, the much-hailed writer and star of TV touchstones The Office and Extras, was a rookie on Consideration, but it was Guests influence early on that inspired Gervais to pursue comedy. The prospect of working with Christopher Guest was irresistible, he says. I don’t usually do projects that aren’t my own, but there are some things you don’t say no to. Working with the team that brought us Spinal Tap, which may be the best comedy film of all time — it’s incredible. He’s a comedy hero to me. The single biggest influence on my comedy, living person, is probably Christopher Guest.
Of course, being the newcomer in such an acclaimed ensemble can amplify ones anxiety, especially if youre a performer, like Gervais, who breaks up at even the slightest hint of the funny. It did feel like I was the new kid at school, says Gervais, who plays Martin Gibb, the president of Sunfish Classics, the distributor of Purim. There was a fear that they would, you know, bully me and put my head down the toilet and steal my lunch money. But they didn’t. They were very welcoming. I was nervous that I’d muck up. Everyone’s so good. Everyone’s natural. Everyone’s funny. It’s daunting because you get to the point where you think, Oh, I can’t add to this. I can only make this film slightly worse.
The Characters
As with previous Guest excursions, the actors were encouraged to develop the looks and accoutrements of their own characters. I think this is the first time characters actually had to do a screen test for their look to see how it’s going to look on film, Levy says. Normally, you just create your look and walk on set for your first day of filming, and that’s when everybody sees what you look like and hears what you sound like.
According to Harris, the actors choices include some not-to-be-missed highlights. Harry Shearer’s fantastic, Hollywood white teeth are amazing, she says. [Theres also] some really, really fine cleavage in this movie. John Michael Higginss thighs, I believe, he says are ninety-eight percent muscle. That is a big thing to be looking out for.
Many of the actors relish this freedom to create the external aspects of their characters. Fred Willard, he’s a busy guy, but Fred thinks about what his hair’s going to be like eight months in advance, Balaban says. I mean, he’s just brilliant. I saw his hair today. I was like, How did he think of it
It’s called a faux-hawk, Willard explains, and they style it after something that David Beckham was wearing. I can’t go out like this. I’ll put a hat on. When you do something like this, it adds a little bit to your character. You’re a little goofy going in there, you’ve got one foot in the door.
The Industry
For Your Considerations story and setting provided the actors with particularly fertile ground in which to grow their comic personalities. After all, theyre ultimately satirizing themselves by mocking their own self-seriousness and odd industry rituals.
There’s something fun about the subject matter. We’re giving it a very light, funny approach. We’re not zinging the business here. We’re just having fun with it as people who are in the business, Levy says.
I think what Chris touches on is a really American thing, says Posey. It’s a luxury and a curse to be carried away with something. All of his movies have that kind of carried-away feeling, people who get really caught up with their passions. There’s a lot of heartbreak and humor in them because they’re very intense and serious about what they believe.
It’s about — as Chriss movies mostly are — a group of people who are aspiring to something way beyond their means, believing in it wholeheartedly, and falling short, says Piddock. It is about us, the average person, trying to strive for something that we have no right to be striving for.
I think everyone can relate, Willard says. The public now is pretty hip about what goes on behind the scenes. They’ll laugh at the little vanities that people have and the inter-actor fighting when a couple of them are nominated for awards and one or two others are a bit jealous. And then they say it’s all about the work… I think the audience will like that.
Kind of like Waiting for Guffman, the prospect of going to Broadway, and Best in Show, about going to the Westminster Dog Show, it’s that same kind of inflation that happens when there’s a possibility of winning something, Posey says.
I’ve been to loads and loads of award ceremonies, says Gervais, whose series, The Office, has won numerous awards in its native England. You keep winning and it’s terrible, because you start taking it for granted. Then recently I went to the Emmys, and we lost. ..It’s very flattering to win, and it’s better to win than lose, but you mustn’t give it a second thought. Because it may be seven people’s opinions, you know I think that’s the message.