Christopher Guest: No Eccentric Obsession Left Behind


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Christopher Guest

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Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Christopher Guest has mined quirky cultures like amateur thespians (“Waiting for Guffman”) and dog-show participants (“Best in Show”) and transformed them into cheerfully squirm-inducing comedy. Now he tackles the performers beneath the plush in “Mascots,” his first film in a decade, which is streaming on Netflix and also in limited theatrical release.

The faux documentary, as he prefers to call his work, follows a global menagerie of sports-team mascots to Anaheim, Calif., where they compete for the Golden Fluffy, the pursuit’s top prize. To his veteran posse — Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr., Jennifer Coolidge and Fred Willard — he introduces a few gifted newcomers, like Zach Woods of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

“I myself delve into very arcane things,” Mr. Guest said, waxing gleeful about a website dedicated solely to shoelaces. It’s the kind of subject, he admitted — looking these days more like the fifth Baron Haden-Guest, his British title, than Nigel Tufnel of “This Is Spinal Tap” — that most people might roll their eyes at and sigh, “Who cares?” “But someone does clearly, and those people have a dynamic in their lives that interests me.”

In an interview in a suite at Le Parker Meridien with a glorious Central Park view, the droll Mr. Guest, 68, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Jamie Lee Curtis, talked about his process, his passions and the word that shall not be spoken. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

So why mascots?

Well, I watch sporting events, and it occurred to me that it was an interesting idea that people are performing but they’re hidden. In a normal scenario with actors, you might say there’s some narcissism in terms of people being seen. But in this case, people are wearing a big bear head and working hard. But then they take that off, and no one knows who they are. So what’s happening inside is a curious dynamic.

Did you meet any real-life mascots during your research?

Oh, yes. I knew Dave Raymond, who was the original Phillie Phanatic. The man who played the Oregon Duck was one of our expert helpers on the film. Some teams, like [the University of California] Santa Cruz Banana Slugs, have a sense of humor. But there are a lot of bears and lions and tigers because they’re supposed to be ferocious. In England, they revere the hedgehog. It’s not menacing in any way.

Your films typically focus on unusual endeavors. Are you a member of any ——

Secret societies? Of course, if I was, could I tell you? I’m a fly fisherman. I make flies. They’re imitations of insects at different stages in their development. And my character did that in “Best in Show.”

Your films are improvised rather than scripted. How does that work?

This is the hardest thing to describe. Jim Piddock and I wrote an outline, about 25 pages. There is a document that has the back histories of every single character, where they went to school, their upbringing, everything about them. What’s not written is any dialogue. And there’s no rehearsal. But the actors know what happens in every single scene. This is more rigid than you can imagine. It takes longer to lay this out than to write a conventional screenplay.

Did the actors perform mascot routines?

[Sid the Hedgehog on the] ladder was a clown, and I don’t mean a clown that was scaring people in the woods or whatever the hell that is. The Fist was a stuntman rollerblading. And there was a dancer in the Armadillo.

You resurrected Corky St. Clair from “Waiting for Guffman.”

It was a whim. I just thought, Wouldn’t it be weird if he pops in, especially in the Parker Posey scene? Because obviously it’s the same actress, but it’s a different character. It doesn’t make any sense.

I know you detest the word “mockumentary.”

I do, and you’ve said it.

Correction: October 21, 2016

An earlier version of this article misstated the character that appears on a ladder in a scene from the Netflix film “Mascots.” It is Sid the Hedgehog, not Jack the Plumber.

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