Christopher Guest: Showbiz Interview from Hell
Did you ever wonder what Hollywood celebrities talk about when they cruise the Sunset Strip? Christopher Guest talks about body hair.
"I like to go in about once a month and get my leg hair singed, because I go to the beach frequently, and I wear very skimpy bathing suits, and I would hate to have unsightly hairs up into my crack."
Two jeeps pass us.
"You know it's important to have a Jeep in Los Angeles," says Guest. "That front wheel drive is crucial when it starts to snow on Rodeo Drive."
We're in a taxi, and we're traveling west. Past the Comedy Store, The Roxy and Le Dome.
"Where are you from?" Guest asks the cab driver.
"Ghana...west coast of Africa...listen, do you know a woman named..."
The cabbie turns his head. "Just kidding," says Guest.
After 20 years in show business, after writing for the National Lampoon, and for "Saturday Night Live," after co-writing and acting in the cuckoo docu-spoof, This is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest has just directed his first feature film. It's a Hollywood satire called The Big Picture, and it stars Kevin Bacon as an earnest young film school graduate who is wooed, wined and signed, first by a mealy-mouthed agent, then by a vacuous studio executive. Bacon pitches his new idea to the executive who tampers with it until little remains of the original concept.
Interestingly enough, a similar plot line unfolded during the course of this interview. The original concept had Guest and me chatting in the back seat of a rented 1960 Ford Fairlane ragtop while being driven around the city. It was hoped that Guest would guide us to spots redolent with the same absurdist showbiz lore that gives The Big Picture its comic edge.
Three of us--Teresa, who is driving, Sandra, who will shoot the photos, and I--swing by Guest's modest, half-million dollar house, just south of Beverly Hills, at 6:15 on a balmy Monday night. There's an Acura in the driveway, and a Volvo on the street. Guest greets us holding the two-year-old baby that he and his wife, Jamie Lee Curtis, have adopted. "This is Annie," he says. Because of Annie, Guest has rediscovered Peter Pan (with Mary Martin), which he and Annie watch five, six nights a week. As we're chatting, a girl walks out of the house, gets into the Volvo and drives off.
"Who was that?" I say.
"That's our Nanny."
"She's 22. Are you drooling? Would you like her number?"
"No, I'm married," I say.
"For how long?"
"Oh, so you've probably just started dating again."
The four of us pile into the Fairlane. "This is like a homosexual date," says Guest. "The girls in front, and two married men in back."
"We'd like to visit your favorite spots," I say.
"Well, then, we'd have to go to the airport, because they're not in this state."
Guest grew up in New York City. His father worked at the United Nations. His mother was an executive at CBS. "I used to walk around the Village and notice the architecture. It had a big impact on me--being able to look at buildings from the 19th century. I miss that. Here nobody cares what goes and what stays."
In the last five years Guest has been in Los Angeles a total of 12 months. "We spend a lot of time in Ketchum, Idaho. Jamie used to vacation there when she was a kid. Scott Glen [the actor] lives there. So does Mariel Hemingway and her husband."
The Fairlane is now belching its way up Doheny towards Sunset. The glare from the setting sun has turned the rear window waxy. Teresa can't see a thing. I suggest we put the top down.
"No, please don't," says Guest. "At my age , you can't take both sun and wind. It's got to be one or the other." Teresa is not a professional driver. She's a Ph.D candidate in English at UCLA.
"So am I," says Guest.
"What are you reading?" I say.
"Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens." I laugh.
"Don't laugh. There's another one written by Charles Schmell, and it did poorly. Is there a phone in this car? I thought of bringing my portable phone, but I decided that would be insensitive and annoying--besides I have no one to call. Turn left here. I know where we can go." We hang a left on Hayworth and head up to Hollywood Boulevard. This is a residential part of the Boulevard, and as we pass some palatial homes, Guests says, "Someone told me Charlie Chaplin lived in one of these. It might not be true, but who cares. It's the myth that's important." We turn left onto Vista Street, a narrow lane with squat, stucco houses with bars on the windows.
"This is where Halloween was shot. My wife's first picture. She was 18. Just out of Choate."
"Is she your first wife?"
"As far as I know." I ask how they met.
"Jamie saw a picture of me when Spinal Tap came out, and she told her mother, Janet Leigh, that she wanted to marry me. So she called my agent and asked for my number, but he wouldn't give it to her. He told me to call her, but I didn't. A few weeks later, I ran into her in a restaurant, we talked, went out, and six months later, we were married."
"Do you see Tony Curtis much?"
"Yeah. About once a week."
"Well, no, more like once a year."
Teresa stops the car at the north end of Fuller Street. Guest and I get out and mosey around the ruins of the old Errol Flynn estate. He tells me that Jamie has a patent. She invented a disposable diaper with a pocket on the front, and inside the pocket is the wipette. Sandra snaps a few photos as Guest sidesteps some dog turds. "When you grow up in New York, you can see 'em coming," he says.
When we get back the car won't start. Two men offer to buy it. Teresa tells them it's not hers to sell, but if they're really interested, they should call National Car Rental.
I suggest we walk down to Hollywood Boulevard and take a bus. "What's a bus?" says Guest. "I don't know anyone who's ever taken a bus. It's a mysterious form of transportation." He picks up a copy of Hollywood Press that's lying in the street. "Ah, here's something...erotic educational fantasy tapes...intended to arouse as well as inform. Also you can talk to a live girl who wants to get off with you ...call now."
Teresa stands in the middle of the street and hails a BMW with a phone. She asks the driver to call a cab for us. Ten minutes later the man from Ghana is whisking us to Guest's favorite coffee house, Cafe Latte, on the corner of Wilshire and Crescent Heights.
"This is no longer a homosexual date," says Guest. "This is It Happened One Night. Our car has broken down, we're dealing with adversity, we're getting to know one another. Later we'll go to a cheap motel and pair off."
We arrive at Cafe Latte, and it's closed. Guest has now run out of ideas. The cab driver suggests we hire him for the evening. He'll turn off the meter, he says, and, for a fixed price, will show us his L.A. I decline the offer. It's now 8 o'clock. Guest is missing Peter Pan.
I tell the cabbie to take us to the California Pizza Kitchen on Beverly Drive. When we arrive, the hostess recognizes Guest. She tells him that she is producer Debra Hill's goddaughter. Guest turns to me and says, "Stick with me, and I will get you into these inner showbiz circles." The waiter arrives. "Anything to drink, folks?"
"I'll have a bowl of gin," says Guest.
Two weeks after David Puttnam bought the script of The Big Picture, he resigned as Columbia Studio Chief and was replaced by Dawn Steel. Often when this happens, the new team dumps the old projects. Not so, this time. The Big Picture was so small (the budget was $5 million) that it slipped through the cracks. "No one bothered us," says Guest. He assures me that the film is neither autobiographical nor a poke at Dawn Steel. The fact that there is a venomous woman studio chief is pure coincidence. "The script was written in 1984. I had never met Dawn Steel."
The screenplay is credited to Guest, Michael McKean and Michael Varhol. I ask how they write together. "I don't have a typewriter or a word processor," says Guest.
"Do you have a pencil?"
"Yes, but I don't use it. What we do is talk out the story and the structure, and then I act out all the parts. As an actor, I trust my ear."
"You mean you walk around your living room and improvise all the roles while the other two guys write down what you say?"
"Well, it's not in my living room. There's an actual office with a water cooler and an AM radio."
I ask Guest if he has any advice for young directors.
"Wear comfortable shoes. It's a physically and emotionally exhausting job. After it was over, I was ready for two months of rest cure. And mine was a good experience."
After dinner, the girls walk the four blocks to Movieline headquarters to pick up Sandra's VW. "So you've got to tell me," I say, "What's it like living with a glamorous actress like Jamie Lee Curtis?" For one of the few times all night, Guest doesn't have a quick response. "It's...a marriage. I'm married to the person I fell in love with. I wake up in the morning...and, you know, she's...my wife. I walk downstairs and make her toast."
"Isn't there more to it than that? Don't you ever think to yourself, 'I'm living with a fantasy?' "
"No. This wasn't a case of fantasizing about someone, and then meeting her. I had never seen Jamie in a movie when we started going out."
We drive back to Guest's house. It's after ten. We tiptoe into the kitchen. Jamie comes downstairs. She's wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt. She offers us whiskey. Guest pours himself a splash. So does Jamie. She was watching 'night, Mother, which I suppose is the antidote to a Peter Pan overdose. Guest and his wife hug. Seems like some good chemistry here. During their five years of marriage they have not been apart for more than 13 days.
Jamie can see her husband's had a long night. She suggests we take the required photo of Christopher in Annie's playroom, and goes off with Sandra to set things up. Later when we go in, he reluctantly takes a seat in one of Annie's little chairs, the very one, he explains, that Annie always has him sit in. The picture gets taken. Then he makes all of us have our picture taken too, by him.
Before we leave I ask Guest if he has any final words. "Yes, I'd like to thank the National Geographic Society for making this evening possible."
Jeffrey Lantos is a writer who divides his time between L.A. and Poland, Maine.