At the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival, actors John Michael Higgins, Fred Willard, Jim Piddock and a laryngitis-afflicted Bob Balaban joined TCM host and moderator Ben Mankiewicz to take a look back on Best in Show.
In front of a packed house at one of the multiplex venues at the TCL Chinese Theater, the four performers (well, just three seeing as Balaban couldn’t speak) affectionately reminisced on the process of making an almost entirely improvisational film with director, writer and actor Christopher Guest, as well as the unusual steps they took to craft the best possible characters, jokes and scenes. Playing to the crowd, the three (or four) men told often hilarious stories and shared amusing anecdotes about the now 17-year-old film before it screened, providing an entertaining and informative experience.
Here are some of the highlights of the Q and A (sans Bob Balaban’s one-word note cards that he would hand to others to read):
On the Scripting Process
John Michael Higgins (JMH): By the time we started shooting, it almost looks like a script. It’s got a certain number of pages, it has scene numbers, you know: Interior, Hotel Lobby, Day—but that’s it, there’s nothing below it. There’s generally a paragraph that gives us the main story points of what has to happen in that scene. Every now and then, there’s a funny line, which we certainly don’t have to do. And then, we do a couple of takes—not extensive ones.
Jim Piddock (JP): What Chris does with this film is try to write the map. There are suggestions to work on but it’s really just a 30-page outline. Naturally, it takes about four times as long to write that than a normal script.
On How to Prepare for Your Characters
JMH: You hear a lot of people say their director is an actor’s director. But Chris Guest is the real one. He actually gives the actor responsibility. He doesn’t know what my character is going to wear or what his house is going to be. It’s not his business. So, I’m the expert on my character. I’ve never worked in any film where the costume designer works with the actors and the director just checks in, but that was what it was like [with Best in Show].
FW: To prepare, Chris sent me an actual tape of the Westminster Dog Show. It was Joe Garagiola, an ex-ballplayer who was doing the commentating. He said, “You’ll see he made no effort to learn anything about dogs. I don’t want you to know anything about dogs.” To act dumb, though, I actually had to learn.
JMH: I find that a lot of research usually isn’t productive on a heavily scripted movie. Because there isn’t a script here, it’s really incumbent on the performer to know what they’re talking about. Catherine, Jane, Parker and I, we all had to come on and present ourselves as credible dog performers. We did have to do a lot of research. I had to be a character that, at his most relaxed, can rattle off facts about dogs. We had to take dog-showing lessons with these insane people who would teach us how to do this.
Here’s a quick story: I went with my wife to a dog show in Simi Valley. I went to examine these people so I could steal their lives and mock them. I’m there and I had just taken the dog-walking lesson the night before. This woman comes to me—this is at a Saluki show, very breed specific show—and she says ,“I’ve got a young dog here and you’re male, six feet tall. Would you take him out? He just needs points. Just bring him out there because he’ll respect you a lot more than me…” My wife’s on the other side of me and she’s looking at me, whispering, “Do it…” I was just stunned. I didn’t know whether to tell her that I was just here to mock her. So I took the dog in and I won.
Well, the dog won. It was a great dog. It wasn’t me.
FW: People always ask me about dogs as if I’m an expert and I have to tell them, “Well, you probably know more about dogs than I do.” Now, I had done some improvisation—I was at Second City in Chicago for a year and that was a very different experience. With Christopher Guest movies, what you’re trying to do is to stay in character and not go off on a wing. So everything I thought was in my character’s mindset. What would a former athlete doing the color for a dog show think anyone would be interested in? How much I could bench press, how fast I could run. And Jim was such a perfect, long-suffering partner.
On the Filmmaking Process
JMH: After shooting, there’s the weird part where we shoot inserts for the editor, who’s really the star of these films. There’s no traditional matching of dialogue from shot to shot because it’s totally different dialogue for every take so the editor needs these cutaways. You’ll see them all over this picture; hands picking up things, a shot of a door. Just little things we do to make the connective tissue for the editor to use.
JP: The thing that’s different about these films is that the first set of takes is the close-ups. Usually you do a master and then move closer and closer. If somebody likes your work then you move on to different takes and the master.
Fred Willard (FW): I usually ask Christopher “Do you want me to do the same things?” Usually, I’ll want to try a different joke and he says, “Do whatever you want,” and walks away. With each film, the scripts get a little fuller. I think, in this script, I had to call and say, “I don’t see my name in here.” And he said, “Oh I have to put in the bits where Jim and Fred comment on the dogs.” And that’s really it.
With the previous film we worked on, Waiting for Guffman, he filmed hours and hours of footage and cut it down to about 85 minutes. So, when this came around, I thought, I’m the color man so I’ll either be voiceover or end up on the cutting room floor. I just decided to say anything and everything that came into my head. I didn’t want to censor myself. In fact, as soon as I got to set, I approached Christopher and Eugene, who were having dinner, and asked, “Have there been a lot of Shih Tzu jokes?” They said “No,” and I said, “There will be tomorrow.”
On the Acting Process
JP: I’d actually never done improv before. I was in Britain producing a show for the BBC for most of Best in Show’s production. I actually went to Vancouver to shoot this for only three days and ended up doing all of my takes in one day. If you think about how much ended up in the movie, it’s amazing. Personally, I don’t remember anything about it. It’s like Richard Burton’s experiences on Bluebeard where he says, “I was so drunk I don’t remember anything.” Well, I was so jet lagged that I don’t remember a thing. To this day, I still don’t know whether working with Fred was the best experience of my life or the worst. But, I’ve seen the film once or twice and, yeah, Fred is very funny and I’m just there nodding.
JMH: I’d like to put in a good word and talk about Jim as if he isn’t here. I think what he does in this movie is one of the hardest things—like doing a standing backflip. It’s dazzling. Being a straight man with a script is hard enough but doing it without a script is nearly impossible. It’s all technical jargon and it has to be true or, at the very least, sound true.
JP: Well, actually, I did get a bit cocky and thought I’d try something funny. I ended up doing a huge riff on what a dog’s anal sacks are. It was very lurid and it went on and on and on. The whole thing was cut—this was the right thing to do, of course because the only reason I was in the film was to react to Fred. If I’m being ridiculous then there’s no purpose to our dynamic. I guess I’ll just have to use that monologue another time.
JMH: Michael McKean and I are both big old movie buffs and we had several scenes about this in the film. There was a big long one that was entirely cut from the movie—as it should have been—where it was pretty much just Michael and I, sitting on the couch with the dogs, in kimonos, watching the entirety of House of Wax while giving a Mystery Science Theater-style commentary. Chris had all the patience in the world for this. He just turned the camera on, sat back and watched. I have to say, it was one of the best days of my life. And, of course, he didn’t use any of it. MM