“Family Tree,” the HBO series premiering this Sunday, May 12 at 10:30pm, is Christopher Guest’s first major on-screen project since his 2006 film “For Your Consideration,” but he hasn’t been taking it easy in the meanwhile. “I did a whole series of music in between,” he notes. “In 2007 we did a Spinal Tap tour and then we made an album. In 2009 we did a 26-city tour. It was mostly about the two records and music, which I will typically do in between — then this idea popped in my head and I thought. well, maybe it’s time.”
That decision was welcome news to fans of Guest, whose improvised comedies have over the years delved into the earnest, odd worlds of community theater, dog shows and folk music, finding humor and humanity in these devoted subcultures and offering up a influential documentary-style look and feel. “Family Tree” follows Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd), who after losing his job and having his heart broken embarks on a journey to explore his roots, guided by an inherited box of family heirlooms. O’Dowd, Tom Bennett and Nina Conti join a host of Guest regulars, including series co-creator and -writer Jim Piddock, Michael McKean and Ed Begley Jr. Indiewire spoke with Guest by phone about the series and why he still loves his distinctive process.
Do you watch much TV yourself?
I really stopped watching television when I went to high school. I don’t think I ever watched television again after being 12 or 13 or whatever. It just wasn’t something I did — I don’t really remember why, I played a lot of sports. My mother and father didn’t really watch any TV. The habit was not there, so later I just kept not watching it. I’ve seen shows here and there, but I don’t watch television on a regular basis.
I asked because it seems like the documentary-style approach in your films has become this very common visual language in television now with things like “Modern Family” and “Parks and Recreation,” and I was wondering if you were aware of that.
I am aware of it in that people have told me that — that’s how much I’m aware of it.
What do you find to be the enduring power of this mode of storytelling that’s kept you working in it over these years?
Well, for me it started when we did “This is Spinal Tap” — the four of us decided to do it in that style that hadn’t been done before. It was fun to do. It’s fun to improvise. The way I work is fully improvised — there’s no rehearsal — and obviously those other shows you mentioned have scripts. You can’t do a network show where you say “Just trust us!”
For me, in the spontaneity is some amazing stuff. Because you haven’t heard it before, there’s something unique about that. In scripted material when you’re doing five, 10, 15 takes, something can go out of it. I do typically a couple of takes, but again we’re on the set, there is no rehearsal, so those moments are fresh and interesting to me.
Did your approach in making “Family Tree” differ at all from that of the films?
Not in the daily making of it, but in the overall schedule. When we do a film, we shoot for x number of days, then I would typically have a year to cut the film — which is very unusual. It’s the opposite of a regular movie which shoots for quite a long time and, by the time they finish shooting, is virtually done except for the post production.
In this case I knew when it was going on the air from the very beginning and I had to work on a schedule that I had never worked at before. I had two editors working simultaneously, they each had an assistant. It was a kind of machine that was working in a different way. But on a day-to-day basis, on the construction of it, the directing of it, it was very similar. I look at it as just smaller movies, really.
Has it been enjoyable to have more time to spend with these characters?
I love working with Chris. He’s an extraordinary actor. Spending time working with him, shooting with him, was great and spending time looking at him for hundreds and hundreds of hours has been amazing. Every time I look at what he does, there’s some nuance that I hadn’t seen, something going on. He’s very compelling to watch, and that’s what we wanted in that character. An accessible, lovable guy that was approachable, funny — a guy that people would be interested in.
He fits in so well with a lot of the collaborators from your past work. How do you know when you’re approaching a new performer you haven’t worked with before, that they’ll be able to handle working in this style?
It’s a good question. There really is no answer to that, other than, when I meet new people to potentially work with, I sit down with them for 20 minutes or half an hour and we talk, not really necessarily about the show. Somehow in that conversation, I can intuit something about them that tells me I’m going to take a chance. Because it is a chance — it’s not like an actor coming into a reading. There is no audition. They’re not reading a script and I can hear what I’ve written and say, that was the way I heard it. This really is just from my gut feeling — saying okay, we’re going to go for this. If it doesn’t work, then you have to stop and start again. I can tell if it’s going to work in just 20 seconds.
Has it ever not worked out?
In the 25 years I’ve done this kind of thing, I would say maybe twice it has not worked out.
That’s a pretty good record.
It’s still scary, to be honest. It’s a leap of faith. Chris and Nina and Tom did an extraordinary job. They had never met before this, they’re on the set, there’s no rehearsal, it’s action — and now they’re going. It’s stunning.
You’ve mentioned that part of the idea for the series came from your looking into your family tree — what do you see as the appeal of that process, both for you and for Tom? Tom seems like he’s looking for himself in this history, that there’s hope for self-discovery there.
Yes, there’s no question, that frames the story in the sense that he almost has nothing. He has no job, no relationship, and if you think about someone losing both of those things, its almost like — who are you? What do you do when you meet people and you’re in a bar? “Oh, what do you do?” “Well, I don’t really, I used to…” “Are you married?” “No, I’m not married.” It creates this sort of invisible nature, and that propels him to do this.
In my case I was left all these boxes from my dad when he died, and it really replicates some of these things in the story. There were pictures of guys in army uniforms, bayonets, military buttons, war medals and diaries from 200 years ago. I still haven’t gone through that all of it yet. We wanted to create this box for Chris that really does go on. You only see the top of it — there’s an incredible amount of stuff in there that gets in to some weird stuff later.
Do you see this as something you would like to continue on for a second season?
I would like to do that. I found that working with Chris and with those actors to be really fun. It’s a challenge to work in both places [in the U.K. and the U.S.], but having done this now and being almost finished, I would because I can see where this would go. It’s not up to me obviously, but I would like to. When we were writing, in the first six months we looked at each other and we thought we had enough for years of this stuff. Not that we would necessarily do that, but we have many places for him to go.
Your work has always managed to showcase these characters with amazing eccentricities — like, in the case of Nina Conti’s character, speaking your mind uncontrollably by way of a monkey puppet — but the humor never seems to come at the expense of these characters, it’s not cruel. How do you find the comedy without hanging them out to dry?
I think it’s important for what I do — I can’t speak to other people — to have as much weight on the emotional investment the people will have in the characters. Even though there’s this woman with this puppet who’s had this traumatic experience, it should be that you care about her even though it’s kind of bizarre.
When I did “Best in Show,” Eugene Levy had two left feet, and you think, wow, that’s kind of… But I think people really related to him — he was this poor guy, this guy who was really having some problems. It’s very easy to dump on characters, to make people look stupid. That’s a very short-lived thing, it’s a sketch, then it’s over and who cares.
For me, having the investment of two years of working on a film, it’s important that there’s another dimension and it’s usually about feeling something for those people even if they’re deluded. You have to feel something for them, it makes it more interesting and maybe it makes it funnier.