One day in mid-1998, Christopher Guest phoned pal Eugene Levy with an idea the director had been toying with for four years — an improvised comedy set in the world of dog shows. This was good news; Guest’s cautious approach to projects befits a man who, as Levy says, ”brings new meaning to the word dry.” Levy, who costarred in Guest’s 1997 cult fave Waiting for Guffman, says the pair had been searching for another vehicle that would let them play with the documentary form. ”I called Eugene,” says Guest, 52, sitting in a bare-bones office at Castle Rock Entertainment in Beverly Hills, ”and he said, ‘No.”’
Levy recalls: ”I said to him, ‘I’m really nervous about the third act. How do you make a dog show funny?”’
Anyone who’s seen Best in Show, which follows the eccentric contenders for the blue ribbon at the fictional Mayflower Dog Show, will recognize their third-act solution — Fred Willard, one of the film’s other Guffman alums. His skein of boorish non sequiturs as commentator Buck Laughlin (masterfully parried by erudite Brit Jim Piddock) tested Guest’s ability not to guffaw over takes. ”You need Jim’s reality for Fred to bounce off of,” says Guest. ”Because Fred is on another planet in every respect.”
The idea for Best in Show first bit Guest at a dog park where, he says, the owners ”were like parents watching, and talking about, their children.” And though they share writing credit, costars Guest and Levy simply fashioned a 15-page outline and relied on the actors to build the characters. ”A mysterious process at best,” admits Guest, who then whittled the 89-minute feature out of 60 hours of footage. ”A lot of these takes are first takes, so you’re hearing these lines for the first time.” Though his method may sound like a free-for-all, Guest insists it isn’t. ”You need the best players, with technique and discipline” — which explains the return of Guffman‘s Catherine O’Hara and Parker Posey.
Just don’t call it a mockumentary. ”We’re not mocking anything,” says Guest, one of the creators of 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap. ”Spinal Tap gave me the knowledge and the confidence that this could be a format to be used again.”
And the format is unlikely to fade anytime soon. Best in Show‘s hearty $479,000 opening weekend, on just 13 screens, has encouraged Warner Bros. to widen the release to an eventual 300. ”If we’d done half that [gross] we’d be in great shape,” says Martin Shafer, president of pictures at Castle Rock, which produced the film.
The still center of Guest’s film is his own Harlan Pepper, a bloodhound owner whom O’Hara sees as ”the most elegant, private man.” As outside noise forces the filmmaker to shut his office door, an odd, checkered overcoat swings into view. ”Someone made that for the bloodhound,” Guest gravely notes, sounding like the solitary Harlan. ”Maybe that’s a part of me,” admits the director, who’s married, with two kids and two mutts, to Jamie Lee Curtis. ”Certainly there’s a loner aspect to the character.”
Keeping it all grounded in reality may be the secret of Guest’s success: ”I don’t ever put a stress on being funny as opposed to being real.”