They've Got Spirit, Yes They Do: Christopher Guest Rallies His Team For 'Mascots'

Oct 17, 2016

What Best in Show did for dog shows and what A Mighty Wind did for folk music, the new mockumentary Mascots does for, well, mascots. The film, from director Christopher Guest, follows contestants in the World Mascot Association Championship.

Guest tells NPR's Robert Siegel that he started thinking of the comic possibilities of mascots several years ago, when his son was a mascot for a school team. "I became interested in the idea that people are performing, in front of large crowds sometimes, but they are not seen. ... And it's a strange paradox in show business to have that dynamic. And that became interesting to me — the lives of these people outside of the suits."


Interview Highlights

On working with the same band of actors (Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins, Jennifer Coolidge and more) for many of his films

It is a lot of fun. These are very, very gifted performers. The films are improvised films based on an outline. ... It's very strictly enforced. But these are great improvisers and I've been fortunate to be able to work with them. So, yes, it's a combination of a family reunion and it isn't looked at as a laugh fest. Essentially, when you're on the set, people do take the scene seriously. But it's a lovely thing. It's like having a great band of musicians together, I guess that's the best analogy.

On how long it takes to film a scene when the actors are improvising

Well, it is an unusual way of working. It's not conventional. ... They have back histories of their characters — where they went to school, what happens in every scene. We don't rehearse either, so this really does require that the people in the scenes jump in. And I would say maybe two takes. ... The facts can't change. It's very strict in the line of what happens in every scene. It's just that the words haven't been written down. So the people are who they are. What happens in the scene has to happen. It can't go in different directions.

On his identity as the fifth Baron Haden-Guest, a title he inherited from his British father

It's an oddity. I spent several years at various intervals sitting in the Upper House of Parliament. And then the hereditary peers were told to leave, which was a good thing — I had a dinner date anyway! ... I can't take part in any way [now] because the hereditary peers are gone. And I can't have lunches there anymore. There was something quite endearing about that.

I would run into people in the hallways. You have to walk on the red carpet and one day I was walking — and lost, actually — walking around in a circle. And a man who worked there dressed in what you would think of as footman's clothing said, as I passed him, "Perhaps my lord would like a compass?" And it really was as if that person had been cast. Perfect timing, just as I passed him. ... It was interesting. I'm glad I did that for a bit.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

What "Best In Show" did for dog shows and what "A Mighty Wind" did for folk music, the new Christopher Guest mockumentary "Mascots" does for, not surprisingly, mascots.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MASCOTS")

CHRISTOPHER MOYNIHAN: (As Phil Mayhew) My name is Phil Mayhew. In my pretend life, I am a real estate appraiser, but in my real life, I am Jack the Plumber, official mascot for the Beaumont College football team. It is truly a dream come true for me.

SIEGEL: Phil Mayhew or Jack the Plumber played by Christopher Moynihan is one of the contestants in the World Mascot Association Championship. So is Cindi Babineaux played by Parker Posey. She represents Amelia Earhart College, whose mascot is Alvin Armadillo, or so she thought until the judges told her otherwise.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MASCOTS")

MICHAEL HITCHCOCK: (As Langston Aubrey) Miss Babineaux, a formal complaint has been lodged against you. It has come to our attention that your college basketball team is nicknamed the Leaping Squaws, which means that your character is in violation of rule 11-B which states mascots cannot represent or be associated with anything offensive based on race, creed, gender or sexual orientation.

PARKER POSEY: (As Cindi Babineaux) Well, I'm an armadillo, and the team isn't called the Leaping Squaws anymore. It's - that was, like, a hundred years ago or something.

HITCHCOCK: (As Langston Aubrey) Unfortunately it is still on the internet.

SIEGEL: "Mascots" is a very funny movie, and Christopher Guest, who directed and with Jim Piddock wrote "Mascots," joins us now. Welcome to the program.

CHRISTOPHER GUEST: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: When did you see the comic possibilities of people who put on animal suits or dress up as Spartans and Trojans and lead the fans in cheering?

GUEST: Today was the first time I...

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

GUEST: No, I - several years ago, my son was a mascot for his - one of his teams in school. And he was in a suit, and he said I look like a chicken, Dad. And I said, well, it's actually a hawk. You're a hawk. And I - that was the first time I got any first-hand knowledge about this hidden world - literally hidden world.

And I became interested in the idea that people are performing in front of large crowds sometimes, but they're not seen and completely anonymous. And it's a strange paradox in show business to have that dynamic. And that became interesting to me - the lives of these people outside of the suits.

SIEGEL: You mean they're not seen because they're inside the hawk suit that looks like a chicken or whatever (inaudible).

GUEST: Correct. They're inside whatever animal they are or whatever object they are. One wouldn't know. Even the parents of that person wouldn't know who was in there unless they were in the locker room afterwards I guess.

SIEGEL: Where you have been finding comic possibilities for some time now is in the form of the behind-the-scenes documentary in which people try to explain themselves to an often merciless camera. Can you ever watch a documentary anymore? Can you...

GUEST: Well, it's almost the only thing I do watch. And it - for some reason, it doesn't - I just look at them as documentaries. I don't have an issue even though I've chosen this faux documentary format for a long time, since with Rob Reiner and Harry Shearer and Michael McKean. We did "Spinal Tap" a long time ago, and that seemed to be a good format to work in for me.

SIEGEL: There are a lot of actors in "Mascots" who are familiar to people who saw "A Mighty Wind" or saw "For Your Consideration" or "Best In Show," and you have a troop here, it seems. Is it fun being together with these people, or is it all business when you're making a movie? And...

GUEST: Well, it is a lot of fun. These are very, very gifted performers. The films are improvised films based on an outline. In this case, Jim Piddock and I wrote this story. And the outline - it's very strictly enforced. But these are great improvisers. And I've been fortunate to be able to work with them.

So yes, it's a combination of a family reunion. And it isn't looked at as a laugh fest essentially when you're on the set. People do take what they - the scenes seriously, but it's a lovely thing. It's like having a great band of musicians together. I guess that's the best analogy.

SIEGEL: And I mean when they're improvising, how many takes do you - does it usually take for your actors to improvise and get it in a way that you like?

GUEST: Well, it is an unusual way of working. It's not conventional. Again, they have back histories of their characters, where they went to school, what happens in every scene. We don't rehearse either, so this really does require that the people in the scenes jump in. And I would say maybe two takes.

SIEGEL: But when you see a take that you like, it's not that it is precisely what you had imagined and written out. It is - it's something that you just like. It works. I mean it...

GUEST: Well, it's a combination of things. The facts can't change. They - it's very strict in the line of what happens in every scene. It's just that the words haven't been written down, so the people are who they are. What happens in the scene has to happen. It can't go in different directions. It's the way they do it. I would say that 90 percent of the film that doesn't have to do with pre-assigned things like that is - they're improvised.

SIEGEL: I'd like to ask you about another side of your life that's just very intriguing...

GUEST: (Laughter) Oh.

SIEGEL: ...One that is completely unfamiliar to most, to the vast - the hugely vast majority of people in the English-speaking world. And that is your identity as the 5th Baron Haden-Guest, holder of a hereditary title that was I guess created - was it created for your grandfather?

GUEST: Yes. I would disagree. I think most people live that life...

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

GUEST: ...In fact, and I wouldn't even leave you out. I would say that people just haven't checked their mailboxes. I think most people live that life in much the same way I have. It's one of those - my wife calls it the lord thing, not to be confused with the other lord thing.

It's an odd oddity. I spent several years at various intervals sitting in the upper house of Parliament, and then the hereditary peers were told to leave, which was a good thing. I had a dinner date anyway.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

GUEST: And so I took my robe and my - and I left in a huff, literally, as Groucho would have said.

SIEGEL: So now you just don't take part in it, or you...

GUEST: Well, I can't. I can't take part in any way because the hereditary peers are gone, and I can't have lunches there anymore. And I - there was something quite endearing about that. I would run into people in the hallways.

You have to walk on the red carpet. And one day I was walking and - lost, actually - walking around in a circle. And a man who worked there dressed in what you would think of as footman's clothing said as I passed him, perhaps my lord would like a compass.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

GUEST: And it really was as if that person had been cast perfect timing as - just as I passed him. And people would say to me, I knew your grandfather here. We were at Oxford, and (mumbling). And they would fade away, fall asleep. There were - it was interesting. I'm glad I did that for a bit.

SIEGEL: Christopher Guest, thanks a lot for talking with us.

GUEST: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Christopher Guest's new movie is called "Mascots." It's out now on Netflix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.