In 1984, a low-budget comedy was released about a fictional British heavy-metal band on a downward spiral that includes ego clashes, a shrinking fan base, and drummers who die freakish deaths. At the time, the movie was released with very little fanfare, but it would quickly go on to become a cult classic that influenced countless people and spawned numerous jokes and references in pop culture. That movie was “This Is Spinal Tap,” which was filmed as a satirical documentary but ended up being too realistic for many real-life rock musicians who thought that the movie was mocking them in a mean-spirited way.
“This Is Spinal Tap” (directed by Rob Reiner) was largely improvised by the mostly American cast, which was led by Spinal Tap members Christopher Guest (who played stubborn guitarist Nigel Tufnel), Michael McKean (who played egotistical lead singer David St. Hubbins) and Harry Shearer (who played easygoing bassist Derek Smalls); they all did their own singing and playing in the “Spinal Tap” movie. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of “This Is Spinal Tap,” a special screening of the movie was held at the 2014 New York Film Festival in New York City, where Guest did a Q&A after the screening. Here is what he said when he answered questions from a moderator and audience members.
Can you talk about how you came up with the idea of Spinal Tap?
Michael McKean and I started playing music together when we were 18, writing songs together. And so we were in a bunch of bands. I was in other bands later on. In the late ‘70s, I did a TV special, which meant you did one. Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Mark Maron did this show. And on that show, the premise was changing channels.
Spinal Tap made its first appearance on that. It was a different group of people. It was Michael and me and Russ Kunkel also plays drums in the film. He’s a great drummer. Loudon Wainwright played keyboards. And that was the first time we thought [of Spinal Tap].
A few years later, we thought, “Why don’t we keep doing this?” We were given money to write a script. We realized about a week in that we couldn’t really write what we needed to do. We had to do it in a more spontaneous way. So we took the money they gave us and literally started shooting it in an improvised way.
And then the money dried up, and we had 20 minutes [filmed], and we started to shop that around to studios in Los Angeles. And people looked at it and said, “What’s this? What’s this supposed to be?” “It’s supposed to be a comedy, actually.” They said, “No, it’s not.” We said, “OK.” We went everywhere.
And finally, Norman Lear said to Rob Reiner, “Just go and do it. Here’s the money,” which we did. There never would have been a movie. He was the only one who said, “Just go ahead and do it.” He trusted Rob.
Years later, when [production company] Castle Rock was formed, Rob said to me, “Just go and make a movie.” And I made “Waiting for Guffman.” That doesn’t happen anymore, where someone says, “Just go and make your movie.” Rob was lucky to have Norman as his patron, and I was lucky to have Rob as my patron. That was the genesis.
Do you think “This Is Spinal Tap” was the first mockumentary film to be released in theaters?
We don’t really call it a “mockumentary.” That was a term invented by some journalist, and we never liked that. It was the first movie done in a style like this. Something like this doesn’t happen very often. As I’ve explained to some audiences before, we wrote an outline which delineates scenes and all the complexities that happen in the movie. And then you shoot it. It felt personal … and it’s all on film.
Even though it’s a fictional movie, lot of people have commented on how accurate “Spinal Tap” is. Did you model the characters after anyone in real life?
There weren’t specific people, but there was a genre in the ‘80s where there were a lot of bands that were very pretentious, shall we say. And a lot of them fancied themselves as great artists and made music that went on for 20 minutes about unicorns and princesses. And we thought that was amusing at the time.
And we thought they thought of themselves too highly and were aiming too high. But we wanted to write songs that were engaging. We had been musicians for a long time. That’s the balance.
We subsequently went out on tour and toured all over the world for 25 years, playing shows for two hours. If you don’t have the songs to work musically, then you’re in trouble. We had to find the balance and the concept. We wanted to have this overblown sense of themselves.
This was not about a specific band. Every band after that would come up to us and say, “You’re doing us.” “No, we’re not doing you.” The weird thing was after the fact, dozens of bands would come up to us and say, “That’s me.” It’s not you.
People would say, “You’re doing Jeff Beck.” And Jeff Beck says, “You’re doing me.” I said, “No, we’re just doing this other thing.” But it is interesting that after the fact, it becomes this other animal.
It was really was taken from this overall genre. There’s no specific thing in this at all. In the ‘70s, I was in L.A. in a lobby, waiting for a friend at a hotel. A British band came in, and this was probably in 1976. And the [band’s] manager came up to the desk and he turned to one of the musicians and said [in a British accent], “Where’s your bass?” He said, “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?” “I think I left it at the airport.” “You left your bass at the airport.” “My what?” “Your bass.” This went on for 20 minutes. “Whose bass?” “Your bass.” I thought, “Wow.”
I guess somewhere in my head, this lodged some sort of [idea]. It was like a bizarre one-act play. But there was really no specific thing. We built it from the ground up, these people. Obviously, there’s some overlap with some classics, like the girlfriend breaking up the band. But that happens with every group — even the Philharmonic. I won’t go into that.
In real life, a British rock band called Uriah Heep kept losing its drummers. Are you sure the idea of Spinal Tap losing its drummers wasn’t inspired by Uriah Heep?
It wasn’t based on Uriah Heep. I know virtually nothing about Uriah Heep. I know more from you just said. I didn’t listen to the band … I’ll stick to my story. It wasn’t based on that. They’re lovely lads.
Can you tell the story of Spinal Tap opening up for a real band at a concert while you were filming the movie? Did you fool the concert audience?
I think I know what you’re talking about. Before we started shooting, we thought, “Let’s go out and play some shows, just to see what happens.” We played a bunch of shows in L.A. and around L.A.
We played a very famous heavy-metal club called Gazzarri’s on the Sunset Strip. And if you’re old enough to remember the song “In a Gadda Da Vida,” Iron Butterfly was famous band, and one of the members (I don’t remember which) had an impacted wisdom tooth. And it ended up that they opened for us.
It was the most bizarre situation. Nobody knew the context of this. We were just another band. We played these sets, and people would say, “Sure, this is loud.”
Michael McKean was in the band the Left Banke. Did that influence his performance as David St. Hubbins?
There was a group called the Left Banke in the late ‘60s. Michael McKean [replaced] a guy who left. I don’t know his name. Michael McKean joined the group, but then they broke up before they got to play [with McKean in the band]. He never actually got to play with them. At the time, Michael and I were playing and writing songs together.
What kind of music did you play in the band you were in with Michael McKean?
We wrote original songs. The genre. That was the problem. In 1967, I don’t even know what it was called or if there was a name. We wrote good songs at the time. There was some rock, there was some other stuff. I was into bluegrass, but it had nothing to do with bluegrass. It was something else that didn’t have a name.
Did you write comedy songs?
No, no, no, no. I didn’t start to write, as you put it, “comedy songs” until I started at the National Lampoon, the first year I started in 1970. I had written some songs for them. And I said, “What I actually like to do is music.” And I had written some other stuff.
And we started doing a series of records. And that’s when I started thinking, “Oh, maybe this is what I should do: mix some harmony with some music.” With Michael here, we were writing what we thought were real love songs.
You explored rock music with “Spinal Tap.” You explored folk music with “A Mighty Wind.” Are you going to explore any other music genres in an upcoming movie?
It’s a good question. I don’t know. These ideas my pop into my head or they may not, but with those other genres, we are able to use our experience as players to get away with what we have to get away with. We couldn’t do classical music, because we’re not classical players. We really like to play. All that stuff is us playing. I don’t know the answer.
Now that you’ve seen “Spinal Tap” again tonight, what was your favorite scene to re-watch? And what was your favorite scene to film?
I hadn’t seen it for 12 years. I had only seen it a handful of times. I liked seeing it actually. I was surprised. I thought it would freak me out a little bit, but I enjoyed it. I remember what it was like to make it, which was fun. We had no idea what was going to happen to this little movie. It was fun to do.
It’s hard to say one scene. I like the scenes where we’re all interacting because it’s improvised. When you see people playing music with each other, as opposed to when you’re set up. If I’m being interviewed by Rob Reiner, it’s a slam dunk because you’re basically being set up. But with other people, it’s more of a musical group playing.
There are a few scenes in “Spinal Tap” where it looks like the cast members will start laughing. Did you lose a lot of footage because people laughed in scene where they weren’t supposed to be laughing?
No. It’s a good question. A lot of people come up to me and … Actually, no one comes up to me. The answer is “no.” We only do that once in a while. Mick [Shrimpton] is a great drummer. He’s a phenomenal drummer. We toured with him for 20 years.
This is true: We were on our second big tour in ’92. We did a tour in ’84, ’92, 2000, 2005 and 2009. We were playing this place in L.A., [at] a pretty big arena. This is a real show, and our drummer’s not there.
Our manager calls, and he answers the phone. We were doing a soundcheck. [Our manager said], “What’s going on?” [Mick Shrimpton] said, “My car broke.” “OK, you need to get into a cab. We’re doing a show in two hours, so you need to get here.”
Ten minutes later, we call him again to make sure [he’s on his way]. “Hi, Mick. What’s going on.” “My car broke.” “Yes. Please get in a cab.” He gets to the venue, he’s coming down the steps of a big amphitheatre. He falls and breaks his leg.
Now it’s an hour before the show. We start calling drummers that we know in L.A. If we call eight drummers and they each do two songs, we can do a two-hour set. This is a nightmare.
He goes to the hospital. He comes back about a half-hour before the show in a full cast over his thigh. He plays the show and does another 20 cities with us. And he used to play double-kick drums. But now this whole joke has come full circle where the drummer is, you know …
And your real-life Spinal Tap tours were more successful than the Spinal Tap tours in the movie, right?
I think so. It’s kind of ironic.
Do you ever get sick of talking about “Spinal Tap”? Do you feel that because it’s your most famous movie that it limits your choices on what to do creatively?
There are certain things that people remember. In this case, there are certain things that have become known over the years. About five or eight years, the Oxford Dictionary now has “This goes to 11” in it. Wow, OK, I guess that’s something. I don’t know what that means. So it’s kind of iconic to some people in some way.
And that happens to some people, like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” It happens to people where you’re in a movie, and people think you’re that person. But no, it doesn’t interfere with my way of life.
There’s a famous scene in “Spinal Tap” where the band gets lost backstage while trying to make their way to the stage. Can you talk about filming that scene?
We knew we were going to get lost. I don’t remember where we shot that. We just kept wandering around in this labyrinth, but we kind of knew that was going to happen.
“This Is Spinal Tap” was Rob Reiner’s first movie that he directed. How was it to work with him as a first-time movie director?
I’d worked with him before for a long time. He was great. What I learned after the fact was that we shot 50 hours of material. The film is 82 minutes. It took almost two years to edit.
And with the films I’ve directed, it’s virtually the same ratio. I shoot for roughly 25 days, and edit for a year-and-a-half. It’s an upside-down process. Rob did a fantastic job for his first movie.
Were there any scenes that were cut from “Spinal Tap” that you really wanted to stay in the movie?
It becomes very evident that even if something has some humor in it, if it doesn’t work for the story, you have to service the story. In this case, at a serious point, with the breakup of an old friendship [Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins], it has to be laid out that way and improvised as an open-ended thing. You know what happens in every scene. The movie can’t have any other ending.
There were other scenes in the movie that we thought at the time were needed, but they weren’t. If you look at a conventional screenplay, that happens all the time. You write 120 pages, and you write a scene with people in a car, and you realize that you don’t need that. As a writer, you think, “This is definitely needed.” But after four drafts, it’s gone. The movie works anyway.
Are there any costumes or props that you wished you had kept from “Spinal Tap”?
The guitar I played, the Les Paul Goldtop I had that was my guitar. And I still have it, fortunately. I have on a piece of paper, we were trying to think of names of the band, and I was doodling, writing and scribbling that day.
And I have on a piece of paper, which I have framed, Spinal Tap written in a couple of different spellings. That was one of the original things from before we even filmed the movie. And I have the six-finger glove [from the fictional “Smell the Glove” album].
Michael McKean used to work with Penny Marshall on “Laverne & Shirley.” Penny Marshall used to be married to Rob Reiner. Is that how Michael McKean got cast in “Spinal Tap”?
I don’t know what you said, but no.
Is there any chance that Spinal Tap will do another performance or tour?
It’s too hard to do a one-off gig because of the amount of work required for a stage show. When you go on the road, we have two 18-wheelers, there’s a lighting thing. It’s a huge thing. So you can’t amortize the cost to rehearse and get all these numbers.
Stonehenge, we’ve done that joke over the years. When we played Glastonbury, there was a blow-up one. So the answer is no, it’s probably unlikely that will happen.
How did you get the idea for “Waiting for Guffman”?
That’s a little off the topic, but I’m happy to answer that question. My wife and I were walking our dog in a dog park. He was a mutt. A woman with a purebred dog looked at our dog, and in a very condescending way said, “Oh, what’s that?” We said, “His name is Henry.” And she said, “Oh, that’s nice.”
And we kept going to this park, in spite of this woman’s attitude. And what I realized was those people have a very strange attitude toward dogs. I started to get interested in those relationships. I did research for about a year. I went to a lot of dog shows. I became more interested in the people who got locked on to specific breeds.
In “Spinal Tap,” were the songs written specifically for the movie, or were they songs that you had already written long before the idea of the movie?
We had a story arc. All the songs were written with Michael and Harry over the years. We also wrote, the three of us, the music for “Waiting for Guffman.” So it was bizarre. You write this heavy-metal music, and then you write this other small-town musical music.
Typically, we break it into two people. Michael and I wrote “Stonehendge,” which was one of the first things. Harry and Michael wrote the pod song [“Rock’n’Roll Creation”]. It kind of works organically like that. We’ll split off and write songs together, but they were very specific to the film.
For more info: “This Is Spinal Tap” website