Spinal Tap and Rob Reiner Discuss the Magic
(and Hard Work) of Improv

Interviewing (left to right) Spinal Tap cohorts Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner, and Michael McKean at the Beacon Theater on Saturday, April 27, 2019.

At last month’s Tribeca Film Festival, I met in person with This Is Spinal Tap co-stars Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean, along with director Rob Reiner, to discuss the 35th anniversary of the most famous rockumentary of all time. Not only did it lampoon the turbulent world of rock ‘n’ roll, it also introduced many famous phrases (you know the ones) that persevere to this day. My 3,000-word Q&A appeared on Billboard.com, but there was still plenty of leftover material which has made for a nice separate feature for A.D.D.

Sitting down with this comic quartet upstairs at the Beacon Theatre was one of the funniest and most fun experiences of my career. Christopher Guest is a master of deadpanning even during interviews, and the group, who dissecting the art of improvisation, also proved why they are masters of it.

Rob, how hard was it for you to rein these guys in during the filming? Or do they have to rein you every day?
Rob Reiner:
I didn’t have to. No reining. It was sunny every day.
Christopher Guest: If I’m talking about improvisation, basically I use the analogy of a band. A musical analogy in the sense that if you have people playing jazz and you have a song, it has to start with a melody that everyone knows and you’re playing in a certain key. You’re not going to have people playing in D when the song’s in G. When you’re doing this kind of work, this isn’t some crazy random ass thing. This is incredibly disciplined for the people who know how to do it.
Michael McKean: Every character has a clear action.
Rob Reiner: We knew the basis of the scene. We knew what we wanted to essentially happen in the scene.
Harry Shearer (nods towards Christopher): He’s never heard free jazz.

Remember, “Jazz is an accident waiting to happen.”
Christopher Guest:
No, no. I’m saying that for the great jazz players, you establish a melody, go out there, and you come back and have a cohesive thing. And in this work, this is not just random stuff.

Every eight to nine years, Spinal Tap returns. You did the tour and the Royal Albert Hall in ’92. The reunion in 2000. A quick Earth Day fling in 2007, and then the Unwigged and Unplugged tour in 2009, which also included an electric set at the Glastonbury Festival in England. You clearly have to have a plan. So how much preparation goes into this every time?
Christopher Guest:
Well, those are concerts. That’s a different thing. We rehearse.

But you do promotional videos too.
Christopher Guest:
Yeah, but that doesn’t need any… We know how to do this.
Harry Shearer: The simple version of it that you get taught very early – people often mistake what goes on in these things for ad libbing – is ad libbing is about talking and improv is about listening.
Christopher Guest: And everything is based on a script where someone throws in a line or something. Virtually, we could do this perpetually, and have. It is something you can do or you can’t do, and it’s different on film than it is in a club, for instance.
Rob Reiner: The question I always get is, it’s the first film you ever made and it was all improvised, there was no script. Was that daunting? I say, “No, the other thing is daunting. The script making. This is not daunting because this is the comfortable thing. This is something that we all feel comfortable doing, and if you have the people who do that and know how to do it, that’s easier for me.”
Christopher Guest: Rob’s expression for this — and it’s true because I’ve now directed a bunch of movies — is you need the horses. Without them, there’s nothing. There are not that many horses…
Rob Reiner: And the ones that are there are great.
Harry Shearer: Look at all the improvisational films that have been done that aren’t really that good. Just in our genre, the ones that have tried to be the Spinal Tap of, name this other genre of music. And how few of those have been good, and I’m not pointing fingers…

Classic Spinal Tap covers from over the years.

Christopher Guest: Well, The Bourne Identity
Harry Shearer: That was totally scripted.
Rob Reiner: It didn’t feel improvised.
Christopher Guest: This is nuts. This guy’s running around, and they’re all trying to hurt the guy. He seems like a nice enough guy.
Harry Shearer: Chris. Chris. Chris…
Rob Reiner: But it looked like it was like planned. Every shot.
Harry Shearer: To me, the chases looked improvised.
Michael McKean: They threw the guy through a plate glass window. They had to prep for that.
Christopher Guest: And Gladiator. These guys –
Harry Shearer: They weren’t improvised.
Michael McKean: The tigers were improvised.
Christopher Guest: All right. That’s two bubbles you burst. Don’t tell me Fiddler On The Roof
Harry Shearer: That was totally improvised including the songs. The point is that you have to have the horses. They might’ve had a good idea. It might’ve been a good idea to do a Spinal Tap of some other kind of music.
Rob Reiner: Not only do you have to have the horses, but you also have to have people who are steeped in this culture. These guys are players, and they’ve lived in that world. They know that world. You can’t just improvise. We hired Peter Smokler, who was the DP on the film, because he had shot some rock ‘n’ roll documentaries. He was at Altamont.
Harry Shearer: And H.J. Brown who also shot Hendrix.
Rob Reiner: We were shooting this stuff, and I was like a dolly grip a lot of times. But he said to me, “I don’t understand. What’s funny about this? This is what they do.” And I said, “Yeah, but that’s it.”

Later in the convo…

Rob Reiner (to Harry): Did you ever see Anvil: The Story Of Anvil?
Harry Shearer: I never did!
Rob Reiner: Oh, you gotta see it.
Michael McKean: I liked it very much, but one thing that kept grabbing me is now that it’s 20 years into reality TV, people behave differently.
Harry Shearer: They’re aware.
Michael McKean: They’re aware. There are no flies on the wall anymore.
Rob Reiner: Do you think they [Anvil] went to Stonehenge because of the fact that we made the film? Because they go visit Stonehenge.
Michael McKean: Oh no, I know that.
Harry Shearer: But the real proof of that is — did you ever see that documentary about Bros, the British boy band? This was made as a promotional device for their comeback. Now they’re in their forties, and it’s so self-aware. Oh, we’re doing things wrong. Oh, this happened. Oh, that happened.
Rob Reiner: [Anvil] wound up in Japan at the end, and the drummer’s named Robb Reiner. It’s bizarre.
Harry Shearer: With two Bs.
Michael McKean: Just the general moments. People behave differently now that there’s a camera there.
Rob Reiner: This guy who was the precursor to even MySpace, the first guy to do [social media]. Early in this documentary he said, “Andy Warhol had it wrong. People don’t want 15 minutes of fame. They want 15 minutes of fame every day.”
Christopher Guest: They want it 24 hours.
Rob Reiner: I’m saying that’s what it is.
Christopher Guest: Absolutely.

Metal people don’t take offense to the concept of Spinal Tap anymore.
Michael McKean:
No, they were proud. It’s not offensive at all. There is a genuine affection for these guys. When we were making it, they were hopeless…
Harry Shearer: But they weren’t evil.
Michael McKean: And we understood them. We got why they did what they did, and we knew what they were up against. Like I say, it was very affectionate. We weren’t trashing anybody, and I think people picked up on that.
Harry Shearer: I think this is true in a lot of cases – you can make a pretty damning movie about people, let alone an affectionate satire, and they’re proud that you made a movie about them.
Christopher Guest: People would ascribe, depending on how they felt that day, “Oh, I know who you were doing. You were doing Atomic Rooster.” “No.” People said to me always, “So that’s Jeff Beck.” I said, “No, that’s not Jeff Beck.” The wig looked like Jeff Beck’s haircut, but that’s not Jeff Beck. People need to have a thing. It can’t just be that you made it up. That’s too, “Whoa, what happened here.” People need to say, “I know who you were doing.” It all comes down to “It has to be me” or “It has to be him”. Without that, now I’m lost. I don’t know what happened here. God forbid it’s an original premise.

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