“God Loves A Terrier!”
Six weeks ago, I was rescued by a Frenchie terrier mix named Sophia. It’s one of the most wonderful things that has happened to me in 2020. Now I have someone to look after me, and make sure I don’t get too anxious.
With that in mind, I sat with her to watch the mockumentary classic “Best in Show” (2000) which is in my top ten of most hilarious films ever. There are so many scenes that induce convulsions of laughter in me. Within scenes there are plethora of one-liners whizzing by, it’s hard to take it all in – and it all builds into a frantic pace of zaniness. Sophia enjoyed all the barking.
“I guess the best place to start is at the beginning,” says Meg – accompanied by her husband Hamilton – to their therapist at the top of the film. “Why are you here,” he beckons. “Beatrice has been showing signs of depression,” she responds. The camera eventually reveals that their Weimaraner has been lying all along on the doctor’s couch.
The film was co-written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy and directed by Guest. Many of the same actors were previously involved in “Waiting for Guffman” (1996) and went on to work on “A Mighty Wind” (2003) and “For Your Consideration” (2006). The majority of the film is improvised by the actors – which makes it all even more genius. It follows five dogs, their owners and handlers over the 72 hours preceding the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show in Philadelphia.
In the first half of the movie we’re introduced to the players as if they were being interviewed for a real documentary – addressing the camera directly and shot handheld style and all. We meet Gerry and Cookie Fleck (played by the incomparable Catherine O’Hara and Levy, who garnered well-deserved love at the Emmys for their phenomenal work in the TV series “Schitt’s Creek”). The Flecks are a middle-class couple from Florida and they own a Norwich Terrier. Prior to marrying Cookie, she’s had hundreds of boyfriends – and he has two left feet. “They used to call me Loopy,” he confesses for he used to run around in circles.
There’s the ultra yuppie couple Meg (Parker Posey) and Hamilton (Michael Hitchcock) who live in Chicago and met each other at Starbucks. “We were so lucky to be raised among catalogues.” Meg admits. They’re super neurotic and their anxiety is being rubbed off on their pooch. Harlan Pepper owns a fishing goods store in Pine-nut North Carolina, and his dog is a Bloodhound named Hubert. Harlan – played by Guest – is an aspiring ventriloquist. “What are you doing bloodhound doggy?” asks the dummy.
Sherri Ann Cabot is the ultimate overly made-up trophy wife – and her wealthy husband – three times her age – is barely alive. “We both love soup. We love the outdoors and snow peas. Talking and not talking,” she says about the things they have in common. Her dog is a poodle named “Rhapsody in White” and Sherri Ann has hired a competitive handler named Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch). Sherri Ann is fixated on giving Christy a makeover. “She’s the epidemy of glamour,” says Christy. Last but not least , there’s Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins) and Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean) and their Shih Tzu Miss Agnes. They’re a campy gay couple – who are so quotable. Referring to Christy’s butch clothing, he quips, “She looks like a cocktail waitress on an oil rig.”
There are other great characters like the befuddled hotel manager played by Ed Begley Jr. – and the scene stealing Fred Willard as the commentator of the competition. “Now tell me, which one of these dogs would you want to have as your wide receiver on your football team?”
It’s a great premise – brought to comedic heights by a talented cast.
Buck Laughlin: “And to think in some countries these dogs are eaten.”
Available to stream on HBO Max and Sundance NOW (via Prime Video) and to rent on Apple TV, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Microsoft, iTunes, Redbox and DIRECTV.
Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy
Directed by Christopher Guest
Starring Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Guest, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Eugene Levy, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, Catherine O’Hara and Parker Posey
Actor & Co-Writer Eugene Levy & Director/Co-Writer Christopher Guest on Bringing “Best in Show” to the Screen
Guest: “I was walking our dog in a park near my house—it was a rescue dog—and a woman with a pure breed of some sort came up to me and said, in a fashion, “What is that?” I said, “It’s my dog. He’s a mix of this and that.” And the expression was one of, that’s not acceptable, basically; that’s an awful thing to have happened in the world. I was struck by … what a bizarre idea that was, and it just sort of set something in motion.”
Levy: “We had done Guffman, and then [Guest] came back with this other idea about a dog show. It was a funny idea, but I said, “What do we do for a third act?” He said, “What do you mean?” “Well, like in Guffman we wrote the show that is the third act. But you can’t write the dog show. You can’t make a dog show funny, or you lose the truth in the story.” So we kind of set it aside and started working on something else. Then about a year after that, it was “What about the dog show idea?” I said, “I just don’t know, again, what we do with the third act.” And then the suggestion came: “Well, why don’t we make Fred Willard kind of the Joe Garagiola color commentator during the show?” Bingo. That was it.” (theringer.com)
Casting “Best in Show”
As the writing process continued, Guest canvassed the alumni cast of “Waiting For Guffman” (1996) to find out their interest. The response was predictably enthusiastic and is probably best summed up by Bob Balaban. “Chris called me about being in the movie,” he recalls, “and I said I’d be happy to be a dog – I would do anything.” Michael McKean, who co-wrote with Christopher Guest several of the musical numbers from “Waiting For Guffman” (1996), has a long association with him that goes back to their acclaimed collaboration, “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984), and even earlier, when the two were roommates in the ’60s. “Chris told me what he and Eugene were cooking up,” McKean recalls. “They wanted to do a film about the world of serious competitive dog showing. And if you have a chance to come in and work for Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, John Michael Higgins and this boatload of incredibly funny people – it’s one of those things you’ve got to clear time for. Whenever Christopher Guest calls, you have to answer. And it’s not just because he’s my friend and I like hanging out with him; it really is a call to battle, if I can be real pretentious. You know that you’re going be in there and you’re going to be pretty much naked, because there’s no script. But it’s okay as long as everybody else is naked too.” Another “Guffman” alumnus, Fred Willard, recalls his experience on that film and his excitement when offered the opportunity to be in another Christopher Guest production. “That was a great role,” says Willard of his role as Catherine O’Hara’s travel agent husband in “Guffman.” “It was the most fun I’ve ever had working in a film.” “When Chris described my character in the new film as a commentator who talks and talks and talks about something he knows very little about, ‘I said, now why would he think of me?’ But you know it somehow turned out well. I could go on and on about it, but I understand we don’t have much space.” Executives at Castle Rock Entertainment were equally encouraging, as Producer Karen Murphy recalls. “We love working with this group of actors,” she says. “Castle Rock trusts us with this improvisational style of film. After “Waiting For Guffman” was released everyone asked, ‘When is the next one?'” “Of course,” Murphy continues, “we also had to discover more actors who do improvisation since we have a bigger cast on this film. Jane Lynch had worked with Chris on a commercial, while Jennifer Coolidge and Eugene Levy had worked together on “American Pie” (1999). Patrick Cranshaw had worked with Chris on “Almost Heroes” (1998).” Guest is thrilled to be reunited with this talented ensemble group. “I like to work with people that I know I can trust,” he says. “Then, it becomes simply a matter of letting them do what they are good at and then I fit in there somewhere. That’s the great part of this for me, to be able to work with actors that I like and that I think are funny.” (cinema.com)
The Making of “Best in Show”
The most formidable task for the production was in creating the canine competition. “Originally, we thought it would be easier to go to an actual dog show and film there, but nobody would let us do that,” Guest muses. The event would have to be created from start to finish for the production. “We actually had to stage our own dog show,” says Levy, “and that’s where the nightmare started. We literally had to put everything together from scratch, get somebody to organize the whole show, get the dogs in, find trainers and so forth.” Producer Murphy spent three months researching dog shows, learning about the many breeds, making contacts, lining up consultants and trainers and finding the hundreds of dogs that would be “auditioned” for the film. During the process, Murphy gained appreciation for what she terms as “a rich, unique, sometimes eccentric and complex world. I was impressed by the variety of people, from young junior handlers, who are very serious and professional, to flamboyant middle-aged showmen with flashy rings and incredible outfits who have obviously made a career of this. It’s great to give this background to an actor.” Guest was likewise impressed. “You would have to work years to get to the point where you would actually be able to show dogs professionally,” he says. “But surprises do happen. During the research for this, John Michael Higgins was asked to handle a dog for an owner and he actually won a blue ribbon!” “Best In Show” was shot entirely on location in Vancouver, Canada and Los Angeles. The filmmakers assembled a cast of nearly 100 actors, including 20 principal roles and almost as many dogs, their owners and handlers, dog show coordinators, animal trainers and a professional film crew of 140.
For some of the principal actors, filming days were interspersed with dog show training sessions. Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch and Michael Hitchcock all had classes with their movie dogs and the film’s Technical Advisor, Earlene Luke. Luke, a veteran all-breed professional handler, continues to give handling classes and is very well known in the dog show world. Initially, Luke thought the idea of putting on a professional dog show with inexperienced actors was “some kind of unrealistic Hollywood fantasy.” In her 30 years of experience in the American dog show industry she had never heard of such a thing being attempted. “I had grave doubts that they were going to be able to pull this off,” she says. “You just don’t walk into a ring and run around it with your dog. There is a performance aspect to the whole thing which includes leash work, understanding rhythms, movement and much more…all of this with actors who have never had their hands on a show dog.” Compressing her normal eight-week course into five intensive days, Luke taught them the ins and outs of dog handling, from the ability to “stack” (arranging the dog in proper posture) to working with the coats of such breeds as Shih Tzus and Standard Poodles, which requires considerable manual finesse. Among other things, the actors learned that different breeds have different walking rhythms, something Luke illustrates by using music. “All dogs have rhythm,” says Luke, “and I figure out the music based on seeing them move. Some are waltz music, some are cha cha or rock and roll. It’s fascinating to watch dogs when their music comes on because they know its time to start moving. Their handlers or owners just have to keep up.” In the final analysis, Luke was impressed with the actors’ ability to capture the handling techniques. “They all did a very good job,” says Luke, “especially given the time constraints. They also were very good about picking up things by watching other handlers and are excellent mimics. Their biggest challenge was to learn that they were the ones in control, not the dogs.” (cinema.com) In 2020, Schitt’s Creek” received 19 Emmy nominations and won 9.
About Actor and Co-Screenwriter Eugene Levy
Eugene Levy is an award-winning actor, writer, and producer. He has appeared in more than 60 motion pictures to date, eight of which having topped the $100M mark. The box office success of films such as “Bringing Down The House,” “Cheaper By the Dozen 2,” and “Father Of The Bride Part II” have established him as one of Hollywood’s most popular comedic actors…Levy’s…recent big-screen role was that of Dory’s Dad in the Disney/Pixar smash “Finding Dory,” in which he stars alongside Ellen DeGeneres and Diane Keaton. The film has surpassed the $1B mark worldwide, and is one of the highest-grossing animated films of all time. In 2018, Levy partnered with SCTV (Second City Television) alum to shoot a comedy reunion special for Netflix, directed by Martin Scorsese. Levy joined Catherine O’Hara, Joe Flaherty, Andrea Martin, Martin Short, and Dave Thomas, for a conversation moderated by Jimmy Kimmel. Partnering with Christopher Guest, Levy earned critical acclaim for co-writing and co-starring in “Best In Show,” “Waiting For Guffman,” “For Your Consideration,” and “A Mighty Wind.” Levy has been nominated for and won countless awards for his films including a New York Film Critics Circle Award and a Grammy Award® for “A Mighty Wind” and a Golden Globe® nomination for “Best In Show.” Other films include “Splash,” “Armed and Dangerous,” “Multiplicity,” “Club Paradise,” and “Serendipity.” In 2013, Levy formed Not A Real Company Productions (with his son Daniel Levy and principals Andrew Barnsley and Fred Levy) to produce “Schitt’s Creek,” a television series for CBC/ITV he co-created, co-executive produces, and co-stars in with Daniel Levy. The single-cam, character-driven comedy also stars Catherine O’Hara, Annie Murphy, and Chris Elliott. For Seasons One and Two, “Schitt’s Creek” received a total of 28 Canadian Screen Award nominations, and in 2016 swept the CSAs, winning nine of a possible 10 categories, including Best Comedy; Lead Actor in a Comedy (Eugene Levy); Lead Actress in a Comedy (Catherine O’Hara); Best Writing in a Comedy (Daniel Levy); Best Direction in a Comedy (Paul Fox); Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy (Chris Elliott); and Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy (Emily Hampshire); among others. Levy also received the prestigious Legacy Award (along with co-star and long-time collaborator, Catherine O’Hara) from the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television. The series has also been recognized with awards from ACTRA, the Directors Guild of Canada, the Writers Guild of Canada, and the Canadian Cinema Editors Awards. In total, the show has garnered nearly two dozen awards and more than 50 nominations. Levy has also won two Emmys® for his writing on SCTV as well as many other awards and nominations for his television work. Levy is a Member of the Order of Canada and a recipient of The Governor General’s Performing Arts Award – the foremost honour presented for excellence in the performing arts. (cbc.ca) In 2020, Schitt’s Creek” received 19 Emmy nominations and won 9.
About Director Christopher Guest
Guest was raised as a child of privilege. His aristocratic, English-born dad was editorial director at the United Nations; his American mum an executive at CBS. So Guest grew up between the US and UK, plucking from both cultures, mimicking every accent he heard. It was a skill that served him well when he joined the ensemble teams of “National Lampoon” and “Saturday Night Live.” (theringer.com) …Guest grew up in Greenwich Village and went to the Little Red School House, P.S. 41 and the High School of Music and Art. After two years there, he left for the Stockbridge School in Massachusetts, where he played in Arlo Guthrie’s band and auditioned for the School of the Arts at N.Y.U. “I did one of George’s monologues from ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ ” Guest said and sighed. “You know when you’re young you have this unbelievable stupidity and arrogance and ignorance all mixed in? Of course, it was meant to be done by a 50-year-old man. There was a panel of people, and someone said, ‘Are you willing to give your blood for the theater?’ And I thought, Wow, you know what? I don’t think so. I thought maybe there’d be some cute women, maybe in the acting class. What do you mean give my blood? “So I went to Bard College for a year. And then, even though I didn’t think I should give my blood to the theater, I did go to N.Y.U., which is where I met Michael McKean. In my second year I auditioned for ‘Little Murders,’ which Alan Arkin was directing at Circle in the Square, and got a part.” Also in the cast were Fred Willard and Paul Benedict, another member of Guest’s repertory. (Guest kept working and eventually left school.) Although his real name is Christopher Haden-Guest, he changed it after an audition. “The director read the name aloud, he did this” — Guest made a face — “and said, ‘That’s a good one.’ And I said, ‘That’s actually my name.’ This speaks to my level of security at the time. I thought it sounded pretentious to them, so I dropped that part of it.” (nytimes.com)
His breakthrough came in 1984, playing Tufnel, whose amp goes all the way up to 11. In recent years, “Spinal Tap” have reformed to play concerts at Carnegie Hall and Glastonbury. “So Nigel is an alter ego I can slip back into,” he explains. “There’s a comfort in playing somebody that dumb.” He has been married for 30 years to the Hollywood actor turned author Jamie Lee Curtis…Guest holds a hereditary British peerage. “I’m a baron,” he explains. “I’m Lord Haden-Guest. And yes, that’s a novelty. Born into it by accident, obviously. And then your dad dies and you’re the next one.” For a few years he sat in the House of Lords. He loved it; it upended his preconceptions. “It wasn’t the cartoon of old men with ear trumpets. Although yes, there was an old man with an ear trumpet. But it wasn’t “Downton Abbey” and the “Roller,” none of that. Most of these people had no money. They didn’t have the country houses. They were regular people who had regular jobs. They were well informed, and lending their expertise. And the speeches were amazing, so I’m glad that I went.” In the years since “Spinal Tap,” the style that he helped patent bloomed into a standalone genre. Ricky Gervais refers to Guest as “the biggest single influence on my work”, which he says is fine; Gervais is a friend. As for the rest, he’s not convinced. “I have directors come up and say: ‘I ripped you off.’ Now, personally, I wouldn’t want to walk up to someone and say that. Find your own thing, don’t copy someone else.” (theguardian.com) …In 1976 he won an Emmy for writing a Lily Tomlin special, and he eventually did win a Grammy, in 2004, with Eugene Levy and Michael McKean, for the title song of “A Mighty Wind.” “I was struck by what happens to your psyche being nominated, the disruption of it,” Guest said. “But the reason I don’t look at this as just a movie about Hollywood is this could happen in any world — the Nobel Prize or the Booker Prize, anything — where people are in such a delicate state in terms of their esteem that there is no way to process the information.” When he acts, Guest creates a character starting with the voice, an obsession he honed growing up in New York City, where he spent his free time in the bathroom. “There was some echo with the tile, so I could practice voices,” he said. When his parents took him out to dinner, he would listen to a waiter recite the specials, then order in the waiter’s voice, to the dismay of his father… (nytimes.com) A few of Guest’s other works include “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984), “The Big Picture” (1989), “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), “D.O.A.” (1999), “Best in Show” (2000), “A Mighty Wind” (2003), “For Your Consideration” (2006), “Mascots” (2016) and most recently “Loudon Wainwright III: Surviving Twin” in 2018.