That may seem strange for a director, but not for the guy behind such comedic studies of human frailty as This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. One look at the commercial for a fitness product called Hula Balls in his latest film, For Your Consideration, or the golf-inspired "Groundskeeper" PlayStation spot he directed in 2004, and you get a sense of the kind of advertising that attracts the celebrated comedy writer/director's attention. For commercials, "I'd say I'm almost always given the same amount of freedom I have on my films," says Guest, who's repped by Go Film. "It has to start with a good concept from the agency, and I hope that I can then make it even better in terms of casting and shooting it in a way that shows my style. Many times I'll improvise it, which isn't done a lot in movies or commercials. But a lot of my commercials are improvised."
While his style of directing may translate well to spots—he points to a largely improvised 1990's campaign for ESPN starring comedian Mike O'Malley as "The Rick"—Guest says that be it features or commercials, above all, of course, "it's about being funny," and everyday life is where he finds his ideas. He doesn't have "some celebrity lifestyle someone could imagine. It's pretty regular. Drive the kids to school; pick up the dry cleaning. I'm not really premeditative in any way at all. I come up with an idea, hopefully for a film, and then I'm lucky enough to do the film. But I don't have a drawer full of other ideas waiting to be done. I just wait six months or so and maybe something will come to me while I'm drifting around. It's different from going to an office on a regular basis, as some people do to get things done. I just have my own way that's always been a bit more organic."
For Your Consideration steps outside the realm of quirky regular folk and into the la-la-land of Hollywood. It chronicles the effect Oscar whispers have on the set of a small independent movie, and features the same core group of actors who starred in his previous three films. Some have even crossed into his commercial work; Guest film regular Jane Lynch has appeared in a Washington Mutual spot, and For Your Consideration's Christopher Moynihan starred in an RC Cola spot. Guest's loyalty extends to his production crew, most having worked with him on at least one other movie. "It's all very much a family," he says. "So making each film feels like a reunion."
Guest had another reunion of sorts when he not only directed Volkswagen's "V-Dubs" spots for Crispin Porter + Bogusky but broke out his best- known character for the occasion—Spinal Tap's mulleted, halfwit guitarist Nigel Tufnel. The campaign promoted a limited-time First Act guitar giveaway when you buy or lease a VW, and it was the music element that attracted him to the idea—guitarists like Slash and John Mayer play through the car's sound system. "Since I'm a musician, I was able to have a lot of say in the music that was chosen. There was some back and forth over who the people in the spots were going to be, and at some point I said I'd be one. Then we wanted different kinds of musicians, and I think it worked really well having John and Slash." The music may have been what attracted Guest to the campaign but it was also one of the project's biggest challenges. "We recorded it using the actual car, which was a decision we made early on because doing it the other way would've been . . . well, it would've been a fraud, basically. It was funny seeing the cars outside the studio with all these wires running inside. We also used the actual guitars that they're giving away with the car."
He may enjoy contributing to an ad campaign from time to time, but for now he sticks to watching only spots that exhibit the comedic genius of golf gadgetry. Aside from that, he avoids most commercials, including his own. "I know I'm being consistent," he says. "I was watching a football game the other week, and my commercial came on and I pressed the mute button."