The idea for Best In Show was born during a trip writer/director Christopher Guest took six years ago to his local dog park to exercise his own two dogs. "There were people there with purebred dogs, with mutts and so on, and as I mingled with them I started thinking that this might be an interesting idea to explore in a movie," he recalls.
For this project, Guest teamed up with another acclaimed member of the comedic pantheon, Eugene Levy, with whom he collaborated on Waiting For Guffman (1996). A cast-member of the seminal sketch comedy show, SCTV, and star of the recent hit, American Pie (1999), Levy relished the opportunity to work on another film with Guest.
"It's hard to partner with somebody because writers have different rhythms, different chemistry," says Levy. "But Chris and I hit it off on Guffman from day one. We work very well together."
Veterans of the improvisational technique, Guest and Levy left much leeway for the actors to bring their own personalities to the fore. "Our outline gives a very solid blueprint to the actors so they know how to get from point A to point B, but how they do it is largely up to them," Levy says.
o further research the mindset which Guest first experienced at the dog park, he attended a number of dog shows, including the prestigious Westminster Show in New York, which became the model for the film's Mayflower Dog Show. Subsequently, he and Levy attended a number of regional dog shows.
The dog show milieu, according to Levy, provides ample opportunity for the creation of interesting characters. "It's a very unusual world," says Levy. "I had never been to a dog show before we started doing the research and was surprised at the intensity involved. This a full-time thing for these people; they live and breathe dog shows and every weekend they're out there traveling. They've got their dogs in cages and crates, or packed in the van, and they drive hundreds of miles, spend several hours sitting with the dog before it goes on for its 60 seconds of fame. What is it that drives people to do this?"
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."
Jane Lynch had not previously been part of Guest's troupe. "When I saw Waiting For Guffman (1996), like every other actor in Hollywood I said, oh my God this is what I want to do," she recalls. "I just want to get inside this world and inside these people. So when I was offered the opportunity to do this, it was really a dream come true."
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."
Working without a script naturally means that nobody really knows what the actors are going to say when the cameras roll. As John Michael Higgins points out, when the actors' dialogue is completely improvisational, the camera can never be turned off. "Sometimes, the first time you say something gives you the most realistic take," says Higgins. "And that's the one you want."
Eugene Levy feels the improvisational tone set by the filmmakers gives the actors an extraordinary sense of creative freedom. "In a normal film, when you do the whole wide coverage of a scene, you're doing the lines and repeating them the same way when you go in to do the tighter shots, the two shots, and the singles and so on," he says. "Everything you're doing is supposed to be the same so they can cut it together. In this format, nothing has to be the same. You do not have to repeat any information unless you want to repeat it or unless the director says, 'I like that joke - don't forget to say that.' Other than that, every time they change an angle you can come up whatever you want to come up with. It's an exhilarating way to work, and it doesn't happen that often in a career."
Levy's screen wife, Catherine O'Hara, is quick to agree. "What's beautiful about doing a movie like this," says O'Hara, "is that you have the opportunity to build a history for yourself and then you get have the opportunity to actually talk about it. We do these 'interviews' in the film that are just free-form and we talk about how we supposedly met each other, what we're like together, what we don't like about each other, why we love each other, why we love this dog, why we got into dog shows, where we hope to be ten years from now and why we don't like fish. It's just amazingly open and free and at the same time scary because there are so few limitations."
O'Hara gives full credit to Guest for giving the actors such a free reign. "Chris is just so encouraging that at any moment in my improvising he could be coming up with funnier ideas, and better ideas, but he just lets me go," she says. "He's very kind that way. It's a great opportunity to do a movie like this. Every actor I know wants to be in these movies. I hope there are more. I hope I get to be in them."
Michael McKean is equally enthusiastic in describing the experience of acting in this film. "You get home at night," he says, "after just trying to stay in the groove and trying to go after what your character is going after, and trying to make each other laugh as much as you possibly can. You're exhausted, but you're also satisfied and happy."
"This is such a fun experience," Bob Balaban agrees. "It's kind of like jumping off the diving board. Once you do it you can't turn back and there's no stopping. You just are there. It's kind of relaxing."
Balaban goes on to explain why this particular ensemble group of actors work so well together. "Chris has the uncanny ability," he says, "to find people who aren't just talented but also happen to be very nice people. But even more than that they're very giving in terms of their work. There's nobody here, even the people who play overbearing characters, who would ever step on something funny that was happening. They would help it. They would add to it. They would do whatever they needed to do. There's a whole that's bigger than any of the individuals in this experience, which makes it so much fun."
Fred Willard chimes in with an analogy reminiscent of the sports broadcaster persona he portrays in the film. "You know," says Willard, "the tendency a lot of times when you're working around Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest, is to just sit back and say 'boy they're funny. Isn't this wonderful?' But you've got to jump right in there, in the mix. It's like playing tennis. You can admire the guy's stroke but you've got to hit the ball back too."
Willard goes on to comment about taking responsibility for creating his character. "There's good and bad about it," he says. "You can't say 'hey, who wrote this junk' because you're writing it -- and if it's not funny, you're the one they're going look to."
As the filming continues, it's obvious the whole group of actors are having a great time together and there's a genuine family feel to their interactions, from hanging out behind the scenes singing Christmas songs to watching each other perform.
Michael Hitchcock sums up the actors' intense involvement: "The energy on the set is fantastic," he says. "You'll see us come to the set early to watch the other actors act. None of us are in our trailers. We're right there behind the camera watching other people do their scenes and that's what really makes it fun. Plus, because this is shot like a documentary, there are just hours and hours of footage. So I like to watch the scenes just because I know many of them will never end up in the actual movie, and I get to see them live, maybe for the only time in my life. So I want to catch them while I can."
The Best In Show stars have helped to create a rich, varied and quite eccentric palette of characters. Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara describe Cookie and Gerry Fleck, the proud owners of the Norwich Terrier Winky, a duo who are easily among the least sophisticated of the dog show participants. "Gerry Fleck is a guy who has been a clothing salesman for fifteen years," Levy explains. "They're definitely suburbanites, who got into the dog world about ten years ago. Their Norwich Terrier, Winky, whose registered name is Champion Thank You Neil Sedaka, is in essence their child. They're kind of simple people, and I mean that in the good sense. They really care for each other, love each other and they're their own best friends, but you won't find them on Jeopardy."
Levy goes on to describe his character's rather unusual physical problem. "Gerry was born with two left feet. That's not a common thing but it's something he's learned to cope with over the years."
"Cookie and her very sweet and kind Gerry love their dog," adds Catherine O'Hara. "Winky is really our pet and if he didn't do well at the shows that would be fine, but he really wants to be in the shows. He seems to really like them and have fun and he's just cool about it. So, you know, it's fun for us and it's something we really love doing together."
O'Hara, still speaking as Cookie, goes on to touch on her characters' somewhat murky past. "I used to have a different life before Gerry," she says. "He's the only man that's ever been nice to me. I was with a lot of nasty men before but I'm trying to forget all that. Gerry's good and clean and kind. We love Winky and I just want the life I have now."
It's very evident how much both actors enjoy working together, on both sides of the camera. "It's great to work with Eugene" says O'Hara. "I love Eugene. I miss all my old friends from SCTV and Eugene was one of my favorites - very smart, inspiring and really funny."
"This is the first time in a long time that I've gotten to work in a collaborative way with Catherine," says Levy, "and I just think she's really the best at what she does. She's an amazingly gifted actress and a great improvisational artist."
In contrast to the Flecks, we have the relentlessly upwardly mobile young married couple, Meg and Hamilton Swan, as interpreted by Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock. "We're both lawyers and yuppies obsessed with catalog shopping," says Hitchcock. "We got our dog by seeing a catalogue ad for this perfect couple with this beautiful Weimaraner and we thought 'boy, they sure look good with that dog,' so we want one too."
"What makes them so much fun to play," Hitchcock continues, "is that they really have no friends besides each other and they even treat each other rather poorly. Everything for them is 'designer.' They wear designer clothes and live in a designer house. Although they're striving so hard to be happy, they're so incredibly uptight you know that they're just horribly miserable."
"The Swans are the kind of couple," adds Posey, "who work really hard and make money and buy into a lifestyle that you can order off the internet or through catalogues on the way to a perfect life."
She goes on to describe how this concept of their characters influenced preparations for the filming. "Mike and I started our research at Banana Republic and went shopping for awhile. I started shopping for beige and tan, that Stepford wife kind of thing, because Weimaraners just look so delusional and lost."
Michael McKean, as middle-aged hair salon proprietor, Stefan Vanderhoof, and John Michael Higgins as fabulous dog handler, Scott Donlan play another kind of couple entirely. "I play one half of a very, very happy gay couple," says McKean. "We are probably never going to have kids of our own but we do have these two Shih Tzus that we really think the world of. We compete and we play hard, but we play fair and if we don't win it's not going to destroy our lives. We're in it for the fun and because Miss Agnes seems to enjoy it. And we just like showing off our clothes."
John Michael Higgins chimes in with, "We joke around the set that it's one of the healthiest relationships anyone's ever seen. It's the way they treat each other, Stefan and Scott. They have propensity for making each other laugh. They enjoy each other's company enormously. They're from slightly different generations, and Scott, my guy, is more of a wannabe boy-toy." The couples' two Shih Tzus, as Higgins explains, are named after Agnes Moorehead and Tyrone Edmund Power Jr.
"I see Christy," says Lynch in describing her driven character, "as a prodigy in the dog show world. The minute she puts her hand into that lead on that first dog it was as if all the elements of her destiny came together, and all of a sudden she was somebody. It's everything she is now, and winning is everything."
Lynch goes on to explain the strong attraction that develops between the two women after Christy is hired to handle the prize-winning Standard Poodle, Rhapsody In White. "When Christy hooks up with Sherri Ann, who's this very rich woman and who shares her ambition and drive, it's like they come together and become this great unstoppable force. We're playing this as if it's the biggest moment of our lives."
As for the blonde bombshell she plays, Jennifer Coolidge confesses to a certain familiarity with that type of character. "Well it's interesting," she recalls, "because I had always spent my life sort of observing the Sherri Anns of the world as that very simple sort of opportunistic, very feminine, very phony women that we all know and love so much. I knew this character. I knew this woman's thoughts and I certainly knew what she looked like. When I first got to L.A., I was a babysitter in Beverly Hills and I baby-sat for this type of woman. It's a kind of revenge now," she says with a laugh.
The Mayflower Dog Show itself, which leads up to the film's exciting climax, is filmed over a period of five days in a large auditorium. Everything there is set up to simulate a real dog show, with exhibition booths featuring dog-themed vests, T-shirts, mugs, china, tapestries and gourmet dog food. There is even a booth offering canine chiropractic therapy.
The backstage grooming area is filled with all kinds of dogs, handlers, owners, cages and grooming tables. Here, contestant animals are lovingly groomed, combed, brushed, fluffed and blow-dried.
Meanwhile the auditorium is filled with hundreds of audience extras, dog show participants in evening wear, judges and of course, the film crew.
For the actors, the excitement is palpable. This is the moment of truth for them and their dogs. There is some real nervousness as they wait behind the curtain to walk their dogs into the big center ring where the audience and judges wait.
Eugene Levy comments on the actors' feelings as they are about to go on for the competition. "Just acting in it, when you're behind the curtain with your dog, you're nervous," he explains, "because when the crowd is in there, this is it -- your dog's got to perform. Because if your dog doesn't look like he's supposed to look on film, people are going to know who deserves to win."
In describing her own performance experience with the Standard Poodle who appears as Rhapsody In White, Jane Lynch talks about the level of perfection required by her character, Christy, the handler. "Rhapsody In White is a two-time winner, so we're expected to really work well together. We have to look as if we know what we're doing out there in the ring. Thank God that in the movie industry we have this thing called 'take two.' But she's a great little dog and we're working well together and even when I make mistakes out there I make them look like I meant it, because that's what Christy would do."
As the filming of the Mayflower Dog Show progresses, it becomes evident that the ambitious undertaking appears to be a success. Guest is very pleased with the result, happily contradicting the old movie saw about not working with children or animals. "This could have gone completely haywire but we've had very few problems," he says. "Considering how many dogs we have been working with, it's really remarkable how easy it's been. Only in one instance did we lose a little time. Aside from that," he says, grinning, "they've been more dependable than a lot of actors." (He is of course not referring to the actors in this film.)
"We've been lucky," adds Guest, "to have nice people to work with. The owners and handlers and trainers have been great and the actors have been excellent." Eugene Levy is quick to agree, "All the owners and handlers have been exceptionally nice -- very sweet and charming. The dangerous thing, as Chris has pointed out, is that this whole movie hinges on these dog show people and their dogs. If for some reason they just decided they've had enough, in the middle of the show, we would be stuck without a movie."
Levy is also delighted with the results of staging the big dog show. "This is much more an event than I ever imagined. I've been to dog shows and this looks like the real thing. There's no question about it! I'm thrilled with the show."
"What I really love is that the comedy is falling against a very credible backdrop and nobody knew how that was going to turn out," adds Levy. He gives credit to the professional consultants working with the production company throughout. "Our dog consultants, Earlene Luke and Carol Garvin, have done an amazing job in keeping everything plausible and organized, acting as the liaisons between us and all the owners and handlers. They've been on everything, watching the filming at the monitors or from the sidelines and giving us input. For instance every time our 'announcers,' Fred and Jim, said something that wasn't quite accurate they would come and correct them."
Dog Show Coordinator Carol Garvin, a long time industry veteran who has produced many dog shows, is equally impressed with what the production company has accomplished in such a short space of time. "Considering that nobody involved on the production side has ever put a dog show together, they have done an exceptional job," she says. "It's been remarkable to watch how they put on what is actually the most elite type of dog show there is, without having any experience. That's because Christopher Guest and Karen Murphy wanted to know exactly how to do it and the degree of accuracy was really important to them. Otherwise, it wouldn't have worked."
"What this film has set out to do," she continues, "which so often doesn't happen in the media because they pick a dog primarily for its trainability or cute expression, is to portray the dogs of the purebred world in an accurate light. The film production crew has from the beginning expressed the desire to create a really legitimate, quality show as a backdrop for this comedy. I think people will be pleased to see that the breeds and the venue are so well and so authentically represented."
In considering some of the rather extraordinary characters featured as stars of the film, Garvin says, "The fact is that we sometimes laugh at ourselves, too. The competitiveness of dog shows attracts a very diverse group of people. There are definitely some eccentrics among them, but they are in the minority and this film focuses on that minority. But the film also portrays some of the really honest hard-working people that are in the dog show business, too."
By the time the filming was over, many of the actors became quite proficient in the ways of the dog world and most formed real attachments to their canine co-stars. Nearly everyone agreed that it had been an educational experience.
For Catherine O'Hara, who was admittedly not a dog person before, the filming process has been transformational. "As a result of doing this film," says O'Hara, "I could actually see having a dog now (if I wasn't with my husband who is allergic to airborne saliva). Now I understand why people love dogs like children; they're just sooo beautiful! These dogs are freakishly well behaved, but they're very appealing - our dog especially is so sweet!"
"I'm so glad that our characters got the Norwich Terrier," says O'Hara, demonstrating her new-found dog lore, "because Norwich Terriers show naturally. It's pretty much the way they were born into this world. I know there's been some kind of playing with their genetics through the years, but basically they are born looking this way. They're spunky, energetic, fun-loving dogs."
John Michael Higgins demonstrates his own newfound doggie expertise in describing his attachment to the Shih Tzu that is his show dog in the film.
"This is a breed that was bred to sit on a pillow in the Manchu Dynasty," says Higgins, "so they're very even-tempered and they don't snap at you much. Eunuchs bred these dogs in the forbidden city in Peking and they didn't want them snapping at the Emperor. So the last thing the descendants want to do is to snap at you, unless you're doing something for which you should be duly bitten, like disrespecting fabric."
Higgins goes on to elaborate on the dog's long hair and the exhaustive grooming process required. "The coat is an incredibly difficult to maintain," he says, "and a Shih Tzu person will be seen constantly combing it out. The standard says that the tail is carried gaily over the top. There is a nice middle part down the center of the coat, which is also very important to maintain. Then there is the topknot, otherwise known as the chrysanthemum, which is the nickname for this dog."
Working with the little Shih Tzu named Flash, who appears as Agnes in the film, also had a personal effect on Higgins. "I never would have thought I would fall in love with a toy breed," he says. "I always thought I would want a big dog, some giant retriever or something like that, until I met Flash. Flash changed my mind. Now I want a Shih Tzu."
There's a strong feeling among the cast members that this film is likely to have a fairly broad audience appeal, given the subject matter. Catherine O'Hara laughingly says, "Of course the dream is that people will come en masse to this film and that they will laugh and laugh and laugh and have to see it over and over again and tell all their friends. But I do know for a fact that everyone who's heard me talk about this film laughs at the thought of it."
"Dogs have a great appeal," says Eugene Levy. "There is a much wider appeal for this movie than for Waiting For Guffman (1996), which was a funny movie and a funny premise but not as accessible as this film, which is more mainstream. People just love dogs."
Fred Willard explains why he thinks the audience is likely to identify with the characters in this film. "The people in this film are trying to become champions through their dogs and I think everyone can relate to that, no matter what you do. If you sell cars, you want to be the salesman of the year and win that trip to Hawaii, or if you're selling clothes you want to have that special parking spot because you were the salesman of the month. So everyone can relate to people striving to better their lives. And everyone loves animals."
"Even though I don't have a dog," continues Willard, "I was watching a tape of the Westminster Dog Show and couldn't help being swept up in it - admiring how cute and lovable the dogs were and how they were reacting with their trainers and handlers. There has to be a mutual love between the dogs and the people."