`Screenplay Without A Script' -- `Spinal Tap' Alum Returns To Pseudo Documentary Form

A backstage satire about the reasons why "some talent remains undiscovered," Christopher Guest's "Waiting for Guffman" is the final installment in an unofficial Guest trilogy about show-biz blunders.

The actor-writer-composer-director is still probably best-known for his role as Nigel Tufnel, the guitarist from Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984). Guest made his directing debut with "The Big Picture" (1989), starring Kevin Bacon as a corrupted young filmmaker.

In "Waiting for Guffman," which opens tomorrow, Guest plays Corky St. Clair, the fey, enthusiastic director of a small-town Missouri historical pageant called "Red, White and Blaine." The role is loosely based on a character Guest first played in the early 1980s on HBO and on "Saturday Night Live."

"Then I didn't do him for a while," said Guest during a Seattle visit. "But I decided I like this person. I like his resilience and optimism."

About 10 years ago, while attending junior-high school productions of "Annie Get Your Gun" and "The King and I," Guest was struck by the seriousness with which the cast and directors took their work, gushing tears and giving out roses at the end of performances.

"It wasn't that different from professional show business on that level," said Guest, who made his New York theater debut in "Little Murders" in 1969. "I even considered doing a real documentary about it."

Like "Spinal Tap," the final film takes the form of a fake

documentary about Corky and the cast he rounds up: a Dairy Queen waitress (Parker Posey), a couple of local travel agents (Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard), a taxidermist (Lewis Arquette), a garage mechanic (Matt Keeslar) and a dentist (Eugene Levy, who co-wrote the script with Guest).

Characters mapped out early

As with "Spinal Tap," most of the script was ad-libbed, although the situations and characters were carefully set up beforehand. The only scripted parts are the musical numbers, which were written with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, Guest's "Spinal Tap" collaborators.

"You can't have musicians wondering what they're going to be playing," he said. As for the rest: "Eugene calls it `a screenplay without dialogue.' "

Guest thinks the process is hard to describe and easy to misunderstand, but he believes it results in a spontaneous quality that an audience can sense subliminally.

"Like `Spinal Tap,' we had no rehearsals, but it's not a free-for-all. The result is coherent, though it doesn't feel as artificially manipulated as more conventional comedies.

"This is just the way I could get the funniest material. I rely on actors heavily to create these scenes and breathe life into them. They're masters of the craft."

Part of the process is editing. He shot about 58 hours of film and spent more than a year cutting it down to less than two hours. He's looking forward to resurrecting several of his favorite scenes on laserdisc.

"This has much more potential for that than `Spinal Tap,' " he said. "There's a great deal of material, including whole subplots that were left out."

In one cutting-room-floor episode, Corky has a confrontation with a basketball coach who wants to use his auditorium for a game. There were also more Blaine citizens talking about UFO encounters and more of Brian Doyle-Murray, who makes a memorable cameo appearance as Keeslar's suspicious father.

Directing Farley, Perry

While he was putting the finishing touches on "Waiting for Guffman," Guest was also directing Chris Farley and Matthew Perry in a period comedy, "Edwards and Hunt: The First American Roadtrip," about two explorers who leave for the West two weeks after Lewis and Clark have set out on their early-19th-century expedition.

It will be released in the summer, and Guest promises it won't be another "Beverly Hills Ninja."

"Chris was already attached to the project when I signed to do it," he said. "I was attracted to the intelligence of the script. It's not a typical Farley vehicle."