Harry Shearer / March 2002
HARRY SHEARER IS A CHARACTER IN EVERY SENSE OF THE WORD: ACTING AS, VOICING, AND WRITING THEM. NEXT UP, DIRECTING THEM, IN HIS LATEST FILM TEDDY BEARS' PICNIC. TASTES LIKE CHICKEN'S CUDDLY LITTLE TEDDY BEAR, BETHANY SHADY, GETS THE WHOLE STORY.
bethany: You directed a new film coming out titled Teddy Bears’ Picnic. What is the film about?
Harry: It's about a group of the richest, most powerful white men in America whom, every year for a century, have gone on a summertime retreat in the Redwood Country to cavort like college sophomores on an unlimited budget. This year their secrecy is in jeopardy.
b: How did you come up with the idea?
H: Well, it's based on a real place where that really does happen. For more than a century, the richest and most powerful white men in America have gone to this place and cavorted like college sophomores on an unlimited budget. Every once in a while, an article gets written about it, and people in San Francisco and the Bay Area know something about it, but basically it's a pretty well-kept secret. A couple of film producers from San Francisco approached me, wanting a movie written on the subject. I was vaguely aware of it, but they had some resources that would enable me to do some research on it. They had some contacts: San Francisco members of the club that run this retreat and a hooker or two who have serviced the members on occasion. I did an awful lot of research before writing the script. Then, coincidentally, after writing the script I was invited to the place itself. I got to see the way the place was laid out, how stuff looked, and how people acted. I think I was pretty close to the mark.
b: As you were writing the film was it your intention to represent typical corporate and political America or just show typical men behaving badly?
H: Well, these are not typical men. These are men of a certain class, and they behave accordingly so. These are not the same guys who are seen in Budweiser commercials. This is a whole different group of people. Although they do prodigious amounts of drinking, but they're not drinking Bud.
b: Are they drinking high-class wines and stuff like that?
H: They're drinking very high-powered drinks. Each of the living lodges has its own particular house drink. The one I remember from when I was up there was a house drink comprised of rum, hot chocolate and more rum. After three drinks people were face down on the golf course.
b: That sounds like my boyfriend.
H: That's what I mean. Except it's not beer; it's much more potent stuff.
b: So you get drunk quicker.
H: Exactly. You know, why waste time?
b: You seem to study people and their odd quirks, and then turn those quirks into characters. Do you ever see quirks in yourself that make you think, “That's really weird that I do that. I should use that in a film.”
H: I just observe what's going on around me, and take out the dull parts. The rest is really funny. It's not too much about myself; it's about people I observe or people I watch. My earliest writing training was as a journalist, so I'm always looking at the world around me. If you've got a good observant eye, you see that other people are always more interesting than you are.
b: When I first heard about the movie, I heard it was going to be improv, like Spinal Tap. Then I read that it was actually scripted. Is a completely improvised film something you would ever consider directing?
H: Well, Christopher (Guest) has sort of taken the ball we threw up in the air with Spinal Tap and run with it and I think he does a great job with it. It's his style and, since he's had a head start with it, I prefer to work in a different style. Also, you need a lot more money to work that way. You need to shoot a lot more film or tape than I could afford. I really needed to husband my resources and be sure that what I shot was what I was going to use. Christopher shoots somewhere between 50 and 80 hours of film for his movies. That makes the editing process take an awful long time. And both of those facts drive up your costs. On the budget I had here, I just couldn't afford to do that. But even if I could, that’s his style and he does great with it. I prefer to make my own mark with my own style.
b: How would you describe your style of directing?
H: In Teddy Bears' Picnic I was very conscious of trying to make this a real ensemble piece, so you'll find, compared to a modern comedy, there are a lot fewer close-ups. I was really interested in letting the audience see not only the person who was talking, but also the person who was listening. To me, a lot of comedy is in the reaction. I told the actors very early on to treat it like it was a stage play and to do their own timing. I wanted the timing to come from the performances, not from me sitting around later in the editing room saying, “He should've had a reaction there.” I was very aware of that. I'm very restrained in the movement of the camera. I'm very desirous of having the viewer pay attention to the characters and to what they’re saying, and how they’re behaving as opposed to what the camera is doing. I'm trying as a director not to upstage the material. I think a lot of directors say, “Look at these great sets and camera moves.” The actors are standing around going, “Uh, we were there, too, weren't we?”
b: After writing, directing and also starring in this film, are you wanting to move more toward directing instead of acting?
H: Well, given the number of acting roles I've gotten lately, I think show business wants me to move in that direction. Acting is a very different thing. You are responsible for very little. You know, no matter what some actors may say on Inside the Actors Studio, it's sort of easy work, but directing is the most intense thing you could possibly do. So, I definitely intend to direct more pictures, but acting is something I like doing as a break. I dearly love to create things; to think up an idea and work on it all the way to conclusion. In films that means you have to write and direct it. I started directing because I felt almost at a self-defense. I couldn't think of anybody who would do justice to the kind of material I had written. I felt I had the best ear for bringing out what was funny in it so, willy-nilly, I'm directing it.
b: I recently read in the Hollywood Reporter that you are now working on another film about the Folksmen; another Spinal Tap-esque band that yourself, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean have created.
H: Yeah. The Folksmen and several other folk groups are being created for the picture. It's about a reunion of old folkies at Carnegie Hall to celebrate the life of the manager that kind of gave them all a career.
b: So is there going to be a guest appearance by Spinal Tap in the movie?
H: No. The Folksmen is a whole other thing and we will concentrate on strictly being the Folksmen in this picture. We've performed as the Folksmen quite a lot over the past two years. We opened for Spinal Tap last year. We've been writing some new songs and are just kind of getting our chops together and into the folk thing.
b: Do you prefer to do improv as opposed to a written script?
H: It all depends. When you're with that group of people, and are with someone who really knows the craft like Chris does, it's all about what makes you feel comfortable as an actor. There are plenty of situations where I wouldn't feel at all comfortable doing improv. But in this situation I feel safe; I'm with a bunch of really great people and it’s in the hands of somebody I trust. That makes all the difference. On the other hand though, scripted work doesn't give you full protection either. My big fear is being in the hands of a director who is trying to get me to overact; the script doesn't protect you from that. If a guy just keeps saying after every take, “Yeah. But bigger next time. Bigger!”, then you reach a point where you know that he's going to push you. He's going to get you to do something bigger than you want to do and, of course, those are going to be the takes that he uses, so then I lose. To me, that's what's more on my mind than whether it's scripted or improv. It's being able to work in a style that I feel comfortable in.
b: Your voice is obviously heard on The Simpsons, but your voice is also heard on NPR's Le Show, where you have your own outlet to talk about anything. Is there a written outline, or do you just talk about what you want?
H: There is no staff or crew; there's nobody. That's what I love about it. If I don't do the show, the show doesn't get done; which is great and terrible at the same time. I love it because it's not really about expressing opinions. It's about having a place where I can do my particular idea of what sketch comedy should be like, both in terms of style and subject matter, without having to deal with other people whose opinions might be different. I end up talking part of the show, but my interest in the show is the written pieces and the comedy stuff. Secondarily, I amuse myself with the music I play and acting a little bit to fill time. I definitely do it because I don't do stand up, and I want to have an outlet to do my style of comedy on a regular basis. If I’m doing a movie every three or four years, that's not particularly enough to keep the muscle exercised.
b: There have been a ton of Simpsons action figures, and even a Derek Smalls figure. But if there were a Harry Shearer action figure, what accessories would it come with?
H: (laughing) A basketball and a satellite dish.
b: Who would win in a fight: Mr. Burns or Strom Thurmond?
H: (laughing) Strom Thurmond.
H: He's still got sperm.
b: When people say, "Oh, for Pete's sake!", who do you think Pete is?
H: I believe the actual meaning is that it's a euphemism for the devil, I think. Maybe it's Saint Peter; but I thought there was some euphemism that had the word “Pete” in it at one time.
b: Is that a little bit of Derek Smalls coming out of you; talking about the devil?
H: Yeah, I guess so. When in doubt, it's Satan.
b: Do dogs have lips?
H: Well, I'm trying to visualize my dog, who does not have anything resembling lips. But my last dog used to bare his teeth when he felt guilty and it looked like he had a little bit of lip curl when he'd do that. So I'm going to say it depends on the breed.
b: So which breed did you have that does have lips, and which one doesn't?
H: Well, the lippy guy was a purebred black lab, and the non-lippy guy is a yellow lab and husky mix.
b: So it's depending on the breed.
H: That's what I think. I mean, I don't know if they judge that at the Westminster Dog Show. “Let's go for the lipped breeds and the non-lipped breeds.”
b: Is there really always room for Jell-O?
H: No. There's never room for Jell-O. Except in Utah. It's the state snack in Utah. So there's only room for Jell-O in Utah. And there's plenty of room for it there because there aren't very many people.
b: Do you have any other directing projects in mind?
H: Yeah. I have one film script that's already written and another that I'm working on now. I also have a musical comedy stage production that my partners and I have been working on for some time. We did a radio production of it and we're trying to move it to the stage. It's called J Edgar! and it’s about the life of J. Edgar Hoover. And then I'm writing a book which is a comic novel about Indians and gambling. That's the main stuff.
b: When is Teddy Bears' Picnic due in theaters?
H: It opens in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco on March 29th.