Christopher Guest on His New HBO Series ‘Family Tree’

Christopher Guest’s new HBO/BBC2 series Family Tree is set to debut this spring, starring Bridesmaids’ Chris O’Dowd as a guy traveling the world to investigate his family lineage. Christopher Guest regulars Michael McKean, Fred Willard, Ed Begley, Jr., and Guest, himself, will be making appearances throughout the first season. HBO passed the following interview with Guest along to us, in which he discusses his move to TV, how he researched the series, and why he always works with the same actors:

HBO: You are well-known for feature films such as Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind. What led to your conceiving a TV series?

Christopher Guest: I thought about doing it as a film, but because there is no end to the story, television seemed the right format.

Many of the actors on Family Tree – including Ed Begley, Jr., Fred Willard, Jim Piddock, Michael McKean, Nina Conti and Bob Balaban – will be familiar to fans of your films. What is it about this repertory group that makes you continue to work with them from project to project?

I work with actors who can improvise, and they do it brilliantly. Therefore, the same actors are seen in most of my projects.

How did you end up casting Chris O’Dowd, who is not a veteran of your films, as the star of the series?

I was looking for an actor who was funny, smart and appealing. The audience must be able to relate to him. That’s Chris.

The premise of the show – a young man investigating his lineage – seems to allow the kind of wide-ranging possibilities for stories and characters that have characterized your feature films. Was that your intent, or will you stick to a tighter storyline than you might in a longer format? Can you talk about the importance of improvisation in this show?

All of my films have an incredibly strict story line. Every scene is mapped out and that is also true for this show. The dialogue is improvised, which is the way I usually work, and I think it results in very spontaneous scenes.

Are the challenges of working in a half-hour episodic format different from feature films?

The challenges I face for television are different from the standpoint of editing. On a film, I take a year to edit. That doesn’t work for TV.

Why did you bring this show to HBO? Could it have been staged as a traditional broadcast network comedy series?

This is not a show that would work on a traditional network. HBO is the perfect place for it.

The exploration of ancestry holds strong appeal for many people, perhaps more today than ever before. Can you talk about your personal interest in this subject?

The search for the details of my own ancestry was the thing that motivated me to do a show around the subject. I have an interesting group of relatives, apparently, and the research continues. The show doesn’t reflect my own path, however.

Did you meet with any genealogists or experts in the field in the process of preparing the series?

Jim Piddock and I met several genealogists in London when we were developing the show.

What has shooting part of the series in the UK added to the process?

The first four episodes of the show take place in England, where Tom Chadwick, our hero, lives. I wanted to show him moving around to different areas in his search. The next four shows take place in the United States. It can go anywhere from there.

Christopher Guest on His New HBO Series ‘Family Tree’