Waiting for Guffman is one of the funniest movies of all time. Christopher Guest is a comedic genius who pioneered the now-ubiquitous mockumentary style, and fills his films with actors who are improv pros. But a big part of why his work feels so true to life are the spot-on visual details that fill out each and every scene. Meet Joe Garrity, Guest's longtime production designer.
So, what does a production designer do?
"We're really the first ones who address visual language, going beyond the importance of the actual story and the performance," Garrity says of the role. "We figure out how a script—this pile of paper, these words—begins to be looked at as something that people are going to see. It has to do with environment. Place can contribute to the journey of a character, the core themes, the mood, and maybe subconsciously help the audience get grounded, too."
Before any concrete decisions about physical locations can be sorted out, Garrity sits down for some deep background brainstorming with the director. "We have to reach an understanding," he says. "We have conversations about who these characters are, where they come from, what's their backstory. We ask—and answer—a lot of questions that go way beyond what the script's telling us."
Though this approach is standard, it's perhaps never been more important than during the three decades he's been teaming up with Guest.
A fortuitous meeting
In the late 1980s, Guest—fresh off his these-go-to-11 turn as Nigel Tufnel in the insta-classic This Is Spinal Tap—was busy prepping for The Big Picture, his directorial debut. Joe Garrity was a production designer, an American Film Institute grad, and already a fixture on small indie flicks and low-budget affairs—everything from an "alien-space-Roger-Corman thing" to Friday the 13th. A mutual acquaintance thought they should meet.
"It was strange," Garrity says of the initial encounter. "Chris is a very quiet guy. He comes in the room and he doesn't have anything to say—he just kinda stares. And I go, 'Well, hi. I'm here to interview.' And he says, 'Okay, well... now what?' I was asked to come back for a second time and he chose me, and he's been loyal ever since."
In spite of the early reticence, the two have developed a kind of shared vision that's representative of their long-term collaboration. A lot of this has to do with the improvisational nature of these particular films: the recurring ensemble cast are each trusted to bring their characters to life without the framework of any written dialogue.
"I came from bad community theater, and Chris loves theater, so Waiting for Guffman was one of my favorite experiences," Garrity says.
Wait, there's no dialogue written down?
Consider the numbers: Hollywood scripts generally clock in around 120 pages (approximately one page per minute of screen time), while Guest's scripts run a completely dialogue-free 25 to 30 pages. Scenes are laid out, but apart from the songs (Stool Boom!) and some specific call-outs, all the quotables from Waiting For Guffman, A Mighty Wind, and Best in Show were the result of top notch, in-the-moment improv. This puts onus on the actors, but also Garrity and his art department to set the scene.
Pulling together a playground of imagery
The tools of his trade are primarily architecture and interior design ("set decoration," in the biz). This encompasses everything from real world locations—from 50 to 100 per film!—down to the smallest personal details that make up each set. "That's the stuff that's in the room—the stuff that helps describe a person, the stuff that one collects." In this way, Guest's personal, character-driven films are a virtual treasure trove (just consider the pink-hued, comfortably lived-in vintage clutter Corky St. Clair's apartment, or his stocked-to-the-brim curio shop, in Waiting for Guffman).
In an industry that's seen insane technological advancements in the past few decades, Garrity describes himself as old-fashioned—which, today, simply implies an affinity for paper over a screen. He documents any initial conversations with hand-written notes and doodles, supplemented with a "playground of imagery" gathered from library archives, magazines, books, and the internet.
From sketch to stage, an early vision from Garrity's binder shows how the Blaine Community Players set the mood for Nothing Ever Happens on Mars.
He then gathers everything in a big binder, which becomes a kind of shared bible for the rest of the production crew. "They get pretty thick," he says. "But ultimately it's really about being organized and having your ideas in a place where you can access them fast. I can open that up and be the one who has the solution, or answers. Everyone else might be fumbling to find out what's going on, but I like always having everything at my fingertips, if possible."
Though it was based in Philadelphia, Best in Show was filmed for the most part in Vancouver.
Once this all starts coming together, Garrity expands his scope a bit. "If I can get myself a hallway or a big stretch of wall, I start putting pictures up that are like feelings, then I add the actual locations once they're found. You can really start seeing a linear sort of: 'Okay this is what our movie is looking like now, going from here to here.'"
The novelty shop that Corky opens up in New York at the end of Waiting for Guffman was originally scripted to be in Blaine, where the story takes place. Through the magic of editing in post-production, the story was changed to reflect his move to the Big Apple.
From puppets and Super 8s to Hollywood
Garrity's own fascination for design emerged at a young age. "I remember getting a marionette puppet as a kid and playing around with that. I wanted to make a world for him because he was so much smaller than me; it was kinda weird that he was in this giant land," he says. A stint on high school stage crew and the fortuitous gift of a Super8 camera only served to fuel the creative flames. "I really enjoyed telling a story through this machine," he says of his burgeoning gift for making little horror sets and "getting into the narrative thing on a cheeseball level." As a film major at Temple University, he spent his undergraduate years between that and the theater department and, after graduation, like so many starry eyed folk before him, Garrity hopped on a Hollywood-bound Greyhound bus to kick off a career in show businesses.
The relative scale of the projects he's taken on on suits him. "I've mainly been in a very medium or low budget kind of world. I don't know what it's like to do Lord of the Rings. I would not have a clue on something so massive and complicated."
Which is not to say Garrity isn't able to tackle new challenges. One of his recent endeavors was Family Tree, an HBO show that was the first-ever series for both Garrity and Guest. Ultimately, they approached the eight-episode arc in the same way as they do their films together (and unfortunately it wasn't renewed for a second season, but the first is well worth a watch!).
But Garrity is kept plenty busy as the head of the Production Design department at the AFI Conservatory—which he himself attended in 1979.
"I never thought of myself as a teacher, but I've come to really enjoy it," he told Gizmodo. He says of the art of bringing a cinematic vision to life, "I can share my stories, but there's really no right or wrong way. It's your own way; you're finding your own voice."
Rent Waiting for Guffman tonight from $2.99 here.