Christopher Guest has dominated the mockumentary film format, but this spring he is sure to do the same in the scripted comedy television world. Working with Jim Piddock, Guest is hitting HBO with Family Tree, a single-camera, documentary-style series about (Chris O'Dowd) who loses his job and his girlfriend and goes in search of his own identity, digging into his lineage to do so.
"I had a personal experience where a relative died, and I was left a lot of material, and I started going through it, and I'm still going through it, years later, and it became an interesting quest for me to learn about my family, and that was the genesis, really, [for Family Tree]," Guest said during HBO's TCA tour in Los Angeles earlier today.
"My dad, who died sixteen years ago, left a tremendous amount of material. I knew some of the contents of these boxes, but there were many, many things that led me on my search."
Family Tree, obviously, comes in Guest's usual vein of comedy, and O'Dowd's characters will encounter a wide variety of unusual characters and learn a number of unusual stories about himself and those connected to him along the way. To put things in perspective, Nina Conti's character carries a monkey puppet everywhere she goes and often uses it to say what she's really thinking. Conti herself is a ventriloquist, which Guest wanted her to incorporate, but the character does have a backstory that lends itself to that particular quirk.
But it's an important to note that Guest and Piddock didn't want to "just write jokes," and the search for identity is something that is much more emotional and universal and will lend itself to delivering much of the heart of the character, as well as the show overall. Parceling that out slowly is part of why Guest felt the concept lent itself better to a series than a film.
To that note, Guest admitted there is no end to the story yet-- which is actually kind of philosophical, considering some men and women never completely figure out who they are or where they came from. However, everything else about the show seems like it will perfectly fit within Guest's sentiment and previous body of work.
Family Tree is therefore an improv comedy, and it features a number of quintessential Guest players from Piddock to Fred Willard, Michael McKean, and Ed Begley Jr. Casting O'Dowd's character called for a charismatic "every man" type of actor who the audience would relate to and fall in love with, but also who could think on his feet and embody the range of acting, not just delivering jokes.
"It was vital that somebody could do a variety-- a funny person, but also someone who was more emotional, in a sense, and reality based. It's not really based in sketch," Guest said of Family Tree. "It's an improvised show. Jim and I wrote the outlines for the eight [episodes]...and Chris is able to improvise brilliantly, as well."
Guest gave O'Down a few key tidbits about his character's early life as backstory
O'Dowd equally admitted Family Tree-- or working with Guest in general-- is intimidating because there are stories, but not solid scripts.
"You don't know what's going to happen in the moment or in the specific scene," he said.
"You're meeting these characters in the journey, and that's tricky, but you go to work everyday not knowing how it's going to end, and that's nice."
Family Tree premieres on HBO in the spring of 2013.
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