Family Tree makes sense now, thanks to the internet. As a story 15 or 20 years ago, it just wouldn’t have been as relatable.
“I think for certain the popularity of Ancestry.com, and other sites, helps us to frame this in a way that most people can understand,” said Christopher Guest.
“It just happened to coincide with my own kind of searching, initially without the benefit of the internet, and then using various sites. So I think that’s true, that most people are aware of this happening now.”
Guest, of course, is famous for his movies, such as This is Spinal Tap, Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration.
But now Guest is venturing into TV as the co-creator, alongside Jim Piddock, of Family Tree, which debuts Sunday, May 12 on HBO Canada.
Family Tree stars Chris O’Dowd (picutred above, known for his roles in Bridesmaids and Girls) as 30-year-old Tom Chadwick, a man who is adrift in terms of his own identity, having recently lost both his job and his girlfriend.
After receiving an old chest of mysterious contents from a great aunt, Tom gradually becomes obsessed with his lineage. The story starts in England and eventually takes Tom to the United States.
Guest, Piddock and many other familiar faces from Guest’s movies make appearances in Family Tree, in roles of varying size. But according to Guest, the part of Tom had to be cast correctly for Family Tree to have a chance at success.
“From my standpoint, this keys entirely on the main character, Tom Chadwick,” Guest said. “So it was vital to have someone who could do a variety of things.
“It had to be a funny person, but also someone who could handle things that were almost more emotional in a sense, and reality-based, because it’s not really a sketch situation. It’s based in some kind of reality, even though it’s funny.
“(O’Dowd) is a wonderful actor. And he’s able to improvise brilliantly as well, and that’s a vital thing, because otherwise, there’s no show.”
Regarding improvisation, though, Guest wanted to make it clear that often people misunderstand the way he works.
“We’ve been given an opportunity by HBO to do the kind of work that I do, which is, I think, not terribly normal – constructed with outlines, then we go and do it,” Guest said. “If this had been a movie, I think I could have gotten it made. But it doesn’t lend itself to that format.
“This actually took longer than a conventional screenplay to write. We knew the basis of the story, and then we had to go into the intricacies of these people’s lives. So in this particular case, (O’Dowd) has a background of knowing what his character’s early life was. Whatever he’s going to improvise is built around those (facts). Those are sacrosanct.
“This isn’t just people showing up and messing around. So it’s a deceptive way of working, I suppose. This is quite strict in the way you have to do it. Every scene has a point. It doesn’t just meander.”
Investigating your roots certainly is an enterprise that can meander. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be amusing, as Family Tree hopes to prove.