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A Chat with Jim Piddock about HBO's Binge-worthy Family Tree

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Family Tree outtake of Mr. Pfister, portrayed by Jim Piddock

I'm generally not the kind who watches TV shows more than once, but recently made an exception when I lost myself in the first season of Family Tree (available on DVD with a fun assortment of bonus features on October 29th). Though I followed the series week by week earlier this year during its first airing on HBO, I found myself even more glued to the screen the second time around. This documentary-style, comedy series was conjured up by Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock (as it happens, both history buffs) over a lunch spent discussing Guest's dabbling in the world of genealogy.

During a recent chat with Piddock, who co-writes and produces Family Tree with Guest, he explained that they liked the idea of a young, impressionable person searching for who he is, and dreamed up a 30-year-old Londoner named Tom Chadwick, a down-on-his-luck, but amiable fellow portrayed by Chris O'Dowd. O'Dowd was surrounded by a gently wacky cast of characters played by Guest and Piddock themselves, as well as Nina Conti, Tom Bennett, Ed Begley Jr., Michael McKean, Carrie Aizley, Fred Willard, and Amy Seimetz - several of whose names are very familiar to fans of classic Guest films such as Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. Triggered by the inheritance of a box of memorabilia from a great-aunt, Chadwick embarks on a quest to find himself by exploring his family history, a journey that propels him into a series of peculiar encounters around England and across the pond in California. The end result is a show that's simultaneously charming and twisted, and both absurd and believable.

Seeking to learn more about this series I'm jonesing for more of, I peppered Jim Piddock with questions he was kind enough to indulge.

Q: Is the way this was written - with scenes mapped out in detail, but actors left to improvise the dialogue - an approach you've used a lot in the past and why was it used for Family Tree?

A: "All of Chris's films have been done that way. He and Eugene Levy would write the outlines and character backgrounds, and then the actors are given that. They have all this ammunition and then they come on the day and make it their own so that it has a natural feel about it. It's not as if we don't know where we're going. We know exactly where we're going in terms of the scene, but it's how we do it. It's almost like having a google map holiday or journey planned out in detail, but then you let the actors drive the vehicle or take the train or whatever it is. So it's not as if we have massive surprises on our hands. The story is very clearly worked out, but how you get there is fun and sometimes detours will come up that are genuinely innovative for us and not anything we planned. It's a specific kind of actor that can work this way and obviously Chris has built up a troupe over the years in the films and we pulled on that and found a lot of new people, too."

Q: Do you have personal experience working on your own family history and are any of the ancestors discovered in the show based on anyone's actual ancestors?

A: "Well, my brother's done an enormous amount. I haven't. Having a very ordinary sort of upbringing, I discovered in my teens that the generation before my father was all involved in show business, and in episode two of Family Tree, I quite strongly draw from my family background. Even my grandfather's name was Harry and worked in theaters in Brighton, so there was a bit there. I know a certain amount, and bizarrely - about six months after we wrote Family Tree - my brother was left a box of family mementoes and pictures by an aunt he met once before. It was all so bizarre. It was exactly what we'd written. Really strange.

So there's a lot of real stuff, and there's also a lot of myth. I'm just as interested in the family myths, too - whether they're true or not. They're intriguing. I mean the whole thing about my grandfather having worked with Charlie Chaplin in the early days before Chaplin went to America and then being offered a contract and his not taking it because his father said there's no future in show business. I love all this kind of stuff. Whether it's all true or not, I don't know, but it doesn't really matter to me. It's good story."

Q: Did you consult with any genealogists because there's an authenticity there - for instance, the way Tom Chadwick always sees himself in what he believes to be true of his ancestors.

A: "Chris and I met with some genealogists in London, but the idea of Chris O'Dowd always seeing himself in the ancestors was more just a creative decision. We thought it was funny that he was impressionable, and without being ridiculous, we liked that idea that he would always get excited and immediately see that he was either Native American or Jewish or whatever it was. But again, it's a funny concept because we all do that, we all want to believe something, and then, we're either let down or we're sort of excited by it. Again, it's all part of wanting to belong, wanting to find your identity, and so you'll believe anything. It's why fortune tellers are so successful because they tell you things you want to hear. I think Stephen Fry on Who Do You Think You Are? said that genealogy is, I can't remember the exact phrase, but it was something of a form of astrology, and there's a sort of parallel there, except it's based more on fact and astrology is a more speculative science."

Q: Why is your character, Mr. Pfister, always smelling everything?

A: (laughing) "It's partly my own character trait. I had lunch yesterday with a wonderful British actor, Richard E. Grant, and when our food came, he literally bent down and smelled the food in a way that even Mr. Pfister would have been loathe to do. I had heard that this was also a trait of his and we just started laughing because we both do it. I mean I smell lots of things and I think it's funny, it's stupid, and it's completely good when it's a non sequitur. There was one sequence when we improvised where Chris Guest told me I actually smelt four different things, including Chris O'Dowd."

Q: You have a number of shows within the show - knock-off TV series like Move Along, Please. Why is that?

A: "Chris Guest and I are both amused by bad 1970s British sitcoms, so we created a couple of those. Although it has to be said that Move Along, Please was so good in terms of casting that it could probably be done as a sort of camp, retrospective series today. And then the others ones, we wanted to do a sort of parody of The Tudors, the kind of overblown historical drama that's essentially just sex and violence. And then we liked the idea of doing a show where they'd completely run out of Sherlock Holmes ideas so they were doing them in space. So that came from that."

Q: What's up with all the strange inventions - the shoe warmer, flavored flushes, etc.?

A: "That was a character thing we wanted to give the father - that he fancied himself as an inventor and was completely useless. Actually, that is my - it's hard to know what relative it would be - my step-grandmother's second husband - who I met a few times was this guy who kept inventing things. My half-aunt said that when they were children, the lights would always be flickering because the electricity was driven by a windmill. And he called the whole family to a conference in Brighton and sat them down, I think in a hotel room, and said, "I have come up with the invention that will make this family rich for centuries to come," and he said, "Here's a piece of paper and this is a sheet of carbon and you put it between this piece of paper and this other, and look, as I write, it comes through on the other piece of paper." We're talking about the 1950s so there was this horrible silence as they all looked at him and said, "Nigel, that's actually just carbon . . . it's been done." And he said, "What are you talking about?" But he was a man who seriously thought he had come up with this extraordinary thing. Those types of things are interesting and funny to me."

Q: I've said before that Family Tree was made for DVD because it's so layered. There are countless sly details that reward the viewer for paying attention or watching a second time, and I can't wait for the next season.

A: "Thank you. I've always said that Chris's comedy is built for endurance, not speed. His films never did a massive box office immediately, but they grew in reputation and stature by the year so now, people will still quote the films ten, fifteen, twenty years later and remember them when most other films are forgotten. And I do believe that because this series is so detailed, so layered, and so subtle, that people will enjoy multiple viewings as they have Best in Show and other films, and I think it will only grow in time."