Jim Piddock (The Prestige, Best in Show) is executive producer, writer and actor (he plays Mr. Pfister) on HBO’s new comedy series Family Tree. Created with Christopher Guest (A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, This is Spinal Tap), Family Tree is a half hour, mostly improvised, situation comedy starring Chris O’Dowd as Tom Chadwick.
Tom is at the end of his rope. A young man with no job, a broken relationship and very few family ties, he is bequeathed a wooden box by his recently deceased Great Aunt Victoria. As Tom explores the contents of the box, he learns more about his family history and himself.
The series also stars Nina Conti, Michael McKean, and a whole host of actors familiar to fans of Christopher Guest’s films, as well as some new faces. I had the chance to speak by phone to Jim to talk about about his new series.
How did you come to be involved in this way with Family Tree?
[Christopher Guest] and I had lunch a couple of years ago [at a time] when he had been looking a little bit into his own family tree. There was some stuff that his father had left him and he was interested in the whole [topic]. So we talked about it, and I was also interested in it, and thought it was a very universal and accessible idea. But I didn’t think it was a film. I thought it was more of a TV show.
I think the nature of it is, there’s no beginning, middle, and end. Even when you think about the physical nature of a tree – it has got all these branches and different avenues you can go on. So we very quickly decided that if we would do anything with this it would be television show. Then about a month or two later or a couple of lunches later, we decided to try and just put our heads together and try writing and see what we came up with. And we actually spent a long time just hanging out in each other’s dining rooms making each other laugh. And slowly evolved. We really probably didn’t even know for a couple of months whether we had anything for sure. And then it was very apparent that we did.
A lot of the things that I know that Christopher has done have been very, very improvisational. But how much of this show is scripted vs. improvised?
Well, we write character outlines for each character that are very, very detailed – in-depth character stuff. So it’s literally: where they went to school, the name of the school, the name of their pets. I mean, it’s incredibly detailed. So roughly each episode is an eight-page, solid outline scene by scene, beat by beat, what happens, some of the jokes, some suggestions of lines, some suggestions of exchanges, what the scene’s about. And then the actors come in and they improvise each of these scenes so there’s no scripted dialog per se apart from the television shows – the characters watch on their televisions. Those were totally scripted. So the actors bring a lot to the table, but hopefully they’re not sort of totally walking without a tightrope because they’ve got all this basis, and they’ve got sort of a very, very strong and detailed road map to go on.
How did you come to cast your lead actor Chris O’Dowd, who was so great in Bridesmaids?
We were sort of not sure whether the show was going to begin in America or in England, and we sort of played around with both early on. And then it sort of became apparent that we were going to start it in England. I had seen Chris in Bridesmaids, and so he was sort of on our radar very early. I think Christopher Guest’s daughter also had seen him in Bridesmaids and she loved him in it. So we went to England to meet with the BBC and various people trying to set the show up. Christopher met with Chris O’Dowd and and just knew right away that he was the guy.