(via Freeze Dried Movies)
Ever since I first watched Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, when it came to VHS (remember those? Me either), I had a sneaking suspicion that Michael J. Nelson, head writer and star of the film, as well as the show it was based on, was possibly the funniest man alive. Further evidence (the actual show; his three books; his commentary tracks for Legend Films, Rifftrax, etc) supported this theory. Mixing several types of humor is not an easy thing to do, but Mike manages to make even the worst pun just as laughable as the most obscure reference as he bravely suffers through whatever nonsense Hollywood has thrown at us.
After MST3k was cancelled in 1999, Mike took on several other projects. In addition to two websites (TimmyBigHands.com and FilmCrewOnline.com) that were joint efforts with other MST3k personnel, he also released two compilation books, one of movie reviews, the other of general observations and anecdotes on every day life (such as being stalked by Radio Shack clerks). There was also a novel titled "Death Rat", which lampooned, among other things, the cutthroat world of Minnesota book publishing. He also did solo commentary tracks for Legend Films’ releases of horror classics like Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls (as well as, finally, Plan 9 From Outer Space, a film often demanded for MST3k treatment). Then in the summer of 2006, Rifftrax was born. Bypassing the need to have the rights to the films he wanted to comment on, he simply released mp3s of his commentary that fans could easily sync up to the films themselves.
And while Rifftrax continues to go strong (I highly recommend the recent track for the first Fantastic Four movie, a track every bit as funny as the best episodes of MST), Mike has managed to find time to join Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett (aka Tom Servo and Crow, respectively) to create Film Crew DVDs. Like MST3k, there are wrap-around segments bookending their commentary for a bad movie no one remembers, only this time there are no silhouettes. The first release, Hollywood After Dark (starring, of all things, a stripping Rue McClanahan) is in stores now, and three other films are in the can and ready to go.
While promoting Rifftrax and the Film Crew DVDs at the San Diego Comic Con, Mike was nice enough to take some time to chat with Freezedriedmovies about, well, pretty much everything he’s done in the past 10 years:
(INTERVIEW FROM THE FLOOR OF SAN DIEGO COMIC CON)
FreezeDriedMovies: So other than the obvious history of making fun of bad movies, how did the idea for the Film Crew DVDs come about?
Mike Nelson: I heard had from somebody that MST still sold well on DVD. I had done some stuff with Rhino, so I called them up and said "Hey, what if we did this direct to DVD?” and they said that’s a good idea, so it was kind of me pitching that. And then we thought of a fiction and just went with it. It was a case of trying to get around selling a TV show, because we knew that there were fans out there, so now we could just reach them directly without giving away the farm to a network and keeping the idea and owning it; keeping it small.
FDM: The releases so far haven’t had the original movie soundtrack alongside it, is that something that might be implemented? Because I know that was a fun option on the MST DVDs, watching the film without you guys if we for some reason wanted to.
Mike: Yeah I actually haven’t spun the DVD myself, I didn’t know that you couldn’t watch the movie separately. But I suppose if you’re buying a Film Crew DVD you probably want the "Film Crew" on there.
FDM: How often do you plan on releasing them?
Mike: Well we’re kind of waiting to see how these sell, that’s the determining factor. If they sell I think they want to do a regular schedule, and I don’t know how often that would be, but once a month seems reasonable.
FDM: Assuming they take off, will that affect the Rifftrax schedule, which is usually once a week, or will those be slid back…?
Mike: No, that we want to keep steady, keep it going. Obviously the Film Crew is a little more intensive in terms of production, but again, it’s not that difficult. Most of Rifftrax is just recording [sound] in a studio; as opposed to lights and cameras and all that. So it shouldn’t affect the schedule.
FDM: Now how does the writing differ? I know for MST you guys would watch the film over and over back to back, but with Rifftrax, do you give yourself a break from that sort of torture?
Mike: The writing’s still the most intense part of it. You probably do end up watching it about 6 or 7 times, but each viewing is like 30 hours, stopping and going, and then you write a script and go through it and see if each one works. Then the next time you look at it and go “OK that joke’s not funny anymore” and you go back and write a new one. Still the writing is about as intense; the only real difference is that since there’s not as many people to do it, it takes a lot longer, because there’s only one, two, or three people contributing as opposed to a staff. In the MST days you could get to a section where you just didn’t have anything and just sort of relax and, you know, ‘let these guys take it’. But now there’s no relaxing, you’re coming up with everything. It’s hard.
FDM: I assume Kevin (Murphy) and Bill (Corbett) write their own stuff when they guest on the Rifftrax…
FDM: But how bout the guest stars, like Neil Patrick Harris, did he write his own stuff or did you provide the lines for him?
Mike: We wrote that for him, yeah. We sort of assumed his comic persona, and he didn’t ask for any changes. So we must have nailed it. He was very happy to do it.
FDM: Is that something you’d like to do again, with Neil, or whoever?
Mike: Yeah, definitely with him again. And he’s interested, so we’ll see.
FDM: How bout some of the other writers from MST, like Paul Chaplin, have they shown any interest in joining you? Do you guys all keep in touch?
Mike: We do, I talked to him early on about it. But he’s got a full time gig, so it’s tough. But at some point yeah, I’d love to have pretty much everyone involved.
FDM: One of my favorite anecdotes from the MST days has to be the Time Chasers guys, sitting down to watch their movie and realizing how much it stung.
Mike: Right, right…
FDM: Have any Rifftrax subjects gotten back to you?
Mike: No, I haven’t heard anything. I tend to think that with these kind of movies, where there tends to be a little more competency, that it’s not as much ripping on the movies as it used to be, because it’s a different kind of thing. I think most people, like Neil Patrick Harris, if we were to do Starship Troopers, I think he’d have a sense of humor about it, most of the people who are out there probably do. There are probably some stars who don’t have that sense of humor about themselves, but I haven’t run into any of them.
FDM: One of the first Rifftrax was Halloween, which most people consider to be a great movie. Was that because you wanted to specifically do a movie that people really love, or was it just for the season?
Mike: It was just partly seasonal, and I’ve always been interested in doing a movie everyone likes and are really familiar with, you know: Can we enhance that with this sort of meta-dialogue? Even movies I like, like Lord of the Rings which I like, I still want to do a Rifftrax for it, so that’s not as much a consideration, that the movie has to be bad. As long as there some goofy element to it, there’s always some sort of way in to making it funny. The jokes just exist on a different level.
FDM: Well actually, that’s true, because Halloween IS my favorite movie, and it’s one of my favorite Rifftrax…
Mike: Oh really?
FDM: So even though you guys were kind of mocking it, it was still funny to me.
Mike: That’s kind of the point; it’s a good natured thing. Now obviously there’s some movies that I DON’T like, and that sort of comes through on the Rifftrax, depending on what you think of the movie, you may or may not like that. But generally no one’s complained, even if it’s their favorite movie, they’re kind of-
(At this point, two large costumed characters (Sam and Max) walk by and pause in front of us before moving on)
Mike: Well that’s sort of a strange thing to see…
FDM: Wow. Anyway, now with Rifftrax, it’s also different because with MST3k, most of the fans probably hadn’t seen the original film before, but if they watch the Rifftrax, they probably have seen and even own it. So it’s an interesting dynamic, since you don’t have to try to follow the story along with the commentary.
Mike: Yeah, they’re more familiar with it…. I always thought it would be great to do The Godfather, which is a great movie and everyone knows it. I think people would be interested, you know, “Oh, what’s he going to do with The Godfather”? But yeah, it doesn’t have to be a bad movie to make it work.
FDM: When choosing a movie, is it more challenging when you literally have every movie in the world at your disposal, as opposed to the ones for Film Crew or MST where you were limited to what you could afford?
Mike: It’s about the same level of difficulty, except that on MST you could cut out parts that didn’t work. If there was nothing you could do with it: away it goes. And obviously you can’t do that with Rifftrax. So that’s difficult when you get to a scene and you’d love to cut it, but you can’t.
FDM: Maybe have Disembaudio tell you to skip ahead…
Mike: (Laughs) We’re actually looking into ways where maybe there’s a player or something where we could do that. But for now, you get every second, and that can be challenging.
FDM: Let’s talk "Death Rat"… any plans for "Death Rat 2"? Or another, non-rat related novel?
Mike: Not now, I’m a bit too busy, but my wife keeps insisting that I write the screenplay. Just take a weekend and write it and try to sell it as a movie. The publishing world is tough; there’s such a long lead time for so much work. Rifftrax is a lot of work too, but it’s OUT like the next day, and you can get a reaction to it. But with a book, obviously it’s a year or two before it comes out. Probably not in the near future.
FDM: Hopefully the movie would keep a way to keep the Robert Loggia joke…
Mike: Yeah, definitely.
FDM: More on your writing: "The Tort", from TimmyBigHands. Any way we could get that back online?
Mike: You know, I was looking for that, and I did find some of it on the Wayback Machine…
FDM: Yeah, it’s missing the last chapter.
Mike: Ah. Kevin’s here, I’m gonna talk to him. I know he has that all on CD or something, stored away. And I actually found that and our southern Gothic novel, "Cry Dry Your Eyes, Sweet Bette", and having forgotten it I actually read it, and enjoyed it; I was laughing. And I was thinking: "We gotta get this thing back out", so I’m gonna work on that.
FDM: It was such a great site, Kill A Guy, the Cliparts…and even with Wayback, a lot of the images are gone, or you just get one panel, totally out of context.
Mike: Yeah, Kevin’s got all that stuff stored, so it might be time to revisit, see what he’s got available. There was a lot of fun stuff there.
FDM: OK, one final question: You are forever associated with Road House, and likewise I am constantly mocked for my love of Armageddon… I think it’s by far the finest oil drillers in space movie ever.
Mike: Oh yeah… sure.
FDM: So I was wondering what you thought of it, because I know it’s come up on the Rifftrax forums, people requesting it…
Mike: It is a popular choice… I only saw it once, when it first came out. And I remember it being so loud that I could laugh out loud at parts and no one around me noticed it! So, yeah, I think I will revisit that one. Michael Bay, right?
FDM: Correct, Bay and Bruce Willis. You guys did some of it on the Summer Spectacular…
Mike: Oh right, right. Yeah, I’ll take a look at that one, thanks for reminding me!
FDM: Excellent. Thank you for your time.
Rifftrax come out every week or so, and are available at the Rifftrax Offfical Site. Film Crew DVDs will be released once a month, and the first is available now (you can buy that here: The Film Crew: Hollywood After Dark). Fans of MST3k will feel right at home, and if you have never seen a film without Mike and his friends commenting on it, now is the perfect time to jump on board.