To Kill the Sunflower: An Interview with Cory McAbee

[7 April 2009]

By Justin Dimos

PopMatters Features Editor

Space.  The big blackness, the place where we keep all our stuff, the final frontier, etc.  It may be somewhat quiet out there, so let’s jazz up this lonely town with Cory McAbee, the extraordinary singer, legendary writer, and underground director of the new space western musical Stingray Sam, a film that just recently premiered at Sundance.

Perhaps you’ve seen McAbee, electric autoharp in hand, crooning charismatically about Santa Claus and Gingivitis as front man for the band American Astronaut, formerly known as The Billy Nayer Show.  Or maybe you remember him better as Samuel Curtis in the film The American Astronaut, playing the stoic space loner who waltzed into our pop cultural hearts no sooner than when he and the Blueberry Pirate won the dance contest at The Ceres Crossroads.  Now, though, in a miraculous feat of musical and cinematic engineering, McAbee is emerging once again as the convict Stingray Sam, bending the cosmos into one celestial balloon animal, he and The Quasar Kid parodying our absurd western culture with futuristic line dancing, their intergalactic freedom staked on the rescue of one curly-haired girl, cowboy hats shading the solar radiation, ready to blast off.

So what is Stingray Sam?  The plot is (somewhat) simple: a dangerous mission reunites Stingray Sam with his long lost accomplice, The Quasar Kid.  As we follow these two space-convicts, they earn their freedom in exchange for the rescue of a young girl who is being held captive by the genetically designed figurehead of a very wealthy planet. This musical space-western miniseries is designed for small screens but is perfect for screens of all sizes.

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So how long have you been making music? What’s your musical career look like?
I started playing in my first band when I was about 20 years old, which means I’ve been making music for over two decades now, not to reveal my age or anything. And you know, we were a playing a weird mix between rock and punk.

Where was that? Where were you guys located?
San Francisco, and unfortunately everyone called us punk cabaret for lack of better titles. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but that was the name we got back then. After that band broke up, I soon realized that I didn’t know how to play a musical instrument, but I thought I could play an autoharp fairly easily. My first girlfriend was a preschool teacher back then, and she owned an autoharp, so when I was in high school, I would strum on one, just goofing around on hers. Eventually, I bought one of my own and ended up writing a bunch of songs. I’ve since had a pickup put inside mine, so it’s electric now. I played in bands, recordings, and soundtracks. I even played it at the Lincoln Center Theater here in New York, and once at the Guggenheim as part of a Chinese opera.

And you’ve used the same one that whole time?
Actually, I have three now, but two that I really use. The one I’ve had souped-up into my own private electrified rock machine I’ve probably been playing that for 10 years or longer.

So how did playing the autoharp lead into The Billy Nayer Show and eventually the band American Astronaut?
I started The Billy Nayer Show when I started my first animated film. I just named them both Billy Nayer for lack of a better title. In fact, that animated film was more than two thousand paintings on paper with house paint, so it took a few years to finish as you can imagine.

Which is on The Billy Nayer Show: The Early Years DVD?
Yeah, that was my first attempt. I did that short because I wanted to mix painting and music and writing and performance, and I thought an animated film was the best way to accomplish that.

So that’s how The Billy Nayer Show came about?
Like I mentioned earlier, the name was just a random thing, but the band was me and Bobby Lurie, who’s been playing drums and producing the music for years. He produced The American Astronaut, and now he’s produced Stingray Sam. But we started playing together as The Billy Nayer Show with a few different people, and throughout the years, there have been over 50 people who have come and gone with The Billy Nayer Show.

Fifty? Is that a record?
Maybe, who knows? But it was on stage and in recording mostly that we played with all of them. The Billy Nayer Show was always this ongoing, developing animal. BNS Productions was the umbrella that we used for both music and film, really anything we were working on those years. Finally, we became the band we are today, called American Astronaut, which includes me, Bobby, and Frank Swart, our bassist who’s been playing with us for the past few years. Then, we brought Crugie onboard, who did a tour with us years back, and Karl Derfler to engineer, and decided that Crugie should be a member of the band and a musical collaborator, and Karl should be a co-producer.

So you changed the band name to American Astronaut?
Obviously, we took the new record into a different direction, so since we named The Billy Nayer Show after the first animated short, we named our band American Astronaut after the first feature. Luckily, while we were finishing up the album, we had enough time to make Stingray Sam, working on the soundtrack and acting in that, too.

So how did you get into filmmaking anyway?
All of our films are musicals. I guess that I like thinking in terms of musical. When I was young, I discovered Dennis Potter and his work, and I became really excited about the idea of making musicals that weren’t like the musicals I had grown up with. I wanted to be able to make musicals into something different than what I had known and thought musicals were.

So your musicals are different how exactly?
The route that I took with The American Astronaut was almost all of the songs in the film were inspired by real things, like people singing to a record or singing on stage, as opposed to erupting into song in any given situation, which happens in your traditional musical. And in my film, the songs also had the same spirit as the scene, but weren’t necessary about what was being discussed. In your typical musical, if people were speaking about love, then suddenly they would start singing about it. In my films, I wanted the songs to more reflect the personality of the people singing rather than what they were doing.

And you’ve used the same mentality for your new film Stingray Sam?
Stingray Sam is definitely its own monster. For instance, one of the things that inspired Stingray Sam was this idea of the small screen. A few years back, I had been commissioned by the Sundance Film Festival to create a short film for mobile phones and mobile phone distribution, which we called Reno. Most of the filmmakers that the committee chose were pretty famous, like the couple that made Little Miss Sunshine and my friend Justin Lin who did a couple of the Fast and the Furious films. And then there was me, this underground filmmaker, but luckily everybody seemed to really like my film. I enjoyed thinking about the small screen, and I really enjoyed watching the films and working on Reno, too.

“Reno”

Did 'Reno' inspire 'Stingray Sam'?

So Reno inspired Stingray Sam then?
In a way. I started to realize that this would be the new format that people would view things on. YouTube, for example. More people watch YouTube videos these days than ever before, and in fact, these viewers are posting and sharing clips of The American Astronaut already. Though it was obviously made for the big screen, I could see the parts that looked good on smaller screens, what worked well and what didn’t work at all. So I started thinking in those terms, and thought it would be nice to make a feature or at least a film that’s over an hour, but construct one that’s in sections like an old serial. In the case of Stingray Sam, there are these 10 to 11 minute episodes that all link together to make a complete piece, but at the same time, they’re each freestanding pieces as well.

Which will eventually, inevitably be posted on YouTube?
My hope is that the movie will be released in many different formats because yeah, it’s formatted for large screens and television viewing, but it’s also designed to hold up on small screens, which tend to be screens that people watch in transit while traveling. The information of the film is put together in a way that holds your attention as well, since the video will be something you’ll own and store on your device, whether a computer or even a phone. That way it’ll be something you can watch a few times and always get something new from it.

I’ll have to watch it twice. Once on my television and once on my phone.
It’s so much fun, this film. One thing that inspired Stingray Sam actually happened a few years ago when a woman from Denmark interviewed me in 2003. She had been part of a film festival that had shown The American Astronaut, and she gave me an enormous compliment. She told me that Europeans were very angry at America, mostly because of what our government was doing. But then she said that Europeans like to love certain things about America, and The American Astronaut had all the things that Europeans still enjoy loving about America.

Really? So your film brings out the best of us?
Yeah, it was a huge compliment. I started traveling a great deal around that time, and then I began to understand what she was talking about. So when I started making Stingray Sam, I wanted to embrace the American culture, but criticize us at the same time. As you would suspect, some of the themes in Stingray Sam are almost similar to political parodies that deal with issues like privatized prison systems and pharmaceuticals, among others, all of which inform the plot as well.

Does each episode tackle a new parody then, or are they all interwoven?
Each episode tends to introduce a new one, but they’re all interwoven, too. It’s a modern film, so Stingray Sam is definitely informed by what’s going on in American today, but it also includes the features that American cinema are known for, like musicals and singing cowboy westerns and curly haired little girls who have been separated from their parents, all of which are interwoven through this little parody of our modern western society.

So are those the elements that you like about this genre? Because it seems to me that The American Astronaut and Stingray Sam are situated in similar genres that are both shot in that garage style, black and white aesthetic.
First of all, I think black and white is one of the greatest special effects I have at my access. Black and white separates you from reality, and I believe it’s extremely helpful with these two films. But The American Astronaut and Stingray Sam are like cousins. I’ve always considered The American Astronaut that musical space western that wasn’t actually a musical space western at all. Making Stingray Sam though, I wanted to take all the things that The American Astronaut was known for, like being a western and the way the music was treated, and make something where you actually get to watch cowboys and see spaceships on planet surfaces. At the same time, I also used different still imagery in both. In The American Astronaut, for instance, we used paintings to show outer space, and in Stingray Sam, we used collage and graphic design to tell the story in between the actions.

One of the other things I was curious about is how you incorporated the music into the film, and what kind of influence the film had on the music and vice versa ...
The songs of Stingray Sam were written with each episode, which is to say that each episode being distinctly different from the one before it has a featured track all its own. That said, I wrote the majority of the songs for Stingray Sam, and of course the band and I performed and created the musical arrangements together, but there’s one episode where one of the actors performs his own song. Crugie plays the Quasar Kid in the movie, but as a musician he’s also written his own songs, so I chose one of his songs that fit the Quasar Kid better, musically performed by us as the band. Funny story is that I was going to have the little girl in the movie, who happens to be my daughter Willa Vy McAbee as well, sing a song that she had written—she’s always coming up with very interesting songs—but I eventually decided I didn’t want a little kid singing in the movie.

No? Why not?
That just always makes my skin crawl.

So your daughter is in this movie, too?
Yeah, she was great. She’s been acting out scenes from movies since before she could talk. Play acting has just been something she’s always done on her own. She would stand and very earnestly try to sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. And we always knew the song was Somewhere Over the Rainbow because she could somehow say bluebirds fly. But she would go through all the motions, and it was always delightful. If you watch Reno, the short film mobile phone project I made for Sundance, you’ll see Willa in there too, doing her little dance.

Yeah, I saw her last name in the credits and I wondered about that.
Yeah, that’s her all right, and she did an amazing job in Stingray Sam as well. I was a little worried she might become shy or freak out with all the cameras and the people around—she’s only five after all—and she did for maybe a minute, but then she awed everyone with her performance. She just remembered everything and nailed all her marks. Even if we moved her mark two feet over and told her to turn a little bit, she would hit it perfectly. She really had a great time, and she probably had more fun doing that than anything else she’s ever done before.

So is she going to become an actress?
You know, I asked her if she wanted to be an actor, and she said, well I don’t want to be a kid actor. Then she said, but can I act in your movies? And I said, yeah, sometimes, sure, I would love that. Afterwards the casting director for Stingray Sam told me about his friend who was making a movie with a role for a five-year-old girl that Willa could do. So like a good dad, I asked what happens to the girl in the movie? And he said, oh she gets drowned, it’s about a murderer. All I told them was that Willa doesn’t like to get her face wet. I don’t want her to be in other people’s movies. Last thing I want is my daughter getting drowned by a murderer after all.

On that note, how did you go about the casting of Stingray Sam?
It’s all people I’ve known from the band or my family. A lot of them are stage actors who have been friends of mine for years, too.

Do you write with them in mind?
Yeah, I wrote characters for my band and Willa’s part with all of them exactly in mind. Like I said, I used Crugie’s song to be his for the movie, and to help Willa, I used phrases that she had said before. For Bobby, I chose things that he had never done before, but knew he could do, and for Frank, I gave him a part that I thought fit him very well.

Directing 'The American Astronaut'

How was directing Stingray Sam, and how did it compare to directing The American Astronaut?
The American Astronaut was huge, comparatively speaking. For that one, we had bigger sets, and I brought in a friend to do all the art direction, but we had the time for it as well. Stingray Sam was on a much smaller budget, working with a much smaller crew, and we had much less time to finish production. Making both of them was still tons of fun. On a huge level, The American Astronaut was a blast, but it was much more intense. Stingray Sam felt much more like a personal project, almost family-oriented.

Family-oriented?
Because of the smaller crew, I would say. You’re all huddled together in one room, editing, playing music, whatever. Everyone’s not so spread out working on different projects at the same time. Little things would happen that brought us closer together, too. Like for my daughter’s character we needed someone to play her father, but she’s a little shy, so you can’t just ask her to run into a stranger’s arms and let him hug her. Eventually, we ended up using our director of photography, because they became friends, and I asked her, you mind if Scottie picks you up, and she said no, that’s alright. There were other times when we were editing in one room while the music was being recorded and mixed in the other room, and we would bring in the director of photography who just happened to stop by that day and the editor to sing back up tracks. Long story short, making Stingray Sam was very personal, and all of us worked together as a little family.

So how is Stingray Sam the character different from Samuel Curtis in The American Astronaut?
Samuel Curtis is much more serious and definitely much more intense. Stingray Sam is a little bit more naïve, and even though the character has a checkered past, he’s one of those guys who remains an eternal optimist no matter what happens. I think we all know people like that, people who no matter what happens to them they come through it with a bit of optimism still intact and perhaps more trusting than they should be.

Did some of the cast think you would be more like Samuel Curtis in real life?
Actually, three people told me separately that the only thing they knew about me was The American Astronaut. They each watched the film a handful of times, and they said they were intimidated when it came time to meet me, thinking that I would be like Samuel Curtis. After they worked with me for a while though, they told me that I was nothing like Samuel Curtis.

Sounds like a compliment to your acting, right?
Yeah, but as far as it is for being cool, it’s kind of a bum wrap. I told my wife about how they thought I was nothing like Samuel Curtis, and she even said, oh yeah, you’re nothing like Samuel Curtis, emphasis on the nothing. I guess that makes me a good actor, but not such a cool character.

So did you try anything different or experiment with any different effects that you didn’t already attempt in The American Astronaut?
I did more dancing in Stingray Sam. I figured out one of the dances the night before, drinking beer and listening to music in my bathroom, but I needed a dance for the deadline the next day, so I came up with this dance that night. If you watch the trailer, you’ll see me doing this jerky dance like I’m being electrocuted while wearing this science outfit. One of the camera assistants even tried to do the dance and ended up popping his knee out, which need surgery then.

That’s one complicated dance.
Very complicated. We also did the narration with the collage illustrations, which is something I’ve dabbled in before, but we took much further with Stingray Sam. In fact, David Hyde Pierce did the narration this time, and he did such an amazing job that I’m certain people will love it.

So what ever happened to Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest?
Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest is also a musical, but it’s very different than these two. The musical elements are much more embedded into the dreams of the werewolf character, but the film itself is more about the hunters. Hopefully I’ll be able to make that this year.

You just don’t see that many werewolf movies these days, and I don’t think there’s been a werewolf musical release to date.
Personally, I love the story for Werewolf Hunters. The film is about a type of hero that lives in a society that doesn’t appreciate this particular type of hero. So there’s an underground, and the werewolf moves beneath the radar, if you can wrap your mind around that.

How do you feel about your early films?
I’ve already mentioned my first film, the animated short. After that, the next one I did was Man on the Moon, which was something I shot as an experiment while just goofing around with this pixel camera someone gave to me. I had it transferred to 16 millimeter and played it a couple time in theaters. I really enjoyed the audience response to Man on the Moon—people were actually singing along to the Santa Claus song. Then, there’s The Ketchup and Mustard Man, which was a live performance that we decided to make into a kind of psychedelic, stream-of-consciousness film.

How did you get your ideas for these films? What inspired the American Astronaut, Stingray Sam, and Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest? What brought on those ideas?
Werewolf Hunters has been a story I’ve been rewriting in my head ever since I started writing music and decided that I wanted to make films. It’s always been rewritten based on what’s going on in my life. Actually, it’s not being rewritten anymore, but it was being reworked mentally for years. As for The American Astronaut, there was about three years when I wasn’t living anywhere. I just stuffed all my stuff in a friend’s carport and moved around, worked security in bars, and I was still performing, so I wrote The American Astronaut based on that experience.

This is probably a trick question, but what do you enjoy most about filmmaking?
Probably working with people, and seeing how things come alive in the hands of others. When you write a part for a movie, you’re always hearing your own voice say the lines, and even though you might imagine someone else in the role, it’s always you somehow. But when you actually see someone acting the part out, especially at the point where you’re filming the scenes, the script takes on new dimension and becomes alive, and that’s really amazing to experience. Working with Crugie and Willa in Stingray Sam was great, too. Neither of them had acted or done anything like this before, and both of them did the most amazing job. Nobody on set could imagine these two hadn’t acted before. Thing was, when I first started working with Curgie, he didn’t really know how to act, so he acted like he was acting at first. By just rehearsing constantly, which was great for me because I got to work on my character and play around with some shots, I got to develop tons for the actual movie while I was working with him to act like he normally acts. Now he just pops off the screen, and people are just going to love him. With my daughter, it was actually difficult to go back to being a dad after working with her as just a couple of actors. Watching her step up to the plate was amazing.

Another thing I love working on is storyboarding. I storyboard everything quite intensively. When we were making Stingray Sam, people actually stopped looking at the screenplay altogether and started referring to the storyboard for how the film would be shot.

Do you storyboard the locations, too?
I draw out what I’m guessing the set will look like, and then we try to find a location that will match. But if we can’t find a location that matches or we find a location that has its own merit and might work better, we just re-choreograph the scene to fit the physical dimensions wherever we choose.

So what do you foresee for the future? For the band? For the movies?
We’re sitting on some great material right now. We’ve got about an album and a half worth the music recorded. We’ve got two feature length screenplays that are storyboarded. We also shot a live performance in a recording studio, so we have that to edit together. We’ve definitely got a lot of things ready to go. But there’s just so much work to do that we’re going to take off some time from being a performing band and concentrate on taking advantage of things we have. Hopefully, I’ll continue making films as well.

So what are you hoping for at Sundance with Stingray Sam, especially because you’ve worked so closely with Sundance before?
Sundance has always been extremely nice to me. They accepted my first animated short before I even knew what the Sundance Film Festival was, but somebody who worked there saw my short at this little local festive where I lived and submitted it to Sundance for me. A couple years later, we did The Billy Nayer Chronicles, where we performed between films and interwove them all together. I didn’t realize this until recently, but it was their first multimedia event. Then, they brought me to the Sundance lab later with The American Astronaut screenplay, which was 50 percent storyboards as well, and then let me premier the film there when it was finished. Not long after that, they contacted me about doing Reno and even accepted Stingray Sam, too. A lot of people say, oh they’re into commercial stuff. They might be into that as well, for different reasons. I mean they might like some of the stuff that’s happening, but Little Miss Sunshine was actually an independent film, which just became a commercial film because of its success. The fact that they keep calling me up to do stuff means they’re pretty cool to me, because I’m definitely not a Hollywood guy at all, and they’ve always been in my corner, supporting my films, trying to help me out whenever they can.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/71065-to-kill-the-sunflower-an-interview-with-cory-mcabee/