The Film Crew: Deep Think

In an hour-and-a-half filled with jokes, plenty of things are bound to tickle your funnybone, but it’s surprising what finally makes you succumb to helpless giggles. Maybe it’s Oppenheimer’s “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” quote done in the voice of Christopher Walken. Maybe it’s a Condoleeza Rice or Bobby Brown reference in the midst of a waaaay-too-long burlesque scene. Whatever it is, the guys in the Film Crew will get to you at some point, simply due to the laws of probability. Throw this much against the wall and something’s bound to stick. Of course, it helps that the Film Crew are really funny guys.

Actually, they’re Mystery Science Theater 3000 alumni Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy. This time around, they’re pretty much doing the same thing they were doing on Mystery Science Theater 3000: making fun of movies that, arguably, should never have been made. Only now they do it under the guise of working for a lunatic boss who wants to provide commentaries for every film ever made. So no robots, and no Satellite of Love. But you do get some quality riffing on some of Hollywood’s best-left-forgotten classics.

Hollywood After Dark, for example, is a seedy tale of broken Hollywood dreams that revolves around a hipster-orchestrated heist, some star-crossed nihilistic love, and burlesque segments that, by all rights, should have killed the stripping industry before the first pole could be bolted to a floor. Or, as the Film Crew put it, “just like Heat, only it’s stupid and has stripping.” Or better yet, when Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy imagine the pitch that got some producer excited about making the film: “I envision a bleak movie that’s mostly sad, pathetic stripping interrupted by dull, silent robberies.”

This is the kind of movie, full of cultural and sexual subtext, that fits right in the Film Crew’s wheelhouse. Hipster thieves, casting couches, a Shakespeare-reading junkyard worker/demolitions expert, Rue McClanahan stripping — yes, that’s right, Rue McClanahan of later Golden Girls fame portraying a conflicted stripper who dances while her Hollywood dreams slip away.

Hollywood After Dark is meant to be titillating, but it’s not, and probably wasn’t even by ’60s standards. Extended scenes of burlesque girls strutting their stuff merely make you cock your head in confusion. Even the Film Crew seem bewildered by it all, getting some zingers in along the way but never giving in to their snickering inner 12-year-olds that yearn to be free. You’re right along with them as they begin to fondly reminisce about the sale of a water pump earlier in the film.

Killers from Space is just as inept, but in its own special ways. The aliens, once they finally show up in the film, are little more than men dressed in jumpsuits and cummerbunds, with ping-pong balls for eyes. Starring Peter Graves, the film’s ripe for plenty of A&E’s Biography jokes, and the Film Crew gladly oblige when they’re not riffing on Graves’ stony demeanor (“I will give nothing. I will radiate blandness with all that is in me. That is my vow.”). The film’s glacial pace (which makes the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels seem brisk and nimble by comparison), over-reliance on stock footage, and unsurprising reluctance to actually show the aliens, though, take up much of Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy’s time. Oh, and it has lots of smoking; Lucky Strike stocks must have gone through the roof based only on the nicotine consumption in this film.

Of the two films, Hollywood After Dark fares the best at the hands of the Film Crew, meaning they savage it the most effectively. The film’s melodrama, one-dimensional characters, and bleak attitude must have seemed like mannah from Heaven to Murphy, Corbett, and Nelson. Killers is funny as well, but the Crew’s riffs on the techniques the film uses (or rather, misuses) pale in comparison to Hollywood‘s opportunities for descents into Tom Waits impersonations, beatnik stereotypes, and references to everyone from Roger Daltrey to Whitney Houston to Jim Jarmusch.

If the Film Crew’s treatment of Killers from Space deserves to be immortalized for any one thing, though, it’s the Robechet. Killers contains an insane number of seemingly random close-ups, prompting Nelson to explain that this technique — the Robechet — is actually borrowed from French Cinema, and is named after a French actor who died while being filmed in close-up. Delivered by Nelson in matter-of-fact style, it seems extremely plausible; however, as Murphy admits in the interview with PopMatters, below, it’s completely made-up.

Extras on both discs are fairly slim. Hollywood finds Corbett presenting a Shakespearean “Ode to Lunch”. Killers features a “Did You Know?” segment which reveals that one scene used backwards masking to replicate the alien language (the Film Crew then go on to present some fake outtakes from this scene, in which the unnamed actor supposedly voices his frustration with Peter Graves). Extras, though, aren’t the point of the Film Crew DVDs, not when the gang are doing such a bang-up job of skewering these films.

Mystery Science Theatre 3000 alumni and The Film Crew member Kevin Murphy talks with Andrew Gilstrap about RiffTrax and other stuff.

When Mystery Science Theater 3000 went off the air in 1999, Kevin Murphy, Mike Nelson, and Bill Corbett didn’t just retire to the couch to watch bad movies without the pressure of having to critique them all the time. Nelson authored several books, Corbett co-wrote a miniseries for the Sci-Fi Channel and a screenplay for a movie starring Eddie Murphy. Kevin Murphy traveled the world, viewing a movie each day and writing a book about the experience. So they’ve been busy.

Recently, they’ve been involved in RiffTrax, an Internet-based continuation of their movie-savaging ways, where fans can download audio commentaries that they can then sync up to the movies at home. A nifty way of getting around the fact that many movies aren’t exactly lining up to be made fun of, the RiffTrax approach has skewered everything from Battlefield Earth, to Road House to Top Gun. Now it’s time for the Film Crew, where the trio once again teams up to tackle the worst of the worst under the guise of providing the films with the DVD commentary tracks they so richly deserve. According to Murphy, who spoke with PopMatters, it’s been “a year rich in talking back to movies.”

Even though you’re starting the Film Crew, the RiffTrax approach is still active. That seems like a good way of getting around some of the rights issues you must have struggled with over the years.

That’s right, and it’s going great guns, too. It’s fun, and really sort of fits the way that a lot of people are getting their media now, to go online and download a podcast and sync it up right there, and it’s so much fun to make fun of Shatner while Shatner’s actually on the screen. Instead of having to make fun of him in absentia — never nearly as much fun. Oh yeah, we’ve been having a blast.

As far as the Film Crew releases go, those are straight to DVD, right?

Yeah, it is. It’s a little bit more for people who like to just pop in the DVD and also for fans of the super cheese that we used to do on Mystery Science Theatre. Hollywood After Dark is exemplary of cheese. Headachy black-and-white, Rue McClanahan up on stage shaking her good stuff, a paper thin plot that involves a heist, and the acting is either hammy or nonexistent, so it’s perfect.

It seemed to actually be trying to tell a very poignant story.

Well, it was, wasn’t it? And God bless the movie, but it failed. It went from poignant to sort of mildly nauseating.

Does the DVD format offer you more freedom than you had working on a channel like Sci-Fi or Comedy Central?

There were always standards and practices that we had to follow, even on Comedy Central back then. We couldn’t get away with anything, and now everybody gets away with too much. We are our own governors on this, and we’ve never been ones to get too foul, because … I think foul’s just an excuse for not being funny. So it’s fun to be naughty, and naughty can be very funny, but foul’s just foul. And with a stripping show, all the filth is built right in!

You’re also doing Killers from Space, which comes with its own set of problems. Do you have more fun with something like Hollywood After Dark than you do with the science fiction films?

We’ve always had a huge, passionate brace of fans that love for us to make fun of the old science fiction movies. Just because they’re such easy targets, that’s the thing about them. Over the years, I think we’ve spent less time making fun of the bad special effects, and we’ve spent more time making fun of the hard-boiled guys with the boxy suits, the hamburger faces, the fedora hats, the huge cars, and sort of the culture that was wrapped around those ‘50s paranoia films. That’s still fun to launch into, and it seems more nostalgic than ever; it’s kind of weird. You know, back in the ‘90s when we were doing this, it didn’t seem as far removed, and now it seems like making fun of Stalin or something.

It’s definitely weird watching an old movie like that and seeing them light a cigarette at every opportunity.

Smoking is compulsory! Everybody’s smoking. The dog’s probably smoking when you’re not looking.

Do these films still hold any surprises for you guys, or do you feel like you’ve seen it all at this point?

Well, actually, they do. Hollywood After Dark was just jaw-dropping. Just scene after scene, and the way it was put together! I ended up saying to myself, “I can’t believe that someone actually intended to make a film that looks like this.” And in Killers from Space, there’s that delight in fully realizing that the aliens simply are wearing hooded suits and have ping-pong balls sliced in half for their eyeballs. And they’re actually trying to get away with this as a special effect. Those things are sources of delight for us.

Some of those jokes must present themselves immediately, but it has to be a lot of work putting those commentaries together.

You know, it is a lot of work, because unlike back in the heyday, having a well-funded network show, the DVD budgets are even cheaper, so we can’t afford to have a room full of cushy furniture and well-paid, well-fed writers. So it was really the three of us, and the way we’ve gone about it most recently, is to write huge chunks of the movie alone, and then come together to review and revise. But one of the things, since we’ve been making fun of movies for over ten years now, is just trying to keep it fresh is probably our biggest challenge. Probably what makes it hardest is that we want it to be as funny as we can possibly make it, so it takes a lot of thought and a lot of caring, and a lot of banging your head against the computer screen in order to get there. But I think it’s worth it.

Of the three of you, does each lean towards a certain type of humor, a certain type of joke?

You know, it’s funny. At this point, I would defy anyone to tell which chunks of a movie Mike worked on or Bill worked on or I worked on. We end up working on the whole thing together, rehearsing and revising, but we’ve learned how to be an ensemble together. OK, truth be told, I’m the one who usually goes for the filth, the scatological humor, the “genitalogical” humor. I think I jump there both feet first before anyone else does. If I would accuse Bill of anything, it’s of just heaping piles of rage on top of the movie, just ending up yelling at the movie. We all get quite guilty of that, too. It’s not something that goes into the script, but sometimes after staring at a movie for a while, Mike will send me an email just cursing the film to high heaven because the film hurts so much. So that sort of thing happens.

Your new setup finds the Film Crew working on commentary tracks for every movie every made, starting with the worst of the worst. Does that come from any kind of thoughts you have on the fact that commentary tracks are everywhere?

It’s the way that DVDs go these days. It’s kind of become the coin of the realm. Everyone knows that it comes with your DVD, although god knows why most of the time. If it’s a really crappy film, all you get is the choreographer or the dolly grip, or one of the writers, and then they just talk amongst themselves and pay no attention to the movie after a while. So we thought; people are used to what a commentary track looks and feels like, so why not present it as that? We’re going to give commentary tracks to every film ever made, the good and the bad and the ugly, and that’s going to be our task.

So with Hollywood and Killers under your belts, what do you guys have in store for us now?

Well, there’ll be two more Film Crew DVDs coming out soon. One is already available for preorder: Wild Women of Wongo. That one’s a very garishly colored — it’s a very colorful film. It’s sort of a caveman sex farce, and the acting is as awful as acting gets, but you do get to see a lot of skin-clad women dancing around, so that’s exciting. Some of the dumbest dialogue you’ve heard in your life.

After that, a Steve Reeves movie called Giant of Marathon. A sword-and-sandal, which is perfectly appropriate since 300 is coming out on DVD. And I think if you watch both, and compare and contrast the two, if you watch Giant of Marathon the same night you watch 300, I’m not sure which one’s going to entertain you more! I have this fondness in my heart for the tiny loin clothes and the muffiny chests and the greasy muscles running around acting important. And Steve is the only one in the whole cast who speaks English. That always delights me; everyone else is either speaking Italian or Greek to him, and it’s very poorly dubbed. Boy, they’re just fun; they remind me of my youth watching those goofy things on Saturday morning. It’s always fun to tear into those.

So these movies are definitely part of your history, then.

Oh yeah, that’s one of the things that’s fun. I know I saw Killers from Space when I was a kid, and I definitely saw Giant of Marathon. But Wild Women of Wongo? I don’t know where the hell that thing came from. And the same thing with Hollywood After Dark — of course, that wouldn’t have been on TV when I was a kid. Too naughty.

How do you come across these films at this point?

It takes a lot of research. It takes a lot of looking at films and finding out which ones are available to us. Because some of the juiciest bits are just not available because someone owns the rights and they don’t want anyone to make fun of their movies. You go through a lot of excitement over a film and then a lot of disappointment when you find out you can’t get it. That part is actually the most grueling part of the process: trying to find films that people will let us make fun of. Or films that nobody owns. Believe it or not, those still exist. Those are our two choices. And that takes a long time, and so when you finally do find one, it’s so much fun to tear into it.

There are probably fewer than there used to be.

Well, I guess everyone’s buying everything up now. Digital rights are strange as well. Thank god I’m not a lawyer. Well, if I was a lawyer, I’d be rich — it’s such a huge field, intellectual property. But it drives me a little bit crazy as a so-called entertainer.

One last question. Killers from Space had an insane number of seemingly random close-ups, and Mike Nelson claimed that it’s actually a technique named after a French actor who actually died while being filmed in close-up. What was the term you used for that?

The Robechet!

The Robechet! Is that for real? I haven’t had a chance to look it up yet…

God bless you, it’s completely fabricated. It’s out of Mike’s twisted mind. He just came up with the name…

It sounded completely plausible! I know! That’s what I love about it! I’ll love it if it shows up in some poor film student’s essay final sometime. That would be perfect. Then I’ll feel I’ve done my job.

RATING 8 / 10