If you were fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, as I was, fasten your funny belts for the newest incarnation of MST3K‘s writer/host Mike Nelson: Rifftrax.
Whereas MST3K was limited by licensing and budgetary constraints to spoofing only the cheapest of the cheapo B-movies, Nelson, thanks to the computer age, has come up with a new way where anything can now come before his comic crosshairs. A free downloadable digital player syncs his crew’s hilarious soundtrack to a DVD. So he can do The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars, as well as Plan 9 From Outer Space. Anyone can rent the DVD, then (for a small fee) download Nelson’s Rifftrax and play them together. Free speech at its funniest!
MST3K‘s gimmick of the exiled spaceman and his two robots have been replaced by Nelson and crew’s commentary and voice-overs, giving a radically funny new take on many of Hollywood’s biggest films, So for those who miss MST3K (and even those who didn’t know about it), no more boring late nights with Rifftrax to the rescue. I just had the pleasure of interviewing Rifftrax creative genius, Mike Nelson:
Richard Elfman: Well, I just saw Rifftrax’s version of Star Trek V, Roadhouse, Star Wars, Fellowship of the Ring, and Matrix and I’ve been laughing my head off!
Mike Nelson: Oh good. I’m glad to hear it.
RE: Rifftrax seems to have evolved from Mystery Science Theater 3000.
MN: Yeah, it’s obviously the movies themselves, but it’s pretty much distilled down. The thing that everyone remembers about it was the commenting on movies, and this is it in its purest form, I guess.
RE: What has been the reaction from your “Mysties”—your fans?
MN: It’s been good. This is an experience of being a web-based thing—you’re so much closer to the fans. We always had that sort of close relationship with the fans, but I wasn’t involved with it as much because I was busy producing a TV show. And so in this case, the fans get a little more input into what’s done, so that’s been fun–when you can directly tailor things to what people want to see and do it almost instantaneously. So I think the reaction has been pretty good.
RE: With Mystery Science Theater 3000, I suppose there were budgetary restraints because films had to be licensed, so you were limited to these B-movies–which was still hilarious, but now the brilliant thing you guys have come up with is you don’t have to license anything, because Rifftrax simply runs along-side, automatically synced on your downloadable player. So what has this new unlimited free speech factor allowed you to do now?
MN: Well, Keanu Reeves movies mostly. [Laughs] That really was a painful thing with Mystery Science–the licensing, because often we would fall in love with a movie that, you know, we have to get this movie–and you just couldn’t or we’d lose it halfway through negotiations after already doing a lot of work on it. And we’d always get suggestions from people saying, “Why don’t you do this current movie?” and I think people just weren’t thinking. They didn’t understand how we can’t do it or we would be sued out of existence. So yeah, this has been nice. There is only one downside to it–that it now must be a movie that people have a pretty good chance of having, either on their shelves or readily available at their video store. So there are movies that I would love to do, but they’re still a little too obscure. So it’s wide open, and yet there is a little bit of a restriction in it that it has to be a fairly well-known movie.
RE: Have you ever, ever found that Hollywood’s budget sometimes exceeds the intelligence of its storyline? [Laughs]
MN: [Laughs] Yeah, someone asked me what’s the difference between big studio movies and the old B-movies–and the big movies, for the most part, are B-movies with $75 million-dollar budgets–where they just didn’t work that hard on the script. Or maybe it’s needing the movie make money in foreign markets, so it has to be kind of a shiny object, where it translates easily. So these movies aren’t necessarily better in quality just because they’re hundreds of times more expensive to produce.
RE: My brother, Danny, has done scores to a lot of really mega-budget films, and he’s always amazed that the scripts are rarely finished even going into shooting because they’re still working on the deal and hiring rewrites and this and that–and it’s astounding.
MN: That’s stunning to me. The script is the movie. I don’t know how they take a chance on that and just assume that it will all fall together.
RE: Well, now that you’re lampooning bigger targets, have you gotten any flack?
MN: No, I haven’t heard a thing. But every now and then I’ll hear something from someone who worked tangentially on a film and say, “I’m glad you finally took this on,” but nobody, like a director or a major star, has said anything yet. But I think, for the most part, the commentary is not just two hours of us ragging on how bad this movie is. It’s a meta-dialogue–and it’s a whole bunch of different jokes and not simply a two-hour put-down. It’s something to accompany the film and make it funny–although a film that deserves it certainly would get it. But we’ve also done films that aren’t terribly bad. We did a Lord of the Rings film, which–I like those quite a bit, yet the commentary still works. It’s just a new way for people to enjoy something they already liked.
RE: I’m a big fan of Lord of the Rings, and the Democratic caucus joke made me fall off my chair. [Laughs] So tell me, Mike, about some of your collaborators.
MN: Well, I’m working with old Mystery Science Theater friends, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbit, pretty regularly. And then we do some celebrity riffs now and again. I did one with Neil Patrick Harris and Fred Willard, and just did one with Weird Al Yankovic–and those are really a blast and I like the variety it offers.
RE: I see that you work with Mrs. Nelson–Bridget Jones-Nelson.
MN: Yes, we did a couple things together. We’re used to it. I worked with her on Mystery Science Theater, so it was something that we do pretty easily.
RE: Could you tell us something about your creative process? Do you look at these before and then contemplate and think, or is it more spontaneous?
MN: Well, it’s a little bit of a combination, but for the most part, what we do we’ve kind of come to call just grinding it out, which is to sit with these things for hours on end and figure it out: This is a space that needs a joke, now what’s the joke? And so some of the jokes, maybe the ones you kind of skim off the top, come out pretty spontaneously and they’re easy, but that’s a very small percentage of it. The rest of it, you have to realize, is…all we’re selling here is an audio product and so it has to be funny all the way through–so it’s kind of the process of getting it all down. And then it’s really arduous, refining it and asking: Is this the best joke that we have here? Does it fit? Does it step on this moment that leads into this moment? And so it’s a lot of just grinding it out until you’ve got a product you’re happy with, and then the actual recording of it is a joy because you’re in good hands and everything is going to go well. And that’s when we can play off each other and really have fun with it.
RE: Yeah, Rifftrax has to be fun to record.
MN: It is. The taping of it is always something we really look forward to.
RE: Anything special on the horizon with Rifftrax?
MN: We just finished a cycle of doing some short features—kind of those old hygiene films and things that we used to do on Mystery Science. We did a collection of those, and that was really a challenge not to laugh all the way through because they’re so instantly recognizable and so much fun right off the bat, so I think we taped a good dozen or something, and we’ll be putting those out one by one. So I’m excited about that. It’s kind of a new thing that we’re doing.
RE: That’s gonna be hilarious.
MN: Yeah, I love those things.
RE: Well, I look forward to more Rifftrax and I think that this is a brilliant idea because the sky’s the limit.
MN: Yeah, well thank you. I appreciate it. I do think it is. Now I can go to the theater and say, “Ooh, I can’t wait…” I saw Beowulf not too long ago and I thought, “Hmmm.” There were things I liked about it, and yet I thought, “This is going to make a great Rifftrax.”
RE: I think that’s perfect. You see the movie and then go, “I could Rifftrax this.
MN: …And immediately go home and work on it.
RE: Any interesting guest collaborators coming up?
MN: We do have a few, but I can’t mention names. We’re really lucky when we ask people that we like to do this wacky project–we don’t often get slapped away with, “Are you kidding? I would never consider it.” We get a lot of people who are interested and love the product that we’re doing, so there’s a number of people that we’ve got lined up. Unfortunately, since they’re not 100%, I can’t say yet.
RE: Ah-hah. But we have to stay tuned.
See more right now at the Rifftrax website