Q&A with Joel Hodgson of Cinematic Titanic/MST3K
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Q&A with Joel Hodgson of Cinematic Titanic/MST3K
I don't want to create a riff traffic jam.
By the time Mystery Science Theater 3000 turned off the lights in 1999, Joel Hodgson had already been long-retired from the world of B-movie riffing. He went on to write for TV shows, like Space Ghost and Jimmy Kimmel. These days Hodgson's back in the game, having gathered a bunch of his old MST3K pals (Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl) for Cinematic Titanic, a series of DVDs and live shows that once again feature his silhouette over bad movies. (Meanwhile, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and other MST3K alums are doing RiffTracks ' mp3s full of jokes to accompany big Hollywood blockbusters.) Cinematic Titanic will be at the Trocadero on Friday with Alien Factor and Saturday with Danger on Tiki Island.
City Paper: What's special about these two movies?
Joel Hodgson: It's funny, you just try to find these perfect, forgotten, orphaned films that you hope people have never seen before and work well with what we do. We try to build a show on the back of these movies. We have different criteria for what we like and it's just usually gotta be a play that you wanna spend, that you're willing to spend, 90 minutes at along with us. That's kind of it.
Alien Factor is really interesting in that it's got a kind of high concept where there's a zoological expedition from outer space crash lands outside of Baltimore and the monsters get loose and start terrorizing the town.
And Tiki Island is really nice looking movie and it's well made but they have the worst monster, probably, in movie history.
CP: What makes it the worst monster?
JH: It just was poorly constructed and not well thought out. He looks like the Michelin Man if he got in a fiery car crash.
|Danger on Tiki Island|
It's just usually those elements that's funny. You know people think we just' riff on bad movies, or cheesy movies, but the movies do have to have a certain amount of structure to carry the thing. They do have to be able to tell a story. There are some movies that are so bad we can't use them.
CP: Do you find that your movie standards/requirements are different for Cinematic Titanic than they were for MST3K?
JH: Yeah absolutely because we perform it live, so it's really about entertaining an audience for 90 minutes. And we're a bit more strict about it.
You know, we just kind of were rollin' 'em off. When we did Mystery Science Theater, we did like 22 shows a year. And we didn't have to really answer to anybody. Fortunately it worked out great, I'm super proud of Mystery Science Theater, really happy that people still know about it and care about it 20 years after.
But we have to be a little more particular.
CP: This is more like theater, right?
JH: It's a movie and a play kind of put together. Cause we're on stage performing it. We're kinda sandwiched between this movie and the audience. So you have to go in feeling confident that you can make it work and that the audience will have fun.
CP: Is there room for improv?
JH: Oh yeah, it's funny but we've learned that the most satisfying experiences for people are when we're having fun too. So we're trying to do two things, which is amuse the audience and amuse each other. That means you have to surprise each other occasionally and throw in stuff.
CP: Does that knock the timing off?
JH: You just have a certain amount of time so you have to be alert to that. You have to be thinking: I don't want to create a riff traffic jam. If you're gonna start to plow into other people's lines, you have to feel like you got something really good.
CP: How many times would you say you've seen these particular movies?
JH: We go through them several times while we're writing them. Your first pass is the joke pass or a riff pass. And then we kind of divvy up, we all write them separately. And then we decide who is supervising a section. So I might get a 15 minute or 20 minute segment. And it's my job to go through everybody's riffs and my riffs and kinda marry everything together. We each do a section and then we go through it again and do a joke polish.
We have our scripts but we each have about 150 jokes, each person, so you have to figure out there they land and where all the jokes go in the body of the movie.
CP: If things aren't tight, that's part of the fun, I guess.
JH: Yeah. You have to leave room for error. It's live and were doing a lot. For instance let's say Trace is delivering a line ahead of me and gets a huge laugh it could eclipse the set-up to my joke. We're constantly in the mode of moving material around and shuffling it back in if we can't say it somewhere.
CP: How are the DVDs selling?
JH: Great. ' We were kind of an instant hit.
It was kind of motivated by just seeing' You know, from Mystery Science Theater I get royalty checks and it keeps going up every year, which really was surprising to me. And I kinda felt like man it's time to refresh it. All these shows are at least 10 years old so I felt like now would be a good time to refresh it and do new movies for that fanbase.
The Mystery Science Theater fanbase is really organized and they always have been, and so that makes it very easy to distribute our product directly to the people who want it.
CP: In the old days the episodes would end with 'Keep Circulating the Tapes' and I guess now that's even easier.
JH: That was our way of saying I Want My MTV. The show was only on in certain markets and we were learning that people were making VHS's and sending them to their friends who couldn't get it.
Almost every time we go somewhere is people come up and go oh yeah our cousins lived in a place that got it and at Thanksgiving they'd bring all the tapes and we'd watch the tapes or at Christmas time after we opened presents we'd put in the Mystery Science Theater tapes.
So we realized oh yeah we should encourage people to. Since we had already been paid, you know we made the show, we felt like we should encourage people to do that,
CP: What's your relationship with your fellow MST3K alums over at RiffTrax?
JH: Well, pretty good. We saw them last summer, you know we did the 20th anniversary thing at Comic-Con. I think it's good. You know, they're obviously talented. [Patton Oswalt moderated the reunion. Start watching the shaky YouTube video here.]
CP: When you were thinking about rekindling everything, did you consider dusting off the robots?
JH: Yeah we kind of started that way. We started working with Jim Mallon, who was my ex-partner who was the guy, you know we were fighting that's why I left the show.
I had found a movie and we started to work on it. And it all fell apart, we just couldn't make a deal with Jim. The next day I called Trace to tell him and he said oh man we should just do this. We should just present it.
We started earnestly looking at it like how will we do this? What's the easiest and the most direct way to present what we do? I kind of cued off of Phillip Glass, you know, watching Phillip Glass perform. And it's just so deliberate, it's a concert and the idea of us just standing there presenting what we do.
And we kind of earned it because it's been 20 years. We don't have to dress up anymore.
You know, you change as a performer and as a person over 20 years, you become different. I don't even know how I'd get back into that in a way. So after thinking about it, when it didn't work out, it was kinda like how do you do that? And what if it's not as good? What if you screw up the brand because you thought we'd do it again and it wasn't as good or didn't feel the same.
Everybody's pretty happy with how it worked out.
Fri.-Sat., June 12-13, 7 p.m., $38, Trocadero, 1003 Arch St., 215-922-LIVE, thetroc.com, CinematicTitanic.
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