That time I interviewed Kevin Murphy of Rifftrax

This week Rifftrax is doing a live riff of “Time Chasers” in theaters (it will be showing locally at Jordan Creek’s Century 20). Back in 2009 I interviewed Kevin Murphy of Rifftrax for a now defunct website. I recently found the text for the interview and decided to revive it.

It’s interesting to look back on several years later. Toward the end of 2009 Rifftrax started doing live shows in theaters, something Kevin seemed to be hinting at in this interview. Rifftrax has also largely changed its business model, moving away from Hollywood blockbusters and back toward the B-movies Kevin riffed as part of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

We also talked a bit about the possibility of riffing with former MST3K cast members, something that will be happening next month when Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, Bridget Nelson and Jonah Ray join the Rifftrax guys for a MST3K reunion show in Minneapolis.

I’ve  got my tickets.

How were you brought into Rifftrax?

Mike [Nelson] went out to California and got things going. We were looking for a way to work together and we’d done four DVDs for Shout Factory under the name The Film Crew. They were fun, but we’d always been looking for a way to do beyond just old movies. Those were sort of becoming easy targets for us.

We’d always been looking for a way to riff on new movies. Legends Films came up with a way of syncing up MP3 podcasts to movies people would buy or rent or have around their homes.
Once they got the testing of that done, Mike said “Well, we’ve got to get the rest of us in on this thing.” We’ve generally found three of us, or even two, is better than one. It’s very difficult to riff a movie by yourself. So I became involved a few months after they started it and got all the bugs worked out.

You mentioned looking for ways to riff newer movies. After years of doing B-movies, how did it feel to be riffing movies you might have watched anyway?

Really, kind of fun. It was freeing, in a way. Riffing crummy old movies almost
seemed to easy. It was a challenge to do something newer, and even something we obsetensibly liked.

For example, “Jaws.” People say “What the hell are you doing riffing on ‘Jaws’?” Well, it’s sort of like roasting the film at that point. You’re not pointing out simply the faults of the film, because there aren’t a whole lot of faults except the giant rubber shark. It’s more like having some fun with conventions we all know and love.

That’s the top of the scale. We’ve done films that I absolutely love: “Jaws,” the “Lord of the Rings” films, those are all films I quite like. Yes it was fun to riff on them, and I think people quite appreciated them.

On the other end of the spectrum we get things like “Twilight,” which is one of our biggest sellers, that’s just like shooting fish in a barrel. In a way it’s like what we do with the old bad movies, but since it’s such a modern context I think it has relevance for people that a stupid old vampire movie might not.

I think we’ve gotten the most feedback on that film of any that we’ve done so far, and it was so much fun to do.

So I assume any sequels will be riffed?

Oh, you bet. Just line ’em up and pop ’em. (Note: the entire “Twilight” series has since been riffed)

These recent DVDs are going back to movies that are more like what you would have riffed with Mystery Science Theater. Why did you guys decide to revisit that older material?

I think it’s mainly because of demand. Not everybody gets into doing the MP3 download and syncing it up. They want something they can just put into their DVD player and watch at home. You want to respect that audience, because I think we’re pretty good at riffing movies whether they’re new or old.

These were films that Legend had in their library already, and out of a whole lot of films these came up to the surface. It’s funny, because some of these are considered classics, say “Little Shop of Horrors.” I don’t know if they’ve actually seen it, or they just decided it was a classic because it’s a Roger Corman film. But oh, it’s a bad film. “Little Shop of Horrors” was the hardest, because it’s obstensibly a comedy. But it’s the kind of comedy that makes me cry in despair, rather than laugh.

“Night of the Living Dead” is another one that people consider a classic, fine, but it’s old and very grim and easy to make fun of.

One of my favorites was “Missile to the Moon” just because it really goes back to the days of Mystery Science Theater. It’s the kind of movie we would have done then: a sort of middle-aged hero, who really does nothing heroic, finds himself in a cave on the moon that’s filled with Miss Universe models from 1962. You can’t do any better than that.

What’s the selection process like for the films that you riff? If you see a trailer do you think ‘Oh we’ll be riffing that in a few months’?

Oh yeah, I always drool when I got to the theater and see the trailers. Part of it comes down to if the movie’s actually publicly available. If a movie is really bad, it’s going to be hard to find, therefor it’s not going to do us a lot of good to write and produce a Rifftrax that only 30 or 40 people can see.

We like to look for popular duds. Or at least films that certainly had an audience. One of my favorites was “The Wicker Man.” Now that was not a huge seller, but it was out there for awhile, available on DVD and you could rent it from Netflix. I don’t know a whole lot of people who bought “Wicker Man,” and I don’t know who they were other than they had a sense of self-punishment and a masochistic streak.

And then there are the gems that get visited into our laps, like “Twilight,” because it was very popular, at least among a certain audience, AHEM girls, and none of their boyfriends wanted to admit that they had seen the film. So we gave them an excuse. Now they can sit down with their girlfriends and watch this film.

I would say that it’s three quarters women who have thanked us for doing “Twilight.” That really surprised me.

And then there’s “Beowulf,” another one of my favorites. It was perfect for us, because it was so silly. When has Ray Winstone ever looked like that? It’s a little more than make up. It’s funny to see him in that, then the “Crystal Skull” movie. I think most people would say “What the hell happened?” A lot of drinking in a very short period of time.

Is it harder riffing something like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Lord of the Rings” vs. something like “Daredevil”?

Oh yeah. I think when a movie’s not patently stupid it’s more of a challenge. “Daredevil” was patently stupid, so it was easy for us. You’ve got Ben Affleck in a skin-tight leather suit, it was just lobbed up for us.

A movie like “Jaws,” which I like, comes from a place of affection for the film. There’s less negative stuff about the film itself and more playing off how those characters play off of modern culture and reflecting a modern generation’s sensibilities against the film.

So it’s a challenge to us to see how good we are as riffers, to do a film we really like.

Have there been any films that you expected to be ripe for riffing that didn’t work out once you sat down to try it?

You know, we’ve never abandoned one. “The Dark Knight” was hard, just because it’s so grim. The only way to do that is to go in and leaven the grim a little bit. We had a lot to play off of there, especially with the Joker character, since he was so out there.

You start to obsess on things with a film like that. Particularly, the voices. Batman puts on a costume and suddenly he adopts that strange voice. I noticed afterward that South Park made fun of the superhero voices, so I guess we were on the right track.

Did that film present an added challenge, because of the death of Heath Ledger?

We didn’t even enter into that. For me that’s not a basis for comedy, to snicker at an actual individual’s misfortune. We didn’t address it in any way. We got a few comments asking if it was good judgement to make fun of the film. I’d answer that yeah, because it was a big superhero movie and those are always wide open to snicker at.

Not even out of respect to Heath Ledger, out of respect to the human race you don’t make fun of people’s misfortune. I leave that to bad stand-up comics.

When you want to laugh, what do you watch?

I like to watch a really good comedy. They’re never easy to find. I just watched “Sullivan’s Travels” again for the umpteenth time on the flight home. Preston Sturges, there’s something in what he does that’s near and dear to my heart. People just don’t make movies like that anymore.

The Coen Brothers tried with “The Hudsucker Proxy,” and as much as I liked that film I don’t think they came close to Preston Surges. That’s pretty damn old school.

You’re not seeking out modern comedies then?

If I found some that were funny, yeah absolutely. The problem with modern comedies for me is they don’t strike me as funny. I also watched “Tropic Thunder” on the flight out and, you know, it had funny spots. Was it a funny film in its whole? Not for me. I give them an A for trying something new and different, and I think Robert Downey is finally starting to come into his own as a comic actor, but it didn’t leave me afterwards totally satisfied. Not like a Preston Sturges film.

Mike’s gotten to riff with some big names: Weird Al, Neil Patrick Harris and Fred Willard. You and Bill [Corbett] got The Comics Curmudgeon (Kevin laughs). If you could riff with anyone, who would it be?

I think the list would be endless. Let’s get Bruce Willis in there, make fun of a “Die Hard” film. Wouldn’t that be fun? Or Jason Stratham to make fun of a Bruce Willis film and Bruce to make fun of a Stratham film. Now that would be fun.

I’d like to get a director in there with the right sense of humor to make fun of one of his own films. I think that would be enjoyable too. One of those “What the hell were you thinking?” moments would be nice.

Mary Jo [Pehl] has come in to do a few riffs. Has there been talk of any other Best Brains people joining you for riffs?

No, not recently. When we were first starting we contacted a few different folks. Nothing came of that. It’s not something we’ve pursued or they seem to be interested in.

It’s been a while since there’s been a Rifftrax Presents with just you and Bill, are you guys doing any more of those?

We might, but I think we’d like to vary it up instead of just using Bill and I, when we can. We’d like to get a guest. We’ve been having so much fun saving the big juicy films for ourselves. And there have been lots of big juicy films for us to do recently.

And, one of the new trends at Rifftrax is to have people do their own. We just recently had Jonathan Coulton in the studio with Paul and Storm. They riffed “Tron.” The internet folks are going to be very happy about that.

The site also have the iRiffs section, do you guys ever check those out?

That’s been fun. I’ve checked out a couple. There’s some very talented people out there giving us a run for our money. It’s very encouraging. It means that I won’t necessarily have to be 60 years old and writing a riff for Bruce Willis’s final attempt at “Die Hard.”

Once Rifftrax started up did you get any reactions similar to the “I hate Tom Servo’s new voice” banner?

No, I think people were just happy to have that Mystery Science Theater spirit back again in sort of a new form. Revisiting the show would have that “Return to Gilligan’s Island” feel for me. So I’m glad riffing came back in a new form.

Some people miss the show, and rightly so, that’s fine. But I’ve always been hoping they come on board and give us a chance. So far it seems like they have, and I’m grateful for that. People who get weird about a television show probably have other issues in their live that they need to address.

You’ve done some live shows at Comic Con and other times during the year. Has there ever been any thought to doing one in Minneapolis, or maybe Des Moines? Just throwing that out there.

Des Moines! That would be great. Des Moines is right in the geek focal point right now because of “Star Trek.” Everyone is going to be flocking to Des Moines to see where the space ships are.

We’re working out now how we want to do live shows. We’ve been experimenting with a lot of bumps of doing live online presentations. That’s been exciting for people, because they don’t have to wait for us to come to their city to see us live. It’s not the same as being live on stage, and we’re still going to do that, but those will be special events.

We’re really having fun exploring this live online thing. It could become almost like an online TV series for us. That would be delightful, to have a small studio audience and then do a riff that people at home can enjoy.

Last question, it came from the fans on the Rifftrax forum: When is “Red Dawn” coming?

(Laughing) That is an excellent question. I do not know that answer. It will come eventually. It must. It’s a mandate, for crying out loud. We’ll get “Red Dawn” out there eventually. (For the record, it was released in July, 2009)

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