The Film Crew Speaks: An Interview with Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett
If the names Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett don't ring a bell, you might recognize them by their more famous alter egos: Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, the goofy puppets who mocked film after film on the cult classic TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000. Though the show ended several years ago after an extremely successful run, Murphy and Corbett have kept themselves busy. They both remain regular contributors to colleague Mike Nelson's RiffTrax.com, and Murphy undertook a 365-day filmgoing marathon which he recounted in his thoroughly amusing book, A Year at the Movies. In 2007, the two re-teamed with Nelson to produce The Film Crew, a series of DVDs that return them to the postmodern mocking that made their names. They recently sat down with us to talk about their new project, the legacy of Mystery Science Theater, and other assorted items of interest.
Question: Everyone always asks you about bad movies. Can you tell us about some good ones?
Kevin Murphy: Lately, I've been encouraging people to go see a movie called This Is England. It's one of those films that just seems to come out of nowhere, except it's done by a well-established director. He's taken a new direction to this story: a film with a kid and yet with an adult theme in there. To do that without abusing that sort of situation -- to really make it a stirring drama -- is a difficult thing, and yet he pulls it off really well. This kid is growing up in Thatcherite England: so alienated he becomes a skinhead... and finally finds a family who loves him. It has a theme that's very resonant. It's heart-stopping in some ways and yet it's really fun to watch. So I've been encouraging people to go see that.
Q: Are there any movies you wouldn't subject to your "treatment?"
Bill Corbett: Yeah, that area is vast, for all sorts of reasons. On the good side, you have movies that just... the theme is too wrenching. I'm thinking of things like Hotel Rwanda, where [heckling it] would not only be disrespectful, it'd be madness. Schindler's List is another one.
KM: I'd put Passion of the Christ on that list.
BC: Yeah, Passion of the Christ, probably not.
Comedies aren't good, because the best you can do is basically say, "That joke isn't funny" again and again. And if they actually are funny, then you're screwed.
But then there's types of bad movies you don't do because they're just not good for our purposes. Either the technical quality is off -- the sound and the picture is just unwatchable -- or there's just not enough room for our comments. Too talky or too boring.
KM: And we don't do the Saw sort of films. The violent, slasher, "life is a kettle of shit that you have to stick your head in" movies. Although we did do the Japanese version of The Ring. That was fun.
Q: Well, that was more of an old-fashioned horror movie.
KM: Yeah, and it's just batshit insane. [Laughs.] It's got a little kid and snakes and weird people going into catatonic states.
Q: Mystery Science Theater obviously had budgetary restraints that limited your palate somewhat. RiffTrax has sort of freed that up a little bit... and yet the types of films are pretty similar. A lot of sci-fi movies, a lot of robots and aliens and such. Even the good ones are like that -- and there are some very good films on the RiffTrax list...
KM: Yes, but for balance, there are films like Crossroads with Britney Spears, and Glitter. And they've just done an episode of Grey's Anatomy. But I think the titles are mainly there because that's what the market is asking for. You can ask Mike [Nelson] about this, but when they poll on the site to see what films people would like, those are the overwhelming favorites.
BC: They have a sort of dedicated core group of people who come there, and those are the movies they constantly request. I think they've tried to expand the palate little by little. I did Top Gun with Mike, which was not quite that, but it was fun to do -- a well-known movie.
Q: Most of them -- even the good ones -- seem to have an air of pomposity to them...
BC: That is key. Pomposity is where we're at our best. I mean, it's just the easiest target.
KM: Blown up like Homer Simpson at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
Q: How did all this start? I mean obviously there was MST3K, but did it go back any earlier than that? Were you heckling films as a small child?
KM: I have four brothers, and my parents would often go out on a Friday or Saturday night. So we'd be left at home to watch creature features. We'd just fart around watching Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney in something. It's just something everybody does in some capacity, especially if you're a boy.
BC: For me, I can't claim to have ever had a hand in starting [MST3K]. I just came when it was fully up at its power, and just kind of went along for the ride. But it was a really great fit for me. I was always sort of a class clown -- getting in trouble for wising off in school -- so this was like a license to do what I used to get busted for.
Q: The internet has really made the sort of things you used to do on MST3K so much easier. I mean, everyone can get in on it now. Did you think you were ahead of your time as far as that goes?
KM: Well, we were kind of a continuation of the hosted movie idea. The only difference with us was that the host stayed with you throughout the whole movie. I guess that was the refreshing new thing about it; that's what Joel [series creator Joel Hodgson] brought to it, that idea of keeping the hosts in there for the whole thing.
BC: And the meta-commentary thing wasn't brand new. Making fun of movies as you see them... Woody Allen had done that with What's Up, Tiger Lily? But the idea of actually interjecting comments with every line was new. I think Beavis and Butt-Head came out right about the same time. People ask if we were inspired by that, and that makes me a little mad. [Laughs.]
KM: People have asked if we're ever mad at Mike Judge for doing this, and I don't think we ever made the connection. He was talented in his own right and was doing his thing, which was different than ours. I always enjoyed Beavis and Butt-Head.
BC: It just seemed like the time for that -- meta-commentary and text upon text. And I think the internet just accelerated that. I always felt that MST3K came about at the time of a couple of key developments -- fortuitously or maybe visionary. It was cable TV, really. Comedy Central needed material when MST3K came on. And then the Internet; this was one of those shows that was really sustained by internet geeks.
Q: What about file-sharing and concerns about copyrights?
KM: I always felt it was a little foolish to be that concerned about rights-sharing. I mean if someone is pilfering everything you do, that's one thing, but if it's helping to spread the word, then it's a good thing.
Q: Do you miss MST3K at all?
KM: Mostly the people. If I miss anything, it's just working with such a terrific group of people, day in and day out. You don't get that kind of job very often in your life.
BC: I agree. I loved showing up for work. I mean I still work with Kevin and Mike and see Mary Jo [Pehl] occasionally, but even our support staff at MST3K was great.
Q: Was it easier heckling movies with the puppets? To let Crow or Servo take the blame as it were?
BC: It wasn't technically easier, but there's a point to that, yes. You could make Crow or Servo go a little nuts, and it would be a step removed from yourself. The writing might be slightly different in that regard now because we're not having puppets jumping around.
KM: It was a higher concept stage that we were doing this on with MST3K. With the Film Crew, we're really keeping the fiction really light. It's just one step away from us. We're posing as working stiffs, and this is our job, and we clock in in the morning, and bring our lunch and drink our coffee, and lay out film commentary. That's as heavy as the fiction gets. What we do best here is talk back to movies, and we wanted to keep it on that level.
Q: How did the Film Crew concept evolve?
KM: Basically it grew out of the will of Mike and Bill and I to work together. We had done a few other things -- we pitched some books as the Film Crew, we recorded a pilot for National Public Radio: sort of a humorous version of a movie review show -- and we found this as one of the ways that we can enjoy working with each other.
Q: Is there a difference between the way you approach the Film Crew and the way you approach RiffTrax?
BC: RiffTrax is really Mike's baby, and that happened concurrently with the Film Crew. He's the ringmaster over there -- the Riffmaster, as it were. We're just guests on that. But our approach isn't substantially different. There's certainly a broader array of movies for Rifftrax. As we said, Mike and the people over there really try to respect the people who are devotedly coming in and requesting stuff. Occasionally, they'll throw in something that they think might be a fun offering. For the Film Crew, though -- as Kevin can probably explain better -- these are public domain films. Those are tougher to find now, and it's tougher to find ones that actually work: that don't have horrible prints or something.
KM: But there's a lot of folks out there who appreciate the fact that we're still combing the backwaters of the cinema world to find these little things out there. That's what they really like, and that's what the Film Crew offers.
BC: Yeah, I have a great fondness for these old ones as material. Rubber monsters and strings and everything. It's bit of a challenge, because you do want to have fun with it and have fun at its expense, but these were generally earnest people who meant no harm. That's why we stay away from exploitation films, because those are filmmakers who... you know, when it gets too ugly or too gory, I don't respect that. I think my scorn for the filmmaker would come through. As opposed to these ones, where they were just trying to do their best.
Q: [To Kevin.] One of the favorite books in my circle was your Year at the Movies. Have you recovered from that experience?
KM: Absolutely. I sure don't go to the theaters as much as I used to, but it broadened my palate in a way that I hope it would broaden the palate of anyone who reads the book. I found I acquired a taste for films I never thought I could acquire a taste for. I don't shy away from nearly as much as I used to. At the same time, I have a little less patience for things that are bad.
Q: To the point of walking out?
KM: Well, I try never to walk out of a movie...
BC: Wow, you're a better man than me. [Laughter.] My wife and I have young kids, so it's a rare babysitting night that we get. So occasionally, if it's something that neither of us are enjoying, we turn to each other and say, "Godspeed movie, we're going to go get dinner."
Q: How much more is planned for the Film Crew?
KM: We have four films in the can, and we'll see how they do before going forward with any more. Hollywood After Dark and Killers from Space are out now. We've got The Giant of Marathon coming in October, and then next month, it's Wild Women of Wongo. That's a caveman sex romp: there's a shaman woman in it who bears a striking resemblance to Paul Stanley from Kiss. It's a little disturbing, but trust me, if you've ever had the hots for Betty Rubble, you're gonna love it.
Article published 08.30.2007.
Also read: Rob Vaux's review of The Film Crew: Hollywood After Dark.
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