Carving out a singular stake in the world of comedy is nigh-impossible, unless you’re the best. Or you’ve been doing it the longest. Or, in the best case, both.
The three gentlemen of RiffTrax have been skewering cinema for longer than I’ve been alive, but not under the same banner. Mystery Science Theater 3000 built its own following, and then had to rebuild from page one. As RiffTrax, the team of Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy are just now cracking the marker of 10 years together. Their site has curated a followership and a community that is second to none, and their database of work available at the click of a button makes them the premiere destination for bad movies improved by men talking over them.
They’re the best and they’ve been doing it the longest.
Part of their rebirth under RiffTrax included the addition of live-streaming film send-ups, simulcast into theaters across the nation, in partnership with Fathom Events. As part of their 10 year celebration, the newest RiffTrax live event is roast of the most modern film they’ve ever taken on: 2017’s Star Raiders: The Adventures of Saber Raine. It’s a Kickstarter-backed science-fiction Casper Van Dien vehicle that in no way rips-off Star Wars but with more blood. It’s exactly as bad as it sounds. Or, you know, there’s a trailer here if you don’t believe me. On June 11, it is in your local cinema. With the original film director’s blessing, somehow?
At the milestone anniversary of 10 years, we sat down with the chairmen of RiffTrax to discuss the journey, giant spiders, politics, and short films about setting up chairs.
Paste: So let’s talk about The Adventures of Saber Raine.
Kevin Murphy: I feel like we got almost a happy accident that this film came along. On its face, it looks like another one of those goofy space operas, but it’s just absolutely ideal for us, and we had a lot of fun with it. I love the fact that it’s not only the newest film we’ve done (2017), but it was a Kickstarter project.
Paste: For whom?
Murphy: The director. He got on there and decided to see if he could fund a whole film with a Kickstarter, and lo and behold!
Paste: By whom, I mean—what name or draw was there to anyone else to make this happen?
Murphy: Well, Casper Van Dien!
Paste: Right, okay. Casper is truly the Kickstarter’s artist.
Michael J. Nelson: Well, Casper’s starpower pulled in 126 backers for the film, $22,000. That apparently funded it, so—
Paste: The math on that works out to a crazy amount of money per person.
Nelson: Yeah, and when we first saw the film, we speculated that all of the actors had to be Kickstarter contributors, because they were not actors. It turned out not to be true, but I thought, “This has to be the case!”
Paste: How do you describe this film? How did you get permission for this, for a film made just two years ago?
Nelson: We contacted the director, and he thought it was a great idea. I was like, “Yeah, you think that now, we get pretty bare-knuckled with your beloved movie.” As it turns out, he claims that he loved it, that he’s happy. Who knows, go figure?
Paste: Has he seen it?
Nelson: He has. He was delighted. I don’t get it, when we did the Time Chasers and the entire cast was there, I was on stage insulting the acting, the face, the dialogue, the writing of the guy sitting three rows in, I was like, “This is uncomfortable!” He thought it was great. He loved it.
Murphy: Yeah, he’s a very nice guy and a good sport about it, and he seemed to enjoy the show.
Paste: You guys have also come a long way, and I don’t often catch you in any situation making fun of someone’s physical appearance. So it seems like a much better thing than how people roast actors in the room for their faces and bodies. It seems like you guys roast for content, so it might not be that uncomfortable to watch you guys do what you do.
Nelson: Yeah, I think of the example of Birdemic. I guess the actors who played Natalie and Rod went to see it together as a little publicity thing to support each other. As I finished that, I thought to myself—we didn’t do anything about physicality, it was all about acting and expression, which as you point out, is fair game. But we were pretty hard on Rod’s acting. Apparently that was not missed by Rod and Natalie. He said, “Boy, they were kind of rough on me, they didn’t seem to hit you too hard.” But you’re right, we try not to go for anything too mean. If they’re presenting themselves as actors, we are going to go in on their acting.
Murphy: Truth be told, several of the cast weren’t Kickstarter backers, but the unit production manager plays the princess in the film. The director of photography also plays a role, the assistant director plays a soldier. So these poor people were having to run from behind the camera to in front of the camera, do photography setups in their costumes, I’m thinking, then run in front of the camera to be filmed.
Paste: Is it visible when the DP has to be in front of the camera, where the shots are slightly less good at that moment?
Murphy: Well, I guess that’s a relative thing when you think of the overall photography of the film. Actually—I’m looking at this now—the DP was not in front of the camera, but the assistant director was. He played Mike, the soldier with the eyepatch and the beard.
Nelson: [Laughter] Oh, the guy who looked like Captain Lou Albano?
Murphy: Yes, yeah. He’s the first assistant director, which—this is the kind of performance that you’d expect out of a first assistant director.
Paste: Can you describe what the plot of this movie is, and why it was selected by you guys?
Murphy: Well, let’s see. Casper Van Dien plays Captain Saber Raine. It’s never made clear what he’s captain of, but apparently he’s been in exile for not playing by the rules, and now he’s a bounty hunter trying to rescue a prince and princess. Again, we don’t know what they’re prince and princess of, but it’s another planet somewhere. They’ve been kidnapped by a guy named Sinjin, whose head seems to be filled with cherry Jell-O, and somehow that gives him vast psychic powers and the ability to distort space and time.
Nelson: One hundred percent this is a Star Wars ripoff with a couple of other smuggled in ideas, for sure. It gets a little bit gory and—oh, in addition to Star Wars, there’s a Predator character who comes in for a second, then gets sword-hacked and spurts blood. The director himself, who plays a transport pilot, gets his arm hacked off and there’s some tomato spray in that, as well.
Paste: In watching the trailer for it, the trailer ends on a shot that seemingly ends after the trailer should’ve ended, of just a character shooting at the camera and being covered in blood. Without your intro to it, I was still like, “That has to be a Kickstarter backer. There’s no other reason for somebody to be featured in that trailer unless they put money into this.”
Nelson: I’m looking at the highest pledge level…oh, he went up there: $7000.
Murphy: He did get a backer at the $4000 level, and that was someone who got to be one of the aliens and wear a mask.
Paste: Is this the first Kickstarter film that you guys have ever covered?
All: Yes. I think so. Yeah.
Paste: Is there anything about this that you’re like, “This might be punching down a little too far for us”?
Nelson: Yeah I mean, talking to the director, I think that his take on it was that this is not the film that he always wanted to make or anything. He’s a businessman. I think what he was doing was—a lot of films make money on Amazon because they have “star” and “raider” in the title. So we always match the tone to what we suspect about the film. When you see Birdemic or The Room and you kind of have to learn: what was the deal with this film? What if the film was made by someone who is slightly mentally impaired or something? You don’t want to make fun of that, you know? So a little bit of research is required—you know, not much because this is a film that was released. Again, we match the tone to it. So if the director came away happy, we must’ve done it fairly well. You take it at face value, and you make jokes that make other people laugh, which are not necessarily mean jokes, if that makes sense.
Paste: Right. I find that a very interesting standard, that you’re like, “We have to actually look into a spiritual intention here.” I guess you’re saying that this guy did this movie as an SEO experiment? That’s very different from someone making their dream project.
Murphy: Yeah. I think we’ve had both of those cases, where a person finally is able to make a film and they’re delighted with it, and what we learn of course is that the poor person really has no talent. I think we’re kinder to those than the films where it’s obvious that the filmmakers simply didn’t give a shit. If making the film is a cynical exercise, then I think the gloves are off. We tend to be a lot more aggressive with films like that.
Paste: So it’s the tenth anniversary of the show. What started you into Rifftrax Live?
Murphy: Rifftrax Live came about because the website is our bread and butter, but we enjoy doing live shows. We’ve done them back to MST3K, done conventions and we just know how electric they can be. Going on tour didn’t make any sense for us to stop our bread and butter, so I think I said, “Hey aren’t there those people who film the Met Opera and they send that out to theaters?” Sure enough, we got a hold of them and they were interested. The first one did well, so 10 years later, we’re still doing them. I think when we learned about Fathom Events and the way that they handle things, I think we got really energized about it. For me, one of the great things was you can be sitting in a movie theater, and it still manages to capture the feeling of a live performance, which is why it works. Also, we can show this in small towns where, if we were doing a tour, we’d never be able to get there. Also, audiences don’t have to pay $30-$60 a ticket for it; they can pay slightly more than a regular movie cost and you get to see us perform live, which is great.
Paste: What was the feeling going into your first show? Plan 9 From Outer Space, was that the first one?
Nelson: Yeah, Plan 9. Yeah, it was nerve-wracking because we’re a small company and it’s one of the reasons we have our small Kickstarters, because we can’t deal with the kind of numbers we’re talking about to pull off these kind of productions. There was a little bit of nerves around that. Especially since, being a movie theater, people generally don’t buy their tickets too far in advance. You’re just watching ticket sales and going, “Ugh okay, here we go.” Also, never having done that format exactly—we’ve done plenty of live shows, but having never worked with that production company before, do they understand this? Those concerns were there, but they were quickly put away. We’ve been with those guys as long as we’ve done them.
Paste: What, amongst your 10 years of doing this now, are the shows that you’ve been most excited about riffing live on? Also, least excited about riffing on?
Murphy: Oh wow, let’s see…they’ve all been fun, one way or another. Except I hate the movie Manos: The Hands of Fate and I hope I never have to see it again. I really hated that in every conceivable way. I’m not going to mention it anymore. [Laughter]
Nelson: For me, it was a little bit of nerves around Birdemic because it was something of an acquired taste, shall we say? I love the pace and ineptitude of it, it amuses me. As an analogy, we did it at a non-Fathom live event once, at San Francisco. We did a short called Setting Up A Room which was about thirty minutes of exactly what it is: two kindergarten teachers pulling chairs around and setting up their classroom. People got into it immediately and understood why we did it. The same thing happened, and it was like, “Whew! Okay, we’re into the first act and people understand the pace of this.” I was nervous about that one.
Murphy: We did a couple of films that some people think are brilliant or good, like Starship Troopers or Carnival of Souls, and we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think that it would be fun. I think with both of those films, that—our opinion is that people who think those films are brilliant are just simply wrong.
Bill Corbett joins the conversation.
Paste: Are there any for you that you guys circled around like, “We can’t do this one”?
Corbett: We’ve talked in the past before about trying to make funny stuff out of things like Hotel Rwanda or Schindler’s List, and how that would just be monstrous. I don’t think we operate under the premise that we can make anything funny, although we do take on a challenge or two. We try to make it clear that the fact that we’re doing a movie doesn’t necessarily mean that we think it’s the worst shit in the world. We’ve done movies that we all like, but then we run into things like Starship Troopers where people get really mad. They think it’s amazing satire. I’m of the mind that some of it’s pretty fun and some of it works, but a lot of it’s risible even on its own terms. There are plenty of dumb moments to make fun of, and if you don’t like that, then it’s still there in un-riffed form forever for you.
Murphy: That’s true. We don’t break the film. You can still find it.
Paste: What have you guys learned in the last few years of doing Rifftrax Live?
Nelson: I think a large part of it is just the pacing of it and how to engage the equal parts film, joke, and us. We’ve gotten more relaxed in that. We’re confident in our writing and our performing, it’s just tweaking those dials and letting people enjoy the film for what the film is bringing. There’s no doubt the film is bringing a lot of laughs on its own. We’re always surprised, after weeks poring and poring over the film, when the audience finds something that we missed and gets big belly laughs over it. That’s been a learning process that continues, I think.
Paste: What is the gestation period for one live episode? Is that bigger or smaller than a pre-recorded episode? What is that like for you guys?
Murphy: Definitely more work, because it’s a single performance, live, so the way we structure the script and pace the jokes is different than something that we’d do for something that you’d watch at home. That’s just because you want to give people room to laugh; you don’t want people to stop laughing because they’re waiting for the setup for the next joke. There’s always that kind of delicate line that we try to pay attention to. So it does take more time; we rehearse more, we polish the scripts more, and so we’re very confident when we go on stage that we have a good script and a good movie to do it to.
Paste: What’s been your favorite live show over the last decade?
Murphy: For me, it’s a tie between Miami Connection and Samurai Cop because they’re just so ridiculous and earnest. Those are fun and we’ve got three films that I think are cut from the same cloth: Star Raiders has that same feeling. Octaman definitely did. Giant Spider Invasion, boy, that’s a piece of work. That’s going to be fun.
Corbett: I always get tangled up by this question, and I’m not very consistent, but I’d have to say that Birdemic is right up there just for the sheer mania of the movie.
Nelson: I would go with Santa And The Ice Cream Bunny. It has a special place in my heart. It is a piece of something…. I like that.
Paste: Birdemic has come up so much in this interview, have you guys considered that this may be the one you need to do a second round on?
Murphy: We’ve made our peace with Birdemic and we can move along now, I think.
Corbett: The difficult part is that (director James Nguyen) made a sequel where it became self-aware and tries to be funny. Even he got that people were laughing at the movie, so he decided to do a Tommy Wiseau and lean into it. Whenever we bring up our fondness for the movie, people are like, “Hey, there’s another one out there, you know?” But nah, he ruined it.
Paste: I imagine that’s happened a number of times in your career; the Birdemic guy is not alone in taking something that found a cult success and making a meta sequel. Do you guys feel like you’ve helped make things into something meta or made un-fun because you made it fun?
Nelson: Yeah, there’s probably some examples. The guy who made—we just did one of his early films—Rick Sloan, who did Hobgoblins. He did a second Hobgoblins and he called us years ago and said, “Hey, made another one, you can make fun of this!” That kind of idea puts me off. I don’t want you making them for us. That seems to break the fundamental machine in a way that I just don’t know how it would work.
Paste: It is to acknowledge that you are a marketing force for a movie. “I will not succeed unless you do this” and now you have a responsibility to do so.
Murphy: Yeah, now we’re part of a business plan.
Paste: What movie are you genuinely thankful for introducing to the public?
Fun In Balloonland is a bizarro-world of madness. With that and Ice Cream Bunny, I think the first time that I ever screamed “Ice cream bunny!” our producer actually fell out of a chair in our room, laughing at that. For Fun In Balloonland, I looked at Conor Lastowka, writer-producer, his eyes wide with childish delight. It made me so happy. He was the happiest child in the universe the moment he saw that.
Murphy: I also remember our CEO David Martin, who, when we decided to do Fun In Balloonland, said, “Wait, you want to do the whole thing as is, uncut?” I said, “Yeah, we have to!”
Corbett: I would add Setting Up A Room.
Paste: Is it ever surprising to you that you’ve managed to build a business that has CEOs and these sort of people in it, just doing what you love?
Murphy: I’m utterly gobsmacked at the fact that it works. It’s wonderful. I pinch myself quite often.
Corbett: I pinch Kevin, too.
Murphy: Bill pinches me too, to make sure everything’s real.
Paste: Where is there to go from here?
All: The grave. [Laughter]
Paste: When the first of you dies, will the rest of you record a live Rifftrax of funeral footage?
Murphy: You guys are welcome to.
Nelson: I open mine up for you guys.
Corbett: If you guys want to set me up in a lawn chair onstage, Weekend At Bernie’s-style, you’re welcome to.
Paste: The three of you have been working with a network over the past 10 years. It isn’t just a distribution network, it’s a community and everyone seems really invested. The number of times I’ve been on vacation with somebody and they’ve just downloaded the latest Rifftrax and want to put it on, I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t even know that you were a fan in this way.” It has been eye-opening to see how many people are ride-or-die for everything you do. Within your community, do each of you have something that you remember?
Nelson: We get really heartfelt letters of family members watching it together, and it being a thing that they come together on. Like, “Yeah, I couldn’t talk to my dad for years, we had a falling out, but he liked Rifftrax or MST3K, so we watched it together and now we’re buddies.” Those kind of things really move me, and we get so many of them that it’s surprising and touching to me. I really love that.
Corbett: Yeah, me too. A couple of years ago, a mutual friend got in touch with us who had been overseas with the USO show. He said that the guys there had been watching Rifftrax and he wanted to gift them a bunch more. Through intermediaries, we got them a whole bunch more stuff. That was really cool. It was a connection I didn’t expect, and was really gratifying.
Paste: What’s next for Rifftrax?
Murphy: I tell you, we’ve been screening a lot of material. I think we’re going to run out of material, but then I realize how many overwhelming bad films are out there. I think we’ll be able to do this as long as we want to, which is great.
RiffTrax’s next theatrical screening of Star Raiders transmits on June 11. The Giant Spider Invasion will be screening on August 15 and August 20. Go wish the fellas a happy 10 year anniversary in style.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.