October 14, 2006
Mike Nelson Interview
Since the end of the beloved Mystery Science Theater 3000 writer/host Mike Nelson has kept busy in several forms of media. Aside from writing for other television shows he also has become a published author, toured the lecture circuit and most recently started producing commentaries for Legend Films and a new company called Rifftrax. I had a chance to talk to Mike recently regarding his MST3K career, his work with Legend and Rifftrax, the sad state of Hollywood and Patrick Swayze.
WES: I’ll forgo most of the “how did you start in the biz” questions and jump straight to when you first started appearing in the public eye, talk to me about Mystery Science Theater and how you first got involved with the program?
MIKE: The way most people do, I suspect. That is, I was working at a TGI Fridays and doing stand-up comedy and acting on the side. I was friends with Josh Weinstein, who was working on the show when it was local, and he recommended me. So I met the guys, riffed on some movies with them and they seemed to like me.
WES: How easily did you transition from writer to on-screen personality after Joel Hodgson’s departure? Did your previous dabblings with stand-up ease this process at all?
MIKE: Stand-up comedy should be mandatory for everyone who is going into the performing arts. It teaches you so much about stage presence, how you appear to the audience, microphone technique, writing skills, how to avoid thrown objects – so yeah, stand-up helped.
WES:Throughout your years on the show what movie or movies stand out in your mind as being exceptional bad? What was your favorite line or skit?
MIKE: I really didn’t like the Coleman Francis movies, Red Zone Cuba, notably. As for lines, it may not be my favorite, but I enjoyed the line from Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonder where we have him say, Remember to believe in the wondrous power of magic – or I’ll kill you.
WES: How much hate mail did you guys receive from film producers that were featured on the show?
MIKE:Oh, no one ever contacted us directly. But we felt their bad vibes, man.
WES: One impressive thing about MST3K was just how grassroots the production remained no matter what network it was on. It added to the quirkiness of the show and in my opinion was one of the most endearing aspects of it. When you were picked up by Comedy Central or the Sci-fi Channel was there ever any attempts made by the networks to push the show in a more mainstream direction, or did they see right away you had a good thing going?
MIKE: There was always a push to do this or that, I think that’s the nature of the business. That’s why staying out of Hollywood or New York was critical to our longevity, if not our success.
WES: I understand you had a reunion of sorts with some of the MST3K cast last year on the ESPN Classic’s Cheap Seats. What was it like to get back together with the guys and riff on new material? Do you remain in contact with them at all?
MIKE: It’s always great fun to work with the guys. If I could round up the whole crew again, including all the off camera people, I would. I laughed all the time with those people, it was great.
WES: I know a new MST3K DVD set was recently released. How involved is the cast in deciding what episodes make it to DVD and how they are packaged? Do you feel this is helping the shows longevity and will every episode eventually make it to DVD?
MIKE: I don’t have anything to do with the DVDs, actually. And I think their releases are based on rights availability of the movies.
WES: Coming out of what seems like one of the worst years of film in quite some time, I’d like to get your opinion of the state of modern cinema? Do you feel the fact that Jessica Simpson winning a post-Dukes Of Hazzard role hints at an even bleaker future for film?
MIKE: Well, now that there’s RiffTrax, either way I win. If movies are good, then good. If they’re bad, they’ll show up as fodder on the site.
WES: Give me one example of a movie from this previous year that you enjoyed along with one that you couldn’t believe saw the light of day.
MIKE: Well, it probably doesn’t make most people’s list of fun things to do, but I loved “Downfall” the German film about the last days of Hitler. And on the bad side, I know this will infuriate a lot of people and lower their estimate of me, but what can I say – I hated “Crash.” I don’t like films that are actually stern, self-righteous lectures disguised as films, especially when they come from Canucks.
WES: I saw Crash and I definitely see where you are coming from, it was quite pretentious and overdone. Last years movies were lacking in quality for the most part, Walk The Line being the one notable exception. How do you feel about the recent “music biopic” craze and who would you like to see one made about?
MIKE: I liked Walk the Line, not a ton, but I liked it. I was recently looking over the top 100 films of this year and the last and I have to say, there were very, very few that appealed to me at all. I’m not a snob — I like high and low stuff, but I guess life’s too short to burn a few hours watching a film you suspect has a 20 percent chance of entertaining you.
As for music biopics — and I’m actually serious about this — I’d love to see one about Antonin Dvorak, my favorite composer. A life filled with plenty of tragedy and gloom, but I think if people heard his music in the context of his life, they’d love it. If it got made, I think you could reasonably predict a box office take of $37.50 not counting concessions!
WES: Since I brought up the Dukes of Hazard movie, I’d like to get your opinion on Hollywood’s fascinations with taking nostalgia rich TV shows and attempting to modernize them and ruin the memory of the original.
MIKE: I’m always amazed that they choose TV shows so old or irrelevant that they couldn’t possibly appeal to their precious 18-24 audience. I guess they’re hoping that fans of the show will force their kids to watch it. “This is what I watched as a kid, and now you’re going to watch it, dag nabbit.”
WES: Of all the remake travesties the Dukes one hits closest to home due to James Best being from the same area of Kentucky as myself. There was a celebration about a year and a half ago in which there was a street named after Best and a giant plaque posted near it with a picture of him in his Roscoe get up with his dog, it was quite magnificent. I fear for my precious A-Team now that a remake of it has been announced.
MIKE: Yeah, for years I’ve been pushing my remake of the Deputy Dawg cartoons, those wretchedly bad ones we’d watch as kids when there was absolutely nothing else on, like the choice was between that and the MacNeil Lehrer report. I always saw John Goodman in the title role, but maybe we could give it to some fresh newcomer like Frank Caliendo. The part of Muskie the Muskrat is one that Gary Oldman could just get lost in. And if anyone is Vincent Van Gopher, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal.
WES: Post-MST3K you’ve written a couple of books including fiction, a collection of essays and film critiques. In a interview I read recently you mentioned adapting your fiction work Death Rat in to a screenplay, is this still a possibility?
MIKE: It’s looking more remote as time passes. And I get busier and busier.
WES: You’ve also done a few film commentaries for re-releases of both Refer Madness and Night of The Living Dead. How did you first get involved with producing commentaries?
MIKE: The CEO of Legend Films, David Martin, is a friend of a friend, and he heard tell that I did commentaries, and asked if I might take a crack at it.
WES:This brings us to your most recent venture, producing downloadable commentaries for Rifftrax. Tell us how you first got involved with the company.
MIKE: This is a co-venture with Legend. So I moved from Minneapolis to San Diego, home of Legend, to work on some of their films as well as start up Rifftrax.
WES: What is the typical writing and recording process for a Rifftrax?
MIKE: Well, the writing is by far the longest and most involved part of it. I work on a script for about a week, adding, subtracting, refining jokes. Recording it then becomes a piece of cake. I do it in a morning.
WES: I downloaded your commentary for The Fifth Element and was extremely impressed with how well everything worked. Due to my two local movie rental businesses not keeping a good stock of older films on DVD, I had to rent a VHS copy but things seemed to time up wonderfully. How difficult is it to do a commentary in this format? It seems the recording process would be quite tedious having to make sure everything stays in sync.
MIKE: Well, that was one of the surprises, is how well it works. We thought we might have to come up with some fancy method, and we did introduce some innovations, like DisembAudio, our sync voice, but yeah, it works well without a lot of fuss.
WES: How do you all pick which films to go after?
MIKE: Availability is key. And does it have at least some goofy element to it, or some star that would be fun to poke fun at. Though, Does it star Patrick Swayze is increasingly a pre-requisite.
WES: Ah yes, Swayze is great comedic fodder. Were you aware that the delightful straight-to-video market has produced a Road House sequel staring the guy who played the moody band frontman in That Thing You Do? According to IMDB.com, Swayze was suppose to reprise his character but backed out due to “creative differences.” Perhaps they wanted him to reprise his hairstyle as well.
MIKE: Yes, we timed the release of Road House to the new DVD that was released in tandem with RH2. I confess, with some shame, that I have not seen it yet. A Swayze-free Road House is very lacking Road House indeed.
WES: Do you all have to secure rights from film companies before going in to production? Ever have anyone turn you down?
MIKE: No, no rights necessary, as RiffTrax is its own product.
WES: Name one film that you’d love to tackle?
MIKE: Battlefield Earth.
WES: Do you enjoy working solo on these? Is there any chance some of your MST3K cohorts may join you on future productions?
Mike: Yes, but yes. That is I enjoy my work, but it’s always fun to work with someone else, especially the guys from MST. You’ll be hearing more from them.
WES: And lastly, if you could make one change to the movie industry what would it be?
MIKE: I would encourage movie executives to fan out across the country to meet and speak with the consumers they profess to serve (don’t come to my house, though, ’cause I’ll just shut the lights out and pretend I’m not home.)
If interested in checking out Mike’s wonderful Rifftrax commentaries you can purchase them via Paypal through their online store. Some of the more recent commentaries feature former MST3K’rs Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo) and Bill Corbett (Crow 2.0). For more information on Legend Films and to purchase the DVD’s that feature Mike visit the Legend Films website. His books as well as the Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVD box sets can be purchased through Amazon and at other fine retailers.
Written by Wesley Johnson
> Film, Interview | 3:28 pm
20 Responses to “Mike Nelson Interview”
On 10/14/06 4:19 PM, smick said:
fantastic! thank you for this interview.
i do love Mike (in a non-baby-making way).
On 10/14/06 4:20 PM, wesley said:
oh man me too. you should totally do the rifftrax thing. its great.
On 10/14/06 5:15 PM, The 1/3 said:
On Decapolis, Wes said to comment. So, here’s the comment.
On 10/14/06 5:20 PM, wesley said:
thanks for your input. haha.
On 10/14/06 5:25 PM, buddy said:
well, I’m excited.
this is the first I’ve heard of his new project. I’m gonna get the X-men one…
On 10/14/06 11:11 PM, Agent950 said:
That was a great interview. I’ll definitely be looking into this RiffTrax thing.
On 10/14/06 11:13 PM, Jay said:
I’ll never forget that movie they watched with the worms that poured out of the bathtub faucet. Grossification.
On 10/15/06 9:04 AM, wesley said:
i loved mitchell. joe don baker baby..
IT WAS THE THIRD OF SEPTEMBER…
A DAY HE’LL ALWAYS REMEMBMER
On 10/15/06 5:46 PM, Bridget said:
I LOVE Mike, but contrary to Smick, it is definitely in a baby making way.
I’m so glad that he hated “Crash”! That movie made me so angry cause it was so fake and stupid and full of itself. Gads…
On 10/16/06 11:39 AM, steve said:
Props to buzzgrinder for this interview…it’s cool to see the MST guys are still around
On 10/16/06 12:20 PM, ConceptJunkie said:
I’m so glad Mike has found new outlets to relieve himself of his burden of funniness, the world is all the richer for it.
Thanks for the memories, Mike. You inspired me to write a long, _glowing_ review of “Robot Monster” on imdb.com, an appreciation of which I never would have gained without your “cow town puppet show”.
Keep up the good work,
p.s. I had zero interest in seeing “Crash”, but now I think I’ll have to throw it on my Netflix queue… somewhere between 1925 version of “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and X-men 3.
p.p.s. Nuveena, we love you, too.
On 10/16/06 1:40 PM, neil said:
Thanks for the interview, now I’m off to watch Pumaman! (He flies like a moron…)
On 10/16/06 5:24 PM, Wesley Johnson said:
anyone read mikes books? i just ordered one.
On 10/16/06 8:59 PM, ConceptJunkie said:
I have all 3 of Mike’s books and I love them.
The movie one and “Mind Over Matters” are both collections of short essays on movies, and many various topics respectively. You can definitely see where certain elements of MST3K humor came from, and there are few books at which I have laughed out loud as often. Plus, you get the feeling that he’s a really nice guy, just like on MST3K.
“Death Rat” is an interesting novel. It’s full of Mike’s same warped humor, the bizarre attention to detail, the strange fascination with Danish people, and it’s an interesting read, but it’s not so much laugh-out-loud funny, per se.
Mike’s humor here is a little more subtle and dry, which fits the story perfectly.
The characters are all quirky, but likable and believable, as are the situations. It’s one of those books that’s a little too strange to be true, but not so much that it’s bizarre and contrived, and I think it could make a great movie.
You will believe a rat can eat people. 🙂
On 10/16/06 9:40 PM, wesley said:
i ordered mind over matters.
On 10/17/06 11:16 AM, wes said:
i broke down an ordered death rat too. haha.
On 10/18/06 6:02 PM, Rob said:
That’s pronounced “pyooo-ma”.
On 12/14/06 2:56 PM, greg said:
i know this interview was done a little while ago…but…i am one of thow msties that is actively collecting every single episode…i just want to say…i love mike and the bots, i laugh before the episode even starts sometimes…i am so happy to see one of my favorite tv personalities out there…if i could ever have a party with anybody i want there…it would be mike, joel, …well….it would be MST3k….ok…i am done gushing
“watch out for snakes” eegah
On 06/22/07 11:37 AM, noticeably_FAT said:
“Manos” The Hands of Fate was filmed on location in a vacant lot.
On 06/23/07 10:41 PM, Larry said:
Hey, I wonder if that Bridget who loves Mike in a babymaking way is Mike’s beautiful wife (and no, I’m not just being polite — she is beautiful), Bridget? If so, please dump Mike and marry me. Ok, so I’m not handsome, funny, famous and well-off like Mike, but I’ve got a pool.