WAMG Interview: Joel Hodgson Aboard the CINEMATIC TITANIC
Interview conducted by Tom Stockman November 8th 2012
CINEMATIC TITANIC is the live feature-length movie riffing show from the creator and original cast of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Like MST3K, the show was created by Joel Hodgson and features the same team that first brought the Peabody award winning cult-classic series to life: TRACE BEAULIEU (Crow, Dr. Forrester), J. Elvsi Weinstein (Tom Servo, Dr. Erhardt), Frank Conniff (TV’s Frank), and Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester). Cinematic Titanic continues the tradition of riffing on ‘the unfathomable’, ‘the horribly great’, and the just plain ‘cheesy’ movies from the past. CINEMATIC TITANIC is coming to St. Louis. The St. Charles Family Arena will be hosting Joel and the gang on Saturday, November 17th) starting at 7:30 (doors open at 6:30). The movie that will be riffed on this year is Ted V. Mikel’s 1973 classic DOLL SQUAD starring the late WAMG muse Tura Satana.
The St. Charles family Arena’s website can be found HERE
The CINEMATIC TITANIC website can be found HERE
We Are Movie Geeks caught up with CINEMATIC TITANIC and MST3K creator Joel Hodgson and asked him some questions about his history of riffing on bad movies and his latest project.
We Are Movie Geeks: You’ve got your show Cinematic Titanic coming here to the St. Charles Family Arena a week from Saturday, November 17th . Have you spent much time in St. Louis before?
Joel Hodgson: Yes, I started out doing comedy in St. Louis at the Funny Bone Comedy Club
WAMG: Oh yeah, that’s still there.
JH: Wasn’t there a bar in St. Louis called Blueberry Hill?
WAMG: Oh yeah, very popular spot.
JH: Right, I remember going there with (St. Louis comic) Al Canal.
WAMG: I may have seen you. I used to go to those comedy clubs all the time.
JH: Well, this was a long time ago, probably early ‘80s. I was only doing stand-up for a couple of years.
WAMG: That’s probably when I was going. Next Saturday, the movie you guys will be riffing on is THE DOLL SQUAD. Have you seen that one?
JH: Oh yeah, when we write these, you really live with the movie for at least a month so I’m pretty familiar with that movie. We did a show recently in L.A. and the star of the movie, Francine York, came to the show. That was a first time for us. We’d never had a person that was in the movie that we were riffing on show up. I wasn’t sure how it was going to change the dynamic in the room at all so we didn’t tell anybody until we were done, but she was really sweet and really had a blast.
WAMG: One of the other stars of THE DOLL SQUAD is Tura Satana. I did a show with her here in St. Louis four years ago we called The Russ Meyer Show and showed FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL KILL and I interviewed her on stage at a local nightclub and we had a burlesque show around her appearance. But she’s since died.
JH: That sounds awesome. That thing that Russ Meyer started was amazing. I think Ted V. Mikels (the director of THE DOLL SQUAD) is like Russ Meyer without the street cred.
WAMG: He’s still working too.
JH: Absolutely. That’s how we were able to license this movie. Mikels was putting together money for another movie and we were able to cut a deal with him because he wanted money right away. That happens. It’s very addictive making movies. He made a fortune with a movie called THE CORPSE GRINDERS (1971). It was like THE SAW of its time and he was able to buy a castle in the Hollywood Hills. It has like 22 rooms and he uses it for locations in his films.
WAMG: THE GIRL IN GOLD BOOTS was another one of his films that you guys riffed on at MST3K.
JH: That’s right!
WAMG: How do you guys prepare for a Cinematic Titanic show?
JH: Well, THE DOLL SQUAD is our 14th movie over the past five years and the process is unique in that when we wrote MST3K, we were all in a room together. Now we all live in different places so we write in remotely and we all do our parts individually which I like a lot because you get to spend time with it and send in your best riffs. We spend more time putting it together. The we collage them together. We each take a section of the movie, meaning we take all the riffs people have written and it’s like painting with jokes picking out the best riffs for the best situation so it’s really fun. Then of course you have to mend the sections that didn’t get any riffs so you have to do some extra work there. You put it all together and arrange it and try to make it fit into the time that’s available and that you assign lines to the person who it sounds like would be most likely to say it.
WAMG: What percentage of the remarks made during a Cinematic Titanic show are improvised on the spot?
JH: Well, it’s funny. We always acknowledge on MST3K that it’s written. The only time we really improvised was when we were doing it locally. We did 22 shows locally in Minneapolis. At a certain point the reason for improvising is to try to upset the other person riffing. There are about 600 riffs in a movie and it’s kind of orchestrated, annotated, and time-coded so we have an agreement as to when people are supposed to talk. So if you disrupt that, you can really screw things up, but sometimes we do it just because we have to and want to but it’s really for each other’s benefit. I don’t think the audience would ever know when we’re improvising. I think they would think it was scripted.
WAMG: This is your 14th movie you’ve riffed on before a live audience. What’s been your favorite so far?
JH: I have to say this one’s really great. I always think we get infatuated with the movie we’re working on. Especially if it’s new. We’ve only performed this one just two times. To me it’s like we’re still improving it and fixing it and changing it.
WAMG: I saw Cinematic Titanic two years ago and you guys riffed WAR OF THE INSECTS. I thought I knew my Japanese monster movies from that period but that was one I’d never heard of.
JH: Yeah, that one was crazy. I mean it felt like it should be a giant Japanese monster movie buy it’s just bugs and stuff.
WAMG: Right, but now it’s on my radar. Do you think Cinematic Titanic or MST3K gives a forgotten movie a new life? MANOS HAND OF FATE certainly comes to mind.
JH: Absolutely. I think that’s one of the secrets of the success of the show. I think a lot of these movies are movies nobody would ever have seen and that’s a really big part of it. It’s almost like we’re tour guides of weird movies, like companions travelling through it with you.
WAMG: Let’s go back to 1988 when MST3K was aired on KTMA in St. Paul. Are those real early episodes available?
JH: I think most of them are on youtube. I really only encourage people to look at them if they’re real die-hard fans, as an example of the origins of the show. Obviously at that time, I felt like I didn’t know how many we could do. It wasn’t until we did 22 that I cut together a sell tape of all the funniest stuff. That’s when I dawned on me that it all has to be highlights; it all has to be wall to wall jokes. So it’s funny because I didn’t have anything to compare it to. There was no such thing as movie riffing on TV before us. We had to kind of feel our way through it. Those early shows were so important. I don’t think we would have survived if we would have just developed it going from zero to sixty. But with those early shows, we were able to grow it locally, think about it, and collaborate with audience. We had a fan club that writing to us and telling what they liked about it. We also got press which was really valuable back in the day, to have a journalist look at what you’re doing and giving their impression.
WAMG: What would you think if someone had told you in 1988 that 24 years later you’d be riffing on movies live in theaters and stadiums in front of thousands of people?
JH: I simply would not have believed it. But you don’t make a TV show unless you think people are going to like it and believe in it.
WAMG: Who chooses the movies you’re going to riff on?
JH: We do it as a group. I’m the one who had to deal with the distributor and the person who has the print, but the whole group has to decide.
WAMG: Do you have to get permission from the movie’s rights owners to riff on it or once you pay royalties, can you do whatever you want?
JH: You have to build that into the contract. You have to let them know that you’re building what is a called a ‘derivative work’ with their film. Let’s say we make a seven year deal. That means we have the right to use their movie for seven years. After that, we have another deal that kicks in if we both agree we wanna keep using the print. If it’s a good deal for them, it’s a good deal for us.
WAMG: Have you ever had an actor or a writer or director of one of these films contact you angry about something you said in a riff?
JH: No, they’re all really nice about it. I think most actors are really tuned in to it. I think most actors just look at these movies as six days out of their life, and it’s not who they are. Everyone I’ve ever met who’s been involved in any of these films really likes it. They like the attention, just another way to be famous.
WAMG: Have you tried getting Cinematic Titanic on television? Or is the live format you’re in now working for you?
JH: Every now and then people talk about it, but it hasn’t emerged yet as a TV show. That’s okay with us. In some ways it would help us market the brand, but it’s like we have this little business and we can go out and promote our show ourselves. We just did our 100th live show so we’ve been really lucky.
WAMG: Well, continued good luck with Cinematic Titanic and I look forward to your show Saturday November 17th at the St. Charles Family Arena.
JH: Thank you man, see ya there.