Master movie mockers of Cinematic Titanic return to the Capitol Center for farewell tour
The cast of Cinematic Titanic includes (from left) Joel Hodgson, Mary Jo Pehl, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein and Frank Conniff.
The Doll Squad
The Wasp Woman
Joel Hodgson and his Cinematic Titanic crew are coming back to Concord. And if you love so-bad-they’re-good movies accompanied by witty commentary, you’ll want to pay attention. This is the group’s last tour.
Hodgson, in case you missed it, was the the creator and original host of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the much-loved basic cable TV show that skewered low-budget films like The Castle of Fu Manchu and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. As the film played, Hodgson and his robot pals would make smart-aleck comments from the bottom of the screen. It was a simple idea, and one that attracted a sizable fanbase.
The show ended in 1999, although Hodgson departed in 1993. He couldn’t let the show rest, though. In 2007, he created Cinematic Titanic with original cast members and writers from Mystery Science Theater. The group has toured, released 12 DVDs and brought the art of movie riffing to a new audience. Three years ago, the group came to Concord’s Capitol Center for the Arts and performed a double bill. On Nov. 1, they’re going to do it again.
But this is Cinematic Titanic’s last rodeo. The group will disband at the end of the year, as its five members (along with Hodgson, they’re Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl) pursue new projects. The Monitor talked with Hodgson about Cinematic Titanic’s close, what audiences will see at the Concord shows next week, and his plans for the future.
Monitor: Why is this being billed as the farewell tour for Cinematic Titanic?
Hodgson: When we started six years ago, we discussed the idea of doing it as a five-year project. Just because it’s nice to have a beginning, middle and end, rather than letting circumstances dictate something ending. We never really finished the conversation, never really made a plan, but when it got to be five years, we all started talking about it again.
We realized we’d gotten to do everything we wanted to do. It’s been a really good experience. More than anything, getting out and meeting these people who like what we do and are fans of Mystery Science Theater, it was really amazing to get that to happen.
Just as important was the idea of doing movie riffing live. We had only done it once before with Mystery Science Theater, for an event in Minneapolis, and there was so much we didn’t know about it. And it turned out to have so many benefits for us as writers. Personally, just to see how people react to your ideas has just been amazing.
All that has been good, but at the same time you go, “Well, how long are we going to do it?” And, “Did we get to do what we wanted to?” And the answer was, “Yeah.” And there is a certain amount of expense with us traveling that much. It takes a toll, I think.
I have a one-man show called Riffing Myself that I’m still booking and doing. As are the other people in the group, doing other stuff. I think we’ll still keep working together and doing things together, but just not in the context of Cinematic Titanic.
You talked about the fact that you ended up doing this for a six-year run. What surprised you over that time?
The big thing was just working with an audience, and learning what they like – figuring out what jokes really work and what people expect when you’re in front of them and doing it live. It’s really different than the shows we made that were all recorded in a studio. We never got an audience reaction, this was really before the internet, or the internet was popular. We weren’t getting the kind of feedback you get now: instant feedback.
That was the biggest thing, it’s just getting all these shows on their feet and performing them and feeling your way through them. The kind of thing that can only happen when you’re performing live. I have a feel for it that’s different than it ever was after doing 100 Mystery Science Theaters. You’re really in the room with the audience. You’re really dependent on them to deem it a successful show. A good show.
And because it’s a movie, it’s all scripted, so it’s not a fully live event, either.
The only wild card is the audience. You never know what they’re going to do. And also, we’ve learned to kind of upset the show. I don’t think the audience really understands it, but we know it when we go off script. And we’ve found that that makes the best shows, when that happens. We’ve found we have to do that to keep everybody amused and engaged – at the right level to do a really good show.
What movies are you going to be doing when you come here to Concord?
So I think we’re doing Wasp Woman and Doll Squad. Correct?
I think that’s right.
They’re both great. One is a schlocky movie from the ’60s, and one’s a schlocky movie from the ’70s.
“The Wasp Woman” was one of the first movies you did in Cinematic Titanic, right?
Oh yeah, I think it was the second movie we ever did live. It was funny, because we kind of threw it out of our roster. And the reason was is we did a live show at the John Ford Amphitheater in L.A. It was really crazy because we got threatened to be sued by Roger Corman’s company [Corman, the B movie impresario, produced and directed the film]. They found out what we were doing, and their lawyers got involved. And the venue’s a state park, so they got really nervous. I had done a copyright search and found that it was a public domain movie. But the show was less than 24 hours away, and they were claiming that they owned the rights to it. So it was really hard to prove it. We had to throw that movie out and do a different movie because the venue was so afraid. They really thought that Roger Corman was going to sue them and us.
As it turned out, our lawyers engaged with his lawyers, and at the end of the day he admitted that they didn’t have the copyright to it, and that it was a public domain movie. I think that kind of tainted that movie for us. Then at a certain point, we were looking at it going, “Why aren’t we doing Wasp Woman? That’s an awesome movie.” So we put it back in the schedule and have been having fun with it.
Have you ever had a moment when you’re working with a movie and you actually find it compelling? Have you responded in ways you might not expect?
Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s a great question, by the way. It happens a lot. With every movie that you do, every movie that you write, you spend a lot of time with it. And even if it’s really bad, there’s parts that really work and are really good. It’s like, no movie is completely bad. So yeah, it happens all the time where you’re amazed at certain performers; they just bring something to it. The people around them could be all over the place, but there could be this one performer where you’re just going, “Wow, they’re really like bringing it.”
There’s a certain misunderstanding, I think, with Mystery Science Theater, because we’re really using a movie to create a variety show. I think the coloring book version of the show is, ‘Oh they’re sarcastic and they’re snarky about these bad movies,’ but if you look at it we’re really not doing that. One in 50 or one in 100 riffs might be about the quality of the movie, and the rest of it is just the looks on somebody’s face or the situation or something that’s irrational about the script.
I really do think that it’s all contextual whether you think a movie’s good or not. It often has to do a lot with your age or your frame of mind and what you happen to like.
The films you did on “Mystery Science Theater” and now with Cinematic Titanic could be classified as B movies. What do you think of the approach taken by RiffTrax [a group that also consists of ex-MST3K performers] and other groups of using recent, blockbuster films as source material?
Obviously, it works. When I did shows in Texas this summer with a group called Master Pancake Theater, and we did a thing called Live Riff Jam. We did Bond movies every night, and some of them were old Bond movies like Thunderball, but one of them was Casino Royale, which is just a few years old, with Daniel Craig. It works beautifully with new movies.
It’s a different thing, though, I think, than Mystery Science Theater. We’re so used to being sold movies before we go. We have to know what the movie is, or we won’t go, and that’s sold to us in all these different ways. And with Mystery Science Theater, it really is like a spookhouse that you don’t know what’s inside it. You’re going to go with us; we’re kind of like the guides on this safari, and it’s really not clear where you’re going or what’s going to happen. That’s the opposite of a modern movie, where you know what Lord of the Rings is. We’ve known, we’ve seen the trailer.
But absolutely, I think it works beautifully in its own way. It’s different though, in that it’s kind of exploiting the popularity of the movie and saying, “Hey, this is a famous movie, so let’s riff on that.” It’s different, but I think it’s the same.
When you started with Cinematic Titanic years ago, you said in interviews that you felt like you had unfinished business with “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” given that you left in the middle of its run. Six years later, do you think you’ve had some closure on that experience?
That’s a great question, and I think so. It’s been really great. The time between Mystery Science Theater ending and doing Cinematic Titanic, there was something kind of peculiar – a question in my mind or people’s minds.
And getting back to it and doing it again, and really getting to know who these people are and meeting them has been so great. I feel like I have a certain amount of knowledge about it that I didn’t understand before. Because we knew they were out there. And the thing that signified to me that we should go out again was that we just kept selling DVDs. In fact, more and more DVDs every year. And more and more downloads every year. To me, that was an indicator like, “Man, this isn’t going away.” There’s still appetite for it.
That was the best part of it, that we went out and it worked, and people liked it and were willing to come out and see us.
You mentioned your one-man show earlier, so tell me a little bit about what you’re working on now.
Mostly I’m doing that, and I also work as creative lead for media for a new aerospace company called Cannea. Mostly I have worked with the inventor, Guido Fetta, and kind of helped him illustrate and amplify his message and what he’s got. And what he has is really amazing, which is an engine or a drive for satellites called the Cannea drive, that has no moving parts on it, and that can keep a satellite on station using a solar panel. It’s really a profound invention, and it’s really cool.
Is this something that’s been an interest for you? This kind of space technology?
No, it’s a complete accident. I just met him through a neighbor, and there was this thing he was working on. And one day I said, “Hey, I’d really like to know more about it.” And he had me sign these release forms, and then he pitched it to me and kind of demonstrated it. I was really blown away by it, and I invested in his company. This is over three years ago, and I started working with him, documenting the story of him developing this idea.
I meet with him at least quarterly and document what’s happening. But I also probably work with him every week moving the ball forward on stuff like his website and materials we have to get together. Mostly it’s just like motion graphics or illustrations or new concepts that have to be fleshed out. And I work with different vendors to realize those ideas. Basically, everything that’s on the website that has nothing to do with science is what I’ve worked on.
That’s a really different and new direction then, I guess.
It’s really fun because it’s based on reality. It uses a lot of the same muscles, but you don’t have to get somebody to have to believe, necessarily. You can go, “Okay, we’re behaving like this is real, let’s just do that.” It’s really fun and so refreshing after working in show business.
What do you foresee happening in your career? Do you plan to keep movie riffing? What’s your plan?
Oh yeah. I love that movie riffing’s becoming its own kind of creative art form. I love to participate with that. Anytime I meet people that are interested in it and want to know more about it, I just love it. I just love getting to see it keep going. I feel that’s my role as long as people are interested in talking about it and talking to me about it. There’s something that I loved, once people outside of our group – people outside of the original Mystery Science Theater people – started doing it. It’s really fun, and it’s really great. Movie riffing is fun and easy. It’s not hard to do, and people are figuring that out. I think they try to apply a certain kind of magic to us, the originals, but people are demonstrating it over and over.
Man, the people I worked with this summer, there was a group in Atlanta called Cineprov that I did shows with. The group in Austin called Master Pancake. I almost had a couple of shows in the Pacific Northwest booked to work with a group called the Gentlemen Hecklers. It’s really fun. And each one, they all have really different styles, they all have different ways of doing it. It’s just growing. I’m always going to want to be interested in that. I love it.
(Cinematic Titanic comes to the Capitol Center for the Arts on Nov. 1 for two shows, at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. “The Wasp Woman” will be the first show, and “The Doll Squad” will be the second. Tickets range in price from $25 to $45 for one show; a discount is available for both. Go to ccanh.com or call 225-1111 for information.)
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)