|Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy and Mike Nelson|
Three weeks ago I spoke with Bill Corbett one of the minds behind RiffTrax about the upcoming appearance and riffing of THE ROOM at the Tribeca Film Festival. For me this was the opportunity to talk with someone whose work I’ve admired for decades since Corbett one of the people who did Mystery Science Theater before RiffTrax. A book and comics author in his own right, Corbett has also written plays which have been performed all over the world. He’s also a very nice man.
What follows is pretty much the conversation that I had with Corbett. Our talk was brief. I was offered ten minutes and we went a little bit past that. The talk is focused firmly on Tribeca and RiffTrax and didn’t really waiver from there. I am aware that some of these question and answers are not new to longtime fans of Corbett or RiffTrax, but I wasn’t aiming to reinvent the wheel, I didn’t have the time, I simply wanted to put together a piece that would act an introduction to for those who don’t know RiffTrax and be a good warm up for those who are looking to go to the show Friday night. I think that what follows fills the bill.
(For more information on RiffTrax products, Fathom Events or the Tribeca screening click on the links embedded in the names)
STEVE(S): Why has it taken so long for you to come to New York to do a live show?
BILL (B):The answer is we really don't do live shows often at all except the ones that we broadcast through Fathom Events, So we don't really tour. We do shows from Nashville three or four times a year. The reason we're doing them there is Fathom Events hooked us up with the production company in Nashville when we started out and we kind of have a protocol with them and they have their staff there and we have a theater that works there. It's more or less a three or four times a year studio. ...But every now and then we make little exceptions when the city and the opportunity seems right-and this is one of them. And I'm really glad we're getting to New York because I'm from New York
S: I know you're from Brooklyn and I was curious if they threw you out and you couldn't come back
B: (laughing) No I think my exile is over now. I think I might have to wear a mustache and glasses. I think they'll let me in.
S:All is forgiven
S: I find it funny that you're coming to the Tribeca Film festival and you're doing a show in Chelsea some 40 blocks from Tribeca.
B: That's not our fault
S: You're better off than the Python guys, they're all the way up town some 100 blocks from Tribeca. I don't know what they did....
B: I think the Tribeca part is getting looser and looser
S:You're doing THE ROOM. Is there going to be any differences between this and the simulcast May 6
B: Probably a few. This is sort of our first go at it but when ever we do a performance we learn a little something. But I don't think there will be gigantic changes. I think the main change will be the audience will tell us what they think funny and not in each individual show and that changes quite a bit as we've learned.
S: When you do the simulcast do you and the guys and just do it or do you do a run through with an audience?
B:No, we don't,but we probably should. We just do seat of the pants. The only run through we do is just sitting around by ourselves running through the lines. But since our thing is pretty scripted,the riffing part, there's not a lot that can wrong on our end. technical stuff is another matter. We do a technical rehearsal the day of the show which is really just checking that all the mics run - it's usually about 15 minutes long and it's usually like a sound check.
S: Do you approach the live stuff differently then one of the RiffTrax say for THE AVENGERS? Do you approach the jokes differently?
B: A little bit. We've learned over the years that we have to watch to make sure our script doesn't get too dense for a live show. And I think that's now boomeranged back into out regular RiffTrax offerings. We realized that some of our early ones sound a little over crowded with jokes, which I guess is a good testament to our work ethic.But humor-wise it doesn't play well. You have to let a thing sit sometimes before you bark out another joke. So we try to make the live shows a little more leisurely and give audiences time to react and give us time to improv here and there.
I think the other thing we try to do is simplify jokes where they need them so they're not really complicated constructions either like the sentence itself or like imposing some reference on a situation that takes a couple of beats of thought. It's a bit like a run away train on a live show and you kind of have to go down to basics a little more, so we try to balance that with trying to make it not too dumb or not too obvious, to keep the thing that people like about RiffTrax is that we try to make smart jokes even when they are not sophisticated.
S: Is it hard for you to see a movie without seeing how you're going to riff it?
B: Not really if I get absorbed in it it's just the greatest thing in the world and I don't. People have been asking us for years and my answer is only when I feel like the movie is going off the rails and I'm not enjoying it or it seems dumb. I mean I never talk in the movie theater. I'm pretty puritanical about that. But watching Netflix at home with my wife I can be a little annoying...but so can she. A couple of years ago when we were having breakfast and I had been up for two hours and had coffee and was full of energy and I'm making all these quips and she said "Honey please quit riffing breakfast". I'm like "Okay" Let me dial it down and wait for work.
S: Do you find it hard not to be on or is it just the way you are constantly riffing everything?
B: No I don't find it hard because really the majority of my time, even for RiffTrax, is spent writing just like any writer, mostly by myself. We do get together eventually but these days the way we write a script is we each take a chunk and write a first go at it., a first draft and from there we smoosh it all together and see how it works. As we get closer to the day of the show we're sitting together more and seeing how the whole thing works. But a lot of the time I'm just living the life of a writer quiet and monk like.
S: How long does it take for you to put something together?
B: Well for a given movie it depends on how many writers we have working on it. It's now Mike and Kevin and I and we have two staff writers Conor Lastowka and Sean Thomason, younger guys we were lucky to find because they are such a great fit. They Keep us apprised of culture that has passed by us old farts.
But I'd say to write a first draft the better part of a week and then we have a rehearsal day where we're flagging lines, trying to make sure we don't have too many duplicate jokes. Then as we get closer we're just throwing a couple of lines overboard here and there.
Maybe 10 days from beginning of writing to recording. That's not consistent in a row days. Usually it's a staggered process
S: You have other stuff going on.
B: We do have other stuff going on so we try to record a couple of things at once just for efficiency's sake. What I mean is that the calendar isn't a straight line, one project and then one project, they kind of overlap depending on who's in town and when the recording studio is available.
S: Do you guys always go in together to record the riffing or do you do it in pieces
B; We were for a while. We all met here doing Mystery Science Theater in the Minneapolis area, but for a while Mike was in Southern California in San Diego where the RiffTrax office still is, because it was an off shoot of another company - it's a little bit long and not very interesting to explain...
S: Was it for Film Crew?
B: No it was unrelated to Film Crew. It was right after that, it was Legend Films....
S:That's the one where they colorized stuff like the Three Stooges....
B: Yea yea. They had a process for colorizing and then it became more of a 3D conversion company. RiffTrax became an increasingly odd fit for them so we've spun off into our own company. But when we were associated with them out in San Diego Kevin and I would go there periodically and Mike was sort of on the ground living there. We kind of realized that we could do it half and half rather than fly Kevin and I out there. After a while Kevin and I would record our lines here (we had a great sound editor)and Mike would do his lines solo listening to ours . But it got a little complicated and not as much fun frankly. Part of the fun is hanging around together. Now Mike moved back here so we're in the same studio.
S: You've probably been asked this before but do you have any guilt, I have a lot of friends who love RiffTrax, who can never go back and watch the movies again. They'll watch your versions of the films a couple of times and then they can't watch say the AVENGERS or the Harry Potter films because now they fill in the jokes watching them straight.
B: I haven't heard that as much as you have. Here's my feeling - if a movie is good it's bigger than us and it withstands us and even if a small percentage of people can't get our voices out of their head, and I feel sorry for them if that's true that's a horrible fate, I don't think that speaks to most people.
I just watched the AVENGERS with my kids after the RiffTrax because they're old enough now and I wanted to show them THE AVENGERS and we really enjoyed it. And it's not in my head. Maybe I'm just off loading it into other poor people who are our victims.
I also think that there is a distinction between AVENGERS and other good films we've done.
We did CASABLANCA as a lark to see if we could do a good RiffTrax of it and we all acknowledge thats a wonderful movie. We did THE WIZARD OF OZ - it's a different kind of source of humor in a way. It's more a celebrity roast then accerting over and over again that this movie is really dooky.
But for something like THE ROOM or any of the lesser known really bad movies we're doing I don't think people are going to be watching without us anyway. Maybe a slight exception with THE ROOM which had it's own fame before us but the vast majority of movies we do people haven't seen before us and won't seek out again without us
S:Is there anything that you wouldn't do?
B: Absolutely. The two examples I always come up with when people ask us this is SCHINDLER'S LIST and HOTEL RWANDA. Anything about a real life tragedy even if it's not the greatest movie in the world and both of those movies are quite good, but even if they were lesser versions of themselves to try and be funny over and over again in the face of tragedy would be monstrous and it would be hard...we wouldn't find much to talk about.
S: There's not a lot of jo...
B: The closest we came in the early days of RiffTrax Mike and I did The original X-MEN, the first X-MEN movie and it begins with Magneto, young Magneto in the concentration camp and we had a joke that I didn't believe it was a superhero movie. You Know "What have you gotten me into Nelson!" but that joke was sustainable as the the 2 minutes it took and you couldn't do that the whole movie.
RIFFTRAX THE ROOM plays Friday at the SVA Theater in Manhattan. For more information and details on Rush tickets go here.