Kevin Murphy of Rifftrax, talks about Birdemic: Shock and Terror Live!
Kevin Murphy just might know more about what constitutes a truly awful movie than anyone else alive. Beginning as a founding staffer on the cult classic series Mystery Science Theater 3000, and continuing that seminal show’s legacy today with the similar Rifftrax project, Murphy been subjected to more bottom of the barrel cinematic horrors than mere mortals can imagine in their nightmares. In the name of comedy, Murphy has willingly endured bombs like Santa Claus VS. The Martians, Monster A-Go-Go, Planet of the Dinosaurs and countless more too unspeakably rotten to speak of, all of which he and his cohorts have met with a smirk, a wise crack and a bottomless arsenal of pop culture references hurled back at the screen. In 1988 Murphy was working at floundering UHF station KTMA in the Twin Cities, when prop comic turned TV visionary Joel Hodgdson came in and pitched his bizzare, groundbreaking idea about a guy marooned in space with robot sidekicks and forced to watch horrible movies as an experiment. Murphy began by building sets, and then graduated to writing and eventually inheriting the mantle of puppeteering robot smart-ass Tom Servo, as well as providing his lovely singing voice. The show soon moved to basic cable, on what would become Comedy Central, and began collecting awards, critical adulation and an army of die hard fans that continue to cherish the cult hit, and it’s various descendants.
Now, just in time for Halloween, Murphy and his long time comedy partners Mike Nelson and Bill Corbett are prepping for something truly scary; a live presentation of the profoundly stupid instant anti-classic Birdemic: Shock and Terror. The latest entrant into the race for the title of “worst movie ever made”, 2006’s Birdemic joins previous riffing targets including Plan from Outer Space, Reefer Madness and Manos:The Hands of Fate, in the pantheon of cinematic mega crap .
The “film”, and I use that term loosely, concerns a coastal California town mysteriously assaulted by flocks of ineptly rendered CGI birds, that don’t just swoop and claw, but spit acid and, inexplicably, explode. The “heroes” are an acting impaired crew of airheads who defend themselves with whatever weapon is close at hand, including the dreaded common, every day wire hanger. Ostensibly this is some sort of “homage” to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, but the end product is so unspeakably hideous, that Hitch’s vengeful ghost might be offended.
Murphy and friends, on stage in Nashville, will offer a running commentary of “riffs” to ridicule the flick, adding entertainment value that help audiences get their money back for enduring this turkey. The live event will be simulcast in more than 550 movie theaters through a partnership with Fathom entertainment. While talking back to the screen, the Rifftrax crew, and their old MST3K companions at Cinematic Titanic, have proven in recent years that truly awful flicks like this can work well as communal viewing experiences. As they say, misery loves company. I spoke with regular “Minnesota Nice” guy Murphy about this new modern sub standard for terrible filmmaking, and the fine art of making movie magic out of cinematic manure.
Metro Times: So Birdemic is the perfectly incompetent film; it is bad on every level right? It’s completely a 100% failure.
Kevin Murphy: Yeah it’s the perfect storm of bad movie making. What I love about it is that it means well, it’s trying to impart this very important message about our planet, and it has a romance. It’s jus t so, astonishingly incapably done that it ends up being delightful on every level.
MT: It almost seems like the director had never seen a movie before, or seen humans interact normally. It is just so weird.
Murphy: It’s funny because this is James Nguyen’s THIRD film. One of his previous films also included a romance, and starts pretty much the same, but involves a guy interacting with a ghost on the internet. So you have ghosts on the internet followed by exploding bird attack. I’m sort of scared to see the planned sequel to Birdemic, but for now, for this audience I think it will be fun to just put it up on stage, and at theaters around the country and just share the love with everybody.
MT: I’ve never seen a film where people’s footsteps sound like broken glass. Even the foley effects are bad.
KM: You wonder if the sound designer was a little deaf, because it’s like “I want to hear the hell out of those footsteps” or a door opening and closing. Little things like that keep it entertaining.
MT: Birdemic is so bad it almost feels like a parody, like it was planned.
KM: When we first saw it, the writing room felt the same way; we were thinking “can this really be this bad”? Yeah it can. It really pushes towards that end. It’s kind of like Ed Wood, you know his first film’s were really kind of earnest. He was trying to make scary movies with all of the genre elements in them but he really had no clue just how bad at it that he was. There was no intention at self parody. Now Tommy Wiseau (who made the cult stinker The Room) has come around and said “This is what I meant it to be. You guys can go ahead and laugh at me because I’m in on the joke.”
MT: Oh, so he’s backtracking?
KM: It seems like it, yes. And James Nguyen hasn’t backtracked one whit. He feels good about it and he’s standing by his product.
MT: That’s the most admirable quality in a riff; when it’s a clueless movie that is trying to be good.
KM: There’s an earnestness there, there’s an attempt. Believe me I don’t want to ever take away the fact from anybody that it’s really difficult to accomplish a feature film. Just to get it out there and be distributed to the world, is a Herculean feat, especially when you have little or no budget. I admire anybody that goes that far, but it’s only half the equation. The other half is actually being good.
MT: Movies that are intentionally bad, like Mega Shark Vs. Croco Python or whatever is on SYFY this week, are sort of tipping their hand and wink at you.
KM: They sort of defend themselves against their miserable badness by saying “Well, yeah that’s what we were intending to be, so now you’re in on the joke, that we only made because we were incapable of doing anything better”. Those sort of things bug me. Even in the exploitation world there are good exploitation movies and there are BAD exploitation movies.
MT: And you guys avoid that sort of self-conscious thing.
KM: It’s no fun. It’s like having a rube on stage, or someone who is in on it; it just doesn’t work as well.
Do you think the live audience will be able to endure the dull, talky scenes’ in Birdemic?
KM: Oh absolutely, see that’s what we’re there for. We’re there to help people through when these things get really bogged down. And that’s the hardest thing about getting through these films; there are these wonderful jaw dropping moments of great incapable film making, and then there are boring stretches when you’re looking at your watch or leaning forward. We make it our job to make the whole movie an enjoyable experience.
MT: It seems like you keep digging into bottomless caves of garbage that you trough; how do you find these things?
KM: We keep our eyes and ears open, we keep looking. Quite often we get suggestions from Rifftrax fans that send us stuff; one film sort of leads to another. Archive.org has been a tremendous resource for us to find these orphan films that no one claims that would sit on a shelf, or these days on a hard drive just languishing.
MT: True. Galaxy Invader wasn’t getting a shot at being seen anywhere else.
KM: Don Dohler (that movie’s director) is having a renaissance thanks to us!
MT: Are you going to dive into the Doug McClure catalog? Because I think he’s ripe.
KM: Oh we would love to do more of that kind of stuff. There’s a great one where McClure is shipwrecked on an island battling giant crabs. He’s the kind of guy sort of like Rod Taylor, who partook in some really hammy performances in some genre stuff. He for us is what Nick Nolte also has for us.
MT: Well unlike Nolte, McClure was never respected.
KM: Nolte has become our whipping boy for no reason in particular except than he has a gravelly voice and keeps getting caught in embarrassing photographs.
MT: I think he’s given himself ample reason to be ripped on.
KM: (laughs) We have conjured up just because of that a very rich and alarming fantasy world for Nolte. Mike has actually developed his impression into more whispery, raspy, and has evolved into a wonderful little departure that we do in just about every Rifftrax.
MT: I would like Nick Nolte and Gary Busey to have a morning radio show.
KM: They wouldn’t have to even leave home if somebody put that together as a podcast.
MT: What is your favorite kind of film to riff?
KM: I don’t think it’s confined to a type of film, but it’s really the style of film making we were talking about, where you try to put yourself in the head of the director. This incomprehensibly bad scene just took place and you say “ Fine. Cut. Print” Lines were blown, actors didn’t know what they were saying, the action looks horrible, it’s not going to cut together with anything else but they forge ahead anyway.
MT: Do you think the general competence of film making is better or worse than fifty years ago?
KM: Uumm Yes. It’s both better and worse. Digital film making has made film crew’s more nimble, which is good, but only in the hands of capable people. The means of productions are cheap but that means there are going to be a lot more bad filmmakers out there and a lot more garbage to filter through before you get to something that is actually good. I think a whole new generation of better, more adventurous filmmakers will come out of it. But they will just be the peak; underneath will still be this oceanic mountain of garbage.