Rifftrax Host Mike Nelson Talks Anaconda, Michael Bay, and More

Written by Kristen Lopez

If I interview Bill Corbett, I’ll have talked to all three members of the Rifftrax crew! Maybe that sounds like bragging on my part, but these guys are the coolest trio on the planet, responsible for creating hilarious “riffs” on your favorite (and films whose favoritism you refuse to acknowledge) films via their site, Rifftrax. After a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, and the presentation of Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla on the big screen (which was reviewed by Mark Buckingham), the trio are back with a Halloween treat: performing a live Riff on Anaconda! I sat down with Mike Nelson to talk the joys of Jon Voight, how hard it is to watch movies out of riff mode, and whether Nelson thinks time is a flat circle.

[Before we got down to talking Mike wished me a happy birthday. In the interest of full disclosure, I prodded it out of him.]

What is it about Rifftrax or Mystery Science Theater that gets audiences so excited? Why do we love to watch terrible movies and listen to people make fun of them?

There’s a reaction to bad movies that’s fun. If it’s the right bad movie; there are bad movies where you just go “I never want to see it again. I don’t care.” For the Rifftrax movies it’s just something that sticks in your head; you want to talk back to it, and I think it’s fun to do that in a crowd or in a Rifftrax environment. Especially with the live shows, it really is infectious to get everybody involved.

What’s the process when you plan the live show or what you put online? Do you watch the movie multiple times before writing the jokes?

Somebody will suggest a screener – either one of us or sometimes outside people who say “Hey, have you guys seen this?” – and then we get ahold of it, and at least one of us will screen it before we agree to do it. We break it up into sections and we assign a section to a writer, he grinds out some jokes for it and we put it all back together to edit it (to make sure we’re not doing similar jokes and make sure all the jokes are as good as they can be). We watch it over and over again until we have the best version. We watch it a lot, but we also watch it really slowly so we’re going back and reviewing little sections.

It must be great to watch something like Sharknado more than one, more than twice!

It’s funny, when you actually do the live show you’re so microfocused on it, worrying about every little bit, that when it gets to the performance in the theater it’s fun for us because it’s the first time we get to relax and know all of our work is behind us. We can have fun. A lot of times I’ll see the movie for the first time in a way that it’s fun as opposed to work.

And when you sit down to come up with what’s next, is it a democratic process?

It’s pretty democratic. There are other concerns, like getting the rights to the movies. Then it’s will it work comedically and will it be something our audience will be excited about?

It’s not exactly picking what’s popular or has a remake coming out? The comedy always comes first?

Yeah, the comedy does drive it. We really haven’t had too many movies defeat us where I think “Oh, boy, the comedy didn’t overcome how bad the movie was.” We can be pretty inventive even when a movie is challenging. Comedy is first.

Has there been a movie where you struggle to say something funny? Whether it’s unfunny or there’s not a lot to nitpick.

Yes, that is hard! We had a bit of a hard time, it turned out great, but Godzilla. It’s super long and a lot of the moments are repeated so you have to get more inventive. Obviously, you can’t repeat the same jokes or ideas about jokes. That one we worked more hours on. And when a movie’s longer you do have repeated things coming up, and as it gets toward the end you’re at the end of your joke pile. It challenges us in a good way.

Can you sit back and enjoy a movie, or are you constantly in Riff mode?

I can! I like good movies, and I even maintain my love of bad movies. It is still fun for me. I do riff on life and TV more than movies because I’m usually trying to see a decent film so occasionally my wife will say “Can you please stop?”

Why Anaconda? What makes it worthy of doing live and theatrically?

Sony offered it because we’d done Starship Troopers and Godzilla, so they gave us a menu of possible titles. That was one I remember I’d reviewed years ago for a magazine and I talked everyone into it. They screened it and loved it. It takes itself seriously enough that it’s fun; it has a serious tone. It’s a classic B-movie that’s shot really well and is fun to look at, aside from the digital effects. And the big hammy performances from Jon Voight so there’s a lot of goofy elements.

[I go on to tell Nelson about my love for Anaconda and eventually start discussing Eric Stoltz’s performance which is spoilery.]

Is there a movie you respect or love that you wouldn’t want to Riff it? Is there a film that’s untouchable?

Maybe only in tone. We wouldn’t do Schindler’s List or something that’s tasteless or stupid to do. To prove we don’t necessarily dislike the movies we do – we make movies funny – we did Casablanca, which is one of our favorite movies. It worked out well. It’s such a great movie on its own that it presents a challenge. There’s no movie I would say is too reverential.

[I go on to verbally kick myself about missing Casablanca on their website.]

What’s been your favorite and least favorite to discuss?

I have to say, for my taste, the Transformers movies drive me crazy because I don’t have them as a memory from my childhood. To me they’re just noisy and confusing metal parts being clanked together with inane dialogue and the bizarre yelping of Shia LaBeouf. We don’t make any bones about it in our Rifftrax. We try not to be unpleasant about it, but clearly we’re not dealing with movies on the same level as Lord of the Rings. I like those the most because it’s fun to do something I like a lot and was familiar with.

Have you seen Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

I have not. That’s also something I don’t have a lot of interest in. It wouldn’t be something I’d go out of my way to check out, that’s for sure.

[I mention making a friend go see the new TMNT movie with me who almost decided to end our friendship.]

I made friends see The Wild, Wild West; I was in a bad movie club with a bunch of friends who I talked into that. It was so bad I almost lost all my friends.

Any plans for Sharknado 2?

No immediate ones. People seemed to really like Sharknado so certainly it’d be something we want to do. We have a good relationship with the Asylum folks so hopefully they’ll loosen up on that one.

A reader wanted to know what you thought of True Detective?

That’s interesting! I like that quite a bit, actually. It was a little on the gruesome side for my taste but it was so compelling I overcame my objections. I quite liked it.

Are there any bad future Rifftrax movies you saw this year?

None come immediately to mind. I don’t see a lot of movies in the theater because we’re always in our little comedy basement, mining away nuggets of comedy, so I don’t get out and see a lot. I’m open to suggestion.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Put that in the back pocket.

Oh, but then I’d have to see it!

Do you have anything brewing for the future? What’s next, post-Anaconda?

We’re always hoping to do a Christmas show, so we’re investigating that now. Those are always fun. We’re trying to find a fun movie, not just for our Christmas live-show, just something around the holidays.

Thanks to Mike Nelson for taking time out to talk to me. Anaconda is showing in theaters nationwide October 30th with a second screening on November 4th. You can purchase tickets at Fathom Events or Fandango.

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