December 17, 2008

INTERVIEW - The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne On The True Meaning of Christmas (On Mars)

Christmas came early! After 7 years in production, the Flaming Lips film Christmas On Mars has finally been unveiled, and is now orbiting the earth on DVD. Things are about to get trippy here, so proceed carefully:

1. Go here to watch an intro to the movie featuring Kevin Maher's audio interview with lead singer Wayne Coyne.

2. Exciting, right? Well guess what -- the interview spills over right here into an incredibly in-depth Hermitosis exclusive! So after you've been inoculated by the video, click below and hear from Wayne's own lips about what this movie really is and why we have his mother to thank (or blame) for it!

3. (For info about where you can see Christmas On Mars in theaters, check out Cinema Purgatorio!)

Thanks, Kevin and Wayne! And God bless us, every one... including the Martians.


KM: Christmas On Mars has had some really non-traditional screenings. What's the idea behind, for example, a 7 AM show at an offbeat location?

WC: To me, it sounds like something where if you read it on a poster you'd think, "Oh, that's great!" but then the next second you'd think, "…But I'm not going to get up at 7 AM to watch a dumb movie." I think it's just in the spirit of the Flaming Lips philosophy: anything is possible, let's try new things. When it was suggested that we do a breakfast screening of the movie I thought, "Well there you go, why not? Who else would do that? Steven Spielberg probably isn't going to do that with his new film, but I can do it with mine." I'm not sure if anyone really wanted to show up (or even whether anyone did). But just the idea that we could do that, I thought, why not?

I always encourage the crowd and say, "You've gotta laugh, you've gotta cheer," and that really does make a big difference sometimes, making them feel that they can laugh and be part of the momentum of something like that. I saw it in LA a couple of weeks ago with a crowd of 600 people, and they were pretty drunk, and a lot of them were on some acid – they told me that out loud a couple of times – and it's pretty thrilling I have to say. Seeing it with an audience in the beginning, I have to say I had some anxiety about that, but it's a lot of fun. It's better than I ever thought it could be.

KM: One of the things I love is how homegrown the movie is. How do you think it would have been different if you had a big budget?

WC: The idea that I'm doing it all myself – that I'm in there building all the sets and doing all the grunt-work and everything along with it -- I think that's what gives it that Flaming Lips home-made arty touch to it. In editing it and putting it together, we really felt that even though a lot of it was shot in my backyard, a lot of it looks like it could have a somewhat decent budget to it. I would want to think that, regardless of the budget, I'd have dictated that it would look the same, but I would have never gone into it thinking that I would deserve any money, or that anyone in their right mind who had any money would want to give me a bunch of it to make a movie with.

I think the stress and strain and unanswerable questions would have become too much, I think I would have been defeated or made a horribly unwatchable, uncharming, cheap movie. Sometimes a movie is either good or bad, but then there are the other dimensions of it which make it more interesting. There are some scenes that you can watch in it and think, "That's in a room in Wayne's house!" That might not make it good, but I think in some ways it makes it more interesting to watch.

KM: As far as the distinct low-budget charm goes, I especially liked the grainy black-and-white look. Was there a specific era of film that you were going for?

WC: When I think of Christmas movies, there's a 1950's version of A Christmas Carol that I remember from when I was growing up. I was born in 1961, and watching TV wasn't like it is now, where you can just watch it a hundred times -- you had to wait for these movies to be played on TV, and if you were lucky you could see them every year. So [for Christmas on Mars] there was always this 1940's halfway-destroyed black-and-white version of this otherworldly Christmas scenario. But part of what I liked about it is that the movie looks old but it's set in the future, so there would be a kind of disconnect. Are we seeing something from the past, or are we seeing some artifact that's been discovered in the future?

KM: In Christmas On Mars, you've got an alien who dons a Santa Claus suit. We've seen that before in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Is this an homage?

WC: I have to say I didn't know that movie existed before I started to make this movie, but I think two or three copies have been sent to me since I started making the film from people saying, "Hey, did you know this existed?" I don't know if I've seen all of the film, but I've seen enough of it to know that it's not that bad a movie. I think people look at Santa Claus Conquers the Martians as if it was some horribly unwatchable B-movie, but it's not as bad as you'd think.

KM: You call the movie a "film freak-out." Can you tell us what that means?

WC: We started playing the movie at the beginning of last summer in our giant circus tent with our giant sound system in there, and I didn't want audiences (who were going to be at rock festivals watching the Flaming Lips playing a rock concert) to think, "Why would we want to watch a boring old movie?" I wanted them to know that even though it wasn't a concert, there was more to it than just turning off your mind and being entertained by a screen. I think if you're prepared for there to be some stuff, some intensity besides it just being a story, then you're not so jarred out of the momentum of it.

KM: To me, "freak-out" reads as Mothers of Invention, and the movie reminds me (in a good way) of 200 Motels.

WC: Yeah, I can understand that. I think a lot of younger people wouldn't know of the Frank Zappa connection -- certainly that type of artist who has been given too much freedom (maybe more money than they deserve). "Uh-oh, let's see what they do!"

KM: I saw your movie on DVD, but I would love to get to see it in the theater. The sound is so striking and original -- what were some of your influences on the audio?

WC: I think all rock bands – and I'm speaking purely from experience and from talking to people – I think all rock bands feel like eventually as they mature and they go on in their life, they're going to be invited to do a soundtrack for a movie, and of course it's going to be someone like David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick -- you know, someone who's going to want a really strange otherworldly piece of music for them.

When we went in to do the music for Christmas on Mars, I think we decided that the way we would do the music is that it would tell you an element of the story that really wouldn't be there otherwise. And I think that's really true of all films, the sort of atmosphere and the internal psychological meaning that they can have -- a lot of it is in the music and the sound effects. In the beginning I think lots of times we were actually making music before we would even shoot the film… maybe these two would go together. And that didn't always wind up being true; a lot of the music we started with, we wound up rejecting... In the end we wound up using one theme over and over, and giving it different flavorings as it went through the movie. We were probably listening to things like Bernard Herrmann, who's done things with Hitchcock, and I know he worked with Scorsese on Taxi Driver. We were always going back to like Brian Eno-influenced stuff, and even stuff like Igor Stravinsky, trying to make it seem otherworldly but putting it in context as if it were a foreign film. I think it feels somewhat Eastern European, as if some drug-damaged composer was brought in to do the music for this thing, but he happened to be sort of living on the edge of Siberia or somewhere. And I like that. I like that people could be wondering, "Is this a foreign film? What is this?" If you don't know anything about the Flaming Lips you could stumble upon it somewhere and not really know whether it was made in Oklahoma or shot on Mars.

KM: That brings us to the subtitles. Why does the DVD have the option for Russian subtitles?

WC: Again, as we're free to do whatever we want… Even in the beginning I wanted this idea of there being subtitles whenever people speak. I don't know why, but in the old DVD player that I had, the subtitle switch was always stuck ON -- so whenever you'd put in a DVD, the subtitles would automatically come up. When we were practicing for our Who tribute over the summer, I put in the DVD of Woodstock, and I have to say I never realized what people were saying half the time until I read the subtitles!

The idea that it would come up in Russian adds just another exotic spice or flavoring into this thing. And it does really translate in Russian! I've had several Russian-speaking people come up to me and applaud how correct we were with a lot of the subtitles. I'm glad there's some intrigue. It's just a strange home-made movie and nobody stopped us, so we just did whatever we wanted to do.

KM: What else is the band up to now? You're about to go on tour, is that right?

WC: Well, we've sort of surrendered to this idea that we play every summer. Back in the '90s we'd sort of just pick and choose when we wanted to go out on tour and play, and over the last five or six years we've slowly realized that we play every summer. Our summer usually starts at the beginning of May and goes until the end of October, and I think this year we've decided that we want to make another record before we go out and play, so I in about January or February we'll start. We've already pieced together quite a few things… Then after that we'll go out and play all these strange little nooks and crannies around the civilized world. Probably till we die.

KM: I don't know if you're a John Carpenter fan, but there were elements of Christmas On Mars that reminded me of early John Carpenter, like Dark Star and The Thing. Are you a Carpenter fan?

WC: I am in a sense, I mean, I really do love The Thing, and I hadn't watched it in a long time, and as I watched it in the last couple of years as I was making Christmas on Mars, I saw some similarities to it. I don't know the Dark Star movie too well; I've seen bits of it, and I know that it's based on a kind of hippies-go-to-space kind of trip, but I like it enough to say sure, I'd take that. I don't think my film falls squarely into a Science Fiction sort of thing, just because it's so weird. But I would accept that, sure.

KM: I noticed on the credits that you're given a story credit. Was there a fleshed-out screenplay, or did the actors get to improvise?

WC: Now that I look back at what I thought the story was going to be in the beginning, and at the way that it ended up, I can say yeah -- there's definitely a story there. On the other hand, if you'd caught me three years ago and asked me what it was about, I'd have said, "I don't know, I'm just going to keep working until I've got something that isn't embarrassing to show people." Everybody would ask me as I went if I'd written a screenplay, but since I was the director and the producer and building the sets and writing the dialogue and all that, I never felt the need to really write it. The only person who was going to care was me, and I was the only one that really knew where it was going to go. It was like, "Well, Wayne's making this and he knows what he's doing." They weren't worried about it too much.

As far as improvising, I find that people would rather not improvise if you can give them stuff. They would rather know what to say than have to make something up and be clever and cool on the spot. They want to know that this has some meaning for your story. There were times in the film when people did improvise and I used it, but there was never a time when I walked onto the set and said, "I don't know what's going to happen here, and you're going to just say stuff back and forth." But some of the best lines in the film happen to be just dumb things people said that seemed very natural and also worked for the story.

KM: So... "Take a shit on my dick," was that an ad-lib or did you write that?

WC: I have to say that out of all the actors in the film, I knew that he was like that anyway. His character is based on him in real life; he's a used car salesman who teaches Sunday school, but when you catch him in an unguarded moment, he spews out these wonderful, horrible, poetic sorts of one-cuss-word-connected-to-another original lines. So we'd be taking a break setting up lights between something, and he'd say something like like, "Just take a fucking shit on my dick, man," and I'd be like, "Hold on, wait, we've gotta use that!" I think he had a couple more of that stature. The one I like a lot was something like, "You look like something that crawled out of Godzilla's asshole!"

KM: How did you come up with the visual designs? Did you feel that the alien – speaking of looking like something that came out of Godzilla's asshole – do you feel like the finished alien is what you had in mind?

WC: I wanted to look like me, and yet still be a character, and the same with Steven and Michael – if you like the Flaming Lips, there they are, they're in the film! So I never wanted to put too much makeup or costuming on us and cover us up in that way. I knew I wanted that I wanted the audience to think of my character as being green, but actually just looking sort of like me with some weird antennae and a crazy suit. I didn't really want there to be some strange looking alien -- just a man that arrives in a space bubble. I don't know why. I never thought of it being like a B-movie looking thing. As it went, I sort of hoped that there would be some sense of special effects that would make it look more fantastical than just me in that strange suit. And then as I started to see it in my character, and in the music that plays when my character shows up, I started to think, "It'll be enough." It just looks like me, like I've got some cheap antennae on. The audience – I don't know, maybe they already think I'm some sort of alien from outer space or something.

KM: If you did have this incredible over the top costume it would stick out from the landscape that it's appearing in. I think all the elements work together beautifully.

WC: Yeah, but that's giving me way too much credit. Believe me -- I'd have been the first one to go over the top and not know it. At the beginning I thought I was just making space tunnels so they could walk through them and just get on with the story. But little by little, I realized that I was making it the way I want, I'm dictating where the lights go, and all the little bits of the space station, what they're made of, and even using toys as parts of the space station and stuff. If I had just handed that over to some set designer – well it's not that it wouldn't have been as charming, but it certainly wouldn't have had my fingerprints and my stuff all over it. Once I got about halfway through it, I was glad I was doing it that way. I thought, "Okay, well it's probably a good thing that I'm in there having to make it all up. For better of worse it will reek of my influence."

KM: How did the rest of the band feel about it? Were they able to trust you and follow where you were going with the movie?

WC: Well I think really it was both. It was sort of that adventure of, "Let's go and make this thing!" We do that even when we make our records, no one ever really has a great plan. You have a bunch of plans and you hope they work, and they inevitably don't work, and you just start making it up as you go. I know this never sounds like true justification, but we've made a lot of music videos where we don't really know what we're going to do, and within a couple hours we'll just set something up and do it. I did that a lot with Brad Beasley, the guy who helped me direct the film, and his crew, and so we were used to working in this way. We know we're going to make a film, and we know what it's going to be about, and even though I never had to sit down and convince anyone that I knew what I was doing. I think everybody wanted that – they wanted to be in the middle of this potential catastrophe together. I think we were having as much fun as you can have as you're making something like this.

KM: Can you tell your fans, based on the 7 year experience of making this, the most important thing you've learned from making Christmas on Mars?

WC: For better or worse, I'm an artist who has been given the freedom to follow my obsessions, and maybe that really that's the only thing that you can trust: that you're surrendering to some overriding master that is taking you into this other world.

For people who haven't seen the film, there's a marching band scene, where the marching band has giant female genitals for heads and things like that. If I had to really sit there and tell people what I thought that meant, or justify why it should be in the movie, I wouldn't be able to. But I could always just say, "I don't know what it means, but it's my movie and I like it and that's the way I wanted to make it." If you go into making any sort of personal subjective unique art, if you have to explain to people every ten minutes what it means, and why it's there and why they should believe in it, I don't think you could. I think that most of what I like about the movie, I don't even know why I did it! I just liked it and went about doing it. To me, that's true of all important things in your life, and that's especially true for art. We don't want art being made because it's going to make us look cool or make us a lot of money, or make us famous, we want art to be made because if we don't make it we'll just go crazy. So we make it, and we look crazy for making it, but we know that we would be crazier if we didn't make it.

KM: I really love the intro that you do for the movie, the story of how your mother sort of inspired the movie. Can you give us a sort of Reader's Digest version of that story?

WC: Sure. Inevitably when you make a movie like this, people want to know where these ideas come from, and they come from a million different moments in your life. Hopefully all art is made from some sort of great spattering of influences. But I know for sure that when I was a teenager, my brother and I would stay out until all hours of the night, and we'd come home at two or three o'clock in the morning, and my mother, who claimed that she never slept, would be up on the couch watching movies and catching up on housework from the day or whatever. And we came in one night and she was sobbing, because she'd watched what she thought was a very sad movie. And we said, "What was this movie?" and she didn't know what it was. She didn't remember whether it was set on a ship or a submarine or what, but she described it as a group of some sort of workers were trapped in some sort of unsaveable condition, some catastrophe had happened and they realized they were going to die. And once they realized they sort of accepted that they were going to die, they were visited by some sort of being. And we asked, "Well, what sort of being?" And she didn't know whether it was God or some kind of alien, but they were visited by this entity and they seemed to be made happy with their lives.

It being 1974 or 1975, we just assumed we'd see this movie, that it would come on again sometime and we'd be able to say, "Hey mom, here's that dumb movie that you saw." But then as time went on, all movies became sort of always available, and if it was a good movie, we'd probably have seen it before now. Little by little we concluded that my mother, as she'd done a million times before, probably sat on the couch and started watching a movie, fell asleep, woke up while another movie was playing, and sort of dreamed the middle of it -- connected the first movie, her dream, and another movie, and thought it was all one movie! I think we all have probably done that.

I had gone over this movie and added my own imagination to it for so long that, once I knew that it didn't exist, I was sort of trapped. I was like, "I want to see this movie, I've thought about it forever." I think that pushed me into saying "I'm going to make this movie." Even though her describing it ends up being kind of a vague outline that could have been any movie, I see now how what she described fits in perfectly to Christmas On Mars: that this entity comes, and the entity is me, and I don't know if I'm supposed to be God or some sort of alien from outer space, but these things tie together, and again, I can't really justify it. I just know that it became important for me to say, "I want to see this movie… if no one else wants to see it, I know I do."

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