Mike Nelson interview, Mystery Science Theater 3000

A chat with Mike Nelson

Entertainment Channel / Bullz-Eye Home

It’s hard to imagine that, once upon a time, people were skeptical that Mike Nelson could fill the shoes that Joel Hodgson left behind when he departed “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and left the Satellite of Love short one human. Truth be told, probably more people know Nelson than Hodgson; his was the face of “MST3K” during the last portion of its run on Comedy Central, as well as its entire stint on the Sci-Fi Network. Since the series left the air in 1999, Nelson has kept busy predominantly as an author, having written “Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese,” “Mike Nelson’s Mind Over Matters,” and his first novel, “Death Rat!” Of late, he’s returned to the game of making snarky comments over top of movies of iffy quality; the folks at Legend Films have reissued and re-mastered several classic horror and sci-fi films, the latest of which are Roger Corman’s original “Little Shop of Horrors” and the Ed Wood classic, “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” After a false start where he told us to call him anytime, then didn’t answer his phone when we did call him, we finally caught up with Nelson and had the chance to chat about this new gig, some of the books he’s authored, and, of course, about “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

Mike Nelson: Hi, this is Mike.

Bullz-Eye: Hey, Mike, this is Will!

MN: Hi, Will, how are you?

BE: I’m pretty good; how are you?

MN: I’m good, thanks.

BE: I wasn’t sure if I was being punk’d earlier or not.

MN: No, sorry about that.

BE: No problem. Well, it’s an extreme pleasure to talk to you…

MN: Oh, my pleasure as well!

BE: I’m definitely a big fan of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” and I’ve got your book, “Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese,” too, so I’ve tried to keep up.

MN: Oh, cool! Great!

BE: So how did you get hooked up with Legend Films?

MN: Um, actually, David Martin – CEO of the company – is kind of a friend of a friend. I’d met him at a golfing weekend once, and he started this company, and then I think he remembered, “Hey, doesn’t Mike do something with movies?” And he gave me a call.

BE: As a connoisseur of bad movies, were you giddy to get a shot at commenting on the one that’s probably topped more Worst Movies of All Time lists than any other (“Plan 9 from Outer Space”)?

MN: Yeah, it was. You know, for “Plan 9,” I think we considered that at “Mystery Science Theater,” then we decided for whatever reason not to do it. I think somebody said, “Oh, we can’t take it on. It’s so famous, people love to watch it on its own.” But I just thought, well, that’s kind of what we do! So, yeah, for whatever reason, I think we voted not to do that. So when I had the chance to do it, yeah, I was pretty excited.

BE: How many references do you think you made to (star Bela) Lugosi’s heroin use in the commentary?

MN: (Laughs) Uh, not enough!

BE: As I watching, it was, like, “Oooh, that was rough,” then, “Oooh, there goes another one…!”

MN: Yep, I tend to like to grab onto something and just pummel it to death…and, then, after it stops moving, just continue to pummel it.

BE: Are there any other Ed Wood films you'd like to get a shot at? Did you do any on "MST3K"? I can't imagine you didn't, but I'm just drawing a blank at the moment.

MN: Yeah, we did "Bride of the Monster" and a great one called "The Sinister Urge," a film that showed the horrors of the "smut" industry. There's a line in that one…a crude line, mind you…that was a writing room favorite, just one of the most entertaining lines – to us – of our whole time at “Mystery Science Theater.” It involved the very, very harsh looking woman in charge of this smut ring. She dressed very glamorously but she was old and looked like she'd been rode hard and put away wet…it's an equine reference there, nothing more. And she had a voice like Uncle Charlie from “My Three Sons.” Anyway, she enters the room from another indeterminate room looking pretty self-satisfied, and Mike says…in her voice, obviously…"Ahhhhh, that was a good crap!"

BE: (Laughs)

MN: Anyway, digression over. I'd love to do "Glen or Glenda." It has to be seen.

BE: Did you have any hesitation about tackling “Little Shop of Horrors,” or did you just figure that Roger Corman (who produced the film) equals fair game?

MN: I’ve…y’know, Roger Corman has been the cause of much suffering in my life. I understand he’s a very sweet guy, I know he’s launched the career of many, many people, but his movies are, for the most part, very painful. So I don’t feel any reluctance about that film. I know it’s beloved by some, but I don’t know if they really…maybe there’s just a whole lot of pot in the world or something. I don’t know. For me, it’s a painful experience without the comments.

BE: And I admit, I’d never seen the original. I’d seen the musical, of course…

MN: Yeah!

BE: …and then I’d heard that, oh, yeah, Jack Nicholson’s in it. And then I guess the urban legend that got started was that he played the dentist in it. But when I finally got to see it, it was, like, no, he doesn’t; he barely even plays the patient!

MN: Yeah, and he does that…it’s pretty embarrassing at points, his little character there. It’s…it’s early Jack Nicholson, I think, is the kindest thing you can say about it.

BE: Venturing into the realm of “over the top” for the first time.

MN: Oh, yeah. Already he’s trying to gnaw up the scenery around him!

BE: What was it like doing commentary for films like, say, “Carnival of Souls”? Because that’s thought of in relatively high regard in some places.

MN: Yeah, I was a little gentler on “Carnival of Souls” in terms of the commentary, just because I think it’s a very atmospheric movie, and so it doesn’t offer a lot in terms…at least as much…in terms of jokes. But I think part of its legend is a little bit by accident, because it was so low-budget that it kind of lends it a strange feeling. But, yeah, I tended to do a little more with that commentary of actually providing a little of fact about the film…and then pummeling it and making jokes about it.

BE: And I noticed that you did scatter trivia throughout “Little Shop of Horrors” as well.

MN: Yeah, a little bit, a little bit. Y’know, when people are watching a DVD commentary, just a little bit of a nod to what commentaries generally are, I think, is a little bit helpful.

BE: Do you have any other films on the slate for Legend?

MN: I’m sort of screening them right now. There’s a whole bunch, so…there’s nothing definitely set, but there’s a lot that are looking pretty good to me.

BE: I think they’ve done a really good job as far as the remastering, considering that, well, since it’s in public domain, I saw “Little Shop of Horrors” the other day at the Dollar Tree.

MN: Right!

BE: I think they’re doing a really good job of making them watchable again.

MN: Yeah, it’s really their mission, to get absolutely the best print that’s available anywhere…and, then, that helps, obviously, for the colorization. But just to restore it, you’ve got the pristine black and white, you’ve got the color that they do, and then you’ve got the commentary things that you can switch on and off, and so it’s a lot richer than just buying that $2.99 copy down at the store and hoping that it’s not just the worst print you’ve ever seen in your life.

BE: Which, invariably, it is.

MN: It always is, yeah! I’ve been burned by that before, and it always leaves a bad taste. You don’t want to buy those without a good brand behind it, and I think Legend has that.

BE: Who came up with the idea for the series of books that you’ve done with Pop Ink?

MN: Oh, you know, that was Charles Anderson Design! I knew a guy who worked there, and he also knew I was a writer, and he just said, “We’ve got these images and we’re trying to put them together in some form of book.” And then, they sort plugged in these spots where you have text in them, and they said, “Could you put anything in those spaces?” And I said, yeah, I could do that! So I did it, and they really liked it, and Abrams Books, who published it, loved it as well. That was just kind of…they approached me, but it was a little bit of an accident; I don’t think they had any idea what kind of stuff I was going to write. So it was a bit of a surprise to them…and I assume it was a pleasant one.

BE: Has “Death Rat” been optioned for a film yet?

MN: Y’know, my wife is big on that. She keeps saying, “Have you made ‘Death Rat’ into a film yet?” And I keep saying, “Y’know…” Uh, if the book was as successful…or, even, let’s say one one-thousandth as successful…as “The Da Vinci Code,” then the producers would be talking to me. But as it is, I sort of have to convince them and get them to read it. I do think it would make a good script, and I might spec that script and just see what happens, but I’m a little busy with things right now, so…

BE: How did you come to write that first novel, or had it been sitting on the shelf for ages just waiting for you to have the right pull in the industry?

MN: (Laughs) No, y’know, I had this idea when I was working on “Mystery Science,” and I pitched it to the other writers…well, just a little back story, at the time, the book “Into Thin Air” was out. It was sort of an Everest adventure book.

BE: Right, Jon Krakauer.

MN: There were a couple of other big ones like that that were out…oh, and “The Perfect Storm” had come out. And so I said, “Hey, we should throw together some fake adventure book, and we’ll all share chapters. All we have to do is write two chapters of the thing, I’ll sketch out the adventures, and then we’ll hire some hunky actor to sell it…and then it’ll sell because he’s hunky and he’ll go on talk shows and talk about the adventure. And then we’ll all have a big laugh and we’ll make money.” And they looked at me like I was high. “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!” So once “Mystery Science” was over, I decided to sort of write about it…sort of, what if somebody did that? So that’s kind of the idea of it. And then I also kind of got to make fun of Minnesota at the same time.

BE: And who doesn’t enjoy that?

MN: Oh, I mean, everyone should! If you haven’t done it yet, please write a novel and make fun of Minnesota!

BE: And when I click on the photo of “Death Rat” on your site, it takes me to Amazon.com, where I can buy a copy of…”Road House” on DVD.

MN: (Laughs) Isn’t that a brilliant bit of marketing?

BE: But now my question is, have you pre-ordered your copy of “Road House 2” yet?

MN: I haven’t! I was actually contacted by quite a number of people who are sort of tangentially involved in “Road House 2,” and I contacted my agent and said, “Can you get me the agent of the director of ‘Road House 2’? Because I want to be in it!” And I don’t remember why, but I was either too busy or lost my nerve and thought, “I can’t do that!” So I missed the boat on it. I kind of regret that; I should’ve thrown my hat into the ring to have a role in “Road House 2,” so I’m a little…I don’t know if I could see it. I might be a little too jealous.

BE: Now, see, if you’d been it, you could’ve just retired at that point. It would’ve been the culmination of your career.

MN: Maybe that’s it. What else could I do? It’s a pinnacle. There’s nowhere else to go.

BE: I know you’re available for speaking engagements. Do you consider yourself motivational?

MN: (Laughs) I guess I motivate people to turn off things and make fun of stuff. But, no, I wouldn’t say I’m very motivational.

BE: How many volumes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” are Rhino planning to release? I know Volume 10 is already on their schedule.

MN: Yeah, y’know, I don’t know. I’m a little bit out of the loop on that. I think it just tends to be which movies can they get the rights to. Lots of those films, when we first did them, they just kind of got temporary licenses to the films. So when those expired, and then the people realized what we’ve done to their film…because I think a lot of them didn’t have any idea…then I think the renegotiation gets a little more difficult. Suddenly, it’s actually expensive to get “The Leech Woman.” So that’s the tough part of that.

BE: What I want to see is “Laserblast,” from the last episode done for Comedy Central.

MN: Now…do you actually want to see it? Are you a fan of that one?

BE: I’m a fan of that particular episode of “Mystery Science.”

MN: Yeah. I can only still look through the prism of pain it caused, and I cannot…that one just drives me insane. At this moment, I can recall what it was like to be sunk down in the couch, barely sitting, my head is almost to the seat cushion, and I’m just in a mood where I want to take my own life. That’s my memory of “Laserblast.”

BE: I’d say it’s at least that good.

MN: (Laughs) Yeah, okay, good.

BE: Is it going to take something like a 20th anniversary spectacular to get the “MST3K” group back together? Or is that just a pipe dream?

MN: I don’t think the whole crew…we’re scattered to the four winds, there’s too many…as they say in Hollywood, there’s too much hair on the deal to get it back together. But Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo) and Bill Corbett (Crow T. Robot) and I worked together with a film crew, and, hopefully, we’ll soon have a product that I think will please “Mystery Science” fans that will soon be coming out. It’s a little bit up in the air right now, but I’m pretty hopeful.

BE: Now, Kevin is working on…”Desperate Housewives,” is that right? (Note: This is a reference to the fact that there’s another Kevin Murphy – the writer of “Reefer Madness: The Musical” – who’s on the staff of that show…and by “a reference,” I mean I thought it was the same guy. It wasn’t.)

MN: (Probably rolling his eyes at his interviewer’s stupidity) Yes. Yes, he’s the gardener.

BE: (Realizing the error of his ways and trying to roll with it) Uh, yes, that’s what I was led to understand. Um…what’s the last movie you saw for your own personal enjoyment that turned out to be so bad that it made you think, “Oh, my GOD, I wish the show was still on the air”?

MN: Uh…”X-Men: The Last Stand.”

BE: Really?

MN: Well…it wasn’t…there’s a thing about…when movies are entertaining enough, it’s actually good for the show. There’s a certain amount of badness, and I’ll tell you what the badness was that made me laugh in “X-Men 3.” First of all, it was incredibly loud, so it beat me up, almost physically, so I had that grudge against it. And then the other grudge was Frasier in the purple monkey suit. I just couldn’t believe they were presenting this as a serious thing. And that moment…anyway, it made me laugh out loud. That said, it’s entertaining in its way, and that actually is a plus. When you make fun of a movie, you want it to have at least some entertainment value on its own, ‘cause you can’t do all the work.

BE: About halfway through it, I just kind of had to disassociate myself as a comic book fan and said, “Well, this is…I’m going to have to appreciate this as a movie, because in no way can I appreciate it as anything related to ‘X-Men’ the comic book.”

MN: Yeah, that’s what I wondered about, because I’m not a comic book fan. Is it…is that a story that was told in the comic books or not?

BE: Not…not as one story. It borrows from, like, two or three different arcs, I guess you’d say, and none of them were done nearly as well in the film as they were in the comic…so geeks were up in arms. And rightfully so. As a closet geek, I concede that.

MN: Sure. Well, I had an enormously hard time watching…at least in the first go-round…the “Lord of the Rings” books, because suddenly something would be out of place, and you’d go, “What…what are they…what are they doing?” And then you’re waiting for them to reassemble it, and you’re out of the film for about an hour. So I understand that.

BE: And what have you got on your plate at the moment that you’re able to speak of?

MN: Well, I am working on a number of things. I’ve got a children’s book in the works, I am writing a play – hopefully for off-Broadway – about a film that I think you would really love if you haven’t seen it. The film is the jumping-off point for the fiction of the play, and the film is called “The Apple.” It is a 1980 disco musical that Golan-Globus did, which is the same year…it was a stellar year for disco musicals, because “Xanadu” came out that year.

BE: Absolutely. That’s one of my wife’s favorite films.

MN: And “Can’t Stop the Music” as well.

BE: I actually just reviewed “Thank God It’s Friday” for our site.

MN: Ah! Well, there you go! You would love “The Apple”…and it is on DVD now, and it’s probably very cheap. It’s actually a good print, so you’ll love it.

BE: All right, well, I think I’ve got the goods here.

MN: Well, great!

BE: It’s been great talking to you.

MN: My pleasure, Will. Nice talking to you.