We have an awesome interview this week that will appeal to any RiffTrax fan. We were able to hunt down, tie up and water-board long-time RiffTrax writer, Conor Lastowka, until he agreed to answer our damn questions! He is also the author of the insanely funny novel, Gone Whalin', available on Amazon.com. He also happens to be the voice of the syncbot of all syncbots, Disembaudio.
PS, we were kidding about the water-boarding. Instead we just tazed him. ...okay, that's a lie too, but who's keeping score?
RiffWiki: So let's start with that ever so interesting question "what makes you want to be a writer." #1. It's hard. #2 It sucks. #3 There's no money in it. Yet you and thousands aspire not only to be writers, but to become better and better writers as time goes on. What compels you to be creative? Can you pinpoint it, or is it more of a vague concept that you can't really explain?
Conor Lastowka: I actually saved this one for last. Since all my answers were so long, I’ll give you a short answer for this one: I worked at a ‘real’ job. I did it for about a year right after college and it was motivation enough to quit and find something I was better suited for.
RiffWiki: Do you remember when you first discovered MST3K? Did it have a significant impact on you?
Conor Lastowka: My family never had cable growing up, so I saw MST3K a grand total of one time. A friend’s brother had rented the movie from Blockbuster and it was lying around the house, and we watched it one day after school. My response? Immediate, seething outrage that they’d make jokes about such a quality movie. I am, of course, kidding. I remember thinking it was very funny.
I guess I never had friends watched it either. There were times in college that, looking back, seemed ideally suited to popping one on and nodding off on the couch to, but I guess we were too busy watching Boy Meets World reruns.
RiffWiki: How exactly did you meet Mike Nelson and come to be involved with RiffTrax the way you have been for the last 8 years?
Conor Lastowka: RiffTrax used to be part of a company called Legend Films, which colorized movies. I had got a job there as a production assistant, which meant I did a little bit of everything: helping on the colorizing and restoration, editing for their DVDs, shipping out Shirley Temple DVDs to old people since Legend ran her website. I always felt like the guy unjamming the Malibu Stacy head dispenser when I would send out a collection of Good Ship Lollipop DVDs to some delighted 80 year old woman.
More importantly, Mike had done a series of commentaries for their colorized old b-movies, and one day they said he was going to move to San Diego to do some sort of unspecified thing. Well this was exciting! I made it very clear that I was a funny guy who appreciated funny stuff. “Oh, what am I conspicuously listening to as I ship out Shirley Temple movies? Just some old Monty Python routines which I’d be happy to discuss at length if you want.”
Fortunately, not having a ‘defined job’ meant that I would get roped in to meetings to talk about this new venture he was planning, where’d we’d do stuff like “decide what the website should be called” and “try to figure out how the hell we were going to make synching work” and “Oh god how do you sell an MP3 anyways!”
We determined that I since nobody was really sure what I did there, I could spare the time to do the voice of Disembaudio, which meant I got to go to the recordings, and more importantly out for beers afterwards, and got to meet Kevin and Bill when they started coming to town. And then a few titles in, Mike decided that it was madness to try to write every single one of these things on his own and asked if I wanted to join in. I’ve been happy and fortunate that the guys took a chance on me and that our sense of humor and personalities jived.
RiffWiki: Lets talk behind the scenes. First, what is the selection process like? Is it a committee thing, is it a do as the benevolent and gracious El Presidente Mike ever-so-politely demands thing? How do you go about not only finding riffable movies, but how are they ultimately selected for release?
Conor Lastowka: Well, it’s changed a little as RiffTrax has developed. We used to look at IMDB rankings and DVD release dates. We didn’t know exactly what people would want to watch, but the general thinking was that if people had the DVD on their shelf, they’d be more inclined to watch the RiffTrax. We got to take some chances like Crossroads (at my insistence) early on that let us see that there was a big difference in the amount of people who wanted to watch that vs say, The Matrix or LOTR.
As we’ve moved more to a VOD system, it’s more of just seeking things out and then determining if we’d be able to do them. A lot of suggestions come from fans, or from stuff one of us will discover on our own. There’s also been a lot of slogs through piles of PD movies and 16mm films. Just set aside a whole day to watch stuff and check it off the list. Not as fun as it sounds. Most movies are ill suited for what we do, and most ‘bad’ movies are bad because they are dreary and boring. Lining up a whole bunch of those can take the wind out of your sails pretty quick. When we started to realize that we could cut the 16mm films with scissors and dump them into the garbage, instead of screening them all the way to the end and then rewind them, that was a big time saver.
RiffWiki: Is there a list, official or otherwise, of movies that will never make it into the RiffTrax canon? There's an infamous rumor that Battleship will never make the cut. If such a list exists, and if you are at liberty to say, what is on it and why?
Conor Lastowka: I’ve never heard that about Battleship, but I can unequivocally state that we will never do Battleship. It’s the quintessential movie we should avoid (I say all this never having seen it): full of “action” scenes of stuff blowing up, long as hell, and nobody cares about it.
There were PD movies that we’d go through every couple years once we’d forgotten that we’d rejected them the first time around. “Devil Bat”, this old Bela Lugosi movie we must have looked at half a dozen times. It has a great bat puppet, but the rest is just boring and talky, it’s one of those movies that is so old, they didn’t realize that a movie could be something more than just a stage play on film. And every few years I’d start thinking “How bad could this Child Bride movie really be?” and make people take a look at it. It’s great up until the pervs start watching the girl swim around naked. That would be a tricky thing to start cracking jokes over. I suppose we could edit it, but still, the underlying plot of that movie isn’t something people really consider a ‘knee slapper.’
RiffWiki: What's the most bizarre thing you've come across when looking for movies? Is it something like Setting Up A Room or David and Hazel, or is it something none of us has even heard about?
Conor Lastowka: Setting Up A Room was a tremendous, tremendous find. Something was off with the sprockets on the film, so the first time Mike and I watched it, it played through completely out of focus. We still watched the whole thing. Our greatest fear was that the conversion people wouldn’t be able to fix it. Sean had been out of town, we sat him down the moment he walked in the door and made him watch it.
Ice Cream Bunny was a great moment. We discovered it in like January, and it was so frustrating to know that we’d have to wait 11 months until we would record and release it. Guy From Harlem was a great moment, it came at the end of one of those dreary slogs through a stack of movies I described above. It was so exciting.
Mike and I took a trip up to a film archivist north of LA one time. That session led to the “Quality Freshness and Flavor” pork short and Parade of Aquatic Champions, but the best moment was Moosebaby. The woman running the films for us hit play on that and after a few seconds was like “Well obviously I’ll be turning this off.” We had to smack her hand away from the stop button. We were transfixed like Elaine’s boyfriend when Desperado comes on.
But all of these moments may pale compared to a recent find that we’re going to release in a couple months. A fan suggested a movie to Mike that was a real, “Gather everyone in the office and make them come in here and watch it” moment. The guy in the Ice Cream Bunny suit would have considered it well beneath his dignity to be in this movie. How’s that for a tease?
RiffWiki: What's the writing process like? Writing a riff script has to be one of the most unique forms of writing there is. What are the advantages and disadvantages to having such a niche product as far as writing goes?
Conor Lastowka: Writing process is sitting and staring. Playing a moment, skipping back a few seconds, watching it again, then sitting and staring. Then opening a random Wikipedia page, or IMing Mike or Sean about something funny in the movie, or anything else to avoid more sitting and staring. It works, you’ll eventually think of something funny, but it takes a long time.
It is a unique form of writing. It keeps you very sharp. You have to think of hundreds of new jokes every week, based on new characters and situations. As we keep doing it, you also have to try to avoid jokes that you’ve done before. So that really challenges your creativity. But it’s a solitary effort. I’ve worked from home for probably close to two years now, but it really wasn’t that different when we were in an office together. I think we all prefer to be in a room, interacting, but we also all acknowledge that splitting up is the way to actually get the work done. When we’re staring at a moment for a live show that just seems uncrackable, we’ll eventually head back to our own separate rooms and all pitch jokes on our own time. Takes the pressure off and results in better options.
RiffWiki: How long does it usually take from movie selection to it actually showing up on RiffTrax.com? With 5 of you guys writing and 3 of you recording, it's gotta be a pretty demanding schedule considering that you produce 22 – 24 studio riffs and put on 3 live shows a year. How hectic can it get putting any one riff together?
Conor Lastowka: That’s one of the great things about RiffTrax. As an independent company, we can do whatever the hell we want. We can adjust if something great comes up, we don’t have to worry about a script getting held up by standards and practices, we just make what we want and then put it up for people to watch.
My favorite example is a recent one, at the beginning of the year we were all on a phone call, trying to figure out what movies to do next. Bill mentioned that he thought The Wizard of Oz might be a good idea. I’m not sure how this had never come up before, but immediately it was like “Of course we should do that, that would be really fun and tons of people would want to see that.” So we got a copy, started working on it a few days later, and it was probably up on the site within two or three weeks.
We usually try to plan out everything a month or two. But we can also fly by the seat of our pants when fun opportunities come up.
RiffWiki: Die-hard RiffTrax fanatics have been noting the lack of blockbuster titles in favor of more VOD titles. About mid-2011, we started to see a shift in focus away from Blockbusters right about the time Star Trek II and Crater Lake Monster were riffed. By the time Guy From Harlem came around in later-ish 2012, it was clear that RiffTrax was focusing almost solely on VODs, with a Twilight or a Wizard of Oz thrown in there occasionally. Was this a conscious decision, or did it just kind of happen? And if it was conscious, what triggered it?
Conor Lastowka: When I was watching the third Dark Knight movie, I had the realization that it and The Avengers both had a moment where the hero ‘sacrifices’ himself by steering a huge bomb out away from a city, and then everyone thinks they’re dead but they’re not. Two movies that came out within a few months of each other! It really spelled out how identical so many of these action movies are. We did pretty much every big summer movie for a while, which means we did every superhero movie, since that’s really all you get these days. To me Transformers counts as a superhero movie.
They all just started to run together. They’re constructed differently than movies used to be, they have to be incredibly long, some city has to be destroyed, there have to be ten minute action sequences that are insanely difficult to riff, they need to minimize talking to make it easier to bring to overseas markets. Then we’d do stuff like Guy From Harlem, which is weird, doesn’t drag, unlike anything else in the world. And we all sort of thought, we like doing these, people like watching them, it’s unfathomable that anybody needs to see us do another X-Men movie. So it’s been a fairly easy transition.
I’ve never seen the last Harry Potter movie. I understand people have a need for completion for completists sake, but we’ve probably done over 17 hours of Harry Potter by now? That is a heapin’ helpin’ of Harry. Someone should cut together jokes from those 17 hours and construct a track for the last one.
RiffWiki: Has being involved in RiffTrax put you in situations that you are shocked to find yourself in? Are there any hilarious stories about such circumstances where you just stand there afterwards and say "Wow… this is my life" for good or for bad?
Conor Lastowka: There are funny moments my wife will come home or we’ll get together with friends after work and talk about what we did that day, and after a doctor friend has talked about an autopsy they did where they pulled the lungs out of a cadavers chest, it’s always fun to say, “Well, I watched a grown man in a Bunny suit nearly crash a fire truck full of kids at Pirates World.” Ice Cream Bunny would have probably been into that cadaver story, actually.
It’s also been fun and exciting to get to go into the booth with people like Fred Willard, Joel McHale, Neil Patrick Harris, and of course, Weird Al. Getting to spend time with Paul F Tompkins after one of our live shows was great fun. And the Sketchfest performances that I’ve attended have been pretty special. Bob Odenkirk was doing the paper bag short with us. Sometimes people will just do a quick run thru and be ready to get up on stage. But Bob turned the hotel room into a writing room, taking another look at sections, getting everyone to pitch lines. That was at the height of Breaking Bad mania, tossing out a line and having Saul kick it around and make that little tweak that makes it that much funnier. I think even Kevin and Bill thought that was pretty cool.
But just being part of this from literally before RiffTrax even had a name, and watching what it’s grown into, producing so much comedy, doing these live shows, TV specials, all from something we’ve made ourselves and done how we wanted to do it, is really great. So typing this out is sort of one of those “Wow” moments for me.
RiffWiki: Alright, Gone Whalin' time. For those of you who don't know, Conor's novel, Gone Whalin', is about a college student who goes to a 19th century whaling ship in his dreams and becomes an ass-kicking whale hunter guy. And there are tons of weird surprises and plot twist along the way. Where did the idea come from and what was it that compelled you to spend two years writing 200,000 words for it? It couldn't have been easy, but you did it and it's great. Let's hear the Gone Whalin' origin story.
I was motivated to write something longer and more substantial for a couple of reasons. One was that all the writing at RiffTrax, as fun as it is, is very short, punchy joke type of stuff. There’s not really much room in the course of a RiffTrax to develop storylines or characters. So I was interested in that challenge.
For whatever reason I thought that a whaling ship would be a fun setting for a story, or skit or something. Obviously the whalers would be terrible at their job because that’s funnier. And I wanted to have a fish out of water character on board, and there’s not much more fish out of water than an entirely incompetent college student who’s inexplicably traveling through time. Then at some point while I was mulling this all over and jotting down notes, I read a great book called “The Art of Fielding” which has a fairly prominent Melville connection, and it seemed like a decent enough sign to pursue the whaling thing. It was a great experience, it really turned into it’s own thing. I really wanted to be done from about 20% in, but had all sorts of subplots and adventures I wanted to write about. And it sounds like a cliche, but once you’ve created and invested yourself in characters, they sort of start developing a personality and can end up going in unexpected directions. So it was really fun to write and put out there and people have responded really well to it. In fact, someone just recorded the first ever cover of Treasures O’ The Sea!
RiffWiki: Can we expect anything new from Conor Lastowka in the fiction section of our local internet bookstore soon? Any current or developing projects?
Conor Lastowka: Soon is probably a stretch. There are a couple things I am working on. One: an illustrated version of A Christmas Boner, a rewriting I did of A Christmas Carol where Scrooge has a boner the entire time. More details about that at the start of next year. I’m also working on a picture book with my friend Cason, who drew a comic that I wrote in college. That one is tricky, since illustration is completely out of my hands. I’ve wrote the words, we just need the pictures, which take a shitload longer than the words. It’s sort of like agreeing to drive across the country with someone, but you only drive the first ten miles, and make them drive the rest, and it’s also their car and oh yeah I forgot my wallet. And, though it pains me to say it, I’ve started writing another novel. Still in the early stages, but I’ve got a couple chapters under my belt and so far they’ve made me laugh. Don’t expect that any time soon though.
RiffWiki: Everybody we interview gets asked to make "picks." It's a fun way to see the different tastes in riffs people have, but it also provides content for the "Notes" sections of the riff pages. But don't tell anybody that because then everybody will think I'm lazy. So, what are your top 3 picks for Official RiffTrax and what are your top 3 picks for iRiffs, sold on or off the RiffTrax website.
Conor Lastowka: Well, as far as iRiffs go, just as I assume my doctor friend who I mentioned above does not go home and rip lungs out of cadavers for fun, I don’t watch much movie riffing in my spare time. I’ve probably only even watched a handful of our own releases with my wife.
And a lot of my favorites of stuff we’ve done are the same favorites I see turning up on other lists: Guy From Harlem, Birdemic, Setting Up A Room, David & Hazel, This Is Hormel, Moosebaby. The Wizard of Oz was really fun. Karate Kid III has the greatest villain in film history, and is a must for any fans of bansai trees. I enjoyed the Star Wars original trilogy, it was really fun for me to get to put our own spin on those. There’s not much left to say about Star Wars at this point, that doesn’t stop people from trying, but it was a good challenge.
I’ll always have a soft spot for Crossroads, as it was the first I wrote on and the first movie I ever got to pick. It’s really bad, and not in the ways you’d think, if you haven’t seen it. I don’t remember much about the riff, but give it a shot.
RiffWiki: This is where I usually ask which movie the interviewee would force MKB to riff, but that question wouldn't exactly fit in this one, so… Ah. I got it. You guys get so many requests and demands for movies to riff, is there any particular movie that you'd like to challenge the iRiffers out there to take on?
Conor Lastowka: One movie that I always was pushing for was The Shawshank Redemption. I just think it’s such a good, beloved movie, so well known, that it would be fun to see what we could do with it, like with Star Wars and Wizard of Oz. So very serious and earnest at times and it would be fun to crack jokes during those moments.
RiffWiki: Thanks so much for talking with us today. Is there anything else you'd like to say, anything you'd like to plug or anybody who's sister you'd like to call something so filthy that to even think of the word it makes you dry heave? If so, then the floor is yours, good sir.
Conor Lastowka: The short Parade of Aquatic champions got a bad rap at our Xmas live show. I think it took people by surprise, understandable since it has literally nothing to do with Christmas. It’s really weird and funny! Give it another shot. It’s what Norman Spear Jr would want.