This week, RiffWiki interviews fan favorite RiffTrax Presents riffer, Matthew J. Elliott. He lives over in Great Britainland, and we are very thrilled that he will crossing the pond using this great-good internet machine to answer a few questions for us.
RiffWiki: So, I guess a great place to start would be in telling us a little more about yourself. We all know you through your riffs, but that's not all you do. Or at least we hope to God it's not all you do. You're an accomplished writer, so if you could fill us in on some of the highlights of your non-RiffTrax related projects, that would be just swell.Matthew J. Elliott: I guess you could describe my day job as radio dramatist. Oddly, though, although I live in the UK, all my radio work is recorded and broadcast in the US – I’ve written close on 250 plays to date, for series including The Hilary Caine Mysteries (my own creation), The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Twilight Zone, The Adventures of Harry Nile, Vincent Price Presents, Fangoria’s Dreadtime Stories, The Father Brown Mysteries, The Perry Mason Radio Dramas, Kincaid the Strangeseeker, The New Adventures of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Raffles the Gentleman Thief, and a few other odds and ends. Career highlights to date include writing for Malcolm McDowell on Dreadtime Stories and John Rhys-Davies on Twilight Zone. I’m told my adaptation of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds won an award recently, so that’s nice. I’ve also written a few books, several of them based around my love of Sherlock Holmes (could you already tell that?). Once a year, I host the film evening of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, so I guess that qualifies me as a sort of expert in the field. In addition to collections of my radio scripts and short stories, I’ve also written a guide to both the BBC’s Sherlock and the CBS show Elementary entitled The Immortals. But my most recent book, Lost in Time and Space, is the one of which I’m most proud – it’s a sort of alternative biography of Doctor Who, describing all of his unseen adventures and placing them in chronological order – it’s the most screamingly-nerdy book ever written, and the reviewers seem to appreciate that.
RW: Another kind of standard interview questions, but it gets asked for a reason and that is because people really are interested in it, and that is what made you want to become a writer, and more specifically a writer of funny things. What were your influences and what keeps your creative drive in gear?MJE: Growing up, I would always tell people that I wanted to be a writer, but I was as lazy at practicing my craft as I was in school, and never managed to finish anything I started. It all came together for me when I began studying for my English degree, not because the lecturers infused me with a passion for literature, but because they didn’t. Very often, they’d fail to show at all, and when they did, they were so unenthusiastic that half the class would disappear for a smoke and simply never come back. It kind of made me wish I’d taken up smoking. One night during a particularly dull lesson, I turned over the sheet I was supposed to be studying, and began writing (surprise, surprise!) a Sherlock Holmes story. Taking it home that night, I read it to my wife, who told me it was pretty good and that I should finish it – which I did, submitting it to a magazine which subsequently published it (and, more importantly, paid me for it). After that, there was no going back. Humour (and humor) have always been an integral part of my work – sometimes I get criticized by listeners for putting too many gags into my radio shows. My influences are from both sides of the Atlantic; in Britain, I’d say stuff like the Goon Show, a BBC radio series that pre-dates and influenced Monty Python. Don’t listen to anyone who claims to be an expert in post-modernism unless they’ve hear this show; but it takes about 4 or 5 of them before you’re thoroughly immersed in the show’s format. I love the quickfire wit of comedy from the States – I think I read somewhere that Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple has more gags per minute than any other comedy movie, and I believe it. And I’ll never forget the first time I watched The Daily Show in a NY hotel room: “Honey, didn’t we just see that guy in The Faculty?”
RW: As a sort of lead-in into the following question, do you remember how and when you very first became aware of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and later on, RiffTrax? Is there an interesting story there, or is just plain ol' "I was watching TV or the internet one day and there it was?"MJE: I’d followed MST avidly ever since it began airing on the British Sci-Fi Channel, but I didn’t watch a whole episode right away. I recall being bemused by the “ropes and asses” sequence of The Mole People, but it wasn’t until a week later when I heard Tom Servo say “I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine” in Terror From The Year 5000 that I knew this was the show for me. A reference to the musical Chess? How obscure was that? After that, the show became a ritual for me, even if they didn’t screen it in order, and actually omitted certain shows (it’s not until quite recently that I saw Giant Spider Invasion). When I started catching up with earlier seasons, I made sure to start with the pre-Mike era – Eegah! Was my first DVD purchase. I Don’t ask me why riffing isn’t acknowledged or appreciated in Britain, I just don’t know; but when I encountred the show, it felt like something I’d been looking for all my life, and I instantly fell in love with it.
RW: How exactly did you land the gig as a RiffTrax Presents riffer? Was it something you sought out, did you send in audition tapes begging to be given a chance, or were you solicited for the position?
MJE: A little of all three. It’s the one and only instance in my writing career of being in the right place at the right time. I’d been touring the UK as part of a troupe called The Mystery Men at almost the precise moment that RiffTrax was announced. I contacted Legend Films, which owned the company at that time, offering our services as British riffers, and it just so happened that I got a reply in the positive, although RiffTrax Presents was still a long way off at this point. It wasn’t entirely straightforward, however; as you can tell, my original notion was that we three Mystery Men would work together on this, but I ended up dropping out of the team when my wife got sick. Subsequently, I tried to interest them in the riffing notion, plying them with Film Team and Cinematic Titanic discs, but the comedy style just didn’t appeal to them, which is why I remained a solo artist for so many years – it wasn’t my intention, I just couldn’t find anyone else like-minded in the whole of the country. I put together a sample script based on (hold your breath) an old Sherlock Holmes movie, and when it was approved, I eventually got to speak to Mike Nelson – one of the top 7 times of my life. We discussed movies and ideas – I think I got the job when I called Waterworld “a cross between The Island of Dr Moreau and Thank-You for Smoking.” I could never get over the issue of where the bad guys were growing the tobacco. It was still a few years before I got in front of a mic, though; this was a slow and very necessarily process.
RW: One of the great things about RiffTrax Presents is that it goes a long way to help fill in some of the gaps left by Mike, Kevin and Bill, because God knows they can't riff everything that deserves to be riffed. How do you feel about the titles you have riffed? Is there a favorite or one that you feel will come to be known as your "defining entry" in the "riffing canon?" (Two terms that are used with total regularity, trust me.)
MJE: It’s very definitely been a learning curve, and there are some types of gag I did in the earlier movies that I maybe wouldn’t do now (at least, as a solo riffer). For example, conversations between two characters in the movie only really work if there are two people playing those characters. I think I decided to drop that after Die Hard. It really felt like everything started to come together on Jurassic Park III – for starters, I decided I wasn’t going to try to imitate the actors (too much) and deliver the riffs in my own accent, and it was also the time when, instead of using two-minute sections, the trailers took random gags from throughout the movie, giving a better idea of the flavour (and flavor) of the piece, and I think I won a few new fans as a result. Probably because it was my first VOD and therefore felt more like a proper MST-project, Horror Express is a high-point. It also makes me laugh when I watch it back.
RW: How exactly does the selection process work? Does Mike or whoever call you up and say "okay, funnyman, riff this movie or your fired" or do you pitch them ideas and/or choose which movies you get to make fun of?MJE: It’s varied over the years. For my first riff, I probably sent about 20+ suggestions, at other times I’ve said “OK, I’m doing Planet of the Apes next”, and at other times I’ve been asked to submit a shortlist of possible titles from which one movie is selected: Jurassic Park III and The Expendables were picked that way. There’s no one set method.
RW: I know that there are lots of different methods when it comes to actually writing riffs/jokes. Do you write a full script before recording, do you do things on the fly, or is it something else? What's your preferred method for writing for RiffTrax?
MJE: Yes, the whole thing is planned out methodically beforehand; there are very few riffs you’ll hear that haven’t been written weeks or months earlier, with the notable exception of “he was the only one who knew how to work the TiVo!” from House of Wax. It’s a huge, huge mistake to think that you can just sit down in front of a movie and be suddenly and consistently hilarious.
RW: Is there a particular movie that you would like to riff one day? A personal favorite that you have saved for a rainy day that you could suggest and say "Look, fellows, this would be a charming addition to our library, why not give it a whirl and so on?"
MJE: I’d love to do an actual episode of Doctor Who. I recall even discussing the subject with Mike during our first telephone conversation, and even scripting a few gags for the very first Who story from 1963, An Unearthly Child. Obviously, I love what the Big Three did with the two Peter Cushing movies – some of their best stuff.
RW: What is it like riffing solo as opposed to riffing with a partner, as in the last two movies with Ian Potter?
MJE: Faster. Your typical RiffTrax has around five guys writing it – up until King of Kong Island, it’s just been me on my riffs, which means that the process is at least five times slower than on an MKB riff, in addition to which, I have a lot of other writing duties to attend to. Ian is greatly in demand, but I’m hoping that between the two of us, the process will be faster and the yearly output greater.
RW: I'm going to try to make this a tradition of sorts with everybody we interview, so I'm going to ask you to make some "picks." 3 of your own riffs that you think are the best, followed by 3 full length "Official" RiffTrax.
RW: And if you could force Mike, Kevin and Bill to riff a single movie of your choosing, which would it be and why? And "to cause them great mental suffering" is a perfectly acceptable answer, because God knows they do it to themselves quite a bit.MJE: Star Crash! Because it’s really only a matter of time. What was Christopher Plummer thinking, appearing in both this and Firehead?
RW: Thanks so much for talking to us, we really can't thank you enough for taking the time. Before we go, feel free to either let out a string of unfathomable obscenities or, if you feel like, let us know where we can partake of your wares in exchange for money on the internet.
MJE: Just go to Amazon.com, and type in either Matthew J Elliott or M J Elliott. You’ll find a shitload of books and audiobooks, including my latest, Lost in Time and Space. Just go nuts, it’s what your bank manager would want.