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Interview with Trace Beaulieu of MST3K and Cinematic Titanic

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The conclusion to our two-part exclusive interview with Trace Beaulieu, formerly of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and now with Cinematic Titanic

Read yesterday's part one here.

Crow T. Robot enjoying the latest issue of mental_floss magazine

Trace Beaulieu's older brother, Bryan, built a special house back in 2005. In fact, it's the only one of its kind in the United States.

Kara Kovalchik: Your brother designed and built a very Earth-friendly hydrogen-powered house in Arizona. What can you tell us about it?

Trace Beaulieu: I don't know a lot about the ins and outs of it. Solar panels... I think it was meant to have a hydrogen generator, but, it's very unique. He was trying a lot of different systems on this house. Kind of an experiment. Just a really interesting project. If you go online, you can see pictures of it. I've been there, but I'm not a desert person. I'm more of a water person. Bryan loves that area. He was going out there quite a bit, and just fell in love with it.

KK: So you prefer Minnesota?

TB: Yes. I missed the lakes. I'm heading back there in a couple of hours. We're pretty rural, about an hour east of Minneapolis, right on the Wisconsin/Minnesota border.

KK: And your wife helps you there with fulfilling Cinematic Titanic orders?

TB: Yes! She's also been home taking care of our chickens. We have about eight of them. They're egg-layers. We're not gonna eat them.

KK: Although your characters sometimes lapse into the typical Minnesota accent, you don't seem to have one yourself, even though you grew up in Minneapolis. Why is that?

TB: I don't know what happened to it. I may have consciously tried to not do the Minnesota thing. It leaks through occasionally. We pull it out quite a bit [for the show].

KK: Have you ever seen the huge twine ball?

TB: (laughs) I have, yes. I know where it is.

Beaulieu as mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester on MST3K.

Cinematic Titanic includes the talents of several MST3K alumni: Joel Hodgson (Joel Robinson); Frank Conniff (TV's Frank); J. Elvis Weinstein (Clayton's assistant Dr. Erhardt and the first Tom Servo); and Mary Jo Pehl (as Pearl Forrester). All served as performers and writers on the show.

KK: Does each writer perform his or her own jokes during the show?

TB: No, the lines get divided up and then get assigned based on who would pull the line off the best. Sometimes we get our own lines, and sometimes we get others', and it's a big blend of voices that way.

KK: The Cinematic Titanic show used to employ silhouettes that were different than the classic MST3K ones. Do you still use those?

TB: It's just us on stage with iPads with our scripts on them, and some music stands.

KK: Wow, not even paper scripts?

TB: We can carry every movie we've written with us now. In some theaters, it's "audience choice," so we might not know which film we're going to do until a few days before. And we don't have to carry three-ring binders with us, or a filing cabinet of scripts. Now, we hit the ground very lean and mean. We've got our movies on hard drives, and our scripts on iPads, and we're very modern!

In contrast to so many 1990s comedy shows that went well into "dirty humor," like South Park and Beavis & Butthead, Mystery Science Theater 3000 always kept its foot planted just this side of rudeness. This decision, which continues with Cinematic Titanic, allows the group to attract audience members of a surprisingly young age.

KK: In some cities, you're riffing on two different films in an early and late show. Should we expect more bawdy humor further into the evening?

TB: We try to stay in a PG-13 range. Sometimes, we'll get excited and stray over. We'll "cross the blue line," as they say in hockey. But the second movie we're doing, Doomsday Machine, has got more adult themes within it, so... Still, we still have little kids come to the show.

KK: So it's safe for youngsters?

TB: I would say that it's a parenting decision. If you know your kids well enough, and they can handle it... A friend of mine brought his young daughter to our show in Davis, California, and he asked her very thoughtful questions beforehand. She's a very bright kid. Most of these kids that are into MST are pretty bright, and pretty worldly, too.

KK: Speaking of kids, on MST3K, it always surprised me that so many of the fan letters Joel read were from little kids who'd draw the robots with crayon. It seemed like the humor would be beyond them. What was that like?

TB: It was terrific. I mean, for a show that we thought would just go away, to still be around after 20 years and to still be garnering some young fans...

KK: That has to feel good.

TB: It does. Not all of us are getting paid for those MST episodes anymore, but (pause) our karma bank account is quite healthy. We're also lucky in that it doesn't affect our lives all that much. We can walk around in normal life, and if I'm not dressed as Lincoln or Dr. Forrester... We're famous in the building that we're performing in, but as soon as we hit the door, we're just folks.

For sale at the show, and available at tracebeaulieu.com, is one of Beaulieu's newest ventures, a book of children's poetry titled Silly Rhymes for Belligerent Children.

KK: Tell us about the book.

TB: That was a great deal of fun. About half of those poems were just lying around in the drawer. And I contacted [zombie artist] Len Peralta to do the illustrations. I really wanted to work with him. There was another book I had approached him to do, but then I thought, "Let's see how we work together." I fleshed out the other half of the book and Len did these fantastic illustrations. And it's been so much fun.

KK: Will we get a preview at the Cinematic Titanic show?

TB: Sure, I'll read them on stage. Mary Jo and I have done book readings together, since she's got a book too. And it's just been a lot of fun. There'll be copies for sale at the show.

KK: It's something you published yourself?

TB: Yes. It's a real mom-and-pop kind of publishing venture. Like anything else I've done, I'm more of a "Let's just do it!" attitude. And everyone would say, "Oh, publishers aren't buying that kind of book." And I'm like, "Well, I just want people to buy it."

KK: A lot of people are selling millions of copies of self-publishing books.

TB: Yeah, and I'm selling hundreds! (laughs) One day, it'll grow, but I'm very happy with the response it's gotten. It's earned great reviews, and people are finding it on its own just like how MST grew. That was something we just did instead of selling it to somebody. We could never have sold that to somebody. Some concepts are just too hard to sell.

As if performing live, building sets, raising chickens, and writing books weren't enough, Beaulieu also creates his own pieces of art. He hopes to display and offer a selection of found art works and sculptures, when he can find the time.

KK: So you're still into creating art from found objects?

TB: Yes, I am. I just got my studio back in shape to be able to work in it, so, what I need to do is get them up on my Web site. I'm terrible at that kind of thing. We spend all our time doing fulfillment. Katy, my wife, is embroiled with Cinematic Titanic. That's all we do!

KK: Do you just want to make art, or is it a business for you?

TB: I have sold some pieces. I had an art show when I was living in Los Angeles eight years ago. Now, it's just I make it for my own pleasure, and I don't ever have it any of it on display. It's all in boxes. I need to get it up on the Web site. It's stuff that people really need to see in person, though. Maybe this'll be all be found after I'm gone.

KK: Aw, don't say that.

TB: The stuff I do is really kinda tech-looking, if I can use that word in the four-letter form.

KK: I read that your dad once brought you a champagne basket that he'd found on the roadside.

TB: Yeah. I had people for a long time finding things that had been smashed on the road. My niece still does that. She lives in California, now, and she'll come back and say "Hey, I found this on the ground, and I thought of you." Maybe this is the motivation I need to get that stuff on the Web, although it's much better to view it in person.

Cinematic Titanic is scheduled to perform in Royal Oak, Michigan (outside of Detroit), on Saturday, February 25. They'll be showing Astral Factor at 7pm, and Doomsday Machine at 10. Visit cinematictitanic.com for more details.

KK: Tell us more about the show.

TB: Dave (Gruber) Allen does the opening act, and we invade his space to do a little bit of our own shtick. Depending on who's available and who's at the show, sometimes we have guests drop in. I don't think we'll have any in Michigan, but Dave is great himself. He anchors the show. You might remember him from Freaks & Geeks [as guidance counselor Jeff Rosso].

KK: Does anything fun happen before or after the shows?

TB: Merchandise will be available, and we'll meet fans. We do a short meet-and-greet between shows, but the staff needs to turn over the theater. So we ask that if you're going to both shows or just the second show, that you come to the second meet-and-greet afterwards. That would be best, so we can meet more people. But as long as people are there, we'll be there.

KK: I would imagine people would be there all night. Don't fans throw themselves in front of your tour bus like they do for rock singers?

TB: We have a bad tour bus driver. They're not throwing themselves; he's just a bad driver.

KK: Trace, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me, and good luck with Cinematic Titanic.

TB: This was fun! Thanks.

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8 Gonzo Facts About Hunter S. Thompson
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Hunter S. Thompson in Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson (2008)
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Like any real-life legend, there are many myths surrounding the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson. But in Thompson’s case, most of those stories—particularly the more outlandish ones—are absolutely true. The founder of the “Gonzo journalism” movement is one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. In celebration of what would have been his 80th birthday, here are some things you might not have known about the eccentric writer.

1. HE WAS NAMED AFTER A FAMOUS SCOTTISH SURGEON.

Hunter S. Thompson was reportedly named after one of his mother’s ancestors, a Scottish surgeon named Nigel John Hunter. But Hunter wasn't just your run-of-the-mill surgeon. In a 2004 interview with the Independent, Thompson brought along a copy of The Reluctant Surgeon, a Biography of Nigel John Hunter, a biography of his namesake, which read: "A gruff Scotsman, Hunter has been described as the most important naturalist between Aristotle and Darwin, the Shakespeare of medicine and the greatest man the British ever produced. He was the first to trace the lymphatic system. He performed the first human artificial insemination. He was the greatest collector of anatomical specimens in history. He prescribed the orthopaedic shoe that allowed Lord Byron to walk."

When pressed about what that description had to do with him, Thompson responded: "Well, I guess that might be the secret of my survival. Good genes."

2. HE MISSED HIS HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION … BECAUSE HE WAS IN JAIL.

Just a few weeks before he was set to graduate from high school, at the age of 17, Thompson was charged as an accessory to robbery and sentenced to 60 days in jail. 

“One night Ralston Steenrod, who was in the Athenaeum with Hunter, was driving, and Hunter and another guy he knew were in the car,” Thompson’s childhood friend Neville Blakemore recalled of the incident. “As they were driv­ing through Cherokee Park, the other guy said, ‘Stop. I want to bum a ciga­rette from that car.’ People used to go park and neck at this spot. And the guy got out and apparently went back and mugged them. The guy who was mugged got their license number and traced the car, and within a very short time they were all three arrested.

“Just before this Hunter had been blamed for a nighttime gas-station rob­bery,” Blakemore added, “and before that he and some friends got arrested for buying booze under­age at Abe's Liquor Store on Frankfort Avenue by the tracks. So Hunter had a record, and he was already on probation. He was given an ultimatum: jail or the military. And Hunter took the Air Force. He didn't graduate with his class.”

3. IT WAS A FELLOW JOURNALIST WHO COINED THE TERM “GONZO.”

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While covering the 1968 New Hampshire primary, Thompson met fellow writer and editor Bill Carodoso, editor of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, which is where Thompson first heard him use the word “Gonzo.” “It meant sort of ‘crazy’ or ‘off-the-wall,’” Thompson said in Anita Thompson’s Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson. Two years later, in June 1970, Thompson wrote an article for Scanlan’s Monthly entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” which became a game-changing moment in journalism because of its offbeat, slightly manic style that was written with first-person subjectivity.

Among the many fellow journalists who praised Thompson for the piece was Cardoso, who sent a letter to Thompson that “said something like, ‘Forget all the sh*t you’ve been writing, this is it; this is pure Gonzo.’ Gonzo. Yeah, of course. That’s what I was doing all the time. Of course, I might be crazy.” Thompson ran with the word, and would use it himself for the first time a year later, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

4. HE TYPED OUT FAMOUS NOVELS TO LEARN THE ART OF WRITING.

In order to get the “feel” of being a writer, Thompson used to retype his favorite novels in full. “[H]is true model and hero was F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker. “He used to type out pages from The Great Gatsby, just to get the feeling, he said, of what it was like to write that way, and Fitzgerald’s novel was continually on his mind while he was working on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was published, after a prolonged and agonizing compositional nightmare, in 1972.”

"If you type out somebody's work, you learn a lot about it,” Thompson told Charlie Rose in 1997. “Amazingly it's like music. And from typing out parts of Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald—these were writers that were very big in my life and the lives of the people around me—so yeah, I wanted to learn from the best I guess."

5. HE RAN FOR SHERIFF IN COLORADO.

In 1970, Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado on what he called the Freak Power ticket. Among his political tactics: shaving his head so that he could refer to his opponent as his “long-haired opponent,” promising to eat mescaline while on duty, and campaigning to rename Aspen “Fat City” to deter "greed heads, land-rapers, and other human jackals from capitalizing on the name 'Aspen.'" Unfortunately, he lost.

6. HE STOLE A MEMENTO FROM ERNEST HEMINGWAY.

In 1964, three years after Ernest Hemingway committed suicide at his cabin in Ketchum, Idaho, Thompson traveled to the late author’s home in order to write “What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum?” While there, according to his widow, Hunter “got caught up in the moment” and took “a big pair of elk horns over the front door.” Last year, more than a decade after Thompson’s death, Anita returned the antlers to the Hemingway family—which is something she and Hunter had always planned to do. “They were warm and kind of tickled … they were so open and grateful, there was no weirdness,” Anita said.

7. HE ONCE USED THE INSIDE OF MUSICIAN JOHN OATES’ COLORADO CABIN AS HIS PERSONAL PARKING SPACE.

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Earlier this month, musician John Oates—the latter half of Hall & Oates—shared a story about his ranch in Woody Creek, Colorado, just outside of Aspen, which is currently on the market for $6 million. In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Oates recalled how when he first purchased the cabin, there was a red convertible parked inside. “I happened to ask the real estate agent who owned the convertible, and he said ‘your neighbor Hunter Thompson,’” Oates said. “Why is he keeping his car in a piece of property he doesn’t own? The real estate agent looked at me and said ‘It’s Woody Creek, you’ll figure this out. It’s a different kind of place.’” After sending several letters to his neighbor to retrieve his vehicle, Oates took matters into his own hands and deposited the car on Thompson’s lawn. Oates said that the two became friends, but never mentioned the incident.

8. AT HIS FUNERAL, HIS ASHES WERE SHOT OUT OF A CANNON.

On February 20, 2005—at the age of 67—Thompson committed suicide. But Thompson wasn’t about to leave this world quietly. In August of that year, in accordance with his wishes, Thompson's ashes were shot into the air from a cannon while fireworks filled the sky.

“He loved explosions," his widow, Anita, told ESPN, which wrote that, “The private celebration included actors Bill Murray and Johnny Depp, rock bands, blowup dolls and plenty of liquor to honor Thompson, who killed himself six months ago at the age of 67.”

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15 Memorable Quotes from George A. Romero
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Hollywood has lost one of its most iconic horror innovators with the death of George A. Romero, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 77. “He died peacefully in his sleep, following a brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer, and leaves behind a loving family, many friends, and a filmmaking legacy that has endured, and will continue to endure, the test of time,” his manager, Chris Roe, said in a statement.

Though he rose to prominence as the master of zombie flicks, beginning with Night of the Living Dead, Romero honed his filmmaking skills on a far less frightening set: shooting bits for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

“I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made,” Romero once said. “What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.” (Rogers returned the favor by being a longtime champion of Romero’s work—and even called Dawn of the Dead “a lot of fun.”)

It’s that high-spirited sense of fun that made Romero’s work so iconic—and kept the New York City native busy for nearly 50 years. To celebrate his life and career, here are 15 of his most memorable quotes on everything from the humanity of zombies to the horror of Hollywood producers.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF HAVING A SENSE OF HUMOR

“For a Catholic kid in parochial school, the only way to survive the beatings—by classmates, not the nuns—was to be the funny guy.”

ON THE HOLLYWOOD WAY

“If I fail, the film industry writes me off as another statistic. If I succeed, they pay me a million bucks to fly out to Hollywood and fart.”

ON BEING PIGEONHOLED

“As a filmmaker you get typecast just as much as an actor does, so I'm trapped in a genre that I love, but I'm trapped in it!”

ON ZOMBIES AS A METAPHOR

“I also have always liked the monster within idea. I like the zombies being us. Zombies are the blue-collar monsters.”

ON FINDING OBJECTIVITY AS A FILMMAKER

“There are so many factors when you think of your own films. You think of the people you worked on it with, and somehow forget the movie. You can't forgive the movie for a long time. It takes a few years to look at it with any objectivity and forgive its flaws.”

ON THE REAL VALUE OF THE INTERNET

“What the Internet's value is that you have access to information but you also have access to every lunatic that's out there that wants to throw up a blog.”

ON THE HORROR OF DEALING WITH PRODUCERS

“I'll never get sick of zombies. I just get sick of producers.”

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF COLLABORATION

“Collaborate, don’t dictate.”

ON THE BEAUTY OF LOW-BUDGET MOVIEMAKING

“I don't think you need to spend $40 million to be creepy. The best horror films are the ones that are much less endowed.”

ON HUMANS BEING THE REAL VILLAINS

“My zombies will never take over the world because I need the humans. The humans are the ones I dislike the most, and they're where the trouble really lies.”

ON BEING IMMUNE TO TRENDS

“Somehow I've been able to keep standing and stay in my little corner and do my little stuff and I'm not particularly affected by trends or I'm not dying to make a 3-D movie or anything like that. I'm just sort of happy to still be around.”

ON THE HUMANITY OF HORROR

“My stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react, or react stupidly. I'm pointing the finger at us, not at the zombies. I try to respect and sympathize with the zombies as much as possible.”

ON THE ENDURING APPEAL OF HORROR

“If one horror film hits, everyone says, 'Let's go make a horror film.' It's the genre that never dies.”

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF SURROUNDING ZOMBIES WITH STUPID PEOPLE

“A zombie film is not fun without a bunch of stupid people running around and observing how they fail to handle the situation.”

ON LIFE AFTER DEATH

“I'm like my zombies. I won't stay dead!”

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