Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The work of Alex Winter: An interview, some short films and The Idiot Box

I recently got very into stuff by Alex Winter (the guy who played Bill in the Bill & Ted movies). I liked Bill & Ted, but didn't realize he was influenced by Robert Williams, Zap comics, the Butthole Surfers, and that he had made short films. I looked it up and I love it. I still need to see "Freaked" though.

The following interview is from suicidegirls.com:


Daniel Robert Epstein: First things first, when is The Idiot Box coming out on DVD?

Alex Winter: I'm petitioning for it right now. I've been trying to get MTV to do it for years and it's just impossible. It's such a bureaucracy over there. I don't think there's anyone opposed to it but I just can't get anyone off their ass and actually deal with it. But I'm hoping sometime soon. There was a moment where Anchor Bay was actually going to get all of it on the Freaked DVD and then at the last minute MTV changed their mind.

DRE:
Maybe it will happened if Freaked sells well.

AW:
Yeah, maybe. I think eventually they'll put it out. It's one of those things where the product is sitting on their shelves and eventually it'll see the light of day again. We went back and remixed it in anticipation of getting it on this DVD, so at least it's ready to go.

DRE:
I actually got a bootleg tape of The Idiot Box from someone in Seattle. I think it's from the masters because there are no music videos on it.

AW:
Oh, that's cool. It must've come right out of the Betas then because those are just all the interstitial pieces strewn together, which is what we have.

DRE:
I have the Funkcronomicon which Hideous Mutant Freekz is on, how did you and Bill Laswell meet?

AW:
It's funny because I've done a lot of work with Bill over the years. In fact I just directed the Tabla Beat Science DVD last year. I think I got to know him through Andy Hawkins who was in the band Blind Idiot God that did a lot of the music in Freaked. Bill produced a few of their records and then he and I became friends. I started doing stuff for Axiom when I could. I directed the Bootsy Collins If 6 was 9 video. If you live in New York there is the Laswell community of certain musicians and artists and that's who I spent a lot of time with. We all sort of did stuff for each other.

We're really lucky that the P-Funk song happened at all because that was the only song that made it from what was originally going to be this humongous soundtrack before the studio shifted and we lost our distribution and our budget. But luckily given their schedule, we convinced them to do that track early. It was the first time that P-Funk had actually played together as a unit in decades. I don't think Bootsy and George had been in a room together for ten years.

DRE:
That must've been fantastic.

AW:
It was really awesome. I was not about to let that slip through the cracks so we pushed that forward and got it done and then it turned out to be really the only big, produced track in the film. Everything was just done pretty grassroots.

DRE:
When you're around Bill does the genius waves flow off him?

AW:
[laughs] Well, he's such a caustic guy that you're usually just cracking jokes and drinking huge amounts of rum.

DRE:
[laughs] That's awesome.

I've seen Freaked many times but you had some amazing extra stuff. Where has all this stuff been sitting all this time?

AW:
We all had stuff and there's tons more. There's so much crap because there were so many technical aspects to the film that we started documenting everything in order to figure out things like how my makeup was going to work, how the thing was going to play once we got all these various characters together and things like that. All the stuff we were doing was just try to organize this insane mix of effects, comedy and people. We were also pretty green to a film that size so we prepared the shit out of it. That's the things that you do when you lack experience, you make up for it with organization. When Fox finally called and said "if you are going to do this, we're going to do this with Anchor Bay." Then they came to us and said, "What do you have?' We said, 'Well, actually, we've got tons of stuff." We just threw it at them. We were also really excited they put the two student films that Tom and I had made at NYU.

DRE:
I saw those on another bootleg a few years ago.


AW:Yeah, they are at Kim's Video too.

DRE:
Was that Screaming Mad George who was actually doing your makeup on your behind the scenes stuff?

AW:
No, Screaming didn't do my stuff. To be fair, he did a lot of the initial designs for the whole movie because he was the first person we went to talk to. In fact, George was involved when it was originally going to be a Butthole Surfers movie.

DRE:
Yeah, I read that it was supposed to be a horror movie.

AW:
Yeah, exactly. Originally me and [co-writer/co-director] Tom [Stern] and Gibby from the Buttholes wrote the first draft and it was just this extremely graphically violent and sexual Beach Blanket Bingo movie on acid. Unsurprisingly nobody would touch it. We couldn't get anywhere with it. But George came on even at that point and started designing effects with us. My stuff was all done by XFX, which is Steve Johnson's company, and Bill Corso, who just won an Oscar for Lemony Snickett.

DRE:
I will tell you the first time I saw Freaked I was on mushrooms and it's really the perfect movie for that because it's disturbing but funny.

AW:
Absolutely, it's not dark. I mean any of the stuff that's in it is really pretty benign. I mean the thing that we wrote with Gibby was really dark. Freaked grew out of a very psychedelic mindset so it's a good way to watch it.

Tom and I had done an enormous amount of psychedelic drugs in our time. Many together, many not together and a lot of that informs our comedy. At the time was very like kind of off the rails in that way and we were really influenced by things like Monty Python and Mad magazine. But we were also influenced a lot by like R. Crumb, Zap Comics, Robert Williams and all of this extremely psychedelic stuff. We were really into the Butthole Surfers at the time because we were good friends with them. From my personal angle it was like it was absolutely like an acid trip expression of how it felt to be thrust into the celebrity which was what I was going through at the time, but without taking myself too seriously.

DRE:
It's very funny to see it how personal this crazy comedy is to you because you were a child star and the "Ghost Dude" thing is obviously a play on Bill & Ted's. Was it tough to make it this personal or did that just happen out of you doing it?

AW:
I wanted to do it. I think on some level I needed to comment somewhat on the utterly surreal experience of being a pop culture icon. I'd done a lot of acting but I'd gone to film school and I'd come out to LA primarily to make films. So I was acting to make money and I got these big movies in a row and I found myself living this complete double life. I'd go home, shoot film, write movies and then I'd step outside and find my face on a cereal box. It was just incredibly surreal [laughs] but not overwhelming. A lot of it was just fun and cool but I did kind of need to get some of that out of my brain.

DRE:
I think my favorite part of the film is the scene where the wrench tells how he got turned into a hammer. Everyone cries and then later he's dressed as a milkman. How does one write poignant scenes for a hammer?

AW:
[laughs] That grew out of having seen The Hills Have Eyes, which always blew my mind because the dog had a flashback in that movie that actually takes you back through the whole thing. I think the dog was the only survivor and he shows up and paws at the door and you push in on its head and the whole movie takes place. I was like, "What could be stupider than that?" It was the dumbest thing I'd ever seen and then an inanimate object having a flashback actually pushed the envelope [laughs].

DRE:
Freaked has all these great character actors in it. Bill Sadler you obviously knew [from Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey], but I would imagine guys like Jeff Kahn and Lee Arenberg auditioned. Was there a big casting call?

AW:
Yes and those audition tapes were something I wish I could get onto the DVD, but they're so damning that it probably wouldn't be fair. There was a huge casting process with trying to find actors that were funny and then could be funny in the makeup, which was really a test. Some of them I knew like Bill Sadler and John Hawkes, who's now in Deadwood and all that shit. I knew he'd be great.

DRE:
Derek McGrath who played the worm is a great character actor.

AW:
Derek and Jeff Kahn just came in and read. Derek was absolutely exactly what we'd always hoped for with that character. Because it was a weird movie we had people coming in that would like come in like dressed like the characters they were auditioning for. One fairly well-known actor came in for the worm dressed in a trenchcoat and he laid some garbage bags down on the ground and me and Tom were like, "Oh shit. What's this?" Then he took of his trenchcoat and he was naked except for some tiny bikini briefs and he was smeared in like brown dirt and he proceeded to writhe around on the ground like an earthworm and just make these horrible slithering noises. Man, I'd give my teeth to put that on the DVD extras. It was about the funniest fucking thing I've ever seen in my life. But like you said there was a poignancy we wanted to get across and so we were looking for people who would actually convey their characters through all of this stuff they had to wear.

DRE:
I would imagine you don't audition someone like Randy Quaid for that kind of role.

AW:
No, we were not in a position to audition Randy Quaid for shit. We were two punk 25 year old kids and he was a big star. So it was a situation where you beg Randy Quaid to be in your movie.

DRE:
He was so good and its such a great part it seems like he might have jazzed about doing it.

AW:
Yeah, he and everyone had a great time. He took it really seriously. It took us a really long time to find his character and he spent a great deal of time going through all these wardrobe permutations to figure his character out. It was immensely satisfying to see that role played by someone who can bring imagination to it and it was just really nice to see someone of that caliber come in and nail that role so hard.

DRE:
Here's a dorky Freaked question, why couldn't Elijah beat up the monster Ricky Coogan at the end? [laughs]

AW:
[laughs] Because he's just an idiot.

DRE:
[laughs] Good answer.

AW:
We were trying to play with every Bond villain convention, which now has been totally smoked to death by Austin Powers. In Bond movies they always come out in the end like, "Yes, Mr. Bond but I happen to have this laser gun!" It always just seemed so stupid and arbitrary, so we just thought, "Okay? What if he's just wrong?" It's just as simple as that. Elijah is so fucking deluded he thinks he's way stronger than he is and he isn't. But a lot of that stuff was seat of our pants. Even the ending with Brooke Shields coming back and hacking us all to death, we came up with that right there on the set. I don't even remember what our ending would have been if we didn't do that.

DRE:
With people, Freaked is either love it or despise it. I've met people who said, "I don't like it and I don't like you, Dan for liking it." I would imagine that's exactly what happened after Joe Roth left.

AW:
Exactly, the guy who made the movie was the guy who loved these kind of movies. The guy who canned it is the kind of guy who would rather stick 12 inch sewing needles into his eyes than watch this kind of movie. It's not for everybody and we knew that going in and frankly, all my movies are like that. [laughs] Sometimes I'll do something and it just turns off everybody that I made the last one for. But perversely I think it's funny and I enjoy it, but on a more responsible level I just can't make movies worrying about shit like that. You have to worry about whether it's something you really want to tell so at the end of the day if you polarize people, it's like, "What are you going to do?"

DRE:
Obviously you had some momentum after Idiot Box and that led to Freaked. But once Freaked got treated the way it did, it seems to have hurt the momentum you may have had. Would you agree?

AW:
Not really. What happened really was that Tom [Stern] and I had run our course together. We had been working together for eight years and doing this very particular style of comedy. We both had other shit we wanted to do and we literally just put the whole thing to bed. We knew that before any of that happened with Freaked. In fact, we kind of put it to bed even before Freaked because MTV had been trying to get us to come back and do more Idiot Box and we kind of said, "Nah. We've done it. We're not really interested in doing any more." We were doing the movie and that was cool and we didn't really want to work together any more after that. We're really close friends and I see him all the time so it wasn't in a situation of animosity. But I have very different movies that I'm making now and he's got very different stuff that he's doing now. It just didn't make sense together anymore.

DRE:
I had an acquaintance that worked at TBS when Tom [Stern] was doing The Chimp Channel. Obviously he had some trouble there too but I was told that he's really nuts and at one point he ripped off all of his clothes and was yelling at the executives.

AW:
[laughs] Yeah, he did do that.

DRE:
So what's the dynamic between you two like? Are you calmer?

AW:
Well to be fair to him, that was a really isolated episode. The guy is incredibly straight by nature and I was always the completely insane one. He was having intense political problems on that show and he just kind of exploded in a very grandiose way. That's really what happened. He's now doing The Andy Milonakis Show on MTV, which is really funny.

DRE:
Certain scenes in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, especially the hell scenes, reminded me of the work you did later.

AW:
Well I definitely wasn't interested in doing another one if it was as totally candy-coated as the first one. I don't mean to denigrate the first one because it was a lot of fun.

DRE:
Yes, but it's light.

AW:
Yeah, it's really light and it's not as much my sense of humor. So I felt strongly that if I was going to go back and do a sequel it had to have a bit more of an edge and more comic depth. I'm much happier with the second one than I am with the first one.

DRE:
I remember in the hell scenes you're running and you look a bit like the Flying Gimp.

AW:
[laughs] I honestly can't remember. We were so involved in both those but I didn't tell the director what to do. It was his film and the writers wrote it. I didn't kind of cross those lines. But we had a lot of story meetings where we all discussed how we wanted it to look and feel and all that kind of stuff. Our input was very important on the second one.

DRE:
What did Lost Boys do for you back then? Did that help you get Bill?

AW:
Yeah, of course it did. The bottom line is that when I did Lost Boys I was between my junior and senior year of NYU film school and I was totally broke. I was living in a total shithole squat type place in the East Village. I booked that role and suddenly I was living this extremely cushy existence in LA and eating everyday, which was amazing. It was a humongous amount of fun and wasn't a lot of work, which was great. I didn't have that much to do. I mostly worked at night and just walked around and pouted.

DRE:
Yeah, you definitely pouted a lot in that.

AW:
I spent most of my time raising hell, riding motorcycles and leading a very decadent Santa Cruz existence for the summer. It definitely ranks as one of the best times I've ever had in my life.

DRE:
One thing that Joel Schumacher certainly has is the ability to recognize talent. When you did your audition in front of him, what was that like?

AW:
I remember it vividly. It was weird because I had done so much acting as a kid and I had worked with some huge people like Yul Brynner when I did The King and I for a year. So I'd done all this work, but Id never really thought of myself as an actor, which is kind of nuts because I had been doing it everyday of my life for 10 years up until I was 17 or 18. I went to NYU to audition for Joel and he was just incredibly flattering. He was just like, "You're really good" and I was like, "Really? I am?" It did kind of divert me a little because it inspired me to plunge into it more and it led to Bill & Ted, which was much more along the lines of my own sensibility because I love comedy and I love physical comedy. It's inspiring when somebody on that level sees something in you because I wasn't really thinking of myself that way. I was thinking of it as a money gig and he woke me up to the fact that maybe I could do more with it than that.

DRE:
Is the movie about Shawn Fanning and Napster still happening?

AW:
Yeah, it's my day-in, day-out life. Thankfully I like this kid because otherwise I'd kill myself. I've been knee-deep in this world for two years now. I was originally going to do at MTV which is where Shawn and I pitched it.
DRE:
What made you want to do it?

AW:
I'm a huge music and huge technology person so it's the ultimate story that bridged both worlds for me so I just dove at it. It's almost like a journalistic exercise. I spent the first year just traveling around the country interviewing everybody from both sides of it. Then we were going to shoot it last year but then, because of reality TV I think, they kind of ditched the entire narrative division of MTV and it looked dead. I went and repitched it to MTV Films, the Paramount division and they picked it up. That means if it gets made, it will get a theatrical release.

DRE:
Can you tell me who you're thinking of as Shawn?

AW:
I wanted Ryan Gosling when I first wrote it and now he'd be too old.

It's such an amazing story because this kid is an amazing anachronistic guy. He is a genius but he's not a geek. He's a regular good-looking guy who plays sports, listens to music and parties. But he also has a genius level IQ, the ability to code and build these visionary concepts. It really is a trip.

DRE:
How much are you aware of the cult that surrounds you, your work and Freaked?

AW:
I'm vaguely aware of it by the fact that a lot of people come up to me and talk to me about it all the time. At least as much as Bill & Ted I get Freaked and Idiot Box stuff so I guess I'm somewhat aware. It's a weird thing because my life is my life, I've got my own shit going on so I deal with different stuff all day long. I can't really grasp on a certain level. But I'm happy that people want to see this stuff.
DRE:
I know you produce some commercials. Are you directing music videos anymore?

AW:
I haven’t done videos in years. I may go back but I’m really busy with the movie stuff. I've been writing another film too for Showtime and I'm working on a political satire, which looks like I'm going to be shooting next year.
DRE:
That's great. What's the Showtime movie about?

AW:
I can't say. It's a biopic that's kind of unauthorized and it's really sort of saucy. It can't be discussed yet because they're afraid of legal stuff.

But as for videos I got so disheartened with the music industry and with the music business. The last videos I did were for Helmet when their little deal was dying at Interscope. It was just such an unpleasant thing to watch. I did some really cool videos but eventually I just did them for bands I knew and liked like Bootsy or Foetus. Stuff where I knew I could do what I wanted and it could be creative. But I have no desire to try to explain to Britney Spears or her fucking manager or her label why I want to shoot something a certain way. I'm just not interested [laughs].


SQUEAL OF DEATH:



The best short film I've ever seen.


ENTERING TEXAS (AKA BAR-B-Q Movie):


Winter's fantastic collaboration with the Butthole Surfers.


THE IDIOT BOX:

I'd be crazy not to mention Winters' own TV series, of which all the episodes are available on Youtube.

Ep. 1:


Ep. 2:




Ep. 3:


Ep. 4:




Ep. 5:




Ep. 6:




Ep. 7:



Next post is on painters.

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