Friday, October 22, 2010

Don't Eat the Popcorn, But Enjoy the Ride!: An Interview with Mike White

To create a zine of any type takes a certain type of creative spark and energy. After all, you're doing something that is DIY, so you gotta make it count. Now to keep said zine going after its initial run takes an especially precious and resourceful blend of focus and energy. Take, for example, Mike White's great film zine, Cashiers du Cinemart, which began operation in 1994. Many a zine from this era has died with a whimper, especially once the age of the Internet and Blogging took a stranglehold in the writing community. (For better and worse.) But Mike kept his creation going, featuring many a strong writer and some wickedly diverse content. This is not your average cult film zine, a fact that shines brilliantly in the newly released tome, IMPOSSIBLY FUNKY: A CASHIERS DU CINEMART COLLECTION.

Even if you've read this noted zine or are still scratching your head over the beautiful bastardization of the classic cineaste periodical Cahiers du Cinema, the odds are damn fine that you will still enjoy this book. It's got more variety than a holiday Whitman's sampler and tastes better too. With articles ranging from Dr. Demento and Crispin Glover to superhero films and the cinematic works of crime author James Ellroy, there is something here for everyone. I was very lucky to get a sneak peek at the book, along with author, filmmaker and mastermind Mike White. Take a step behind the curtain and enjoy!

Impossibly Funky - The Book Trailer from Mike White on Vimeo.

How many books have their own trailers? Not many!

First of all Mike, thank you so much for thinking of Mondo Heather for the Impossibly Funky promo tour a-go-go! Now to start things off, what exactly spurred you into the wooly world of film zines?

Mike: Like just about everything in my life, it was a confluence of events that finally pushed me over the edge. I’d been a big fan of Factsheet Five ( and loved reading about various film and work zines but didn’t have anything to trade for these. While working at a movie theater I got the idea to do my own zine of life at the cinema. This idea languished until I graduated from college and landed a shitty job where I worked some crazy hours, including a few overnight shifts. Add to that the strange events surrounding a documentary I made (WHO DO YOU THINK YOU’RE FOOLING) and everything resulted in the messy birth of Cashiers du Cinemart.

-Keeping in that vein, are there any particular inspirations for your writing?

Mike: Style-wise I write far too stream-of-consciousness. I used to bury a lead so deep that it took a back hoe to find the start of an article. I’ve tried to change this over the years by learning how to rewrite my own material. I took a page from Charles Willeford’s The Woman Chaser there with the idea that the biggest part of writing is rewriting. Content-wise, I think that I was influenced a lot by Colin Geddes and Rich Osmond with the joy they showed in their zines Asian Eye and Teenage Rampage.

-You've got a great assortment of writers in the Cahiers du Cinemart league. How did you round up everybody?

Mike: It was kind of like The Dirty Dozen, I found all of them in jail, waiting for death. Actually, over the years I approached and have been approached by a lot of folks. Nearly all of them have turned out to be terrific writers. When people have come to me and asked for an “assignment,” I tell them to write about what they love – preferably something I’ve never heard about. That helps capture their enthusiasm as well as expand my cinematic frontiers (and hopefully those of the reader as well).

-What was the big pull for putting this book together?

Mike-I felt like I’d come to a breathing point in terms of putting the zine in its grave and wanting to look back and update some articles while combining others. Plus, there were a few things I had left to say that never made it into Cashiers du Cinemart. Some people were of the opinion that everything should go into the book verbatim—warts and all—while I was more of the mind to rewrite everything. At the end I think that it was a mix of both.

-How was the decision making process for the chapters and individual articles?

Mike: I got together with two of my friends, Mike Thompson and Lori Hubbard-Higgins, and laid out a huge spreadsheet of everything that had ever been in the zine before. They volunteered their favorite pieces while I did the same. By the end of a long evening of coffee and weepy reminiscences (we all had coffee, only I did the weeping) we had a workable list that was pared down until we got to a place that wouldn’t make an insane amount of pages. Likewise, I picked authors with whom I knew I could get in contact. Some people have fallen off the face of the earth since they sent in their pieces and I wanted to get sign-off to reprint their stuff. I didn’t want to be chasing some author around to beg for permission.

-There's definitely a weird dynamic in the book between you and Chris Gore. He gives a nice introduction but comes across as bit of a jerk in the Tarantino subsection. How are things in that camp currently?

Mike: I gave up holding a lot of grudges. It’s just so “September Tenth,” ya know? I kind of regret that I didn’t have my take on the whole Ultimate Film Fanatic show in the book. It might have made a good comparison piece to Gore’s Introduction. Things seem to be fine between me and him. We still have yet to ever meet in person but I’m up for buying him a beer if I ever do.

-Speaking of Tarantino, what is the strangest reaction you have had from either the articles or the two short films, WHO DO YOU THINK YOU'RE FOOLING and YOU'RE STILL NOT FOOLING ANYBODY?

Mike: I still laugh about the guy who asked me how I got all those Asian dudes to be in my film. The hate mail still keeps coming in, usually via drips and drabs on YouTube. You don’t know how many times I’ve gotten people trying to quote the line about good artists creative and great artists stealing to me. Yet, they can’t even agree on who said it first. 

Thanks to the wonders of Youtube, you can watch and judge for yourself.

-Out of all the film people you have dealt with personally, who were the biggest surprises, both good and bad, to interact with?

Mike: I suppose that the people that surprised me most were the filmmakers who didn’t want me to review their films. You wouldn’t believe how many folks I talked to over the years that had I sought out to ask for copies of their movies, only to have them tell me their bizarre marketing strategies didn’t have zine or internet reviews in mind. Luckily, I ran into far more nice people than nasty. I was always surprised by how down-to-earth some of the celebs I interviewed have acted.

-The whole BLACK SHAMPOO section is really great and strangely sweet. What other creative things bent your brain in your youth, making you the great fringe culture guy that you are today?

Mike: Gosh, I wish I knew! It was probably due to being raised by the light of a Cathode Ray, hanging out in my basement with the television as my only friend. Like other kids my age I played for hours with Star Wars toys but I would mix Star Wars with disparate ideas like The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard, and The Blues Brothers.

-Something that I love about this book is the variety and the fact that you have figures and films that have not really been properly covered in any other film books. The Charles Willeford section is a terrific example of this. Is this a conscious decision on your part or is it the natural trajectory of the zine/book?

Mike: That’s very much a conscious decision. I love reading about authors or seeing movies that I’ve never heard of before and wanted to share that same idea with my readers. While I was doing Cashiers du Cinemart I always thought about the kid stuck in some crappy Midwestern town with no access to culture who happens to pick up a zine and read about someone or something that they never heard about that blew their mind; that’s because I was the same kid. Pieces about Harry Stephen Keeler in Murder Can Be Fun or on hopping Chinese vampires in Asian Eye opened my world up in directions I’d never thought possible.

-Seeing a filmmaker like Shuji Terayama get noted and written about made me smile. His works are ripe for proper discovery over here in the States. While I do disagree with writer Andrew Grant about FRUITS OF PASSION, I loved what he wrote about EMPEROR TOMATO KETCHUP. How do you personally feel about Terayama's works?

Mike: Here’s a filmmaker that needs to get some notice in the U.S. that just isn’t getting his due. I personally feel that his work needs to be seen and enjoyed, along with more of the Japanese New Wave. I’ve done all I could to help get these films more notice, even working with native Japanese speakers to subtitle Terayama’s movies for the gray market to get more American eyes on his movies. It’s like a treasure just waiting to be discovered.

-Out of all the articles you have personally written for the zine, what's your most and least favorite and why?

Mike: My most favorite piece is probably the Willeford. I was deathly afraid of writing this at first as I thought I’d never be able to do him justice. I finally sat down one Saturday and just started at it, writing down everything I could before beginning an arduous editing/rewriting process. In the end, I’d like to think I did a pretty okay job.

My least favorite piece might be my interview with Alex Winter. I’d been trying to get an interview with him for years and, when I finally did, it was around the release of his film Fever. If you just asked yourself, “Fever?” you’re not alone. It was kind of a psychological thriller with Henry Thomas. Despite meeting him under the guise of covering Fever, I should have thrown caution to the wind and just talked to him about the movies of his I love like Squeal of Death and Freaked.

-For any piece that I work on, I always take little notes while watching or reading whatever I am covering. One of notes here only says three words; “Paul Fucking Williams!” That's with complete seriousness since I love Paul Williams and is one of those artists who found great commercial success but yet I feel still deserves some critical love, which is most definitely found in this book. In fact, I think Leon Chase's piece was touching and perfectly fitting.

Mike: I love Leon’s piece. It’s so well-written and told me about someone I thought I knew but didn’t. Leon’s piece really made me appreciate Williams and even track down some of the movies with which he’s been associated—though I have yet to brave Ishtar.

Amazing clip of Paul performing "The Hell of It" from The Phantom of the Paradise.
We love you Paul!

-Another comment is that I love how well-researched and downright dense (in a good way!) the articles are. One could expand almost any of them into a book in their own right. Which do you think would make the best book?

Mike: Oh, geeze. I don’t even want to think about that. I try to think that I properly employed the “Lady’s Skirt” rule for these pieces—they’re long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep it interesting.

If anything, I could see busting out the section on unproduced or misdirected scripts into its own book as I’ve still got a pile of a few dozen scripts that I need to read and research.

-Reading the Superman article, which was excellent by the way, you gave a great peek not only into the snake-eating-its-tail machina that can happen in the pre-production process in Hollywood, but also the scariness of fan boy culture. Namely the endorsement of the Kevin Smith script, complete with some semi-hokey dialogue. What do you think are some of the sins of fan boy community?

Mike: I think it’s the prejudice against certain films/filmmakers/actors without giving them a chance. By the time a movie comes out it’s already been scrutinized via all of its elements and not the final product. That’s a great way to condone crappy movies while condemning good ones. I mean, it took six months before anyone would even think to say that The Phantom Menace sucked. Everyone was still too busy kissing George Lucas’s ass to think differently.

-IMPOSSIBLY FUNKY contains what I think is probably the best interview I have ever read with Crispin Glover. How was the experience of putting together that interview?

Mike: I can’t tell you how many times I emailed and cajoled Glover about this. Finally, out of nowhere, he emailed me back to say that he was available for an email interview. Again, after I sent questions, it was a lot of wheedling to get the answers. I’m glad that the interview turned out as good as it did as he’s very high maintenance.

-Lastly, name a group of artists, films, books and records that will change our readers’ lives in three easy steps.

Mike: Books: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (the audio version read by Barrett Whitener is incredible), The Abortion by Richard Brautigan, and Of Tender Sin by David Goodis.

Films: The Spook who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon), Boxer’s Omen (Chih-Hung Kuei), and Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone).

Records: A Night at the Hip Hopera by The Kleptones, Silence! The Musical by Jon & Al Kaplan, and Metal Box by Public Image Ltd.

Many thanks to Mike for his time, great work and friendship. He's what we in the industry call a helluva guy and you can read more of his work at his main website,

IMPOSSIBLY FUNKY is a great read and one of the best fringe cinema culture book to have come out in years. Support your indie writers and read some great articles while doing it!