Space Age Cowboys – The Bobby Lurie Interview

Originally published for about a minute over at now-defunct Gone Cinema Poaching. See no logic in letting a good effort go to seed, so – here it is, once more.

Bobby Lurie is one-part of a binary compound, of the creative team consisting of himself and Cory McAbee – collectively, they’ve become known primarily for their genre spanning musical act, The Billy Nayer Show; a mix of pungent rockabilly and even harder blues, of catchy show-tunes and visceral table-beating. And then, in 2001, they released The American Astronaut, an extension of their work with TBNS, it introduced a tongue-in-cheek science fiction world of grim-faced men with burning eyes looking out at the world from under the wide brims of their cowboy hats, in saloons on Mars, taking the Old West element so obvious and implicit in science fiction works like Joss Whedon’s Firefly series and turning the stylistic notch up to eleven – and a half. In the process, it became a critical favorite, making the rounds of film festivals the continent over – and continues to be shown in smokey movie-houses, where you can find it.

Stingray Sam, their most recent effort, is another look in on this world – yet, unlike The American Astronaut, this one came not as a whole, but as six or seven minute pieces released here and there before festival showings of films like District 9, catching audiences completely by surprise. It’s also a work of some heft, when it all comes together – a social satire not unlike Douglas Adams on a smaller scale. And, a hellzapoppin’ musical, to boot. Not even three days ago, Lurie and I sat down at our desks and corresponded through the ethernet and had a chat. I thought you’d all be interested. — HJB

The Filmist: Back when The American Astronaut was first screened, one of its earliest reviews in Entertainment Weekly compared it to “a Laurel & Hardy skit directed by Salvador Dali,” and still others compared it to David Lynch’s early work – in Stingray Sam, I’d even say there’s a little of Monty Python in the collage and montage sequences, myself; and I have to ask, do you think there’s a conscious surrealist influence to either of Cory McAbee and yourself’s previous films?

Bobby Lurie: It’s not really conscious when we’re doing the work. We’re not aware of them when we’re in the throes of it, so to speak. Having said that, we both share a great affection for the works of Dennis Potter, a British writer and director who did films such as The Singing Detective (not the US version that sucks) and Lipstick On Your Collar. I’d also say that we were both extremely into music growing up, and that film was an outgrowth of our shared interest in visual art. Cory is one hell of a painter and illustrator, and while I dabbled in it when I was a kid, Cory was doing full fledged works as a teenager. Cory grew up in a strangely isolated environment, so he may not have even known who Salvador Dali was or that Surrealism existed as a movement. Still to this day, Cory does his own thing, and manages to create what I believe to be, very original work. Somehow he can filter the outside world.

F: How was it that you came about getting David Hyde Pierce to act as the film’s narrator?

BL: He came to us through a mutual friend who felt he would like the material, and luckily he did. David` was a complete pleasure to work with and epitomized professionalism.

F: Going back to that first question, both of yourself and McAbee’s previous films act as wonderfully idiosyncratic, tongue-in-cheek synergies of the sci-fi, the western, and the musical – I know with this film one of your more obvious and noted influences were the old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, but what do you think are some of the more conscious influences on your work?

BL: I’m actually unsure if Cory watched Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon growing up. I never did, although I did see Flesh Gordon as a teenager. As I mentioned above, Dennis Potter, and certainly everyone from Nick Cave to Roxie Music to The Who to The Beastie Boys, all of whom have a very visual component. I’d also add Scott Walker, who is not a filmmaker, but his music is some of the most visually stimulating ever created. On the film side I would add, The Last Picture Show and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

F: I understand that Stingray Sam began production after funding was lost for one of your projects, “Werewolf Hunters of The Midwest,” which McAbee has mentioned previously as being a more ’serious work’ than your two previous works. Is there anything you can tell us about that?

BL: Not much other than we are hoping to start work on Werewolf very soon.

F: In contrast to The American Astronaut, there does seem to some particularly strong, yet implicit, political resonances here – the placing of the narrative inside a kind of privatized prison system, the constant references to larger corporations like the cigarette company which ’sponsors the film,’ and those kinds of things. It’s something that Mcabee in another interview referred to as his attempt to pull off the same kind of thing that The Twilight Zone had always done, synthesizing the contemporary fears of the culture into a science fiction framework (although, I suppose you could apply that to the genre as a whole, but that’s neither here nor there). What are your thoughts on this?

BL: That’s correct, there is a definite political narrative running through Stingray. I think what’s interesting is the juxtaposition between the social/political background and Stingray Sam’s relationship to the girl. What’s interesting about Sci-Fi and shows like Twilight, is that although you have these world’s that seem larger than life, so to speak, it all does come back to human interaction. You can rail against corporations or political groups, but there is always a human lurking in there. I think technology still hasn’t changed who we are as humans, our base fears and desires. We just have new toys to hide behind. I think our robot in Stingray is particularly interesting because it combines a low tech aesthetic and a very human one at the same time. There is also something scary and fascinating about getting sucked into one of those things. And when you see in the film how and why it was invented, it gives the audience a much broader framework than just some “cool” computer generated gizmo.

F: So, with your and McAbee’s films, which comes first – that is to say, are the film’s narrative built around previously written music, or are the song written to conform to the demands of the story?

BL: Music enters into our films in many different ways. Sometimes Cory writes something for a scene, other times a piece of music we have works for a film. On Stingray, we did some incidental music specifically for a scene after we had our locked picture. Sometimes Cory writes a script and music simultaneously. Music is something we are both always thinking about. I think people forget that The Billy Nayer Show is a band first, everything we do comes out of music. Furthermore, the band has a separate life outside of our films, we have numerous album releases that have nothing to do with our films, although sometimes a song will make it into a film because it works, we just didn’t know it at the time.

F: Speaking of, what are your thoughts on the current state of the musical? I ask because it seems like your films recall the older, American-Studio style of musicals like Singin’ In The Rain or It’s Always Fair Weather,  filtered through a strong blend of rock music and surrealism – outside of The American Astronaut which I’ve already written more than enough about in the past, there seems to be very few films that have tried to resemble that older style and structure; why do you think that is?

BL: Classic American film musicals came out of a studio system where decent writers and composers were hired because they were great. Can you imagine Meredith Wilson (the writer of The Music Man) walking into a film office today and handing over a script? You’d have 20 hacks tear it to shreds before noon, all for their own ego driven Hollywood bullshit.  Many film musicals started as stage productions, and typically the genesis of a play was some writer working tirelessly on his or her own to create something original. And when and if it made the jump to Hollywood, you had moments when decent producers realized they needed to get the fuck out of the way and let the talent do their jobs– the producer’s job was to come up with the money and provide an atmosphere where the talent could create something. It didn’t always work, even with the best of intentions, but when it did, you ended up with masterpieces.

In films today, most music serves the overriding purpose of licensing for money, whatever crap happens to be the hit of the moment. I personally cannot stand hearing a popular song in a film, unless it serves a very specific purpose. For example, I think Scorsese did a great job in GoodFellas, using music to tell a story and create a time and place. And some great films have one pop song that was a hit in it’s day– sometimes it worked, like in To Sir, with Love. Other times it just turned out silly, like in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid; one of my favorite films, but when Rain Drops keep Falling on My Head comes on, it doesn’t exactly hold up. Some films do make an effort to hire a dedicated composer and everything is going along well, and then the studio clowns realize they need to throw a hit song into it, and that completely destroys the mood for me. It’s like reading a great novel and someone shoves a National Enquirer in your face when you get to chapter 5. Unfortunately, many directors and producers today like music so much, they want to put their favorite songs in their movies. The record and film industries are now often owned or controlled by mutual corporations, so you get a buddy system where some band’s drummer’s great aunt is the music supervisor so their shitty song ends up in the movie. We’ve avoided this by working independently.

F: There seems to be a lot of 1950’s iconography, here – the blend of Twilight Zone-esque science fiction, Gene Kelly-flavored musical numbers, and old-fashioned Western and cowboy motifs. How did something like this come about?

BL: Cory appreciates the aesthetic of this kind of iconography and uses it as a springboard for his ideas. I think in part, Cory’s family comes from this world. I would say his father is a genuine cowboy gentleman, a truly stand up guy.

F: What was the initial reaction to the film(s) at Sundance?

BL: Both the screenings at Sundance went exceedingly well, the audience seemed to really like the films and Sundance was happy with how they were received. The fact that Astronaut is still playing theatrically around the world and Stingray seems headed in the same direction, makes the premieres at Sundance that much sweeter for us.

F: Listening to the soundtrack, there’s a strong resemblance I think to stuff by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, particularly the tangier work they’d done on Orange. Can you see this too, or am I grabbing at air, here? And also, I’ve been told that you and the rest of The Billy Nayer Show are working on a new, original full-length album – what can you tell us about that?

BL: I could see some similarities with that record for sure, a really cool record, thanks for the nod. I’m really happy with how the soundtrack turned out, especially since there are expanded versions of songs, and Cory’s daughter sings on a track called Girl from the Moon, which is one of my favorite tracks ever. And yes, we are going to release a new album, our first since Rabbit. It’s taken about three years to make, there is one last track we’re still working on. I think it’s by far the best thing we’ve ever done, but then Cory and I think that about each one we release. This is definitely different than anything else we’ve done. I co-produced it with Karl Derfler, who also did the mixing and production for Stingray. I can never say enough good things about Karl–one of the most talented engineers ever, and fantastic to work with, it’s truly an honor. We’ve done all of it in New York City at our studio.

F: So, yourself and McAbee have quickly marked yourselves out as a strong, idiosyncratic brand of filmmaking team – what’s next for you two cats? Any plans to make the tap-dancers in your respective audiences feel needed?

BL: Right now, we’re working on many things: pushing Stingray both theatrically (Cory will be traveling throu gh the end of the year to festivals and screenings) and online, releasing our next album and touring behind that, and hopefully starting Werewolves. We would like to just continue doing what we do.

F: It’s been a real pleasure, Mr. Lurie.

BL: Thank you Henry, for the very thoughtful questions – my pleasure.

For those interested, copies of both The American Astronaut and Stingray Sam, as well as the soundtracks provided by The Billy Nayer Show, can be bought or downloaded from Cory McAbee’s home website, here.

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