For our inaugural RiffWiki Interview, we will be talking to the Host of Ronin Fox Trax, James Cruise, aka Ronin Fox. RFT is one of the most prolific and definitely one of the most popular riffing troupes out there, as their riffs of Masters of the Universe and The Wizard of Oz were both voted #1 on surveys of the Greatest iRiffs on the RiffTrax forum.
RiffWiki: I suppose we should probably start at the beginning and ask when and where you became aware of MST3K. Is there some crazy story behind that, do you remember it specifically, or is it one of those hazy childhood things that nobody can ever seem to pinpoint?
RF: I do remember fairly well coming across MST3K on TV while I was in Jr High, which would be around 1995 or so. I couldn't quite comprehend what I was looking at right away, but looking back I know it was The Brain That Wouldn't Die. The one moment I remembered the next day was Mike standing by the bots and concluding that being stuck in space being forced to watch bad movies “really kinda bites.” The next time I saw it on TV, I got hooked, and it was a great time to do it. The show was on at least six times a week thanks to the “Mystery Science Theater Hour” and I got a mix of the new Mike episodes and re-runs of Joel.
I think it really struck a chord with me because I was being mocked a lot at school for being geeky. Now here was a show that seemed as geeky as I was, and was proving to me that the people that mocked me were really bad at it. It was possible to make fun of something while actually being clever and funny, not just being mean.
RiffWiki: Same question, only with RiffTrax.
RF: I kind of heard a RiffTrax before I knew what a RiffTrax was. One day browsing through a Meijer's store I came across a Legend DVD of Plan 9 From Outer Space. I was on the fence about buying it until I noticed that they advertised “Mike Nelson Commentary” on the back, and I couldn't resist. Of course they later redid that commentary as a three riffer track, then as a live show. It was at least a year after that that I actually found the RiffTrax site, in 2007, and that was just because my friend Nick (a.k.a. Nykk) sent me a link about The Film Crew and I decided to Google the guys to see what they were doing. Since I already had a DVD of Star Trek V thanks to a box set, I had everything I needed to dive in.
RiffWiki: When did you first decide to try your hand at iRiffing? What was it that made you want to give a try at the very beginning? How did you go about choosing your very first movie to riff?
RF: Well I started riffing before iRiffing was a thing. I'd wanted to do something as a tribute to MST3K for a long time but I hadn't figured out a way to do it. I remember trying to figure out how to set up a camcorder with my VCR in the right way so Nick and I could do our own commentary on old wrestling tapes or anything else. There wasn't any plan to distribute it, we were just going to pull out the tapes at parties or something. When I found out about RiffTrax, it fell into place, I thought the technique using mp3 files was genius. There were a couple other groups already doing fan-riffs, and the first couple I heard (PS Productions The Riff of Khan and Riff Raff Theater's Harry Potter) were actually funny, so that gave me hope.
After spending the summer of '07 mostly listening to RiffTrax between working, I started looking for something I could riff myself. I actually picked something slightly obscure on purpose, not wanting to dive in with something that everyone had. I'm not sure now why I was thinking that way, maybe I was nervous about negative feedback. In any case I picked up He-Man She-Ra Secret of the Sword, the cheap He-Man animated movie that introduced She-Ra. I already owned it, along with most of the Masters of the Universe series. I was in the middle of a huge “recapturing my childhood” kick, and He-Man was a big guilty pleasure. It was another year after that when iRiffs was launched and suddenly I had a platform I could sell on.
RiffWiki: One of the great things about iRiffs and iRiffing is that it not only opens up the riffing world to new riffers and styles, but it also goes a long way to filling in the gaps left by MST3K and RiffTrax, because God knows they can't riff everything. The spaces that you occupy within the canon of movie riffing are fairly unique. First lets cover RFT's extensive riffing of the Nightmare on Elm Street Series. What was it about this particular series that made you want to invest so much into it, making it a huge part of your "riffing legacy?"
RF: At first it just kind of happened. I was working at Sam's Club at the time when I started riffing, and I happened to notice we started selling the Nightmare box set of the first seven movies. It jumped out at me as perfect right away and I loved the idea of having a whole series to work with, I thought the challenge of getting through all of them would keep me invested, and I'd say it worked. I already liked the movies, while acknowledging that not all of them were good. The more I worked on riffing the first two, which I did practically at the same time, the more memories it pulled up for me, and it kind of became personal.
They were really the first horror movies I liked, which was kind of weird. I stayed away from horror as a kid because I really had horrible nightmares all the time. When I got to be a teen though, I happened to see Wes Craven's New Nightmare on cable, and it spoke to me because the little kid's logic about dreams was the same as how I used to think when I was his age. There were all kinds of details in that movie about how he'd pull his legs away from the shadow at the bottom of the bed under his sheets and put a stuffed animal in the way as a guard, I actually did all of that. From there I watched all the other movies, and Freddy Krueger just made them awesome. There are still a lot of 80s and 90s horror movies I can't stand, but a lot of the time its because the killers bore me. Jason and Micheal Meyers are just dull, but Freddy is just fun to watch.
RiffWiki: Same question only with your Masters of the Universe Riffs?
RF: As I said before, He-Man was a guilty pleasure. I grew up watching the cartoon every day for years, then when it started coming out on DVD it really shocked me at how cheap and stiff the animation was while I never noticed. At the same time, the writing was really trying hard, and they had a lot of talent. One thing you can say about the series, and the Secret of the Sword movie in particular. Things happened. Those stories moved along, even if the animation didn't always keep up, and I thought any movie where so much happened, especially so many strange things, would give me plenty to riff about.
The live action movie wasn't so much of a shock, I knew that was bad at the time, but since the first time I watched it I loved how over the top and crazy Frank Langella was playing Skeletor. That movie was instantly a running joke for me, and I referenced it all the time. Years before I started riffing, I wrote a series of stories to accompany some pictures of action figures I collected, telling the story of a tiny Skeletor that tried to take over the Castle Grayskull playset, and one of my favorite ones was a giant ripoff of the end of live action movie. The whole sequence where Skeletor gets god-like powers and mostly just monologues to He-Man about the loneliness of evil and stuff like that. To me, that movie is the perfect storm of bad Hollywood. A cheep cash in from a director who wanted to make a completely different movie than what he got the rights to staring an man who to date was only known for a role where he almost never spoke and a stage actor who was far too good to be there so he entertained himself by chewing more scenery than had ever been chewed.
As for the Christmas special, I never even knew it existed until I started buying the DVDs. Once I realized that the plot revolved almost entirely on innocent children being kidnapped over and over again, I considered it the greatest holiday special ever.
RiffWiki: Again, same question, only for the one offs like Dune, The Wizard of Oz, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, etc. All these movies seem like obvious choices, but it was you who either grabbed them first or made the biggest impact with them.
RF: I wasn't really first with Dune, there already was a riff online of it though it didn't seem popular at all. I also would think that by now Spoony's riff of Dune after mine made the biggest impact, at least when it comes to sales. Dune is probably the one full length movie I didn't have any investment in before starting to work on the riff, I'd never even watched the whole thing. A lot of people on the RiffTrax forum would guess it all started with RVR II, a famous (infamous?) member who was obsessed with the idea of seeing Dune riffed. He already had a script written up and he was basically shopping it around iRiffing troupes to see if anyone was interested. I guess I was lucky that I agreed first, but it was a huge amount of work. His script was large already, and I think the final product was half from it and half from me (and a few classic improvised moments from Vamperica). Looking back it's hard to believe Dune was such a blind spot for me growing up, but in a way I think it helped me write for it. I had fresh eyes.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a personal vendetta. Of all the movies I've riffed, the only one I hate more than ST:TMP is, maybe, Nightmare on Elm Street 2. I was and still am a huge Trek fan, but that first movie is just draining. I actually tell a story in the opening of that riff that's a bit of an exaggeration on the truth. My brother really did once take me to an all day marathon of Star Trek movies, and we really did leave during part V for dinner. But we did sit through TMP. It was only the second time I ever saw it, and the first time it was cut up for TV. Having to sit through it on the big screen with no breaks seemed like torture. I practically had to chant “Wrath of Khan is coming” to myself to get through it. When I started riffing I picked it to be my first official iRiff for two reasons. Reason one, I wanted to hurt it. Reason two, I knew that if I could fill the vast amounts of empty space in that movie and keep it funny, I'd be able to do it for any movie I wanted.
Years after that, of course, we got to Star Trek Nemesis. That one was picked more so by Shane Tourtellotte from PS Productions. He'd already written with me for TMP since he wanted to take on another Trek movie and I had already announced I wanted TMP for a target. He really thought Nemesis deserved the riff treatment, and offered another script to me. I liked the idea of covering at least one Next Generation movie, because that was really “my show” more so than the original series. I wasn't sure at first Nemesis was the most deserving TNG movie, since I thought Insurrection was worse, but the more I payed attention the more I realized that Insurrection was just kind of dull while Nemesis was practically broken. I still kind of dragged my feet on it for a long time, and it suddenly became a priority thanks to The Dark Knight Rises. Once Tom Hardy became famous as the goofy-voiced villain Bane, I couldn't keep myself from adding that voice over his performance as Shinzon.
Wizard of Oz, I picked for the challenge of it. I was kind of inspired when RiffTrax took on Casablanca and I wanted to know if I could take on a true classic. Wizard of Oz was a part of my childhood just like practically everyone else, and its something everyone understands on some level. I remember writing a line at the end of Masters of the Universe when Julie hugs He-Man before going home and I couldn't resist making it “Scarecrow I think I'll miss you most of all.” After that I realized how often I actually did reference that movie, sometimes without even thinking about it. Riffing the source of so many riffs seemed like something special. Plus, once I got into it, I realized just how messed up that story is. It's not like I'm the only one to see it, Gregory Maguire pretty much owes his writing career to that.
Batman was also a requirement, at least I knew I had to do “a” Batman movie. Of all the things I geek out over, Batman is near the top of the list. A lot of Batman movies had already been riffed. Batman and Robin got the fan-written RiffTrax treatment, and I had a blast contributing to that already. That Guy With the Glasses took on Batman Forever. Cinester Theater already did Batman Returns. I was kind of surprised that 1989's Batman was untouched for so long. Fireriffs actually released a track before I did, but I was already deep into scripting it by then. To me, Burton's Batman movies were important but so so strange. I loved them as a kid, and I still love the style in them, but damn those scripts just don't hold together, and it legitimately bothers me to watch Batman kill bad guys. I know he did it in the 40s, whatever, modern Batman shouldn't kill.
RiffWiki: How do you feel about having your riffs being voted not only once, but twice, as the #1 Greatest iRiff in the RiffTrax Forum. (Masters of the Universe and The Wizard of Oz.)
RF: Ugh, that was horrible.
Come on, of course that was awesome. The way the lists worked, I knew which of my riffs were on it before the countdowns started. Darth Geek, who was running the countdowns, gave all the winners a list of their winning riffs in random order and asked for some write-ups he could include with each entry. From there it was a strange game of hoping I wasn't next, because the longer my riffs stayed off the countdown, the higher their places were. When I realized MOTU was in the running for number one, I started freaking out. Once I saw the video of Meg Foster congratulating me I felt like I could accomplish anything. I wasn't sure how many people would even want to watch a goofy low budget toy commercial staring Ivan Drago again, let alone who would pay me to mock it, but to have it so recognized and praised really blew me away. Also, the fact that Meg Foster said the words “Ronin Fox Trax” at all scored me huge points with my wife.
Repeating it with Wizard of Oz might have been even more of a surprise. I think there was some part of me trying to tell me the first time was a fluke.
RiffWiki: When RiffTrax finally did their version of the Wizard of Oz, how did you feel about that?
RF: I was kind of preparing myself for something like that. I knew eventually they'd riff something that I already had or really wanted to. I had a moment before when they put out their short Pearl of the Orient, and I thought it finally happened, but it turns out I had riffed an entirely different Pearl of the Orient.
It still felt a bit strange, knowing that my idols were trodding the same ground I had. My wife took it harder than I did. In the end I just had to keep telling myself what I already knew. There's no calling dibs, there's an infinite number of ways to do the same thing, chances are they'll make similar jokes at least once or twice, and in the end that's okay. A lot of other groups had already overlapped with RiffTrax, and at least some of the time it actually helped sales. When a riff fan already has a movie to listen to a riff, they might be open to another take. If that weren't true, then we wouldn't have two versions of Manos and three of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
RiffWiki: Obviously, movie riffing has been a big part of your life, as it has been with most people who dedicate as much time to it as you have. What would you say is the biggest impact MST3K/RiffTrax/iRiffing has had on your life? The biggest reward or consequence, whichever that might be.
RF: Short answer, it helped me get married.
My wife and I met after she found me online. I had a dating profile that I had pretty much abandoned and forgotten about, but it was a very honest profile. I was very clear about how big a geek I was. Suddenly I got an e-mail and it was a woman making a request. “Prove this 'I'm a geek' theory of yours.” One of the first things I brought up was my love of MST3K and the fact that I had started riffing myself. This was a huge plus, apparently. She loved watching the Sci-Fi Channel episodes with her family. The first time I met her father I was wearing a shirt with the classic planet logo, and it helped make me the “good boyfriend.” It was only a matter of time before I'd invite her to record, and the result was Vamperica.
You can actually track our relationship through some of the riffs we've made together since then. We riffed Nightmare on Elm Street 4 when we were newly dating. Dune, we were sharing an apartment. Nightmare 5 we were engaged. Batman we were married.
RiffWiki: I'm gonna ask you to make some "picks" here. 3 of your own riffs, 3 full length RiffTrax, 3 episodes of MST3K and 3 iRiffs other than your own.
RF: Okay, this is a little tricky. Of my own my top three would be Freddy's Dead, The Wizard of Oz and Batman. Maybe I'm a little biased toward Freddy's Dead since it's the most recent one and its fresh in my mind. Top three RiffTrax:
The Star Wars Holiday Special , Eragon and Highlander. Top three MST3K: Space Mutiny, The Final Sacrifice and Prince of Space. Top three iRiffs: Hor-RIFF-ic's Halloween III, PS Productions' Star Trek II, and Cap'n Steve-O's Old Style Goodtime's The Lost City, Chapter 5. Anytime I give a ranking like this, I have to say its subject to change. I'll constantly re-watch an old episode or riff and remember how funny it was and it'll jump to the top of the list.
RiffWiki: And lastly, if you could choose one movie for Mike, Kevin and Bill to riff that they have not yet, which would it be and why?
RF: That question is a lot harder to answer when you riff yourself. Anything you really want to have a riff, you at least have to consider doing it yourself. Plus I've been enjoying the really obscure movies they've been pulling out as VODs, movies I'd never heard of.
If I had to pick one off the top of my head today, I'd pick Little Monsters. The “kids” movie where Fred Savage goes into a horrific underworld with Howie Mandel and has fantastic adventures like watching a grown man in prosthetics pee into an apple juice bottle. The 80s were seriously messed up.
And that does it for us this week. Thanks so much to James for taking the time to talk to us. Be sure to check out Ronin Fox Trax's latest riff, Freddy's Dead, available now.