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Interview: Wayne Coyne on “Christmas on Mars”

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09182008_christmasonmars1.jpgBy Alison Willmore

Over a decade ago, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne began to think it was time for the Oklahoma-based psychedelic act to make a film: “The Beatles or Pink Floyd or The Ramones or even the fucking Spice Girls — they’ve got movies and stuff, they’re not just a group.” And for a band famous for its theatricality and for live performances that include confetti, balloons, costumes and crowd-surfing in a giant bubble, a shift to the big screen seemed inevitable. By 2001, “Christmas in Mars” was in production, a pensive sci-fi drama about a crumbling Red Planet space station whose occupants are in the grip of despair until an unexpected alien visitor and a futuristic birth give them new hope. Flaming Lips friends and band members make up the cast — Coyne plays the martian, while multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd is Major Syrtis, who tries to organize a Christmas celebration to lift the station’s sagging spirits. They’re joined by plenty of unexpected but familiar faces, including former “Blue’s Clues” host Steve Burns, actor Adam Goldberg and “Saturday Night Live”‘s Fred Armisen.

The ramshackle, DIY project ended up being seven years in the making, earning comparisons to a certain eternally upcoming Guns N’ Roses album. But unlike Axl Rose, Coyne finally managed to premiere his finished first feature (co-directed by Bradley Beesley and George Salisbury) on May 25 at the Sasquatch! Music Festival. As you’d expect from a band that’s anything but conventional, the film is now taking an unusual route through theaters in the U.S., with a kick-off run in New York City’s Kraine Theater, which has been souped up with a Lips-designed Zeta Bootis Mega Supersonic Super-Sound Surround System. I spoke to Coyne, who was ensconced in upstate New York recording a new album, a few days after “Christmas on Mars” opened.

Over the seven years in which you were working on this movie, how did it change from your original concept?

Well, I didn’t have something that was set. I knew the general philosophical mood of it would be this somber, otherworldly, black and white story where [the characters], despite their isolation and despair, find a way that they can be happy within themselves. There were three or four ideas that I had before I stumbled upon the title “Christmas on Mars” and this character [of Major Syrtis]. I didn’t want the title to be some abstract thing, like “Like Water For Chocolate.” I wanted people to think, “Is it really Christmas and is it really on Mars?” and I would say, “Yeah.” Other than that, I knew I was going to use the band and our friends. I never envisioned very far down the line. I thought, “Let’s just shoot it and if it’s bad we won’t use it and if it’s great I’ll change the movie.” I had a lot of time. It was never as though someone walked up and said, “All right, whatever you have, it’s done.”

In using your bandmates and friends as the main cast of the film, did you conceive of the characters knowing that you were going to have certain people play them?

09182008_christmasonmars2.jpgSteven, I’d seen him act. I know that’s a strange thing to say — not that we’d made movies before then, but just in situations where we’d be pretending. He was actually very good at it, so we always thought “You know, we should make a movie. You can act. Maybe I can act. What the fuck.”

So we always knew that if someone was going to speak in [the movie] that it wouldn’t be me or [bassist] Michael [Ivins], it would be Steven. We would just bungle around as characters somehow, but he would carry the brunt of the communication. And then we stumbled upon friends who were actually actors, but [others] who have a lot of speaking parts aren’t actors at all, and we would just hope it worked out. I don’t want to make it sound like I know what I’m doing, but we did this show, “Beverly Hills 90210”–

Yes, I remember it well.

[laughs] Yeah, back in 1993 or 1994. I remember being amazed at how half-assed the whole thing was. When you’re shooting these things, it really isn’t this big, precious, dramatic moment. People literally sit there and say, “All right, do a take,” and it would seem like, “Well, this just simply isn’t going to work.”

We just played our dumb song and they wrapped and it was the end of the week, and in I thought, “What a shame this is, the very show that we’re on is so shambolic that it probably will never air.” I mean, they would say a line of three words 20 times! But as you know, you see the show and it’s just like every other show. So going into it, it didn’t seem like it would be impossible to make even a mediocre movie. I was encouraged by the medium, the way that film and music and sound effects and all that can be pretty clumsy and pretty stupid and still work.

As you pointed out, this is a movie literally about Christmas on Mars. Would you say in spirit it’s more of a space movie or more of a Christmas movie? And have you ever seen the 1964 family flick “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”?

I have the DVD. People have sent it to me this over the years since I started “Christmas on Mars.” I haven’t watched it all the way through, I’m not sure what the story is, but of the bits that I’ve watched… I was pleasantly surprised. I mean, it’s utterly absurd and slightly clumsy, but no, it’s not as bad as you would think it is.

In the realm of what the Flaming Lips can sing about and be about, you know, I think we started to do things that resembled Christmas songs. We would play shows using Christmas lights. So [that] was an element of the Flaming Lips canon of being — do people say shit like that, “canon of being”? — embracing this idea of a humanistic Christmas. We never talked about Jesus and all that shit; we talked about how Santa Claus looks cool and lives in a cool place, and this idea that you could put lights in a tree and it’s called a Christmas tree. I always liked that.

09182008_christmasonmars3.jpgAnd even though it seemed optimistic and colorful, there was always, to me, a somber side to Christmas. This idea that children and death and all these things would be combined around the darkest time of the winter and we’d celebrate– I know in a literal sense people celebrate the birth of Christ, but you could take it another way and celebrate the birth of this idea of kindness and caring and how we make each other believe that this world is worth living in.

I never really wanted to really make a movie that was just about outer space. Outer space is as great as everything else, but when I talk about cosmic stuff I don’t just talk about being in a spaceship and going into space; it’s an epic dimensional thing, when we think of “What is outer space and how did we get here?” and all that shit gets connected. So to me it was about being religious without any religion actually involved — what are we doing here and what is love and what is death and, you know, all the good shit.

There is something poignant about the idea of a crumbling space station. Space travel is still supposed to be heroic — all the eyes of the world are upon you. But the colony in “Christmas on Mars” seem to be forgotten; there’s no sense that they have much contact with the world outside.

Some of these things are connected to horrible dreams — the idea of really being on Mars. People really did go to the moon. I had to wonder what the fuck they’d think when they’d wake up. I do this all the time — you wake up and you’re in a hotel room in Iceland and when you went to sleep you knew you were there, but somehow you get in this other world when you’re asleep, and then you wake up and there is a moment where you’re like, “Where the fuck am I?” I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like if you were one of these guys who walked on the moon, and fell asleep for 20 minutes and woke up and were like, “Oh my god, I’m in a fucking 12″x12″ aluminum capsule floating in outer space.” It seems like if you were a rational, scientifically minded person it would make you want to kill yourself.

I tried to put myself in this mindset of living on Mars for a year and the isolation and the stress and all the catastrophes that could happen. I wasn’t really interested in portraying any kind of bullshit technology. This scenario really is just a state of mind that people find themselves in living their lives here. You find yourself isolated and lonely and confused and scared.

Speaking of technology or lack thereof, where did you get the supplies that went into your sets? I definitely saw an oven in there, and a vacuum cleaner.

Me and Dennis, my nephew, you don’t know how much time we spent on that oven to make it not look like an oven. A perfectly acceptable space door could pull down like that! But Steven opens [it], people laugh. Maybe it makes more sense as a metaphor — there’s a baby being born and it’s in the oven. But we’re always like, “Now why are they laughing? We spent a lot of time making that oven look like a space contraption.”

09182008_christmasonmars4.jpgThat’s really part of the fun. On any otherworldly movie, prop and art departments spend months trying to make things look like something you’ve never seen, and in the end they always resemble some dumb toy you can buy at the store. So I thought, “Why don’t I just use dumb toys from the store and act like they’re fantastical and not worry about redesigning the whole thing?” If someone gave me $100 million to make a movie they’d say, “You can’t just use a fucking oven. You’ve got to make this shit look good.” And I was like, “I don’t care.” I think in a way it’s funny and bizarre and it worked at the same time.

So yes, it is an oven, but I’m asking everybody to lie and say, “It seemed like some sort of futuristic oven that would never have been found in Oklahoma.”

I saw on a message board somewhere, so that you claimed you timed the release of the movie to the unveiling of the Large Hadron Collider. Is that actually true?

I kept setting dates thinking, “There should be some significant reason to say it’s going to be done.” All art, it’s a cliché to say, but you don’t finish it, you just abandon it and say, “Okay, good enough.” So I set this date with the mythology surrounding the super collider, that if the whole world is going to be absorbed into some ginormous black hole…

In Switzerland!

We know they won’t really create a black hole in the sense that we think of a black hole, but what if they did? What would happen? We would never know. It would simply happen and a billionth of a second later we would be crushed. But, you know, they had talked, in the future, of doing it on, say, Mars, where if a black hole did get created that it could take a couple days for it to suck us in, which I think would be much worse.

Knowing it was coming?

It’d be horrible; I can’t imagine. That event is a lot bigger than my dumb movie, but I thought I’d tie it in to some dramatic day, and think “At least by then I’ll hopefully have it finished.”

[Photos: Wayne Coyne as the Martian; Steven Drozd as Major Syrtis; Coyne – “Christmas on Mars,” Cinema Purgatorio/Warner Bros., 2008]

“Christmas on Mars” is now playing in New York, with dates to follow in Austin and other locations around the country.

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