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Securing the Ghost: An Interview with "The American Astronaut" Director Cory McAbee

It's hard to describe to Cory McAbee's ingenious films. And it's impossible to convey their ingeniousness without sounding as crazy as the films he makes. McAbee's first two features, "The American Astronaut" and "Stingray Sam," are science-fiction western musicals. McAbee, who gave a short presentation at the New York Film Festival's "Convergence" sidebar, jokes that his first two films are like "Buck Rogers meets Roy Rogers," and while that's not inaccurate, it only scratches the surface of what they're all about. "Stingray Sam," an hour-long feature told in six 10-minute-long installments, is structured like an old-fashioned movie serial. It also features lavish photo-montage sequences that bring to mind Terry Gilliam's animation work from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." "The American Astronaut" is only comparatively normal: it is, after all, also a musical set in outer space about cowboys. "Crazy and Thief," McAbee's third feature, is modestly scaled: a fairy-tale starring two of his three children. But McAbee's next film, "The Embalmer's Tale," is even more insanely ambitious than his first two features.

"The Embalmer's Tale" follows the man who preserved Abraham Lincoln's corpse when it was shown around the country immediately after his assassination. It will be directed, and scripted by McAbee, and feature music he composed, too. It will also be assembled, and generally inspired by a group of musicians, actors, carpenters, and other volunteers McAbee is in the process of assembling. That group is called Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club, a make-shift group who McAbee says includes anyone who has heard of the project, and is willing to help. I talked to McAbee about integrity, longevity, and the Monkees.

It's so hard to describe your films to people who haven't seen them. It almost becomes a challenge so I can't help but create these silly "___ meets ___" descriptions. It's Maurice Chevalier meets Flash Gordon! It's "Superman and the Mole Men" meets Gene Autry! It's "Aelita Queen of Mars" meets "It's Always Fair Weather!"

It's Buck Rogers meets Roy Rogers. They were both big influences when dealing with the art department on "Stingray Sam." And also Roy Rogers…I'm not a big fan of the singing cowboy series, but I am interested in the idea that that was once bigger than anything on Earth. For a certain amount of time, Roy Rogers had more swag than the Beatles. They named drinks after him for children, and they still use those names. He had this museum of horse stuff. There's also these beautiful scenes of him with the Sons of the Pioneers.

Also, when I try to inarticulately describe "The American Astronaut" and "Stingray Sam" to my friends, I tell them that they're about how alienating it can be to be alone, and being alone in outer space. At the same time, you've cultivate a [protective] aura around yourself by making your first two projects completely creator-controlled. For a while, you could only see your films buy purchasing them through your website. At the same time, now that you're on both Facebook and Twitter, I wonder: how do you feel about interacting with people through that virtual space?

What I'm doing can be a little overwhelming. If I do something new, I get a lot of email, and a lot of messages. But I try to answer all of them whenever I can. The people who are supporting the work, I consider them friends. They like what I do and that's one thing we have in common [laughs], right? That's the whole thing with Captain Ahab: I'm embracing people who want to be a part of things. Before, it would only be by happenstance that I would have contact with people. I would meet people after shows, and find out that I really liked most of them. But this way, we can go a little bit further.

That was one of the more intriguing things about your Convergence presentation: you said that Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club was born out of "kindness." "Kindness" has a couple of meanings in this context. You've also said that your profits from "The Embalmer's Tale," and, by extension, Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club will go to charity. But this is also the first year where people can see your films on Netflix Instant. And getting all these people involved with Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club seems like a notion of your film's emphasis on together-ness.

There's a lot of different ways of looking at it, and that's one. The "kindness" is in the creation of it. Hopefully it'll be a kind film. Somebody asked me if I liked horror films, and I said, "Yeah, but the older I get, the less interesting those things become. I find that I'm drawn to kindness." Like [Japanese animator Hayao] Miyazaki's films. They're very kind; they don't punish the villain. In fact, the villain usually becomes part of the team. "Harry and Tonto"…I love that film. It's actually a really strong, smart, gutsy film, but it's very kind. And that's what I look for in films. That's what steps out and makes it into a film, something you can relate to.

I've been watching a lot of popular science-fiction-ish films lately.

Recent ones?

Yeah. I've been making note of the ones that have real social messages, and they're usually preaching to the converted, like Michael Moore. I love what he's doing, but people who go see Michael Moore films are the people who agree with him. But then there's films like "Avatar," which comes out during a time of war, where left- and right-wing viewers wind up cheering against the US troops in favor of a tree. And stories like "Iron Man," which is against the military-industrial complex. And yet they don't make an impression on people who go to see them. They watch these films, and they leave totally satisfied, and go back to whatever their beliefs were. To me, the message of the film is more in the creation of it than the actual story. The story itself is going to be just entertainment.

Whenever I tell people I write about Bollywood films, they turn up their noses. They assume that because these are contemporary musicals, they're naive. People don't break out into song spontaneously, people aren't naturally that happy, that kind of thing [McAbee laughs]. But the singing and dancing in your films are really joyful. I've read that the dance moves in "Stingray Sam" were improvised, and that the dance moves during the dance contest scene of "The American Astronaut" were also improvised in that you were yelling out commands to actor Bill Buell, like, "Show us your karate moves!" Where does your interest in dance come from?

I guess I'm a fan of naive dance [both laugh]. I was at a ballet in St. Petersburg, and they were the best ballet in the world. I kept thinking of [comedian] Dave Attell when he said he went to the opera, and wondered, "I can't believe it takes this much work to bore me." But I was sitting there watching it, and trying to appreciate it. I tried to imagine how amazing this would have been 200 years ago, to see something on this scale. And one of the dancers fell down. She tripped on her skirt, fell flat on her back, jumped up, and then kept going. And from that point forward, I was on the edge of my seat. Suddenly, they became vulnerable, and they were people up there, doing these incredible things.

Speaking of vulnerability, you've said in the past that your love of musicals is in part inspired by your love of Dennis Potter's musicals, especially "The Singing Detective" and "Pennies from Heaven." What did you think of the American remakes of those two projects? I ask because they're both attempts at taking radical genre hybrids and bring them to a new audience, and that came with some compromises. The creators of those remakes almost expected resistance from their expected audience.

I haven't seen the remake of "The Singing Detective;" everyone I know says it's terrible. I thought "Pennies from Heaven" with Steve Martin was amazing. They also did a remake of "Brimstone and Treacle" [which Potter adapted from his stage play for a controversial BBC television version, which the BBC refused to air for over a decade after its 1976 production] with Sting.

Oh, no.

It's very dated, but there are parts of it that are pretty great. Overall, it's a pretty good film, though it's better to just watch the original. But "Pennies from Heaven" really nailed it. They also American-ized it. It was about the Depression in Britain, and they switched it over so it was about the Depression in the US. It failed because nobody wanted to see it. Everyone who wanted to see a Steve Martin movie at that time wanted to see "The Jerk," and anyone who "Pennies from Heaven" was aimed at wouldn't go see a Steve Martin film.

Do you think the level of quality and integrity put into the re-making of that film is exceptional? If someone were to ask you today, "I want you to remake 'The American Astronaut' on a bigger budget," what would you think, not knowing what the deal would be? Would you be suspicious, or would you think you'd be able to get away with what you did originally?

I wouldn't do it. All the heart gets sucked out of a film when it's taken out of context, and out of time. I don't know why I was doing this, but somehow, the Monkees came up, and I wondered what they were up to. Micky Dolenz, at that time, was such an amazing character. So I looked, and there was a recent concert. Davey Jones was dead, and Michael Nesmith was never really taken seriously as a musician. And Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz were just being goofy, and weird. But you could tell that everything they did was great. They were up there performing, and behind them was an old picture of them as the Monkees—and it was kind of depressing. I couldn't figure out why until I realized: there was no heart in it. At the time, there was a lot of heart. They were really invested in it, but now they're not invested in it. The same is true of the Sex Pistols. I saw them…

Oh, boy.

Their performance, musically…

In that regard, I'm sure they were better than they were!

They were better than they were, but the feeling was gone. So "The American Astronaut" was written in a certain time, the music was made at a certain time, and it's a portrait of a certain time. In fact, whenever I rewatch it, I'm watching performances of actors, and hearing performances of musicians where we kept the first take. All this stuff is based on the moment. "Securing the ghost" is a phrase that used to be used in advertisements when photography was new. When somebody would die…no, I'm sorry, the phrase is "securing the shadow."

Your phrase is better.

When somebody would die, and they didn't have any photographs of them, photographers would make money taking photographs of the deceased. So we're capturing moments in time.

Let's talk a little bit more about creative control in that light. Is controlling the way people see your films, as important to you now as it was when you made your first two films?

The way people view the films is going to change as time goes on. When "The American Astronaut" first came out, it was very polarizing: people either loved it or hated it. It was premiering at Sundance, and the festival really got behind it. But some of the press who wrote about the film hated it, hated me, they hated my hair. Some people used their pans as an opportunity to take a stand against things. One woman from Berkeley, California interviewed me, and told me that it was an attack on homosexuals. But then as time passed, the people who hated it disappeared, and the people that liked it stuck around. It developed on its own based on that.

One of the frustrating things about being a fan of your work is seeing you get lumped in with all of these mixed-media presentations. It seems like you get lost in the shuffle of these panels, but do you ever feel like even the people trying to help get your projects exposure, whether they realize it or not, are hurting your film's chance, or ghettoizing them in some way?

Putting these projects in an arena that may or may not suit them exposes them to people who otherwise might not have seen them. If you're the main attraction, and are presented in the main slate of a film festival, you have a lot of press behind you, and everyone is told to go and see you. That's great, but it doesn't apply to every film. For those audiences, you need something that everyone's going to like. Those films tend to be a bit more universal. I think my stuff is universal; I don't think there's anyone who couldn't like "Stingray Sam." But it's not a normal film. "Crazy and Thief," my third film, is 54 minutes-long. The style of it is modeled after early episodes of "Sesame Street," the way that those episodes were structured. If you watch early "Sesame Street," there's a warning that these episodes were not intended for pre-schoolers. A cartoon character tells you this. But if "Crazy and Thief" were in the main slate of a film festival's main slate, I don't know how people would take it.

You said that you don't think your films are "normal." Is that just because their structure is unusual?

There's that. "Stingray Sam" was in a festival, and it won the jury award. But they gave it to another film because "Stingray Sam" is only 60 minutes-long.

During your Convergence panel, you mentioned how your mother's passing influenced your decision to push forward with Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club, and to make "The Embalmer's Tale" on as large a scale as possible.

I was thinking of positive things to say to my mother while she was passing away. Her friends and family would go to her, and they were so sad, and I would hold her hand, and cry. I felt badly for her because everyone she loved was weeping in front of her. I did everything I could to put wind in her sails. When I said goodbye to her, I kissed her face 100 times, and I said, "Mom, I love you so much, I'm so proud of you." I was so excited to tell her how much I loved her. But I also told her about Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club and she said, "It sounds like a very ambitious project." And I don't think I'd ever heard her use the word "ambitious" before [laughs]. I said, "Mom, it's the most ambitious thing I could think of!" I want to go out, and do my best to go beyond myself.

That concept of "going beyond yourself" is one of the more interesting aspects of your still-growing body of work. You're working on a comic book right now. Do you read comics at all?

To some extent. I lived in Chicago for two years, and when I moved there, I went to Quimby's Bookstore, right near my house. Chris Ware does a lot of artwork for them; Dan Clowes told me to go there in connection to a project. But I appreciate how different artists can create their own language. I wanted to do something that was different from what I had seen.

The reason I ask is I wonder if you're read "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossiers." That project has a striking mix of various apocryphal media, like a lost Shakespeare folio, a fake Tijuana bible, etc. Anyway, Moore's current career is kind of like yours, in that he's doing all of these wonderful mixed-media projects, like this crowd-funded series of short films he's doing that are apparently inspired by "Twin Peaks." But you're different than Moore in that he's had years of work with mainstream companies like DC and Marvel Comics. He's an industry icon whereas you're a guy making "Dark Star" and "THX 1138"-type projects without moving on to an "American Graffiti" or "Halloween," or even "Assault on Precinct 13." That can't be easy, making elaborate, fastidiously-constructed projects with such big ambition—they are ambitious!—on such a small budget. How difficult is it for you to keep yourself from compromising your vision?

I have to think about money, because that's the society we live in. But it's not my goal. I have three kids at home, ages 1, 5, and 10. Actually, my youngest turns two this month. You've only got so many years where you can actually work, and because I have no money, support, or education—I've taught myself everything—everything moves a little slower for me than it needs to be. I've watched other people chase the carrot and become part of the system, famous, this and that. And they're really amazing at what they do. But my work is something different. It's not about commercial success, it's about longevity. When I was young, I used to work in this nightclub because I was in a band. And I would try to look and dress in a way that I could for the next 20 years. I'm not going to be a big rock star. I have to remain somewhat consistent. The idea that I'm going to be hooked to these for many years to come means I have to make something I can actually support emotionally for years to come.

If a major movie studio made you an offer, either for an adaptation, or a project that you didn't originate, do you think that that would necessarily lead to a compromise?

I don't think anyone would ask me to do that, but to some extent, I would end up in that situation. I don't know if "compromise" would be the right word over "collaboration." When somebody brings you into a situation like that, when they bring in money, they want their interested represented. And I've done that with people I've worked with already. I've tried to make it something that they would like as well. You're collaborating, so you have to pick your battles, and be very diplomatic with everybody. And if there's something you need, you have to fight for it. Something you feel is not that important has to be judged as such, and let go. That's how it is with any collaboration, even if you're just a four-piece band.

You also mentioned at the Convergence panel that you've composed an opera.

My opera is called "Bloodgood," and it's based on a melodrama from the 1850s [Editor's Note: the original play is called "The Poor of New York," written by Dion Boucicault, and originally produced in 1857]. It became such a huge hit in Paris [Editor's Note: McAbee is referring to "Les Pauvres de Paris," the play Boucicault's work is inspired by], that people went home to their hometowns, and rewrote what they saw, but rewrote it for their own audiences. So I did my adaptation of the New York adaptation. It's an opera that Justin Lin, who's made some of the "Fast and the Furious" films, wanted to produce. He ended up getting all of this production together, but they and I agreed on some things, and disagreed on some things. But when I write this thing for Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club, I'll send it to them. I want to know what they think since I know they have such different taste than me. They're very smart, wonderful people, but I stuck to my guns. They were very respectful of why I wanted to end things a certain way, and they had wonderful suggestions. But they went their own way because they're going in a different direction right now; they're not doing independent films at the moment.

Certain kinds of opera have different conventions based on the period and the expectations that went with any given style of opera. So French opera of a certain period often had an average number of dance numbers, just as contemporary Bollywood productions have a certain number of musical numbers. So: let's say you tried to make "The Embalmer's Tale" nine years ago, back when you were with your old band, The Billy Nayer Show. Would that have been possible?

It would be a very different film. It would be possible, but it would be a very different film.

Finally, when are we ever going to see your "Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest?"

Oh! There's some people in Australia who want to make it, though we may be changing the title.

But it's a good title! What would they change it to?

It is a good title; you could make tee-shirts out of that title. I think it'd be called Werewolf Hunters of Tasmania, or something? I'd be the writer and director of it. I have a lot of friends there. I'm also interested in doing a lot of work on "The Embalmer's Tale" while I'm there.

And "The Embalmer's Tale" is a long way off, right?

We're creating the community for it now through Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club. But the actual film itself will be about a year, or two years away. But you were saying something interesting about how things are different depending on where and when they're made. I actually got a lot of good material for "The Embalmer's Tale" from touring for three months with Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club. I changed the script for the film based on everything I'd experienced by performing in Australia, then coming back and performing these tracks that were created by different conditions around the world. It was a big deal at the time, though it didn't feel like it. I went back, and looked at "The Embalmer's Tale," and felt, "This could be better." So I rewrote the whole thing. It's much more organic to the times, more organic to now.

How do you mean?

Musically, and the way people take in information. But we were talking earlier about the longevity of a project, and how it would be presented at a film festival. When your films are presented in a film festival's main slate, they're trying to promote your project as fast as they can, and then move on to the next project. There's as much push to get your contracts, and do everything you can, so that the life of that project is secure within a year. So that filmmaker, and everyone involved just want to make more money, do more projects. But if you hang on to your project—and try to see this realistically: "The American Astronaut" wasn't going to be one of the top ten movies of the year at the box office.

Maybe not in America.

Maybe not in America. But it's been around. It came out what, 12 years ago? People are discovering and rediscovering and passing [it] around. It's new to people; it has a new life. Other types of projects, their existence happens more in the past as opposed to the way that this is still vital to people. When you create something, it's nice for it to become a part of your life, to hang onto it. Instead of making some fine painting that's going to go behind velvet ropes, you make a blanket or some beautiful tapestry that you sleep under. And that's what "The American Astronaut" was for me: it took me places. It, and I did all sorts of things. Same with "Stingray Sam," and "Crazy and Thief." I'm starting Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club that way. We go around, and make discoveries. That's how the story will unfold, and that's how the film will be made.

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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