By Kevin Kelly
Cory McAbee is not your average indie filmmaker. He's more of a self-taught Renaissance man who paints, writes, composes music, and also directs mind-bending films. At Sundance earlier this year, I had a slot to fill in my schedule and I thought Stingray Sam sounded interesting. Science fiction meets the Western? Sign me up.
What I didn't know was that I would be treated to a bizarre musical that was sliced up into a serialized format, complete with dance numbers, elaborate 60-second long handshakes between partners, and social commentary on everything from the U.S. prison system to tobacco companies. It's great stuff, and the songs will stick with you long after the movie ends.
Cory is no stranger to film festivals, having been at Sundance with three different films. I spoke with Cory at Fantastic Fest, where he was screening Stingray Sam. Check out the full interview after the break.
So I saw Stingray Sam back at Sundance. What did you do to it since then?
We did a couple of color corrections, just tweaks, and some more work on the sound quality, brought up a few things, lowered a few things.
So where are you off to after Austin? Back home?
Minneapolis. I was supposed to go to Moscow but they had some problems with my ... they wanted my passport for a couple of days to get me a visa, but I am using it right now so I wasn't able to give it to them. So fortunately I get to go home.
I have never heard of anybody holding on to a passport like that.
Yeah, it was kind of a weird situation.
Russia is still Russia I guess. So you have been to Austin before?
Yeah. Played here a couple times.
South by Southwest?
Well actually I played at South by Southwest once. They were very rude.
So what is your background? I hadn't seen The American Astronaut. What led you up to Stingray Sam?
I came to making films through painting and music. My first film was an animated short that was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival. It was submitted by a local film festival that was put on down the street from where I lived in San Francisco at the time. So I started making short films.
What year was that?
Well the animated short ... it took three years to paint it. It was 2,173 paintings.
Yeah, it was tedious. It was completed in its final form, I think, in '92 is when it played at Sundance. And when I say final form, it is because we redid the soundtrack and everything. But then I made a couple of short films and then began working on The American Astronaut; wrote it, storyboarded it, did a lot of work before I could ever get it done or find the funding. That was completed...we started shooting that in 2000 and completed it by 2001. It was premiered at Sundance. Then I did a couple of short pieces since then. I have written a couple of screenplays that hopefully I will get them made at some time.
But then I was commissioned by Sundance to make a film for mobile phones. They have really been supportive and they were very nice to select me for that project. I enjoyed working with that idea, working in the idea of small screens and alternative forms of distribution. But I also didn't want to give up big screens, so I thought it would be nice to make a film for screens of all sizes. And that was our tagline, "Coming soon to screens of all sizes." It was inspired by a lot of different things. The structure and the way it was designed and written was trying to address the way films are consumed and distributed today.
What was the name of that animated film, the '92 film that was in Sundance?
Billy Nayer, which is what we named The Billy Nayer Show after, our band.
When you conceived this idea and worked on the script, was this all you or do you have guys that you work with?
I wrote it. I wrote it and storyboarded it, and wrote the songs and worked on the music with my band, or who I was playing with at the time. My band is actually me and Bobby Lurie. He is one of the producers. A lot of people come and go. Frank Swart was playing bass with us, and he plays the bartender in episode one. And Crugie has been playing with us off and on for a few years. He played The Quasar Kid.
Who is sort of your cohort throughout the movie.
Yeah. And I wrote it for him hoping that he would be able to do it. I figured if he couldn't do it, I could get an actor to do it, but it would be better if he could do it because he is such an unusual person.
Yeah, he had that great deadpan style. But it definitely seemed like you guys had a great familiarity with each other.
You have gone on tour together, and one of us would sleep in the backseat while the other slept in the floor.
And like the scenes with the long elaborate handshakes. Where did you come up with that?
The handshake, that was one of those experiments in humor where I thought it would be cool. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and said they would shake hands for one minute. I was like, "Wow! This is going to be so cool." You never know. And then when I got on set, I was hoping it would work. But me and Crugie had been ... when I first told him about this, he was like, "Oh I am not very good with patty-cake." I am like, "Ah, we will come up with something." So we worked on it. And it got to a point where every time we would see each other we would do it, and it was this long handshake. We were always amazed that we could keep doing it. So it became how we greeted each other after a while.
What about the naming song? Where did that come from?
The Fredward song.
Yes, which is hilarious.
I love that piece. I mean I like this film and I am very happy with it. But that piece was another kind of experiment. I figured if it wasn't funny it would at least be really interesting. And fortunately people find it funny, and then they kind of fade, and then they start finding it funny again. And just keeping it going is part of its strength. To combine that many preexisting names to make preexisting names, to just keep it rolling and to do that with the photos, that was the idea behind that. And to watch it on a big screen, too, was a blast. I loved seeing it.
So the film is serialized, but was never presented in that format?
No. The idea was to release it first as a feature.
And then chop it up?
Or present it first as a feature at festivals. We had the release online a couple of weeks ago. And the idea is that it is on 35 millimeter as a feature film, and you can download it in its entirety on either high definition downloads, which are very lovely, or smaller definition, smaller downloads, for iPhones and iPods and things like that. And so if you get it on the small version, you can watch it in segments if you want. But you have it as an entire piece.
Where can people go to get that?
I think that's where I downloaded the song "Welcome To Mars" after I saw the movie.
Yeah, we had that for free.
Yeah, that was very catchy. So there was another movie you were trying to get funding for at the time and that didn't happen, so you ended up doing this one?
Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest. I have been trying to get funding for that off and on. Werewolf Hunters is a much more serious film. But fortunately I am really happy that everything fell together for Stingray Sam. I think, with the distribution model, I think it is very organic to the way the world works right now. Young people are consuming films differently than we did, the way they take in entertainment and the style of entertainment. And I wrote this to where if you did see it on a small device while you were in transit or something, which I think that is how people watch things these days.
A lot of the time, yes.
Yeah. They watch it on trains and stuff, that it would be dense enough in information to where it would be enjoyable, and you could also watch it again several times and enjoy it hopefully more. But as far as me myself not being raised on computers the way people are now, I still watch films on small screens digitally in segments. I am trying to think of what her name is. I was talking to somebody about her today. The Wind. What is her name? She was also in Night of the Hunter.
Right. Well I wanted to watch The Wind because I had heard something about it. And the only way I could find it was to watch it in segments on Youtube. And so that is how I watched that feature. I wanted to make Stingray Sam and The American Astronaut also in segments. So instead of taking a feature and segmenting it however you will, it is pre-designed for it. And also, the way it comes back around when you watch it as a feature is fun. Like to hear a 20 second theme song each time is part of the enjoyment.
Yeah. It got to be sort of anticipatory. You were looking forward to that each time when a new one is about to begin.
Yeah, people were singing when I came in. It was fun.
Like I said earlier, the music is such a big part of that. What is your musical background? When did you start learning music and what instruments do you play right now?
I played an electric auto harp in the soundtrack. You can't tell what it is. It sounds kind like an electric guitar. But I play that. I also play ukulele in the film and sang.
When did you start learning? Where you pretty young when you got into music?
Well when I first started ... actually Bobby, my partner in this, him and a mutual friend, I had just met him, they were talking about getting together and playing some music. And I said, "All right. Can I come too?" We were like 20. We went there and everybody jammed. And of course I thought I was going to sing. There was nothing for me to do there. So I said, "I tell you what. I will go home and write some songs and we will get together in two weeks and we will play these songs." I had never written a song before, so I went home and ...
You mean lyrics? You mean musical arrangements? Both? Everything?
Well the arrangements, I had to sing them to the guitar player and try to hunt for what chords went with it with him playing them. I do that myself.
That is pretty amazing. Most people start like, "Well I was five years old and my parents gave me piano lessons."
No. I taught myself everything. I didn't come from the kind of family where going to college was an automatic option. But I wanted to learn how to paint and I was always interested in music and everything. So each one became part of the other. Illustration became part of music, became part of film, and all that.
You said Brooklyn is home right now. Where did you grow up?
I grew up right outside of San Francisco. And then when I was about 19 or 20 I moved into San Francisco and worked in bars and night clubs running security. And then I moved to Chicago for two years and then moved to New York, and I have been there for about 10 years.
What were your influences in music, or film, or even painting and illustration wise when you were first getting into that stuff?
Honestly it was people that I knew more than anything else, people who were around me. The places that I worked, the clubs and everything, there was a lot of different entertainers and they influenced me a lot. Other than that, I mean I listened to a very diverse collection growing up. And as far as films go, the same thing. I watched all sorts of different films. I had no specific genre of film or filmmaker even. It was more about what struck a chord.
Had you had formal painting training before you started making that or did you just teach yourself?
I taught myself. At one point I took a one semester course at a local community college for drawing. I was drawing before that. And I think like everybody in there was a senior citizen but me. That was this local course. But I learned a lot about shadows, which is a huge part of what I do anyway.
Do you know what your next project is going to be? I mean the werewolves movie, are you still seeking funding for that or do you have another project you are behind?
I have no funding for Werewolf. I am rewriting it because the people that I wrote a couple of the characters for are older now and I want to change it so that they can still be these characters. And in doing so it has actually become much more interesting of a film. I have another one which I am not sure what is going to happen with it. It is about the heartbreak of time travel. Both of those are very dark films. I am starting to write a piece ... I want to use Stingray Sam and the Quasar Kid. I like their relationship. And I want to do something else with them because I enjoy them so much. And I also am thinking about doing another episodic piece.
Part of the appeal of Stingray Sam is that when you start watching it, it instantly feels retro from the old singing cowboy movies, even though it is not really set there. Is that an era that you are particularly drawn to or was it just right for Sam?
Well one of the things that I wanted to do was ... I was trying to ... In a way I was trying to represent American culture in that film by using things that were American-borne genres, like singing cowboys and science fiction serials and all those, and put them in a creative science fiction landscape that is actually our landscape. I always use privatized prison systems as an example and capitalizing on our prisoners, and pharmaceutical companies, and tobacco advertisers, and all the stuff that is ours, and turn it into a science fiction landscape in the same way, which is actually a tradition in science fiction.
During the Cold War a lot of the TV programs, like The Outer Limits, would use Cold War themes to create these outside things. So when I was creating Stingray Sam, for that time I got really into the idea of the singing cowboys, which in America was enormous, maybe around the world, too. I am not sure. But like Roy Rogers had more swag than the Beatles. We still call this one drink Roy Rogers or Shirley Temple, depending on who it is for. But he really like had ... it was like his own universe. There were also spin-offs. There were so many singing cowboys happening at that period in time. And it came and went really fast. So I thought having a singing cowboy space serial would be really fun.
It's true, the sheer amount of stuff produced with Roy Rogers' face on it was amazing. I remember my dad telling me how when he was a kid he was such a huge fan of Tom Mix. Sam really felt like he stepped out of that era.
He is also very optimistic, which I really like. When I first started writing it I had him and The Quasar Kid as a couple of tough guys. But it took all the fun away. And so when Stingray Sam became very optimistic, it made him a much more interesting character. I mean he is even optimistic when he is robbing a gallery. He is just happy to be there.
Did you fund this yourself or did you guys have funding for Stingray Sam?
Bobby Lurie, my partner who plays drums in the band and produces the films, he arranged the funding.
Will there be plans for an eventual DVD? Right now you said you can download it. Would you guys release it on physical media or have you already?
Well actually it is supposed to be available already, but we hit a couple of snags. The recent one which we are trying to deal with right now is...the DVD, it looked beautiful. Everything was fine, but it defaulted to 5.1 surround sound. So when you put it on a TV and you just hit play, it wouldn't sound good unless you were in 5.1. So we have to fix that now. So it is all these little setbacks in trying to construct your own DVDs.
So you can actually download the movie online now? We'll have to let people know.
Yes, please check it out. The high definition download is actually gorgeous. I saw it projected once in a movie theater.
So you just arrived in Austin, are you seeing any other movies while you are here?
Today I have been doing some interviews and meeting people, and kind of enjoying the festival that way. Tomorrow I will watch more films. I also flew in from Copenhagen, so my hours are off. I am so messed up. I got to bed at three last night and woke up at 6:30. I was like, "Why did this happen to me?"
So when you are not filmmaking, you guys are still actively playing music and you are playing shows somewhere?
Not at the moment because I am on the road with the movie.
Right, of course.
There might be a few changes in our lineup. Right before we went into preproduction we had been working for two years on a new album. And we performed a lot of the music from it in the studio where we recorded Stingray Sam and built our sets and our interiors and stuff. So we did a live concert in there and filmed it. So hopefully in the near future we will be posting those online and showing pieces of our recent concert.
Let's say someone comes in tomorrow and says, "I want to make Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest, but I want someone else to direct it." Is it something you want to direct or would you be open to somebody else interpreting your writing?
I would want to direct it. But I am not greedy. I don't care that much about that kind of thing. But if somebody came to me and offered me enough money, I would put it toward doing something else. But I don't think anybody is ever going to do that.
Would be a feature?
It would be a feature, yeah. A regular feature that I am sure would get serialized. Who knows, everybody else would take care of that for us.
So, how was the audience reaction at your screening?
Great! I came in at the end of episode 5, right as the lullaby song was sung. And the audience applauded.
They saw you come in?
No. They applauded the song. They didn't see me. I was around the corner. So I snuck in and I sat through episode 6. The response was unbelievable. And then when I got up and did the Q&A, I had so much fun.
That's great. We'll let people know about it.
Please do! Very nice to meet you.