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Licky Star: John Turturro is the Jesus in 'The Big Lebowski,' which returns to the Del Mar as this weekend's midnight movie.

Cult Rapture

A conversation with Del Mar midnight-movie maestro Scott Griffin about the new rise of cult films and midnight movies, and how to get people out of bed in the middle of the night

By Steve Palopoli

Scott Griffin has been programming the midnight movies at the Del Mar for two years now, carrying on a lineage that stretches all the way back to the late, great Sash Mill. I have long admired Scott's innovative and fearless midnight picks, but our paths first really crossed last year when I wrote a piece suggesting that The Big Lebowski might be the last great cult film. At first I thought Scott had proved me right when he booked it for a midnight showing shortly afterward, and it was such a huge success it was held over for four weeks. But after seeing how many other new cult contenders he's busted out with in the time since, I realize that instead he proved me dead wrong. The Big Lebowski is not the last cult film; in fact, there's a whole new generation of recent films that have kick-started the midnight movie circuit again and rescued the very concept of the cult movie. So with Lebowski returning this week, I sat down with Scott for a conversation about the return of the midnight movie and how he's helping to define the new cult canon.

SP: So what did you think of the recent 'Entertainment Weekly' list of the supposed Top 50 cult movies?

SG: It kind of seemed like a list of things people think should be cult movies. Like, a list of things that are really obvious--"Oh, this would be a good cult movie."

SP: Or even, 'That's what people say are cult movies,' instead of actually knowing what movies people are really into now.

SG: Yeah, it seems like a list of things that were or should have been cult movies, like, 10 years ago. They left off a lot of really recent things.

SP: They did. I felt like they were trying to be hip--like, 'We know people like "Slap Shot," so we'll put "Slap Shot" on there'--but at the same time, I can't remember if even 'Office Space' was on there. It would have been cooler if they'd had a list of all the traditional cult movies like 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' and 'Rocky Horror Picture Show,' and then a separate list of the new generation of cult films. Because 'Office Space' to me is the perfect example of the movies that are driving the new wave of cult films. Not that it's the best movie, but it's a huge cult phenomenon. It's also one of the movies you've had the most success with.

SG: Yeah. But I don't think all the movies I play are cult films. Sometimes when I play a movie, it's just because I never got to see it on a big screen, or I really want to see it at the theater and I think people will come to it. And a lot of films that are cult films, I could play them and no one will show up. I played John Waters' Female Trouble, and that's a cult film. I had like 60 or 70 people a night. But they were a really happy 60 or 70 people.

SP: That brings up the question of what defines a cult movie in the first place. My favorite movie of all time is 'Double Indemnity,' and I always think of it as a cult movie, because at this point it's mostly people who love noir or who love Billy Wilder films that are watching it. But it's not really a cult movie. It's considered a classic, and one of the all-time great films. I don't think a movie can be a cult movie if it's on the AFI's list of 100 Greatest Films.

SG: It seems like people have to be obsessed with it, but it's more than that. People are obsessed with Casablanca, but that's not a cult movie.

SP: The cult movie phenomenon has some level of anti-establishment to it, in the sense that most cult movies were rejected by the mainstream at first, and the people who love them really revel in that fact. Sometimes they love that it didn't do that well, but then they discovered it, their friends discovered it, and they give it this legendary status. It's an identity thing.

SG: There's a certain feeling when you think of a movie or watch a movie. If I'm not sure whether to play a movie, I'll watch it again and see if I can get that feeling that it'd be something people would want to watch at midnight.

SP: Tell me how you go about picking a particular film or programming a whole season.

SG: Usually, I keep big lists of titles, either things I've been thinking of doing or things people have been suggesting. It's like making a mix tape--you want to have your highs and your lows, and the things that everybody can come to, the things that are broader, and the things that are a little more culty that not as many people will come to. If you have all your big movies in one block, you'll burn your audience out and people won't want to go. Then it's just a matter of finding if there are prints, and if there are good prints. When you first start booking stuff, studios will send you the crappy prints, because they don't know if you're going to take care of them. Once you've proven you can take care of their stuff, they'll start sending you the better prints. A lot of times, though, whatever print I'm playing is the only print they have as far as something that's out in distribution. Like Flesh Gordon? That was the only print of the uncut version anywhere.

SP: What are some movies you've played that you wouldn't describe as cult films?

SG: I usually try to play one of the Thin Man movies around Christmas time. The audience for that is, like, UCSC professors. People will say, "This is great! I remember when the Sash Mill used to do Thin Man marathons!" Or when I played the original The Haunting. I'm playing that again. That's one of the scariest movies I've ever seen. But it's not really a cult film, it's just a good horror film.

SP: And what about the movies you play that are cult films?

SG: Well, there's the obvious ones like Evil Dead 2 or Big Lebowski, or Donnie Darko, which is kind of a newer one. People didn't see it in theaters, and then everybody heard about it from a friend of a friend and tried to see it on video. That one I think I just caught at the right time, 'cause it sold out both nights. I had more people for the Friday and Saturday show than for the two or three weeks we played it the first time at the theater.

SP: Donnie Darko's time has definitely come. It's part of the reason I feel like some weird dead period for cult movies has come to an end. For a while there in the '90s, it was like the midnight movies of the '70s and '80s and the whole canon of cult films that came from that had shaped our tastes so much that movies that would have been cult films, like 'Pulp Fiction,' were suddenly blockbuster hits instead. But now there's a whole next generation of stuff, which may be why the midnight movie is on the rise again, too.

SG: It's almost like midnight movies were started for the geeks, and for a long time people thought of midnight movies as Rocky Horror. But audiences for midnight movies have changed a little bit. Initially, when I started doing them, I'd see a lot of people who were in bands and stuff coming to them, a lot of people who were--I don't want to say the "alternative" crowd, but, yeah, more hip. And now all those guys come every now and then to certain movies they want to see, but I think it's been kind of absorbed into a little bit more of a college-age crowd, with people who think of it just as a regular option for something to do.

SP: Even some of the movies that I would think of as very culty bring in big crowds here.

SG: There's the big broad ones, and I like the big, broad movies--like, I like The Big Lebowski. As far as staying aþoat with midnight movies, there are some sure things. Lebowski, The Goonies, things like that. I like all those movies, but it's also a sure thing that people are going to show up and see them.

SP: But you've also been a big part of getting them to that point. You've got to remember: two years ago, no one was talking about 'The Big Lebowski' as a cult film. Now there's a yearly festival for it. I think a big part of that is because a lot of programmers like you picked up on that people had been talking about it, and gave people an outlet.

SG: When I called to book it the first time, the guy at the studio was like "Really? You want to play that movie?" That happened when I played Orgazmo, too. When I played So I Married an Axe Murderer, the guys at Columbia were like, "Why do you want that piece of crap?" But now other places are playing them.

SP: You hit the timing just right.

SG: Well, a lot of these films are kind of dear to me. Like Donnie Darko--it's not the greatest movie in the world. It falls apart at the end. But, really, it's one of the best movies I've seen about teen angst. And Mary McCormack's amazing. So I just wanted to play it, hoping that people would show up and see it and appreciate this movie. And all these people showed up who were saying, "This is such a great movie." Some of these movies I just feel didn't get the attention they deserved.

SP: Plus, the more you watch a movie you love, the more you turn off that critical part of you. You bond with it. You don't care if there are things wrong with it.

SG: Unconditional love.

SP: Exactly.

SG: They could be flawed, but they have all this good stuff in them that makes you want to watch them over and over. And then you grow to love the flaws.

SP: Yeah, it's a part of you. When I go to the midnight movies you do, I can't believe when people come up and do the quotes before the movie that people know so many quotes from these films.

SG: In Orgazmo, there's this song "Now You're a Man." This guy [at the midnight showing] gets up and not only sings the song, but sings it well. And the entire audience was doing the chorus. That's the importance of doing the stuff before the movie. It's half to get people revved up to see the film, but it's half to give the people who really love the film a chance to go up there and basically say, "I really love this film," and get a response from the audience: "Yeah, we really love this film, too." I don't know, it sounds very New Agey now.

SP: Not to anyone who's done it. That's the whole point of a midnight movie. In the late '80s and '90s, the cult movie was more underground, people were watching all this stuff on video at home, and I think people are looking for a way to connect with other people about these movies, especially the newer ones.

SG: It's interesting, some of the movies you just kind of assume everyone's seen, like A Clockwork Orange, I'll ask before the film sometimes how many people have never seen it. For Clockwork Orange, two-thirds of the audience raised their hand. I was thinking, "Wow, I hope you came with someone. I hope you have someone to talk to about this movie when you leave." Even in Raiders of the Lost Ark, 30 people raised their hands.

SP: If you had to pick one movie that was your top 'undiscovered' cult movie--or midnight movie--what would it be? One that's just in the very early stages of its cult moviedom, but is eventually gonna be huge.

SG: Super Troopers will probably be big. That's a good one, because that's something that was in and out of theaters, and I didn't even get a chance to see it. Then one time I walk over to a friend's house and they're watching it. A few of my friends are sitting there on the couch laughing their ass off. So I just sit down and watch it for a second, and then I'm laughing my ass off. And I'm like, "This is the best movie ever, I love this." Then it was great because I went to ShoWest and those guys [the Broken Lizard troupe] were there promoting their new movie. And I got to tell them, "You made the most hilarious movie ever."

SP: Oh yeah, 'Super Troopers' is awesome. Talk about quotable lines--that is the most quotable movie to come along in a long time. I would say 'Battle Royale' is going to be huge, too. Once it's a little more available in this country. In five years, people are going to talk about it the way they talk now about John Woo's 'The Killer' or 'Hard Boiled' or 'A Better Tomorrow.' It's that groundbreaking.

SG: Jack Frost 2. Have you seen that? Go watch that. It's totally shot on video, and it's about a killer snowman, but I remember watching it thinking it's just so much better written than so many films I see nowadays. But Super Troopers would be my pick of something that'll be a big cult movie in five years. Jack Frost 2--that's just a recommendation.

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From the September 17-24, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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