Interviews — 10 October 2011 » Written by
INTERVIEW: The Projection Booth’s Mike White

I regularly listen to only two podcasts:  WTF and The Projection Booth.  It took me a while before I realized that TPB’s Mike White was the former brains behind both SuperHappyFun.com and the Japanese New Wave Cinema DVD series, two bootleg/gray market projects that I followed religiously in the early to mid ’00s.  And even then I didn’t realize that he was also responsible for the slick film zine Cashiers du Cinemart as well as the short videos that set out to disprove the talents of Quentin Tarantino in the mid ’90s.  Mike remains an active guy these days between his aforementioned podcast, his book tours and accompanying film programming, and the recent resurrection of CdC as part of the “Revenge of Print” program.  I recently chatted with Mike about, among other things, his many accomplishments, the bygone days of tape trading, and the rise of digital bootlegging.  Enjoy.

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CINEDELPHIA: I’m sure that your personal tastes encompass all aspects of cinema, but your practicing tastes seem to revolve around genre and horror films.

MIKE WHITE: Yeah, I’d say more genre than horror.  I worked at Blockbuster for a number of years and people would come in and ask me for recommendations for horror films and I really couldn’t give them too many.  My favorite horror films are the ones that are just gonna freak you out.  So I’d always say “Well, I love Eraserhead and I love Repulsion.”  They would usually come back after they rented those movies and give me a really dirty look.

C: So you prefer horror films with an art house bent.

MW: I guess so, yeah, though I love Horror of Dracula, some of the classics like that.  I’m not really into Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, those kinds of movies.

C: I think the first time I encountered your name was in reference to your 1994 short film, Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?, in which you intercut scenes from Reservoir Dogs with City on Fire.

MW: It’s weird.  Folks know of the movie and they know of me, but they don’t often know that the two things go together.  I don’t really like to be the guy who says “Hey, I did this.”  Every once in a while people will be like “Was that you?” and I’ll be like “Yeah, that was me.”  More often I get associated with the other Mike White, I get fan letters and stuff for him.

C: What was your intention behind the creation of that short?

MW: First and foremost it was to show my housemates the similarities between the two films.  I would try to show them all of City on Fire and they would go, “Okay, yeah, there are a couple of things that are similar” and I would go “Well, wait until the end of the movie when things get very similar,” but the movie is so boring that they were dropping like flies.  So I decided to just take the parts that were similar and put them together and we’ve got a nice ten minute cut.

C: The short didn’t feel like criticism aimed at Tarantino, it seemed like you were merely informing the public about the similarities in these two films.

MW: Exactly.  There are some people that think I’m the Antichrist and think that I’m questioning the validity of Tarantino’s art, but it’s more like “Hey, did you guys know this?  They’re very similar.”  I’m not necessarily thrilled by his stepping forward and saying that it wasn’t an influence.  When I was in film school and he was the flavor of the year for me I was tracking down everything he was recommending no matter how good or bad it may be.  Like Red Line 7000, which I think is probably one of the worst Howard Hawks movies out there.  So I’m watching this and I’m like “Well, yeah, I can kinda see where you’re getting this from, but what about this other movie that is so similar to Reservoir Dogs, will you be mentioning that at all?  You wanna talk about an influence…”

C: I can see why people would react negatively towards the film, especially considering that you did do a sequel where you compared Pulp Fiction to its influences.  You didn’t continue though with Tarantino’s following films.

MW: No, I didn’t.  By that time the internet was firmly in place so people were doing that kind of stuff for me.  I didn’t want to do Jackie Brown, I was not a fan of Jackie Brown, though I’m a huge fan of Reservoir Dogs and I kind of like Pulp Fiction though it doesn’t have a lot of staying power for me.  Jackie Brown I just did not enjoy even the first time I watched it.  Kill Bill is okay.  He has gotten a lot better at mashing up his vegetables until you can’t recognize what they are anymore.

C: Did your access to all of these hard-to-find films that inspired Tarantino come out of an involvement in the VHS tape-trading world?

MW: There was some of that, yeah.  I would trade for tapes like American Boy, the Steven Prince thing that really inspired the whole adrenaline needle thing in Pulp Fiction.  Finding a copy of Sonny Chiba’s The Bodyguard was kinda tough.  When it came to City on Fire it was before Hong Kong films were widely available so I had to go to a Chinese grocery store to find that one.

C: I like to bring that practice up because it’s something that current genre fans don’t have to do.

MW: Exactly, yeah, and hopefully one of these days it will be in the “cloud” that they’re always talking about.  There’s always been the promise and the dream of having any kind of movie you can think of, it will just be at your fingertips, you can just bring it up on your viewscreen or whatever.  Life is a lot easier for film fans now.  They don’t know how tough it was when you called every video store around and there was one copy of this videotape forty miles away from you at this little mom and pop video store and you needed to drive to that faraway store to see Unholy Rollers, y’know, need to spend 25 dollars to buy a shitty VHS dupe from Video Search of Miami.

C: One time I drove from Philly to New York to rent Black Devil Doll from Hell.

MW: Oh God, yeah.  Did you rent that at Kim’s?

C: Yeah, at Kim’s.

MW: Kim’s was such a mecca.  When I would go on vacation I would always go to the video stores to see if they had stuff for sale.  I remember going up to Toronto and going into Sam the Record Man and finding an EP version of Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall and just thinking “I have to have this!”

C: As a natural progression from that world of tape-trading, you became involved, many years later, with SuperHappyFun.com and the Japanese New Wave Cinema project.

MW: Yup, both of those.

C: SuperHappyFun.com was a gray market bootleg DVD shop.

MW: Exactly.  I started with VHS and then moved to DVD-Rs.  It went on for about four years and finally it just became too much.  Torrent sites were becoming more popular so folks didn’t necessarily need bootleg dealers anymore, which was great.  The thing that made me really happy was that so many of these obscure titles were coming out on DVD legitimately, which was my dream, to see all of these things out there for real.  I wish that a lot of those Japanese new wave titles were available.  Some of them are available, but very few.  Eclipse put out an Oshima box set a few years ago, but you still can’t find hardly any of his stuff.  No Terayama other than Fruits of Passion, which is horrible.

C: Klaus Kinski.

MW: Yeah.  No Pastoral or any of those other great, weird films.  Throw Away Your Books and Go Out Into the Streets.

C: Nanami: The Inferno of First Love also, which is an incredible film.

MW: Right, right.  But it’s nice too because with some of those torrent sites they’ve got people on there who are going so far as to start subtitling those movies, which is awesome.  Right now they’re touring around World on a Wire.  A few years ago that finally became available in the gray market and people were so into this film that they came up with their own subtitles for it, y’know, had German speakers translating it for them based on a crappy version taped off of TV.  And now it’s available for real because people were so passionate about it.

C: I remember that you took the legitimate release of DVDs very seriously, always pulling down the titles if they became available for real.  A lot of bootleg sites don’t have such scruples.

MW: Oh yeah, yeah.  I tried to be the most scrupulous bootlegger around, even to the point where I wasn’t including stuff that was available on other bootleggers’ sites unless my copy was of significantly higher quality.  My dream though was to be put out of business.

C: And it worked out for you.

MW: Yeah, there’s still stuff that’s not out there, but it’s slowly happening, we hope that everything will be 100% one of these days.

C: I’m surprised that you never got into legitimate DVD distribution.

MW: Yeah, there was talk of that with the Japanese New Wave stuff, but the guy that I was working with on that just didn’t know how to go about doing it and was a little bit crazy.  I’ve had the bad luck of having a couple crazy partners over the years.  I don’t know if I attract crazy people or if I’m just crazy and they find a blood brother in me.

C: Maybe it’s the films you deal with that attract the crazy people.

MW: It could be.

C: What was your first endeavor into the world of writing on film?

MW: The first of that was in college.  I got into college, had no idea what my major was going to be, went to a counselor who said I should take classes that I will enjoy.  He put me into a film class and after I took one of those I was like “Oh god, this is perfect for me, you mean I can make a major out of this?”  After I graduated with a degree in film theory, which is just about useless, I just kept writing and that’s how the zine started and why I’m still writing today, it’s out of habit.

C: How long did the Cashiers du Cinemart zine last?

MW: It lasted from ’94 to 2007 when I officially walked away from it.  Last year while I was touring around with the book [Impossibly Funky: A Cashiers du Cinemart Collection], which is a collection of the best of the zine, the folks at Atomic Books started telling me about this whole movement they have for 2011 of trying to talk folks into doing one more issue of their zine to prove that print isn’t dead.  And I said “Ok, that sounds kinda good.”  So then I looked into it and decided I would do a print-on-demand thing and that’s now available.

C: CDC was mainly concerned with genre and underground films, right?

MW: Yeah, it was pretty much whatever I or my writers wanted to write about.  When folks would come to me and say that I want to write for you I’d be like “Okay, tell me something that I should know about or that people should know about” and that was pretty much our whole angle, letting people know about things that they wouldn’t normally hear about.

C: Are you particularly proud of any of your articles?

MW: I was really happy with the Charles Willeford piece that I penned.  I was always afraid to write about Willeford poorly because he’s such a great writer, which is weird because we’re talking about someone who was a writer of fiction rather than a filmmaker.  There were a lot of films based on his books that were near and dear to my heart as well.  As far as film stuff, I really like the piece that Robert Hubbard wrote about Shock Treatment, I thought that was very well done.  Skizz Cyzyk’s piece about the works of John Paizs, I thought that was really terrific and shed some light on those films that don’t get nearly as much play as they should like Crime Wave and Top of the Food Chain.

C: Is the book collection a proper “best of”?

MW: You could consider it a “best of”, but there was also the chance for me to group stuff and revisit a lot of things.  The joke on the cover is “13.2% all new stuff” because I did go back and rewrite a bunch of things and updated a lot too.  I’d written an article about what the Planet of the Apes remakes could be and then that happened with Tim Burton so I’d also written about Tim Burton and his remake and then went back and combined it all into one big piece.  There were other articles like that where I have a little bit in this issue, a little bit in that issue, and it gave me the opportunity to revisit these things and combine them so that people can read them all at once.

C: You have a unique ongoing tour associated with the book, often tied into film screenings.

MW: Yeah, I’ve done that twice so far, in the fall of last year and midway through the summer this year.  I did a lot of screenings with Black Shampoo this year.  That film has a whole section in the book, articles about it, interviews with the director and star, more Black Shampoo than most mortal men can handle.

C: And you actually have a personal relationship with [Black Shampoo director] Greydon Clark, right?

MW: Yeah, I do.  I didn’t when I wrote most of that stuff and now I consider him a friend of mine, which still sketches me out a little bit because it’s like “Wow, I’m here with the guy who directed my favorite movie.”  He’s got amazing stories and I’m hoping to sit down with him and talk him into doing an autobiography.  So that will hopefully happen one of these days.

C: Like Clark, you’ve surely been a guest at numerous horror or literary conventions at this point.  What’s your take on the fandom scene?

MW: I’ve only been to a couple of horror conventions, Cinema Wasteland and Horror Hound.  Interesting folks, I don’t really get the dressing up thing, but then I don’t really get that with any genre stuff whatsoever.  I can appreciate a good t-shirt, but it’s really a different breed of person that does the whole dressing up stuff.

C: So you’re not much of an autograph or memorabilia collector?

MW: I’m not a big autograph guy.  Every once in a while I’ll pick up an action figure if it’s something that I really enjoy.  I’ve got a few Bruce Campbell action figures and some collector’s cards of Ted Raimi, those kinds of things.  Not a big autograph guy, I just never really understood it, this is proving that I met this guy or something?  It’s funny, Greydon will autograph stuff for me all of the time and I’m like “You don’t have to sign that, it’s fine…”  But it’s nice and it’s a nice thing that he’s doing for me and I understand people that are really into that stuff, but for me it just doesn’t do anything.

C: Do you collect anything?

MW: I used to collect DVDs, but last year I went though and purged.  With SuperHappyFun I had so many DVDs that I finally just got rid of everything.  I went from I don’t know how many thousands of DVDs down to a few hundred.  I try not to collect anything, I have far too many books, I try to keep a good reference library as far as film books go.  I’ll tell you though that I do occasionally haunt eBay and still look for Lone Wolf and Cub kind of stuff or Black Shampoo things.  I do have a collection of Black Shampoo stuff, posters and magnets and those kinds of things.

C: Any memorabilia from the film?

MW: Actually, yeah, Greydon hooked me up with a crew t-shirt, which I was very happy about.  Plain blue t-shirt with Black Shampoo written across it in white.  One of these days I have to get it framed or something.

C: Can you describe your podcast for the uninitiated?

MW: It’s called The Projection Booth and we’ve been doing it since March of this year, we being myself and my friend Justin from Mondo Video.  I don’t know who’s Siskel and who’s Ebert when it comes to this relationship, we both enjoy some trashy stuff and we both enjoy some arty stuff.  We cross on some things and we clash on others.  Every week we put out a new episode, about an hour long.  We discuss the film, try to talk to the filmmakers involved, try to talk to some of the folks who were behind the scenes or in front of the camera and then we just try to explain why we appreciate some of the films that we do.  We trade off week to week, I’ll pick a movie, Justin will pick a movie, and we just kind of go at it.

C: The films that you’ve covered so far have been very diverse.

MW: I think that’s a result of Justin and I having very different tastes, but if you just look at Justin’s films and my films then you’d see some variance there as well.

C: Some of the film choices have been wonderfully strange such as the unreleased Meatloaf film Dead Ringer.

MW: That was one of those films that I probably shouldn’t have covered because it’s so rare.  But it kind of brought me back to my bootlegging days where I just found this rare film and had the opportunity to talk to the director then.  And with director Allan Nicholls having had such an amazingly lush history in film, working with Robert Altman and all these other things, I just couldn’t pass this up.  And I’m a huge Meatloaf fan too.

C: Me too.

MW: Good, a fellow Meatloaf fan, I love it.

C: More of a Jim Steinman fan, really.

MW: Jim Steinman’s got a lot of play on the podcast between that episode and the Streets of Fire episode.  We interviewed Michael Pare for that one.

C: I admit to falling for the April Fool’s Day The Day the Clown Cried episode.

MW: Good, I’m glad that it fooled you.  It was funny because we were only a month into the broadcast but that was one of the first things we talked about.  Justin was an expert on the film so it went really well, he just let me go and I bullshitted on what it was like to see this movie and he gave out all of the actual details.

C: I believe you claimed that a copy of the film was uncovered in Spain.

MW: That’s actually based in truth.  Allegedly the Bande a Part Esquela de Cine say that they have a copy in their archives.  I’m working with an old tape trader friend of mine to see if there’s any truth to that.

C: Is it true that only a small handful of people have seen that film?

MW: That’s what they say, yeah.  I only know of Harry Shearer for sure and there have allegedly been a couple more here or there, but he’s the one guy that I’ve heard talk about it.

C: Have you been particularly pleased with any of the interviews you’ve done so far?

MW: Oh yeah, I’ve been pleased with all of them actually.  I think that my favorite one was Tobar Mayo who was the star of Abar, the First Black Superman just because no one has ever really talked to him about stuff so he was so happy to hear from us and we were so happy to talk to him and we just talked forever.  My other favorite one was Miguel Ferrer, he was awesome because he’s a total nerd, a total film geek, he’s into comic books and stuff.  He’s basically just living the life, doing voices for different comic book movies and stuff.  So much fun to talk to, a really nice guy.

***

Thanks, Mike!

The current episode of The Projection Booth features a look at the surf classic Big Wednesday (John Milius, 1978).  Later this month Mike and Justin will be discussing The Man from Earth (Richard Schenkman, 2007) and The Spook Who Sat By the Door (Ivan Dixon, 1973).

Official site of Mike White.

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About Author

Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of Cinedelphia.com whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He's served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.

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