Marin-born Cory McAbee no longer lives in San Francisco, but he hasn’t fully left the Bay Area building yet. Anyone who saw his long-running, unique high-concept comedy/cabaret act-cum-rock band The Billy Nayer Show—yes, McAbee "played" Billy—was unlikely to forget it. And the Red Vic Movie House has kept that memory alive with regular bookings of The American Astronaut, the 2001 instant cult movie he wrote, directed and starred in. It was a low-budget B&W sci-fi western musical surreal camp extravaganza. No one ever accused McAbee of lacking imagination.
When funding fell through for a planned feature, Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest, he created Stingray Sam—an even lower-budget B&W sci-fi western musical surreal camp extravaganza. It was originally designed as six webisodes that could be viewed on anything from a mobile phone on up. Festivals (starting with Sundance this year) played it as a feature, however, and so it’s playing at the Red Vic this Thursday (McAbee will be present for both shows).
McAbee’s Stingray Sam is a lounge singer on derelict casino planet Mars who’s shanghai’d by old friend The Quasar Kid (Crugie, a fellow Billy Nayer Show member) to perform a redemptive intergalactic mission rescuing a captive little girl (the director’s daughter Willa Vy McAbee).
En route, we get the longest secret handshake in existence, historical collages, unlikely crossdressing, minirobots, narrator David Hyde Pierce of Frasier fame (who says things like "So the plot begins to thicken, but not by much"), cocktail olive abuse, space travel by mail tube, and one musical number every seven minutes or so. The latter range from Sam’s "Rawhide"-like cowpunk theme song to the acoustic, self-explanatory "Pretty Little Lullaby."
How delightful is this HD-shot, mostly B&W, hour-long movie? Let’s just say that about five minutes in—midway through the title character’s very groovy song "Mars"—you will probably begin planning your first repeat viewing.
SF360 caught up with currently Brooklyn-based McAbee by phone in advance of Stingray Sam’s Red Vic date.
SF360: How did Stingray Sam come about?"
Cory McAbee: Sundance Institute had commissioned me to make a film for Mobile Phones in December, 2006. It was called Reno, did well, and afterward I was asked to speak as a filmmaker at various electronics and communications conferences. So when I wrote Stingray Sam I wrote it for multi-platform release. I contacted Sundance [which had premiered Astronaut and several McAbee shorts] right when I got the funding last September and said "I think we’re going to pull it in pretty quickly—but for now I can only send you the screenplay, storyboards and rough music tracks." I explained it was a new kind of film for a new kind of distribution. So they said OK, you can be in the New Frontiers program. We finished it the day before we got to Sundance.
SF360: That’s a fast turnaround!
McAbee: You can credit my producers for that.
SF360: Were the episodes written as you went along?
McAbee: No, but each was conceived as a very tightly constructed idea, with its own song.
SF360: Did the story develop around the songs or vice versa?
McAbee: Both. It’s meant to be told episodically in the manner of the old singing cowboy or sci-fi serials, but also to function as a whole unit. Some songs like "Mars" were written previously, but just fit. Some were written for the episodes.
SF360: Since the episodes are 10-minutes long, was the original notion to have it on YouTube or a similar outlet?
McAbee: Our idea was "Coming soon to theaters of all sizes," from iPhones to movie houses. We now have 35mm prints of the film so it will be playing more theaters and festivals, while at the same time, on September 15, we’re releasing it as a DVD and digital download. At the website (www.stingraysam.com) you can download a free trailer. Wherever the trailer is posted it’s going to switch over at a certain point to Episode 1, and additional pieces will be created that we’ll swap in weekly. Also there’s going to be a widget you can post on your blog or whatever. When our L.A. premiere event happens [also Sept. 15], people will be able to watch the event. They can also use it to speak to me via their computer camera during the Q&A and be projected onto the screen at the Downtown Independent. So it’ll be very fun, live and region-free.
SF360: Your current band members all play roles—where else did you find actors?
McAbee: My daughter plays the Carpenter’s Daughter. She was one of the people I wrote the script around, based on how she behaves and what she says. I was a little worried—she was five at the time. But she rose to the occasion more than I had hoped, always nailed her mark. Others are friends, some work in theater here in New York. David Hyde Pierce was a friend of a friend, he’d liked The American Astronaut and asked to read this screenplay.
SF360: There’s a wide range of techniques here, from animation to collages to silhouette art as well as live action. Were those approaches brought in by collaborators?
McAbee: They were always part of the screenplay. John Burroso, who did the collages, is a very good friend I’ve worked with for 20 years. Part of the idea of working in small screens is that it seemed very nice easy and natural to use the graphics, narration and such to set the landscape of the story. Then the B&W footage shows the people acting in that story. I wanted to write something that would embrace and criticize American culture at the end of the Bush administration, with privatized prison systems, depletion of natural resources, outsourcing labor and other things that are part of today’s America. But I wanted to present them as a sci-fi landscape—in the same way that, say, The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits would incorporate Cold War themes [into a fantasy context].
SF360: So what’s up with the fact that your band’s name was The Billy Nayer Show, then became American Astronaut, and is now switching back to The Billy Nayer Show?
McAbee: The problem I always had with The Billy Nayer Show is having to explain the name. [i.e. That Billy Nayer was his "character."] Changing it was a publicist’s idea. But then we started always having to explain the change. It was an experiment.
SF360: What’s the status on Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest?
McAbee: Yeah, still working on that one. There were a couple false attempts [at funding] by producers, but hopefully we’ll just do it ourselves. I’m tweaking it—and also growing my hair in order to play in it, since I shaved it all off for Stingray Sam.
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