How To Create A Cult Movie
SCOTT SIMON, host:
The film "Burn after Reading" opens this weekend. It's the latest offering by Academy Award winners Joel and Ethan Coen, who have specialized in what are called "cult films," which got our friend, Desson Thomson, thinking about what elevates or lowers a film to cult status. He's a critic who joins us regularly to talk about films. He's in our studios. Desson, thanks for being back with us. ..TEXT: Mr. DESSON THOMSON (Film Critic): Always a pleasure to be here.
SIMON: Is it a compliment to call something a cult film, even a cult classic? It does suggest a limited audience.
Mr. THOMSON: Well, it suggests an audience that you'd better catch up with if you want to get in on the know, too. So it's kind of the inside a circle thing has that appeal. But yes, it also has the connotation of do these people have funny horns on their heads and do they meet in dark corners?
SIMON: The people going to the films or the people on the screen?
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: A little of both.
Mr. THOMSON: A little of both, perhaps. Yeah.
SIMON: What makes a film a cult favorite?
Mr. THOMSON: It's an odd patent that usually happens if the film does not do well and then it gets a second life. I'll tell you a really interesting case, a film that everyone might have heard of called "The Wizard of Oz." Came out in 1939. It didn't make but three million dollars when it came out.
SIMON: I never knew that. It didn't do well when it first came out?
Mr. THOMSON: No, it was critically acclaimed but it wasn't such a huge box office then. But it picked up thanks to television showing it at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
(Soundbite of film "The Wizard of Oz")
Ms. BILLIE BURKE: (As Glenda) And so what the munchkins want to know is are you a good witch or a bad witch?
Ms. JUDY GARLAND: (As Dorothy Gale) But I've already told you. I'm not a witch at all. Witches are old and ugly.
Mr. THOMSON: And so it became part of a cultural lifestyle. And I think that's what happens with cult films, they appeal to us in another group. "Big Lebowski," for instance, by the Coen Brothers, that appealed to the sort of slacker in us, the guy who wants to sit around on the couch drinking White Russians and wondering about life and sort of feeling that life has swept him by. So it became sort of an odd cult phenomenon. So it sort of reaches you on a cultural level rather than necessarily on the entertainment level.
(Soundbite of film "The Big Lebowski")
Mr. JEFF BRIDGES: (As Jeffery Lebowski) No, I do mind. The dude minds. This will not stand, you know. This aggression will not stand, man.
Mr. THOMSON: When something gets a cult following, people want to know about it. It gets that bigger, second audience. What appeals to people, I think, for cult movies is that it has this perfectly hermetically sealed world that you can visit at the drop of a controller.
SIMON: This new Coen Brothers' film, "Burn After Reading." Cult? Crossover?
Mr. THOMSON: I don't think it's either, although it starts off in the spirit of Coen Brothers, which is sort of a crime farce noir, in which everyone is caught up in complications. I sort of feel like the tone of it is not quite the same that we expect from Coen Brothers' films. It's a bit nastier than usual.
(Soundbite of film "Burn After Reading")
Unidentified Actor #1: Is that goat cheese?
Unidentified Actor #2: (unintelligible).
Unidentified Actor #1: Yes, that is a goat cheese because I have a lactose reflex and I can't...
Unidentified Actor #2: You're lactose intolerant or you have an acid reflex? They are different things.
Unidentified Actor #1: I know they are.
Unidentified Actor #2: So you misspoke.
Unidentified Actor #1: Well, thank you for correcting me.
Mr. THOMSON: Before, the snideness in a Coen Brothers' film was inviting. John Malkovich makes a comment about you people I've always worked with, people like you. And this time it's like, you know, I hate you people, and it almost feels as if the Coen Brothers are parenthetically talking about mainstream audiences, which is a lot of us.
SIMON: What happens when the film goes from being cult to popular? Does it lose some of its appeal for some people?
Mr. THOMSON: Yeah, I suppose so. I mean, there's the inner, I-knew-this-before-it-was-cool kind of club. But I don't imagine that's true with "The Wizard of Oz," for instance. Obviously there are those cult movies where it's them versus us. But when it becomes successful it can lead to a backlash.
SIMON: Let me ask you about that term, success. Is it necessarily dependant on box office now? I'm told, for example, that a film like "Blade Runner" has become a huge success but mostly after it left the theater.
Mr. THOMSON: Yeah, well that's a classic recipe for cult success where it builds up in the afterlife. In fact, most movies make more of their money afterwards now.
SIMON: Well, Desson, always nice to talk to you.
Mr. THOMSON: And you.
SIMON: Film critic Desson Thomson, not just a cult favorite, in our studios.