It took seven years, $300,000, and countless trips to Home Depot, but Wayne Coyne has finally finished the Flaming Lips movie Christmas on Mars, which premiered May 25 at Washington’s Sasquatch! Music Festival. Shot largely in black and white, the kooky, experimental film centers on the story of a depressed space colony’s Santa salvation. ”I want kids to fill in every gap with their imagination,” Coyne says. ”I did that with movies my whole life. I never really knew what f—ing 2001: A Space Odyssey was about.” Look for screenings at festivals this summer (including Bonnaroo) and a DVD release planned for the holidays. In the meantime, here’s what Coyne had to say about why he made the film the way he made it, seeing Jesus in pieces of toast, and LSD-laced popcorn.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your life probably could be easier if you didn’t do things like shooting movies in your backyard.
WAYNE COYNE: You’d think. I do believe there’s a certain amount of just submitting to your obsessions that all artists probably do. You just say, ”F— it, I want to do this thing, and I can’t justify it.” So you just go and do it, you know? We think about this all the time, especially with big projects like making a home movie that stretches out for seven or eight years: I know that the torture of not doing it is a little bit worse than doing it. And it’s horrible doing it, don’t get me wrong. But to sit here and have all these opportunities and all the people around to help me, and not do it, I just felt like, God, Let’s do this thing! And in the end we all know it’s just dumb art. I’m not saving starving children.
The film is rather dramatic, much like your shows. What appeals to you about working on that scale?
To talk about how glorious life is — and to be optimistic and to talk about hope and death and all these sorts of things — in regular life, it’s just a struggle. You’re sitting there watching CSI, and you’re talking about what you’re going to have for dinner. Sometimes within the context of art, you really can break through and wonder about your own subjective meaning. And that’s wonderful. And once you begin to get into conversations like that, there’s a richness that can happen to you. Looking at trees and sunsets and being with your friends can take on biblical proportions. You don’t have to wait to be a movie star to become a movie star. So in that way, I mean, it’s wonderful. But I do know at the end, I’m just doing it because I f—ing like it. I can’t really justify it any other way.
All right. Talk about the practicalities of this movie. We know it took seven years to shoot — how many trips to Home Depot?
Gosh, you know, if I would have thought that it was going to take seven years I probably would have tried to keep some sort of entertaining track of all that. When I started doing the movie, there weren’t that many big hardware stores like there are now. There wasn’t even a Lowe’s here. Now, there’s like eight or nine of these things around here. And to give you a kind of marker — when I started to go to the hardware store, you could only get grey duct tape. I would paint it white, because I’m trying to look futuristic and like a space station, and NASA’s stuff is all white. But they didn’t make white duct tape. About three years into making Christmas on Mars, they started to make white duct tape. As if they knew. There’s an old saying that when you’re really determined and you’re really ambitious, the universe magically cooperates with you. And I can say for sure that all the things I tried to do that seemed impossible at the beginning, little by little, someone would kind of invent the thing that made this thing more possible. Or maybe I just was so desperate to find answers that it’s like seeing Jesus Christ in your toast. I see Jesus Christ in every piece of toast I eat.
How many of the props did you just scrounge out of your house? We were talking about the vacuum cleaner, for example. Is that in fact your vacuum cleaner painted white?
We have a big trash day where you can take all the junk out of your house and put it on the corner and the city will come by and pick it up with their big trucks. And I’d just be driving around on my way to Home Depot and I’d go through a neighborhood and go, ”Look at that! There’s a white vacuum cleaner!” Or, ”There’s a big white tube! I can use that!”
NEXT PAGE: ”Who doesn’t want to see gaping vaginal orifices, if they could? It’s my movie, I’m doing what I like. I’m not ashamed.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s talk about the meat of the movie.
WAYNE COYNE: What did you think?
See, that’s the thing. You’re gonna need to help me here.
All right, I’ll help you.
From a structural perspective, I understand. We’re on Mars. Humans aren’t meant to live on Mars. They’re miserable. Plus there’s no oxygen because someone packed a Santa suit instead of oxygen. And it’s Christmas. Santa Claus goes crazy, kills himself, and then this alien played by you shows up, and he’s kind of like Jesus, speaking of Jesus. But he also puts on the Santa suit. But also there’s a baby. Um, do I get the general idea?
But there was some stuff I did find confusing. So if you could just give me the overarching theme: Goodness trumps miserable-ness?
Well. I’m kind of hoping that I’m gonna find out from you guys. I’m not sure it all has one theme that you can throw it all under. But there’s the middle of the movie, where the main character has to retrieve the Santa suit from the dead Santa. Which is an utterly awkward, humiliating scene for him. And I guess part of what it’s saying is: That really is the dilemma. Any time anybody tries to insert this idea of optimism, you almost feel like, Oh my God, why am I struggling with this pettiness when there really are serious things going on? But that’s the perfect time to create this self-made joy, because if we don’t make it, it doesn’t happen. We know that the horrible things in life will happen to us. We don’t have to help them along. But the wonderful things in life really don’t happen unless we sort of ignite them, or go towards them, or embrace them. And I think that’s the other side of the sort of gloom and doom and existential despair that is in the mindset of everybody there. I like the idea that there are elements of it that are just simply absurd, and you just get absorbed into it as the movie goes. You’re like, Of course there’s an alien that’s gonna walk around. You just kind of accept it, like, Okay, Wayne, it’s your movie.
Right. There was a lot of letting go required.
One thing I don’t like about some of the $200 million Hollywood movies is they just try to tell you everything. Dude, look, I know it’s a movie. You don’t have to tell me how your f—ing machines work. They’re not real machines anyway. It’s kind of what I always liked about the Star Wars stuff. We just assume of course there’s a big universe out there, with all kinds of f—ing weird exotic creatures, and we’re gonna run into them. We’re not gonna explain them. We’re gonna move on. Make it what you want. That’s what people do with music, in a way. That’s why music has so much power. It really plays while your life is happening to you, and you can forever connect that song with real moments in your life. And it’s beautiful. You know, you can see why people invented it. It’s f—ing awesome. It’s like high-heeled shoes and ice cream. F— yeah! It wasn’t here! Let’s invent it!
What was the significance of all the vaginas and dead babies? What on earth was happening in your life that this was a central visual element?
Well, I mean, it is a Christmas movie. Which in regards to what people think about that, is really about some type of birth. Um, and I just think it’s cool to look at. Who doesn’t want to see gaping vaginal orifices, if they could? It’s my movie, I’m doing what I like. I’m not ashamed. [Laughs] I know it’s disturbing, but I wouldn’t think it’s pornographic. I mean, in a sense, I don’t think it’s as disturbing as watching a real birth. I’ve never been present at one, but I’ve seen plenty of videotapes.
What I thought was the most interesting thing about this in a bigger-picture sense is that y’all’s shows are these huge kinetic multicolor spectacles. And the movie is black and white, very static, very slowly paced. Is that dichotomy intentional?
Well, it’s another experience. I wanted the movie to seem as though it’s playing kind of quietly in some isolated corner of your mind. It’s not really Christmas, it’s not really Mars — it’s you, sort of detached from your life. You have to remember: I was born in 1961, so we grew up with a lot of black-and-white TVs, and a lot of it was movies from the ’40s, or stuff like The Twilight Zone. And the old Christmas movies. I think anybody that’s been around me would know that, to me, Christmas is just part of my life. It’s not something you celebrate, it’s just something that we live. And to me, that doesn’t seem silly. But I can see where, you know, if you’re not around us all the time, you could think, You guys are freaks. So there’s some beauty in taking away the element of color and design and all that, and getting down to the dreamlike quality of the black and white. I think it’s beautiful. To me it doesn’t seem bleak or empty. We want you to be quiet, and we want you to go inside yourself. And all these little things that happen to you during the movie, hopefully you carry them with you, and you think about them, and you keep bringing meaning into it.
NEXT PAGE: ”It was a fetus, yeah.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This isn’t going to be a theatrical release — you want to play it at festivals. Is that because you want to be there to set up the Dolby surround sound personally?
WAYNE COYNE: Well, I want to do this for the beginning life of it, anyway. I know by Christmas we’re gonna put it out on DVD, but especially for die-hard fans — I do talk to kids who are like, ”Gosh, I’ve just been waiting so long for this” — to not present it to them first, have their opinions shape it, to me wouldn’t be right.
And will you mind if it turns into a late-night dorm cult classic? A Mystery Science Theater 3000 thing?
I think it would be perfect for that. I really made it in the spirit of when me and my older brothers would go to see midnight movies when we were teenagers. I saw Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii in a theater just two blocks from my house. We sat in the theater and smoked pot, and walked out thinking, F—, life is perfect for us. You can carry 1,000 movies on your iPod and see them any time you want, but a communal, intense experience, everybody experiencing the same thing at the same time — it’s always gonna be a powerful thing. Sitting in a room, watching this thing, and then when you leave it’s 2 or 3 in the morning and you’re like, What the f— has just happened to us? Did we get absorbed into it? Or did it absorb into us? Do whatever you want. It’s your time to have an intense freakout. There’s no restrictions on this. This is as free as art can be made. I don’t know. What did you think?
Well, there was a point — you know, I come in all intellectual. I think the point where Steven walked in on the guy who was watching the dental videos, and he was eating a sausage that turned into a dead baby?
It was a fetus, yeah.
I think that was the moment that I started laughing. And from that point on it was like, You know what? F—. Go for it. Whatever. I just let go, and then it kind of became fascinating. But it has stuck with me for some reason, whether I have any clue what happened in it or not. Even given the problems I had with it — the woman being trapped in the giant bubble for example…
Why? What do you mean — why is that a problem? I’m just curious.
You have one chick in the movie and you have her trapped, quarantined in a bubble giving birth to a baby in a fishbowl that she feeds through a giant tube that comes out of her stomach?
Why is that disturbing?
Women can be productive parts of space stations outside of just childbirth.
But see, you’re reading too much into that.
I get all feministy and pissed off.
My suggestion is you need to calm down on that.
I’m just giving you a hard time.
I know you are.
But what my friend Becky said that I thought was a good point — she thought it felt more like an art installation than a movie.
Which is exactly what I want. Especially for that crowd. Some of my friends, I would never take them to an arty movie and expect them to like it, but that crowd at the festivals, presenting it that way…. I don’t know. Did you get any of the popcorn outside?
It was being mobbed when we went in, but I did get an empty box.
Well, there ya go. It’s a cool box.
But I was told there was acid on the popcorn, and I didn’t get any, so I’m a little sad.
Really. People said there was acid on the popcorn.
The brown kernels were rumored to be made of acid. I think I was lied to.
But I think we would have believed anything at that point.
Well, I like that. I mean, really, we all dreamed that rock festivals were really like that, and then we go to them, and you know, they’re not. But they should be.