Schlock auteur Christopher R Mihm is the reigning Overlord of the ‘Mihmiverse’, a collection of films inspired by the B-movie, drive-in gems of the 1950s. The Minnesota-based maverick has been making next-to-no-budget sci-fi/horror visions since 2006, when his debut The Monster of Phantom Lake made a big splash at genre festivals. Inspired by fan response, he has produced, directed, edited and acted in a film a year ever since, including It Came From Another World (2007), Cave Women on Mars (2008), Attack of The Moon Zombies (2011) and The Giant Spider (2013). His latest, a kind of Goonies-meets-puppet-aliens thrill ride called Danny Johnson Saves The World, has its Australian premiere at the SciFi Film Festival in Sydney’s west this weekend. He spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about his films, fans and family from his home…
You’re open about the role your late father plays in inspiring you. What were his skills as a storyteller that you adhere to when crafting your films?
My father was a fan of movies in general, particularly horror and science fiction. To this day, I treasure memories of him taking my family out to the local drive-in. I’m not sure I ever thought of my father as a storyteller (though he could tell an inappropriate joke better than anyone I’ve ever met) but he did have an appreciation for good stories, regardless of their ‘packaging.’ He never seemed to judge films by the ‘quality’ of their presentation but, instead, by the effectiveness of their stories. I think learning that from him is what allows me to truly enjoy those classic films for what they are, not for what people might wish them to be. I think of it like this: “tell a good story first, everything else comes second.” If I’m telling a compelling story, the ‘cheesiness’ of my films shouldn’t negatively affect the quality of the final product.
Is the casting and crewing of The Mihm Family in your productions your way of instilling similar values in your children?
As a person who adores movies and the movie-going experience, I’m mindfully exposing my children to some of the fun movie-related experiences I had as a child, from going to the drive-in to movie marathons. I make a point to see films in a theatre, not just in the comfort of our home. Some of the casting and crewing of family has more to do with sharing my passion for making movies with my kids. Most of my children were born after my filmmaking career began so this is something that’s always been a part of their lives. They took to the movie-making process very quickly. (Pictured, above - the young cast of Danny Johnson Saves The World).
Describe the balance you strive to achieve on-set that happily melds ‘Chris the dad/husband’ and ‘Chris the director’…
Well, I don’t know that the balance of dad/husband Chris and director Chris was always effectively struck [laughs]. Working with children in general is often difficult but having that familiarity of being their father made for some very interesting moments during shooting. Then again, I could always threaten to take away privileges if my kids acted out while filming so, maybe being so closely related to the people I’m working with, and having the luxury of being “the boss”, wasn’t all bad!
What was the genesis of Danny Johnson Saves The World?
My kids have been making it clear for some time that they wanted to make a movie starring them and for them. I sincerely believe they all have real talent and, seeing as they understand the process so well, I figured it was finally time to make a movie with them. My oldest son, Elliott (who played the title character) is now a teenager and I knew if we were ever going to capture those last moments of true child-like innocence, the time was now. The story itself was built on a character Elliott played in two previous films, as a five-year-old version of Danny Johnson in Terror from Beneath the Earth and a slightly older one in the opening scenes of The Giant Spider. All of my films take place in a shared universe, so it made sense to expand an already existing character into his own self-contained adventure. (Pictured, above - Mihm directing his son Elliott, centre, and daughter Alice).
Apart from your father, who inspires your work? Who are the filmmakers that you recall most fondly?
Roger Corman for his prolificacy; Bert I. Gordon (pictured, below) for his contributions to the special effects field when creating such gems as “Earth vs. The Spider” and “The Amazing Colossal Man”; George Lucas because every kid who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s loves Star Wars, including me; Steven Spielberg for his absolute mastery of the craft and for being a great storyteller in every sense; and, Tim Burton for having a truly unique cinematic point-of-view.
There have been films that mimic the ‘Golden Era of B-movies’, like Mars Attacks! (1996) and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001), but many fail to capture the genre’s essence. Why do your films achieve that?
It’s a combination of a couple elements. First, a lack of resources forces me to do the best I can with what little I have. This mimics the ‘drive-in era’ of filmmaking, [when] filmmakers had to make things up as they went along. There was no CGI and not much that had come before to build upon. There was an innocence, because of the age in which they lived, but also because half the time they were just trying to make things work with no money - exactly like I do! Mars Attacks! is a fine movie but, with a budget that made anything possible, doesn’t have the authentic feel of those old movies. Second, I try to instil a sense of heavy seriousness into my direction. The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (which is also a fine film) is a straightforward comedic spoof, poking fun at the wooden acting, low-budget effects and nonsensical plots. My scripts are serious attempts at making ‘good movies’ which are [then] presented in a very specific style. I direct actors to ignore the sometimes ridiculous nature of the situations their characters are in. I make it clear that, in the universe of these films, that man in a monster costume is a deadly creature and [my actors] should act as such. This earnest seriousness, and a palpable ‘community theatre vibe’, captures that old ‘look and feel’ so well.
Have the production techniques you employ during a shoot changed much since The Monster of Phantom Lake?
If one watched all ten films in the order they were released, it’s pretty clear that my ability, and the ability of my crew, to tell an effective story has improved. Budgets have generally stayed the same but we have expanded our reach in terms of locations and sets. However, at their core, my films retain the ‘fun factor’ of my first film. The biggest improvement has come mostly in pacing. The earlier films tend to be a touch more deliberate, like the older films which they emulate. The later ones, [notably] The Giant Spider (pictured, right) and Danny Johnson Saves The World, have picked up the pace to match modern audience expectations.
The festival love that your films receive and the fanbase that follow your films suggests what about the appeal of your films and this genre?
There are still folks out there who understand what it is I’m going for and that those old films still have a place in modern consciousness. The innocent ambience has broad appeal, especially in films that are just plain fun and aren’t necessarily challenging anyone’s preconceived notions. My films and the films they seek to emulate are often simplistic, with (pun intended, I suppose) black and white plots and character motivations. The world we live in is so caught up in the gray areas of life, people like to spend an hour or two in fantastical worlds where the good guys are good because they’re good and the bad guys are bad because they’re bad. Also, people sometimes want to enjoy films that aren’t made by hundreds of digital artists; they want movies where everything in them is ‘real,’ and though they may look very fake, they at least exist in the physical world.
When your first film wrapped, did you envision spending the next decade making a film a year? Was a reputation as America’s modern B-movie master, to the point where your films screen in Australian film festivals, the plan you had for your life?
When I finished The Monster from Phantom Lake (pictured, right), I thought that might be the end of it. I figured ten years down the road I’d still have 600 copies of the DVD sitting in my basement collecting dust. However, the first run of the film sold very well and it started me down a path which has taken me exactly where I wanted to go…into Australian film festivals [laughs]. I often brag at events that I have following in Australia, where the fans have been very good to me. Gaining a foothold in Australia can be directly attributed to Nigel Honeybone’s Schlocky Horror Picture Show. Without it, I have no idea how I would have ever had my films shown there, let alone at the Skyline Drive-in Blacktown! And I never would have met Norman Yeend, the amazing Australian artist who has created for us several stop-motion critters, including the show-stopping dinosaur seen in Danny Johnson Saves The World! Admittedly, I never imagined any of the great stuff that’s happened was going to happen. I’m grateful to be able to pursue my passion for filmmaking and introduce people to the glory of cheesy old movies!
The full catalogue of Christopher R Mihm's films can be found at his website, sainteuphoria.com .