Something that genuinely can be described as a passion project, the new stop-motion animated film, Mad God has been with legendary visual effects artist Phil Tippett for decades. For a man with his name on Jurassic Park, Star Wars, and RoboCop, finally realizing his crazed, nightmarish vision might’ve been the greatest challenge of his career. Made in parts over years and only getting across the finish line with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, the sure-to-be a new classic midnight movie arrives both on theater screens and streaming through Shudder this month.
We were lucky enough to chat with Tippett about what goes into such an elongated, difficult process.
The Film Stage: In terms of the inception of this film, what was the first image that formed in your head? What was the thing that made you think that this is the story and this is where everything is coming from?
Phil Tippett: Well, Richard Beggs, the sound designer, put it the best, and I’ll probably cobble this statement that he made when he offered to do the sound effects for the film. Richard goes back to the Apocalypse Now days and is one of the great sound designers. He said there’s not much there, but there’s a lot going on. I think that was in terms of the narrative that he was poetically describing, or the way he could put it in his mind.
You weren’t initially thinking of, say, a post-apocalyptic wasteland and then the story started there?
Of course—that’s pretty evident. That was always going to be the case. But the process for me was more like tapping into the zeitgeist of the times.
When did you first know you wanted to direct?
Well, I never wanted to direct theatrical features. I thought I might for a while, but I only directed one and that was more because the producer, Jon Davison, saw it as a money-making scheme. And so I did that and I had fun doing it, but I had really no ambition to be a theatrical film director. I didn’t want to have to do anything with actors. I really liked it but I preferred to be able to manipulate the characters myself, not have it run through somebody else’s interpretation. When you’re working with stop-motion characters you don’t have to feed them and you don’t have to wait for them and they’ll wait for you. So that’s really ideal for a filmmaker.
Is the film you were referring to Starship Troopers 2: Hero of The Federation?
Yeah, [it’s] terrible.
I haven’t seen it, I’ll admit, but was that film at least instrumental in teaching you things that would later be important in making Mad God?
Yeah, it taught me what I didn’t want to do. But it was fine. I mean, I don’t have any problem directing stuff. Paul Verhoeven says that there were three directors on the original Starship Troopers: Paul, Jude Armstrong (the second unit director), plus me. I always saw myself in the service of directors more as a choreographer.
You’ve been with this film, obviously, for a long time. Did the ideas remain consistent throughout those decades you were with it, or was it ever-changing?
It was always fluid. You know, I never knew what I was doing. I just built it as I went along and how I wanted to do it. It’s like a painting: when you start, you don’t know precisely what you’re doing unless you decide you’re going to do a portrait or, you know, a painting of a pot. If there’s something that the film was very influenced by, it was the Dutch artist from the 16th century—Hieronymus Bosch. And he built his worlds of the heavens and hells. He never left his town and he invented the universe, one that was horrible and beautiful simultaneously.
So if I had any objective it was kind of to make a modern version of the Hieronymus Bosch painting. You know, I truly believe in the solipsistic mind, which is you can only know your own mind. There is both a prison and a universe. So the prison part can be terrible, because you’re chained up, but it can be wonderful because you’re alone in solitary and you have time to just mull over things. I’m a pretty solitary guy and I’m less likely to go to work with movie crews or other people. But then the universe of the mind—it’s like paths go into paths that lead to paths. And it’s kind of a classic Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. But I can’t think of any artists that don’t make that journey.
During this decades-long process, would you see new films that came out that were doing something in animation or visual effects that made you think “Oh, I can realize this project?”
I don’t know. I mean, I was always influenced at a very early age by [Ray] Harryhausen, then [Jan] Svankmajer, and really liked the Quay Brothers when their material came out. That’s probably closest to Mad God in that it was in this surreal world, although Mad God is not a surrealist film. It’s ultimately, by design, too intentional, and surrealism works by extreme juxtapositions. Like one shot leads to the next shot in Mad God and there is a narrative.
What made you want to mix live-action and animation in this film?
I thought it’d be a good idea. I’m very influenced by Karel Zeman, the Czech filmmaker who worked in a very collage kind of way and didn’t really worry about mixing and mashing things at all, but focused on the narrative. His films are beautiful. That was another significant inspiration.
In the live-action portion of the film is Alex Cox, who’s a very underrated filmmaker. How did he come to be involved with the film, and was he very encouraging to you as a director?
Oh, Alex has always been. Well, I met him through Jon Davison, who produced RoboCop. Alex, Jon, and I tried to develop Mars Attacks! for years, but the studio never liked what we were doing. And so Tim Burton got it and fucked it up. So we’ve tried a few projects and they were just too weird for the studios, but we kept in touch. I talk to Alex maybe once a month or so. And we had some projects that we wanted to do. But again, our stuff is very hard to pitch and it’s just impossible to get money to make stuff.
You’ve made so many kinds of iconic film creatures and robots. When you’re designing things like that, are you thinking purely of the mechanics of the creature, like it needs to move a certain way? Or are you thinking of it kind of like trying to inhabit the mind of the creature?
Well, I don’t think you know at all. For instance, Jabba the Hutt, a number of us worked on that. We were having trouble finding something that George liked. And I asked him: if you hired an actor to play Jabba, who would it be? And he said Sidney Greenstreet. And that gave me the idea of what the character of Jabba should be. So directors will guide you in terms of what they want.
Lucas and Spielberg have a lot of audience and commercial conscience, but Paul Verhoeven’s really turned out to be the most significant mentor of my life because he really didn’t care what the audience thought; he was making movies for himself. That’s how I believe you come up with something unique. That’s not to say Star Wars was not unique, but it has a completely different vibe. I consider Paul more of an artist.
As someone who’s been such an innovative figure in effects, are you still impressed by things you see in films today? Or have they kind of lost the wow factor for you?
Pretty much. I think this whole non-concept of content is just hot air. A while ago, Martin Scorsese was being interviewed and the interviewer asked him what was the last movie that sticks in your mind? He said Gravity. And I’m like: yeah, you’re right. And then, I mean, what was that—ten years ago? Twelve years ago? And then it wasn’t until recently this year that Bob Eggers and The Northman came out that I saw something that really wowed me. So it’s very few and far between. I mean the Netflix series Stranger Things is really a masterpiece. So I binge-watched that. Those guys are really terrific filmmakers.
With Mad God, it seems like streaming is going to be how most people watch it. Are you kind of happy with that or were you really thinking of it as a big-screen experience?
Oh, it was definitely built to be a big-screen experience, but I was happy to get anything I could get. I had no idea whether this thing would play to an audience. And I still don’t know what that audience is. It might end up on a double bill with the Rocky Horror Picture Show for all I know. I’m hoping that people will gravitate to it.
Mad God is now in theaters and will arrive on Shudder on June 16.