Rockers making movies is only slightly less obnoxious than actors becoming pop stars. But Christmas on Mars, the brainchild of visionary Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne, is worth the cliché. The 47-year old Oklahoma native toiled for seven years in his backyard on the DIY sci-fi fantasy, which plays kind of like a collaboration between Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Alfonso Cuarón — one critic described it as a “thrift-shop Solaris.” It’s what you’d expect from a band known for their gleefully theatrical live shows. The film, featuring bit parts by Fred Armisen and Adam Goldberg, is finally onscreen, now showing “till the end of the year if not the end of time” at KGB Bar. Coyne, who will be at KGB Bar for tonight’s screenings, spoke to Vulture about big ideas, spaceships, and what he did for Halloween.
Where did you get the idea for Christmas on Mars?
As the 1990s rolled along, I thought, We should have a movie. Rock bands, as they move through space and time, should have a movie: The Beatles have movies, Pink Floyd has a movie. There is a movie called The Fearless Freaks that’s about us. But I thought it’d be cool to have a movie where we’re in it as mythological exaggerated characters or something. So I was looking for the perfect idea. We send out a Christmas card every year, and one year, my wife painted me dressed up as a Martian as Santa Claus. For the next year, people said, “Oh, Wayne, we love that character of you as the Martian.” That was 1998 or 1999, and now we’ve got a movie.
Are you capable of thinking small?
I just get these ideas, and I go as far as I can. The week before Halloween, we have our annual March of a Thousand Flaming Skeletons as part of the parade here. People from all over the country come and spend the weekend with us, and we put everybody in this skeleton costume. I know that if I was 6 years old, and my folks had taken me to a parade, and a thousand skeletons with torches went by with some monstrous sound system, I would have grown up thinking the world was a crazy, wonderful, mysterious freak-out of a place.
What did you do for Halloween, then?
Halloween night, I built a 500-pound human brain in one of my circus tents. I used one of my space bubbles; we put some foam on it and a giant sound system in there. Then we had neighborhood kids come in and ask the 500-pound human brain any question, because it was the smartest entity in the known universe. The neighborhood I live in is one of the most depressed neighborhoods in Oklahoma City, and a lot of the kids that come in have lived in the ghetto their whole lives. This one kid came and said, “When is my mom gonna get out of prison?” And the brain — of course it’s me answering — the brain had to scream, and I had to tell them that the brain can’t tell the future. The next question was, “Am I going to be in the NBA or not?”
What’s amazing is that you do all this with relatively little. The same could be said for your music, and Christmas on Mars, which you basically shot in your backyard.
Admittedly, a lot of the things we’re doing are things we were doing in the Flaming Lips shows anyway, with the bubbles, the sound system, the strobe lights. I think if you get up close, which is what I want people to do, you see that it’s all held together with a lot of duct tape. This isn’t some big immaculate futuristic factory. We’ve been doing a Halloween thing since about 1995; we started off with a dead guy on the porch. But yeah, my house is basically Salvador Dalí meets Sanford & Son.
Over the seven years of toiling on the film, was there anything you were unprepared for?
Well, my character lands in a big bubble, and then he shrinks the bubble and eats it, which, when I sat down to watch it all, I realized, Wait, this is kind of a great statement. You are your own spaceship, you eat your own spaceship. You carry around with your way of presenting yourself to the world. But the idea just sort of occurred in the triage of trying to fix the story. I just did that thing in a fucking panic because we were thinking: If he leaves his spaceship out there, wouldn’t the other characters then see it, and wouldn’t we then have to incorporate that into the story? So I sat down and I thought, Okay, he’ll just shrink it down and eat it, that’ll work.
Finally, you worked at a Long John Silver’s for twelve years earlier in your life. What do you think of their introducing healthy, non-fried options to their menu?
[Laughs] I do keep abreast of what’s happening there because so many of them are closing down. I still run into people who knew me then. I saw couples come in on their first dates, I saw them after they had their first child, I saw them after they got divorces. But I have to say, the food really is good. It’s not good for you, and it’s nothing like real fish and chips. But at least once every couple of years my wife and I will go and have it, and we’ll feel terrible afterwards, but we’ve gotta do it. It’s like smoking crack every couple of years.