published Friday, December 13th, 2013

Chattanooga filmmaker creates 25th anniversary documentary for 'Mystery Science Theater’ box set

Chattanooga filmmaker Daniel Griffith, left, stands
with Mike Nelson, the head writer and long-time
on-air host of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
Griffith’s documentary, “Return to Eden Prairie,” is
included in the show’s 25th anniversary box set.
Chattanooga filmmaker Daniel Griffith, left, stands with Mike Nelson, the head writer and long-time on-air host of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Griffith’s documentary, “Return to Eden Prairie,” is included in the show’s 25th anniversary box set.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    “Return to Eden Prairie,” a feature-length documentary of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” made by local filmmaker Daniel Griffith, is available on “Mystery Science Theater 3000: 25th Anniversary Edition.

ACING THE CRITICS

"I was really impressed by this documentary ... as it managed to be quite entertaining and informative, even after so much has been said about 'MST3K' already."

-- IGN.com

"Without putting too fine a point on it, this may be the finest special feature yet produced for these sets. Insightful and heartfelt without resorting to hagiography, it's a wistful look back at the genesis of the series and the struggles and joys its creators faced from day one."

-- SlantMagazine.com

"A making-of documentary that delves deeper into the nuts and bolts of the show's production than any previous Shout! [Factory] release."

-- A.V. Club

"Then there are the bonus features, which should please any fan no matter which side of the debate they choose. ... The best is 'Return to Eden Prairie.'"

-- PopDose.com

THE INTERVIEWEES

Joel Hodgson -- series creator/executive producer/program host

Trace Beaulieu -- puppeteer/actor (Dr. Clayton Forrester)/writer

Kevin Murphy -- puppeteer/actor (Tom Servo)/writer

Jim Mallon -- executive producer/actor (various roles)

Michael J. Nelson -- head writer/program host

Paul Chaplin -- writer/actor (various roles)

Mary Jo Pehl -- writer/actor (Magic Voice/various others)

Jef Maynard -- toolmaster/art director/set decorator

Patrick Brantseg -- art director/set designer

Brad Keely -- editor/lighting technician

Jeff Stonehouse -- director of photography/lighting technician

Beez McKeever -- prop assistant/actor (various roles)

WATCH IT

"Return to Eden Prairie," a feature-length documentary of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" made by local filmmaker Daniel Griffith, is available on "Mystery Science Theater 3000: 25th Anniversary Edition."

As the term implies, B-films are Hollywood's second-stringers, the low-budget afterthoughts that are beloved mostly because of their often-glaring rough edges. They aren't supposed to be in the spotlight.

In 1988, however, a group of comedians and writers joined forces in a makeshift TV studio to create a program that placed the cinematic worst of the worst on a pedestal, then pelted them with a hail of verbal tomatoes.

Through "Mystery Science Theater 3000" -- or "MST3K," as its fans lovingly call it -- films like "The Slime People" and "Robot Holocaust" reached a nationwide audience, who tuned into the weekly screenings mostly to hear the witty barbs directed at the screen by a trio of human and puppet commentators.

Originally a weekly broadcast on Minnesota public TV, "MST3K" in 1989 became one of the first original programs to be carried by the Comedy Channel, later redubbed Comedy Central. Eventually, it moved to the Sci Fi Channel (now Syfy) but was canceled in 1999 on the cusp of releasing its 200th episode.

The show was gone, but not forgotten. California-based Shout! Factory re-releases DVDs of the show and, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, it commissioned local filmmaker Daniel Griffith to create "Return to Eden Prairie," a 75-minute, three-part documentary chronicling the show's origins, rise to fame and eventual cancellation. The documentary is included in a special anniversary box set released on Nov. 26.

"I was thrilled with the idea of doing it and very excited about its potential," says Griffith, 37. "I felt like it was something that needed to be done because of the history of 'Mystery Science Theater' and its impact on the history of pop culture, present and past."

A long-time fan of "MST3K," Griffith has created "about 20" bonus features for Shout! Factory's box sets, including the anniversary collection. Those features largely document the films and filmmakers that were lampooned by the cast of "MST3K."

When it came choose a filmmaker to produce documentary on "MST3K," a pop culture icon to some, Griffith was the natural choice, says Jordan Fields, Shout! Factory's senior director of acquisitions.

"It actually never occurred to me to go with anyone else," Fields writes in an email. "He has an unrivaled passion for the show and for the featured movies.

"Daniel has a genuine affection for the colorful and underappreciated side of Hollywood. You can see that in his profiles of the films and filmmakers in our various 'MST3K' releases. ... His connection to that is in every frame of his work."

Griffith grew up in Chattanooga and studied film at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh before moving to San Diego to work in the film industry. He returned to Chattanooga about seven years ago.

His love of low-budget cinema dates back to his childhood, when he spent Saturday evenings glued to the TV, watching late-night showings of classic horror and science fiction films starring rubber-suited "aliens" and "monsters." These movies, and their creators, are the primary subject of the documentaries he has created in the last five years through his one-man studio, Ballyhoo Motion Pictures.

For "Return to Eden Prairie," however, Griffith says he wanted to turn the tables and focus on the hecklers of these films.

"I wanted to connect [the show's] origin to specific locations, giving an opportunity for the audience to revisit the location where the history occurred," he says.

Last year, he began the process of assembling supplementary material, such as photos, illustrations and behind-the-scenes clips. In the first half of 2012, he made two trips to shoot footage in Los Angeles and in the area around Minneapolis/St. Paul, including at the business park in Eden Prairie where the show's first studio was established.

Thanks to his track record at Shout! Factory, Griffith already had connections to many of the cast and crew for "MST3K." He was able to leverage that network to interview 15 of them, including show creator and long-time host Joel Hodgson and series mainstays and primary writers Kevin Murphy and Trace Beaulieu.

The documentary appears on the boxed set in three distinct parts focusing on the origin story, the main actors and, finally, the crew's efforts to raise the show's production values in the years leading up to its cancellation.

"His work on our set was outstanding, and it's been singled out for delivering a unique perspective on the history of this beloved show," Fields says. "Daniel not only elicited great interviews from [the] cast and crew, but he put them together in an artful and engaging way."

Although he wasn't able to secure a longer interview with Mike Nelson, the show's head writer and Hodgson's eventual replacement as host, Griffith says he's happy with the finished product. Given its large cult following and its Cinderella story of rising from obscurity to fame, there's plenty more to be said, he says, but the process of pulling back the curtain has made him love "MST3K" even more.

Hopefully, he says, it will do the same for other fans.

"You really can't help but fall in love with the guys," he says. "They're amazing individuals and just a creative force to be reckoned with.

"Knowing them on a more intimate level and being able to translate that in a documentary for 'Mystery Science Theater' fans is, to me, a real honor."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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