Back in 2001, Flaming Lips vocalist Wayne Coyne was riding a wave of success, thanks to his band's critically acclaimed record, The Soft Bulletin. And that's precisely why he decided to make a movie.
"You never know if what you're doing is gonna work out or be worth a shit anyways, so you gotta kind of enjoy it as you go," Coyne says over the phone from Los Angeles. "I thought, Well, I'll make a movie with my friends and then we'll all be there together for hours at a time doing some absurd shit that we can all watch later. I sort of felt like even if the movie was a complete disaster, I knew me and my friends would enjoy watching it."
Seven years later, Christmas on Mars is finally freaking out audiences outside of the Lips' inner circle. The 86-minute film follows the story of a colony on Mars that has been abandoned by its home planet's space program. Against a backdrop of despair and suicidal colonists, the film's protagonist, Major Syrtis (portrayed by Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd), attempts to organize the first Christmas pageant on Mars.
Coyne, who appears in the film as a stoic Martian Santa, says he intended the film for an "imaginative, smart audience that will get the jokes and understand the sadness and go along with the sort of hopeful optimism."
He's not banking on M. Night Shyamalan signing on for the sequel.
"When people make low-budget indie movies, the impression is that you're going to go show it to Tom Cruise, and he's going to give you $10 million to make your next big thing," Coyne says. "I'm just showing it to the Flaming Lips freaks. We all get together at theaters and dress up, and people take drugs and smoke pot, and we scream at the screen. That's really my intention."
Drummer Kliph Scurlock portrays a freaky character who has a mental meltdown and stares out into space. He played a far more active role in building sets at Coyne's home in Oklahoma City, where much of the film was shot.
"Everybody at Home Depot and Lowe's knew him on a first-name basis," Scurlock says. "They just thought he was some nice, crazy guy who was making a movie and buying all this crap, like 50 cans of spray glue and Dixie cups."
With the filming spread out over the course of four years, Coyne and his crew had to keep faith that the handcrafted undertaking would eventually resemble a movie. Complicating things was the fact that the whole film takes place during one day, and its amateur actors didn't have conditioning coaches.
"Steven basically replaced drugs with food, so he got kind of fat there for a while," Scurlock says of the film's lead actor, whose personal battles overlapped with the filming.
"His appearance does change, but it's done in such a way that it doesn't look that bad," he says. "If you know Steven, you can tell he was fucked up. It actually fits in with the film because most of the people are kind of off."
Scurlock recently helped assemble the Christmas on Mars "Mega Deluxe Edition" containing a DVD, CD, T-shirt, movie ticket, trading cards and a box of popcorn. In true Lips fashion, Coyne and company didn't wait around for their record company to handle merchandising. They just started an assembly line in Coyne's back yard.
"Wayne was just like, 'Fuck it — we can do it ourselves,'" Scurlock says. "One person popped popcorn while the others assembled packages. We did it without butter or salt so it wouldn't fuck up the boxes."
Scurlock waited until the final cut of the movie to watch it.
"I was like, Holy shit, wow — it's a fuckin' movie," Scurlock recalls. "It's really, really weird, that's for sure. But it does make sense. It's uniquely paced. It unfolds slowly but seems natural."