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AR: I was devastated when I heard Tim wasn't going to do it. But he really liked the script, and he suggested that I do it. Chris was nice enough to convince me to direct it. And I sort of got into it, because everyone was really positive and saying, “This is gonna be great!”
CE: You really had your hands full, not only being a first-time director but directing this movie, which wasn't that small of a movie when Tim Burton was going to direct it. He was going to have a 50 or 40 million dollar budget for this thing. When you became the director it went down to a 9 million dollar budget, but the script never changed. So you had to do all these special effects. And by the way, Tim Burton, who went on to do Ed Wood instead of Cabin Boy, took the top special effects people that were in his corral.
AR: Yeah, his set designer that I was gonna use went on to do Ed Wood instead. I don't like to disparage the people that were involved...
CE: But the odds were stacked against you for directing your first feature.
AR: There were a lot of technical details and I'm not good with that stuff. We had a lot of long, to me dull meetings about “What is the scale of the ice monster?” I hate stuff like that and have no fascination with special effects. Ultimately I feel like a writer.
And despite these limitations, the film has aged gracefully. The artifice is endearing. There's not a lot of CGI in it, the effects are more retro—there's stop-motion in a few sequences, and chromakeying, which makes it look more like a Thief of Bagdad homage. It's like a haunted playground.
AR: We did go for that look, but sometimes it was cheesier-looking than we would have liked.
CE: People always say, “It's so funny, there's a scene with you on the raft where you can see the seam in the backdrop.” [laughs]
AR: Yeah, that kind of stuff happened all the time.
CE: I never quite understood why we couldn't use rear-screen projection. They explained it to us, “No, no, you can't do that, because the boat's gonna be rocking in the foreground...”
AR: We were told “no” on just about everything. I heard that when one of the producers—the hands-on producer—read the script he just hated it, and did it as a favor to Disney. That's the guy that was the No-Man to everything. And Chris and I were so un-savvy about things that when he'd say, “No, no, can't do it,” we'd just say, “Oh, man, that's a drag.” I was also trying to be too nice as a director. I wanted everyone to like me. I learned later that you can be nice, but you have to have command of the set. That slipped away from me.
AR: Jim Gammon. These were great character actors. Imagine today trying to cast a movie like that. Look at those fishermen. They're old, ugly guys. We were, in a way, our own worst enemies. I'm sure women don't like Cabin Boy, I mean—what is there to look at?
CE: We never even had a discussion, like, "We should get some good looking people in this movie."
AR: But we never had a discussion about keeping out good-looking people. We were just casting it and doing it in the way that would make us laugh. It became this peculiar thing that will never happen again and probably should never happen again. Neither of us were plugged into any youth culture at the time that was starting to flourish with Dave...
CE: No, not like now. Now we're all over it.
You might be joking, but in some ways I think Cabin Boy resembles what you might find on certain TV shows or in certain movies today. The internet has made vintage content a lot more accessible—nostalgia goes back a lot further. Cabin Boy has character actors and no straight man, it has moments of unabashed anarchy (like the flying cupcake who spits tobacco), it has running gags that change context (pipe-cleaning), and it has a Twin Peaks alum. That's... practically the Adult Swim formula.
AR: It's true. Some of Adult Swim's weird humor, some of that oddness... Cabin Boy did have some of that.
CE: Maybe the connection to Adult Swim is part of [its appeal], that there's this nostalgic element. But the fact that the film has a following is a surprise, and a gratifying one. I am proud of the movie. I think it's a flawed movie, but it's a funny movie.
AR: And even if I see a psychiatrist every day for the rest of my life I don't think I'll be able to figure out why it was so reviled when it came out, and the damage it did to Chris and I mentally and creatively. Now, sure, there are some people who like it. I'm not about to pretend that it's considered this huge cult classic. But at the time it was really reviled, and became synonymous with “bad movie”. That's a mystery that Chris and I will never understand. It was a little 9 million dollar movie that should have just disappeared like all the other bad comedies.
If it's any consolation, I remember my parents seeing it in theaters and really liking it.
CE: That's really cool. I hear that sometimes, people come up to me and say “I went opening night and loved Cabin Boy.” But they usually add “I was the only one in the theater.” It did really scar us and screw up our careers for a really long time. It was the first, time that literally the phone stopped ringing for work. I was just naïve. I assumed that this was our first chance out of the gate and that the next time would be better. I didn't realize that no, it's gotta be perfect the first time or you don't get a next time. I thought it was like schoolwork. I'll get a D this time but they'll give me another shot.
AR: The movie is far from perfect and I'm not saying that if Chris and I could've done it exactly the way we wanted it would have been a masterpiece, but it would have been much better. So much stuff is cut out of it. I saw it for the first time recently in a long time...it was on cable...and I was really surprised. I thought “Hey, it's like this weird, little movie.” But the scenes move way too fast. Chris, especially the scene with your dad breaks my heart. He went on and on and had this funny speech...the edict from Disney was “Just get the movie over. We want it to end.”
CE: It's a pretty short movie, isn't it?
AR: 80 minutes. By the way, that's with credits. It's a really short movie. I think it could have been 6 minutes longer.