Q&A: Steven Kostanski gets serious about “MANBORG”
We’ve been talking about the genius that is MANBORG for a few years now, ever since the premiere at Toronto After Dark 2011). We even wrote a raving review of it as it hit theaters late last year alongside the brilliant BIO-COP trailer, also composed by Kostanski. As the film is released in the US on DVD and VOD formats, we thought we’d finally talk to one of the minds behind the MANBORG – Steven Kostanski – and get him to open up about the film and his influences.
FANGORIA: Tell us what MANBORG is about?
STEVEN KOSTANSKI: It’s about a cyborg who awakens in a dystopian future ruled by hell demons and he has to team up with a ragtag group of misfits to fight the evil Count Draculon. It’s an homage to 80s and early 90s low budget sci-fi and action films, as well as early 90s video games. That’s MANBORG in a nutshell.
FANG: An important part of this film will be the references and influences – the style you guys have developed, having very overt references and very cryptic, very deep references. Let’s talk about where you are coming from, influence wise.
KOSTANSKI: The rest of the members of Astron-6 and I grew up on the VHS-era of movies where we spent a lot of our weekends renting stacks of VHS tapes of crummy sci-fi action, horror, fantasy, comedy whatever movies–any kind of genre movie we could get our hands on. Personally I gravitated more towards the Charles Band-type low budget movies, the PUPPET MASTER and the DOCTOR MORDRID type movies; things like ROBOT JOX, ARENA, ICE PIRATES and mixed in with the usual movies too. GHOSTBUSTERS, TERMINATOR, ROBOCOP.
I had such a love for the big blockbusters, the big iconic movies like TERMINATOR, ALIENS and ROBOCOP. I’d try to find stuff that was similar so I’d rent things like I COME IN PEACE, NEMESIS, CYBORG…anything from Golan Globus or Empire Pictures.
So MANBORG, in particular, was inspired by THE ELIMINATORS which I was watching with fellow Astron member Jeremy Gillespie and he said I should make a movie called MANBORG. He just threw it out there while we were watching it and that was pretty much all it took for me to invest three years of my life into making this hunk of a movie!
FANG: Let’s talk for a minute about what some people call “this type of filmmaking,” this highly referential style. You talk about how you really have an affection for your influences and I guess what some are worried about is if this is insincere hipster irony you are applying to all this or are you sincerely an enjoyer of these films.
KOSTANSKI: I think I can see where they are coming from with that logic actually. We are kind of in this age of self-referential ironic filmmaking where everything has to be meta and has to be something else. I think I speak on behalf of all of Astron-6 when I say we genuinely grew up on these things and these kinds of films influenced our way of life in every way. It’s like I’m living my own weird sci-fi action movie half the time. I speak practically in one-liners most of the day. It’s not just me looking back ironically at these movies and thinking “those are dumb and I should parody them.” I genuinely love them.
ROBOT JOX is one of my favorite movies and people have been calling that movie dumb. I don’t stand for it. I think it’s a masterpiece. Like any movie, these movies have flaws but when you really love a movie the flaws become part of the charm and that is something that I really wanted to translate into MANBORG. The stuff that doesn’t necessarily work should be just one more element of the movie for people to enjoy. That’s why I chose to go with that kind of style, the cheeseball 80s sci-fi action movie.
FANG: There is something to be said for that reaching for something ambitious. Even though so many of these movies failed, it was awesome watching them go for it.
KOSTANSKI: That’s what inspired me the most when I was a kid, I would try to find that next TERMINATOR or ROBOCOP, movies that fully succeed at what they do. They are “lightning in a bottle movies,” you can’t really have those again but they influenced other filmmakers to reach for the stars as well. A lot of them falter but they have a lot of crazy interesting ideas going on. Every one of those movies has something in it that’s worthwhile. That’s why when I was a kid I would revisit movies that I’d otherwise consider unwatchable because I would find these things and latch on to them because I found them interesting. Be it production design or sound design, costumes, makeup…there was always something interesting to me that I wanted to examine and analyze.
FANG: That’s the thing about those films. They get sort of imprinted on you…
KOSTANSKI: They’re so iconic compared to what other people would consider “great” movies. I find genre films have stories and myths and fairy tales; that kind of storytelling has iconography and that’s something that allows these movies to stand up to the test of time and not be forgotten. Those are the kind of movies I want to make, that have these elements people remember and talk about with their friends. That’s what moviemaking is to me: telling these crazy stories that are burned in your brain.
FANG: One of the things about genre films is that you can take all kinds of risks. They’re made on the cheap without anyone watching too closely what’s going on. You can do a lot of really weird, interesting stuff. Sometimes it failed, but it was always interesting to see.
KOSTANSKI: Exactly. Even if something doesn’t work, there is still something worthwhile about it. Even a bad horror or sci-fi movie is still watchable. A bad drama or a bad comedy? That’s what unwatchable is to be because there is nothing else there. With genre films there are more elements to consider and examine.
FANG: Vincent Gallo said of Quentin Tarantino that he was a collage filmmaker. Things are just thrown together without adding anything new.
KOSTANSKI: I can see that argument for some movies. Especially this wave of grindhouse-type stuff, this “Oh yeah, I saw I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, I’m going to make that movie again…”. I feel slasher movies are particularly guilty of this. They just copy a movie and switch the kills out. It’s the same thing over and over without anything fresh being said. What I was trying to do with MANBORG and what we did with FATHER’S DAY is go beyond the genre you expected to be and make the movies as universal as possible. There is a lot of comedy, action, there’s pseudo-romance. It can go from serious to screwball comedy in a second. The goal is to play with expectations within this universe that shouldn’t feel like an established universe. Some might call these movies—these knockoff movies from the 80s like CYBORG and I COME IN PEACE—they say they are just derivative but I think it’s people expanding on similar universes, which is interesting to me. It’s like adaptations of Shakespeare. I don’t see the problem with taking the same general idea and tweaking it, playing with it. I think the best example of that was when we had our double bill screening of MANBORG and ELIMINATORS in LA. You can see the inspiration in ELIMINATORS but they are not the same movie. Not at all.
For genre stuff, half the fun is being able to play around in these other universes—going from epic sci-fi space opera, STAR WARS-style movies to Fulci’s NEW GLADIATOR type combat, to CASTLEVANIA-style bosses and kung-fu fights. I think anybody who attempts to make a movie like this and not at least acknowledge what came before it would be making a very boring film. To pretend that the things that came before aren’t similar and to not pay homage and respect to them properly would be a mistake and make for an unwatchable movie. There’s no way you can make a sci-fi action movie like MANBORG and pretend nothing like it existed up until that point.
FANG: One of the things I loved about MANBORG was how familiar that world feels to your brain. You get pulled into it because there is this strange comfort there. It’s not going to be like anything else you’ve seen but it has enough of these familiar touch points that give you a rush to recognize, conscious or not…
KOSTANSKI: It settles you into a comfort zone. I was trying to make the film I wanted to find when I was a kid but never found. That familiarity in the case of something like MANBORG works in its favor. People come up to me after the movie and tell me “that totally brought me back to the 80s when I was watching these kinds of movies as a kid” and they say it like this is a new thing that has happened; they haven’t seen a movie that has really done that. That’s what I’m most proud of with this movie, it has people remembering when movies were cool. In my opinion.
FANG: It’s not easy to do that. I see a lot of people trying to build that spirit into their movies and they fail.
KOSTANSKI: I think the bottom line is you still have to have your own story that you’re telling. I had to write my own script for MANBORG that was my premise. I didn’t just steal from other movies. I thought up my hero’s journey for it that had trappings of that sub-genre, but I still put my heart where I think it counts. A lot of this goes to Jeremy as well, who wrote the whole Baron romantic subplot. That’s where the real heart of the movie lies. It’s so preposterous and something you never see in a movie like this. That’s what makes the movie unique, scenes like that.
FANG: A final observation: The same people who wouldn’t consider MANBORG art are the same kind of people who think DJs can’t make music. Agree or disagree?
KOSTANSKI: Those seem like the kind of people who don’t think movies in general, or movies that aren’t some surreal experiment [or] anything that’s remotely mainstream is not art. I think if people are talking about it and sharing opinions on it, regardless of your opinion on the quality of it, then it’s art because it’s got you discussing it. People can say what they want, all I know is that I love making my little stop-motion figures and building my costumes and miniature sets. That’s art to me. I’m making crafts like when I was a kid, so I don’t see the difference.
FANG: On those lines, when are we going to get another Steven Kostanski creation?
KOSTANSKI: Hopefully sooner rather than later. I’m stuck in the fun limbo of trying to get money for movies. I’ve started building things and assembling stuff, writing and all that jazz but I can’t really announce anything just yet.
The other Astron guys have their movie THE EDITOR, which they are shooting this summer. So there’s that. There seems to be an awful lot of talk about people wanting me to do a BIO-COP movie so…maybe that will happen? We’ll see.