In 2008 Mike Stoklasa became so frustrated with the film Star Trek: Generations that he made a video review explaining, humorously but in geekishly nit-picking detail, exactly why it sucked. Doing the review in his own voice felt wrong, so he narrated as Harry S. Plinkett, a pizza-roll-loving serial killer character he'd been kicking around for a few years in short films. Stoklasa followed up in 2009 with an acidic review of Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace. Tweets by Damon Lindelof and Simon Pegg sent the review viral, ultimately attracting more than 3.8 million viewers. Stoklasa ended up creating Plinkett reviews of all the Star Wars prequels and Star Trek: The Next Generation films, plus Avatar, Indiana Jones 4 and others. In 2011 he teamed up with longtime collaborator Jay Bauman to create Half in the Bag, a weekly-ish review of current films intermixed with the shenanigans of the hosts' rakish alter-egos. For two years their website Red Letter Media has boasted the most consistent source of scathingly wonderful humor in the English-speaking world.|
Interviews conducted between January-March 2012 by Kristen Brennan for Jitterbug Fantasia.
You've mentioned that you were a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation when it originally aired. What grabbed you about the show?
I started watching TNG around seasons 3 or 4. I was a little young for the first three seasons, but watching 'The Best of Both Worlds' really grabbed my attention. I love all trek (even Enterprise) not equally, but I like things about them all. TNG is a quality show, yes. All around well written (well not every episode) but for the most part it's a great show. One of the things I did like is that it took a lot of risks and deviated from the original series. Picard was a very different character than Kirk and the angle of the show was quite different, while still exploring all the thought provoking ideas the original show did. I think it still holds up today. Old Star Trek to me still holds up too. I don't even mind the bad visual effects of the day cause it's not about that. Bad sets, corny acting, etc., but the writing was usually good and that's what carries it.
Which film school did you go to, and when? Did you find it to be worth the time and money? Would you recommend film school to other aspiring film-makers?
I went to Columbia College Chicago in the early 2000's. There were some aspects of film school I enjoyed and I learned a lot from, but I found most of it to be frustrating because a lot of the theory and aesthetic stuff seemed subjective and pointless to me. Film school and art school in general have always seemed to be a contradiction. You can't teach creativity or inspiration. You can teach the tools though, and that's the aspect I would recommend. Learning software and techniques and so on. I don't know, everyone is different and learns different ways so it's a hard call on saying if I recommend it or not. I can say this though: no one has ever asked me for my degree, even when doing freelance stuff. It's the quality of your work and your talent and who you know. Take some classes, learn some things, but the degree? Eh? Save your money...
Fans of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho often cite the clever way Hitchcock tricks us into identifying with the serial killer character: the film opens with Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) as the apparent main character, then when she abruptly leaves the film halfway through, we the audience have no one left to identify with but the killer. Your Plinkett reviews have the same quality – just when I'm thinking "I really agree with this guy! He and I share the same opinions! We're alike," suddenly I'm reminded that he's a serial killer who has sex with his cat. Is that effect something you planned out, or did it just evolve naturally?
Plinkett evolved into a weirdo pretty much. I mean, he always was a weirdo but a lot of the creepier stuff comes into play later. The Psycho analogy is a pretty close one because the thing that makes the Plinkett reviews work is that he's not just some condescending film snob or a super Star Wars nerd or something, he's just a weird guy who sounds like an idiot. He'll make a good point about something in a movie and then talk about something insanely stupid or weird. It's a balance of comedy and information that keeps things afloat for 90 minutes.
Are you about 32 years old? Were you always into film?
You're right on about the age. I was always into film. I made my first film in 5th grade and haven't stopped since. Shooting terrible movies with friends in High School to making oddball comedy stuff in College and so on. I've always been into sci-fi more than any other genre. Star Trek, Star Wars, Aliens, all that stuff. I like making films that are funny though, more than making sci-fi, but I'm not really into comedy films all that much. I don't know, I have some weird sensibilities and my own interests. I sort of do whatever interests me at a given time.
You've said your favorite part of the filmmaking process is editing. What would your dream job be?
Actually, my dream job is doing what I do now! It would be nice to make a little more money at it, but I love what I'm doing with the website and the films we're making right now. I do love editing, but I also like being in charge of my own productions more. I would enjoy being a commercial editor or a feature film editor, but I'm not sure if I'd be really happy doing it? it's nice to have creative control on your projects and to work on your own stuff, even if we're just scrapping by. I've always been kind of independent and never really had a desire to work for someone else. Even out of college I didn't' do an internship or try to get a job as a PA, I just started shooting a feature length film starring talking fruits and vegetables. It was something I wanted to make at the time.
You've mentioned that your 'day job' is doing video work for things like weddings and corporate clients. Are you nearing the point where you can devote full-time to Red Letter Media?
Me and Jay did a lot of weddings and still do a few occasionally although we've cut it down quite a bit. We still regularly do general production work for a University in Wisconsin, but Red Letter Media takes up the majority of stuff we work on. We try to keep making regular content for the site because we get a good flow of traffic everyday. It sustains itself pretty well.
Hollywood usually enjoys a lopsided, one-way channel of communication: they make movies and we can choose to watch or not watch. When films suck, there's really no way to communicate our displeasure other than withholding our ticket money, but the reality is that so much of the industry is dependent on ticket sales for the opening weekend, by the time word-of-mouth confirms a new film as a stinker, it's too late; Stinker 2 has already been green-lit. Plinkett is a rare voice from the audience that actually reaches a few ears in Hollywood. What's that like?
I have heard from some people in the industry, yes. People that work on productions and in film who enjoy the reviews, but I've never heard from anyone higher up. Mr. Plinkett is a small blip on the radar to them. But the real deal is that crappy movies will always be made if people keep paying for them. And good movies will shrink and vanish if people don't go to see something other than the latest Adam Sandler schlock fest. So just vote with your wallets I guess is the message if there is one. I don't think I'm speaking on anyone's behalf.
You've said that your first few reviews found a fair-sized viewership, but things really took off for you in terms of viewers once you got tweeted by Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, and then actor Simon Pegg. Would you mind briefly retelling the story of how you found your audience?
I started just wanting to make a review about Star Trek: Generations for my own enjoyment and to kill some time, but something seemed to click with the audience. With each TNG review the viewers grew and it started to get posted around on message boards. The Phantom Menace review, of course, was the big one. It was Damon Lindelof and Simon Pegg's tweets that got that spreading around and the rest is history. Just sort of word of mouth thing I guess. To date we have never paid anything for advertising or spammed or asked anyone to retweet or anything like that. It's all come organically, which is cool.
How different is Mike Stoklasa the Half in the Bag character from Mike Stoklasa the real person? In particular, in the Half in the Bag episode about What's Your Number?, actress Gillian Bellinger makes an argument that shabbily-made romantic comedies are basically 'junk food,' but junk food that she chooses to enjoy. You come across as more reasonable and even-handed than your onscreen personae, giving Bellinger a forum for her opinion even while seeming apoplectic at the very thought that shabby rom-coms might be marginally acceptable. Is that a fair perception?
There isn't too big of a difference between real me and Half in the Bag me (as far as the review portions go). On that episode I was pushing Gillian's buttons a little for fun, but I honestly was baffled about how someone could enjoy that film. I guess it's the difference between the sexes. I have movie guilty pleasures that I enjoy and women enjoy the rom-coms? I understand that part, and I can enjoy a rom-com too, I've liked several of them, but that one in particular was really pandering and dumb on a writing level. If it was another movie I might have agreed with her, but that one... I was sort of baffled how it didn't offend her just as a human. That conversation went in circles and I think we both couldn't quite articulate to each other our mutual like/dislike of What's Your Number?.
Your trailer for the Indiana Jones 4 review suggests that there must be at least two Harry Plinketts: the one played by Rich Evans in Half in the Bag and the one who reviews films. Can you expand on that?
Rich Evans was the original Plinkett. We did a few short films with him as a "Mr. Plinkett" before, but it wasn't the same kind of character. When I did the reviews I used that voice and some elements of that character and made a new thing. A lot of people freaked out when we first saw Rich as Plinkett in the context of the reviews so we decided they would be two different entities. We made a short documentary about Plinkett explaining everything on our next DVD we're releasing, which is a compilation of shorts and unreleased material.
Your anger at George Lucas for making absolutely god-awful prequels is so palpable, it feels like he desecrated your temple. Is it a fair guess that you loved the original trilogy?
I do love the original trilogy quite a bit. It goes beyond the "fond childhood memories" angle too. I have fond childhood memories of He-Man, but that certainly doesn't hold up if you watch that today. The original trilogy can appeal to any age group and didn't pander to the audience. It was dark at times, light hearted at others and ran the full spectrum of entertainment and the movie experience. The newer films, simply put, lack the emotional impact and the heart the first three films had. I'm not angry though, disappointed sure, but not angry. Nor do I hate anyone that gets entertainment from the prequels. People can enjoy whatever they want. I just find them fascinating from a lot of different perspectives.
What kind of a reaction are you getting to Half in the Bag? Is it accurate, as you imply, that your audience is more strongly drawn to the Plinkett reviews?
At first the audience was a little resistant to Half in the Bag because it was different and because "fake Plinkett" was involved in it. There were a lot of people speculating if this would replace the Plinkett reviews or not, but over time more people are adjusting and do like the show it seems. It's just another creative outlet for me and we have a good time making the show. I'll continue to do both.
In your 2002 interview with Fastforward Revolution you expressed frustration that the Internet is glutted with so many low-quality amateur films. Can you expand on why you find that frustrating?
That interview was done quite some time ago, even before YouTube. Back then, things were a little more traditional in terms of short films. Now there is so much online and so many different types of shorts from mash ups to narrative stuff it's impossible to nail down everything in a single comment. What I was referring to there was a specific type of low budget film and audience. I don't discourage anyone from uploading anything! Feedback is always a good thing. Negative feedback hardens the skin or makes you quit. Both can be helpful.
Your series The Grabowskis starts off somewhat one-note, but becomes progressively interesting and hilarious; what kind of reaction has that series received?
The Grabowskis started intentionally as a one-note thing. The joke was that attention spans on the internet were so low that a 5 second sitcom called The Grabowskis was created. We shot the first season in about an hour and it was just a joke. It still is. We just kept making them because it was fun and was an interesting take on dumb sitcoms. Most people hate The Grabowskis I think?
You have a great bit in Revenge of the Sith saying at least we didn't have to endure Han Solo as a boy. Were you aware that in the concept art book for that film there's a drawing of Han Solo as a boy? Lucas at one point planned to depict him being raised by Chewbacca on Kashyyyk.
I Googled to see if young Han Solo or the Millennium Falcon were supposed to be in the prequels anywhere and so yes, I did see that young Han Solo was supposed to have been raised by Chewbacca in the woods. The back-stories of these characters are the dumbest things you can think of. Very simplistic and childish. I would say that I'm glad they didn't put young Han in there, but I guess it wouldn't have really mattered.
What's your opinion of Mystery Science Theater 3000? Are you often compared to them?
I haven't seen a lot of MST3K, but I do like what I have seen. I used to catch it on TV here and there and it's really funny. I love bad b-movies and it's fun to laugh at them so I'd consider myself a fan. I have also recently gone to see Cinematic Titanic live and It's really funny stuff. Good times.
What's your opinion of the YouTube reviewers who imitate or are at least influenced by the Plinkett reviews? Are there any you would recommend?
I have seen others trying to do a review character (which is probably inspired by Plinkett?) but I've never watched them past a minute or so. I don't care about movie reviews or movie reviewers or anything like that. When I did the Star Trek: Generations review I didn't even know people reviewed stuff online to the extent that they did. Honestly, I just don't care all that much about it. I liked to state my opinions on stuff as a way of getting it off my chest and expressing myself and if people want to watch it that's awesome.
The Plinkett reviews often use the so-called 'Ken Burns Effect' (famous documentary-maker Ken Burns often adds interest to still photos by slowly panning across them, or slowly zooming in or out). Do you borrow any ideas from Burns, or is that just standard documentary style? Which filmmakers particularly influence how you shoot & edit?
I would say the Ken Burns effect is pretty standard now. Ken Burns is great yes (love The Civil War), but to say he is an influence on the filth I make would be a grave insult to Ken Burns. We should probably leave him out of a conversation about my silly online reviews of science fiction films.
Do you know roughly how many viewers have seen the Plinkett reviews or Half in the Bag?
I know the first part of The Phantom Menace review is at 3.8 million hits. We get a fair amount of views and traffic to our website and make enough to keep our operation afloat. We're in no way swimming in cash though. It's expensive to do what we do and any money that comes in mostly gets spit right back into our productions. Costs add up!
Monty Python is often credited with eliminating the idea that a comedy sketch must end on a punch-line; if the punch-line fails to land, the entire sketch can feel like a failure, and punch-lines are notoriously difficult to get right, so they eliminated it entirely. Before a sketch can lose energy, they jump-cut to a different sketch. Plinkett reviews have a similar quality - just as we the audience see where a joke is going, rather than having to wait it out, you suddenly jump to the next point. It really helps keep me from getting bored, or giving me too much time to catch my breath between laughs. Was this technique influenced specifically by Monty Python? Who are the biggest influences on your comedy style?
I'm not a huge Monty Python fan. Well, I suppose I might be but haven't seen much of their stuff, but I understand your point about the use of anti-humor. I've always just been a big fan of dull and dry humor in whatever form it manifested itself in. Really blunt comedians like Norm McDonald or someone like Mitch Hedberg. I also love editing and making people laugh by how something is edited together rather than just a standard punch line. Jump cuts, hard edits, insert edits, etc. It's a lot of fun to do experimental things like that. I made a lot of strange short films with my friend Rich Evans and I think that honed some of those editing and comedy skills.
How old are you? Where did you grow up?
I'm in my early 70's, but I think I could pass for early 60's. I grew up with my time split between Rockford, Illinois on weekends and a little farmer town in the middle of nowhere called Orfordville, Wisconsin on weekdays. Both places sucked.
Did you attend film school or have any formal training in filmmaking?
I went to film school for two years in Milwaukee, but didn't care for the program. It focused exclusively on experimental filmmaking and that wasn't really my style. I left the program and over the following three years after that, I shot four no-budget feature films and dozens of short films, as well as helped Mike on his projects. Those few years of non-stop guerilla filmmaking were the best training I could have had.
You co-host Half in the Bag and show up in some of the behind the scenes shorts for the Plinkett Reviews; what's the division of labor at Red Letter Media?
The Plinkett reviews are pretty much exclusively Mike as far as the writing and editing goes. I help shoot the live action bits. Whenever you see Plinkett's point of view, I'm the one holding the camera. For the Star Wars reviews, Rich would watch the movies with Mike and jot down notes with him, but that was the extent of his involvement. Half in the Bag is more 50/50 between Mike and myself as far as coming up with ideas and we'll take turns editing the episodes.
How did you and Mike become friends and co-creators?
There used to exist a website and message board called REwindvideo.com that was focused on amateur filmmakers. The message board had a decent sized following and both Mike and I used to post on it. We both had more of a sense of humor about the level of filmmaking we were at than some of the other people there. This was in the late 90's/early 00's so there were a lot of college-age guys making Pulp Fiction ripoffs in their dorm rooms with their friends in shorts playing hitmen and stupid crap like that, but they took themselves completely seriously and would make fancy posters and promotional materials for their 5 minute shot-on-VHS movies. Mike and I would both poke fun at a lot of that type of stuff that was going on there, and when we realized we only lived about 90 miles away from each other.
To what degree is Half in the Bag scripted and how much is improvised? Is filming it as fun as it looks?
The movie discussions are never scripted. We'll usually come up with a list of three or four topics we want to bring up as a guideline to keep the conversation somewhat focused because otherwise we tend to ramble and go really off-target. We usually do that even with the guideline, but it's to a much lesser extent. The wraparound skit stuff is always scripted though. We'll brainstorm and come up with story ideas and Mike will physically write those out. Filming that stuff is usually fun because I love breaking things. It's not the most clever form of comedy but I find something really cathartic in the mere act of trashing the set or busting in an old television for the sake of comedy. A big part of what makes it funny to me is simply the extent and the gratuity of the destruction. Sometimes shooting can be stressful if we're shooting a more elaborate sequence since we rarely have much of a crew to help out. Most of the time it's fun though.
How do you find your actors? In particular, how did the character of Nadine (as played by Jocelyn Ridgely) evolve? Her storyline began with a brief cameo, but blossomed into a truly epic and satisfying arc. The preview with her dragging a sparking machete against the wall was mesmerizing.
We've met a lot of people and a lot of actors over the years from working on various projects, so we've developed a small stable of people we can call on if we have a role that's right for them. Jocelyn was someone that just came in to audition for us for a film we didn't end up making, but she made an impression so we always kept her in mind for future stuff. We shot our film Feeding Frenzy and had a role in that we thought she'd be great for as a prostitute. A couple months later while I was still editing Feeding Frenzy, Mike had the idea for the basement sequence in The Phantom Menace review which required yet another hooker and he asked Jocelyn if she'd be up for it. She was somewhat apprehensive about playing a hooker again, but agreed to do it because I guess she likes us or something. Simple ideas like that basement sequence tend to spark more ideas for us and things tend to snowball into larger concepts and that's exactly what happened to the point where there was a whole storyline in the Episode II review wrapped around the hooker in the basement. It was fun having that tiny sight gag in the first review evolve into a fully formed character with an arc.
Where is the set for Half in the Bag? Do you guys have a garage, warehouse or studio to use?
We have a studio in downtown Milwaukee. For years we had to shoot everything and store props and costumes and such in our little apartments, so it's nice to have a place now that serves as a main base of operations with room to store everything and put projects together.
What's your dream job?
I'm not far off from my dream job right now. I love being able to make a living making stupid videos. We have no one to answer to and nobody telling us what we can and can't do so we just shoot whatever we want, which is great. I'm pretty sure I would be miserable working as an editor or a director in the larger studio system. I like the freedom we have. Half in the Bag is a nice outlet for us but I've never really thought of myself as a critic; I'm just a guy who likes movies.
- Red Letter Media is the official homepage of Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman's production company. Here you'll find the Plinkett reviews, Half in the Bag, The Grabowskis, and lots more.
- Wikipedia's Red Letter Media page offers a good summary of Stoklasa & Bauman's online careers, plus links to references.
- Red Letter Media's YouTube page provides easy access to Stoklasa & Bauman's most popular videos.
This page launched November 20, 2012.