Check the Gate is a recurring column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with Phil Tippett about Mad God and why intention has no place in filmmaking.
Don’t rush Phil Tippett. The filmmaker and stop-motion/go-motion wizard who realized the Rancor and Tauntauns for Star Wars and ED-209 for Robocop does not believe in art on a schedule. His latest work, Mad God, is a meticulously hand-crafted odyssey through a nightmarish landscape where creatures perpetually smash upon each other while mad doctors pull mutant babies from orifices that shouldn’t be. He began work on the project thirty years ago, tossed it aside for a decade, and reclaimed it after his studio employees uncovered the original footage. Their awe and delight pushed him to make this monster a reality.
Tippett stews. An unfinished item on the shelf doesn’t niggle or ache his psyche. He was happy to let Mad God sit, thinking little of it until he was inspired to do so. Such patience stems from something Miloš Forman once said to him, “If you want to take a good shit, you have to eat well.”
You can interpret that quote in a couple of ways. One, a filmmaker cannot survive on Big Macs and Cheesy Gordita Crunches. Make sure you’re also eating a Citizen Kane or Casablanca every once in a while. Two, a filmmaker should not gobble down their meal, eager to get to the toilet and crap out their movie so they can race to the next one. Your project benefits from lingering.
I chatted with Tippett via Zoom. We were both fresh from our trips to Star Wars Celebration. He was still reeling a little bit that folks in the Light and Magic press conference were apparently clueless to Sydney Greenstreet, let alone the actor’s connection to the Jabba the Hutt design from Return of the Jedi.
“That was very revealing to me,” he says. “It was very eye-opening about the generation that I am no longer a part of.”
Clearly, those in that convention center room were not eating well. Or, at least, they did not partake in vintage tastes. Yet, Tippett doesn’t get hung up on their ignorance either. That’s their problem. He’s working on his own stuff, which requires a long-term focus.
“Everything I do is a very slow cook,” says Tippett. “It just takes time. In the case of Mad God, it took the better part of twenty years. I had other obligations, work-wise, but that gave me the opportunity to just absorb so much stuff. I tried to make a list of this stuff that I absorbed, and it just goes on forever.”
When Tippett was a kid, his father recognized his passion for monsters. He introduced him to the sixteenth-century Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch. Those macabre depictions of hell and the damned were rooted in Tippett’s imagination. A desire from there grew into a passion for manifesting a similar grotesque playground on screen. Mad God is that demonic sandbox.
As it gestated inside, Tippett began to attach other influences. Comic book artists Richard Corben and Mœbius wormed their way in. Silent film epics like Metropolis feed Mad God‘s industrial images. He never consciously stitched these influences together, they just poured from his fingertips, and he didn’t worry about how they were related. He was vibe filmmaking.
“I never knew precisely what I was doing,” says Tippett. “It was more of a feeling that I was after, with no real polemic, but it’s obviously, I think, kind of a snapshot of the zeitgeist of our time. It’s like a universe full of potential apocalypse and wonders simultaneously.”
Tippett claims not to work from an intentional place. Mad God is not a film that began with a message, a theme, or a philosophical viewpoint. The movie is a vision. From where he’s not entirely sure, but he has an idea. One that only came to him after completion.
“I had a revelation sitting here watching the devastation in Ukraine,” says Tippett. “Each evening, you get a picture of just devastation and junk. And one image of that level of devastation is like another, and you hear about the thousands and thousands of people that have been murdered, and it doesn’t really register. It kind of stops because it’s so horrible.”
We seemingly consume atrocity every day. It seeps into us, numbing us. For Phill Tippett, battling desensitization is not just a proactive process but a subconscious one. Mad God is the director holding onto this world’s awful creations and the initial impact they had on him before capitalist culture reduced it to a soundbite.
“I realized that when the Twin Towers went down,” he continues, “it was like watching a sculpture self-destruct. It was so iconic. And we watched it over and over and over. What’s happening today with the media induces psychosis. There’s no avoiding that. You just get caught up in the milieu of the world you live in with all these territorial apes, and we’re running out of space.”
When Mad God reaches its awesome, painstakingly labored conclusion, the audience is left wondering about its filmmaker. Does the man who made this movie have hope for us watching it? Are we doomed to consume our neighbors or be consumed by them?
“Well,” says Tippett, “there ain’t much hope. Yeah, but you have to have hope; that’s all you’ve got, really. There’s the reality of the Twin Towers, and then there’s the will, the need to have hope on the other side because you’ve got nothing else. If you don’t really want to depress yourself, then you have to have these illusions. And a lot of them aren’t illusions. Here I am down in my nice house in Berkley, California, doing what I want to do with people that I really like. What do I have to complain about? Absolutely nothing. I get to look up at the moon and contemplate the wonderful and horrible universe. That really sustains me. It’s the whole Monty Python-esque mystery of life.”
Whether I find Mad God hopeful or not is my problem, not Phil Tippett’s. He had something in him and he had to get it out. When pushed to describe what that something was, Tippett balks at the notion. He recalls another collaborator’s words instead.
“Paul Verhoeven was a very significant mentor to me,” he says. “I once asked him, ‘Who do you make your movies for?’ He said, “I make them for myself.’ And when I asked, ‘Why do your movies have to have such sex and violence? Why do they have to be about that?’ He said, ‘Movies don’t have to be about anything.’ Think about it. ‘What is the meaning of, say, a Mark Rothko painting? You tell me. It is just a feeling that you get of something much bigger than yourself that’s simultaneously beautiful and daunting.”
The attraction/repulsion between the beautiful and the hideous appeals greatly to the artist. Again, he’s not necessarily interested in exploring why that is; he only knows that he’s compelled to do so and has been like that for a very long while.
“When I was in my teens,” Tippett continues, “Bob Dylan changed his methodology from folk to doing these collage pieces, some of which were like ‘Desolation Row.’ That was a huge influence, of something that was beautiful and right on the nose. I couldn’t tell why or how, but it was an artistic creation. They come out of nowhere and it’s almost like you’re transcribing these things, and not operating from intention.”
Tippett doesn’t see Mad God as the keeper of stop-motion’s flame. He’s not at war with digital creations. That train left years ago. However, he is excited to see an interest in the artform percolating again. With Mad God out there in the world, he’s already contemplating a follow-up, a stop-motion adventure that’s a bit more commercial.
“I was always a gig worker,” says Tippett. “When the Star Wars episodes were done, after Empire, I just went, ‘I don’t want to be a company guy. I’m going to make this dinosaur movie to get that out from under my skin.’ I made a short, twelve-minute dinosaur movie called Prehistoric Beast that was all stop-motion. My friend Dennis Muren was wondering, ‘Why would you want to do that when there’s an army of people technically pushing the envelope?’ Then he went to see it, and he goes, ‘I get it. I get why you did that.'”
Phil Tippett is a spectacle guy. That’s why he gravitated toward visual effects in the first place. The how of creation is equal to the creation. Art is craft, and craft is art.
Other folks can worry about the plot. He’s here for the gut emotion, the visual punch, and the haunting residue that films can leave on their viewer. Meaning doesn’t come as an “Ah-ha!” It’s something an audience should simmer on. Tippett would love nothing more than if his viewers hung onto Mad God for as long as he took to bring it into the world. And considering how unshakable its images are, the possibility seems likely.
Mad God is now streaming on Shudder.