MASTER OF THE MASH-UP: TALKING TO “APOCALYPSE POOH” DIRECTOR TODD GRAHAM

In today’s modern, go-go age, it seems as though every day features a new nifty video short featuring familiar footage repurposed to artistic effect. From the creative sampling of Pogo to making Brian Williams rap “Gin and Juice,” there are a neigh-infinite number of shorts featuring the stuff you know and love in new and interesting permutations, and they’re all just a click away!

But long ago in the before-time, it wasn’t so easy to access these treasures – and it was a hell of a lot harder to make them. Todd Graham’s APOCALYPSE POOH, a meshing of Winnie the Pooh animation and audio from APOCALYPSE NOW, was first made in 1987, though it took a while before the work reached a wider audience. The film was distributed mostly via underground tape trading exchanges, advertised as part of compilations of other oddball short films on the back of Film Threat or Psychotronic magazine.

POOH became one of the first major instances of underground culture jamming, and Graham followed it with additional short films along similar lines. We spoke to Graham about his shorts, his influences, the sketchy world of underground video distribution in the ‘80s, and his new career as a stand-up comedian.

Daily Grindhouse (DG): When and how did you start playing with video and making short films?

Todd Graham (TG): Not until I went to art school in Toronto, in my 2nd year, 1986. Mostly it was video. I couldn’t afford much film at the time. I barely had enough money for beer! Before that it was just writing and drawing. Shot a few Super 8 reels but mostly failed experiments.

DG: What kind of movies and media were you interested in growing up?

TG: People forget how little choice there was even into the 80’s, especially in a small town (Peterborough, Ontario was a small town in the form of a small city), so mostly mainstream stuff. I used to spend my allowance at a little used bookstore downtown every weekend. I made a pretty natural progression from Mad Magazine to National Lampoon/Heavy Metal and later to Spy Magazine. I was into Steve Martin and SNL in grade school and more stand-up in high school – Steven Wright was a revelation and then Gilbert Gottfried later! He much more surreal and even deconstructionist earlier in his career – you have to watch his Cinemax Special from 1986, “Greetings From Gilbert!” Tom Waits, Jack Handy and Raymond Carver were all major influences. Later, the alternative comic book boom in the late 80’s – 90’s. In fact Dan Clowes plugged APOCALYPSE POOH in the back of Eightball #4!!!

DG: What made you decide to go to the Ontario College of Art and Design?  Were you focused on film and video by that point?

TG: I went there thinking I would get into illustration. My skills were good but I quickly realized that I wasn’t nearly as fast as I needed to be and started exploring the “new” media department. Back then it still had the awesome name of “Photo-Electric Arts.” I still have so many unfinished drawings. I was diagnosed with ADHD a couple years ago. It all makes sense now. Ha!

DG: Were you a reader of cult movie and media magazines at the time?  Things like Psychotronic, or Slimetime, or Film Threat that seemed to have an awareness of underground film?  Did that type of underground filmmaking jibe with your OCAD film studies?

TG: OCAD was pretty PC at the time so that stuff would not have washed. Even the more sensitive boys were under heavy manners. I got into that stuff later from my friend Luis Ceriz who studied Film at Ryerson University and then opened Suspect Video which is a major alternative venue and horror epicenter in Toronto.

DG: In the 1991 interview on CBC, it suggests that APOCALYPSE POOH was the result of a school project — is that the case?

TG: Ha! That interview was filmed in Suspect and nearly got me fired from another store I worked at (also I never ever called myself a “Telejuster” that was the idea of a CBC news editor somewhere, ugh!) It was sort of a project as much as anything was. Even though it was a pretty lax curriculum then we did have to come up with something every so often. I was worried about the copyright being an issue so I didn’t have any real plans for it other than showing at one of our department film & video cabaret’s which were just informal drunken screening parties.

DG: Was there something that gave you the idea to combine audio and video from two different sources?  The similar works that I know before that, like WHAT’S UP TIGER LILY or the Firesign Theatre’s J-MEN FOREVER took old footage but just created their own audio for effect.

TG: That kind of mashing was always of interest. I was really into making collages, especially postcards which I would mail to myself. I never really connected all these things until later – not even really understanding archetypes and subtext. I guess I had some sense of things intuitively. I did really dig studying/reading Hearts of Darkness in High School English and then watching APOCALYPSE NOW. I guess that sort of re-interpretation of classic story was part of the influence also.

DG: What was the impetus for mixing Winnie the Pooh visuals with the sounds of APOCALYPSE NOW?

TG: Well the origin was when my buddy was fooling around with this Tigger puppet and I yelled out “It’s a fucking tiger man!” I’d seen APOCALYPSE NOW probably 20 times and a lot of lines were pretty automatic with me and my friends. I guess the seeds were planted earlier though as my pals would smoke up and then put ambient music on to accompany old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons and such. Gilbert Gottfried’s surreal impressions probably were influential. Also I had a terrific instructor early on, Victor Tinkl, who emphasized that that there really aren’t any rules in art. Punk influence a little bit but it’s always funny because I never fit the punk stereotype image wise. I dress pretty utilitarian. It always rang false when kids had the outfit but couldn’t come across with the goods – creative wise. It was just another uniform! MAN!!!

DG: The article you’d sent makes the distinction between the mashup and culture jamming, stating that culture jamming denotes some kind of political context.  Did you have any type of political meaning behind, say, having these kind of “pure” characters mouthing punk rock or profanity?

TG: Nope. My pal Brad Bell (who re-edited POOH digitally) is a super smart dude and had a much better grasp of academia. He actually wrote an essay on it, explaining the role of Jungian archetypes etc. It was also the subject of a 2007 article by Scott MacKenzie in Cineaction, which a pretty intellectual film magazine. Ha! I just thought it was funny.

DG: How did you go about editing the shorts?  How long of a process was each of them?

TG: I don’t remember. I never kept track but it must have been about 50-60 hours to make POOH that is. A lot of pushing. Wasn’t eating a lot of fiber in college.

DG: What order were the films made in?  Were you inspired by the success of POOH to make others, or did you just take the inspiration as it came to you?

TG: Yeah, I pretty much learned how to edit making APOCALYPSE POOH. Then I thought of BLUE VELVET and Peanuts and how it would be cool to imitate the format the vhs format where some tapes had trailers at the end. Ha it wasn’t the case for most of them but that is what I picked. The “bonus rock video” was the last to be made and the tightest editing wise.

DG: How did you get the word out about the shorts?  I know your distributed them through Suspect Video, how did you get them into other hands?

TG: Tape trading culture was in full effect, so Factsheet Five (like a magazine version of Craigslist for underground culture) was a big help – different small publications that wrote reviews, Eightball, Psychotronic, Film Threat etc. A local musician Jaymz B and his band The Look People took it on tour with them in the early 90’s and turned a lot of people on to it (including Jim Carrey, supposedly).

DG: When did you realize that they had a life well beyond Toronto?

TG: It’s kind of a sad truth in Canadian culture that you don’t get recognition here until another country celebrates you. It’s the same for Art, Film, Comedy etc. There are exceptions but it is genuinely the rule. Music comes the closest to transcending it. A largely insecure bunch up here. It pops its head up every so often still. A mention in Complex Magazine or Slate.com! I found out Richard Linklater had a copy and would show people, that was very flattering!

DG: Who was the first magazine that wrote up your work?

TG: Our OCAD school paper called Fish Wrap written by a friend of mine Tom Third, who became a successful TV soundtrack composer. After that it was either Trash Compactor or Psychotronic, both super cool magazines still around in some form or another!

DG: Were you aware of the kind of world of underground VHS trading at the time?

TG: Yes.

DG: Your work didn’t have any credits, so it made them a bit hard to attribute to you — I’ve seen the Fat Albert/NWA mashup GANGSTA GANGSTA in miscellaneous “culture jamming” collections with your work, but that’s not yours, is it?  Has anyone ever claimed your work to be theirs?

TG: My friend Steve Grebanier made the NWA tape. I used to run film/video screenings and I didn’t want to play it because everyone would think I made it. I think he was kind of pissed at me for that. Not really. There were a lot of claims online that people knew the guy or something but it was just regular comment section bullshit.

DG: After the animated shorts, you moved on to live-action shorts, but you still used animation as an influence, as in GOOD GRIEF, IT’S CANCER BOY.  Were you getting burned out of spending hours trying to match up audio and video?  What inspired a live-action satire of Swedish films using Peanuts characters?

TG: It was German actually. Finally finished it after 20+ years. I had an idea to make a trilogy of foreign films. Thinking sarcastically that they would be more highly regarded than an English language Canadian film. There are two other partially finished films in French (The Happy Clown of Death) and Asian (OFFICE DOG! I thought it would be funny to not adhere to one Asian language or culture). It just was the next idea. I never imagined mash-ups it would be my sole expression. However, I was all the time building a sketchbook type VHS reel of mashed up clips. It was way too precious though and I was too choosey so I’ve never pieced together more than 30 minutes worth of tape! I should put that up on Youtube sometime.

I bonded over this with then Toronto pal Derrick Beckles (TV Carnage) who also collected weird clips and layed them down on VHS. He was way more prolific and parlayed a decent career out of it. He had his own show on Cartoon Network called Hot Package! He’s a good guy and hilarious!

DG: The interview you sent suggests that you were just finishing up that one in 2010 — what made you abandon it?  And what about the intriguingly-titled THE HAPPY CLOWN OF DEATH?

TG: I got an office job and bought a house and started a family and still drank as much as ever. Editing was expensive and time consuming. By the time desktop editing capabilities were available on ever computer I was fat and complacent. Shortly after my 40th birthday I snapped out of it and had a kind of positive middle-aged crisis. Went to comedy night school! And lost a bunch of weight. As far as the other unfinished projects – I’m pecking away at them. I thought most of them are worth finishing.

DG: One of your later shorts, PHIL’S PARENTS HOUSE, was reviewed in Shock Cinema, but isn’t on your YouTube channel.  Can you tell me a little about that one?  And ABNORMAL SALVATION?

TG: Phil is still worried about his Dad finding out about it, Ha! They came home when we were filming and it was not pleasant! I had to pretty much wait for my parents to pass away before I could pursue stand-up comedy so I understand. It is pretty dated too and also that sort of subject has been well covered since.

DG: Were there any issues about copyright infringement from the owners of Peanuts, Babar, Pooh and the like?  Or were the films too under-the-radar?

TG: Mostly under the radar. I heard some dude who worked for Disney Canada took in a copy and asked if it was a concern and they said no. I think those days of “litigation mania” by Disney were short when they got so much bad press over suing daycares for painting unlicensed characters on the walls. I did get a letter from US Customs once which I always thought was an elaborate ruse initiated by a friend of mine but was actually real. It’s bizarre that they would spend time doing that in those days on the behalf of private corporations?

DG: Do you think you would ever do this sort of thing again, in the age of easy video manipulation and the fact that the mashup seems to be so popular now?

TG: It’s ongoing. Babar/Elephant Man was a long time coming too (see my Youtube channel)! I threw it together in an afternoon. It’s just about finding time with distractions now.

DG: Do you watch newer online mashups at all?  Are there any in particular you like?

TG: I love some of the older ones! Ha! Superfriends Wassup is terrific and ‘Special Report’ by Bryan Boyce both of which were pre-You Tube! I like the more recent slowing down and looping of things. My favorite of this ilk is the Robin Hood “Rooster Strut Song” (4 hour 40 version) loop. I don’t know how it ends.

DG: What made you start doing stand-up comedy?

TG: Everything.

DG: Where can we see your stand-up?

TG: Here are a couple links. I might have another one but this will do for now.

Thanks to Todd for the interview!

 

— PAUL FREITAG-FEY. 

 

Jon Abrams

Editor-In-Chief at Daily Grindhouse
Jon Abrams is a New York-based writer, cartoonist, and committed cinemaniac whose complete work and credits can be found at his site, Demon’s Resume. You can contact him on Twitter as @JonZilla___.
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