Michael Swaim is the star and creator of several video series on Cracked.com. In fact he’s the head of video. He wrote and starred in a movie that you have the chance to see in New York and L.A. this weekend. Kill Me Now is a horror comedy about a killer stalking a high school party in a cabin in the woods. Swaim plays Dennis, the more quick talking outcast to Noah (Jacob Reed), the more pensive and shy of the two. Dennis and Noah crash the party of the dumb jocks and hot babes who band together when the killer strikes. Kill Me Now is being released under TUGG where you can vote for screenings you want and reserve tickets in your cities. We got to chat with Swaim about his first film and talk some shop about the internet.
Kaitlin Large ("Agents of Cracked" & "Tyson the Mad Poodle") will present Kill Me Now on December 5 in New York City, NY at 7:30pm at Landmark's Sunshine Cinema
Michael Swaim ("Agents of Cracked" & "Those Aren't Muskets") will present Kill Me Now on December 5 in Pasadena, CA at 7:30pm at Laemmle Playhouse 7
CraveOnline: I imagine writing comedy video isn’t the same as comedy text, and writing a film script isn’t the same as comedy video, so what was the learning curve on Kill Me Now?
Michael Swaim: Oh, the learning curve, okay. Well, let’s see. Processing. All right. Yes. Well, I was lucky enough to have written two screenplays previously just as part of college, and read a lot of books about it, always aspired to be a screenwriter and internet comedy presented itself as a way to immediately get to start honing the skills that you need to make movies, but making movies has always been really my life’s goal and my ultimate long term trajectory. Sketch I find to be sort of this wonderful playground, and even though it is very different structurally, obviously, screenplay vs. a sketch, the bag of tricks is the same. All the sketch I’ve gotten to do over the years online really has sharpened both my skills and my creative partner, Abe Epperson’s skills, on the visual side, at every level. Writing, editing, just moment to moment dialogue, how characters interact and admittedly sketch exists in a sort of weird world where everything’s zany some of the time. Stuff’s more focused on premise and getting across a specific joke or specific thought, but I do find that it certainly didn’t feel alien. It just felt like writing a bunch of sketches and lining them up in a compelling way. It created an arc which is not something a sketch has to have. So that was probably the main challenge, just the order the scenes went in.
Is Kill Me Now not zany?
Kill Me Now is zany but I would say in sketch, more often than not, you give yourself permission to break the world because who needs it once you’re done with it? Three minutes and you’re out. So you can blow things up and have someone talk directly to camera or someone burst in and shoot everyone, not for no reason because that’s a dumb hackneyed sketch maneuver, but something much better than that. You have that freedom and that license to just destroy everything, and in the movie, you’ve got to make sure that your characters are around and remain compelling and relatable and certainly for the duration of the film. That’s certainly a gross blanket statement, because there are writers better than me breaking their movie worlds left and right and having it be amazing. Maybe I’ll get there one day, but I would say Kill Me Now exists at least in the agreed upon movie reality version of the real world. There’s a little serendipity at work but you’re allowed to get away with that.
You get the sole writing credit, so it this really your baby?
The script is, definitely. Line by line it is but Abe and I did the story together and we watched a bunch of horror movies and went through our list of favorite comedy movies, refreshed ourselves, boned up and then basically just sat and talked out the whole story for many, many days until we had kind of an agreed upon beat by beat write-up of the entire story. But then from that point, I took it and turned it into a screenplay, so every joke is a baby of mine certainly.
You made an interesting point in the movie when Noah says, “A mistake is not a mistake if you know it’s a mistake. Then it’s a bad decision.” Was that one of your own observations?
It was and I was pretty proud of that one. I’m glad you called that out, thank you. I guess the most interesting aspect is that I would probably disagree with it. Noah in a lot of ways represents the sh*thead that I was in high school, that I think we all were in high school. I think it’s a clever turn of phrase and I think Noah’s a smart guy, but I think mistakes are gifts from the universe and really the only way to improve yourself. So I fully condone making mistakes but I thought it was a clever line and it makes me chuckle.
Are you super self-critical since you know there are sites like Cracked out there commenting on movies?
Certainly working on the internet does nothing if not make you even more self-critical, which I think again is a huge learning opportunity. Having my soul shattered daily by moronic people who know nothing of my work… No, I’m just kidding. It hones you. You have to develop that thick skin and that chip on your shoulder because you get comments like “Nice underbite, f*ggot” which is a creative comment on one of my personal favorite sketches, and that’s probably my favorite comment I think I’ve received so far. But that’s balanced out with a tremendous amount of love and support from the fans. Look, at the end of the day, I got to make a movie that I wrote which is a huge luxury and privilege and something that you’re usually not afforded, certainly not so quickly. It’s all thanks to the internet and it’s thanks to the fan base that I was able to pick up on the internet and people with whom the work resonates, so really I can say nothing bad about the internet.
Talk about creating the killer for the movie.
The killer’s certainly one of the most interesting aspects for me of the movie, because something Abe and I talked about from the beginning and my favorite thing about the movie that no one will care about except me is what I wanted to do structurally with the killer. Essentially what we tried to do and what we were interested in was the idea of the hunter becoming the hunted, and building a realistic horror movie universe where you’re scared of the monster, but then at some point in the movie the monster becomes the victim of the original victims. So we wanted to get scenes where the killer’s on the run and you’re siding with him and see if we could pull that trick of getting the audience to root for the killer by the end of the movie. That basically was the seed of the movie and everything builds off of that because that inspired thoughts like, “Oh, well if you need people to like the killer, then there has to be some victims in the movie that are so annoying and dumb that you’re rooting for them to die.” Of course there’s a lot of fertile comedy ground there. So in a lot of ways, conceiving of the killer sort of set up the structure for the rest of the movie and then we were off and running.
Another line I remember when they find the stash of guns was, “What was he, the Unabomber?” Is it too soon for a Unabomber reference?
Oh, what’s the “South Park” rule? 22 years. I have to do the math on that, I don't know.
Could we talk shop a little? I remember Cracked as the magazine competitor to Mad Magazine. Has it been pretty quick in the last five years establishing the site on its own?
Yeah, pretty startlingly quick I would say. In the last maybe 6-7 years I’ve seen it go from a magazine that failed after three issues to this site with a very unique voice and a very unique vision and direction. I think as of this conversation, it’s the number one most trafficked comedy site in the world. That’s just a tremendous accomplishment, especially considering how lean the team is. It’s something like 16 people making most of the editorial and content decisions and producing that. A lot of the credit goes to just the vision of those people and it’s just an astoundingly hard working and aggressive team. Everyone pulls their weight and then some.
It’s very different than the Cracked I grew up with that was movie spoofs and cartoon strips.
Well, we still definitely have movie spoofs and pop culture in our crosshairs but it’s certainly a different vibe. I don't think any of us have actually had any contact with anyone who worked on the original Cracked. It’s what you bought when Mad was out.
I actually bought both because I was such a humor junkie.
Such a fiend, right, good for you. There were some great cartoonists in those.
I’ve felt the impact as a writer that lists are where it’s at now. Why do you think lists are such a popular format?
You know, I think it’s the sort of freedom it grants you and the promise it gives you that it’s not wasting your time. If you’ve got a clear title and a numbered set of entries, you really know what you’re in for, which is valuable now that we’re sort of awash in this sea of infinite information that is the internet. Your time is valuable. You see all these comments, “I want my two minutes back.” People really do care how they spend 60 seconds online, like they’re doing such great things the rest of the time but anyway, they do. When you have a list in front of you, you know if you’re interested in the topic, it’s been ordered from least interesting to most interesting and if you want you can just read the titles and get the information. If you want to delve deeper you can read two entries, go on a lunch break, come back and read the rest. It’s just so customizable and it’s so modular and easy to fit into everyone’s schedule I think. Really at the end of the day that’s all it is. The benefit on our end is with very little effort and a few simple tricks, you can say anything with a list. I mean, you really can put basically any content into a list format. You just have to be creative about it and after so many years working on the site, you essentially pick up all the tricks and now any of us can do whatever we want in a list format and it’s great.
How long does it usually take you to generate a list?
Well, personally since I’ve moved over into being senior video guy, I really don’t write that often, articles for the site anyway. A column will take me maybe a full day when I do a column which happens occasionally still. But when I was in practice, probably half a day and it ranges widely. Dan O’Brien can sometimes knock a column out in 10 hours.
Did the second to last episode of “Agents of Cracked” predict Looper?
Oh wow. Yes, but I never realized it until now. I just got that.
I was just doing the research.
Yeah, well researched. Kudos. Now I’m filled with an urge to go watch my own video and form a conspiracy theory about what I was thinking when I wrote it. Maybe someone Inceptioned me and that’s why we wrote Looper into “AoC.”
Could “Agents” come back?
Probably not in its original form. There are a few ways I’d like to see it go on. I don't think it will ever be a web series on Cracked.com again, mainly because we got to make that in large part because it was the first in house web series for Cracked.com, so it was sort of, “Hey guys, make whatever you want. We’re not sure what the video department’s going to be like.” Now years on, we are aware of what the audience sort of wants more. That’s not to say that “AoC” doesn’t have a devoted fan base and I think it’s some of my favorite videos on the site, but we’ve moved on in a way. There are a lot of series in the works and things we know that people are really looking forward to, and there’s only so much we can produce at any given time. That said, I would really like to do and there has been some work put into doing a LucasArts style point and click adventure game, a flash game, that would be written by Dan and I and follow them on the east coast. So it would start with the hot air balloon landing on the east coast where everything’s crazy as Michael predicted, and Dan is an outcast because he’s the only normal human. You’d sort of navigate through that environment, and I’d still love to see that happen. I don't know, a live reunion show or something, I’m up for it.
How have you felt to see the growth of snarky humor online, in other non-humor sites that may have been influenced by Cracked?
Oh, I think it’s wonderful. It’s a free market of ideas, if that’s an appropriate analogy. I’m sort of of the open source mindset to a point. I believe that any sort of cool meme or neat thing is open to the world once it’s online. Certainly something as subtle as a tone, and certainly we didn’t invent snarky, but yeah, it’s cool. I do think I’ve seen Cracked have influence throughout the web in weird ways and that has been very interesting.
It’s interesting to see news sites try to incorporate more humor.
Right, absolutely and it’s especially interesting on rare occasions to see sites take blocks of our lists word for word, change the punch lines and jokes and then repost them. That’s happened as well.
Is there any recourse for that?
The recourse is our guy calls and yells at their guy and they take it down. I don't think it ever goes beyond that but I can’t really talk too big because I’ve certainly had “Does Not Compute” episodes where someone in a YouTube video I used writes me and says, “I will sue you if you don’t remove this video” and we take it down too. It’s a double edged sword. The internet is this sort of Wild West. It’s becoming tame now but it still has a little bit of its Wild West mentality where if you get away with it, it’s okay but the best defense is a weak offense I find. If anyone has a problem with something you published, take it down and write a new thing. Comedy’s disposable. Just keep pumping it out.
At least they cooperate. Does a video of “After Hours” get more views than were the same discussion to be written in text?
The articles actually are much higher viewed now than the videos I would say overall. I think that’s because a huge chunk of our audience watches or reads Cracked at work and doesn’t have headphones, or doesn’t want to get caught. That’s my sneaking suspicion but the articles are very much, I don’t want to overstate it, but the articles are extremely popular.
That’s reassuring to a writer. What then are the advantages of the videos?
Well, to be honest, something that I really admire about Cracked and something that I think in the long run is the key to success of any creative enterprise is that the people there care more about what’s interesting and what content is going to be cool. Strategy certainly comes into it but creating the content and making interesting and wide array of content that keeps us excited and keeps the juices flowing is more important than honing in and focusing in on just whatever’s going to get us there the fastest. Ironically, we found that that has gotten us there very quickly where we want to be as far as market share and visibility goes. But we really do have our core focus on what’s the coolest thing we could do at any time. I was someone who came in and always wanted to make movies, so I said we should have a video department and everyone found a value in providing comedic video to the world. So we went ahead and did it because we’ve been given the wonderful opportunity to. In the same way, we made a book, published a book, we’re publishing our second book now and have mounted live shows and are working on the podcast. It’s all just we sit in a big room and say what would be super neat and then we do that. So far so good.
And you mentioned the internet provided you a way to practice filmmaking. What new opportunities are the new modes of film exhibition creating for you, because VOD is an option and your movie is going out on TUGG?
In Kill Me Now’s case, if I ever have a valuable film career I will always look back and find the genesis of it in the internet because Travis [Long] the director and Gareth [West] the executive producer found us via e-mail saying, “Hey, we’re fans of ‘Those Aren’t Muskets.’ Do you guys have a screenplay? We have a budget.” That’s literally the only way they found us, through our work on Cracked and our work at “Those Aren’t Muskets.” And distribution is certainly following the same path. We’re distributing through TUGG and the deal there is basically you just try to generate interest in cities and get enough people to reserve seats at their local theaters. If you get enough in that city, then you get a screening. So basically everything is crowd sourced and the miracle of the internet is we can make this completely as indie as you can get, low budget horror comedy and based on the strengths of the reputation we’ve built online, attract a cast to a script.
I should say that the entire cast are sketch comedians that we found online and just reached out to and brought out based on our respect for their work. And then are able to just curry enough votes and force it into theaters. So my childhood dream of seeing a movie of mine in a theater can come true just because I got enough people online to click a button, and I think that’s certainly the first time in human history that’s been an option for a filmmaker, and it’s just incredible. In the future, after the theatrical run runs its course, we’ll be distributing it, as you said, on video on demand. It’s looking like on Netflix instant eventually and also hopefully direct download, just on a pay per play basis. So there’s all these amazing opportunities to get it out so literally anyone in the world can see the movie just because I uploaded it from my computer. That can’t be overstated.
You actually uploaded the Kill Me Now file?
Well, I edited large chunks of it but Travis Long, the director, did the final assembly in Illinois, so there’s another aspect of the internet. He’s working in Illinois and we’re working in L.A. all editing it together, and then he packaged the final and sent it off.
It makes me think, even Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew stories, how he never paid for his own release print because the studio who distributed would have to pay for that. Now this is the next level, you just upload it directly.
I think the biggest takeaway is I don’t even understand the process to which you just alluded. I’m not sure at what point the release print would come in or why that was cool of Robert Rodriguez to do that, and I have a movie in a theater.
Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel