Filmmaker Mike Celestino on Edgy Comedy and Pop Culture Skeptics

April 13, 2015

Los Angeles-based filmmaker Michael (“Mike”) Celestino is a skeptic, film buff, and comedy fan. The bespectacled and slightly bemused writer/director agreed to answer some questions about his recent projects.

Benjamin Radford: I saw your previous documentary, That’s Not Funny, and it was pretty good. [Full disclosure: I donated to the film’s funding.] I thought it was insightful and interesting. I had a few complaints–I’ll provide you with an itemized and alphabetized list later on–but overall it was a solid film and examined an important topic. For those who didn’t see it, can you talk a bit about the film and why you decided to make it?

Michael (“Mike”) Celestino: First of all, thank you. I’ll take “pretty good” as high praise from a straight-shooter such as yourself. Seriously though, I’m honored that you even watched it. It took me a while to allow myself to even approach making a movie that stream-of-consciousness [format]. One YouTube commenter noted that I should have categorized it as a manifesto instead of a documentary. Of course I responded that as soon as film festivals started recognizing “manifesto” as a genre, I would be happy to comply, so long as the Michael Moores and Dinesh D’Souzas of the world followed suit.

That’s Not Funny came out of a recurring argument I found myself having on Facebook, to be honest. I actually lost a friend or two to this argument, and I still see it happening, though lately I’ve been trying to stay out of it since I feel like I’ve said my piece on the topic–namely “Where do we draw the line when it comes to edgy subject matter in comedy”? It seems to come up about every other month now–#CancelColbert, Seth Rogen and James Franco causing an international incident, this whole Trevor Noah thing–these are all examples we would have used in the movie if we’d held off making it for another year.

I was also able to incorporate a subject that was originally (more than a decade ago) going to be my first book, until I realized that I probably am incapable of writing a book–Hitler’s relationship with comedy–that became a whole chapter in the movie, and probably my favorite part. I’m really glad we were able to include that. And when I say “we” I mean myself and my co-producer / co-editor Robert Garren, who’s kind of the indispensable behind-the-scenes Girl Friday on most of the stuff I’ve been involved with.

BR: Do you know John Rael? Can you get his autograph for me?

M(“M”)C: John is an enigma, and I’m never less than impressed with the stuff he puts out. Though I suspect his girlfriend Anna [Maltese] is the real brains behind the operation, and I don’t think he’ll mind me saying that. [Editor’s note: When asked for comment Rael replied, “Mike said that? Huh… No, it’s okay. I know where he lives. We’ll work it out.”]

Those two are going to take down the anti-science and anti-intellectual movements one YouTube video at a time [most recently in an on-target debunking of trick archer Lars Andersen]. I will say that John is directly responsible for me once having been stuffed into a tiny car full of strippers in Las Vegas. And anyone who knows me knows how incredibly uncomfortable I was in that situation. John was one of the strippers, by the way. I can’t really say anything more about it for legal reasons.

BR: You seem to have started a new Kickstarter campaign for a new film, The Scully. I haven’t seen it yet but word on the streets from a guy who knows a guy who’s seen the dailies says it’s the next That’s Not Funny, only less funny. What’s it about and why are you making it? Why is it an important topic for you?

M(“M”)C: I’m glad it seems that way, because it’s true! I figured we’d piggyback a campaign for a second feature documentary on the recent YouTube success of That’s Not Funny (we’re closing in on 40,000 views with an almost 95% approval rating–not bad for a 90-minute rant from a complete unknown, or so I thought).

The Scully is another idea that’s been rattling around in my brain for years. And the germ really goes back to Ghostbusters, a movie I’ve seen a thousand times and most of which I could probably recite, and more specifically William Atherton’s character Walter Peck. I’ve just always thought it was funny that in reality, Walter Peck would be the good guy in that story. In the real world, our world that we live in, the Ghostbusters are con artists and Walter Peck, this professional environmentalist who’s skeptical of the Ghostbusters and the paranormal from the get-go, is the hero. But because it’s a movie and we know ghosts are real in the world of this movie, we’re of course on The Ghostbusters’ side, and Walter Peck, who Atherton plays (wonderfully) as a real asshole and a foil for everybody’s favorite person in the world-mine included-Bill Murray, we boo him and we hiss him. For being skeptical! And wanting to protect the environment! I can’t help but feel like that attitude bleeds over to, or maybe has bled over from, our perception of skeptics in the real world. Now I want to talk about that phenomenon for 90 minutes, with visual aids. That’s the idea for the movie.

And then I thought I’d name it after my favorite fictional skeptic from The X-Files, who’s kind of the exception that proves the rule, though as I type that phrase I’m still convinced it doesn’t mean anything. Dana Scully is an admirable character, and I love her and I definitely identify with her, but she’s still always wrong. Every episode, Mulder’s right and Scully’s wrong. The plan is for Scully to be kind of the centerpiece for the whole discussion, so I’ll get into that more in the movie, of course.

The timing on this whole thing was a very happy accident, by the way. I came up with the title about six months ago, a while before any serious rumblings about the coming X-Files revival hit the news. The rest, as they say, is history.

BR: If you could take a person on your knee–say, a wide-eyed toddler whose native tongue is not English, or a street mime trying to shake off the effects of a Taser to the taint–and tell him or her about The Scully, what would you say? What’s your elevator pitch?

M(“M”)C: To boil it down, we have a character archetype that pops up a lot in storytelling-the skeptic-someone who I, as a skeptic myself, feel like I should probably identify with, but almost never do. And I want to examine why. Do foreign toddlers understand the word “archetype”?

BR: What lessons did you learn in the process of trying to get That’s Not Funny funded that you’re applying to The Scully?

M(“M”)C: I’m bad at learning lessons. With That’s Not Funny, we managed to get a very niche documentary some very modest funding. So for this next one I apparently decided to crank up the dial on the “niche” and, in turn, I’m asking for a little less money. We’ll see what happens, I guess. My mom says I’ll end up making the movie no matter what. And my mom’s usually right.

BR: Your personal and professional connections to comedy (and film, for that matter) were made clear in That’s Not Funny. But what about skepticism? What is your background as a skeptic? How did you get involved in the community? Were you always a skeptic?

M(“M”)C: I want to save my background as a skeptic for the movie itself, because it’s very much a part of the story. In fact, the entire intro (which is admittedly the only part I’ve actually written, so far) is about how I came to call myself an atheist, and it ties in nicely with the whole pop-culture angle. That part has nothing to do with The X-Files, but I will also say that growing up I was much more of a Mulder.

BR: Do you know Emery Emery? Can you get his autograph for me?

M(“M”)C: I’ve met Emery a handful of times, and he’s incredibly supportive and friendly. He shaved his moustache down to “the Hitler” for the That’s Not Funny trailer, I got to be a guest on his podcast, and he came to our world premiere in Hollywood last year. I was thrilled to see him there. He’s also responsible for me having exchanged a few emails with Bob Odenkirk, and that alone makes him pretty cool. I’m sure both he and John would be happy to send you an autograph, if the price is right.

BR: What’s the strangest connection you have to a D-list celebrity?

M(“M”)C: This is actually a good story that makes me pretty happy.  It’s not really about any D-lister but after college I got a job working at a DVD store in West Los Angeles, and it was right down the road from the FOX lot on Pico Boulevard so a whole bunch of my heroes shopped there–I got both Matt Groening and Tim Burton to sign DVDs for me. Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith were also regulars there, both really nice guys whose film and TV work I’m sort of tepid on, but that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, through that job I met and sort of befriended Mark Hamill’s son Nathan. We’re the same age and he’s really into alternative comedy and, weirdly enough, he’s just as much of a crazy Star Wars nut as I am. As a toddler he was on the set of Return of the Jedi! We kind of fell out of touch for a while because I moved around a bunch and went through some health stuff, but we’ve since gotten back in touch and he’s seen That’s Not Funny and loved it, and I think he said he even showed it to his family, which meant the world to me. Luke Skywalker may have seen the movie I made! I dunno, for some reason that feels like a huge honor. I recently pitched Nathan on a short documentary about his unlikely history with Star Wars and his relationship with his dad. I wanted to call it Son of Skywalker, and I thought that might be a good interim project between That’s Not Funny and The Scully. He turned me down because, as he told me, he (understandably) doesn’t love the spotlight and being the center of attention, but I still think it would have been pretty cool. It’s one of those movies that will just have to exist in my brain and nowhere else. I really hope that doesn’t turn out to be the case for The Scully–that’s my final, transparently desperate plea for your reading audience to come back us on Kickstarter.

BR: Who are your top three favorite documentary filmmakers, and why?

M(“M”)C: Oh jeez, this is a tough one. Off the top of my head, I love Errol Morris. Everything he does is just amazing. Number two: Capturing the Friedmans is one of my favorites and The Jinx was spellbinding, but my girlfriend and I agree that Andrew Jarecki should probably rethink that goatee. And let’s see… third place goes to Bennett Miller, who is not famous for his documentaries, but he made The Cruise and that’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

If you’d like to see Michael (“Mike”) Celestino’s film That’s Not Funny, you can watch it in its entirety for free HERE. 

If you’d like to see or donate to Michael (“Mike”) Celestino’s Kickstarter campaign for The Scully, you can find it HERE.