By Jake Coyle
NEW YORK — Seven years in the making, the Flaming Lips’ new “Christmas on Mars” is a lo-fi feat of obsession and endurance.
The sci-fi movie — which frontman Wayne Coyne calls “a freakout” — was created with amateur compulsiveness, patched together on self-made sets in Coyne’s Oklahoma backyard. One recalls another spacey film: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” in which Richard Dreyfuss maniacally constructs giant mounds to satisfy his vision.
“I do know, for sure, I would be one of these guys who built a city out of bottle caps in his backyard if I didn’t have the Flaming Lips,” said Coyne in a recent interview, dressed in his trademark, always slightly rumpled silver suit, with a bow tie that never gets tied slung around his neck. “I’m kind of that smelly, weird, almost insane guy making his weird outsider art in his backyard.”
With moviemaking experience only from music videos, Coyne directed “Christmas on Mars” by casting friends (including professional actors Adam Goldman and Fred Armisen) and bandmates (the band’s multi-intstrumentalist Steve Drozd stars).
The 86-minute movie is playing in theaters this fall and was released Tuesday on DVD by the band’s record label, Warner Bros. Records. It’s also available on iTunes for $9.99.
That Coyne and company even finished the movie has been a surprise to fans who for years have seen trailers promising its imminent release. The New York Times called it “destined for cult status.”
The Flaming Lips have been around since 1983, experiencing the occasional success (including a guest appearance on “Beverly Hills 90210” — the first one). But they took a new direction with the sonic explorations of 1997’s experimental “Zaireeka,” which paved the way for their masterpiece, 1999’s “The Soft Bulletin” and their breakthrough, 2002’s “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.”
But in 2001, Coyne wanted to disrupt the regular band pattern of tour-record-tour. “The Soft Bulletin” had a cinematic concept to it, and those ideas bled into “Christmas on Mars.”
“We want this identity,” explained Coyne. “I’ll talk about groups like The Beatles or Pink Floyd or whatever. They don’t just go up there and play their instruments. They have created their world for themselves to live in. That’s what I want to do. Not for our fans, mostly for me. I want to be the guy who made a movie called ‘Christmas on Mars.’”
The identity of the Flaming Lips isn’t easy to describe and is best experienced at their concerts, which typically include animal costumes, dancers on each side of the stage, fake blood and, occasionally, a giant UFO.
Though it can seem like an insular, psychedelic utopia, the Lips have always sung songs grounded in reality, often about death and failure. Coyne has called their music a “sunshiny, funeral-esque sort of thing” — and “Christmas on Mars” continues in that vein.
Explaining the plot would be impossible, but it centers on a crew living on Mars and the arrival of a Martian (Coyne) on Christmas Eve. Unsure of how to describe it, Drozd calls the movie — variously black-and-white and a brightly colored swirl — “a sensory experience.”
Said Coyne: “I just surrender to it. I don’t try to justify it and say, ‘Look, the marching band has genitals on their heads because of ... this.’ I don’t know! It just looks cool!”
If “Christmas on Mars” sounds like the kind of film that might inspire an audience to bring hallucinogenics rather than popcorn, that possibility isn’t lost on Coyne, who acknowledged the Lips are “definitely a drug band on a couple different levels.”
“You know, if you’re 20-year-old and want to take some acid and watch a movie, ‘Christmas on Mars’ would probably be a good one for that,” Coyne said with a laugh.
He does, though, caution that heroin and crystal meth are drugs he wouldn’t go near. His oldest brother still struggles with meth, and Drozd was in the lows of a heroin addiction (which he kicked years ago) early during the making of “Christmas on Mars.”
“I have a really hard time watching it,” said Drozd, noting how thin he is in certain older shots. “I just think some of the acting is horrible, mine especially. And just for me, my whole personal story that goes along with it.”
Though Drozd — whose only previous acting experience was in school plays — wondered about how good the film would be and how it would be received, he never doubted that it would be completed.
“For good or ill, it was going to get finished,” he said. “That’s just how Wayne is. He’s a closer.”
Coyne doesn’t claim “Christmas on Mars” to be anything more than “an indulgent art project.” He believes failure is entirely underrated, and is proud the movie was clearly “done by humans.”
“I can’t tell you how valuable our dumb little moment on ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ was,” said Coyne. “I saw how half-a-- it was. Not that it was really half-a--; it was normal for them.”
The Flaming Lips — who all still live in their hometown of Oklahoma City — will soon get back to more typical band life by recording their next album. They already have a batch of new songs and plan to work on them early next year.