An Interview With The Writers Of ‘TCM Underground’

by Rachel Bellwoar

Mainstream movies serve their purpose (and yeah, a number of them are quite good) but there’s nothing quite like falling head over heels for a cult movie and wanting to yell from the rooftops about it. There’s something about the act of discovery and finding gold in a film that has been out for years that’s absolutely exhilarating (see the moment that Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession is having right now, since it’s been added to Shudder), and if you’re wondering whether Possession is in Millie De Chirico and Quatoyiah Murry‘s book, TCM Underground it absolutely is, along with other should-be classics like Joseph Losey’s Secret Ceremony. Until recently, De Chirico programmed and hosted TCM Underground and if you’re wondering what a loss that programming is to TCM, this book is the evidence. For more about what makes Robert Greenwald‘s Xanadu and the films of Russ Meyers so joyful, check out this email interview with De Chirico and Murry:

Rachel Bellwoar: How has the experience of putting this book together been different from programming TCM Underground or hosting TCM Slumberground?

Quatoyiah Murry: I can’t speak to programming, but in terms of co-hosting TCM Slumberground, there were a few similarities in the process. I always did prep work before each Slumberground episode which involved some research here and there to back up my points. Writing the book was a super intense, revved up version of that. It still involved taking notes during watch sessions and real time feedback, but writing the book was an everyday task. While there are lots of people involved with the book writing process, so much of it is being on your own little island and in your head. It’s lots of rewriting, editing, proofing past the point of dry eyes, email exchanges, photo gathering, small copy needs, etc.

There’s a ton of work that goes into every Slumberground episode, but it felt more fluid because the work gets spread by the other hosts Matthew and Ben along with Millie, the associate producer Bailey, and the director/producer Jacob Griswell. He’s ridiculously good at what he does and keeps everything on track while still allowing room for a fun, free flowing environment. So even though Slumberground is a lot of work, it felt looser. The number of moving pieces involved with writing a book is enough to make you wake up in cold sweats thinking, “Wait did I fix that mistake?!”

Millie De Chirico: I think putting the book together was similar to programming in that we wanted to cover a lot of ground with our choices and try to get a good spread of genres, directors, release years, etc. Since we picked the fifty titles from movies I had programmed over the years, I didn’t have too much of a problem selecting the titles I wanted to write about. But overall, I think the choices we made in the book were more personal to us specifically.

RB: In his foreword, Patton Oswalt encourages readers not to “…read this book from the beginning,” but to, “Flip around, stop where it grabs you….” Would you concur with that approach?

QM: Most definitely! We have sections within the book but that’s mostly to categorize by a very loose theme. My hope is for people to just pick it up and be intrigued by a photo or a sentence that makes them read about a movie, then want to find and watch it. Discovery is the best part of being a cult movie fan, so our goal was to make a book that served as an engaging, fun way to learn about these particular films that we adore. There’s no right or wrong way to read it, just dive in!

MDC: Yeah, I like doing it that way, too. Most of the film reference guides I’d grown up reading were alphabetical so being able to pop around by theme is pretty fun (and also, speaks to my programming brain that loves to organize movies in creative ways).

RB: Is there any criteria that you’ve come up with for what qualifies a film for cult status?

QM: We didn’t really establish any criteria, but I will say Millie has helped shaped the tone of TCM Underground throughout the past 16 years. The movies she has aired over the years was the pool that we picked from for this book. In all of our years of knowing each other, we’ve never really discussed any criteria that a cult movie has to be this or that. We’re both very vocal in our thoughts around movies but I think we’re really only just now learning each other’s personal philosophies around what makes something “cult.” It’s wild that we’ve just shared an uncommunicated understanding around it, but I think that comes with being passionate about the actual history of cult, offbeat, underground films.

MDC: I think it really just boils down to deep passion and a tendency to be misunderstood. I always believed that cult movies were like the underdogs of the film world, in whatever way that happens.

RB: In the acknowledgements you mention having worked on this book from different countries. Did that create any challenges?

QM: I wouldn’t say the distance/time difference was a challenge in writing it. It was the overall point of where I was in my life that created the challenges. I went back to school for my masters in a foreign country where I arrived with barely passable knowledge of the language, then had to struggle to find work, as bureaucracy and red tape didn’t allow me to continue working at TCM like I had hoped. Balancing that with meeting new people, exploring a new place, setting up bank accounts, figuring out visa and government issues, writing papers and a thesis, and crying myself to sleep most nights made constantly writing, editing, and proofing an entire book in a few months quite the challenge.

MDC: Yeah, I think writing during a pandemic created certain life factors for the both of us that may not have existed had we done it pre-Covid. At one point I was writing from the guest bedroom of my parents’ house. But I think once we understood the assignment we both went into our separate holes and said, “See you in six months!”

RB: Were there any films that you had to *rock paper scissors* over to decide who would get to write about them?

QM: Not really! Of all the films we picked on our initial list, we only had two overlaps: Ganja and Hess and Little Darlings. Millie was kind enough to give me both, which I was extremely grateful for because I was slightly stressed about what I would have picked instead.

MDC: I was more than happy to let them go because I really wanted to hear Toyiah’s take on both!

RB: Now that the book is finished, is there a film that’s been haunting you because you weren’t able to include it or only discovered it recently?

QM: I honestly don’t think so. I love a lot of movies that we didn’t pick and would relish the opportunity to just talk ad nauseum about my favorite underrated ones, but I took the task of putting something into print and marking it as significant very seriously. I didn’t want to just talk about a movie only because I loved it or had a personal affinity for it. I wanted to make sure the films I picked had cultural importance and could tell a story about a significant point in time and in movie history. I’m very passionate about cinematic history. I try to uplift those who have been left out of the conversation when we talk about the canon of movies or the history of cinema, so that made it very easy to shed some films that were possible contenders for the book.

MDC: There might have been one movie that I wished I’d written about: Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! It was basically the film that got me into cult movies and I probably would have had a lot to say about it. However, I decided not to include it because I thought it was such a canonical title and had been written about so much over the years (plus, I had already written about Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, another Russ Meyer film).

While there are a few international entries, most of the movies in the book are from the United States. Would you say availability played a role in that?

QM: I believe that’s part of it, but the book is also from an American cult/underground lens. For instance, Hausu was huge in Japan, but American movie goers didn’t really know about it until it became available in the U.S. in the early 2000s. That’s also the case with a few domestic titles we feature. My hope living abroad is to find the underground, cult scene here in Paris to get an understanding of what cult films looks like in other countries, then share those with my movie loving friends.

MDC: From a programming perspective, yes. International rights availability will always be an issue when you program for American television, and since we pulled titles that had aired on the franchise, that became sort of an unfortunate issue.

RB: In the past, cult movies have arguably had a tougher time finding their audiences. Do you think it’s still possible to make a cult movie in the age of social media?

QM: I for sure think it’s still possible because there are always movies to discover that have been made but have flown under the radar, and with the right amount of time, they’ll be resurfaced by a passionate group of movie goers. I do, however, think the definition of cult will change or evolve in this post-social media age. Right now, cult is being seen almost as a genre, so you have movies being made that are meant to be categorized as “cult.” My hope is that we’ll think of another word to define these types of movies and leave the term “cult” to movies that have historically been and will be panned, maligned, overlooked, and underseen. I’ve seen people online trying to argue that Tenent and Thor 4 are future cult movies, and I’m so fascinated by that argument. How a quarter-billion-dollar picture made by one of the biggest conglomerations in the world but was simply panned is being called “cult” is wild to me. But I think that just shows that movie goers of this generation have a very different definition of what “cult” means. I think it’s still possible for a cult movie to grow organically in part because of platforms like Letterboxd, TikTok, and YouTube, where sharing recommendations to likeminded people is encouraged. But a cult film by its very definition can’t be made by the creators of said film. The beauty of cult film is that the audience is what makes it and gives it another life.

MDC: I agree you can’t really manufacture a cult film. I think it really just boils down to time. I feel like there’s always going to be genuinely weird movies being made, even if we’re in an era where insurance commercials have dark jokes or some kind of David Lynchian moment. I think as long as there are movies being misunderstood when they come out, there might be a cult film waiting there 15-20 years down the road. I think the thing social media has done is give the people who have the, “Remember that thing?!” moment a steady place to talk and congregate. And generally, the internet has made the pursuit of watching cult movies so much easier. There are so many movies from my youth that I thought I’d never see beyond a 9th generation VHS dub that are now restored in 4K or something.

RB: Of the 50 films in this book, do you have a personal favorite?

QM: It’s really hard to say because so many of the movies we picked are beloved in different ways. But I will have to say the movie that had most effect on me in recent years was Xanadu. I watched it for the first time before we were presented with the idea of writing the book, and it was literally transcendental (granted there were other reasons for that euphoria at that time). I recently rewatched it alone in France as the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta did a screening of it. Xanadu still managed to bring me so much pure joy! I laughed, I danced, I sang, I’m perpetually in awe of the outfits and the production design, I’m always confused by the editing and the direction, and every time I watch it, I still forget about all the weird places it goes. That movie brings me a childlike joy that I haven’t experienced with a film in a very long time.

MDC: I really loved writing about the movie Remember My Name. To me it’s such a rich text and it was fun to get to be in that world for a while, watching the movie on repeat and just working out my feelings about it. I’m sort of an evangelist for that movie, to be honest!

RB: Thanks for agreeing to his interview, Millie and Quatoyiah! 

TCM Underground is available now from Running Press.

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