Feature Friday Interviews spotlight rare and wonderful individuals who embody characteristics of The Liberation Artist: living outside the status quo while writing their own rules and carving a unique path to self-defined success. This week it is with great pleasure that I introduce you to Alex Kaplan, one half of the dazzling Kaplan Brothers team who have brought such classics as “Silence! The Musical” (a musical parody of “Silence of the Lambs”) to life with an incredible score and naughtily clever lyrics, and produced unfathomably and twistedly funny musical shorts such as”Conan the Barbarian,”Commando,” and “Predator,” not to mention the genius Lego film wherein Darth Vader (yes, the lego version) works with John Williams to compose the Imperial March. This clever little piece of brilliance was introduced and shown by John Williams himself just days ago, on August 30-31, at his annual Hollywood Bowl concert with the LA Philharmonic.
So do the awards. The brothers have won acclaim for their work, especially on “Silence! The Musical,” including the 2012 LA Drama Critics Circle Award – Best Score; 2005 NYC Fringe Festival Overall Excellence Award for Outstanding Musical; Time Magazine’s Top 10 Plays and Musicals 2011, again, to tick off just a few for you.
The breadth of the Kaplan Brothers’ work, and their background itself, is worth checking out, and a great place to start is at their website. If they are new to you, don’t wait – the moment you finish reading this interview, head on over there!
It is a privilege to bring you this interview with Alex today, and I have hopes of one day interviewing the other half of this creative team as well. If I do so, you know I will share with you!
I will be honest, I was particularly excited about this interview. I had a sense that given the brutal honesty with which they approach their work, Alex would prove to be a candid subject, and he doesn’t disappoint. He is one of the few interviewees I’ve presented who references the fact that even as success is all around us, the going isn’t always as simple as others would believe. You here know how much I respect such integrity as that level of admission (as if you needed more of an introduction as to why this individual is such a perfect example of a Liberation Artist in action!).
Much as I champion taking the road less traveled, and staying true to yourself, it isn’t always easy. This in itself is very much a part of the path of the Liberation Artist. As I read Alex’s interview, it served as a keen reminder that talent and creativity are only one part of the equation, and that persistence itself is often the more significant element, as is knowing that success is about more than what others see. It is what we do for the passion, for our own need of self-expression, as much as it is about how we choose to live our lives; our ability to continue on even when the going gets rough and the temptation to take the safer road looms large; staying ever-true to who we are at core; and writing our story with the moments of our lives, and what we produce as we spend them, one after another. Alex Kaplan proves to be a fantastic reminder of this, as he helps turn out one brilliant co-creation after another.
Without further ado, it is again, a privilege to allow you to a peek into the creative mind that is Alex Kaplan.
Alex Kaplan is a composer and a writer. With his brother Jon, he wrote Silence! The Musical (a musical parody of Silence of the Lambs), which debuted on the internet before moving Off-Broadway. He also co-wrote the screenplay and music for the upcoming horror movie, Zombeavers.
Alex, you are the perfect example of what we call here a Liberation Artist, carving out a unique career built on very outside-the-box creation. Your accomplishments are impressive. How did this journey begin? Were you always a bit of a non-conformist?
Thank you. I was exposed to film music at a very early age by my father, who was a composer. My brother Jon and I grew up listening to music by John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri, Basil Poledouris, etc. We were also fans of raunchy/offensive comedy, particularly the films of John Landis, the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams, films like Kentucky Fried Movie, Trading Places and Airplane. When we were kids we would entertain each other by making short horror films and writing short comedy stories that were send-ups of our favorite movies. So there was always a love for music and comedy but we never really figured out how to combine these interests until Silence. By 2002 we had moved to California and graduated from USC with degrees in film scoring, but we weren’t getting much work so we wrote Silence, again to entertain ourselves and to play for our friends. We thought the experience would be like the short stories we used to write when we were kids. We never thought it would reach an audience, but thanks to the internet, it did.
Your work can be ‘in-your-face’ and definitely has the potential to offend a number of people. Do you believe this plays a part in the success?
Yes, I think the profanity is one of the allures that made Silence successful when we first put it out. But the same shocking/titillating material helped make the movie itself successful. Silence of the Lambs is a film that people don’t seem to get tired of and the musical is a fun way for them to revisit a story and characters that they’re already fond of.
At any point did you stop and think, “Whoa, maybe I’m going too far?” Did you ever get pressure to edit or hold back, from others, or even yourself? If yes, how did you handle that?
I never worried about going too far with Silence because I never thought anyone would hear it. After the show premiered at the 2005 Fringe Festival in NY, the show got some negative reviews that attacked the show for being vulgar. Our original producers asked us to trim some of the profanity but we mostly ignored them. When our show resurfaced in 2011, Book of Mormon had come out and we no longer received negative reviews for being vulgar.
Creating parody takes a certain kind of genius, the ability to recognize or assess something in a way others wouldn’t. Quite honestly, your work is some of the most clever I’ve seen. Did this come naturally? Is it ‘just the way your mind works’ or did you cultivate this?
Thanks. I think we got it from our father. He used to fart quietly into his socks and then he’d throw them at us like grenades. We’d be watching TV and the socks would suddenly land in our laps and they’d smell horrible.
Who or what would you call a big influence on you and your work?
I accidentally answered this in question number one. I could list some more film composers I love: Alex North, Miklos Rozsa, Danny Elfman, Howard Shore, Michael Kamen, Thomas Newman, David Newman, Stephen Sondheim, Alan Menken, Marc Shaiman. In terms of comedy: Mel Brooks, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Howard Stern, George Carlin.
Do you consider yourself a musician first, and a purveyor of parody second, or vice versa? Which are you more passionate about?
I care about about both, but I do consider myself a musician first and if anything I use parody as a means of getting people to listen to my music. Even when the subject matter is very silly or obscene, the music is treated with great care.
Did you ever have a sense that you were different, that you see the world from a unique perspective, or rather did it simply feel natural to be Alex, no matter what others thought or did?
It feels natural to be me, but also lonely and sometimes very sad. And heavily medicated.
Were you ever tempted to take a ‘‘safer’’ path, you know, the 9-5 with benefits and holiday package?
I’m still tempted to take the safer path, because I can’t afford my rent.
How would you say you measure success? I suspect it is outside the typical status-quo?
I’m happy that people enjoy the work that we put out there. To have Silence leap off the internet and materialize as a real thing around the world that payed my rent for several months is something I’ll always be grateful for. Our biggest successes have come from passion projects that we put on the internet for free, so I measure the success in terms the nice comments that people leave. Sometimes the comments are hateful, and I enjoy those too.
Do you have one main dream or vision for your work, long-term? You mention the success of your passion projects – what fuels those, and are they connected to a bigger dream?
The big dream was always to “make a movie” in some capacity. With Zombeavers, we wrote the music and co-wrote the screenplay, so that may be as close as we get, even if it’s really not our vision in the end. The passion projects give me a sense of purpose. What that purpose is, I have no idea. Maybe it’s to share my unadulterated visions, even if they’re on a smaller scale than a feature.
Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for our readers, many of whom are pursuing a potentially controversial or uncommon life path, and regularly have others telling them all the reasons they either will ‘‘fail’’ or ‘‘can’t do that’’ or ‘‘they are pushing the envelope too far”?
There’s no such thing as pushing the envelope too far anymore. Over the past ten years every form of bodily function, vulgarity and religion has been lampooned to the point where people have become desensitized. There is no envelope. Follow your dreams.
I highly encourage you to further explore the work of the Kaplan brothers – though I must warn you, it isn’t for the faint of heart. They really do push the envelope in every sense of the word. If, however, you can appreciate in-your-face, boldly honest humor that stops you in your tracks as you question, “Did they really go there? OMG, they did!” then you *need* to check out their work. Begin with their website by clicking here. Next, you will definitely want to click here and visit their youtube page.
Here are some reviews of “Silence! The Musical”:
“Cannibalism is deliciously served up in this tuneful and crass re-telling of Silence of the Lambs.”—Entertainment Weekly’s Must List
“Silence! is golden!”—Variety
“A wonderful piece of art, most of which we can’t play for you on television.” —Alison Haislip, Attack of the Show
”[‘Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket’] is your ‘Welcome to the Jungle’…it’s fantastic.” —Jim Norton, The Opie & Anthony Show
Remember, folks – create amazing! You are writing the story of your life, moment by moment, with every action and inaction alike. Make it a great one!