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Stephen Blackehart interviews James Gunn about Tromeo & Juliet

1. James, prior to being hired at Troma, what did you know about the company and/or its films? 

Well, Stevie, I had masturbated to SQUEEZE PLAY on Cinemax quite a few times as a youth.  The women in those old Troma movies always looked like they were going to cry and vomit when they were taking off their tops, as if they were saying to themselves, "Dear God, I don’t want to do this, but everyone will hate me if I don’t go through with it."  They always looked terrified.  I associated that terrified look with Troma films. 

2. How did you get involved in making "Tromeo & Juliet"? 

I was in school. I went in to interview with Lloyd Kaufman for a summer job. I thought I’d file papers.  Instead, he offered me a hundred and fifty bucks to write TROMEO & JULIET. 

3. What were your initial impressions of Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz, the two men behind Troma? 

I loved the shit out of Lloyd.  Every move he made was fascinating to me.  I also thought he was totally bonkers.  The first time I ever saw Michael, he was tearing this employee a new asshole.  That was his tender, emotional side. Later I found out he was much more robotic than that. 

 4. What would you say, in beginning work on "Tromeo", was your biggest challenge? 

When Lloyd read my first draft of TROMEO, I swear he didn’t have a single good thing to say.  That night I lay in bed and wept.  He wanted to cut a lot of my beautiful piss and phlegm joke – it was all a big affront to my integrity as an artist.  The plebeian!   

5. Before shooting began, did you have any idea of what you wanted the film to be, or represent, when it was finished? 

I knew exactly what I wanted from the moment I began writing.  The first scene I ever wrote – a scene that never made it to the screen – was a scene between your character, Benny, and Tromeo.  They were sitting at a diner having an extremely serious conversation about the nature of love.  A waitress comes over to serve them their meal, and Benny reaches over, grabs her breasts, and "honks" them – including the honking noise, of course.  And then they go back to their serious conversation.  It was that type of contrast that interested me.  Harmony through discordant parts.   

6. You were very involved with virtually every aspect of the making of the film.  What was casting the film like for you?

We were limited because the film was non-union.  It was a bit easier with the younger people, because there are a fair amount of young, decent non-SAG actors.  But with the older people it was impossible.  Anyone who’s a decent actor is usually SAG by the time they’re forty, or else they’ve given up.  The people still out there auditioning are usually pretty deluded.  Therefore, our older actors suck pretty bad, with the exception of Cappy, who was SAG and used a pseudonym.  I tried to work with the bad acting as much as I could.  Bad actors can be funny in their own way, and having a bad actor in a scene with a good actor can be a powerful source of that contrast I was interested in.

Interestingly, out of all of the actors, you were the easiest to cast.  You were exactly like I imagined Benny to be.  Jane was almost exactly how I imagined Juliet.  Will, however, was nothing like I imagined Tromeo.   I had imagined Tromeo as a sort of bland, Aryan type.  Will is more like a deranged Richard Grieco with no inhibitions and an oversized mouth.  And I mean that as a compliment.    

7. You cast your brother Sean in the role of Sammy Capulet, and also in the role of Alien Orphan in "The Specials".  Pure nepotism, or does he bring something unique to the table? 

Pure nepotism.  Well, at least in the role of Sammy.  I had no idea if he could pull it off.  Actually, Sean’s performance in the first scene is not his finest hour on film – he had never before acted on camera.  But his death scene is awesome.  For Alien Orphan, I knew only Sean could pull off the strange and unique contortions of the green freak.

 8. Are there any others in the movie that you knew beforehand?

 I was friendly with Val Miele, who played Murray Martini.  I also knew Willie Wisely, the composer.

 9. One person everyone seems to remember from "Tromeo" is Jane Jensen, who plays Juliet.  How did she snag the role? 

Jane almost didn’t get the role.  It almost went to this girl, Sascha Knopf, who was known mostly for playing Vampirella in conventions at the time, but recently appeared in that Danny DeVito movie, WHAT’S THE WORSE THAT COULD HAPPEN?  — that’s an interesting title, because the answer to the question is the title itself. So the title goes on forever, like a mirror in a mirror in a mirror. 

Anyway, Sascha didn’t get the role for some reason I can’t exactly remember, and we went with Jane.  Jane had been called back, easily, ten times.  She was so incredibly happy when she got the role – oh, if only she was able to recall that moment a couple of months later, wearing layers of cow-monster makeup in ninety degree weather, with a huge fake schlong hanging between her legs.  By the end of it all, after being slapped around by Cappy, and having rats and maggots thrown on her, and forced to spend hours on end inside of a hot, glass box on set in front of a crew of people – she had pretty much had her fill of us. 

10. You yourself played a small role, as the "Found a Peanut" father, who gets into a serious car crash along with his family.  How did you end up playing that part?

Whoever the actor was didn’t show up that day, and I took his place. 

 11. It seems to be one of the most trite stories about making anything collaborative as a writer, that one must "sell out", or seriously compromise the integrity of the writing to get a project made.  Do you feel like you had to give in on any major points in "Tromeo"?

All I had to give up was my soul and my integrity.  Seriously, I was constantly giving up things throughout that film.  It was always a case of getting what I wanted but still appeasing Lloyd.  Some of these compromises work.  For instance, I hate puns, and Lloyd kept asking me to add them to the script.  Still, I think they work well – nothing like a good pun to round out a molestation scene.  If only my father made puns while he was molesting me, maybe it would have taken some of the edge off!  

Other stuff, though – I hated the Shakespearean dialogue being in the movie.  Today I hate it less, but still.  And Lloyd wanted Tromeo and Juliet’s little baby to be normal at the end.  I still don’t understand the point of that.  

 12. You co-directed the film with Lloyd Kaufman.  People hear about jointly directed films from folks, like the Hughes brothers, the Farrely brothers, the Wachowskis, etc.  How does co-directing work? Generally, and specifically for you, working with Lloyd Kaufman.

I "associate directed."  My basic role was working with the actors, though I had a lot to do with many of the other areas – the special effects, the sets themselves.  Lloyd took more control of the camera, and, as is his passion, the extras.  Watch Tyrone’s death scene in the movie – a truck comes and hits a guy, knocking off his arm, and then decapitates him.  The head goes flying into the air, and lands on a happy family’s car.  The happy family’s car flips and explodes.  During that scene, Lloyd’s primary concern was the expressions on the faces of the three fat extras watching from the sidewalk.  In Tromaville, all stimuli is put on equal playing ground.

 13. Who did you get along with best in the cast/crew?

My brother.  But Lloyd was definitely my best friend throughout the shooting.  We were side-by-side nineteen hours a day.  We’d shoot all day and then go grab dinner to discuss what we were going to do the next day.  After that, it was probably Jane, Val, and Andrew Weiner, the associate producer.  But I also hung out a lot with Bob Bauer, the first A.D., and Franny Baldwin, the line producer.  And, hell, I was really close with most of the actors – Will and Steve Gibbons and Steve Loniewski.  Strangely, you and I didn’t hang out much until after we were done shooting, when we went to Cannes later on.   I made more friends on the set of Tromeo than I did during any other time period in my life, including college, and grad school, and later films.

 14. Who did you get along with worst in the cast/crew?

The original Capulet was a guy named John Knox.  He flat out lied to us about his availability before we started shooting, and we wasted a day of film on his ass.  In his defense, he did come clean and admit as much the day I fired him, which I guess was cool.  We hired another Cap, Bill Beckwith – aka Maximillian Shaun, who ended up being one of the best things about the movie. Interestingly, Lloyd was so nuts and so cheap he actually wanted to intercut the footage we shot of Knox with the new Beckwith footage!  Knox weighed about a hundred pounds less than Beckwith!  Luckily, the editor, Frank Reynolds and I, talked him out of it.

Other than Knox, I really like Brendan Flynt, the cinematographer, but we had a couple of pretty heated clashes.  I was also probably a little hard at times on Louie Zakarian, the special effects guy.  But the one guy I really disliked was Neil Ruddy.  This dude was our supposed pyrotechnic.  He exploded a whole room when he was supposed to just make a little soft fake head burst.  Fluorescent lights, more than a hundred feet overhead, were destroyed.   I mean, Jesus, it’s one thing to be a hack if you’re a director or an actor or a writer – but to be one in a position where people’s lives are at stake? 

Oh, the one other person I didn’t like was Lemmy.  He’s like a grandpa dressed up in a rock star costume.  I wouldn’t tell you that if Lemmy didn’t punch my friend Patrick Cassidy in the face when Patrick tried to wake him to go to the set of CITIZEN TOXIE. 

15. There are so many stories of the chaos, the injuries, and the general mayhem encompassing the shoot.  Overall, how did the actual shooting of the film go?

There were many, many problems.  We had the exploding warehouse.  We also had your two injuries – when Tiffany kicked you in the face, and later where you hurt your leg due to another explosion.  Another day we threw maggots on Jane and she had some sort of breakdown that lasted about a day.  I take the blame for that one.  She tried telling me they frightened her, but I was so focused on getting the shot I wasn’t really paying attention.  Also, Valentine Miele followed through on a punch and broke my brother’s nose. My brother was a trouper – he continued shooting for another eight hours.  The real sound of his nose breaking – sort of a cartoony champagne bottle pop – sounded too fake to us, so we mixed it up on the soundtrack.  

Everyone on set also had to make it through a great diarrhea epidemic.  At one point, almost all of us – including myself – had diarrhea.  We usually only had a couple available toilets on set, and these fucking things looked like something on a train crossing Pakistan.  The whole set smelled.

What else?  Oh yeah – we shot Tromeo’s apartment in an actual slum in a shitty part of New York City.  We shot for two days, and we got two P.A.s – Greg Radin and somebody else – to sit with the expensive camera equipment overnight.  While they were there, a riot occurred.  The locals were slamming on the door, trying to get at these two Long Island college boys.  I remember the toilets in that apartment didn’t work either, and they had to shit in paper bags and piss out the windows.  After saying all this would you believe me if I told you shooting Tromeo and Juliet was maybe the most fun I ever had in my life?  In truth, it was.  

 16. Okay, so you finish principal photography, wrap the cast, have a big party.  Now you just hire some editor guy to finish the film, and you release it…right?  What happens next?

The movie got pretty good reviews in The New York Times, The LA Times, and most places.  It did pretty well in theaters in Los Angeles, playing midnight shows for ten months, but still not enough to make back the money we spent on advertising.  I think the DVD is where it got most of its attention.  That’s probably the thing I’m most pissed off about the whole process.  My brother Sean and I did DVD commentary, but in the end they wouldn’t use it because we went off on Lemmy, and talked about some of the on-set gossip, and discussed Val Miele’s various sexual fantasies, including one about a big, black football player holding him in his arms like a baby while suckling his penis.  I hope no kids from the Scooby section of the site are making their way over here…Hey, kid, get out of here!

 17.  "Tromeo and Juliet" uses music in a way that both sets the mood of the film, and helps move the story along.  You made a lot of the decisions on the music.  What went into that?  Any interesting stories there?

All the music was pretty much gathered by me and this guy, Dave Shulz, who was head of the LA Troma office.  The most interesting thing was that we got the whole kit ’n caboodle for, I think, five-hundred bucks and ninety-five cents.  Five hundred bucks went to Sublime.   We wrote a check for ninety-five cents to the Ass Ponys, so Chuck Cleaver could frame a check from Troma for ninety-five cents and put it on his wall.  All the other acts gave us their music for free. It was great. And I made more money from Oglio records for having an Icons song on the album than I did for writing the movie in the first place.  Shit, that reminds me – I owe the other Icons money.

 18. What was it like, seeing the finished film for the first time? 

I sat with the editor, Frank Reynolds, for much of the edit, so seeing it finished was a relief more than anything else.  Frank, interestingly enough, went on to edit IN THE BEDROOM.  If Frank had real balls, he would have put some goofy sound effects in that movie to liven it up.

 19. The film was seen for the first time by people outside of the production at the Cannes Film Festival, which you attended, and did much of the publicity work at.  What was that experience like for you?

Actually, no – the first time I saw it in front of an audience was the first of our two test screenings.  It was about two and a half hours long, and it played amazingly well.  Lloyd and I were both totally ecstatic.  When it played at Cannes, it was actually a bit of a downer.  It was mostly buyers watching it, and those people, for the record, aren’t too fond of penis monsters.

The rest of Cannes, however, was some of the most fun I ever had.  I spent it with you and Jane.  We’d stay out until four in the morning partying, and then be up at five o clock to put TROMEO and CANNIBAL THE MUSICAL flyers under people’s hotel room doors.

 20. Upon seeing the film, did you get any strong reactions from your friends or family?

My dad, who’s a devout Catholic, hugged me and told me he was proud of me when he saw it.  And then he mentioned that he didn’t like the part where the priest is fantasizing about dancing through the fields with the little boy.  "But, Dad," I said, "You have to admit, it got a big laugh."  He just shook his head, sadly, looking as if he’s about to cry, and said, "Yeah. It did get a big laugh."  Kind of like that was everything that was wrong with the world today.  But in comparison to people’s reaction to THE TOY COLLECTOR, T and J was a cakewalk. 

 21. Did you do any other projects for Troma, after "Tromeo" ended?

Noah Scalin and I created the original Troma website, for one.  We got an A- in Entertainment Weekly.  I also had my own TV station for a little while, TROMA’S EDGE TV.  It played in Amsterdam and the Netherlands and some other places that are too fucking cold to even think about.  I had to come up with about three hours of new programming a week, which meant we were shooting material more quickly than we could think.  We’d just throw up a tarp in the editing room, and that would be, say, a bedroom.  That’s when I wrote and directed those PSA’s, the Kabukiman anti-masturbation one and the one about the hamsters, that are on all the Troma DVD’s.  I also wrote and directed stuff for the Tromaville Café segments that played before syndicated Troma movies, as well as some segments for The Troma Basement, a show on the BBC.  I shot all the stuff before the videos.  And a billion other things. It was a lot of fun.  After Tromeo, Lloyd pretty much gave me free reign to do whatever I wanted. 

 22. In the time since work on "Tromeo" ended, you have written other films, like "The Specials", and "Scooby-Doo".  "Tromeo" and "Scooby", in particular, seem like two pretty different films.  Are there any common threads between them? 

Absolutely. In both TROMEO and SCOOBY DOO I was working with established styles.  I had to find ways to express myself within that context.

23. Would you say that having made "Tromeo and Juliet" affected your career in any way? 

I’m not sure Tromeo ever really helped me get ahead in this business.  But I learned about every phase of filmmaking, from pre-production through marketing the video.  I wasn’t paid much, but I didn’t have to pay either, like I would at film school, and I think I learned a much more practical approach to the craft. 

24. Would you say that the project impacted who you are as a person, in any way? 

I’m slightly more dysfunctional.  In honesty, though – I did exactly what I wanted to do and it didn’t turn out so bad. 

25. When you look back on the film now, several years and much life experience later, what impression comes to mind about the project?  Any regrets, or things you wish you had done differently? 

Yes.  I wish I fought harder in the editing room to shorten some of the sex sequences. 

26. Anything else you’d like to add? 

The original tagline was going to be "Fuck You."  The poster was just going to have the title, and then, above the credits, read, "Fuck You."  I think that pretty much captures the essence of the movie – a giant "Fuck you" to every convention we could think of.

STEPHEN BLACKEHART, known as Stevie to his friends, is nearly, kind of, sort of famous for his roles in TROMEO & JULIET, RETRO-PUPPETMASTER, and almost twenty other films, most of which have a budget about the same as yours when you go futon-shopping.  You can learn more about him – as well as buy a Benny Que coffee mug! – at the Disneyesque www.blackehart.com.

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