Now celebrating forty years of “reel independence,” the ever prolific Troma Entertainment, Inc., the distribution and film studio located in Long Island City that specializes in sex, gore and sharp political and social satire (cult classic The Toxic Avenger is perhaps Troma's most successful franchise), is back with a new feature length two-parter, Return to Nuke 'Em High. To celebrate Return to Nuke 'Em High Volume 1's upcoming release, FilmLinc Daily spoke with Kaufman and the film's leads, Catherine Corcoran, Asta Maria Paredes and Clay von Carlowitz.
The ultimate champion of the low-budget and independent, as well as the possessor of a keen eye for new talent – filmmakers such as James Gunn, Trey Parker, Matt Stone and thespians Kevin Costner and Samuel L. Jackson have had Troma ties – Lloyd Kaufman is an artist of many trades: filmmaker, producer, author, instructor and, as in his latest film, actor. He is also a strong advocate for making art accessible to the masses. Consistently working hard to democratize the distribution of cinema, one needn't look much further than Troma's Youtube channel to see how intent Kaufman is on getting his work seen anywhere by anyone; if you own a theater, bar, school, or screening room, you too could request a Troma event, and Kaufman would try his best to be there.
Always a showman, Lloyd brought Return to Nuke 'Em High Volume 1, a sequel to Troma's teen classic Class of Nuke 'Em High (timely released in 1986, the same year as the Chernobyl disaster), to last year's Cannes Film Festival. You may have heard something about it. Since then, the film has played at festivals around the world (including the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, where FilmLinc Daily first caught up with Kaufman and Corcoran) and as of this week, New York City. Before Volume 1 is released in Manhattan this Friday, January 10th at the Village East Cinema on 2nd Avenue, the film will get a very special screening at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) this evening as part of The Contenders series. “The [MoMA] Department of Film combs through major studio releases and the top film festivals in the world…selecting influential, innovative films made in the past 12 months that we believe will stand the test of time,” notes MoMa's official description, adding, “Whether bound for awards glory or destined to become a cult classic, each of these films is a contender for lasting historical significance, and any true cinephile will want to catch them on the big screen.” Simply put: this Thursday evening, Troma conquers MoMA.
As Tromaorganic, a health food company that's school cafeteria products have become infected with toxic waste, gets in trouble for turning teenaged customers into deranged, hell-raising mutants (Cretins, as the film calls them), the film follows Lauren (Catherine Corcoran) and Chrissy (Asta Maria Paredes), two high school teenagers from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds. They have one thing in common, however, that being that they are both secretly in the closet and afraid. “The bullying is just as important to the movie,” Kaufman remarked. “It's a revisiting of the original Class of Nuke 'Em High but with a lesbian couple. Do they break out? Don't they break out? America is still a very conservative, puritanical country.”
On her character's relationship with Lauren, Corcoran felt very inspired. “The characters that prevail, Lauren and Chrissy, aren't embraced but they prevail because they appreciate who they are, love each other, and realize that that is the only thing that really matters. They love each other and they love themselves. I think that's the driving force of the film. When we were reading the script and were hashing this out, making the realization that this was the project we were making, I think all of us sat there in awe of how powerful that really is and how proud we were to be able to work on something like this,” said Corcoran. Added Paredes: “When we both decided to do the parts. We came on knowing the reputation of what it is to be a Troma actress, and we decided we wanted to change it so dramatically that people would look at this as an entirely different movie, and it happens to be a Troma movie. That meaning that we both decided to completely own the nudity in the film. We were very comfortable with doing it, not necessarily in a sexual way, but just that we happened to be nude on screen. We tried to think of our characters not as females, but as two different people.”
“We've actually had one bad review,” Paredes remembered, “that said, 'oh how dare Troma think that being lesbian is shocking anymore!' Basically boo-hooing us for…'oh, they're attempting to make [being] gay shocking! The truth is, and I can tell you that from the perspective of someone who grew up in the south, it's still shocking. It's not even that we were trying to shock. I think the storyline of Catie and I's characters is the only storyline, or the only plot point, that isn't shocking. It's just two people falling in love and all these crazy things happening around them.” Return to Nuke 'Em High stays grounded by surrounding itself with the absurd and relevant.
“At the end of the day, I think it's about acceptance and appreciating who you are for what you are,” Corcoran agreed. “That's really beautiful. In the film itself, and this is true in the original, the people who become the Cretins and become the tormentors were the tormented. Nobody likes them. They're the glee club, they're the ones who are chastised and nobody wants to be their friend. They take it to an extreme because when you are put down that much, you have no choice but to react viscerally and to react strongly and they start to hurt other people, just as they were hurt.”
A Village Voice article in the the summer of 2012 (with Kaufman front and center on the newspaper's cover) documented the film's casting process. Clay von Carlowitz, the leading male actor in the film, described the lengthiness of the process. “I submitted myself through an online casting service,” von Carlowitz explained. “The description was Return To Nuke 'Em High and they were looking for four characters. The women were Lauren and Chrissy, and the [male] characters were a guy named Brick and a guy named Eugene. Brick was described as a hard-ass with tattoos and Eugene was described as a nerdy guy, your classic nerdy character. One of my roomates thought that he would submit [for the film] too. He submitted for Eugene, because he was kinda gangly and thought he could do this nerd character. I submitted for Brick, because I had tended to be typecast as the jock, and so I thought 'well, that's really the only chance I have.' I submitted for that character and went about researching Troma and I watched the original Class of Nuke 'Em High on YouTube. I thought it was funny and I kinda wished I had a group of people to watch it with me. It seemed like a crowd-type of flick.” Surprisingly, Von Carlowitz went on to play Eugene instead and dramatically transformed the character in the process.
Equal part highbrow and lowbrow, Return to Nuke 'Em High Volume 1 proves to be very culturally aware, displaying a biting edge with a low budget aesthetic. If you've found yourself a a news/media junkie these past few years, following the increased attention (or lack thereof) given to Jerry Sandusky, Trayon Martin, Obamacare, school shootings, bath salts, gay marriage and more, the film invites you to participate in its point; it critiques and provokes a discussion. “I think Troma is very politically aware, in general,” Corcoran reflected. “This [is a] comedy/satire for very intelligent people and the humor is very smart. It's silly and over the top, but at its core, it's very intelligent.”
The film often feels up to the minute, as if updated in the projection booth moments before the film begins. Who to credit for its impromptu, off-the-cuff nature? “We had a long, long pre-production,” Kaufman explained. “I think it took a year to write and then we had at least six months of pre-production. [The cast] went through several months of rehearsing in studios and then on-location and then on the set itself. But we always were improvising, for sure.”
Needless to say, the actors valued that freedom. “Everything was improvised, basically,” Paredes confirmed. “Things would be changed at the last second. In fact, I don't have a copy of the final script. We would get sides and it would change. They would have an idea and they'd change it that day. This is from experience, in particular, but as a lead, I know that ninety-nine percent – like one line isn't me – but the other ninety-nine percent are versions that I made or are completely original and my own. For the most part it'd be a point-counter point, like 'we want this reference made, but make it your own! Here's the line, but there is no script. Just do the same thing every time though. And I know that to the point that we were doing the ADRs for the audio, they would add lines in that weren't even spoken on the set….The Troma world is so steeped in hyper satire. You're already nodding at the audience when you have practical effects. You're already in this fantasy world, this allegory of a high school, but if you sneak in real incidents that are so over the top, ridiculously horrible, it brings people back to reality and you make them think a little bit. [Kaufman] likes to slide these in when he can.”
Thanks to the context the film provides, the gross-out humor and violent situations are often given added weight. “I think that's what so many of the lower budget movies don't get,” Kaufman admitted. “They only can see the sex and violence. Some of these directors…that's all they see. And the media to a large extent….Why are we [Troma] here for forty years? It can't just be because there's blood and guts on the screen. There's got to be more to it. The humanity of the original Toxic Avenger….it's a love story and it's sweet. Chrissy and Warren in the first Nuke 'Em High (in 1986)… “all the world loves a lover,” yet it was a satire of the 1950s teenage movies.” “It was very much Reefer Madness,” recalled Corcoran. “Yeah, but here…this recent film is a buddy picture, it's a romantic film, in the middle of chaos,” Kaufman said with pride.
Like a true serial, Volume 1 ends on a cliff-hanger, all the better to whet your appetite for the upcoming finale. Going out with a bang, the final image is an homage, a visual reference, to Brian De Palma's 1976 film adaptation of Carrie, the popular Stephen King novel which shares certain themes with Troma's latest. “Carrie is a big influence, not just on this film, but on The Toxic Avenger,” Kaufman mentioned. “Brian De Palma was a big influence on me. I made a movie called The Battle of Love's Return, which was an unwatchable film but it happened to play some movie theaters (and Oliver Stone starred in that movie), and De Palma came to see it and was very supportive of it. Carrie really knocked me out when I saw it and you can see that when you see The Toxic Avenger. It's still with us.
“It's the underdog [story],” Corcoran agreed, “the idea of being who you are is wrong and what it does to people and the extremes they take people to. It's the same story, a universal theme.”
Return to Nuke 'Em High Volume 1 screens tonight at the Museum of the Modern Art. More information is available here. The film opens for a commercial release this Friday, January 10th at the Village East Cinema on 2nd Avenue. Showtime information and tickets are available here.