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Before ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ There Was ‘Tromeo and Juliet’

Over the weekend, James Gunn’s latest installment of the Marvel behemoth Guardians of the Galaxy easily topped the box office. But this year marks 20 years since the release of his first madcap creation, Tromeo and Juliet. The film is a near perfect time capsule of the 90s, littered with a colorful punk ethos and an array of zany, disgusting scenes. The film’s version of Shakespeare himself is played by Lemmy, while Tromeo (Will Keenan) is a sex-obsessed horndog who masturbates to porn on a CD-rom. There’s incest, S&M, and decapitations, and the film is also replete with Troma’s legendary house smorgasbord of gore, sex, violence, and a torrent of non-PC one-liners.

Tromeo and Juliet stands apart from much of Troma’s other work, in that it focuses less on supernatural fare and possesses more of a romantic core. The film was also a jumping off point for Gunn’s career, cementing him as one of Troma’s most successful alumni. We spoke to him and Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman separately about the making of their cult film.

Can you believe it has been 20 years since the initial release of the film?
James Gunn: It’s pretty incredible. I can’t believe how much time has passed—but, really, I can, because everything in my career really started with Tromeo and Juliet. A lot of what I learned about filmmaking was in that film, especially the test screening. I was able to watch it with an audience and think about the parts that worked, as well as the parts that didn’t.

How were you hired for the film?
I went into a meeting with Lloyd because I’d gone to Troma to get a job filing papers in the office or something—but he knew I went to Columbia and that I had a reputation for performing on the Lower East Side. He said, “Maybe you can write Tromeo and Juliet,” or “Maybe you can do The Toxic Avenger,” or “Maybe you could do some other film.” I would have preferred to do some other film at the time; The Toxic Avenger and Tromeo and Juliet both sounded so cheesy and terrible to me. At the end of the day, he offered me $150 to rewrite Tromeo and Juliet, which was a fucking mess—basically just Romeo and Juliet transcribed with dirty words thrown in. I just did my thing. I knew what Troma movies were, but I also wanted to step outside of what a Troma movie had been up until that point.

The film works really well as a piece of 90s nostalgia.
That was intentional. When making the movie, I was thinking back onValley Girl, in which everything is so overly 80s. I wanted people to look back at this movie and think it’s so ridiculously 90s. I knew at the time that we were making a movie that was so of the moment that it would be dated in five years—hopefully, in a cool way that makes you enjoy that datedness.

What was your experience writing your first screenplay?
I’d made a lot of [8MM] movies when I was 11 or 12 years old, but I’d never written a full screenplay—I was a novelist at the time. I walked to the local used bookstore and bought a screenwriting book to see what the formatting of a screenplay was. I made my own Microsoft Word program because I had no screenwriting software and wrote it in my own strange format. I don’t even remember having scene numbers, frankly. I have that original screenplay in my house with tons of notes. I kind of cherish it.

How did it feel directing your first movie?
Like coming home. I walked onto a movie set on the first day and I can’t quite explain it. It was a real experience. My girlfriend at the time she’d never seen me so excited about anything. I was incredibly fortunate because most people have to go through other stages of filmmaking—admittedly, this was a lower budget project—and I came into this movie as a director. That’s a strange situation.

A lot of times, Lloyd handled the camera and I took care of the actors. I battled a lot with the cinematographer. He had his own ideas about how things should work and I was harsh with him at times. We had problems that you [typically] have—a location backed out or something—but overall it was a pretty fluid process. Lloyd had people around from a production standpoint that he didn’t usually have. I’m the polar opposite of Lloyd when it comes to directing: pretty much every shot is figured out beforehand.
Lloyd Kaufman: Sometimes you have to [improvise] because the cast and crews we work with are inexperienced—you have to keep things fresh on set. The young people needed to improvise and shoot in sequence. We weren’t that planned out. Some of the best scenes came from me and James bantering back and forth in rehearsal.

Do you think the film could be made today with how not-PC it is? Do you miss being able to work within that framework?
Gunn: I think I could probably do that stuff again if I wanted to, but I’d probably have a different sort of career. Being completely honest with you, I feel there was a certain amount of it that was just a crutch. When I [first] worked in a system where you can’t do that stuff, it allowed me to get to a deeper type of storytelling I wasn’t able to get to before that. I was such an angry human being, and anger covers up a lot of other emotions that are there. That was stuff that was a great phase to go through, and I’m not ashamed of it in any way—which is why I’m doing this interview now.

At the same time, I don’t come from the same place today. I think we live in a world that is overly PC. It’s a very complex world, and we have people who have a lot of simplistic answers, whether they’re on the conservative side or the “unquote” side. That’s a harmful thing. At the same time, words and language can hurt people, and that’s something that should be respected. We can’t pretend that words mean nothing, because they do mean something.

I read that you didn’t have a great time with Lemmy on set.
I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but the guy was a total dick. He punched my friend Patrick Cassidy. He came on set and wanted to have alcohol and women around him. He was grabbing young women. He didn’t want to say the words I’d written—but he got drunk, so I had what I’d originally written on cue cards, because he hadn’t memorized his lines. Then, he went around the set saying he re-wrote everything. I know the guy was a classic rock star, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a bad person. I didn’t like him.

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Photo by Alex Broadwell

How did you feel about Romeo + Juliet being released later that same year?
It sucked. We weren’t happy about it. It was a bummer. But at the same, Romeo + Juliet wasn’t a cool movie. It was a very uncool movie. The people that liked it were uncool. So I think in that way it worked to our benefit. Because Tromeo and Juliet was the cool version and Romeo + Juliet was the cheesy MTV version.
Kaufman: When Tromeo and Juliet came out, we couldn’t get it into any theaters. But then the Baz Luhrmann version came out and was such a big hit, suddenly we started getting into more theaters. I thought that movie sucked and didn’t know what they were saying. They needed to go back and study Shakespeare.

How successful was the film when it came out?
Not very. It got a good review in The New York Times, but then the Village Voice spent much of their review focusing on Lemmy’s mole. James tried to have it shown at a film festival in St. Louis and they said no and were snobby as fuck. Of course, now they’d blow him. The only reason you’re even talking to me is because of James Gunn.
Gunn: Normally when you make a movie, you want people to like it and get great reviews. But with Tromeo and Juliet, if we got a bad review, it was like, “Oh, that’s what we’re looking for,” and if we got a good review, it was like, “Oh, you totally get it.” You couldn’t lose. No matter what reaction you get is a good reaction.

What was it like being on the set for a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy?
Kaufman: I hated it, because it proved what a little footnote I am. “Oh, this is the real movie and what I’m doing is bullshit.” [But] James made a big speech to the 3,000 people on set that day: “This is Lloyd, he was my first boss, and when I make a movie I channel him.” He’s way above the idiots who make the rest of those mainstream movies. He’s an auteur. And he’s able to make movies in a really nice way. He’s no yes man.

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