Lesbians are Heroines in Tromaville!
Greetings from Tromaville!
During a retrospective on Troma done by the British Film Festival, I visited Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Whilst there, Shakespeare's spirit entered my body. I cannot reveal from which orifice Shakespeare's spirit exited my body, but it wasn't long after that that Tromeo & Juliet was delivered unto the world and it contains one of the most lesbian-friendly scenes in film history!
Tromeo & Juliet came to me in a visionary burst. First the title, which I found humorous. Second, the desire to do a romance. True love has often been on the sidelines of Troma movies but never in the forefront. Third, I felt some debt to Shakespeare. I was bored with the baby-food adaptations that were being released. Shakespeare was a shit disturber. His plays had sex and gore and risqué humor. They may be tame today but back then they weren't; it was even illegal for his plays to be performed within the city limits of London. The Bard was a regular 2 Live Crew.
Some of the essential aspects of Romeo & Juliet were as applicable today as they were in the time of Shakespeare. Today, the old are still feeding on the dreams of the young. My generation, the baby boomers, the largest segment of society, has manipulated the world to suit its own economic desires. The boomers trumpeted peace and emotional freedom in the sixties. Now they've given way to a blind elitism which preaches coolness over feeling. Meanwhile, they bombard today's kids with rehashed sixties music and movies and big-budget versions of sixties TV shows; these boomers have thus plasticized their own pasts, making the values they once trumpeted no more real than the Partridge Family, and therefore no longer dangerous to the status quo--that is, themselves. Contemporary Americans in their teens and twenties have turned inward, concocting their own universe of the cool, cold, and uncaring. To me, they can hardly be blamed. It's the same emotional response a man has after being repeatedly raped in prison. It's the natural reaction to being screwed.
The cast of T & J was the best we'd had yet. Will Keenan and Jane Jensen exuded vulnerability and passion as the star-crossed lovers, and their performances were unanimously praised. Some of the actors were good friends of the writer James Gunn, whom he enlisted in different roles, such as Valentine Miele as Murray Martini, Steve Loniewski as Harry, and his brother Sean as Sammy Capulet. Many of these actors were imported from the classic Goodman Acting Conservatory in Chicago. It's a good thing to keep in mind while producing low-budget films; often it's easier to find great actors willing to work for very little in cities outside of New York and Los Angeles.
The rehearsals were the most in-depth yet, lasting for over a month. By keeping the actors focused more seriously than usual on their roles we were able to elicit performances that had more substance and were funnier because of their relationship to the ludicrous surroundings and situations.
The shooting of the movie was the smoothest I had ever been on. I attribute this to an extremely organized crew, but especially to the hand of God. Tragedies were few and far between.
Many of the problems had to do with continuity and framing. For some reason, much of the Tromeo & Juliet team, including the hard-working, talented editor, Frank Reynolds, considered it funny when there were little cheesy hints of the movie's unreality. Since I never cared much about this either, the film is today replete with such errors. The script supervisor became so disgusted with our apathy that she quit after a couple weeks. We replaced her with a college guy that couldn't give a shit if a person's part in their hair changed from one shot to the next. In the DVD version today, you can see:
Most of the other tragedies had to do with physical problems. The actor slated to play Fu Chang, Steve Roberts, had a heart attack shortly before shooting. Though Gunn wanted me to play Fu Chang, we found another actor, Garon Peterson, the day of shooting. Then there was the "Tromeo Triad of Pain," with Sean Gunn's nose, Stevie Blackheart's lip, and Arthur Jolly's head. However, the worst on-set occurrence had to do with Jane Jensen and the maggots.
We filmed a dream sequence in which Juliet's belly engorges into pregnancy while Tromeo watches. He is disgusted until he hears the mouth-watering sound of Jiffy-Pop popcorn popping. He tears open Juliet's belly and rapturously digs into the booty of delicious popcorn. Soon after, live rats begin to emerge from her body.
Now, Jane had no problem with the rats. They were extremely cute--too cute, in fact, to provoke the desired effect. They make you want to speak in goo-goo baby talk more than scream in horror. What she didn't like, however, was the last shot of bugs exiting her womb. In reality, they were only mealy worms--the little things that you buy at any pet store to feed your anole or water frog. For some idiotic reason, the crew and I started calling them "maggots." Jane asked me:
"Are you sure we have to have the maggots come out of my belly?
"Really? Aren't the rats enough? Can't we just leave it at that?"
"Sure. If you want to ruin the whole movie."
And then Jane stopped her protestations. Basically, although I knew that Jane was disgusted by the mealy worms, I didn't know how disgusted. I thought it was the same feeling as not wanting to have Ultraslime sticking all over you--it was "icky." And I thought her protestations were primarily aesthetic. I thought she believed the movie was going "too far," which I didn't think was valid since what we were trying to do was take everything one step too far. In the end, I should have been more aware. This was Jane. She was the most strong-willed, ambitious, and talented actress I've ever worked with. And she wasn't about to complain about minor things. But, while directing a film, you get wrapped up in the technical aspects and forget about the human side sometimes. We went on with the scene as planned.
Brendan was on one camera. I was on the second. After we started filming, James and the prop master, Samara Smith, threw two buckets of maggots on Jane's stomach and then ran out of frame. Just as rehearsed, Jane started to scream.
"Nooo! she cried. "God, nooo! Nooo!"
She kept going, absolutely wild. Gleefully, I panned the camera from the mealy worms to her face. Boy, I thought, she really seems like she's in pain. This is fantastic!
"NOOOO! PLEASE, NO!" Jane screamed.
What an actress! Amazing! The whole crew was smiling. We were loving it.
Then, suddenly, Jane picked up a pillow and stuffed it over her face.
Wait a second. She's not supposed to do that.
"PLEASE STOP! she screamed. "CUT! CUT!"
The crew rushed at her from all sides. Efrem, the still photographer, one of those very rare true and kind souls, arrived first, tearing the fake belly from Jane's skin. James ran toward her and grabbed her in his arms as she sobbed. Samara Smith frantically tried to wipe the mealy worms off her body. And it still took a moment to really strike me.
It was real, I thought. That pain and horror that I was enjoying, that we were all enjoying, it was real.
They finally got Jane clean. They ushered her away from the set. She was still sobbing, stark white. I had never seen even a crack in her strength before, and now here she was, this vulnerable young girl. I didn't know if I should approach her. I didn't know what to say. I was afraid I'd make it worse, and I was ashamed. There's something about that moment that I'll always remember. It was chilling how all of us had been receiving pleasure, even though unknowingly, at the expense of another.
As I waited for her to come back upstairs, I feared that she had cracked somehow, that she'd lost it completely. I envisioned her future: alone in a padded cell with a straightjacket and dark circles around her eyes, a Frances Farmer type of thing; all because of me. I told this to Brendan. He said, as always, I tend to see a situation in the most extreme light possible. Everything's either a horrible tragedy or a tremendous triumph.
"I guess," I said.
Jane was back in an hour and a half. Although completely numb, she was able to film one more short, easy scene, and then go home. I couldn't really sleep that night.
Later, she told me that she had more than a minor fear of "maggots." She was terrified of them. She didn't want to tell us how much, because she didn't want to be a poor sport and she didn't know her reaction would be as intense as it was. The animals had gotten all over her body and underneath the stomach contraption. She felt them squirming. She had simply freaked.
Two mornings later, I saw the dailies of the footage. The most horrible irony of it all was that the "maggots" that we poured onto her, from the camera's point of view, looked pretty similar to Chinese stir-fry. It could have been anything. In the final cut, we went ahead and used the reaction shots of Jane, screaming, with the tears running down her face. You can see them in the movie today.
 In the same way men played women on the Elizabethan stage, animal entrails played the roles of human entrails.
 Steve's health improved by the end of the shoot, and he had a cameo as the larva-toting meat packer.
 This is the primary scene that brought on critical comparisons to Buñuel. I would more likely compare it to windowpane acid.
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