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Q&A: Lloyd Kaufman and the cast of “RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH”

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What do you call a comeback for something that never really went away in the first place? That’s the question inadvertently asked by RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, VOLUME 1 when it skyrocketed Troma into the pop culture lexicon once more. Despite always having worked as a distribution entity as they bring their films into the digital age, it’s been the better part of a decade since Troma has brought their unequivocal brand cinematic terrorism to theaters.

Now, after 40 years of making films without the restrictions and censorship of studio filmmaking, Troma has had a banner year with their newest film, premiering it at the 2013 Marche du Film in Cannes before being selected by the Museum of Modern Art for their “The Contenders 2013” series alongside some of the strongest talents in the film industry. Now, as Troma takes the satirical splatter film around the globe, director/co-founder Lloyd Kaufman and his talented, charismatic cast (including Catherine Corcoran, Mark Quinnette, Asta Paredes and Clay von Carlowitz) sat down with FANGORIA to discuss their experience making RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, VOLUME 1, and what fans should expect from VOLUME 2…

FANGORIA: So, how did you all become involved with RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH? How exactly did this film come together?

LLOYD KAUFMAN: This movie was the idea of somebody else, actually. A lot of famous people began with Troma and have made their way through the movie industry. One of them is a big shot over at Starz, Kevin Kasha. They’ve been remaking movies, so he thought CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH would be a good movie to remake. All we would have to do was pay for it and we would have complete control over our small budget. Starz then delivered half of our budget back to us when we delivered our movie.

So it was really their idea, I think, at least as to how I remember it. I was working on THE TOXIC AVENGER PART 5, which, by the way, takes place in Ukraine. It’s brilliant.

CLAY VON CARLOWITZ: That’s what we call “subtext.” [laughs] These movies are always relevant.

CATHERINE CORCORAN: Actually, in a lot of reviews, critics were referencing that racial event… I can’t remember the name right now…

ASTA PAREDES: Apartheid?

CARLOWITZ: The Civil Rights Movement?

KAUFMAN: THE HANGOVER PART FOUR?

CORCORAN: No, the one with the kid that was all over the news!

CARLOWITZ: Oh, Trayvon Martin.

CORCORAN: Yes! Critics were taking us to task for referencing that one.

KAUFMAN: RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, VOLUME 1 did for Skittles what E.T. did for Reese’s Pieces.

PAREDES: Actually, when we were in Seattle, our reference to that movie shooting thing didn’t get a response. People were so far away from that now.

CORCORAN: We had some really heavy jokes in RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, VOLUME 1, and for whatever reason, some people were like, “Oh, that’s too far in referencing that movie theater shooting!”

KAUFMAN: The Museum of Modern Art actually selected RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, VOLUME 1, and that’s because of [the cast.] No other Troma movie has been selected to play at MoMA alongside David Lynch, Woody Allen, Sofia Coppola, The Coen Brothers and Lars von Trier.

PAREDES: Don’t forget the Duran Duran documentary.

KAUFMAN: Yes, that Duran Duran documentary. But it’s because RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH VOLUME 1 has the best cast we’ve ever had in 40 years. Troma has been a stepping stone for a lot of famous people, like Matt Stone, Trey Parker and James Gunn, and luckily, someone who grew up with Troma had the power to do something with us.

PAREDES: We went to multiple auditions and answered casting calls, and for different reasons, we were all in a certain point in our lives where we said, “What the hell! Let’s do this.”

CORCORAN: We were lucky that we all were in the position that we could just go and commit three months of our lives to do this.

MARK QUINNETTE: A lot of people made sacrifices and luckily, it worked.

KAUFMAN: For three months, we were pretty much working 24/7.

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PAREDES: There’d be times where we’d be on set and we’d all be at different points in our lives with different financial situations and everything, but nobody gave a fuck about what was going on back home. We were just like, “We’re doing this movie. We’re here now.” It wasn’t until like two days before I was supposed to go home when I finally thought, “Wait, has my rent been paid? I don’t know!”

CORCORAN: It felt like we were all on acid. I remember being in the van that was going back to the bus station and it was just this weird experience where we had been separated from the entire world. I don’t know; it was very much like a mixture between summer camp and film boot camp. I think we all learned so much and we came out of this film as stronger and better filmmakers.

CARLOWITZ: I feel we were involved because they were specifically looking for unusual people, who either had a tick or something wrong with them and that made them witty and sharp. They were looking for energy, and if you look at the special features on the DVD, the cast was all sharing things amongst themselves. That turned something on to the filmmakers that let them know we could get through this experience, like, “Maybe they’ve been through enough so that they’ll survive.”

PAREDES: Speaking of acid, that was my audition; I spoke about the first time I did acid, and part of that made it into the documentary featurette where I talk about my experience like it’s ROSEMARY’S BABY. The thing is, every person I met on this movie in the cast and crew could fit into normal society.

CORCORAN: I liked our little Troma society, though. I was telling someone recently that I was 19 when I auditioned for the film, so I was very young and when I went to Niagara Falls to shoot the film, it was the first time in my life where I felt I could really be myself. It wasn’t about pleasing everybody anymore; it was about embracing who we were. It was difficult going back to home, school and work because nobody understood what I had just went through.

PAREDES: Plus, the place we were living while on-set was like a post-apocalyptic world. We were so detached from society that our idea of a fun night was, “Hey, who wants to go to Wal-Mart? Wal-Mart’s open ‘til 3 a.m.!”

CARLOWITZ: Asta touched on it best when she said that we just didn’t give a fuck. I remember I was just so jaded by the college experience because I had met all these people who were true artists but they were just talking about it and weren’t doing anything. It was all hypothetical, and it got to the point where I was writing a slasher movie in which I was killing all of these people!

QUINNETTE: Yeah, Clay was going through a lot when he came aboard NUKE ‘EM HIGH, like family issues, and we all talked about it while we were sleeping on the floor. [laughs]

FANG: So Troma brought that emotional connection out from all of you, while on set?

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CORCORAN: Absolutely! All of these guys are who I consider my best friends, to this day.

PAREDES: More than just best friends; I consider these people family. We hate each other, we love each other and we’ve all been through this experience together. That’s a special thing.

FANG: Were you all familiar with Troma as a brand before joining the film? Did you see any of their previous productions?

QUINNETTE: I was a huge fan of Troma. I’m from New Jersey, so I used to have VHS tapes of TROMEO AND JULIET and THE TOXIC AVENGER and stuff like that. I think SURF NAZIS MUST DIE was my first Troma movie. I was beside myself when I found out they were doing this. At the time, I was getting into acting and decided to take a shot. Seven shots later, I made it.

PAREDES: Seven shots? Try nine!

CARLOWITZ: I remember I initially auditioned to be a Cretin and I auditioned with Mark, but I ended up being nothing close to a Cretin at the end of the day. But it was fun to pretend to be this hardcore punk guy, and when you’re in such a close space with each other, you get to see different sides of people. Like you’d get to see Mark working on the transformed wheelchair because he did a lot of the artwork on the movie.

QUINNETTE: Yeah, I did a lot of airbrushing on the movie and I made a lot of props on the set. I remember we needed a loudspeaker because at the last moment, Lloyd was like, “We need a loudspeaker! The loudspeaker needs to be talking!” So I stayed up all night with cardboard and plastic Wawa cups making a realistic looking speaker, somehow.

PAREDES: I hadn’t heard of Troma, really. I saw CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH before the movie, though.

CORCORAN: I knew of Troma, but I didn’t know what they were about. I was familiar with THE TOXIC AVENGER, but I didn’t know what else Troma really did. I actually thought they wouldn’t like me! I actually thought Troma was really cool after doing some research, and chickened out because I thought they wouldn’t want me because I wasn’t cool enough to do the movie.

I remember I called the casting director and made up some ridiculous excuse as to why I couldn’t come, so she rescheduled me, but even then I showed up 45 minutes late because I got lost. But I went in and did my thing, and right after, I called my mom and said, “This company is so awesome and cool, but they’re never going to cast me in a million years.” I actually thought that maybe, if I was very nice, they’d let me intern.

CARLOWITZ: I remember filling out the audition form and they were asking if we liked horror movies or were familiar with Troma. I’d only seen CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH but I love horror movies, and maybe that’s what it is. Maybe we’re all fanatics about the dark side of things or something on the fringe.

PAREDES: For me, if I’m going into a job interview, I know what I’m getting into, so I did research and I watched CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH. But once I went in, I could tell you all the Troma films that I love and what I love about Troma.

CARLOWITZ But we didn’t necessarily have to know about Troma. Some people on the set were raised on Troma and others were not. Maybe that was a good thing, though, to have around people who were very familiar and also have around first timers.

QUINNETTE: People were also coming in who were not realizing how far they were getting into the art field, and what exactly the art field is built upon. Whether it’s media-driven or traditionally artistic, all these people were coming out of RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, VOLUME 1 and realized they were all artists. Everyone made their contribution and that’s what the art world is like. That’s what I do for a living and you constantly have to fight for things. You have to work on lots of things for free for people just to get ahead. Everything we did on this movie, we didn’t make a lot of money doing—even though we had a lot of fun doing everything—but all the things that came after that, like going to Europe and premiering at Cannes, made it worth it.

PAREDES: That duck got paid $10,000 and where’s his career?

QUINNETTE: Yeah! He’s probably waddling around somewhere!

PAREDES: This is the first film I auditioned for and the first film I got a lead role in. I’ve gotten more out of this experience than I ever would have if I waited to get paid more for something.

CARLOWITZ: It’s actually perfect that this movie was revisiting a classic high school movie, because high school is a metaphor for life. There’s such division amongst everyone and it’s like the ultimate battleground. You get to see all these types and how they’re alike, but it’s also this pressure cooker dynamic. We had a great ensemble because of that.

PAREDES: Also, people bully Troma way too much.

CORCORAN: I’ve been on big-budget sets before, and RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH was by far the most fun I’ve ever had and that’s because of Lloyd. He allows you to have so much creative freedom that you don’t get on big sets. I also had the privilege of working with the most talented people that I’ve ever met, and if I could do it again, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

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FANG: RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH is one of the biggest modern Troma productions to date, so much so that it’s being divided into two volumes. Did everyone come into the project knowing it was going to be this big, long movie or was the mindset always geared towards working on two films?

KAUFMAN: Of course, we were aiming for two films. It was always our intentions to do something monumental. Tarantino first put that thought in my head when he released KILL BILL in two volumes, so I wanted to do something that would put Troma where we should be.

QUINNETTE: It was around the two month mark when we started losing a lot of people and people were like, “Well, I have to go. I have a life to return to,” and that’s when we realized that we had shot quite a lot of footage.

PAREDES: I don’t want to spoil anything but VOLUME 2 does play back to a lot of things in the way a classic franchise would. We do recall a lot of the original CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH, especially as everything comes to the end in VOLUME 2. We wanted it to be a full circle scenario since there’s so many unanswered questions at the end of CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH, and we do answer them like a legitimate return would. We wanted to make these two films like an epic with all the Troma alumni, and there was a lot of pressure since the casting was so meticulous.

KAUFMAN: We’re still filming, by the way. Stan Lee comes back in VOLUME 2 and we just tortured him again. Stan and I are good friends, and we had a mutual friend in Alain Resnais, who just died. We actually all wrote a script together.

PAREDES: Did he die because of our movie?

KAUFMAN: That could very well be. If Alain was in our movie, he could have still been alive.

CARLOWITZ: There’s some Troma fanatics in this film and they knew how to make the script work because they know the mythology and are able to call back to other movies. Troma fans appreciate that.

CORCORAN: VOLUME 1 ends on a cliffhanger and there’s so many questions that will be answered in VOLUME 2 as you see the characters go through their arc, which I love. In the original NUKE ‘EM HIGH, you don’t see these characters really go through anything but VOLUME 2 allows it all to come full circle in ways that you can’t even imagine.

New Yorkers can meet Lloyd Kaufman and the cast of RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, VOLUME 1 at a special two-night engagement at Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema starting tonight, March 27th. On Sunday, March 30, Kaufman and stars Gabriela Fuhr and Stefan Dezil will sign DVDs and Blus of RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, VOLUME 1 at Burbank, CA’s famed Dark Delicacies bookstore (3152 W. Magnolia Blvd.) You can see if the film is coming to your local cinema, or purchase the DVD/Blu-ray, at the film’s official site. For more, see our review of RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, VOLUME 1 here

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Content Manager for FANGORIA, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, a graphic novel and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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