Tuesday, September 6, 2011

An Interview With Robert Prichard, Part 2: Nuke 'Em High and Surf Reality

In part two of this two-part interview, actor Robert Prichard recalls the making of Class of Nuke 'Em High and the birth of his video and theater company, Surf Reality. 

Part one of the interview may be read here.

You can visit Robert's website at Surf Reality.com


When did you first hear about Troma's next movie, "Class of Nuke 'Em High"?

I think Rich Haines started talking to me about Nuke 'Em High while we were still doing Toxic Avenger. Toxic was over by the time I got the script, but during Toxic he mentioned to me that he had something he had me in mind for, on more than one occasion. So I was sort of expecting it. It seemed like I went right into it very soon. He showed me the script, and I thought, "Oh, great!" In a way I thought it was funnier than Toxic. I liked the whole Mad Max meets juvenile delinquents story, sort of Mad Max goes to high school, I thought that was fun. It seemed like it was in the same over-the-top universe.

"Oh, say can you see...."

Lloyd Kaufman wrote in one of his books that he felt the need to replace Richard Haines as director, do you know why?

I honestly don't know why Richard was replaced as director, because it didn't seem to be problematic to me the way he was directing scenes. And it didn't seem like a big improvement once Lloyd was directing them. If anything it was more of a rush job. I think they started taking the movie away from him even before he shot the first scene. I don't know, but that was how it felt to me. They were asking him to push harder and faster than he wanted to.

Which of your scenes were directed by Haines, and which by Kaufman?

We shot the stuff in the basement first and that was with Haines. And to me that actually is the stuff that looks the best! The stuff with the girl, the monster, my big pistol and my death scene. To me that was the stuff that looked like a real horror movie! (Laughs) We were just all over-the-top, screaming and yelling and having a lot of fun. Oh yeah, and being really sleazy with each other!

After school activities: with Janelle Brady as Chrissy

I don't think that looked any worse than any other scenes. I guess some of the stuff in the high school is kind of cool. Bullying the kids, the montage where we're trashing the classes - some of that stuff is classic Troma and that was Kaufman.

How was the production of Nuke 'Em different from Toxic Avenger?

They actually had less of a budget for Nuke 'Em High, so there was less coverage and less time to do it. Fewer takes, fewer locations. There were no car chases. What they were paying the actors - this time nobody got anything. The one big location we had that was anywhere comparable to the health club in Toxic Avenger was the high school and I think they got that for next to nothing.

At an inexpensive junkyard location:
"He looked just like...Warren Brandt!"

Brad Dunker, the kid with the nose ring, was actually not an actor - he was someone in their special effects and makeup department and they brought him in because he could ride a motorcycle, so they had him do all the motorcycle riding scenes. And for no money! I think he lived in a house they used and the special effects were done in the closet and he had a mattress or something. (Laughs)

Playing off of a monster puppet was harder than what I did in Toxic. What was easier was that I didn't have to be strangled in a car or anything like that, and most of what we did was interior, too. We'd shoot days and nights. They also had a lot of fun with matte photography; the big nuclear power plant in the background. They created a lot of atmosphere with that. You have to give credit to Richard for a lot of that stuff.

Acting opposite a puppet, under direction from Richard Haines

Were there a lot of changes between the script and finished film?

Originally we weren't going to be that wild with the makeup, we were just going to be like leather punks. And then I think Lloyd saw something from somewhere, Japan maybe, and he decided we should have this crazy look. It wasn't Richard's idea to change the costumes, they sort of superimposed that on him. And that happened shortly after we were cast. I was actually cast without having to audition, but was used as part of the audition process to bring in other actors. Some of the actors dropped out when they found out they had to do something, they'd get cast ad then say "I'm not going to play that!" and they'd quit.

Bad kids: reunited with Gary "Bozo" Schneider

Was there time for rehearsals with The Cretins gang?   

Very little. I didn't really have a partner like with Gary and Cindy and Jennifer in Toxic. I constantly had different Cretins in every scene and there wasn't one I could play off, there was always a different one. It would've been easier and better for me if I'd had a sidekick.

Heather McMahan, who was going to play lead and be my sidekick "Taru," got into a serious car accident right after we shot her first scene. She's still got that scene in the movie. It was basically going to be me and her, so that's what made it difficult, losing her at the top of the film.

What are you saying in German to Jennifer Babtist in her cameo as the German teacher?

I think I said, "You have the most beautiful blue eyes I've ever seen." We improvised more in Toxic, but that scene was written in because they found out I speak German. We brainstormed on how to get Jennifer into the movie because there was very little sex in Nuke 'Em High after "Taru" was written out - they brought in Jennifer for some sex appeal. It might have been Michael Herz and me brainstorming about that. I remember coming home to Jennifer saying "Hey, you want to be in the movie?"

Wanna be a Cretin? With Jennifer Babtist as Ms. Stein

How did "Thrill Kill Video Club" come about? It's impossible to find, but it was written up in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.

We also got a review in Playboy, actually. How that started out is, one of my best friends from his school is Matt Mitler. And he's a theater director, he's got a brilliant theater group based out of Brooklyn called Dzieci, and they're basically improv actors that do really wonderful soulful work in hospitals and orphanages and for non-traditional audiences. They just do amazing stuff, they're like holy clowns.

Back in the late 80s, he had this idea when video cameras were first coming out to the public: What if we got some talented improv actors together, wrote out a storyline, and picked five or six locations within a five block radius and then we shot in-sequence the outline with the improv actors improvising the actual dialogue, and we'd go from location to location so that in one day, we would have a finished movie, in camera? And all we'd have to do was rudimentary editing 'cause it was already done in order and there'd only be a couple takes, and at the end of the day we'd have this movie. And what if we sort-of spoofed movie genres with this improvisational approach?

Matt Mitler in the 1986 slasher "The Mutilator"

He called it "Movie of the Month." And the first one we did was called "Kid Scarface." And it was basically a teenage version of Scarface. It was comedic actors and writers from the scene back in those days. Todd Alcott was in one of them, he wrote Antz. And Frank Senger, who's in The Professional, the Luc Besson movie. Frank's the one guy at the beginning of the movie who doesn't die. Frank's a brilliant actor and he was one of our actors. Camryn Manheim from The Practice did some of our stuff.

So there was "Movie of the Month," and Thrill Kill Video Club was one of those, Dick and Jane Drop Acid and Die was another one. Les Enfants Miserable was another one. We did a bunch. Todd Alcott and Frank Senger were both in Thrill Kill, actually.

Was Jennifer Babtist in "Thrill Kill Video Club"?
No, but she wrote and directed one that we did called Alien Sex Phone Psycho. Which was people calling into a sex phone line and then sort of masturbating themselves to death, because they can't hang up the phone. Sort of a precursor to Infinite Jest, that book by David Foster Wallace, about a guy who makes a movie that's so funny people can't stop watching it and they finally die. You dial up a sex line and then the aliens take over your mind and you hypersex yourself to death.

We did these as something to develop some skills, have some fun, give our actor friends something to do. "Surf Reality" was sort of born out of that, because I was the camera man on a lot of them in addition to being the producer. Jennifer asked me one day, "Well what's it like shooting these improvisations on video?" And I said "It's like surfing reality!" And then we stopped and looked at each other and I said, "'Surf Reality.' That's our name." And so from then on we released them under the title of "Surf Reality Presents a Movie of the Month."

"Thrill Kill Video Club" and "Dick and Jane Drop Acid and Die" seem to be the only ones to have found their way into video stores. Were there any others?

A few of the others were featured at Kim's Video here in New York City, but now that they don't do VHS I'm sure they're long lost and gone. We mastered most of them on 3/4 inch tape and I think they're in my storage unit somewhere, I don't know for sure. (Laughs) We sold a handful to people through the mail because we were mentioned in Playboy. We got reviewed in Psychotronic, Film Threat and by Joe Bob Briggs. I also sent a copy of Dick and Jane Drop Acid and Die to Rev. Ivan Stang of the Church of the SubGenius, the "Bob" guy, and he loved it. He ordained me as a minister in the Church of the SubGenius so I can put "Reverend" in front of my name if I want to.

I think Dick and Jane is our best one, that one is actually very watchable. Thrill Kill Video Club is okay, but if you can find one, find Dick and Jane. I produced it, my friend Jeff Eyres wrote it, and it was just brilliant. Jennifer's in it and she's pregnant!

"Dick and Jane Drop Acid and Die" written up in
The Psychotronic Video Guide

What did Surf Reality become after "Movie of the Month"?

From doing all these videos, people started asking me to shoot their gigs. I'd be going to comedy clubs and little theaters in the Lower East Side to shoot their one act plays, or their improv group or their stand-up act or story reading. I was getting more and more gigs and it started turning into a business. Then we found this loft on the Lower East Side before rents went crazy and we had enough space to live in and have a small stage. Jennifer and I figured, "Well why follow people around with this camera, why not let people come get the whole package from us here?" So we set it up with a nice light and sound package and basically marketed the space to artists to come workshop their material and get a good tape out of it.

And it ran for ten years! A lot of really talented people came through our doors, people who are stars now were on my stage at one point or another. Ben Stiller showed up one day and was interviewed by a towel puppet on our stage. I got busted by his mom Anne Meara, she came the wrong night and was knocking at my loft while I was frying a steak and smoking a joint and then all of a sudden there's Ann Meara at the door! (Laughs) I'm thinking "Great, now I'm busted by everybody's mom."

A lot of great people came through, we also produced our own shows, we did variety nights and brought back a form of Vaudeville that the Lower East Side was actually sort-of famous for inventing back in the day. We sort of brought it back into the late 20th Century, we said that Surf Reality was "Vaudeville for the New Millenium." We also called it "Surf Reality's House of Urban Savages." We featured a lot of comedy, but nontraditional, we didn't do a lot of standup. It was comedy duos, and improv acts, strange comedic storytelling, musical comedy. Upright Citizens Brigade, the very first show they did in New York was at Surf Reality, and Amy Poehler was still part of the troupe at that time, well before she was a big star on Saturday Night Live. Jim Gaffigan used to produce a show at my place every Friday night at 10, and he went on to be in That 70s Show and other shows as well.

Why did you choose to produce avante-garde and experimental theater?

Well for one thing, there's 12 or 15 standup comedy clubs in the five burroughs of New York, easy. So there's plenty of places to go to see that, no reason for us to be presenting that. I was working with my video camera with improv people who had to be fast on their feet, make something happen, who could be real and funny or real and tragic at the same time, and they for the most part weren't stand-up comics. They were doing other things, other interests. And I felt these were my people, so I wanted to open a place that would feature them, and one-person shows that were fully fleshed out, that took you on a rollercoaster between comedy and tragedy and personal reveals of psychic trauma and stuff, where at the end you feel like "Damn, I'm glad I spent that last 75 minutes watching that! That was great!"

Basically, I opened the place for the people I'd been working with. They happened to be really talented people, and happened to not be all that traditional. We got in a lot of traditional people afterwards, and there were a lot of standup comics who came through but, I wouldn't book them in the shows that I produced. They would rent the space. But when I did shows like "Serious Pratfalls" or "The Witching Hour" or "The 101st Congress of Unnatural Acts," they weren't part of that. It was my freaks that were in those shows. A lot of them are actually still doing what they were doing 20 years ago in underground theaters, not in Manhattan anymore because those theaters are gone, but now they're in Brooklyn. Which is where I am now.

Robert in 2000, photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The Village Voice

What are your current projects and where can people learn more about them?

There's SurfReality.com, which features the most recent thing I worked on: "64," which are these paintings that my girlfriend did. She took photos from the New York Times and put them on a canvas and painted on them as a form of collage. And she did 64 of these 16-by-20 inch paintings. Last Summer she was a resident at Djerassi, which is an Artist's Colony in California. There was a playwright there who actually used to come to Surf Reality, he was artist-in-residence of another theater called "Here" in New York City, and saw these paintings and he wrote 64 one-page plays for each painting. We workshopped 35 of them last month at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. I turned some of the scripts into songs, some of them I gave to a video animator and she did some great animation, others were done as straight-up acting theater pieces. There's also an onstage soundscape artist throwing in sounds like a mixmaster throughout the whole thing as well. So it's kind of a vaudeville variety show.

We're going to do all 64 of them at the RE/Mixed Media Festival in October 2011, and then from there we're hoping to do the New York City Fringe Festival next year. 

Thanks again so much for this interview.

My pleasure. It's kind of fun to talk about this stuff. A long time ago now, right? (Laughs)

"Time to diiiiieeeee!"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember watching "Class of Nuke em High" when I was 11 years old, and didn't quite 'get it' thought it was pretty cool. Now I watch it again, and I absolutely LOVE it!! It is quite possibly a cult classic of "over the top-one of a kind" characters!! I can't get enough of the "Cretins" Haa Haa You really need to get the crew back together and make another movie, with those crazy characters, and out there antics! I grew to love this movie, and wish there was more colorful characters, that I've never quite seen since.