Saturday, March 2, 2013

An Interview With Mark Torgl: The Man Behind Melvin

Arm of an unknown fan
One of the integral elements to a cult classic is the gathering of actors willing to go earnestly - rather than ironically - over the top and imprint on our memories even a few moments of real magic. The cast of The Toxic Avenger achieves this in every scene and balances a menagerie of caricatured types played to the hilt with a protective outer shell of terrified normals; the local extras who are the little people of Tromaville. As the wise and foreboding narrator states "Our story begins here at the Tromaville Health Club" at the beginning of the film, Melvin Ferd is named and is the first face seen in the exploitation film masterpiece The Toxic Avenger. In a few seconds of dopey happy-go-lucky mopping and hapless victimization at the hands of health club bullies, Mark Torgl's wimpiness before transformation by toxic chemical waste into our titular antihero isn't merely nerdy any more than the bullies are your average harmless movie types. The first line of dialogue in the film is "Would you take a look at that fuckin' guy?" - and it announces the vulgar geek show about to unfold as the tale of "the first super-hero from New Jersey." Torgl is sympathetic nearly in perverse pantomime, he's not a chatty science wiz like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner. A character like "Melvin Ferd" really hails straight from Troma's wacky sex comedies, driven by the same harmlessly indignant impulses from the groin yet beset upon by the new world Troma films were becoming. Like Peter Weller in Robocop, the extremity of pain inflicted on our pre-transformed superhuman embeds him to the soul of the film.

Mark Torgl was kind enough to answer some questions about the making of The Toxic Avenger and also The First Turn-On!, Troma's last "straight" comedy before Toxic in which he has a few scenes. He also worked as Script Supervisor for both films before becoming an editor in Hollywood. His first-ever appearance at a horror convention will actually be happening later this month at "Mad Monster Party" in Charlotte, NC on March 22nd-24th.

How did you first become interested in film?

I've been fascinated with films from the time I was 2 and my parents took the family to a drive in movie, and I saw the pictures in the sky. I went to NYU grad film school and Spike Lee, Ang Lee, and Jim Jarmush were classmates.

What are some of your favorite films and who are your favorite filmmakers?

I love Scorsese films, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, I also love anything from Terrence Malick. Badlands may be my all time favorite. Also anything from Stanley Kubrick. Of course I could go on for a very long time, but I'll leave it at that.

How did you start working with Troma?

While at NYU, I answered an ad from Troma that was placed on the NYU job board looking for crew for The First Turn On! I went for an interview and Lloyd Kaufman, the President of Troma asked me what I wanted to do on the film. I said I like to write, he said "Great, you can help write the script, any thing else?" I said I'd like to be the Script Supervisor, he said done. I should have said "I'd like to direct." Of course it was all unpaid.

"The First Turn-On!" (1983, Michael Herz & "Samuel Weil")

As script supervisor on "The First Turn-On!" how would you describe the production?

It was a bunch of kids interested in filmmaking having a lot of fun. No one got paid so everyone was just doing it for the experience.

How did you come to play Georgia Harrell's psycho boyfriend, Dwayne?

On the day we were scheduled to shoot Dwayne's first scene, the actor that was hired to play him was a no show. Lloyd said "Torgl, you play him." the rest is history.

With Georgia Harrell in "The First Turn-On!"

What are your memories of shooting your scenes with Georgia Harrell? Did you guys actually expose yourselves to each other in the "playing doctor" scene?

Georgia was great, really sweet and funny, we weren't shy.

The first bromo-seltzer!

How soon after "The First Turn On!" were you approached about working on "Health Club Horror," later to become "The Toxic Avenger"?

It was the next summer, again during school break. I got a call from Lloyd, he told me about the film they were casting. For the character of Melvin, "Pre Toxie" they had auditioned hundreds of kids. Then Lloyd said he and partner Michael Herz said "What we really need is the character Torgl played in First Turn On!" Lloyd said if I wanted the part it was mine.

As Melvin Ferd in "The Toxic Avenger" (1984, Michael Herz & "Samuel Weil")

What did you think when you read the script?

I thought it was really campy, I knew it would either be a huge cult film or the worst film ever made. Turns out it was both.

What are your memories of shooting the Tromaville Health Club scenes?

It was all a good time, the sheep was the most difficult part as it had lice or little varmints all over it.

"Oh Julie, Julie, oh, oh Julie, I'm here and you're here and we're together..."

How difficult was the makeup in the scenes where Melvin becomes the Toxic Avenger?

The makeup took many hours, it was pretty uncomfortable. The bathtub scene was difficult as the bathtub had no hot water. And the makeup did not come off easily. Not my favorite part of the shoot. In the catch-on-fire scene, before the stunt double took over, my arm actually caught on fire accidentally. I still have a little scar from that.

Melvin's last moments before his "entire being" is changed

There's a very rare "lost scene" from "Toxic Avenger" of Melvin camping by himself in the woods. Do you recall shooting it?

Yeah, as a matter of fact I wrote that scene. I was sitting by a campfire drinking beer and singing a version of "Hound Dog."

How would you describe the production of "The Toxic Avenger"?

Troma productions are barely professional, we just did what we could to get things shot. Lloyd didn't waste a lot of film, a lot of the scenes were one take. The cast and crew laughed through it all.

Big things bubbling up

What was your reaction to the finished film, and how have you felt about it since then?

I guess at first I thought the film wasn't very good and would just disappear after a few weeks, As it evolved and started showing up at midnight movies as a cult film it was pretty cool. I am happy that it provides such joy and enthusiasm from the fans still.

What came next after parting ways with Troma?

I have been working in Los Angeles in Post Production, making short films, writing scripts. I always kept in touch with Lloyd and would see him when he came to LA.

Were you asked to return as Melvin in "The Toxic Avenger Part II" and "Part III"?

Yes, we were negotiating and since I wasn't paid for part one, or very little, I was trying to make a little something for myself. Also I had moved to Los Angeles and had a job at a post production house, so we never agreed to a price to bring me back. Lloyd jokes in his book "All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger" that he should have paid me the $50 I was asking for.

Fake Melvin in "The Toxic Avenger Part III" (1989, Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman)

How did it feel to cameo as Melvin in "Citizen Toxie" almost 20 years later?

It was fun to do it. Troma flew me out, put me up in a hotel, and gave me all the cheese I could eat. The productions had not changed in 20 years, kids were still the crew, working for no money. But they were all fans of mine so that made it really cool.

Reunited for the first time in "Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger Part IV" (2000, Lloyd Kaufman)

How often do you get recognized by "Toxic Avenger" fans?

Not as often as I used to but still occasionally, It's always a surprise. I will be making my first ever personal appearance autograph signing at "Mad Monster Party" in Charlotte, North Carolina, March 22nd, 23rd and 24th . It will be interesting to see how that goes.

Arm of another unknown fan

Sincerest thanks to Mr. Mark Torgl for granting this interview. Tickets for Mad Monster Party are available here!


Psy-Ko said...

Well I'm not brain dead or trying to convince you to visit my site :-) I'm a real live Toxie fan! I was at Mad Monster Party last weekend and got to meet Mark Torgl! He was a very nice & personable guy! He signed my mop (I'm a real janitor) and took a couple pics with me. It was an honor to meet him.

Unknown said...

Awesome, Psy-Ko!