James Gunn Looks Back at the Making of ‘Tromeo & Juliet’

James Gunn photo

The screening of “Tromeo and Juliet” at New Beverly Cinema brought many people to the theater who were involved in its making. Among them were the movie’s director and co-founder of Troma Entertainment Lloyd Kaufman, actor Will Keenan who played Tromeo, and actors Sean Gunn and Stephen Blackheart among others. But the real star of the evening was filmmaker James Gunn who entertained the devoted audience with many anecdotes about “Tromeo and Juliet’s” making. Best known these days for his films “Slither,” “Super,” for writing the script to the “Dawn of the Dead” remake and most especially for “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Tromeo and Juliet” was one of his first jobs in the movie business.

Tromeo and Juliet movie poster

“Tromeo and Juliet” is, of course, loosely inspired by William Shakespeare’s classic “Romeo and Juliet,” and Kaufman said he and Troma Entertainment had tried to write the script for three or four years and could not get it right. It was his sister’s best friend who sent Gunn’s resume to Kaufman’s attention, and at that point Gunn had already graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in Writing Fiction. Kaufman, however, noticed something different about him.

“What caught my attention was he vomited onstage, that he was a performance actor who vomited onstage,” Kaufman said about Gunn. “I didn’t know whether he vomited because he was nervous or because it felt it was entertaining or because perhaps he had studied all the work of Terence Malick. But whatever it was, it was sort of like that moment in ‘The Producers’ when Zero Mostel sees his Hitler and says ‘you’re my Hitler!’ James Gunn was ours.”

Gunn said he didn’t actually vomit onstage and that Kaufman may have read someone else’s resume, but it didn’t matter because he got the job.

Keenan said he had not seen “Tromeo and Juliet” in fifteen years before this night and he joked that it looked twenty years old when it first came out. But for Gunn, this was part of the movie’s design.

“When we were doing the movie, I remember that I wanted it to look really dated,” Gunn said. “I used to love ‘Valley Girl’ and I loved looking back at it because it looked so 80’s. And I wanted to make this one look as 90’s as possible (it came out in 1997).”

Gunn recalled writing the first draft for “Tromeo and Juliet” in about a week and a half, and he gave it to Kaufman and assumed he was going to love it. Kaufman, however, found Gunn’s script to be “too filthy,” and this is saying a lot because Troma Entertainment movies usually revel in being filthy. Kaufman said there were about “8 scenes of urination” in the script, and Juliet was originally written to make her first appearance in a porno booth which is where the initial conversations between her and Tromeo would have taken place. Kaufman complained “Shakespeare didn’t have that in mind” when he wrote “Romeo and Juliet.”

There was also a bit said about Jane Jensen who played Juliet. She was not able to attend this screening, but Gunn talked of how he joked around with her throughout shooting. One scene from “Tromeo & Juliet” has her character’s stomach opening up to reveal popcorn and then rats and maggots. Jensen apparently had a near nervous breakdown shooting it as she had a major phobia of the maggots and was screaming her head off as the cameras rolled. Gunn recalls exactly what was going through his head at that moment.

“Wow! Jane’s acting is really good in this scene,” Gunn said. “And then all of a sudden I go ‘holy shit! I think that maybe this is real!’ And then I had that evil filmmaker moment where you go ‘do I keep filming?’”

Gunn ended up reminiscing about a review of “Tromeo and Juliet” he read in Film Threat Magazine, and he felt it captured the movie perfectly.

“They said, ‘I don’t know how to review this film because you can’t win,’” Gunn reminisced. “’If you say that there’s something stupid in here, they (the filmmakers) are going to say yeah, we meant to do that. And if you say there’s something great in here, they’re going to say yeah, we meant to do that.’ And that’s totally true! That is what it is!”

For those of us who have seen “Tromeo and Juliet,” we have to agree the review is really dead on. The movie wallows in bad taste and never apologizes for it, and it becomes all the more entertaining as a result. It was great to see James Gunn at New Beverly Cinema talking about this cult classic because his enthusiasm for this project was contagious. It’s this same enthusiasm which carried over to the movies he worked on from there, and not just “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

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