Will Keenan is perhaps best-known for playing one of the title roles of Troma’s well-thought-of “Tromeo and Juliet”. In that film, he proved he could be both the handsome leading man, and the goofy-looking comedian, depending on what the scene called for. International audiences saw his darker side in Troma’s follow-up, Terror Firmer, wherein he plays the psychotic and Spielberg-loving (or do I repeat myself?) character, Casey. In the latter film, Keenan also moved up the ladder to producer, working his a*s off (like most Troma co-conspirators) to get the movie made.
Those two films helped Troma entertainment regain their place on the indie cinema map in the late 90’s, and they opened up new doors for Keenan himself, if not monetarily, then, at least, artistically. “To be honest, I didn’t really know Troma before I auditoned for “Tromeo and Juliet”,” he told me. “I was the kind of kid who was out climbing trees or playing sports rather than renting sick and twisted flicks to watch. So it was a bit of a shock for me, especially coming from NYU, where I was paying $100,000 dollars to be trained in avant-garde, performance art, and classical theatre—which had a slim chance of ever making me $100,000 dollars. But in a weird way, experimental theatre lends itself to low-budget surreal filmmaking. And plus, I was able to perform Shakespeare on camera, (which is) more than a ‘feather in the cap’ to an actor. It’s a different style of acting, full-bodied. And once trained in it, actors get hooked on the stuff. Still waiting to do that again! On “Terror Firmer” I had more of a hand in the actual production, from day one. I was the casting director, I rehearsed all the actors and staged all the scenes. And along with Patrick Cassidy and a few others, produced it. I really wanted the acting from the Terror Firmer cast to be top-notch, which I think it was. And I also wanted to hire certified cult-legends from NYC, which I was able to do. It was a good mix of great acting (Debbie Rochon!), and great personalities. Lloyd strung me along in the beginning and said I’d get co-director credit, but I later found out he says that to all his right-hand people who work their hearts out for him.”
Keenan took his full-contact Troma education and applied it to other films, appearing in small, similarly-surreal movies like “Love God” and “The Love Machine.” In 2002, he turned his sights towards directing and, with his co-director, Gadi Harel, also produced and starred in the incredibly off-beat Operation Midnight Climax.
In “OMC”, Will plays “Will”, a man with paranoid fantasies that the ever-present “They” are watching him, and he cannot move about freely without donning various disguises. At the same time, he’s convinced that “They” are responsible for a world-wide conspiracy against women, so the only way to combat “Their” machinations is obvious: to create his own society consisting of nothing but women. . . and himself, of course.
Along the way, “Will” is hit by cars, falls out windows, is punched, knocked over, knocked down, beaten down, dragged behind trucks—and Keenan performed it all himself! The result is a bizarre and hilarious movie about delusions of grandeur, with plenty of Buster Keaton-style gags thrown into the mix.
The inspiration for the Super-16mm “Operation Midnight Climax” was, Keenan says, “Women, stunts, conspiracies. Gadi Harel and I started with those key elements and then let our imagination run wild. ‘OMC’ started out as an experiment and ended up an experience. We had no shooting script, wrote as we went along. I think we averaged one weekend a month making the film for a year. It was originally meant to be a featurette, or short—around 25-30 minutes— but Steve Menkin, one of the producers on films I had acted in (“Love God” and “The Love
Machine”), a lovely guy, suggested we make it feature-length. I’m glad we did, but I don’t think I’d ever make another movie that way again! What we came up with though, is pretty amazing. It never could have been done the traditional way. And it truly is a testament to everyone who worked on it, especially our DP Bill Miller, the hardest working and fastest cameraman in the business. He’s the reason I’m a filmmaker. No one, including Bill, ever knew what we’d be shooting on any given day. Even the cast was given their lines the day of the shoot. They all thought we were trying to be secretive, part of the whole conspiracy thing, so we let them believe that. But the truth was we were making it up as we went along!”
With the fly-by-night atmosphere of the production, it’s no surprise that Keenan feels the biggest obstacle in their way was continuity (though not the only obstacle). “People died, got pregnant, left the business, got older looking. That, and the fact that I ended up dating a lot of the actresses in the film—which is not good is you are trying to actually finish a movie!”
What? Will Keenan admitting to being a player? “Used to be a playboy, how’s that? Never a misogynist. Pretty hard to become that when you’re brought up by 3 women. Let’s just say I went thru my “dawg/playa” phase, and that it happened to be at the same time we made “OMC.” The whole time though, I was in love with a girl I cast in “Terror Firmer”, Stefanie Imhoff, who I thought would never in a million years lower herself to hang with a guy like me. She’s a very classy gal, and, as I found out much later, she only did “Terror Firmer” to get to know me. When she found out 4 days in to it that I was dating the production designer, she gave up on me but was stuck in hell on TF. Years went by and after cleaning up my act, we finally got together. We continue to be in wedded bliss.”
“OMC” is filled to the brim with beautiful young women, many of them recognizable from the Troma stable, particularly Heidi Sjursen and Jane Jensen (seen in “Terror Firmer” and “Tromeo and Juliet”, respectively. “Well, we needed a lot of girls for OMC and being able to pull from the Troma stable helped a lot,” Keenan says. “I told them it would be a cake-walk compared to working with Troma.”
Cake-walk for them, perhaps. But for the star and co-director, nearly every shoot was rife with problems, not just from the improvisational script, but from the multiple, hard-hitting stunts he was asking himself to do. A mere eight minutes into the movie, “Will” is run down by a convertible—in a single take, he flies up over the hood and lands hard in the front seat, right next to Sjursen, the driver. That’s just the first car-hit of the movie!
“I’m a lucky guy. No broken bones,” he says, laughing. “My trademark stunt is getting hit by a car. I’ve been doing that one for awhile. For ‘OMC’, we did two takes for each scene where I was hit. I got hit by a car four times that day! A few close calls though—like when I fell 20 feet on top of the dumpster. After the shot I got up and lifted my shirt up to reveal a huge black and blue bruise all the way across my chest. Luckily, my adrenaline was so high that I didn’t feel a thing. I guess the more painful it looks, the more cinematic. All the stunts, and all the shots on the streets of NYC, were done guerilla. There’s no way we could have gotten permits to do the stuff we did. And we could never get away with it today, in the post-911 NYC.”
In another shot, Keenan’s character is captivated by a woman he is watching from across the street. He climbs a mailbox, swings onto a “Don’t Walk” sign, perches there for a moment then almost immediately loses his balance, falls… and lands on the top of a moving truck passing below him. A zoom brackets the shot, indicating a single take.
“I came up with that as we were eating lunch on the street. My whole crew was against me doing it, but I guess that’s one of the perks of running the show. I’m not sure what to say except that I was thrown around a lot as a kid and learned how to proactively fall at an early age. I started integrating stunts into my performance work when I was at NYU. I was able to throw myself around quite a bit in live theater, but when I started doing films, everyone kind of balked at it. Some insurance b.s. Anthony Bregman of Good Machine was the first producer to let me do my own stunts on a film for “Love God,” which we made in ’97 and gets credit for being the first full digital feature film.”
Surprisingly, once “Operation Midnight Climax” was completed, the production team found it to be a hot festival property, winning, among others, the Best Feature Audience Award at the Brooklyn International Film Festival and the Best Feature at the Sincine NYC Erotic Film Festival. “When we were making the film I thought that in no way would it play any fests, because it was a sexy cult comedy, which fests kind of ignore. So our idea was to get it made and sell it since it had a lot of sellable points to it (girls! action!). I was surprised when a lot of big fests played it, and even more surprised when it won some awards. And to me, the audience award is the best. The reaction’s been great, and for me, most gratifying is the comparisons to Buster Keaton, the great silent film comedic-stuntman. Almost every scene has a stunt—sometimes we even wrote around the stunts. In fact, we did that a lot. And I’m told that’s what those guys did in the old days. So it has that feel, kind of like old meets new.”
Following “Operation Midnight Climax”, Keenan bid New York goodbye and relocated to the wilds of Hollywood, which is a move most folks find themselves making if they want to “make it” in the industry they love, but doesn’t necessarily love them back. In L.A., Keenan found pockets of success with small roles in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” – “Anthony Bregman also produced that, but I’m relegated to the DVD for that one.”— and a plumb guest role on “Law and Order: SVU”—“It’s repeating quite a bit, and I’m told that I have to go back since they have yet to catch the bad guy. I play a Michael Jackson-like character, which is all the rage right now.”
The interview continues in part two of WILL KEENAN: STUNTWORK AND SPIRITUALITY>>>