Another up-coming film he’s excited about is ‘The Ghastly Love of Johnny X”, written and directed by Paul Bunnel and starring “Phantasm” super-cool co-star Reggie Bannister. Keenan plays the title character in the film, and from the sound of it, it’s impossible to describe.
“I was introduced to Paul by a mutual friend, Ramzi Abed. Ramzi set up a meeting for us at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank and after a half hour of hilarity, he offered me the role in this film he described as ‘Crybaby’ meets ‘Frankenstein’. I don’t think he’d even seen my reel by that point. He goes with his gut and I’m glad he did, because I love the character I’m playing and the journey he goes on from ‘too cool for school’ selfish gang leader a’la Brando in ‘The Wild One’ to growing up quite a bit throughout the film to encompassing the feelings and dreams of others. And even sacrificing himself to help everyone else get back home, which happens to be another planet, Planet X. Did I forget to mention that me and my gang are aliens? Yeah, we’re those aliens straight outta the fifties. We look and act human, and dress like greasers. There’s even a few musical numbers, so I finally get to show off my pipes! We’ll be finishing that up in the next few months and I really think it’s going to be something special.”
For such a bizarre movie to be conceived and be three-quarters finished is astounding. Then take into account how Bunnel (“That Little Monster”) is making it: “Paul Bunnel wrote the script with a friend, then put a second mortgage on his house to make it. I wouldn’t recommend this to everybody—make that ANYBODY—unless the only result you’ll accept is success, which is hard to do. But I think Paul’s got what it takes. And the whole world’s against him. He’s making an anamorphic black and white 35mm, ‘50’s style sci-fi flick in the age of digital video! Most of the money he’s put in to it is definitely going up on the screen, but it’s also been one of the more professional indie sets I’ve been on. Hence, my and Reggie’s trailer! The people he’s surrounded himself with are all pros who’ve been working in Hollywood for awhile, and everyone just loves Paul and is working harder than usual because we want to please him and see him get this done.”
As the song goes, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. The same sentiment can also be applied to Troma Entertainment. Even casual Troma fans are familiar with what goes on behind the scenes of a Troma production. President and co-founder and frequent director, Lloyd Kaufman, runs his sets akin to something between an avant-guarde acting class and a full-scale French New Wave boot camp. In Europe, these movies, immersed as they are in sex-and-violence, are seen through a satiric filter. In America, with critics and audiences alike still operating under Puritanical cell-memory, Troma movies are often cast aside as puerile trash. The actors are often treated the same way. “Starting out as I did, playing ‘Tromeo’, was almost like having a porn career,” Keenan says. “It opened up some doors but slammed other ones shut. I had to work really hard to ‘legitimize’ myself after the Troma films, even in the indie world. Troma is its own brand, and in some circles this gets a lot of respect. In others, the opposite. But what I learned working with them, and especially Lloyd, is priceless. He’s really a genius. King of the Soundbite, Prince of the Pun. He gave me my start, and I will always be thankful. And to be honest, the lead actors for troma always have it the easiest. We never get yelled at, they’re paying us at least something—and Lloyd treats us the best. Though I’m sure it’s only because he’s afraid of a lead actor quitting. If that happens, he knows he’s f’ed. If a supporting actor quits, Lloyd wouldn’t mind, he’d just take a PA and put them in their costume. But if a lead quits, you have to re-shoot, which costs money. So, Lloyd treats his leads very well. Right after ‘Tromeo’ I did ‘Love God’ and a few other indies, and by this time really wanted to do some work behind the camera. And Troma’s a great film school, so I told Lloyd I’d come back if I could help produce, cast, and if I could change the lead character in ‘Terror Firmer’ to a hermaphrodite. He let me and I’m glad he did because the experience I got made it possible to do later films, like ‘OMC’. I consider Loyd a mentor and fatherly film figure (the dysfunctional kind.) He taught me a lot about low budget filmmaking and promotion. No one works harder at being the B-movie guy than Lloyd Kaufman. And since his wife is so nice, I figured he wasn’t just pure evil. I was lucky enough to work with Troma as a lead actor rather than a P.A., who just gets s**t on all day. I was never yelled at. I don’t know how many people can say that. I’m thankful for my Tromatic experiences, and can’t imagine having been able to learn so much in so little time. And Lloyd is a genius! Je can do anything, and has an amazing sixth sense about him. He only sticks with one filmmaking style cause he’s created a monster and is afraid to kill it. ”
Of course, books can (and have!) be written on the experiences any one person can have on a Troma movie. A Troma production has been described as “barely-controlled chaos”, and most find the “controlled” part a bit of a stretch.
“Well, let’s see, more ‘Terror Firmer’ b.s.,” Keenan says, pausing as the memories come to him. “Lemmy strangled me when I tried to get him back on set after he walked off because he couldn’t smoke in the building we were shooting in…. We didn’t tell Ron Jeremy we’d be feeding him a tofu dildo molded from his own member in one of the final scenes… My girlfriend at the time was the production designer but we had to keep it quiet because Lloyd said he wouldn’t hire her. He thinks relationships are bad on set and he’s more often right about things like that. But I knew she would do a great job, which she did. No Troma set’s ever looked better. So I took the gamble. It was probably two weeks into the shoot and our relationship was doomed. Probably having something to do with having to watch me get naked with other women…. I re-wrote all my lines (with the help of Daniel Safer), threatened to quit if they didn’t hire my casting choice of Trent Haaga, which they had a problem with at first. Also threatened to quit if I wasn’t able to change my character to a hermaphrodite, which I thought at the time was a better choice and too, brought attention to an oft-neglected and denigrated minority in our society. (One might argue that more denigration happened after the film, but at least we got the word out…I think.) But I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that I’m difficult to work with. This was Troma, and Troma is much different from the rest of the film industry. Most people don’t do a second film with them like I did (and later Trent and Patrick: suckers!). If you do go back for more punishment, it’s best to stand your ground, cause what else have you got to lose besides your sanity, bank-account, and reputation?”
With all this behind him (of course, in the indie world, it also means stuff you made years ago may still be awaiting the first eyes to see it), Keenan keeps plugging away, his eye constantly trained on loftier goals. But the fact that he shines as a respected actor among a subculture of critics who pay more attention to actresses must indicate something. “Respected, eh? Does that mean I’m respectable? I’ll definitely have to reprint this one for my mom!” he says with a laugh. “I often say that had I the chance to do it differently I would have come out to Holywood first. Which I kind of did after Tromeo, but didn’t stay long because I kept getting calls from NYC during the indie film boom of the lates 90’s. But I got to do some interesting work, travel the world via the film fest circuit, some good press. But yes, if I were to do it all over again, I’d probably hit Hollywood first, make a name for myself and make some money so that I could then do the projects that my heart was in. But like I said, no regrets.”
As for his real-life “roles”, Keenan prefers, in this order: “yogi/moviestar/producer/director/distributor/writer/stuntman,” he says. “Stunts come in last these days because I’ve ‘wised-up’ and am more selective about when, where, and for who I’ll risk my life; I’m new to the distribution game, but so far am really liking it (I’ve always felt I had a knack for marketing); Producing’s the toughest, but I’m a Virgo (astrological sign) Ox (eastern sign), which pretty much determines that I like to be involved in more than one area; Directing is borderline addictive for me, so I make sure I don’t do it too often; Acting was my first love and continues to be. There’s lots of role-types that I haven’t had a crack at yet.”
“Normal people! I think because I’ve played the schitzophrenics, hermaphrodites, molesters, druggies, etc- people get comfortable with seeing you in those roles. So maybe somewhere down the line will I be able to do ‘average-guy with average problems.’ I’d definitely like to take on some historical characters, and too, maybe some ‘regular’ comedy. [In] ‘The Ghastly Love
of Johnny X’… it’s a great role, unlike anything I’ve ever done, but always wanted to. It’s a very subtle acting style, ultra-cool, with the action-star confidence. Paul Bunnel is a great director and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. It’s the best time I’ve had on a set yet. And for once, I get to play the cool guy. I think I’m a pretty good actor. But I also think that anybody can be a great actor. All it takes is effort and practice to control their emotions. We all have it in us, to act or do just about anything we set our minds too. (I think I just inadvertently quoted Eminem.) Acting’s funny. It’s not necessarily the numbers game other businesses are. You could do a million flicks and still never really feel like you’re getting anywhere. But you land the RIGHT role and sha-zam, blingety bling! A few years back I was getting called ‘indie film posterboy’ alot because I racked up a lot of films in little time. It was my period of doing any movie for any money I was given, and I always got something! I’m glad I did it, but after moving to LA I
decided—along with my agents and managers and others I respected who said, ‘ya gotta stop doing every little indie that comes around the corner! It’s hurting your career!’—to concentrate on being a bit more selective with my acting, as to not spread myself too thin.”
However, avoiding being spread too thin is often easier set out to do than to achieve. “I am involved with a lot of different projects from features to TV, and I even started some video labels with my partner Greg Ross of Go-kart Records. We have eight films in stores now and another 25 coming out from now ‘til June. (www.gokartfilms.com) I have a number of people I’m working with on projects that are of a bigger-ticket nature, and right now- LA is the place for me to be. I love going into a network or studio and doing a pitch. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want my work to reach a larger audience.”
That being said, Keenan is aware that his company and his films face stiff competition from a variety of lower-quality—though not necessarily lower-budgeted—movies that seem to pour into the marketplace from all areas of the country. “Some 200-something films are released on DVD every Tuesday of every month. And a lot are shot on video. And a lot are crap. But that’s our culture. You can’t shove movies down people’s throats, then give them the technology and expect that the market won’t become inundated. Luckily, the good stuff still rises to the top somehow, but it takes a while to weed thru the crap. And it does make it harder for some of us to get our movies made. I used to think that that one should have a license to make films, but then that whole ‘freedom of expression’ argument comes up. So the crap is the price we pay for freedom.”
Get the rest of the interview in part three of WILL KEENAN: STUNTWORK AND SPIRITUALITY>>>