Anyone who has seen “The Toxic Avenger” or “Class of Nuke ‘Em High” will instantly recognize Robert Prichard as the face of two of the most hilariously over-the-top bullies in 80s cult movie history: Slug, the Tromaville Heath Club thug, and Spike, the Tromaville High School gang leader of “The Cretins.”
Mr. Prichard was nice enough to chat with me about his integral roles in these classic Troma films, and his formation of the influential New York City avant-garde theater group SURF REALITY.
(Originally posted August 2011 at Cinemachine)
When did you start acting?
Probably in grade school. I think the first thing I ever did was in French class, in grade school. It was to get us to learn French and that was fun. And then later in high school more. I came of age in the 70s, I was in high school in the 70s, college in the 70s, sort of too young to be a hippie, a little before punk rock, I was sort of in between the two things. So there was a whole “do-it-yourself” kind of thing about acting that I liked. I didn’t want to work for the man, you know? In my young crazy way I saw it as a way to be self-employed in a creative way and be master of my own destiny.
I sort of saw it as a way to travel a lot, meet girls, be creative. Also I thought if I could really just learn how to act well, and be in control of my expressions, my body, in touch with my emotions, then no matter what else I wanted to do, if acting didn’t work out for me I’d have a good base as a human being. So that was attractive to me. Didn’t really work out for me though. (LAUGHS)
How’d you hear about the casting of “Health Club Horror” and what was the audition process like at Troma?
I think it was called “Health Club Superhero” or something like that? You’re right it wasn’t The Toxic Avenger initially. And I read about it in Backstage magazine, which was the sort-of trade paper for all the wannabe actors. People who are really working, they don’t read Backstage magazine. But everyone who doesn’t have a job, that’s what they read every week. People trying to sell you acting classes and rehearsal space. And then there’s a lot of audition notices for stuff that doesn’t pay.
I auditioned I think four or five times and each time from the first time on – ’cause they liked the chemistry – it was with Jennifer Babtist, who became my wife. We actually married a couple years after Toxic Avenger. We auditioned together the first time, and then they called us back and called us back, and the first couple times we read scenes from the movie. But after that they started having us do as “auditions” promo material for other films that they did, which they then turned into a commercial. For our auditions we were giving them free commercials! For like, Stuck On You! and I forget what the other one was.
Do you remember your first reaction to the extreme material?
I was actually pretty cool with it. I thought this was sort of punk rock, a punk rock approach to movie making, and a comedy. Like “splatter comedy” was the phrase that came to my mind. There was already stuff like that happening in underground comics like Squeak the Mouse, which was the forerunner to Itchy & Scratchy on The Simpsons where it’s a cat and a mouse and they go after each other with chainsaws. Or they’d become zombies or there’d be X-rated sex. That was in the early 80s too.
And there was also RanXerox and Judge Dredd and all these other underground comics that had a lot of violence and sort of irreverent humor. I was actually pretty cool with the material, to me it sort of came off as Mad Magazine with blood and gore. You know, they’re working out in the gym, then using the equipment as devices of death. I remember going, “This could work.”
Was there time for rehearsals or discussions about the tone of the film?
Actually we did have rehearsals, we had a few. And though they didn’t say “this is punk rock” they did say “this is over the top.” They wanted humor, they wanted action, they wanted blood. And they wanted sex. They wanted everything. And they wanted it to be as hip as possible too, they wanted to go for a youth audience.
At the beginning of the rehearsal process I maybe had six or seven lines in the whole script. And it was out of rehearsal that my character grew. And if you look at the early scenes in the movie where I first appear, I’m basically repeating what other characters say. And that’s how I grew my part. That wasn’t originally in the script. We rehearsed with Mark Torgl, who played the “mop kid,” and so the idea of it was to create a claustrophobic atmosphere for him. No room to get a word in edgewise, he would just be able to whine a little bit. So Gary and Cindy had the lines and I would just repeat what they said, you know? He’d go “Hey asshole, watch it!” And I’d go “Yeah asshole, watch it!” And my part kept getting bigger! And Lloyd loved that!
It also created more energy because if one person says something, it’s at one level, but if another person repeats it, it amps. Then we’re pushing him back and forth between ourselves as we’re saying this stuff. We shot that part fairly early on and we rehearsed it early. That’s when Lloyd said to me, “Keep doing what you’re doing” and my part started getting bigger from there. I started getting more lines, most of them I wrote myself.
Was there any improvisation?
Most of what we did was kind of improvised. The script was really a jumping off point. We would rehearse, and then shoot it, rehearse, and then shoot it. The dialogue around “I gotta go to church tomorrow,” that was improvised. One idea of mine they liked and used was the silhouettes on the side of the car marking victims, that was my idea ’cause I thought of World War II fighter aces having those on their planes. I thought, “Well we should have that on our car.” Their art department did it. I would’ve liked a tiger mouth on the front of the car, too. Also that whole thing about doing Toyota’s “Oh what a feeling,” that was totally improvised too. There was a commercial in those days, “Oh what a feeling, Toyota!” It was their catch phrase.
When we were actually shooting the movie I thought it was going to look pretty good because they covered a lot of it really well. They took their time. We shot that whole film in about three weeks but we had long days! They were 18 – 20 hour days. I remember it wasn’t one-take stuff. They would do three, four, five, then they’d move the camera and do another four or five. They got a lot of coverage. I think that’s one of the reasons it works better than a lot of the other films. I think the other films, they weren’t as meticulous with.
Who directed your scenes, Lloyd Kaufman or Michael Herz?
It was mostly Lloyd. I would call Michael more of a producer, but they both gave each other credit. I remember when I first walked into their building in Hell’s Kitchen, they had this office with desks on either side of the room, and they put you in the middle. And so one guy would talk and you’d have to look back, so they’d get you back and forth like a ping pong game! It was such an obvious kind of power trip ploy, in a way. And they were both really aggressive and barking and then they’d have fun and start laughing! Michael was younger and he did less stuff behind the camera, it was more Lloyd behind the camera. He was there on set but I remember talking more to Lloyd.
I remember when we were doing that scene in the backseat, at one point it was the four actors talking to each other while Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz are talking nearby and then around the set is the rest of the crew talking. Everybody’s talking, and then all of a sudden Lloyd can’t hear himself think. He turns around and he just goes “SHUT UP! SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP! Everybody SHUT UP!” Then to the four actors; “EXCEPT YOU! YOU keep talking!” (LAUGHS)
What was it like working with Jennifer Babtist, Cindy Manion, Gary Schneider and Mark Torgl?
Well I started going out with Jennifer, so that went well! (LAUGHS) Mark was a lot of fun, he was great, I thought he was a nice kid. I really enjoyed Gary’s company, we had fun together. Cindy was also really cool. It was a good relationship between the four of us. We also had the scene with Mitch Cohen, he had the most work to do because he had to wear all that latex stuff over him in the heat and do all that action stuff as well. Like the scene where he’s strangling me on the roof of the Toyota.
I actually thought of the four of us, Jennifer probably did the best job, in terms of being sort of believable in this world. I think the other three of us are sort of over-the-top. We’re just in another dimension, but Jennifer, you could actually take her as she was, and as twisted and demented as it was, it would still work on this planet too. I think she sort of made it kind of credible, which makes it even creepier! We’re obviously not real people, but she sort-of almost is!
Did Jennifer have any problems with her masturbation scene?
She had problems with them taking five hours to shoot it. It wasn’t that private, either. I was off-set waiting to do the “Elephant Man” imitation that same night, that’s how I remember it took a long time. They took a break and came back, it was creepy.
Was it fun making the hit-and-run head crushing scene or was that just acting?
Well almost everything with a Troma shoot is going to be acting! (LAUGHS) The fun part is actually the rehearsal, ’cause they did give us an awful lot of freedom. They’re encouraging us to be as over-the-top as we can, and that scene in particular was over-the-top. So it was like “Let’s do this, let’s not apologize for one second of this moment. This is what’s going on, and this is what we do. We stencil our victims on the side of our car! We’re proud of this shit! What’s more, we’re going to go to church tomorrow and pray about it!” (LAUGHS)
Was it weird for the kid on the bicycle, D.J. Calvitto?
That was really odd because he was a really sweet kid, and we were just being so over-the-top in our acting. But he didn’t really interact with us while we were doing that, except that one point where we’re driving by and waving, going “Heeeey,” and it’s just really really creepy! And his parents were there the whole time! I remember the parents not wanting him to interact with the shoot once he had been “hit.” They didn’t want him anywhere around us, doing that part of the scene.
What reactions did you get from people who saw The Toxic Avenger?
Lotta eye rolls. (LAUGHS) “Oh yeah, Toxic Avenger!”
I don’t remember Toxic Avenger being all that successful immediately. It sort of grew and took a couple years for it to really infect the culture. When I went to see it within two or three days of its opening, there weren’t that many people there. We got really bad reviews in all the papers too. They hated it.
Was anyone upset with you for doing such a movie?
No. Well, maybe my mom! (LAUGHS) My mom was embarrassed. She didn’t see it but she heard about it, like “What are you doing this for?” But now my girlfriend’s brother has a copy of it, and they’re threatening a party, so we’re going to see it sometime in the next couple months again. I actually couldn’t watch either Toxic or Nuke ‘Em High for the longest while, but now I’ve got my sense of humor back about it. (LAUGHS)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 and then say “I’m not going to play that!” and they’d quit.
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?”
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?
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!
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.
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)