Deep Fried Interview: Return to Nuke ‘Em High cinematographer Justin Duval
Troma, that New York-based bastion of unabashed bad taste, has been around for nearly 40 years, but the studio remains best known for a pair of mid-1980s movies that mixed the satirical and the scatological – The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High.
The latter recently received the remake treatment, directed by none other than Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman himself and presented in two volumes, the first of which just hit home video. Yes, much like Kill Bill and the final entry in every young adult franchise, a single film simply couldn’t contain all of the social satire, buckets of gore and flatulence jokes Return to Nuke ‘Em High has to offer.
Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1 has received more attention than any Troma effort in many a moon and part of the credit goes to cinematographer Justin Duval, who adds a polished sheen lacking in many of the studio’s recent low-budget efforts. Duval, who cut his teeth working as a gaffer on studio fare such as Crank: High Voltage, MacGruber and the upcoming Seth Rogen vehicle Neighbors, talked to Deep Fried Movies about the unique experience of making a film with a crew mixing seasoned professionals with inexperienced Troma fanatics.
(Above) Tromaville High School, inconveniently located next to an eco-unfriendly organic food manufacturer.
The Plot: The toxic foodstuffs of an organic food company turn the denizens of Tromaville High School into anarchic mutants. It’s up to a new student played by Catherine Corcoran and her activist girlfriend played by Asta Paredes to save the town.
I normally don’t ask this question because it’s fairly generic, but since this is a Troma movie I have to ask how you got involved with the project.
A good friend of mine Mark Neveldine, who directed Crank and Gamer, is friends with Lloyd Kaufman and he called me one day and said that Lloyd was doing a new movie and was looking for a cinematographer. I was kind of between other jobs so I said, ‘What the hell. Why not?’
Did you know from the outset that this opus was going to be split into two parts?
To be perfectly honest with you I didn’t know it was going to be two movies until long after we wrapped production.
(Above) The tainted tacos that propel Return to Nuke ‘Em High’s plot.
What camera did you shoot with?
We shot it on the (Arri) Alexa. I have friends at Arri CSC in New Jersey and they gave us an Alexa package with a Fisher dolly for an incredibly, incredibly (low rate). The people at CSC and the whole Arri company have been incredibly generous to me throughout my career and they certainly were to us on this job. Lloyd said to me one time, ‘There’s more equipment (on this shoot) than we’ve had on any of our other movies combined.’ They’re not used to (a typical) filmmaking process at Troma. What they do is something much, much different. Which is fine, they’ve gained a following and I hope we didn’t disappoint the fans. I was worried that we might disappoint them because visually (the movie) is much, much different, but all the comedy and all the other (stuff) is still the same. My thought was, as long as that stuff stayed the same then it wouldn’t be disappointing to the fanbase.
What was your lens package like?
I can’t remember exactly what lenses were in the package. It was just a small set of primes and an old zoom. Nothing fancy. The primes were probably from the 1970s, as was the zoom. So that’s one reason why the movie has kind of a classic, antique look. I thought they looked great. I had no problem with the lenses. I didn’t rent anything that was super wide. I think our widest lens was a 25mm. To be perfectly honest with you, I think this kind of annoyed Lloyd. I think in the past he had probably used much wider lenses. It’s not that I don’t like wider lenses, but sometimes on a really low budget film I like to fight some of the conventions that make low budget movies look low budget. And one of those things is really wide lenses. I purposely didn’t rent anything wider than a 25mm so we wouldn’t be forced to put it on the camera.
But we did shoot 1080 on SxS cards. You’re looking at a 1080 master. That’s not a 2k or 4k movie. That’s a 1080 movie. In the end, the picture quality was amazing even at the 1080 level.
Did it worry you to leave so much potential data on the table by shooting 1080?
When you shoot your first Alexa show and you have to, as you say, leave that data on the table, I think for the first moment you kind of struggle with that decision. But there’s so much more to digital cinematography than pixel count. So much more. And the Alexa is just an amazing camera. It functions like a film camera. I’ve shot different stuff on the Red so it’s not that I don’t know how to use the Red, it’s just that the Alexa is so much easier. I don’t care about the 5K and the 6K of a Red package, I would shoot Alexa 1080 any day of the week over a Red. And a movie like this, sure it’s being screened on the big screen, but I would say about 95 percent of its audience will see it on the small screen. It helps to know your audience so there’s no reason really to create bigger files. The other thing is as a crew, collectively and that means everybody involved, we did not possess the collective (filmmaking) IQ to manage the larger data. We had an awfully difficult time dealing with the 1080. You wouldn’t be watching the movie if we decided to shoot RAW. It would’ve been a nightmare.
(Above) A shot from the film’s high school location, which now serves as the home of the Niagara Arts & Cultural Center. (And yes, Kevin the Wonder Duck is an actual duck.)
You shot the majority of the film on location around Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Can you talk a little bit about some of the locations? It’s hard to imagine an actively open high school letting this type of crazy movie shoot in its halls.
That location was terrific. That’s an old high school in Niagara Falls. Now it’s called the NACC (Niagara Arts & Cultural Center). The people who ran the facility were just terrific. They’ve taken this high school and they’ve rented out the classrooms to artists. Down the hall there was an opera singer and there were painters and there were sculptors who had rooms. So if you walked around this high school, it was a crazy tour through culture. It was really terrific. In fact, we stayed in a house across the street and the NACC lent us furniture and paintings and just really cool things to furnish our house with while we were in town.
In my head, I imagine a Troma movie as a run-and-gun affair, permits be damned. Is that the reality or are things a little more planned out?
We actually had permits for everything. The film commission for that part of the world is terrific. It’s run by Tim Clark and Rich Wall of the (Buffalo Niagara Film Office). Those guys were just terrific. I’ve been wanting to go back to Buffalo and shoot something just to hang out with those guys again. That part of the world is incredibly film friendly and, I’ve got to say, also photogenic. Never did we “steal” any (locations). We didn’t have to just because we had such carte blanche from the film commission. Those guys really rolled out the red carpet for us, but they probably do that for every filmmaker.
Coming from a world of larger studio features, how would you sum up your Troma experience?
It was definitely strange, let me just say that. Shooting a Troma movie is a bizarre social experiment (that involves using novice Troma fans as part of the crew) and that experiment certainly has a lot to do with the product they create. Without that experiment, I don’t think you get the product. I don’t think I would like to be part of the experiment again in the future, but I’ve got a feeling that they’re probably going to continue to (make movies that way) and it will continue to yield a unique, strange product that definitely has its place.
Below, Justin describes how he achieved some of the shots in Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1.
Nuke ‘Em High’s glee club strolls out of the gymnasium in slow motion after being transformed by a lunch of toxic tacos.
That shot was just classic action movie, 1980s-style cheese. We smoked up the auditorium and probably put a 4K pointing right at the lens. We cranked the Alexa to 120 frames, threw on a longer lens and just let her ride. Just classic 80s.
A low angle POV from the perspective of Nuke Em High’s heroine (played by Catherine Corcoran) as she’s assaulted with her own pet duck.
That was camera on the ground, just on a sandbag, and all the actors standing on apple boxes. If you look closely at that shot in the bottom right of the image you’ll see like a little semi-circle that looks like a lens flare. That’s actually a reflection off one of the filters. At that point in the day we were kind of rushing and the sun was going down. Our shoot not being a completely “professional” shoot, little things like that squeaked through sometimes. So looking at that shot I kind of cringe just because of that obvious mistake.
In the film’s opening scene, an amorous moment between two Nuke ‘Em High students is interrupted when a bit of toxic sludge causes a fleshy meltdown.
Did you get this effect by cheating the actress’ actual body under the bed with just her arms and head popping out.
Yeah, correct. All the entrails and intestines and stuff were made of rubbery, sausage-looking things and all that slime, I don’t know what that slime was made of. I must say that the people they got to do the practical special effects were a lot more capable than I had expected. They were very good. They did a lot things that I thought were beyond our capacity.
Corcoran experiences a rapidly expanding baby bump in her bedroom.
We actually shot that in the hallway of the high school. We just basically threw a bed down on the floor of the hallway and just blasted light at her. I don’t remember exactly what light it was, but I’m pretty sure it was just a one light (set up). I don’t think we used any fill light. Especially when you’re in a slightly small space and you don’t control the spill, you almost don’t need fill light with the Alexa. It has so much latitude.