Not only did Nitehawk screen the cult classic melt-movie Street Trash for two sold-out crowds over the weekend, we also had the film’s writer and producer, Roy Frumkes, and his writing partner, Rocco Simonelli, on hand both nights to take questions from the audience. Before Street Trash, we screened Swirlee, the little seen Frumkes/Simonelli short that boasts a gangster protagonist made of ice cream. Hatched caught up with the pair before Saturday night’s screening to talk about graffiti bombing the streets of Greenpoint to shoot Street Trash, how the studios wanted to make Swirlee into a Ninja Turtles knock-off, and what it takes to get an independent movie released today.
Hatched: So the movie sold out, were you expecting that at all?
Roy Frumkes: No. I would have expected quite the opposite [chuckles], and I’m not really pessimistic! But it’s such a niche film; it’s not even a horror film. I mean, it is what it is. It’s kind of like Team America. It’s this weird little genre that attempts to be democratically offensive to everybody. So the crowd, it’s hard to find the right crowd.
Rocco Simonelli: And then I freaked him out today because it occurred to me, you know, maybe everybody who wanted to see it, they were so eager they all came last night, and then tonight it would just be three guys.
H: It would just be the staff going “Hey guys ,do you want some free popcorn or something? Because we need to close.”
RS: But that turned out to be not the case.
H: I was thinking that part of the reason for the success of Street Trash, around here at least, is because it gives people a chance to see the neighborhood before it transformed.
RF: Apparently, that’s how the Nitehawk promoted it.
H: I wrote that!
RF: Well, that worked. It clearly worked, because, they also hit it during the Q&A, that this was done here and why it was done here, and I had a whole—you know, there was a reason why it was done here.
H: I was actually going to ask you about that, what’s the reason why it was done here?
RF: Well! *laughs* The reason why it was done here is because, twenty-five years ago—well, it came out twenty-five years ago. Twenty-seven years ago, when we shot it, New York was a union state–New York and California–you could only be union to make a movie.
RF: All of the other states were right to work states, and now even New York is, and I think California is. But, they would station the union reps at all the rental houses, etcetera, every morning, and they would watch who came in to take out equipment and they would follow you, and if you were shooting an independent film they would stink-bomb the set, they would beep their horns, they would do everything to break it up. So, we had to not shoot it within the city limits, and we sent in students from SVA [School of Visual Arts, where Frumkes works as a filmmaking professor – ed.], two every day, in a broken down car, they would take pieces of equipment, the union guys would look and then go back to sleep, and we just snuck everything out over a period of two weeks. And then we just kept outside their field of view.
H: So it was practical reasons to shoot out here, it wasn’t aesthetic?
RF: Well, it was all practical, but the other practical reason was that Jimmy Muro, the director’s, father owned Statewide, the collision yard, where, not only was the film shot there, but we cannibalized all of his car ports and we built our standing sets, the make-up department–you know, everything, we used that warehouse. That was another reason why.
H: I went by where the collision yard is today to take some pictures, and I think it’s a lumber yard now.
RF: A lumber yard? I did a film several years ago called The Meltdown Memoirs and I revisited a lot of the places and we were there and we show where the various things were shot—they didn’t know about it, but they were very friendly.
H: It’s weird, a lot of the places feel like they’ve completely transformed, are nothing like it is today, but there are a couple of spots that are completely unchanged, they’re identical…. What was the area like to shoot in then? Did you have to dirty it up at all?
RF: Yes, because it was all grey, and we really needed to make it colorful. We were noticing that there was beautiful graffiti every now and then, so we went to the local police station and there was a boyfriend and girlfriend named Atom and Lucy and they were the most famous graffiti artists in the area, Brooklyn/Queens. We got word to them, through the police, that we wanted them to spray-paint everything, and we would pay them, and word came back that they would do it, but only at night because that’s when they worked in their element. So, one night, the place, it just all looked very bland, the next morning the whole place had been art directed, and we never met them.
H: Did you have to pay them at all?
RF: Yeah, we paid them, we got money to them through somebody. And when I was doing Meltdown Memoirs, I tried to find them but nobody knew where they were anymore twenty years later.
H: You didn’t film exclusively in this part of the city, did you?
RF: No, actually, the scene where Mike [Lackey] runs out into the building that’s on fire and people run out of the building nude, that’s the building where we lived. And the scene with the cat on the fire escape—that’s right outside my window. So, we would use some locations in New York, but when they were ours. Not a lot though. Right? It was mainly out there. It was a lot of stuff right in that general area, Graham Street.
H: I wanted to talk about Swirlee as well. So, you have a feature length script for that, is that right?
RS: Yes, and I guess you can tell people, that if you want to read it, I’ve actually got it on my website, which is just roccosimonelli.com, so if anyone wants to actually read what we would have done if someone had ever let us they can read it there.
H: So what was the reason why they didn’t let you do it?
RS: Did you see Swirlee? [laughs]
H: Besides the fact that it was extremely strange.
RS: I mean, that’s the problem. It’s such a perverse mingling of genres that even when the studio people would see the footage, and see other people’s reactions to it they still—what’s that old joke about the guy whose wife finds him in bed with another woman and he says “What are you going to believe me or your own eyes?” [laughs] And they just wouldn’t believe their own eyes. They just wanted to make it—
RF: Ninja Turtles is what they wanted.
RS: Frosty the Snowman.
RF: And Jimmy [James Lorenz, co-writer, director and star of Swirlee, who also appears in Street Trash – ed.] wanted Scorsese, he wanted it to be like Raging Bull, and he stuck to his guns. And I must tell you, I asked him recently if he thinks he did the right thing, and now he no longer thinks he did the right thing. I mean, in this industry it’s all taking a blow and scoring a blow. And he would have had a movie, it wouldn’t have had the suicide scene, but it would have had a lot of the other stuff.
H: I feel like it’s the type of movie that no matter how serious you take the subject matter, it’s still going to be kind of overtly silly because—
RS: And that was the whole point!
H: Anything more and it would be too much.
RS: Exactly. The way to make it funny is to play it straight, and my argument, and my approach to writing it was this: The worse it got for Swirlee, the funnier it was. You watch even the short, the more he’s abused or getting beat up, or staggering around melted. They’re roaring. And so the kids—I can’t believe I’ve reached the point where I’m talking about “the kids” [laughs]—the target audience, which would be like college age, whatever, they absolutely get it. They get that it’s supposed to be funny without gags. But when you look at it on a script, you know–“What? He’s trying to melt himself? What? Wait a minute, his father dies sucking on his Freon inhalator? What? He’s with a hooker? They try to melt him with a blow-dryer and his brain is exposed?”
H: *pause* I forgot what I was going to say, you threw me off track with the exposed brain.
RS: That’s the way the film should leave you!
H: How often are you able to show the movie?
RS: It gets showed now and again, [Roy] just took it to the Buffalo Screams Festival a couple months back.
RF: It was requested at a festival and I said “Really?” And it was the hit of the whole festival, it was unbelievable how well it went over. I was actually bewildered, I mean, there was a lot of good films there.
RS: Because people don’t see anything unique very often that’s crude and unfinished, and the thing is, it’s not really much like anything else, and I think people respond to that. It’s hard to show it a lot because there’s so many licensing issues…
RF: It’s a pretty rare piece of footage. There’s a book by Chris Gore called The 50 Best Films Never Made, and this is one of them.
RS: It’s a whole chapter.
H: Do either of you have plans on making any movies in the future?
RF: We wrote a script called Killer Instinct, Keith David is set to direct it, Idris Elba is signed on to star in it but—There’s kind of a motto in the industry, if the investors say “maybe,” they mean “no.” If they say “probably” they mean “maybe.” If they say “definitely,” they mean “no.” [laughs] There’s no money until it’s in the bank, and even with those two great talents attached we haven’t seen the money yet. And then I optioned the rights to remake Fiend without a Face, which is an old classic, and that’s in development.
H: Do you think that making independent movies is easier or harder today for a new filmmaker?
RS: Well, we just had a film that we wrote and Roy produced and I directed with Jimmy Lorinz and Joan Jett called The Sweet Life that we did independently and it only took us ten years to get it released. [laughs]
RF: And my answer to the question would have been, it is a lot easier to make independent films but very difficult to get them out. That kind of digital revolution democratized everything, everyone in the country can make a movie, but they can’t get them into the marketplace, the market is so overloaded now. They can’t them into film festivals, they can’t them anywhere, and that’s problematic. I teach filmmaking—
H: Right, what do you tell your students?
RF: I used to just teach pre-production, production, post-production. Now I teach pre-marketing, pre-production. I mean, they really have to understand what the market is before they even write it. You know? Why waste your time? So the order of things is being reversed. Marketing used to come last, now it’s first.