‘The Toxic Avenger’ Director Macon Blair On Tackling Toxie [Fantastic Fest 2023]
When Macon Blair was a kid, he saw a film about a man-turned-monster in a tutu and from that moment was inspired to make movies with his friends. That movie was Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz 1984’s cult hit The Toxic Avenger. Now, almost 40 years later, Blair has made his version of Tromaville, complete with Peter Dinklage as our titular avenger, Kevin Bacon as a devious CEO, and plenty of blood.
Read the full synopsis below:
A horrible toxic accident transforms downtrodden janitor Winston Gooze into a new evolution of the hero: THE TOXIC AVENGER! Now wielding a glowing mop with super-human strength, he must race against time to save his son and stop a ruthless and power-hungry tyrant bent on harnessing toxic superpowers to strengthen his polluted empire.
Dread Central spoke with Blair after the film’s world premiere at Fantastic Fest about just how much The Toxic Avenger shaped his young life, creating the world of Tromaville, and more.
Dread Central: How did you get involved with The Toxic Avenger?
Macon Blair: Legendary had the rights. They had been developing it for many years. I think Arnold Schwarzenegger was involved at some point. It was going to be like a PG-13 movie. This was like 15 years ago, so it had been around the block. At some point, the rights were up and Alex, the producer on this movie, is a Troma fan from way back. I believe I have it right, that Lloyd and Alex have a mutual friend who’s a musician, and he was like, “Alex, the rights are up.” And Alex pounced, got the rights, and then they just went out to different directors to see what their pitch would be.
At first, I wasn’t really sure what the thing was, and honestly, I was like, “I hope that the goal is not to do the PG-13 movie.” But then I started thinking that it would fit perfectly for this type of movie that I had been trying to do for a long time.
I had sort of developed different projects. None of them ever came to fruition because they were all too expensive and too weird and too rated R and they weren’t based on anything existing. And then this one was based on something, and it kind of demanded all of those things that I wanted to do, which is to say a completely juvenile, ridiculous sense of humor, kind of wearing its heart on its sleeve, but also really gross and monsters and prosthetics and fun effects. I wanted all of that at the same time, and all of a sudden they were like, “Well, we’ve got The Toxic Avenger.”
And it occurred to me, that this is perhaps the only property that needs all of that that I just listed. It wants to be silly and it wants to be gross and it wants to be warm. So I kind of led with that. I was like rated R actor in a suit, my shopping list, and they were nodding along in agreement. Little by little the train picked up steam and here we
DC: Yesterday, in the Q&A, you said that you first saw this in sixth grade, so were you a big Toxic Avenger fan after seeing it? Has it always been kind of a thing for you?
MB: I grew up in love with movies, but at that time in my life, it was Star Wars and ET and the Disney cartoons, the mainstream stuff. So then my friend’s older brother Mike was like “Check out this VHS” and it’s a dude with a mop and a tutu, and we were like, what in the fuck is. We knew we probably shouldn’t be watching it. It really imprinted on our brain. This would’ve been about ’85 or ’86 something, and we had just gotten our hands on a VHS camcorder. And so we were teaching ourselves how to make movies, but we didn’t really know what to do. So all we could do was rip off the movies that we were watching.
So we were just stealing sensibility and gags and a sort of type of filmmaking from the trauma movie specifically The Toxic Avenger. It was kind of Troma, Monty Python, and George Romero. So all of those old movies are just kind of like, “Oh, these kids just watched The Toxic Avenger.” It’s all a monster hero ripping somebody’s arm off and beating ’em with it. We shot that scene over and over and over again. And so it was hugely impactful at that time.
I didn’t have a name for it, but it was independent movie-making before it was all this mainstream box office stuff. And that was the first one that I realized, “Why does this feel kind of scratchy and irresponsible and dangerous?” It was so hugely formative.
As I got older, no, I wasn’t carrying around this mission, “I have to do this movie,” but it felt very natural to circle back to it when Legendary had the rights. They were very supportive and aligned with the type of movie they wanted to make in purchasing those rights and the movie that I wanted to make. And so it did feel a little odd.
DC: Where are those VHS tapes? Do you still have them?
MB: Some of them I do.
DC: We need a screening of you recreating The Toxic Avenger by accident as a kid.
MB: Well, if you get an assignment in school or whatever, you never do the report. You’re like, “I’m going to make a movie,” because then it’s more fun to do. Then you get the whole class period to show the movie to the class. So we’d be Beowulf and Shakespeare and just all this shit, but it was all through the lens of Troma and Monty Python. So it was just bloody versions of British literature and that’s how we passed those classes.
DC: What a cool teacher though.
MB: We had a bunch of ’em that. They didn’t have to grade a paper. They’re like, “Yeah, fuck you. Take the hour and just watch a movie.” It’s a good deal for everybody. But yeah, so it did in a weird way [remind me of that]. You have sets and big lights and a big crew, and you’re working with legit Kevin Bacon, like famous people. But it’s kind of making movies with your friends in the woods when you’re 11 years old. It was a very fun, surreal experience.
DC: Let’s talk about the production design. Everything in this movie is just so cool. Have you seen Beau Is Afraid, the new Ari Aster movie?
MB: Not yet! But I’ve heard the comparison.
DC: I felt like this is what Beau Is Afraid wanted to be in terms of the setting and the world-building and the ridiculousness.
MB: Other people have mentioned that, and I haven’t seen Beau Is Afraid, so I don’t know what the overlap is, but now I’ve been dying to see it. I just haven’t had a chance to.
DC: The production design feels like its own world. There are different products and news reports. Everything about it feels so carefully curated.
MB: I’m so glad you brought that up. As I was pitching my rated R actor-in-a-suit movie, a self-contained universe was a big part of it because everyone talks about Tromaville and the sort of mythological universe. Even though I think they might say it’s New Jersey at some point, it’s this weird, magical, mystical version of New Jersey that has all its own products and its own everything. Part of that is we were on location in Bulgaria, so it has some architecture that’s from the communist era that to American audiences looks just a little different than what we’re used to.
Then there are a lot of sets, as well, Winston’s apartment, the laboratory that the bad guys work in and all of that stuff was very sort of pulling from the Universal Monster movies and James Whale to create this vibe of a very cruddy, decaying universe that’s not depressing to hang out in. It’s gross and it’s gnarly, but you kind of like going there to visit. You know what I’m saying? You may not want to live there, but it’s cool to hang out there for a minute.
DC: It’s like if a dive bar was a town.
MB: My favorite shot in the whole movie is when Peter’s feeling sorry for himself and he’s had too much to drink and he’s walking down the street in the main street. It’s not really doing anything for the story, but you just get to see these little pockets of different people and it feels populated and real. That was very important to me.