Lloyd Kaufman and the Toxic Avenger
Actor, director, producer, and damn near everything else, Lloyd Kaufman is the godfather of Troma Entertainment. Troma has given us such films as The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Surf Nazis Must Die, and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead.
The man has been exploiting the genre of exploitation for nearly 40 years, and he’s been instrumental in the facilitation of a grass-roots independent film community. He’s taught classes and seminars, and his books and DVD sets (Make Your Own Damn Movie!, Direct Your Own Damn Movie!, Produce Your Own Damn Movie!, and Sell Your Own Damn Movie!) are the bibles of DIY film-making.
Despite a jam-packed schedule, he set aside time to talk with me, as candid as any Troma film.
AF: First of all, I find it fairly easy to track the growth and evolution of Troma after The Toxic Avenger, but before that it’s hard to find that much backstory, so how did you get started making these crazy, canonical films?
LK: I made the mistake of going to Yale University. It was the 60’s. I was going to be a teacher or a social worker. I was going to make the world a better place. Teach people with hooks for hands to finger-paint. Teach bums to paint happy faces on beads, string the beads together. Stuff like that. Then they put me in a room freshman year with a movie nut—our beds were head to toe, it was a very small bedroom. At night I would inhale my roommate’s stinkin’ feet. And the aroma de Troma was born.
My roommate ran the Yale Film Society, so I would drift in to see the movies they were showing, and I kept getting blown away by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Stan Brakage—those guys.
AF: You’ve been incredibly accessible to your fans, and you’ve worked hard to really foster the community that’s built up around Troma fans and up and coming independent filmmakers; do you see that as part of your job?
LK: Oliver Wendell Holmes stated famously that in order to truly exist, you must take part in the actions and passions of the times. So, Michael Herz and I believe that very much. We have seen the flame of independent art and commerce nearly extinguished by the fact that the world of art has come so much under the thumb of a small number of giant international media conglomerates who have used legalized bribery, which is called “lobbying”, they’ve gotten the anti-monopoly laws done away with.
You have these gargantuan conglomerates who are vertically integrated who basically own the industry and the art world. And the same companies that own the movies studios own the TV stations, own the newspapers own the video companies and own or control the movies theaters, which used to be against the law, but that’s all gone now.
So we have seen this during our 40 years of Troma, we’ve seen this terrible turn of events. And really Troma’s the last of the genuine independent movies studios that has any kind of longevity, so we want to try to keep the flame of independent art and commerce alive. We don’t want Rupert Murdoch to extinguish it. We don’t everyone to have to be a vassal of Time Warner of Rupert Murdoch or Sony or Viacom or Comcast. We don’t want everyone to be a vassal of those behemoths.
We want people to be able to express their art independently and get their work to the public. So we’re doing everything we can, such as establishing- 14 years ago we established the Tromadance Film Festival, which has cost us a lot of money over the years, because we have no money. For us it’s a huge drain, but we’ve done that to try and encourage independent spirit and independent, creative juices, and independent movies
And my books basically, are a lot of work for no money, and an attempt to try to show people that we have to continue the fight for truly independent cinema- not Fox Searchlight independent cinema. Not independent cinema made by Tom Hanks or Juno or whatever, but independent cinema that’s truly independent.
And there used to be many, many Tromas back in the 70’s, and there were lots of little companies like Troma that had longevity, that were existing for a long time, and now there are none . There are no independent companies out there that have have a long life—there’s Troma and Roger Corman and I don’t know of any others.
AF: And for up and coming young filmmakers…
LK: Well there are lots of little companies, but they don’t last because they can’t make a living—they can’t make a living, they can’t get their movies to the public—nobody knows about them.
Our movie, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, did you see that?
AF: Yes, I did.
LK: Oh, thank you! When that opened in New York City, the theater that it played in was the highest grossing theater in America that weekend. And yet, the movie was yanked, because “Raiders of the Lost Arc Part 4- The Skullfucker” or whatever that was.
AF: That terrible thing?
LK: Yeah, what was it called?
AF: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It was terrible, it was absolutely terrible.
LK: Well it had to have every screen! So they kicked us out, even though we did well. So that’s the problem. If Troma who have a big fan base, and are pretty established and got good reviews in the New York Times and had a movie in the highest grossing theater in the country—if we can’t make it can that, how is some newcomer gonna make it without becoming a vassal of Mr. Rupert Murdoch?
AF: Right, right. So you definitely have these die-hard followers, I’m one of them. For me I got into it through punk rock friends who were really attracted to the DIY aspect of it, as much as the humor, and do you find that’s sort of the appeal? The Troma cult is large and large and very loyal. Do you have any sort of insight as to why Troma has become this sort of searchlight?
LK: Well, I believe the films we have made and distributed have even visionary, personal movies, produced by ourselves, with the our soul in the movies. Things like Cannibal! The Musical, which nobody wanted, we distributed the first movie of the South Park guys, and we believe that our movies are good! They’re great! And that has a lot to do with why have a brand—we are beloved, even though nobody knows about us except you and maybe six other people.
AF: There’re more than six of us!
LK: But Troma movies are good, they’re interesting. At the very least it expresses the heart and soul of the filmmaker. It is not made by a committee, it’s not made to sell Burger King action figures—every Troma movies comes from the heart. And I think that has a major influence on many people. And we believe, at least, I believe, that the most valuable thing you have is not your money, it’s your time.
So, we have always shared our movies with our fans. We’ve given a lot of them away [Troma has released many of its films on YouTube], we’re content that our fans… File-sharing is okay. We encourage our fans to pirate our movies. We want our movies seen, and we know that our fans’ time is the most valuable thing that they have—more valuable than their money.
And if our fans are willing to spend an hour and a half on The Return to Class of Nuke ‘Em High, which we’re shooting now, if the fans are willing to spend time on watching that film, they’ll take care of us.
So many of these filmmakers who are so upset about piracy, what they call “piracy”, which is not piracy at all—that’s just a bad word. That’s just a word that the establishment has made up—the big conglomerates who have overpriced their wares—they look upon the consumer revolt (and that’s what it is, it’s a consumer revolt, not piracy), they want to public to be brainwashed into thinking this is piracy, and that copyright is violated. Copyright laws in this country are garbage. They’re totally perverted.
AF: I agree completely!
AF: It really seems like your highest priority is getting the movies out there—you have so many available for cheap or free. I think people gravitate towards that as well, but how do you feel about terms like “B movies” or “exploitation films” or even “cult cinema”?
LK: Well, it’s an art form. The only purpose in being involved is to do what you believe in. Most of the so-called genre films are garbage. They’re made by formula, copying, or idiots. Most of its crap and nobody watches it. I love these people that come out with the crappy imitation of The Toxic Avenger, and then they’re so worried about piracy? They don’t have to worry. Not only are people not going to pirate their movie- nobody wants to see their movie, because it’s garbage! So unless you have some heart and should and make art you believe in, you may as well sell shoes. Go into the bread business!
My brother made Eli Roth’s favorite horror movie of all time, which is Mother’s Day. My brother made three or four movies which we distributed. They were all terrific, and they all made money—people loved them. But he couldn’t move up the food chain, so he went into the bread business.
Because of the unfair grip that the conglomerates have on the industry, they won’t let an independent artist move up, unless they, the conglomerates, own the work. That’s why it’s very refreshing that Amanda Palmer [musician and artist who kickstartered her last album] has gone on Kickstarter to make sure that she can be an independent musician and artist.
AF: Yeah, lots of people are doing that now.
LK: Yeah, that’s why it’s bullshit that the MPAA and the RIAA are putting out that revenue for music and movies are down. The revenue is way up, because there are new artists going directly to the public. They don’t need Sony or Rupert Murdoch. There are more artists producing now than ever, and it’s thanks to the internet, it’s thanks to file-sharing, it’s thanks to respecting the fans, rather than suing the fans like Hurtlocker did.
AF: Yeah, lawsuits have become completely crazy right now.
LK: Yes, it’s ridiculous, to be suing some fat, sweaty kid who’s blogging about Steven Spielberg’s movie in the basement, getting a “cease and desist” letter from Paramount—and Paramount isn’t gaining any friends by doing that. The Avengers I’m sure was pirated all over the world…
AF: I, er, know people who pirated it.
LK: But it was one of the most successful movies of all time, and a lot of people who pirated it went and bought a ticket or bought a DVD because they saw it was good. My book Sell Your Own Damn Movie! articulates this theory and sort of explains how you can make money by sharing, and by literally giving your art away.
AF: So you’ve always had political and social themes in your movies, even when they aren’t as explicit as say Troma’s War [Kaufman’s satire of Reagan’s romanticization of war] which is one of my favorites, would you say the comedy and the gore makes it easier to talk about those subjects?
LK: I think they can ease you into the subjects. Movies should be entertaining. Fast Food Nation, which is a boring, pretentious movie, aimed at yuppies, and nobody went to see it. It has a very good point to it. And then there’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead where a lot of young people had a good time, but also realized that maybe factory farming may not be such a good thing. And exterminating millions and millions of chickens that way may not be that great.
But people can have a good time at the movies, and maybe see something they’ve never seen before…. Like maybe somebody’s breasts being pulled out by chicken zombies.
AF: Troma certainly never preaches.
LK: And it’s a good point. All the artificial ingredients they put in the food. I’m a vegetarian, but you know, we got all these fat kids—I hope you’re not too fat. But they eat this crap and they’re eating all this crap and they eat the hormones and they smell like beef.
Where are you calling from? If I may be so bold?
AF: I’m calling from Brooklyn.
LK: Oh not too far! Where in Brooklyn?
LK: Wow, that used to be a tough neighborhood.
AF: Yeah, now it’s block to block.
LK: Yeah, now it’s nice. I worked on Saturday Night Fever and I remember mistakenly driving into Bedstuy and it was a warzone. But all these places, we filmed Terror Firmer in Greenpoint and it was bad, and now it’s yuppified.
AF: Yeah, hopefully it won’t get too nice in Bedstuy, otherwise I won’t be able to afford it anymore.
LK: Yeah, that’s the biggest problem, the rich guys move in, the yuppies, the lawyers, and all they do is watch Tom Hanks!
AF: Yeah! So to wrap it up, what’s on the horizon for Troma?
LK: Well, we’re working on Return to Class of Nuke ‘Em High and it should be our best movie. It deals with the theme of bad food again. It deals with bullying and a number of contemporary themes and it deals with the underdog. It’s got some onscreen song-singing. It’s a revisiting of the first Class of Nuke ‘Em High, but instead of Chrissy and Warren, the romantic couple is Chrissy and Lauren—might be the first romantic teenage movie that’s same-sex that isn’t a third party.
AF: Troma, groundbreaking as always.
LK: Hopefully it will get people to be a little more understanding. AIDS was discussed in Troma’s War [The MPAA initially rejected the movie, and refused to include any mention of AIDS. It was eventually butchered nearly to nothing]. At the time Reagan and his gang was either sweeping it under the table or kind of suggesting that this was the “reward” homos get for being perverts.
We get good word-of-mouth. That’s the one weapon we have that these mainstream movies don’t have. Over the years, movies like Terror Firmer and Troma’s War which aren’t terribly successful in movie theaters, but over time, the fans spread the word themselves, and eventually they do become profitable. And that’s something you can’t buy, thanks to the Internet. For our anniversary we’re giving away a lot of movies, and hopefully we’ll be able to increase the number of fans of Troma out there.
AF: Well thank you so much of talking to me, and thanks for doing what you do.
Thanks Lloyd, you’re a class act!