An Interview with Troma Films president Lloyd Kaufman
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Troma Entertainment, a fact that will be celebrated this very month at the fifth annual Tromadance Film Festival in Park City, Utah (the same weekend as another, rather more respectable film festival that shall go unnamed). Founded by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz in 1974, Troma is one of the oldest independent film studios in America. Home to such fine cinematic entertainment as The Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, Class of Nuke 'em High and Surf Nazis Must Die, Troma is also one of the most infamous.
Functioning as writer/
Prior to his appearance at the Tromadance Film Festival (Jan. 19-21), Lloyd will be passing through Albuquerque to kick off a Tromatic Weekend of film screenings, personal appearances and film classes. (See schedule below.) Alibi took the opportunity to chat with the irrepressible Mr. Kaufman about the cinematic merits of squashed heads and Shakespeare quotes.
I'm a long-time fan, so I'm happy to be talking to you.
A long time fan, huh?
I have a feeling your next move is to be a long-time air conditioner.
Is that just an example of the wit and wisdom I'm in store for?
Lloyd Kaufman up front and personal.
So you're coming to Albuquerque Jan. 9 through 11? Have you been to town before?
I was. About 1968 I hitchhiked across the country and had the pleasure of sleeping by the side of the road in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Hopefully things will be more comfortable for you this time.
New Mexico is very hospitable. In Arizona, like Flagstaff, the cops were very rude. I was traveling with a friend from Harvard. I was at Yale. The minute they saw us, they immediately took our knapsacks and dumped the material on the ground. It was very unpleasant, but police in New Mexico were lovely.
One of the reasons you are coming to town is that you are talking about your new book Make Your Own Damn Movie: Confessions of a Renegade Director. My question is, though, why would you write a book telling people how to make movies? Isn't that just more competition for you?
Make your own damn movie! Troma, from the start, we've wanted to create the independence in the independent movie studio—a place not unlike Madame de Sévigné's salon where there would be this nurturing of independent art. And we are very sincere about it. We're proud of the fact that quite a number of first-timers have gone on to bigger and better things thanks to us. We have evolved as an art movement. I've written a couple of books, and we put on the Tromadance Film Festival. We don't make money on it, if anything we lose money on it. But it is to get young, new or independent filmmakers a chance to get their movies out there. We feel very committed to that deal. So, I'm happy. The problem is there aren't enough Tromas out there; independents have been decimated by the trend of both our government and our value system toward the obscenity of conspicuous consumption. In our society it is more prestigious to make a hundred million-dollar movie with bathroom humor than it is to make a hundred thousand-dollar movie about James Joyce. That's a shame.
I can agree with you there. I spend my entire life watching movies; I see plenty of both, so...
And there are great movies being made. The problem is that we, the American public, are not allowed to see them. ... Make Your Own Damn Movie, that book has nothing to do with anything other than, hopefully, getting people to understand that they don't have to work for the William Morris Agency in the men's room or mailroom or whatever and that there are other ways to go. You don't have to be working at Disneyland as a puppet, being one of those Pinocchio big heads. [Aspiring filmmakers] don't have to do that. They don't have to suck ass at Universal Pictures. They can make their own damn movies. If the idiots at Troma can do it for 30 years with head squashings, with movies that promote incest, with jokes about AIDS in 1986, if we can prosper for 30 years, anybody can!
One of the things you say in your book is that filmmaking is not the way to get rich or famous. So what is the motivating factor behind getting into film?
You have a burning desire to be an artist. You have something deep in your soul that you wish to express. It's the same motivation that got Van Gogh into painting his paintings, none of which sold. It's that motivation. It should have nothing to do with anything but that. Now, if you make a lot of money like Trey Parker—who's a great Troma fan as you can tell by the introduction he wrote [to Make Your Own Damn Movie]—that's terrific: Make a lot of money. He's a great guy and he wants to be mainstream and he's brilliant. He's gone in some of the doors that Troma has opened and been a genius. The guy with whom I wrote Tromeo and Juliet, James Gunn—a movie that promotes incest, very wonderful, and also promotes lesbianism ...
Nipple piercing, all kinds of wonderful stuff ...
Exactly. James Gunn's next career move after Tromeo and Juliet was to write the script for Scooby-Doo. He's a good guy. Maybe he'll take some of the dark stuff with him. Maybe the farting dog, maybe he got that thanks to us.
One of the other things you touch on in the book is the debate between film and video nowadays. How do you see the growth of digital video changing the industry?
I think that there is a great deal of hope regarding the digital technology. Just in my own case, I've become a documentarian thanks to the fact that I carry with me for the last seven or eight years a HandiCam. I've been shooting footage, home movies and made three feature-length documentaries. We made Farts of Darkness, the making of Terror Firmer, Apocalypse Soon, the making of Citizen Toxie. We put out on DVD on its own All The Love You Cannes, about the Cannes Film Festival with Troma. All three of those movies have been in film festivals. There is no way I could have ever dared to make a documentary, much less have the money to make a documentary, if it was on 16mm. But, with the magic of digital.
I hung out with Andy Warhol in the old days—just on the fringes. He might have known my face, but wouldn't know who the hell I was, and I did use some of his superstars [in movies]. Clearly, the coterie of characters I have around me are inspired by his stable. But, the point is, he always carried a little Instamatic camera with him, snapping stuff. Ever since I met him, I've carried one. Then, when the HandiCam came in, I stuck that in my briefcase and I shoot everything. I'm actually making movies with it. So there is wonderful hope with the digital format. It permits people to be an artist without having to mortgage your house. That's wonderful. It does not permit you, though, to get [your movies] to the public. And that is the problem. Our media, and indeed the world of art, is heavily controlled by a conspiracy of labor, bureaucratic and corporate elite. Have you been to a movie theater recently where they have [public service announcements]? They say something like, “I'm a stuntman. This is what I do. I'm a member of a union that's racist and sexist and I get $5,000 a minute for doing nothing. But please don't pirate movies—you'll take the food right out of my mouth.” That kind of crap?
Yeah, like some key grip is making a lot of money off the DVD for Finding Nemo.
There you go, right. So, the point is as long as there is a conspiracy of labor and bureaucracy—meaning the government and corporate elite—we will not be able to get our art to the public. Of course, they got rid of Napster. It had nothing to do with copyright law. Piracy helps the independent artist. It helps get his or her or its work to the public. I was recently in Russia directing a music video. We had about 500 extras. We don't call them extras, we call them actor persons. Because we think the word “extra” is a demeaning word, and we like to have everyone equal so we like to call them “actor persons.” I had a lot of people come up to me and ask me to sign videotapes of Troma movies. They were all in these crappy white and black covers. Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'em High were on the same videotape and stuff like that. We never licensed anything. They were all pirated. But, thanks to pirating, we got known in Russia. We actually have distribution now and we've got money from people in Russia. Were it not for pirating, we wouldn't be there.
That's the way the world works. But we should be celebrating thirty years of Troma we should be celebrating the fact that Lloyd Kaufman has been able to write and direct movies with total freedom. You know, 30 years! I mean, I'm one of the few—as the dean of the American Film Institute said—I am one of the very few American “auteur” filmmakers. That's something to celebrate. I've been able to do exactly what I want for 30 years—other than I have to have a small budget and that is difficult. But, hey, Preston Sturges didn't get a run like that. I mean, I've been really lucky. I should celebrate that.
Now, when you and Michael Herz started Troma 30 years ago, did you have an idea in mind for a Troma style? Was there a kind of movie that you thought was being underserved?
Well, the idea behind Troma was that I had read the Cahiers du Cinema at Yale. I had been turned on to them, and I believe very much that the auteur director is the only way to go. So, then it made sense that I'm probably not going to win my way through Hollywood the way Oliver Stone was able to do it. I'm not able to negotiate or to speak the language or whatever, so I decided I would stay in New York and make low-budget movies. When I got lucky enough to meet Michael Herz, the idea was that we would try to aim at a younger demographic, at the largest movie-going population, and that we would try to put something commercial in each movie. You know, a monster, a naked woman, a gun. A gun is always a good thing. Even if it's a movie about a raccoon family, put a gun in it! People will buy a ticket. Someone's going to buy a ticket. There are people who go to see every monster movie. ... There are people who go to see every movie with Julia Roberts, right—no matter how crappy it is! You know what I mean? So, in the same way, there are people that will go to see every movie that's got some science fiction. So we decided that we would always have some kind of commercial element within the low-budget, youth-oriented movies. Then, we would make something that we truly believed in. “To thine own self be true”—that's my slogan for my directing and writing and movie-making career. “To thine one self be true,” as you probably know, was coined by that great screenwriter William Shakespeare, who wrote 101 Sure-Fire Money-Making Script Ideas, otherwise known as Hamlet.
[Laughs.] You don't get this from Martin Scorsese, do you?
Not so far I haven't. One of the things you are doing here in town too is teaching one of your filmmaking workshops. What kind of things do you touch on?
Master classes. I've been hired by universities to give Master Classes, instead of lectures. What I do is I carry a HandiCam. I actually filmed examples of how we have a script conference, how we raise money, how we find locations. I've actually filmed certain ways we make special effects, because Troma has a whole culture of making special effects at a very inexpensive price. How we do dubbing for no money. We've been able to blow up a school for $10. I've got all this visually. Behind the scenes stuff I've discussed in my book. I just did a two-day Master Class at Imperial College in London. They loved it, very successful there.
Well, I'm going to ask you one last question and let you get on your way. You've mentioned a lot about sell-outs, or selling out, my question is if someone from Hollywood walked up to you and offered you that $100 million to make a film, what would you do?
If someone offered me a hundred million dollars to make a movie? I would first remind him that there are 850 million people in the world who don't have enough to eat. Those are not my numbers; those are from the United Nations. I believe the United Nations says “go to bed hungry.” I think that was the phrase in the Wall Street Journal: Go to bed hungry. I would remind them of that. I would suggest the next time they think about making a movie and wasting a $100 million of the world's resources to make a piece of “shite” like The Last Samurai, maybe think about the 850 million people. But, that aside, I would take the $100 million and make a 300 movies. Now, I would only make two of them, and the rest I would hand out to preferably younger, independent filmmakers. I guarantee if you had three hundred movies made for $500,000, you would get a heck of a lot of damn good movies. Right?
I think you are right there.
I would of course be greedy and make two of them myself. I can't say those two would be among the good ones. But, what the hell, I love doing it.
Good, good. It was wonderful to talk to you, and I look forward to the big weekend here in Albuquerque
By the way, the next movie I'm doing is a movie that concerns the fast food industry. It is most likely that I won't be able to do it in New York City, because I need an abandoned fast food building. So it's conceivable that this could be done in Albuquerque.
If it is, give us a call. We'll hook you up.
The movie is a satire on the food business. There's a fast food chicken establishment that gets built on an ancient Indian graveyard; the spirits of the Indians go into the chickens. Zombie chickens!
What's it called?
It's called Poultry-Geist.