THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW WITH LLOYD KAUFMAN WAS CONDUCTED IN JUNE 2004, AND WAS PRINTED IN OUR SUMMER 'O4 ISSUE. IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN PURCHASING A COPY OF THE MAGAZINE, CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE.
THE BIOGRAPH THEATRE IN CHICAGO HAS BEEN THE SITE OF MANY STRANGE EVENTS. SEVENTY YEARS AGO, DILLINGER WAS SHOT TO DEATH BY THE FBI AS HE LEFT A SCREENING OF MANHATTAN MELODRAMA. ON THE NIGHT WE WERE THERE, THE THEATRE PLAYED HOST TO A TROMA FILM FESTIVAL, PRESIDED OVER BY THE MAYOR OF TROMAVILLE HIMSELF: LLOYD KAUFMAN. NIGHT WATCHMAN PULLED LLOYD AWAY FROM HIS SCREAMING FANS TO SAFETY AT A NEARBY RESTAURANT. THE QUESTION AND ANSWER THAT FOLLOWED HELP SHED SOME LIGHT ON HOW KAUFMAN AND HIS PARTNER, MICHAEL HERZ, CREATED THE LOW-BUDGET EMPIRE KNOWN AS TROMA, AND HOW IT STILL EXISTS SOME 30 YEARS LATER.
Night Watchman: To start, I know you went to Yale.
Lloyd Kaufman: Yes, sir.
NW: What did you major in?
LK: I majored in Chinese studies. I was in the class of 1968. The current Bush was in my class, and the guy whoís running against him, [John] Kerry, was a year or two older than we were.
NW: Did you have any contact with them?
LK: Bush and I used to take a bath together about once a week.
LK: Kerry was an asshole; I didnít like him. He didnít turn me on; Bush had nicer skin.
NW: (laughs) So, how did you go from Chinese studies at Yale to becoming a filmmaker?
LK: Well, it was the Sixties. I was going to Yale to get an education. I was planning on being a teacher, to change the world and make things better, or teach people with hooks for hands how to finger-paint. But then I got roomed with a movie nut. They just matched us up-- computers or whatever-- I donít know. I donít even know if they had computers when I was in school.
NW: (laughs) They were the size of this building then.
LK: I think youíre right! Whatever it was, we were in a very small room together. We had a living room and two bedrooms. I was in this tiny bedroom with this movie nut.
NW: Were you into movies before then?
LK: No. I didnít know anything. I didnít know what a movie director was. To me, Charlie Chaplin was a clown. I didnít know he was a director. I didnít know who John Ford was; Howard Hawks or Fritz Lang... any of those guys.
NW: So it just got into your blood at that point?
LK: Yeah. My roommate was head of the film society, and started showing me movies. He and his gang were reading Cahiers du Cinťma, which were published by the Cinematheque Frances; they went by the auteur theory, so I was very indoctrinated by that. To think of the director as the author of the movie. I bought a Bolex 16mm wind-up camera, and started making feature-length movies. You couldnít do sync sound, because the Bolex didnít have direct sound. Youíd have to shoot silent, so it forces you to concentrate on the picture; itís pretty good discipline. We used to put narration, sound effects, and music in, and, every once in a while, you could have it synced up; but you couldnít do voices. I didnít have any editing equipment. I had a little viewer with rewinds, so I would just cut with the little viewer; thatís how I cut the picture.
NW: What kind of films were you making at that point? Were they artsy?
LK: No. They werenít artsy, but they were pretty boring. I did a movie called The Girl Who Returned (1969). I was into Stan Brakhage, Warhol, and John Cage. At one point, I put these black pauses in the picture instead of dissolves. Sort of like in Cageís music there are these long pauses. People would look to see if something was wrong with the projector.
LK: I remember I cut a scene on acid at Yale just to see if it would be brilliant. But the scene I cut on acid was just as bad as the stuff Iíd cut when I was sober. I was just as untalented.
LK: I took The Girl Who Returned, showed it in the film society, charged a dollar, and nobody burned the seats. So I learned another lesson: once people have payed their money, no matter how bad something is, they wonít ask for their money back. I made a poster that we put up all over campus that had this gal laying on her back-- big jugs in a t-shirt-- and it looked kinda sexy, so people went in. The same night, they showed Moonrise by [Frank] Borzage, and about three people showed up. Meanwhile, we had about 348 people. I think we had exactly 348 people show up for The Girl Who Returned because of that poster.
NW: (laughs) Was that girl actually in the film?
LK: She was, but there was no sex or violence.
NW: I see the seeds of Troma being planted.
LK: I learned some valuable lessons. Thatís why I wrote my book, Make Your Own Damn Movie. I think by doing things, you sometimes learn the stuff that film schools canít teach you.
NW: Right. Iíve heard many people say that you should take the money you would have paid to go to film school, and go out and actually make a movie. Youíll learn more by doing than by studying.
LK: Iím not against film school, but NYU and USC are, I think, $50,000 a year. You can do a lot of moviemaking for that money. There are certain things you cannot teach people in the classroom. Also, many teachers in film schools havenít made movies; or, if they have, they made bullshit movies.
NW: Now, when Troma started out, you guys were doing the sex/comedy genre before there really was such a thing. I found it funny sitting in the theatre watching The Toxic Avenger a few minutes ago, and itís been quite a few years since Iíve seen it, but even the beginning of the film felt like a teen sex comedy. But when it switched over and became a horror movie, I thought, "Thatís a great transition."
LK: I think thatís what makes Troma interesting, is that we have broken the rules. Those raunchy movies-- like Squeeze Play (1980)-- were made during a time when the wisdom was you donít fuck around with sex. Sex is to sell raincoats, not to make jokes. Of course, there was Animal House and Porky's, but we got in there a little earlier. And then the major studios started making what we were making, but they were being very unfair. They were using good scripts and good acting, so we had to try something else. We saw a Variety headline that said "Horror Films Are Dead". So we made the roll again, did what the experts said not to do, and mixed it in. Our more recent movies, like Tromeo and Juliet (1996), is like a Cuisinart of genres.
NW: Right. Tromeo and Juliet is probably one of my favorite Troma movies. I think the end totally sums it up, when you show Shakespeare laughing, because you really captured what Shakespeare was doing in his time. Raunchy, sexy stuff mixed with violence and humor; thatís what his audience wanted then, and thatís still what audiences want today.
LK: Exactly. He was having his laugh. Thereís this wonderful movie called Princess Yang Kwei-fei by [Kenji] Mizoguchi. At the end of that movie there is laughter with leaves falling. Itís a sublime moment, so I had that in mind. Having Shakespeare laugh was a gratis to Mizoguchi.
NW: Troma makes low-budget movies. Can you give me some kind of an idea about how much a Troma movie costs to make?
LK: Well, the 35mm movies we make cost about a half-million dollars or less. If I direct it, the movies can get into about 300 theatres. The original Toxic Avenger (1985) played in about 2,000 theatres, but the industry has become much more consolidated. The laws that used to protect the public against monopolies and used to encourage independent art have been done away with, so you end up with Time Warner, Sony, and Rupert Murdock. Thatís it.
NW: Have you been squeezed out of being able to play the movies in a theatre?
LK: Well, independent movie studios donít last any longer than ten minutes. Troma has been around for 30 years; weíre aberrant. In the history of cinema, there havenít been any independent movie studios to survive for 30 years, especially now. So, Citizen Toxie (2000) played in about 300 theatres, in many cases, for only one night, one week, or one weekend.
NW: So you make your money on DVD sales?
LK: We donít make any money.
NW: No? Do you break even?
LK: I mean, we make profit, but, shit, considering Iíve been doing this for 30 years, Iím staying at the fucking flea bag hotel.
NW: Does that make you want to do something else? There are other directors, like Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson, that started out doing low budget-- you could even say "Troma-esque" movies-- but have gone on to direct mainstream cinema.
LK: We were a little ahead of them. I think they were able to take what we do and mainstream it in a good way. You picked two guys that I think are really good, but most of those mainstream directors suck. I wouldnít want to be doing that. But I wouldnít mind making a living, yes.
NW: Do you ever get offers to direct big budgets?
LK: I get shit all the time, but nothing decent. Either the scripts or the money sucks, or both. Usually both. There is no purpose in doing it. The problem is, weíre blacklisted. Weíre economically blacklisted. Blockbuster controls about a third of the home video market.
NW: Blockbuster has so much power that they can actually make movie studios edit their movies, or they wonít carry them. That is insane to me.
LK: Not only is it insane, but the fact that the store will have 50 copies of What Women Want, and no copies of Toxic Avenger.... The public wants Toxic Avenger, but, thanks to Blockbuster and HBO, weíre blacklisted.
NW: Plus the fact that the major chain video stores drive the mom and pop stores that would carry your product out of business.
LK: Yeah. Thatís right.
NW: Is it easier to sell Troma in other countries?
LK: No. The only reason weíre around is because there is a public that wants us around. One that is very aggressive about finding us. People donít want baby food. A lot of people are happy to have it, but more people would like to be challenged and have something to think about.
NW: I know there was a time with the Toxic Avenger character when it became a Saturday morning cartoon, and there was talk of a big budget remake.
LK: Yeah. We had to sue New Line; they fucked us.
NW: Did they try to rip you off, or change it so much that it wasnít your creation anymore?
LK: They were having trouble resigning the Ninja Turtles, so they used us to scare them. They signed a guarantee to make the movie, but when they signed the Turtles for the third movie, then they said, "Fuck those Troma guys. We donít need them anymore." Only trouble was, they didnít tell us. They wasted a lot of our time, but by then it was too late. The toy companies and franchise dealers saw there wasnít going to be a movie, so they told us to go fuck ourselves. I talk about it in my book. We sued them, but thatís also a big problem, because if youíre an independent artist and you sue a big company, itís going to cost you several hundred thousand dollars to stay in the game. Luckily, we had some money, so we were able to do it.
NW: Were you weary of dealing with big studios?
LK: Nope. There are only two ways to do it. Either you get a lot of money and you just donít give a shit, or you have total control. Thereís no middle ground. You donít compromise and control everything, which is what I do. If somebody came along with a shitload of money, Iíd say, "Do whatever you want. Just pay me." You donít trust them, though. You donít do anything with a mainstream company based on trust.
NW: Over the years, youíve made friends with quite a few people that work within the mainstream now, but love Troma and come back and help.
LK: Yeah. Trey Parker helped a lot. James Gunn-- whoís a big shot in Hollywood-- good guy.
NW: Yeah. Weíve interviewed him.
LK: Heís great. Iím going to be acting in his wifeís movie, Lollilove, next week. And James is in Tales From The Crapper (2004). Trey, New Found Glory, Ron Jeremy, and Ted Raimi all helped us out, because that was a fucked-up movie. Tales From The Crapper was in a lot of trouble. It was supposed to be two movies... the stuff was awful.
NW: I noticed that was also one of the first movies Troma put out that was DV [digital video]. Is that something youíre going to be doing more of?
LK: I donít think so. I just donít know enough about the medium.
NW: It still has a ways to go to capture the warmth that film has.
LK: Weíre distributing a movie now called Suicide. Itís marvelous. The DVD is out. Itís a German movie that was made for about ten cents, literally. Itís shot on DV, but itís brilliant; the rhythm, the sound is good. Itís the perfect script for that shitty digital look.
NW: Do you ever find it to be a strange balancing act between the movies you like to watch, and the kind of movies that Troma fans expect you to make? Do you ever feel pigeonholed?
LK: Weíre pigeonholed by stupid people who havenít seen our movies. Theyíll ask, "When are you going to stop making horror films?" I never made a horror film. Nobody is scared by our movies. Thatís one of the problems with Troma movies, is that you canít pigeonhole it. Even a mom and pop video shop-- where do they put it? Where are they going to put Tromeo and Juliet? Under horror? Comedy? Shakespeare? So thatís a problem, because we live in an age of pigeonholing and racism and classification. These are black directors, these are women directors. I think where we are limited is in that our budgets are so small. I canít do exactly what I want. We have a lot of shitty acting in our movies, especially in Terror Firmer (1999), where I play a main part.
LK: Weíve got a lot of limitations on everything.
NW: But at least youíre able to make it happen.
LK: Yeah. Cinematheque Frances shows our movies, and Iím going to Korea next month-- theyíre doing a big catalogue for our 30th anniversary. Theyíre showing eight Troma movies. Japan is doing a big Troma retrospective; Wales had one. From the point of view of being embraced by intellectuals, Roger Ebert no longer reviews Troma movies.
NW: But he works for Disney.
LK: Exactly. On the other hand, there are major critics all over the world who are writing about us. Peter Jackson at the Cannes Film Festival this year, or Quentin Tarantino as the head of the jury, theyíre talking about Troma. Billy Bob Thornton was doing a big press conference, and he was talking about Troma-- his first movie was Chopper Chicks In Zombie Town (1989). Michael Moore loves Troma. All these young Troma kids were talking to him, and he was praising us.
NW: It seems like much better company to be with those kinds of people than the normal sycophants you have to deal with in Hollywood.
LK: Nobody needs to be friends with us. Anyone whoís nice to us does so because they want to. But look at the influence they had at Cannes. A. O. Scott is the lead critic of The New York Times, he did a piece on Cannes, and he said that the three biggest profiles at Cannes were Quentin Tarantino, Michael Moore, and Troma. Because all these people who are running it are influenced by us. There were a shitload of other people there who were in positions of the media licking their asses, but theyíre talking about Troma. The media wonít touch us because they canít make money off us. We donít advertise, so they just ignore us. But, clearly, we have a bigger reach than we have economic clout.
NW: Youíve definitely had an influence. I remember growing up seeing your films, thinking, "I need to get a video camera and make a movie."
LK: Well, Peter Jackson, when he made Bad Taste, he used to hang out at film festivals.
NW: Bad Taste is nearly a Troma movie.
LK: Exactly. We had a big influence on those guys. Sam Raimi--
NW: Eli Roth. Heís been in your movies, too.
LK: Yeah. In fact, Iím going to be interviewing him next week for the Make Your Own Damn Movie DVD boxed set.
NW: Oh, really? Whatís that?
LK: My book is out, and weíre going to do a companion boxed set, which is going to have three full-length documentaries: Apocalypse Soon: The Making of Citizen Toxie; The Toxic Doctors: The Making of Terror Firmer; and All The Love You Cannes, which is about selling your own damn movie. But itís got a workshop DVD titled The Battle Of Loveís Return (1971), which was my first synced sound movie. It was kind of a home movie, but it got into theatres, and was favorably reviewed by The New York Times. For the fifth DVD, I did an interview with John Avildsen, who directed Rocky, about advice to young people. I film behind the scenes, so Iíve got all these mini-documentaries, and each one of these movies will have a little lesson to them. And then Iíve got an interview with John Badham, who directed Saturday Night Fever. So Iíll have people who are my contemporaries who are low-budget, and Iíll have a couple big Hollywood guys, like James Gunn and Eli Roth.
NW: That sounds really cool. So youíve really embraced the role of teacher.
LK: Sure. The Make Your Own Damn Movie DVD boxed set-- plus my book-- is going to be an amazing force. Itís not going to cost anything-- itís cheap. I think it will inspire a lot of people.
NW: I think youíre right. And youíre also developing a movie-- which is very interesting to us at tastes like chicken-- called Poultrygeist?
LK: Yes! I hope there will be a promotional tie-in.
NW: Oh, absolutely.
LK: Well, I donít know if youíve seen Stuck On You (1984). I told them to make sure you get that, because itís got 50,000 chickens in there. The whole movie is about chickens.
NW: We got it, but I havenít watched it yet.
LK: The protagonist works in a chicken factory, and heís always trying to get the chickens to lay more eggs. We actually filmed it in a chicken place with 50,000 egg-laying chickens under one roof! Boy, did it stink!
NW: You do these festivals, and the Troma fan is typically a punk rock or heavy metal kid. Do you ever walk into a place and think, "Man, Iím getting too old for this," because youíve got to see strange things at these events?
LK: We just came back from Cannes, and we had 30 volunteers, and I donít think theyíre punk. Itís just that theyíre very artistic. People who are major Troma fanatics are artists in their own right. If you go to a Phish concert, thereís a uniformity-- theyíre Phish fans. I think Troma fans are more than just fans; theyíre really doing their own thing. I think theyíre brought up on the philosophy and spirit of independence, whether theyíre making movies or painting or whatever. Theyíre not wearing a uniform. Our movies pretty much promote the underdog. I think weíve emerged as an art movement, between my books and the Tromadance Film Festival. And now we have the Dogpile Doctrine of Digital Filmmaking. We publicize movies that other people make, and thatís where I want to be. I want to keep making movies, but, obviously, Iím getting separated more and more from young people. I think one of the reasons Iíve been able to survive is that the young Troma fans tell me what to do. Theyíre the ones that told us to do the website. Troma was the first studio to have a website; we started it in 1993.
NW: That was pretty early to have a website. And you went into DVDs a lot sooner than most people.
LK: We were among the first, other than porno.
NW: Porno always paves the way.
LK: Very true. The Toxic Avenger IV, the fans told me to do it. I had no interest in doing another Toxic movie. Everywhere I went, someone was always saying, "We want to see Toxie." Or, "What would happen if Toxie fought Kabukiman?" So, in Citizen Toxie, they fight.
NW: Do you think the critical acclaim youíve received overseas--
LK: I donít think itís more. We have a following in France, but only recently have we gotten a variety of followers. I think weíre beyond a cult in this country. In France, we were a cult. In almost every other country, weíre a cult. Recently, France has expanded a lot. I have no idea why, but Sony has been distributing our movies on DVD in France. So theyíre in all the chain stores in France. Somebodyís making money from it, but weíre not. Weíre pretty well-known in France.
NW: So do you think, in the future, Troma will be seen as its own genre?
LK: I think so. Some people say itís a brand; a boutique. But I really believe itís more of a movement. I think Troma picked up the mantle of the punk movement that got cut off at the legs by MTV. The kid who gets his legs cut off in Terror Firmer, that was a symbol of the punk movement getting cut off at the legs. And I think Troma is that sort of movement continuing. Seven or eight years ago, a major French publication compared me to... fuck. Whatís his name? The guy who put the urinal on the wall--
LK: Duchamp! Right. Iím really losing it. That acid I did in college ruined my brain.
NW: (laughs) Well, itís hard to concentrate when there are so many people around.
LK: Itís not that. Itís the fucking LSD-- somethingís wrong with my brain. So, there is Duchamp, and then thereís this punkish/Troma-ish subversive thing. I think thatís where weíre going. And, hopefully, Iíll get to keep making movies.
NW: Is it a struggle every time?
LK: It gets harder and harder. Even the Hollywood guys-- how many 58-year-old film directors are there? Not too many. I have been able to do 30 movies as a director, not to mention another 70 or so as a producer. I mean, most of these Hollywood guys get three or four movies, and then theyíre finished-- even the good ones. They get ground up. Itís, "Heís fantastic!" But then... I mean, Terrence Malick hasnít made a movie for years. You think he doesnít want to make a movie? Or John Avildsen-- whose movies Troma distributes-- heíd rather not make movies than do what I do. I would rather make movies. If it happened that I couldnít do 35mm for Poultrygeist-- I might have to spend my own money-- that might be my last 35mm movie. Who knows if Iíll get to make a movie again. I think, financially, I can pull it off. We need songs. Weíve got some songs in the movie.
NW: Was that inspired by Cannibal! The Musical?
LK: No. Iíve wanted to do a musical all my life. I grew up with Broadway-- Rodgers and Hart-- I love that stuff. It was inspired more by Happiness Of The Katakuris by Takashi Miike. It would be my lifeís dream if I could get a little singing in the movie. But it wonít really be a musical. Cannibal! The Musical was a musical. This will be random singing-- like Miike. Heís also a big Troma fan. He did Audition and Visitor Q.
NW: Well, I have just one last question. This should be an easy one for you, with the different animals youíve worked with over the years. In your professional opinion, do dogs have lips?
LK: Do dogs have lips?
LK: Well, I know that when Iíve done cunnilingus on dogs, their vaginas did seem to have lips. I think so. Yes.
NW: (laughs) Great.
LK: I donít eat dog. I donít eat meat, actually. I donít eat chicken. I stopped about six months ago. I have insomnia, so I wake up and watch TV in the middle of the night. I watched this pig movie that PETA made. It just all came together for me. PETA is one of our sponsors at Tromadance. I didnít eat much meat before, but after seeing this... they were just like humans. My daughter says it's a holocaust on a plate.