Tromasterpieces and Dennis Hopper gets Polanski'd
Greetings from Tromaville!
Lloyd Kaufman had a profound impact on my life. Twice. The first time was when I was thirteen and I rented a movie called The Toxic Avenger at my video store. I'll never forget the way that film inspired me. It made me realize that if a crappy film like that could get good reviews and make it to videos stores, I could become a filmmaker, too. I knew I could make movies that looked that good even if I was just thirteen. Hell, I knew just about anybody could. I quickly rented more Troma films and started to see their tactic. Quantity over quality. They obviously didn't care what it looked like, they just did it, and kept doing it...just like Merchant and Ivory. Encouraged, I spent every weekend shooting a new, crappy video movie with my reluctant friends with a huge camera with thick cables running to an enormous VCR. When I would direct my thirteen-year-old buddies to just spit out catsup to look like blood, they would complain.
"Dude," I would reply, "that's what they do in the Troma movies, and they make it to video stores. Don't worry about what the blood looks like, just make the damn movie."
I continued to make tons of short, crappy movies throughout my teenage years, with the important lesson of quantity over quality that I had learned from Troma, and I kept making cheap crappy movies right through film school at the University of Colorado, where I was lucky to find people like Jason McHugh and Matt Stone, who shared my love for cheap, stupid, brilliant crap. Whereas most film students would save up their money and make one big, expensive, great looking film, we would shoot tons of little shitty ones; about three a semester. We didn't care about how they looked, only that they got made. Quantity over quality.
Having such a bulk of material eventually led us to being able to get money to make one big crappy film during our senior year. Thanks to Troma, we were empowered to think "why not make a feature length movie in college with a bunch of rundown equipment? It'll look as good as The Toxic Avenger!"
I believe now that having Cannibal and all our other short films from college is the main reason we found success in Hollywood. We arrived in that town not with one film to show, but dozens. Most important, by making a lot of films in our younger years, (one of those short crappy school movies was the first South Park) it helped us to arrive in L.A. with our own unique voice that we had already defined. The studios would eventually corrupt our unique voice, of course, but not until much later in our careers.
You see, Lloyd Kaufman knew years ago what most people are just now figuring out--you don't need a big Hollywood studio to make a movie. With the technical advances in editing systems and digital cameras that's becoming more true every day, its all about the output: output, learn by doing. To hell with whether you should shoot at 5.6 or 5.6-8 split. Fuck all that. Just start making crap. Quantity over quality. The first important lesson I learned from Lloyd Kaufman.
The second lesson came some ten years after the first, when I was twenty-three, and actually had the opportunity to meet Lloyd Kaufman face to face.
It was 1995. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles sleeping on people's floors and running around with Jason and Matt trying to sell Cannibal! The Musical.
After its completion, we were rejected at every film festival (except the Denver film festival where my aunt Marilyn worked). Its relative success at small screenings started to make us think more and more that we could actually sell Cannibal to a distributor in L.A. We drove out there, and for months met with lots of people who kissed our asses, told us Cannibal wasn't right for them, but they'd love first rights to our next movie.
Then Troma called. They had seen the film and were interested in the distribution rights. I was excited, thinking that things had come full circle. We were told that Lloyd Kaufman himself was going to visit us in L.A. and we would 'do lunch.' It had been almost three years since we had made the film, and it looked like finally we were going to make some money off of it.
Lloyd arrived at our rundown apartment wearing a chic blue suit and a very busy yellow tie. If someone asked me to create a cartoon character of a little cliché Jewish, Mel Brooks-type producer from New York, I would have drawn Lloyd, and I would have done the voice just like he does.
"Hi, hi, Lloyd Kaufman from Troma. I love your movie, great stuff. You guys are brilliant. So you guys ready to eat lunch?"
"Sure," we said, knowing that doing lunch in L.A. meant a meeting was fairly serious.
"Where should we go?"
"I saw a Del Taco across the street, you guys like Del Taco?"
I remember studying Lloyd's face then, seeing if he, like so many other producers was just trying to put on an "I'm down to Earth" act.
But then I saw it in his eyes: This man really does like Del Taco. He wanted it. Bad. We walked over to Del Taco, anticipating what kind of great offer Troma was going to make us on our movie.
I can replay the whole meeting in my mind as if it happened hours ago. We all placed our food orders at the counter. We quickly realized that Lloyd had no intention of paying for our tacos. In fact, when Jason offered to pay for Lloyd's beef taco with loads of hot sauce, Lloyd's face lit up like a child at Christmas, and he promptly added some guacamole to his order.
We got our food and sat down. The negotiations were about to begin.
Lloyd began the conversation by unwrapping his taco and saying that Cannibal was one of the best films he'd seen in the recent months and he wanted to distribute it into video stores. Trying to contain our excitement, we settled into the points of the agreement.
"Okay," I believe Jason said, "so how would the deal work?"
"Well, if we...er...I mean you can put a bit more violence up front in the movie and fix some of the sound, we'll make a nice video package with the Troma logo in the corner," Lloyd replied, "and hopefully lots of people will rent it! Then maybe we'll make back all the money we spent on the packaging some day!"
We stopped eating tacos.
"So how much money do we get up front?"
"Oh. Nothing." Lloyd said casually.
"We get nothing?"
"Odds are you'll never see a dime. This is a small movie, and it will take years in video stores just to make back the money we're gonna spend on the new shiny box and posters." I believe he finished off this sentence with another bite into his now rather messy taco with extra hot sauce and guacamole, adding a heartfelt 'mmm' at the end. "Okay," Jason came back shrewdly, "Let me get this straight. You want us to give you the rights to our movie, to distribute as you wish, and we make nothing?"
Lloyd was really enjoying that messy Del Taco food; he sort of painted his face with it. He was now sporting a guacamole mustache.
"That's my general offer, yes. It's just sort of how it goes," Lloyd replied, having been through it himself a hundred times, "Not much money to be made in the video business, I'm afraid. Not unless you've got Gremlins or something. Mmm, this taco is really good." He did not seem to care that he looked like a "got guacamole?" advertisement.
"Well, then," I think I said, "Why should we even bother giving it to you?"
"Well, I just think Cannibal is a really great movie and people should see it. I mean, you guys made it so that people would see it, right?"
This statement hit me like a baseball bat in the face, and was the second time Lloyd Kaufman had a huge impact on my life.
My buddies and I sat silent for over a minute, but in our heads were all thinking the same thing-- This guy is totally right...This guy with a "got guacamole?" mustache was absolutely right!
All these years I had been making movies because I wanted people to see them. That was it. We made Cannibal in college because we thought it would be funny. We just wanted our friends and family to see it, and to laugh. Just in four months in L.A. had made us lose sight of all that, and focus on the money instead.
Thanks to Lloyd it suddenly became crystal clear to me. Cannibal, our first feature film, was never going to make us a fortune. But having it in video stores, having people all over the country rent it, and pop it into their VCRs thinking, "What the hell is this movie?" as I had done all those years with The Toxic Avenger, well, that's what it's all about. That's why we make movies. Hopefully, that's the same reason you, dear reader, want to make "your own damn" movie too.
If you want to make a movie because you want to become rich, go put a thousand dollars down on thirteen black instead. Your odds are way better. You could also try law school or medical school; it will take about the same amount of time to see any profit from your film. You may even want to try selling your sweet ass on the street, odds are you will make more money doing that. If, however, you want to make a movie because you want people to laugh, or cry, or puke-- then read on. Nobody knows how to make films and not make any money doing it better than Lloyd Kaufman.
View the Cannibal! The Musical trailer here!
The Birth of Troma
The Godfather of Gore Speaks
2 or 3 Things I Know About Toxie (2 and 3)
The Troma Acting Method