Lloyd Kaufman - King of Troma
Greetings from Tromaville
BY G. NOEL GROSS | March 2, 2001
Lloyd Kaufman, the 30-year veteran of 10-cent movies and gentleman scholar, talks Troma in this exclusive interview. OK, so it's not that exclusive considering he's THE most accessible studio boss on the planet -- but, hey, he doesn't HAVE to be. So, recoil in astonishment as the independent filmmaker delves beneath the gratuitous gore and gynos of some of his most beloved movies -- The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke 'Em High and, now, Terror Firmer! Sit indian-style and contemplate the auteur's philosophical musings on the emotional demoralization of young people -- and on baby-food spewing Hollywood!! Stand on your head and whistle "What's New Pussycat?" as Lloyd reveals how the evil, evil MPAA butchered the film he and partner Michael Herz' call their masterpiece!!! Plus, get the inside puke on Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV and upcoming DVD releases from Troma Entertainment!!!! Phew.
- I'm just flabbergasted by Terror Firmer. I think it's outstanding and the two-disc special edition is to be reckoned with. Can't praise it enough, actually. I review all sorts of alternative and B-type movies, and this is going to go right up on the top of the list for the year.
- Oh, that is really nice. We spent two years creating the content for it, and that's not to mention making the movie. In addition to making the movie, we literally spent two years.
- Well, it definitely shows in the final product. What was really striking, was on the second disc -- Farts of Darkness: The Making of Terror Firmer -- can you tell me about how that came about?
- I'm a big admirer of the work of Andy Warhol. I hung around the fringes of The Factory, and his movies have been a major influence on my movies. His breaking the fourth wall, his contact with the audience, and his self-references. He carried an Instamatic camera with him, he always had it, and so I started doing that.
And when digital video cameras came, I started carrying a little tiny Sony camera and I would video. Like when I was invited to a big film festival in Japan, and we had Leslie Caron with The Toxic Avenger -- and it just seemed like an amazing moment -- Gigi and Toxie together. [Laughs.] So, I whipped out my little video camera. And I started videoing stuff from China to everywhere.
It seemed very interesting, and we began shooting short-form pieces that we'd throw onto our Troma Team videocassettes. And then when DVD came in, we realized we had an opportunity to create some more extras for the DVDs. So we created an interactive tour of Troma Entertainment using the digital video. And it's like a movie -- the work we had to do for that for each department was as if we were creating a movie. It was not documentary, it was made up, a lot of it.
So then we got the idea with Terror Firmer to do a documentary, because it was inspired by my book All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned from the Toxic Avenger. Nobody's ever really done an in-depth piece on how a Troma movie is made, so we had two young video teams who were with us from the time we started to refine the script to the opening of the movie. They just filmed everything that moved.
Kafuman mugs with the murderous leading lady of Terror Firmer (de-legged victim at left).
The only involvement I really had in the making of that documentary was from the beginning we wanted to focus on the "how" part. Not on the actors or on me. We wanted it to be very different from those HBO behind-the-scenes puff pieces where you see the Barrymore gal talking about her difficulty in mastering kung fu in 20 minutes. We wanted to concentrate on the people who really are responsible for making it work -- the grunts, the production assistants, the folks who make sure the explosion comes off. It was more how you get that film made for $350,000. From what I understand, young people who see the documentary really do get a sense of the achievement involved, and that they can do it themselves.
I think that we showed the truth there about the Troma movie. I had no input whatsoever into how anybody came off -- including myself.
- Yeah, you came off as a little fiery at some points.
- [Laughs.] Indeed, indeed. I think there's a reality there. I know that I'm not that sympathetic, but maybe that's what's needed when you're trying to make a $20 million movie for $350,000.
- I think that comes through. You kind of knock your performance, but I think you're very funny in the film as the blind director. And that's sort of a reoccurring gag -- blindness -- in Troma films. How did that come about?
- Thank you. That's part of the deprivation of the senses. I believe that my generation -- the post-war baby boomer -- has ruined things by focusing on this ultra-cool, detached, eternally-young mindset. They've kind of destroyed emotion. The whole theme of Tromeo & Juliet was that the older generation is so powerful that it stifles the younger generation. It has discouraged the younger generation from having any kind of real relationships, or emotional contact.
Everything has to be extremely "cool." And I have an essay that will go up on our website about this very issue (Lloyd's 'Roids), about how my generation -- the largest segment of the population -- has, from the beginning, stifled the other segments of our population. When they were in their 20s: "Don't trust anyone over 30." Everything had to be sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Now, in their 50s, or over, they're trying to brainwash everyone into thinking 50 is the thing to be: "I'm Mary Lou Henner, I've never been sexier, or more brilliant than I am now." Which is not true. [Laughs.] Definitely not true. It's disgusting. Most greatness is achieved when one is indeed young. There are aberrations. There's a theory that women go through some kind of post-menopausal spurt of creativity and energy. Hence you have great women like Maragret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth I -- the one from the 17th century.
So my premise is that there is this awful deprivation of the senses going on in our society. The image of a blind director -- it could be said that I AM blind. I have had little or no critical acclaim until maybe five years ago when they started doing retrospectives and some of the important publications have re-looked at some of our movies from the '70s and realized, "Yeah, these people have something to say." But maybe I was blind to that? Maybe I was blind to the extent of my talent. But I, the real Lloyd Kaufman, have been making movies for 30 years and have had to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to people. As in I don't listen to them. The fact that the blind film director is URINATING on the director of photography and the actress, isn't that what directors often have to do?
The blind, whizzing director.
- You were just doing it literally.
- Literally, yeah, that's right. And there's the fat kid whose head is bandaged up and he cannot hear, see, smell -- it is simple that we suffer from deprivation of the senses. That's my theory, as in Tromeo & Juliet, that younger people rather than trying to make relationships -- because the post-war baby boomers have a 50 percent divorce rate and have f@#%ed up emotions -- the young people are turning inward and tattooing their bodies, piercing themselves and conducting autoerotic asphyxiation.
- Your daughters often show up in your films. I find it endearing that they can spend time with their dad, on the job he does. Do they enjoy that?
- Well, they do and they don't. Charlotte, the kid who plays Audrey, had a very difficult role. She had to be on the set even though she might have only been used for 10 seconds on a certain day. She'd still have to spend the entire day there doing nothing. And also, very often, had to be removed from the set for certain scenes with sex and violence -- she wasn't supposed to see that. My wife gave the crew a very stern talking to to make sure I wouldn't goof and let the kid see anything.
- Talk a bit about Troma's Rules of Production: 1) Safety to humans. 2) Safety to people's property. 3) Make a good movie. Those are pretty interesting.
- We see movies as a luxury, not a matter of survival. God forbid someone should get hurt on a movie set of ours. Many people in the movie business really think they're better than anybody else. They forget that this is a business of human beings, and it's dangerous. Michael Herz (co-founder of Troma) and I have always felt that, infinitely more important than a movie, is world hunger or the environment. Somebody's life, or somebody's health is infinitely more important than OUR art -- than probably all art. So we put human safety, and safety to people's property above the priority of making a good movie.
Needless to say, my entire life is movies. I put it ahead of everything. I love movies. There's nothing I don't sacrifice to make movies. But we really feel we must brainwash the crew and the staff and the actors with this notion of safety. Sure, we don't have a 100 percent perfect record, but we've never had anyone seriously injured on a movie set in 30 years. Whereas, Warner Bros. chopped off the heads of Vic Morrow and two children.
- Steven Spielberg takes quite a beating in Terror Firmer. What is it about mega-directors like him that really irks you?
I just thought it was funny to make fun of him, just because people don't normally think of making fun of him. Part of what I enjoy doing is being a s@#% disturber. I think I'm a little harsh on Spielberg, he obviously is an extremely talented and great director and everybody knows that. So I figured, let's get people's juices flowing and have some fun with it.
Unlike Spielberg, Lemmy of Motorhead is a F.O.T. -- Friend of Troma.
But I do hate the big-budget movie because I feel it's obscene. Most of them, the budgets are so inflated that they've got to be all things to all people. And as a result, they come out as baby food. Even Spielberg movies. In the fullness of time, that Tom Hanks war picture is going to be looked upon as stuff that was OK for its day, but doesn't come close to Samuel Fuller's Fixed Bayonets, The Steel Helmet, or any of the John Ford war pictures. There's just going to be no comparison.
But the issue is more that you spend $100 million on a movie and it ends up as baby food. You can live on baby food, but it's mighty boring. We want to try and bring back the notion of individualism and perhaps things that are a bit more from the heart. Part of the problem is that independent cinema and independent art has been in a major, major decline since I've started my career. There are fewer and fewer and fewer true independent centers of activity in all fields -- not just movies. And it is a depressing experience to watch.
The fact that Troma is the oldest independent movie studio is regrettable. There should be 50 Tromas. When I began, there were lots of independent movie studios, all creating low-budget, truly independent movies that could take risks and give people something to chew on. Nowadays, we've got What Women Want and it's on 3,000 screens and it sucks, it's awful.
- You've talked about big conglomerates and baby food. I heard there's an R-rated version of Terror Firmer. Is that for the Blockbusters of the world?
- There are lots of Easter eggs on the discs, and if you explore, it's there. You need a MPAA R-rating to get into stores. Of course, Blockbuster has blacklisted Terror Firmer, it would appear. They didn't take one tape or DVD. Maybe there are a few franchises who did, but I don't think so. I'm not sure what version Hollywood Video will carry, I think they may need an R-rating. They took the film, and it's been selling out. The DVDs have been doing extremely well, and we've had to reprint them already.
- A lot of people who read my reviews will want to know about Widescreen vs. Fullscreen. I noticed some of the extras were letterboxed, while the movie is not.
- That's because when we shoot the movies, the camera will show you the 1.85 format, but I prefer the full aperture. I keep the microphones and lights out of the entire viewfinder. My theory, aesthetically, is that most people see my movies on video and television, so my image is just as wide as widescreen, but I give people more on the top and bottom. And I get that letter a lot, "Why don't you have widescreen?!" And I tell them, "Well, take some black tape and cover up the top and bottom." If you go to the movie theater and see Terror Firmer, they will cut off the top and bottom, and you'll miss some of the action. There are probably background people and schtick going on that you won't see in the movie theater.
- Well, that'll answer their question, and hopefully you won't get any more letters.
- People are kind of snobs about that. And they're right, because with directors like Otto Preminger, for example, how many times have we seen
Bonjour Tristesse on television and it's pan and scan? And the great thing about Bonjour Tristesse is that Preminger shot it in Cinemascope and he's got two people sitting on the left and the right of the screen, and the camera stays on them while they have this long, long scene in a cramped little room. It is a really brilliant stylistic approach to Francoise Sagan. Meanwhile, you see it on TV and his widescreen has totally been disemboweled. But that's not the case with our movies.
- Let's skip ahead to Citizen Toxie. Could you tell me a little about the film? I've only seen the trailer.
Like many of our movies, it is inspired by issues of the day. We are dealing with the hot button of a woman's right to choose, we also deal with the fact that people are being brainwashed, children especially, to the notion of getting plastic surgery and looking like everyone else. We've got Sandra Bullock clones. And people who are 14 years old -- and haven't formed their bodies -- are watching MTV and being brainwashed into mindsets that say, "Oh, gee, I must get my lips, ears, nose, legs and ass redone while I'm drinking my Big Gulp and getting fat as a pig."
Lloyd says Toxie and his lovely wife are expecting their first, um, child.
And it's the continuation of The Toxic Avenger story. Toxie is the only superhero who gets older in each movie. Sorry, the only super-HUMAN hero. "Superhero" is a word that is owned by Time Warner -- you're not allowed to use it. [Laughs.] That's how powerful these companies are, they can actually own the language. By the end of Toxic Avenger 3, which was about 10 years ago, Toxie got married. Now, it's time for him to have a baby. Since Troma has always been an interactive company, fans would ask, "What would happen if The Toxic Avenger fought Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.?" Of course, they can't fight each other, because they're both good guys. So, as a result, we had to come up with the parallel universe.
There's a school shooting at the beginning of the movie, the school blows up, and Toxie is propelled into an alternative universe. Meanwhile, his wife back in Tromaville is about to give birth. So, you've got The Toxic Avenger who is in Amortville -- which is "Troma" spelled backwards -- and he's got to fight the evil characters. Evil Kabukiman. Evil Dolphin Man. And The Noxious Offender, known as Noxie, he's in good Tromaville and he hooks up with the bad guys and suddenly all the population is dealing with the evil Toxic Avenger, which they assume is the good Toxie. And there's obviously a major reference to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane.
- Clearly, you're describing an epic here.
- It really is. We had to have Toxie and Noxie fight at the end of the movie. So you can imagine the makeup. Four hours a day for both of them. There were certain days where we needed five of six of the superheros AND their doubles. So the makeup people would be putting these appliances on around the clock. Citizen Toxie was a huge, huge undertaking.
- When can we expect that on DVD?
- Oh!? My god, I have absolutely no idea. We don't even have an answer print on the film. It should start playing theatrically this spring. I hope. We'll have the answer print in about two weeks.
Meanwhile, we've been putting out some interesting movies like Dracula vs. Frankenstein on DVD. We've been putting out a number of the Roan Group movies every month. Things like Invisible Ghost, White Zombie, Flash Gordon, Radar Men From The Moon and I Spit On Your Corpse.
- Not to be confused with I Spit On Your Grave.
- Right! That's right. I Spit On Your Corpse is one of Al Adamson's. We are putting out The Al Adamson Collection. We put out Satan's Sadists with Russ Tamblyn. We also did Wizards of the Demon Sword for Troma. So we've got a huge volume of DVDs that are constantly spewing forth. And, obviously, in many cases we don't have the ability to get the archival material going.
But we are putting out a Toxic Avenger boxed set: the first three Toxic Avenger movies, plus The Toxic Crusader cartoon show. So we're getting those ready. And I know there are DVDs on the way for Squeeze Play, Waitress, Stuck On You! and The First Turn-On!!, which are movies that Michael Herz or I had directed in the '70s. We're doing a Before There Was Toxie series. What takes us so long on our own movies is that we're trying to get the extras put together.
- Let's talk a little about Troma's War. You've called that your favorite.
Well, it isn't my favorite now. I would say, at the present, Terror Firmer is my favorite, and my guess is that Citizen Toxie will be the ultimate favorite. But I think, and Michael Herz definitely agrees, that if there's such a thing as a Troma masterpiece it jolly well might be Troma's War. It just had very bad luck. It suffered the worst double-standard of the MPAA, and the rating board totally, totally destroyed it.
Lloyd and stunt-Lloyd attempt to stay grounded on the explosive set of Terror Firmer -- his favorite movie.
In those days we HAD to have an R-rating to get into the chains, and theatrical revenue was significant. And the only way we could get an R-rating was to totally disembowel Troma's War. They made us cut out every bullet hit, every punch -- and it was just awful. Our fans hated it and hated us! They figured we were copping out because of the success of Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'Em High. You'd have other people who'd go into the movie theater and they'd see this weird movie that wasn't really a war picture, and they didn't like it either.
So, Troma's War was just tremendous bad news, and it is the MPAA that's at fault. We based the editing on what we saw in Die Hard -- it had exploding knees and blood on the walls. The MPAA also told us that they hated our movie. They're not supposed to give you an aesthetic opinion, but they had the arrogance to say it, because we're a small company. They work for the big boys.
- My favorite is the tongue-ripping scene.
- As you can imagine, for the R-rating, they just totally removed it. And it's an important statement. But meanwhile, they let Disney have a scene where a penis smashed through somebody's head and a woman is ejaculated on with full force -- with great hurricane force -- and that is in an R-rated movie. Yet, in Terror Firmer, there was a shot of me eating a taco, that had to be removed. Apparently, my eating habits are worse than a penis going through somebody's head. It's a very unfair system, and I hold the MPAA responsible for the failure of many, many independent movie companies.
- I have more questions, but I don't want to monopolize your time. Is there anything that I haven't touched on that you'd like to talk about?
- I think Troma exists as the oldest independent movie studio because of the fans. And because the fans tell us what they want, and tell us what to do, and keep us in the loop with what's going on in the real world. I hope that our fans will give us more input, and continue to communicate through the Troma website, or any way they wish. Guide us so that we can continue to be emotional and honest filmmakers. We are obviously very grateful to our fans.
G. Noel Gross is a Dallas graphic designer and avowed Drive-In Mutant who specializes in scribbling B-movie reviews. Noel is inspired by Joe Bob Briggs and his gospel of blood, breasts and beasts.