Lloyd Kaufman of Troma
It was a cold night in Sydney. We had left the Japanese restaurant early to catch Sgt Kabukiman NYPD at the Valhalla Cinema. We met Lloyd Kaufman and said 'Do you ever get up on a bad morning and want to make another Apocalypse Now?' He said 'No, I just want to keep exploding heads'.
We never saw him again.
But we did catch up with him over the phone a week or two later, at his New York home. He said he was distracted after a day's shooting, but proved an enthusiastic and obliging subject for interview. One gets the feeling he really takes Public Relations very seriously.
And now, Mr Kaufman talks about life, movies and philosophy. Troma style.
What is all this Green Stuff?
First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#1, 1994Tabula Rasa: Firstly, I was wondering if you could just tell us a bit about your background, and where it all started?
Lloyd Kaufman: Well, Michael Herz and I went to Yale University, and we were infected with the movie fever, and we saw such great movies as Chaplin, and Keaton and John Ford westerns, and we decided we wanted to make movies outside the studio system and try to give what we had to give to the movie-going public.
TR: This was obviously long before video; was there any differences in going to movies back then, has video changed it a lot?
LK: Well, you know 1994 will be Troma's twentieth anniversary; and originally we made our movies for the movie theatres, for the cinemas, and we really are still making our movies for the cinemas. Video has come in and has democratised the movie industry quite a bit; it has made many movies accessible to the public, and it has made the public accessible to many independent film makers.
TR: Is it easier to make movies now that you can put them out on video?
LK: Well, the biggest problem, and I think we all have the same problem, is that the communication industry has become so consolidated, and has become so merged; and everything is done on such a giant scale that there are very very few independent movie studios left. In a way it is much more difficult for an independent movie director, or an independent movie studio, to get its movies to the public, because the game has become so much more expensive. Troma, which is a movie studio, has to compete against Time-Warner, which owns TV Stations, Cable Television networks, Broadcast TV stations, magazines; Time magazine, and Warner Brothers Studios and book publishing, and its music empire. Our little movie company which only makes movies, has to compete against that, so whereas twenty years ago, there were quite a number of small, independent movie studios all surviving nicely in and around the major Hollywood studios, before those major Hollywood studios became such giant international communication conglomerates.
TR: Is it a problem with distribution, or getting the money, or what?
LK: Well, I don't know how it is in Australia, but in America the average movie now costs twenty-five million dollars, American, to produce, and then another ten to fifteen million dollars to market. And that is an awful lot of money. Twenty years ago that was not the case. Twenty years ago a movie could open in New York City, which is certainly one of the more important cities in America, and you could be the biggest movie in town for about fifty thousand dollars US. You could be, in terms of advertising, the big movie. And now, if you're going to open a movie in New York and you want to be the big movie for that week, you're talking about eight hundred thousand dollars. So clearly, what Troma has to do, and what Troma has always done, is to provide the adventure in movie going. The reason that Troma has survived, and just about every other American independent studio has died, is that the public who go to the Troma movies in the cinemas go -- not because of the huge advertising budget, or big stars, or the fact that we are part of a giant conglomerate -- they go because the Troma brandname. Troma has a brandname which means an adventure in movie watching. The person who goes to the Troma movie knows that he or she may love the Troma movie or, he or she may hate the Troma movie; but the movie goer knows that he or she will never forget the Troma movie. That's really what we give to the public, a movie like The Toxic Avenger or The Class of Nuke 'em High or Class of Nuke 'em High Part III: The Good the Bad and the Subhumanoid, or Sergeant Kabukiman NYPD; these are all very high concept Troma movies which are very unforgettable and totally different from anything that the big Hollywood conglomerates are giving to the public.
TR: In the beginning, did you have the idea of that sort of style, or did you just get into movies any way you could?
LK: Well, I love movies, period, and it just so happens, as Shakespeare said, to thine ownself be true. The kinds of scripts that I tend to write are Tromatic, and so we tended to be involved in these rather unusual projects like The Toxic Avenger which basically came out of the newspapers. Most of the scripts we write, and most of the movies that we produce in-house have their roots in the newspapers; they come out of newspaper stories. Sergeant Kabukiman NYPD came from the newspapers; one of the big stories is that United States and Japan are having a great conflict now for the economic and cultural supremacy of the world, yet they love each other and Sergeant Kabukiman is a symbol for that. Sergeant Kabukiman originally was a New York City policeman who loves hotdogs and beer, and through a quirk of fate he transforms into a strange-looking kabuki actor with super powers, and you know it's a very crazy movie but it has a basis in fact. Class of Nuke 'em High which has gone on to two sequels, revolves around the fact that nuclear power plants are built in a shoddy, corrupt manner; also a newspaper story that we read about in 1986.
TR: You've said a couple of times in interviews I've read that Roger Corman has influenced you. He was obviously very successful at making low budget movies.
LK: Well, when I was at college, and I had to make the decision -- do I go into one of the giant movie studios and play that game, or, would it be possible to go against all the odds and try to make my own movies in low budget? Is it possible to make good quality low budget movies? The only example that we could find was Roger Corman, he was doing it! This is in the late sixties I'm talking about; I saw wonderful movies written and/or directed by Roger Corman, well produced, well written, beautifully acted, and rather provocative; and that was proof that indeed, good movies could be made on a low budget. That was enough for me and I decided there was no reason why I could not go off on my own and create low budget movies that would be good! And hopefully Troma has done that, the public has responded for twenty years and Roger Corman is one of our role-models.
TR: And he's still going, as well.
LK: He sure is! He's a very good friend.
TR: You mentioned the smaller companies having troubles at the moment with the conglomerates. There have been a lot of really successful movies recently that have not come out of the Hollywood system. Is it changing, the conception of small movie makers?
LK: I think that for every Crying Game or for every Piano or for every Enchanted April the battlefield is littered with hundreds of wonderful movies that have gotten destroyed by the fact that they simply could not get decent distribution, by virtue of the fact the cartel is very very difficult to crack.
Troma's been lucky because we have a Troma universe, we've got a brandname, and people see that Troma logo on a movie and they go, because they know what they're going to get. We have fans that we've built up over twenty years; people collect our posters and movie stills, Tromabilia we call it. We actually have a mail-order catalogue and people collect it and we've got a good solid base of fans. And every once in a while one of our movies like The Class of Nuke 'em High or The Toxic Avenger or, we think, Sgt Kabukiman, become bigger, more mainstream hits than the typical Troma hit.
In the case of the smaller movies produced by independent film-makers who do not have Troma's help, the only way for them to get attention, unfortunately, is to be slaves to the giant studios. Overwise it is impossible for them to get their films out to the public.
TR: On to actual movie-making. You said a normal movie costs twenty-five million, what about a Troma movie?
LK: We're making movies now for between one million and three million. Sgt Kabukiman NYPD cost about three million dollars US and The Class of Nuke 'em High Part III: The Good the Bad and the Subhumanoid cost about 1.2 million. Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town, which is currently playing down-under, is about eight hundred thousand dollars US. But we have a brand new movie, which was directed by a wonderful, talented first-time director, called Vegas in Space and the whole budget was less than two hundred thousand dollars. We're fairly eclectic, however, I think the average now is about one-two million dollars.
TR: How long would that take to film?
LK: It depends on the movie. When Michael Herz and I direct we spend about six-seven weeks on the actual filming, and we shoot a lot of film, we burn a lot of celluloid. We use multiple cameras... two or three camera units and we're filming round the clock, seven days a week. We don't spare film. Again, one of the nice things about Troma is that we have been empowering new, young directors and they are shooting on smaller budgets than we are and they are more careful about how much film they use. Def By Temptation and Vegas in Space, those Troma movies by first time directors, may move a little faster on the set.
TR: What's it like, making movies?
LK: Michael Herz and I love it! You know we've been doing it for twenty years, and what's great is that if you look at all of our posters you'll see that it's all the Troma Team. We try to gather a great ensemble, and everyone that is working with us just loves what he or she is doing. And since the actors are usually young, first-time actors, talented but new at it, everybody is absolutely committed to the project. The experience of making a Troma movie is something that everybody lives with forever. It's sort of like going to camp, or some kind of incredible bonding experience. It's very hard to describe but it's a great "life-experience". And since all of our movies are comedic there's a great deal of improvisation. Talented young actors love working on Troma movies.
We are pretty well organised, because we have to be, and we spend a lot of time preparing our movies, usually two or three months rehearsing -- we rehearse on videotape and go to locations to videotape again -- so when we get to the actual shooting the celluloid we then throw everything away and are in a position, if we wish, to totally rewrite. But because we are so well prepared we can afford to improvise a lot.
Michael Herz and I co-direct, which is very unusual, and we've co-directed maybe twenty-some odd movies (with an emphasis on the odd!). In the history of the movie industry there's only been one or two co-directing teams who have even co-directed one or two movies. Michael and I hold the world's record for number of movies co-directed, so that gives a certain flavour, a certain energy -- and on top of that anyone else who's around, anyone on the set, is a director. Everybody is a director -- it's the Troma team -- anyone who's got a joke, anyone who's got an idea; until the film actually goes in front of the lens, until it's exposed, anything goes. The Troma truck driver, the pizza delivery man, we let them all direct if they have something to say!
TR: You were in Australia recently for Troma 2000. Can you tell us about that?
LK: Columbia-Tristar is establishing the Troma brandname in Australia and they have been showing four Troma movies in the cinemas- Sgt Kabukiman NYPD, Subhumanoid Meltdown: Class of Nuke 'em High Part II, The Good the Bad and the Subhumanoid: Class of Nuke 'em High Part III and Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town, and those four movies have been showing in about ten cities in Australia, and at the same time Columbia-Tristar have been launching each month one or two Troma titles on video.
TR: We could only think of six titles in the shops before the current influx, so there's not too many of them round [Note: actually, once we got hold of the filmography we realised the problem wasn't quite as bad as we thought -- but was still pretty bad.]
LK: I think it's a damn shame, because we have quite a good following in Australia, its just been very very difficult to get our movies to the Australian public. And now for the first time Columbia-Tristar is capitalising on the Troma brandname, the fact that Troma movies are fun, they're enjoyable, they're good for couples, a guy and his gal can have a great evening going out to see a Troma movie, or renting a Troma movie. They're a lot of fun and that's the key. So Columbia-Tristar has been doing a great job getting the name out. In the United States Troma has about a hundred and fifty movies, and many of the video shops in America have corners for Troma movies. I think Columbia-Tristar is carefully establishing the Troma brandname and is looking to set up Troma sections in video-stores all over Australia and New Zealand.
TR: Another aspect in getting to the public is censorship. Do you have a lot of trouble getting exactly what you want out there?
LK: Not in Australia. Australian censorship is fairly reasonable, at least for our movies. I don't think we've had too much trouble. We have trouble in the United States because the censorship board in the United States is a privately run organisation funded by the giant cartels and, in our opinion, there is a double standard. It's called the MPAA classification board, the Motion Picture Association of America, and, in our opinion, they are much more stringent on the independent movie than they are on the giant-made movie, so as a result the movie that has all sorts of blood and violence featuring Bruce Willis will get through, where, for our movie they make us chop everything out. We have found that, while movies get censored, at least there is a level-playing field in Australia. It seems everyone is treated pretty fair there. We have no complaints.
TR: Are there any other countries which give you a lot of trouble, besides the United States?
LK: That's the worst, because they're unfair. There's a double standard, they treat the big-shots better than they treat the little-shots. It's a disgrace. When I began in the movie business there were twenty, thirty, forty, fifty small movie studios all making movies, and one of the reasons so many of them have gone out of business is that, in my opinion, the MPAA has disembowelled many good, commercial, independent movies. And they've obviously eliminated a lot of their commercial possibilities, and therefore emasculated their commercial viability.
We made what we consider our masterpiece, Troma's War, and the movie was entirely disembowelled by the MPAA and we feel it was unfair. It ruined that movie. By the time Troma's War was shown in the theatres it was so chopped up that nobody could understand it. That has happened to so many movies along the way. We at Troma believe the MPAA is one of the reasons why so many of the independent movie studios have died.
TR: Two movies I saw recently which weren't particularly Troma-like were Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator and Dead Dudes in the House. Do you do a lot of this variation.
LK: Well, again, movies are art and the spirit of the movie depends on the creators. For example, a movie like Def by Temptation (that might be the best Troma movie ever, and Michael Herz and I had nothing to do with creating that movie), it was a very talented young new writer/director. Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator was another whose movie was the first one. Dead Dudes in the House was by a very talented director who lives near New York city, and who is a Troma fan, and clearly was influenced by Troma but, as you point out, it is quite different from the typical Lloyd Kaufman/Michael Herz directed movie.
It's part of our mission to be Troma-the-independent's-independent-studio. We are very proud of the fact that in the past few years we have empowered new directors to make movies, to get a shot at learning their craft and also we have given some new directors an opportunity to get their movies distributed. Movies like Dead Dudes in the House are not big enough or commercial enough for these giant conglomerates to distribute, yet they are worthy films, and the people who make them are worthy and talented, but they need a chance to get out there and then, hopefully, the writers and directors and actors will get an opportunity to take the next step up, to bigger and more mainstream projects. That's precisely what happened to the director of Def By Temptation.
TR: And Kevin Costner, I do believe.
LK: There you go, that's right. He had to start somewhere, and Troma is proud to be the owner of some wonderful early Kevin Costner -- his first two movies, actually.
TR: You started in the horror side of movies when you saw an article called 'Horror Movies are Dead'...
LK: That's what gave us the idea to move into that, yes. Just the fact the experts were saying that horror was dead, we knew from film history that since the beginning the horror film was very viable, and wasn't going to go away. We figured, well, if people weren't going to make horror movies temporarily, maybe there's an open window we could jump into and make a film in that genre, so when the vogue comes back we'll be at the forefront, and that's how The Toxic Avenger came about.
TR: Was that in the early Eighties?
LK: As I recall, sure, we made The Toxic Avenger around 1982.
TR: What about horror in the 1990s?
LK: I don't know. The majors seem to be doing them. I can't tell you, I'm not really an expert. Most of what we do is comedy, and even though we deal with horror, and science fiction and sex and war and all the different genres, whenever we treat them they're usually comedies. Movies like The Toxic Avenger are not really frightening, they are funny. They have elements of gore in them, and fear and monsters, but the end result is fun, not fear. So I'm not really an expert on the horror format. But I get the sense that it is a genre that has a very good following, and anyone who is able to make a truly scary movie is going to be successful.
TR: You do a lot of comic-book/action sort of movies. What would you say to allegations you followed a lot of their sexist attitudes?
LK: Well, anyone who has ever seen our movies, would not say that. The only people who would suggest that Troma is sexist are people that have not seen the movies. But Toxie has a girlfriend who is much smarter than he is, she is the one who has the moral high-ground. Toxie is always true to his gal and takes good care of his mom -- he's definitely not sexist. The Squeeze Play, a movie we made in 1976 or '77, is about a woman softball team, and it was a big hit for us, made ten years before A League of their Own. And yes, the women were very bright, and they were aggressive and they played sports and they were upset because the men were running away every weekend to go out and play sports and be macho, and the women wanted to do it. That doesn't sound sexist to me. Yes, the women happen to wear bikinis from time to time, but so what? So do the men. Besides, the bikinis in our films make a social statement. The small costumes represent the dwindling of our natural resources. We must use fewer resources.
TR: And Surf Nazis Must Die...
LK: Well there's certainly nothing sexist in that one. The hero is a fat, sixty year old woman. The hero of the movie... it's certainly the farthest thing from being sexist as possible. If you want a sexist movie, I was on an aeroplane with my little daughters going from New York to Los Angeles and there was a movie called Pretty Woman which glamorised prostitution. I don't know what rating it was, but it was on an aeroplane for all the little children to see, and this was Cinderella as a prostitute. To me that seemed a little sexist, but I didn't notice anybody going after whatever giant multinational studio made that picture. None of the woman's groups, nobody laid a finger or fingernail on it.
TR: It's a pretty dreadful movie.
LK: It's a disgrace! And it was accessible to all the small children.
First of all, Troma movies are very uplifting. The prestigious American CinemaTech in Los Angeles is doing a twentieth anniversary Troma retrospective in June, the National Film Theatre in London has done a retrospective, the San Sebastian Film Festival has done a Troma retrospective. We've had film festivals across the world... in fact the Australian Film Institute did a Troma season not to long ago. But the point is, even if there is something objectionable, these are for the most part R rated movies to which small children cannot possibly be exposed, and the Hollywood boys are making these movies with G and PG ratings which are more violent and more sex-filled and more evil than anything you can imagine. And of course the Government of the United States of America does things that are infinitely more horrendous than anything... The President, to get his ratings, bombed Iraq and killed eight civilians, for real. Any little child could see that on TV. The Attorney General of the United States of America, not too long ago, barged into a religious commune and incinerated, with tanks, eighty-eight women and children in Waco, Texas. It's beyond... Troma's an amateur compared to what's done in real life, and compared to what the major studios do. We're amateurs in this.
But I think the people who react to Troma in a negative way, when you ask them have you seen a Troma movie, they invariably say 'no'.
TR: Do you see yourself as an escape from that sort of stuff?
LK: Oh, I don't know. I think we provide good entertainment. Good, fun, crazy movies with interesting themes. As I say, most of the themes of our movies come right out the newspapers, so there's a rather provocative basis to them. And yes, our movies are sexy, and yes they are violent, and they have science fiction and they got monsters and they got horror, but they're fun, that's the key. They're a lot of fun.
A movie like Die Hard, with Bruce Willis, or Under Siege, these are pretty entertaining movies, but they take their violence pretty seriously. Our movies are good natured, tongue-in-cheek and fun, and I think that is where our success has come. We have a following, and we get a lot of women. Women love our movies because they go with their date on Saturday evening and they have a lot of fun and they see something they've never seen before. And even if they know they will like it, or they'll hate it, they know they'll never forget it. That's also an attraction. We have a movie, A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, that's the kind of movie that is very entertaining, and a lot of fun, and has some pretty good dinosaurs in it and a fine young nymphoid, but some people say it's the kind of movie that's so bad that it's good. And they have fun. I think it's a great movie, I love it.
Sgt Kabukiman, NYPD, it's a much bigger budget, a lot more mainstream, it's got the Troma flavour to it, but it's something that's quite unique.
TR: What can we expect in the near future from you?
LK: As I mentioned we have Vegas in Space, which has been playing in Los Angeles for three months, and it's opening in Japan on the Ginza. Vegas in Space is the first space-travel musical with a transvestite cast, and it's a lot of fun. We are now developing The Toxic Avenger Part IV: Mr Toxie Goes to Washington, We have just written the first draft of Tromio and Juliet, Troma's tribute to the bard. We have some new titles, a film from a new director called Teenage Cat Girls in Heat, a lovely comedy, very cute. We're good for about ten new movies each year. Michael Herz and I will direct one or two of those, and the rest of them will be by fine, new, young talent. Oliver Stone worked for us, years ago on a couple of projects. And Costner, as I mentioned. There are all sorts of well-known people who have been in, and honed their craft in, Troma movies, and hopefully our new movies will bring you the giants of tomorrow.
A Troma Filmography
Adventures of the Action Hunters · Assault of the Party Nerds II · Battle of Loves Return · Best Shots · Big Gus, What's the Fuss? · Blades · Bloodsucking Freaks · Blood Book · Breakin' in the USA · Capture of Bigfoot · Cat Girls · Chillers · Chopper Chicks in Zombietown · Class of Nuke 'Em High · Class of Nuke 'Em High Part II: Subhumanoid Meltdown · Class of Nuke 'Em High Part III: The Good the Bad and the Subhumanoid · Combat Shock · Croaked: Frog Monster From Hell · Cry Uncle · Curse of the Cannibal Confederates · The Dark Side of Midnight · Dead Dudes in the House · Deadly Daphne's Revenge · Death to the Pee Wee Squad · Def by Temptation · Demented Death Farm Massacre · Dialling For Dingbats · Dreams Come True · East End Hustle · Electra · Ellie · Evil Clutch · Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid · Feelin Up · Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters · Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters Part II · Fertilize the Blaspheming Bombshell · The First Turn On · Fortress of Amerikkka · Frostbiter: Wrath of the Wendigo · Girls School Screamers · G.I. Executioner · Haunting Fear · Hollywood Zap · Hot Summer in Barefoot Country · The Hungan · Hunted to Death · I Married a Vampire · I Was a Teenage Terrorist · Igor and the Lunatics · Inside Out · The Love Thrill Murders · Lust for Freedom · Maniac Nurses Find Ecstasy · Monster in the Closet · Nerds of a Feather · Nightbeast · Nightmare Weekend · A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell · Ocean Drive Weekend · Play Dead · Preacherman · Puppetoon Movie · Rabid Grannies · Rebel Love · Recorded Live · Redneck Zombies · Rockin' Roadtrip · Scoring · Scream Baby Scream · Screamplay · Sgt Kabukiman NYPD · Shadows Run Black · Silent but Deadly · Sizzle Beach USA · Squeeze Play · The Stabilizer · Star Worms II: Attack of the Pleasure Pods · Story of a Junkie · Strangest Dreams: Invasion of the Space Preachers · Stuck on You · Student Confidential · Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator · Sugar Cookies · Surf Nazis Must Die · That's My Baby · They Call Me Macho Woman · The Toxic Avenger · The Toxic Avenger Part II · The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie · Troma's War · Trucker's Woman · Vegas in Space · Video Demons do Psychotown · Video Vixens · Waitress · The Wedding Party · When Nature Calls · White Elephant: Battle of the African Ghosts · Wildrose · Wizards of the Demon Sword · Zombie Island Massacre · Zombies from Outer Space
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