Lloyd Kaufman: True Independent
By Anya Wassenberg
Legendary horror meister Lloyd Kaufman’s interest in film came as a university student, and virtually by accident. “I made the mistake of going to Yale,” he quips. “It was the ’60s, I was going to devote my life to making the world a better place.” As a point of fact, Kaufman was working on a degree in Chinese studies, and would spend time in Africa. As it says with typical humour in his official bio, he “spent one year in Africa, teaching and boffing in a small village in Chad, received a letter of thanks from the U.S. Ambassador to Chad (for teaching only).”
“Fate provided me with a roommate who was a film nut–he was the president of the Yale Film Society. I caught the bug,” he says simply. That roommate was Michael Herz, who, with Kaufman, went on to found the legendary Troma Studios in 1974. Troma began with producing a series of sexy comedies–Squeeze Play!, Waitress! and other exclamatory titles, forerunners of Porky’s and other later hits. Those early Troma releases did okay financially, while at the same time Kaufman continued to work on mainstream productions like Rocky and Saturday Night Fever. But Kaufman, although affable, is a stubborn independent at heart, and didn’t last long in Hollywood. He quit to devote all his time to his own company.
In 1984, Troma released its breakthrough hit, The Toxic Avenger, the story of health club mop boy Melvin, who is transformed into the hideous and deformed Avenger, with super size and strength. The movie led to an animated television series, along with several comic books and three sequels. Elements of sci-fi, horror, fantasy and eroticism collided pell mell in Troma films, and they became the underground favourite of many future filmmakers–Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Mike Judge, Peter Jackson and Trey Parker, among the most famous.
Subsequent films got a higher profile. Tromeo & Juliet won the grand prize at the Fanta Festival in Rome. “I usually seize upon some theme in society that I’m getting upset about,” Kaufman explains. “In Tromeo & Juliet, I was reflecting on the younger generation. Why the tattooing and piercing, and (other extremes?) The boomer generation is suffocating the younger generation. They’ve been persuaded that true emotion is not right. It’s not cool.” So in Tromeo & Juliet, love becomes a subversive force. Terror Firmer followed, playing for six months in LA alone. Sgt. Kabukiman proved another popular series. Kevin Costner, Samuel L. Jackson and Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas among others, starred in Troma films early in their careers.
Along with a more confident profile, Kaufman began to expand from making and producing films to writing books, like All I Need To Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger (Penguin), which he says inspired the making of Terror Firmer. He’s been a guest at the Cinematheque Française, the American Cinematheque, Chicago International Film Festival and UCLA Film Archives, among others. He founded TromaDance Film Festival held in Park City, Utah each year, running it right next to Sundance in the film festival calendar without charging a fee either for filmmakers or the audiences that want to see them. “There’s no VIP policy,” he adds.
Slight but full of wisecracking energy, Kaufman presides over filmmaking workshops under the Make Your Own Damn Movie trademark (also then name of his 5 DVD set, It’s a Film School in a Box! and another book). His master classes and workshops have been held all over the world, including UCLA, where he dispenses pithy and practical advice like how to make a severed penis.
Once employed exclusively by gay snuff porn films, the severed penis effect has grown in popularity in recent years. All you need to do is paint a banana flesh coloured, run a tube of blood through one end, and you’ve got yourself an instant dick to hack off. You just need to show a few seconds of the close-up of the banana. For the rest of the gag, just have the actor scream like a banshee while you pump gallons of blood out of his fly. Cinema magic.
He also gives practical advice, in Raising Money, or Mastering the Fine Art of Fellatio, including “Talk to everyone. Particularly dentists, orthodontists, and periodontists.” From the book Make Your Own Damn Movie (St. Martin’s Press), comes an explanation of the filmmaking food chain.
“Acquired by Major Distributor (Miramax, Sony Classics, etc.) – Cons: you’re working with the vassal of a devil-worshiping conglomerate. About as likely to happen as sixteen donkeys farting the national anthem at the Super Bowl.
“Acquired by Small Distributor (Troma, Roger Corman) – Cons: You would make more money by working for a week at Burger Barn. Might actually meet Lloyd Kaufman.”
Despite a certain level of recognition and respect, Kaufman still complains about a lack of mainstream press. “The media has totally ignored the genre,” he says. “We’re totally marginalized.” In response he’s tireless in his personal appearances, cracking wise with black haired, tattooed and pierced admirers long after workshops are over, urging his fans to write about his films in their blogs. The workshops themselves are praised by industry pros in the “big leagues” for their emphasis on “just doing it,” without relying on big budgets or industry contacts.
In his own writings, Kaufman doesn’t pull many punches. The “Dogpile 95 Doctrine of Digital Filmmaking” is his manifesto, in answer to Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95. In it, he says, “Long before Dogme 95 was born, Troma was making movies with poor lighting, amateur acting and crappy sound. However, we just haven’t been able to rise to the level of boredom that the Dogme 95 films have attained. This is one of the reasons that Dogpile 95 has been founded.” He compares the two philosophies. In Dogme, “Genre movies are not acceptable”. In Dogpile, “Genre movies are acceptable. Unless they are from pretentious boring genres like that movie about gay cowboys eating pudding. By the way, what exactly is a genre movie? See Shakespeare. Is that genre? Is Ron Jeremy’s Texas Dildo Masquerade genre? Then by God, we want to be genre!” He disses von Trier, but adores late avant garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, devoting a certain amount of Troma’s catalogue to avant garde releases. Lloyd’s essay about Brakhage appears on his website (www.troma.com). “We brought him to Yale in 1965,” he recalls, “He was a major artist of the 20th century.”
Lloyd Kaufman Presents: The Toxic Avenger And Other Tromatic Tales (Devil’s Due Publishing), a new graphic novel, debuted at Comicon in San Diego. Tromatic Tales is something like a tribute album, where artists and writers like Tim Seeley and Ivan Brandan were invited to come up with their own tales and drawings based on the Troma catalogue. TromaDance has grown, and to keep the spirit alive, he’s now looking for sponsors (see TromaDance.com if you want to help out), and relying, as ever, on film nuts and Troma fans to pitch in.
Kaufman’s latest film is Poultrygeist, released in early 2007, and yet another gory/horror/sexy comedy with a purpose. “It’s an anti-fast food movie,” he explains. The plot involves a fast food chicken joint built on an old Indian (sic) burial site. The spirits of the dead First Nations people and the chickens combine, and mayhem and havoc ensue. Poultrygeist premiered at Cannes in 2007, and has been playing the festival circuit ever since, including San Sebastian, Brussels, the Toronto After Dark Festival and received limited theatrical release in selected cities in August and September 2007.