Lloyd Kaufman is, among other things, outspoken. The founder of Troma Films and the director of such cult classics as "The Toxic Avenger" and "Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD" is an idea machine with a mountain of opinions and commentaries to match. His body of work is vast and the reach and influence of Troma in underground film culture is indisputable. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Kauffman while he was shooting his latest film, "Poultrygeist: Attack Of The Chicken Zombies" on location in Buffalo, New York. He was charming, quick witted and a very difficult subject to pin down. I've had interviewees that required a maximum effort to draw responses from. This wasn't the case with Mr. Kaufman. Even after a full day of shooting, he had more pep in his step than a pit bull on methamphetamines. He is a wellspring of ideas and notions and I'm glad I had a chance to hang on for dear life and catch some of them.
LK: We're big Acid Logic fans. I took a lot of acid in the '60s. We just wrapped a beautiful day of filming today for Poultrygeist in Buffalo. We had the general who runs the fast food establishment has to do a number two and instead he shits out a big egg and the egg hatches and this monstrous, kind of demon, chicken thing comes out and attacks him. Now how is it growing up with John Waters? Give him my best. He's a good buddy of mine, actually.
TW:Why chicken zombies?
LK: Well, I read a book called Fast Food Nation and the Mcdonald's moved in next door to the Troma building, and the rats! Have you read my book "Make Your Own Damned Movie?" You better say yes or I'm gonna hang up! Say yes even if you haven't read it. You don't need to read it. The book opens with me down in the basement of the Troma building battling these rats the size of Kielbasas. New York rats are pretty big and they're very brave, they just come out and go "Pfft!" They lope! They have no fear.
TW: Would you consider this a good bookend to "Supersize Me"?
LK: Well, no, "Supersize Me" was more that the big corporations should watch out for us. No, we should fight them, we shouldn't be in a position where these big conglomerates rule everything and an entire generation is obese. We shouldn't have that. We Americans should be properly informed. The media shouldn't be owned by five people. Or five giant mega-conglomerates.
TW: We need more salads.
LK: We need more Troma in our lives, if you ask me. We need more Acid Logic. More Night Life magazine. More... what's your first name?
LK: More Tom Waters! Less water in the drinks, though. In Buffalo, you get good drinks over on Allen Street. They give you a pretty nice amount of gin and the gin is pretty good.
TW: Mulligan's Brick Bar is fantastic over there.
LK: Yeah, I know Mulligan's. We call it Tromulligan's, actually.
TW: What are the challenges of bringing in a movie on a small budget?
LK: The key to Troma is that it's kind of an art movement. You should come over to the Tromaville headquarters here in Buffalo. We're in the church. We rented the church and the rectory that goes with it. You'll see, we've got about 120 people living in it. Not that many, but a lot of people working in it and about 50 living in it, and in order to make a Troma movie you have to sleep on the floor, eat cheese sandwiches three times a day and learn how to defecate in a paper bag.
TW: I know how to defecate in a paper bag already.
LK: We have a lot of very talented people from all over the world here who have come on their own dime, they're not paid, and they're here purely to make art. The slogan of "Terra Firma", the movie we made two years ago, is called-
(actress walks past LK while he's on cell phone)
-Lisa's a young student from the North Carolina school of the arts. She's come all the way here. She's an art director on her own dime making incredible art and is suffering for her art.
TW: That's a bit of a hike for her.
LK: We've got people here from France, a person from Sweden is making zombie chicken Indian eggs and other special effects. We've got people from Japan, from Israel, from Germany, the United Kingdom, otherwise known as England, from Wales. Literally people from all over the world have come to learn the tradition of Troma film making. This is an art movement, here. I think that's why everybody is here. It's not about corner suites and money and sparkling water. I'm using my own money, too, which is something that the Hollywood people would never do. We care about what we're doing. It's 35 millimeter.
TW: Would you compare yourself to other B movie legends like Russ Meyers, Ed Wood and Roger Corman?
LK: Certainly. Roger Corman has been a buddy of mine for many years. He wrote the introduction to my first book, which is called "Everything I Need To Know About Film Making I Learned From The Toxic Avenger" published by Penguin/Putnam, one of those conglomerates we hate.
TW: Penguin's pretty good.
LK: Yeah, we hate 'em anyway. The penguin documentary's pretty good. And penguin's mate for life. I like loyalty. It's very important in Tromaville. (Editor's note: The Penguins in "March of the Penguins" mate seasonally, but other species of penguin do mate for life .)
TW: The Toxic Avenger attacked a fast food employee in the first film.
LK: Not an employee, the Toxic Avenger went after the bad guys who were holding up the fast food place. In those days, it was a Mexican place. We're always for the under dog so we protect the Mexican food.
TW: Well seeing that Poultrygeist revolves around a fast food chicken shack.
LK: As I was saying, the McDonalds moved in next door and they did a lot of things we didn't like. Then I read "Fast Food Nation" and I learned more about the outrage of the whole fast food industry, so this is more inspired by my own experiences of having a neighbor to the Troma building, and then the points raised in "Fast Food Nation". P.E.T.A., the people for the ethical treatment of animals, have been a big influence on my own life. I became a vegetarian because of them.
TW: Your opinion on the evolution or devolution of horror films and schlock movies?
LK: I think when the director is given total freedom, and certainly George Romero is probably one of the most under rated American directors period, when he is given total freedom, he creates some amazing movies, like his first film "Martin". He's every bit as good as Chabreau or Eric Romao or any of the other great French auteurs.
TW: There's too much of a studio machine these days.
LK: Well, there's too much movies by committee, but when you spend a hundred million dollars, which is the average budget these days in Hollywood on one movie, and another fifteen million to market it, you have to try to please all people at all times and you're sort of making baby food. You can live on baby food but it's very boring. At Troma, we're making jalepeno peppers. Cultural pizza.
TW: I love jalepeno peppers.
LK: Well there are a lot of people who do! Those are our fans.
TW: The Exorcist, American Werewolf In London, or The Reanimator?
LK: All fine, fine movies without a doubt. But I'd say things like Todd Browning's "Freaks" and "Dr. Caligari" and Fritz Lang and with "Frankenstein" James Whale had a wonderful sense of humor. "Frankenstein", "Bride Of Frankenstein", Romero, certainly Roger Corman's a big influence. You mentioned somebody else...oh, Russ Meyer without a doubt. He's very witty and his films are very amazing. I mention a lot of that stuff in my first book.
TW: I saw "Gods & Monsters" a couple years ago and thought that was underappreciated.
LK: Yeah yeah, it's an excellent, excellent movie.
TW: How many sci-fi/horror conventions have you paneled at/attended/spoken for and what were your experiences?
LK: The conventions are a very important way for me to be interactive with our fans. The fans very often tell me what to do. The fans are the ones who told me to go into DVD. Troma was probably the first studio to use DVDs interactively with the interactive tour of Troma studios as the bonus material or the Troma Intelligence Test. The major studios still aren't using the interactive qualities of DVD. The fans told us about DVDs and we were making them long before the majors were doing it. And the internet, too. Troma's probably the first studio to have a web site. 1993, I think we started it. And the fans were the ones who told us to do it. And our fans also with "Citizen Toxie" told us at conventions or at book stores where I'd be signing my books and during the Q & A they'd say "What would happen if Sgt. Kabuki man fought the Toxic Avenger?" Every place I went they wanted to know, so that's why we put that in "Citizen Toxie". That's why we came up with the alternate universe, the evil doppelgangers, the evil Kabuki Man, cause Toxie's a good guy and how can he fight Kabuki man if he's also a good guy? So that's why we had to have the Noxious Offender. But our fans were the ones who put that idea in my head. The conventions give you a good chance to hear what the fans like and what they don't like and also to find out what's going on. To keep in touch. I think a lot of big stars forget to do that. A lot of directors get caught up with the system and the swimming pools and they get shielded from realities of life. They stop going to movies, they stop reading books and they end up making shite.
TW: And like Tom Cruise until recently, they get shielded from real life.
LK: His body of work is very fine. You can't knock his body of work. He's had a lot of fine movies. Everything from Kubrick to many other things.
TW: What were the first years after Troma was founded like from a financial and marketing perspective?
LK: Well, I was very influenced by the Cinema of the French and the cinematic process, so I always felt that one must be the auteur and the author of the film. As a film maker, you must control everything. So the trade off is to have a very small budget but to have total control over it. I mean, nobody has total control over it, but the kind of movies we make, there are no boundaries. We're not making them to try and aim at the mass market. We're black listed by everybody... very cool. We actually shot on budget today. We only shot 2,600 feet. We've been shooting 45% more film than we're supposed to. That's the one luxury when making a movie is shooting a lot of film. Even though we prepare and test, we preshoot and shoot the whole film on video before we shoot on 35 millimeter weeks and months in advance. Then we do a lot of improvising when we get to the set, so we burn a lot of film.
TW: Do you think you'll ever make a bigger commercially successful character than the Toxic Avenger?
LK: Well, the Toxic Avenger in someone else's hand, if Tom Warner had the Toxic Avenger it would have been a kabillion dollars in gross. But we're blacklisted. There's economic blacklisting in this world. We're shunned. You'll notice that every crappy movie's been remade except for Toxic Avenger and it's not gonna happen.
TW: Well let's hope that we don't see him on the side of a McDonald's cup in a cross-over movie promotion.
LK: No, that won't happen. Unless somebody gives me a shit load of money. I'm a whore. Economically blacklisted, you know that HBO is never going to play any Troma movies. We could come up with "Gone With The Wind" and we wouldn't get it on anywhere. Blockbuster never takes any Troma movies even though they take a lot of stuff that's far inferior. Even though our movies make money, because we're independent and we don't want our movies owned by anybody, we're blacklisted, and that's the big problem when you're independent.
TW: I'm working very hard to get blacklisted.
LK: (Laughs) We have a day off tomorrow but a day off for Troma means everyone just keeps working, we just don't film. It's a non-stop factory.
TW: Do you have any amusing anecdotes about Kevin Costner, Sam Jackson, or Trey Parker and Matt Stone?
LK: Trey Parker and Matt Stone are great guys. If you get the "Make Your Own Damned Movie" DVD boxed set you'll see that they interrupted their work. I think Troma and the New York Times were the only interviews they gave when they were making Team America, and Trey has acted in "Terra Firma", as has Matt, where they play hermaphrodites. Trey played a nice cameo in "Tales From The Crapper", had his head squashed as a matter of fact. Those guys are stand up guys. They gave me an interview and the New York Times even though were under a time crunch because they had to get "Team America" out before election. They're great to us, you know.
TW: I just picked up "Orgasmo" on DVD a while ago and they've got a grasp of deadpan that you just don't see too often anymore.
LK: Did you notice who plays the doctor in the last scene?
TW: I did not. I know Jill Kelly was in the scene.
LK: You're talking to him! I was the character that set up the sequel to "Orgasmo". Trey told me that scene that I'm in at the very end of the movie is to set up the sequel.
TW: They ran that at my local theater and the neighborhood church had it banned by the end of it's first week.
LK: There you go. See? At any rate, it's a great movie and those guys are geniuses and everything they do is absolutely brilliant. The art of satire was very weak in this country until those guys revived it and Troma's entire body of work is satire, but they've been able to get similar concepts and similar ideas into the mainstream which is wonderful. James Gun is a major player in the Hollywood scene and is writing scripts. He just directed a big budget movie called "Slither". He's contributing some wonderful, independent big budget movies to the mainstream, so there's some very good Troma alumni out there who were a good influence on the mainstream and there's a lot of good people out there, too who will be productive to the mainstream.
TW: While Samuel Jackson seems to be just picking up a paycheck.
LK: Yeah, I don't think he's... I'm very disappointed. We only financed his first film, by the way. I replaced the VP who's now a big time director. He had to leave the film and I shot the end of it with the big monster. What the heck's his name? He's directed a lot of big movies now. At any rate, we did that, but basically, that movie wouldn't have been made if it wasn't for our money and I can't say that Samuel Jackson has been terribly thankful about it. When he was on TV he made some crack about we owe him money or something. First of all, it wasn't true, but he should have tried to keep the spirit of independent cinema alive rather than making fun of it.
TW: Do you have a target date for "Poultrygeist"?
LK: No, we don't, because the nice thing about a Troma movie is that nobody wants it so we can take as long as we want to finish it. We don't have to get "Poultrygeist" out for Christmas. That's Peter Jackson's job. He's gotta get his big movie out for Christmas. We just keep going until the film is perfect, or at least in our sick heads perfect, and then we bring it out. "Poultrygeist" will probably play in about 300 theaters in the country, mainly independents, what they call calendar houses, where we might get a week or two in one of the theaters in LA and one in New York. We're not going to get the kind of release that "Sin City" got. Even though "Poultrygeist" will be far and away better.
TW: Any plans to do a world premiere in Buffalo?
LK: I have every plan if Buffalo will permit us, we would love to do the world premiere here. I have every intention of making it happen, and may I also say that the Buffalo Office of Economic Development and Mark Strickland, the Buffalo Film Commissioner have been absolutely superb in understanding that a Troma movie is art and getting us here. They're the ones who made it clear to us that they wanted us. Even though our movie's low budget it's still quite a bit of money that's being spent in the local neighborhood. As I say, we've got 120 people working on this movie and they're all eating and buying things at local stores, so it's still a good thing for the community, not to mention the fact that we've got two or three hundred Buffalonians who are acting in the movie or on the crew or involved in the film in some way. It's a very good moral builder for Buffalo. Thus far, it's been a wonderful, wonderful place to make a movie.
(At this point, at 10:15 pm, Mr. Kaufman says good night to his film crew as they are leaving after a full day of shooting)
LK: I really think that those Hollywood movies may all have limos and whatever, but I honestly believe that we're having more artistic satisfaction and camaraderie and there's really a nice, knock on wood, experience. We call ourselves the Troma team. It's a touching moment, you know? It's great. It's very, very nice.
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