If you’ve never heard of The Toxic Avenger, you have been sorely missing out. The groundbreaking first hit of early ‘80s humor/gore filmmaker Lloyd Kaufman, an entire empire was born from it—an empire now known as Troma Entertainment. Combining low-budget effects with a gruesome, twisted sense of humor (and justice for all!), The Toxic Avenger was the poor man’s Superman: A nerdy janitor thrown into a vat of chemical waste who transforms into a mutant superhero, ugly as hell and out for vengeance. And he was from New Jersey.
Following up with the even more bizarre (and punk rock) Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Kaufman was clearly ahead of his time—hitting the zeitgeist, if you will, and filling a niche that nobody knew even existed. Kaufman carved out a space and a place where outsiders, miscreants, and even 90-pound weaklings got a fair shake. Think John Waters on acid, and then add about a shit ton of blood and gore.
It was the birth of an era, and a shocking opposition to the popped collars and mega-permed hair of the early ‘80s. And we are happy to say, that era has lasted for more than 40-years. Hitting his stride in the mid ‘90s with a string of perfectly named, off-the-wall films, Kaufman and Troma Entertainment are still going strong today.
In fact, Viewster has just acquired a bunch of Troma titles, and we are very happy about that (you will be too). Along with all four Toxic Avengers and the Class of Nuke ‘Em High trilogy, the roster boasts the likes of Tromeo & Juliet, written by Hollywood Hit-Man James Gunn, (Guardians of the Galaxy, Scooby-Doo); Terror Firmer; and yes, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead.
I had the pleasure to speak with Mr. Kaufman as he was gearing up for the theatrical release of Return to Nuke ‘Em High 2, and found him to be very, very funny, and sharp as a whip!
Steven Scott: What do you tell people that you meet at parties when they ask what you do?
Lloyd Kaufman: Nobody ever asks me what I do at a party. Nobody ever talks to me.
Steven: I find that hard to believe, especially when you’re wearing a bow tie … I’d be the first to come and talk to you.
Kaufman: Well I tell them that I’m a filmmaker who makes movies of the future. 40 years of disrupting media. Troma Entertainment, the company that brought you The Toxic Avenger, Trey Parker [co-creator of South Park with Matt Stone], Samuel L. Jackson, blah blah blah.
Our company is the longest running independent movie studio in history. It’s 40 years this year. And we are a big influence on the mainstream. The movies we made 25 years ago … those kind of movies are now being shown at Sundance by bourgeois imitators.
Steven: Can you give us an example?
Kaufman: Sure! They showed a movie called Teeth. Big deal. Maybe if that movie was shown in 1985, it would have been something original. Maybe Sundance would have made a statement, or they would have taken a risk. What they should have done is shown Killer Condom, which has special effects by a genius named H.R. Giger.
But Sundance is run by old people … old thinking. And that’s how the movie industry works, so we lead the way. We are the ones who bring you people like James Gunn, who started with our company, who wrote Tromeo & Juliet, and the next thing you know he’s writing the biggest children’s film, Scooby Doo, and now he has Guardians of the Galaxy, the only successful mainstream movie of the summer, propping up the entire movie industry. And when he’s interviewed, he talks about channeling Lloyd Kaufman. That’s not to say he’s imitating me, but he clearly has been influenced by Troma, and it’s pretty obvious in all of his movies.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone obviously took away a lot from the Troma movies, when you see South Park and their show on Broadway [The Book of Mormon], they openly agree, there’s a lot of Troma there. And there’re a lot of people who also do these superhero movies that combine violence and humor … but they didn’t think of it themselves … it goes back to The Toxic Avenger.
Steven: Yeah it was the first time you could laugh while being scared …
Kaufman: Or being disgusted. Either way…
Steven: Do you ever feel like you have to censor yourself? Like with an old lady at that hypothetical cocktail party?
Kaufman: Well I don’t go around saying fuck, shit, cunt while wearing a bow tie and a suit, but I don’t censor the films. If we have something we believe in or if we have something to say, or something that’s important, there’s no line over which we won’t step, if we believe in what we’re doing, then fine.
There are many people who make movies that don’t get it. They have to put in violence, put in a dead baby, put in a woman getting her breast chopped off … you know [laughs], but they’ve got nothing to say! Torture porn, for the most part, is garbage. Unless there’s some kind of theme, something you’re gonna take away from the movie, it’s just a bunch of images, with no substance.
Our movies have a lot of substance to them, and they have something to say. And hopefully when a person leaves Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, she is a better person for it.
Kaufman: Poultrygeist has done a bit to expose the evils of the fast food industry to young people who oughta be boycotting the fast food industry.
Steven: Are you a vegetarian?
Kaufman: Yeah, for only about 12 years. Not all my life. I do it more for the animals, not for health reasons. I would love to be dead. I have no interest in leading a long life. I just feel bad for the animals in the factories who are tortured and mistreated. I made a PSA pro-bono for PETA about anti-factory farming, it was quite expensive and we put up all the money for it.
Kaufman: Yes. They visited Poultrygeist and did a BTS [Behind-the-Scenes] piece and gave it a very positive review. I think they’re doing really good things. So is Greenpeace. They’re doing great stuff.
Steven: Is there a killer whale-themed Troma film in the near future?
Kaufman: No, I don’t see that, no. Not right now. Right now we’re working on finishing up the filming of Return to Nuke ‘Em High 2 and getting that ready for theaters.
Steven: How did you get the idea that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Kaufman: Well it was the ‘60s, I went to Yale University. I was gonna be a teacher or a social worker and do good things, and peace and love and make the world a better place, etc. Teach crackheads how to paint happy faces on beads and string the beads together, and teach people with hooks for hands how to finger paint … that kinda stuff.
I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a film director! I knew a lot about Broadway musicals ‘cause I loved musicals, but that’s about it! I never thought about going into it professionally, but then I caught the bug ‘cause my roommate ran the YFS [Yale Film Society], and I started drifting in to see movies that they were showing. They had a big collection of Cahiers Du Cinema , and I speak French—I learned it as a child—and I was reading these magazines, which are still published, and it propounds the auteur theory of cinema … that the director should be in total control of the movie. There should be a consistency between movies of a real auteur filmmaker. These articles were written by people who became filmmakers … they were originally journalists who became filmmakers … Chabrol, Godard, Melville. And I bought into all that auteur crap. The guys who ran the YFS were auteurists, so they would put up a movie by James Ullmer, or by Joseph Lewis… Gun Crazy, or The Detour, or Samuel Fuller movies, or Fritz Lang, Renoir, or Leni Riefenstahl. I kept getting blown away by Chaplin and Keaton and Stan Brackhage, the greatest visual artist of my lifetime … and Andy Warhol! And eventually I went to see a movie by Ernst Lubitsch, called To Be or Not To Be. During the screening at the YFS, I was one of the three people in the room, and I was probably looking for gay anonymous sex at the time …
Kaufman: Watching Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, I decided right then and there, that movie is so crazy, yet so disciplined and so wonderful, that during that performance, that I would give what I have to the movie-going public. It was as simple as getting out of the La-Z-Boy™, walking to the ice box, taking out a beer, and cracking it open. Not that I drink beer.
So if you want to blame somebody for Troma, go to the graves of Ernst Lubitsch, Carole Lombard and Robert Stack … and piss on ‘em.
Steven: You actually did it. In my opinion, you are an auteur. Your films have a consistency, the same kind of look. People recognize them right away …
Kaufman: Well after 40 years, the MOMA [Museum of Modern Art in New York] included Return To Nuke ‘Em High in its series called The Contenders, which they state are the best movies of the year from around the world. In that series they had the Coen Brothers, Scorsese, Woody Allen, Sofia Coppola, and that guy that made that boring movie The Color Blue … or whatever it was.
And finally the American Cinematheque did a big retrospective recently, with one movie from each decade of Troma’s movies, and people from the so-called intellectual side of films are looking at this stuff, and saying that we don’t take ourselves seriously. But we take our movies very seriously, and we indeed have something to say, and we’ve left a huge footprint on the landscape of this so called Art of Cinema …
Steven: “Let’s Make Art!”
to be continued …