For fans of genre filmmaking and independent cinema, Lloyd Kaufman is a man who needs little introduction. In fact, he’d jump at the chance to introduce himself. Part modern day PT Barnum, part movie mogul, and part everyday bon vivant, Kaufman has crafted quite the name for himself via his now legendary production company Troma and the hundreds of films that have been made and distributed there throughout the past 40 or so years.
On the phone from New York, Kaufman despite having come to the end of a full day of interviews touting the release of his latest directorial effort, Return to Nuke ‘Em High, Volume 1 (out this Tuesday on DVD and Blu-Ray from Anchor Bay), still has a boundless amount of energy, stories, and rants about the state of the film industry to spare. He’s a fascinating and remarkably erudite person to talk to about filmmaking, simultaneously coming across as a wise and fearless industry veteran, a schlock-master, an incredible self promoter, and an all around regular American that’s concern about the world we’re currently living in.
Along with his long time producing partner and co-conspirator Michael Herz, Kaufman has overseen production on several films in the Nuke ‘Em High franchise (even directing the 1986 original, and this current two part arc the second part of which Kaufman says they have “about three or four days” of shooting left on when I talked to him last week, hoping to being Volume 2 to the Cannes marketplace in the near future), Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D., and the well loved Toxic Avenger franchise. Any film nerds who love genre product, grindhouse, sleaze, or even art films that grew up between the 1970s and the early 2000s know exactly what Kaufman, Herz, and Troma bring to the cinematic table.
Referring to Troma as “the herpes of American cinema (because) we aren’t going anywhere,” Kaufman is rightfully damned proud of the films he’s produced over the years even when they’re often so low budget and so grotesque that no theatre chains will book them and there’s little money left over at the end of the day to market them.
“Our films are totally commercial, almost unabashedly so,” Kaufman states. “If you go out and ask people like Quentin Tarantino, or Eli Roth, or Peter Jackson, or Neveldine and Taylor what they think of our films, they would tell you that they should be opening big and making $40 million at a time. The truth is that we don’t have that initial $40 million to put into the marketing in the first place to stay competitive with those guys. The little theatrical releases that we do get and our ultimate success is a testament to the fans who have stuck with us for forty years. I’ve been to a dozen screenings of this film here already and the response is just as strong as ever.”
Not only are the filmmakers Kaufman mentions huge fans of Troma, but he’s also responsible for giving some of the biggest names in the industry their starts when no one else would. Oliver Stone (a former classmate of Kaufman’s at Yale alongside George W. Bush) got his first break in the industry in one of Kaufman’s first films, acting in The Battle of Love’s Return. Kevin Costner debuted as a big screen actor in Sizzle Beach U.S.A. (made in the late 70s, but not released until 1986). He also gave early breaks to J.J. Abrams (a musical composer on the 1982 film Nightbeast), Paul Sorvino (in the 1971 film Cry Uncle!), and maybe most notably to South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose independently produced 1993 Cannibal! The Musical found a loving home at Troma.
His current big success story, however, has to be upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, a man who not only wrote one of the most recent Troma success stories (the Kaufman directed and not-so-staunchly-Shakespearian Tromeo and Juliet), but who also helped co-write Kaufman’s metatextual and mostly autobiographical All I Need to Know about Filmmaking I Learned from Toxic Avenger. Kaufman speaks of most of his past co-workers with a great deal of fondness, but especially of Gunn, who Kaufman says invited him to London film a cameo in the upcoming megabudget Marvel adaptation due out later this year.
Still even with his company often signifying a stepping stone to bigger and better things for many filmmakers and actors, Kaufman stands by his assertion that Troma creates honest art that stands the test of time. When I ask him if films seen by the mainstream as being weird can stand the test of time, his answer is as passionate as it is thoughtful:
“I think Troma endures because we believe in it. 40 years worth of art is a long time to be working, and that’s really what we make: art. I think it’s honest. It’s art that’s definitely a reflection of the heart, soul, and mind of Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz. We keep doing it because we believe in it, not because there’s really any money to be made doing it. Toxie, right now, is more famous than almost the entire list of actors hailed as the next big thing in 1983 combined, and those guys had millions of dollars in studio and PR money backing them up. Toxie didn’t even have ten cents, and he’s more recognizable around the world than almost any of those wash outs.”
For his latest effort, though, Kaufman seems grateful to have the help of Anchor Bay and Starz, who provided the initial inspiration to return to one of Troma’s greatest titles: “A lot of this was (Anchor Bay executive) Kevin Kasha’s idea. He had just worked on the remake of I Spit on Your Grave, and we talked and he was a huge fan of the Nuke ‘Em High films and wanted to do something with them, and he basically have us and myself free reign to do whatever we wanted with this one, which is how we got away with making this a two part picture. And with us on board, the risk for them is less.”
In many ways, the subtext of Kaufman’s own return to Nuke ‘Em High (his first stint directing an entry in the franchise since the original) is as pointed of a critique as the first film had. Whereas the first film depicted a contaminated high school where students are dying, mutating, going crazy, getting pregnant, vomiting, or committing suicide thanks to a very plausible early 80s nuclear threat (taken to satirical extremes, of course), this film feels like a natural extension of his last feature directorial effort – Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead – in terms of forcing Americans to watch what they eat and what they put into their bodies. In Return, which feels a lot more like a good, modern retelling of a similar story with a loving, but never annoying amount of callbacks to the original, an outbreak of nuclear related craziness attacks the Tromaville High School glee club to create a new breed of “Cretins” that only our deeply in love heroes – this time a lesbian couple named Chrissy and Lauren (Asta Paredes and Catherine Corcoran) – can stop it. One of the main causes: glowing, genetically modified foods labelled as “healthy” and “organic.”
“It’s a big issue, what we put into our bodies, and it’s something that’s really near and dear to my heart and that of Michael Herz.” Kaufman says. “We always try in these films to create the world that we live in, and that’s a scary thing to talk about sometimes… When we live in a world where the vast majority of Americans are obese and you have 17 or 18 year old kids that are 6’ 4” and 350 pounds, then you definitely have to take a look at what the food supply is doing to people. And anyone that suggests that there aren’t readily available or healthy alternatives to shoving hormone injected meats and hormone injected milk, and all this fucking food with god knows what in it is full of shit. That’s total bullshit. The system is fucking corrupt. We have the resources to not cram this shit down people’s throats and if something like Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1 & Volume 2 can open people’s eyes to that, that’s wonderful.”
It’s also that sly sense of social consciousness that Lloyd thinks is keeping Troma relevant throughout the decades. “I think that’s kind of why young people keep coming back to Troma over the years. We aren’t all ‘kill, kill, bang, bang, fuck, fuck,’ without any emotion like most of these fucking movies that open to $40 million like that fucking 300 movie last weekend. We have fun, but we can also talk to about things like food, and here we’re talking about LGBTQ issues and bullying. It’s art. It’s what good art should do, and I think that’s why young people have always appreciated our work. We’re always approachable.”
In the end, though, it’s probably Troma’s adherence to old school techniques and practical effects that draws in most film nerds. It’s something that likely won’t change if Lloyd has his way.
“Our actors and our fans love the practical effects. I don’t think I could ever make a movie like Fast & the Furious or Avatar because I don’t think I could ever make a film that fucking boring. Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volumes 1 & 2 are the first films where we’ve ever actually used CGI in any real ways. We used it a little bit in Poultrygeist a little bit to take filament out of the shots and maybe to insert some smoke in post, but that’s been in. We just don’t have the budget to make it look good and as a 68 year old, drunk, worked over filmmaker I just can’t stand that video game looking shit. I guess some people who grew up on that kind of stuff can accept it, but I just can’t because I didn’t grow up on video games. You look at something like The Lego Movie, which is just wall to wall CGI and it’s just a fucking 90 minute commercial. I don’t care how good it is. Fuck ‘em! We get waves and waves of this kind of shit already on TV 24/7. This is something that’s getting marketed to kids and families! It’s just a commercial no matter what you say about it.”
“But having said that, if you are smart enough to employ the technology that you can do now where you can do camera moves and CGI and stuff like that simultaneously, then good on you, but I just can’t accept it. We can’t really afford it and I can’t accept it. At the very least, I don’t think we could afford the good kind of effects, anyway. It’s just not worth it.”
Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1 is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Troma also has hundreds of their films, shorts, and various ephemera available for free on their YouTube channel. Also, if you’re in the Santa Barbara, California area on Saturday, March 29th The American Cinematheque will have a Troma marathon to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Toxic Avenger and the release of Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1 with Kaufman in attendance.
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