September 11, 2020 Interview – Lloyd Kaufman
True art takes dedication and the belief in what you are doing. Adopting this attitude early on, New York based Film Director/Producer/Screenwriter/Actor Lloyd Kaufman has withstood over five decades in the movie business. Building an empire far away from the restrictions of Hollywood, to the layman, Kaufman is famously know as the co-founder of Troma Entertainment.
An independent film studio which has produced countless Horror-related features through the years, all with small budgets, but with big aspirations and passionate crews, it is their fans which keeps the fire burning. In truth, Troma Entertainment has a massive cult following… yet mainstream media somehow still turns a blind eye to their success. Carrying on strongly regardless, Kaufman and Troma are back at it again with their latest creation, #ShakespearesShitstorm. A film many fans are calling one of Kaufamn’s personal best, the seasoned filmmaker recently sat down for a candid talk about working independent, his driving inspiration, the world of Troma, and so much more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in film for five decades now, and you have built an independent empire with Troma Entertainment. What initially inspired you to pursue a career in film?
Lloyd Kaufman – I went to Yale University where I was groomed by a movie nut. I just started drifting into the movies with the Yale Film Society, which my roommate ran, and I started getting knocked out by movies. The Yale Film Society, at that time, was governed by Auteur supporters. The Auteur theory of movie-making was founded by a Post-war French journalist like Claude Chabrol, who happens to be a Troma fan. There was also Jean-Luc Godard, and François Truffaut of course, among others who were journalists transitioning to movie-makers, not women. They propounded this Auteur theory in Cahiers du Cinéma, which was the magazine of the cinematic francais, and because I’m the ultimate bourgeois, I speak fluent French. The film society had a stack of these magazines in the office just sitting there. I started reading them and I understood it; film is not just entertainment, it is indeed an art form that should reflect the heart, soul, and brain of the director.
I just kept getting knocked out by movies by John Ford, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Samuel Fuller, and Stan Brakhage, who is probably the greatest visual artist of our age. Then finally one night I was sitting in the Yale Film Society auditorium to see Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942). So, if you want to blame somebody for Troma, blame Carole Lombard, Robert Stack, Ernst Lubitsch, and Jack Benny. It was during that very movie that I decided to give what I can to the people out there in the dark!
Cryptic Rock – Very interesting to hear all that. You have done things on your own terms as a filmmaker. That said, in between building up Troma, you worked for bigger production films behind the scenes. Was it always important for you to stay independent of Hollywood?
Lloyd Kaufman – My first job got me onto the set of Joe (1970), which is an excellent, very low-budget movie by John G. Avildsen. It was also Peter Boyle and Susan Sarandon’s first movie. It was made for something like $125,000. The first day I stepped on the set I saw that John G. Avildsen was a real artist; he cared about what he was doing and wasn’t just phoning it in. He had transformed a softcore X-rated movie into a totally different work of art that got an Oscar nomination.
What’s really great is, here is a New York movie with an unknown director, unknown actors, couldn’t have had a lower budget for its day, and it got nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay by Norman Wexler. Norman Wexler, by the way, went on to write the next job I had called Saturday Night Fever (1977). John G. Avildsen was supposed to direct it, but he had some differences with the boss, and John Badham came on. I would have quit, but Avildsen suggested I should stay on because Badham was a good guy and I could keep learning. I worked with Badham and learned a lot from him and that was sort of my film school.
All the while we were building up Troma. I had to take those jobs anyway, because A) I didn’t go to film school, so I had a chance to learn from excellent directors, and B) because I had to pay for Troma, we didn’t have any money. I worked as a director’s guild production manager and associate producer to pay the rent. Then, in 1979, I got a big job on a Hollywood movie with Kirk Douglas called The Final Countdown. Troma had a little piece of that; it was a big time movie. I’m a big fan of Kirk Douglas, but he was a great man in every respect. He was a very tough boss, but he broke the blacklist, and he owned most of the movies he was in. Because Troma had a piece of it, I was in on the inside and I learned a lot from Kirk Douglas. He became very proud of Troma. That meant a lot to me; better than an Oscar.
Kirk Douglas was an interesting dude. He said, “You’re full of crap until I say you’re not.” I would always give him the truth, and he didn’t like it a lot. I was telling him the truth, and he eventually figured it out. From then on, if he had anything going on he would ask, “Where’s Lloyd? Where’s Lloyd?” I learned a lot from him, he was a great man. He directed a fair amount of The Final Countdown because the director was a lush and fell off the wagon.
That movie convinced me that was it for Hollywood, never again. Unless they called, which they did occasionally. Whenever we made a movie the acquisition departments would call and they would want to see the movie. So Michael Herz would send me out to California with two 35mm prints and I would hand-carry it in. I tried, but nobody bought our act. There was nobody on The Final Countdown that wanted to make a good movie but Kirk Douglas and his son Peter. If there were any others, I apologize, but I didn’t see any. Every problem was solved with just spending money, there was no rehearsal, and the drunken crew that the director chose didn’t even want to go out and test locations. If you want to see a fairly canned interview, there is a Blu-ray for The Final Countdown and I pretty much said what I’m talking to you about but in more detail.
Cryptic Rock – It’s interesting to see where it all began and where it has led. You now have this new film #ShakespearesShitstorm.
Lloyd Kaufman – Yes. The main theme of the film is social justice warriors, who are not trying to save the world, but build themselves up by tearing down other people. The other theme is big pharmaceuticals who have been brainwashing children for 50 years that drugs are normal. As a result we have an opioid crisis.
Cryptic Rock – And the film follows in the tradition of many of your others films. How did the idea come up for it?
Lloyd Kaufman – Well, The Tempest is my favorite of all William Shakespeare’s plays. I wanted to do it forever, but I wanted to wait. That’s why we didn’t do it when James Gunn and I were working on Tromeo and Juliet (1996). I wanted to wait to feel more where the protagonist of The Tempest, Prospero, was going. The Tempest has a monster in it, has fantasy, it’s druggy, and its protagonist is an old man who makes magic. That’s what I do as a movie-maker, so I can 100% relate to that character.
That’s where it started and it’s been in my head since I was 8 years old. I studied it in high school and college again. My favorite version of The Tempest was Derek Jarman’s in 1979. I think that gave me some courage to be a little crazy, because it is a crazy movie, but I think it’s the best one. However, I modeled my film more on the 1960 version that I saw when I was a kid on television with Roddy McDowall playing Ariel.
Cryptic Rock – Very cool. Your take on the story is pretty wild and a lot of fun. All this in mind, a lot of the cast involved are people whom you have worked with in the past. Tell us about the family you have with Troma – you appear to work with the same people often.
Lloyd Kaufman – That’s the reward actually. We don’t have a lot of money. #ShakespearesShitstorm is a $500,000 dollar movie, but it’s actually a $50-million dollar movie. It’s thanks to the 2,000 people who are either rabid fans or part of the Troma family. We had two babies come out of #ShakespearesShitstorm. The Toxic Avenger (1984) had two people getting married, who have since then had kids, start a theater group, and they are now divorced. These people still appear in our movies for no pay, as cameos, or are just nice people. Lemmy Kilmister never charged to make appearances, he was just a big Troma fan.
A lot of the people enjoy making something they believe in. As the director in Terror Firmer (1999) said, “Let’s make some art!” Whether or not he’s a great filmmaker or not, he doesn’t care; it’s about making art, which may or not make money. In my case, it does not make money. They admire that and they are great people. James Gunn puts me in his movies. Eli Roth, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and a lot of our alumni are extremely supportive. If you stay until the end of #ShakespearesShitstorm, we dedicated it to Stan Lee who I wrote a couple of scripts together with.
It’s a family. And for #ShakespearesShitstorm people got paid, but paid very little. We had a production designer come from Japan. He had actually worked on some Hollywood movies, but wanted to have some fun. We had people from Canada, England, France, and from everywhere around the USA. That’s been true for the last 8-9 movies. They know they are going to have to sleep on the floor or eight people in a bed. We give them a place to stay, some food, and very little money, but they want to be a part of something they really believe in. I’m sure everybody wants to be able to walk the red carpet, have cocaine, hookers, Oscars, and work with the great people Hollywood admires like Harvey Weinstein, as well as the other wonderful people who have been made gods of Hollywood.
These people who work with Troma want to make art; they don’t care, they just want to do something they believe in. They also have an opportunity to experiment. We have a very long pre-production period, so there are a lot of opportunities to make suggestions and think of crazy things. There are weeks to preparing, rehearsing, and going to locations. We basically shoot in our office and then go to all these locations to shoot.
Cryptic Rock – Wow, it is amazing to hear the passion put into each film. You also have built a massive underground following.
Lloyd Kaufman – We do not use the ‘c’ word very much, that word being continuity. We have millions of fans; every month we get at least a million people on our various socials. We have 700,000 on our free YouTube channel, which YouTube had the audacity to delete. Our fans went bananas and YouTube caved about a week later. I think YouTube got the point; the issue must have gotten past the robots and ended up in the hands of a human robot.
The big news, and you are getting this first, is we are about to give our fans Troma Plus. It is going to be an app you can go use on Roku, PlayStation, and all the other platforms. Right now there is Troma Now, which is now only at WatchTroma.com, which is how you can subscribe; the first month is free and then it’s $4.99 a month. Then we found a great fan in Texas who has been working for two years on this app, and we are only a few weeks away from posting it. All our fans can then move from Troma Now to Troma Plus. We are going to be taking the movies off Troma’s free YouTube channel and putting them on Troma Now, and if people want to watch them for free, they can on Troma Now.
Cryptic Rock – That is fantastic news to hear about Troma Plus! Hopefully more people get to see #ShakespearesShitstorm, it is everything a Troma fan can ask for.
Lloyd Kaufman – Thank you. The clever critics understand it’s more. I think it’s my best film, and when the bus hits me and I’m done, you watch, it will be. Several generations of Troma workers all say it too. We are totally ignored by the media, especially the New York media. The European media likes us a lot more. We’ve had tours all over the world with our movies, with tributes and festivals.
It’s a very devoted fan base and that’s really kind of my legacy. The Deadpool guys talk about Troma all the time; they talk about breaking the fourth wall, Troma and the Toxic Avenger. James Gunn went from Tromeo and Juliet (1996) to the dog thing. What is the dog character, not snoopy…Scooby Doo (2002)! He said he put in farts and things in it because of Troma. He also made a big speech on Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and on the set of The Suicide Squad (2021) about how much Troma meant to him. He says how he channels me, and still does, on a $200,000,000 movie. He also says how channels me on the creative side, being true to himself, as well as also being a responsible director and not going over budget. Obviously working for Troma for 2-3 years, he learned how to be efficient.