He claims to be blacklisted and close to busto. Thirty years in the film biz, with a cult bigger than David Koresh's and a disemboweled body of work that would make any studio boss blood-red with envy, and still he kvetches in a voice so eerily similar to that of Mel Brooks. The cable networks, which once loved him, will no longer run his movies; the video-rental giants, particularly Blockbuster, will no longer stock his product; St. Martin's, which has published his two books, treats him like crap. Lloyd Kaufman, one half of the squished-brain trust that founded Troma Entertainment 29 years ago and made midnight-movie icons of such big-screen freaks as the Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman, has no shortage of complaints. Ask, and you shall receive hours' worth.
"The big devil-worshiping international media conglomerates have killed everybody," the filmmaker says at the beginning of this interview, during which he will drink cups of coffee far less caffeinated than he. Part of Kaufman's image is that he looks nothing like you would imagine; the maker of movies filled with "copulation, depravity and excess" dresses in real-estate salesman drag, all sports coat and tie. "You will not find too many independent movie studios that are more than a year or two old. Troma's the baron. We're going into our 30th year next year, and we've created a little brand, but we've never been famous, and it's never been more difficult."
Do not argue with him or present facts that hint at the contrary. Do not tell him that scads of good reviews in respectable publications, for such films as Terror Firmer and Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV, give the impression he is famous and profitable. Do not present him with published reports that say his $500,000 films sometimes make well into the eight figures once home-video and foreign sales figures are tallied. Do not tell him you were under the delusion that Troma, with its sure-fire formula of naked women and buckets of blood and miles of entrails and mouthfuls of juvie humor, had become a brand name worth a small fortune. He will disagree, with the passion and paranoia of a man who firmly believes there are people out there digging him a grave and carving him a tombstone.
"It's never been worse," he insists. "We're more prolific, but there's basically economic blacklisting, which is basically what happens to independent movie companies. In other words, I don't think you'll see any Troma movies in Blockbuster. And not just from Blockbuster, but HBO and Showtime. HBO is Time Warner, Showtime is Viacom. Bill Clinton was a real pimp for these giant conglomerates--and his gang got rid of a lot of the laws that protected against deregulation, so that now Rupert Murdoch can own every station in Dallas if he so desires. These days, the only independent movies you get in New York, for instance, are from a division of Disney or a division of AOL Slime Warner."
Spoken like the son of an attorney--especially one who, according to The Wall Street Journal several years back, pioneered the shareholder lawsuit. Lloyd Kaufman talks into the tape recorder like a man trying to convince a jury to convict, or at least keep him from swinging from the gallows.
But Kaufman, now in his mid-50s, has always presented himself as a great contradiction: the straitlaced lunatic, the bow-tied Ivy Leaguer with a fetish for gore and boobies, the father figure of the freak show. He went to Yale in the late '60s as a Chinese studies major; as he writes in the foreword to the new book Underground U.S.A.: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon, "I had expected to become a social worker who could do good things like teach people with hooks for hands how to finger paint." Instead he wound up rooming with the co-chairs of the Yale Film Society, and his college education consisted of watching Alfred Hitchcock, Samuel Fuller, Jean Renoir, Ernst Lubitsch and other masters of the medium. He claims that after slitting a pig's throat in Chad, Africa, for his first film, "I realized offending people was what I yearned to do."
At first, Kaufman and business partner Michael Herz, who is rarely seen in public, went for sex romps (Waitress!, The First Turn-On!!), because the late '70s and early '80s were good days for soft-core sinema. In '85 they came up with their franchise player, the 98-pound weakling reborn in a vat of contaminated waste. By Tromeo and Juliet in 1996 and the semi-autobiographical Terror Firmer three years later, Troma and Kaufman were accruing deservedly good reviews--you could only vomit from laughing so hard at these movies--and turning to the Internet and DVD, among the first studios to do so. "I really didn't get DVDs, then we started exploring it," Kaufman says. "I had a lot of experience with VD, that's for sure. Got a shitload of VD. So it was not that hard to put the 'D' in front of one thing, and now we've got the magnificent collection."
Including, surprisingly, a collection of classics that date back to the Golden Age of cinema--films that have nothing to do with Troma, save that the company now distributes them and Kaufman and Herz love them.
Three years ago, when people thought you could make money from the Internet, Troma acquired the Roan Group film library, home to some 450 classic and less-than films, for several million dollars. Kaufman and Herz initially wanted the collection solely for online distribution--"So how stupid were we?" Kaufman says. Troma wound up making its acquisition available on DVD at remarkably low prices: Most titles, among them John Wayne's Angel and the Badman and the Bela Lugosi horror classic White Zombie, sell for $6.
As part of its Roan collection, Troma is also releasing in coming days the 1930 film Check and Double Check, a little-seen Amos and Andy feature starring two white men in black face, as well as Duke Ellington and Bing Crosby. Kaufman says he was inspired to release the film after seeing Spike Lee's Bamboozled, in which Damon Wayans' cynical television exec makes a hit out of a network minstrel show. "I thought people should be able to see the real thing," Kaufman says. Still, you sense he's not entirely sure audiences will understand his intentions. On March 14, he posted to the Troma Web site a letter explaining his reasons for making available Check and Double Check, chief among them its status as a "socially significant" reflection of "shocking racial stereotypes."
"It would be a surprise to know the gang that brought you Blood-Sucking Freaks is bringing you John Wayne and Roy Rogers and Lassie," Kaufman says. "Yet The New York Times DVD column would rather talk about the latest Star Wars, like someone doesn't know it's out on DVD. No one will touch us. I know we are economically blacklisted; you just can't prove it. I am convinced of it."
As they say, you are not paranoid when they're truly out to get you, and Kaufman has a point. There was once a time when Troma's films ran on a loop on HBO, where they accrued the cult. Now, the network runs product from parent company AOL Time Warner; better to pay yourself than others. This very week, Kaufman attended Blockbuster's annual gathering of franchise owners outside of Dallas, where the company headquarters, to convince the small guys to stock product the parent company shuns. He will do what he must to get Troma product on shelves and into the hands of the unconverted.
To that end, wherever he goes, Kaufman carries with him bags full of double-disc DVDs, which he doles out like candy on Halloween. Kaufman passed at least one, often more, to every kid working the Angelika Film Center in Dallas, where Kaufman attended the USA Film Festival last weekend. He's asked why, if Troma is in such financial dire straits, he gives away product that sells for upward of $20 a title at the Virgin Megastore just across the parking lot.
"It's good for Troma," Kaufman says. "They'll watch 'em, show 'em to their friends, maybe buy some others. And some might even realize they can make their own movies after watching ours."
After 30 years in the business, that might wind up as Kaufman's greatest legacy: convincing a generation of would-be filmmakers they need not attend film school or move to Hollywood. His new book is titled Make Your Own Damn Movie!, and while it's full of the producer-writer-director's tales of woe, it also overflows, like a backed-up commode, with copious tips on how to film without financing. His DVDs, with their brilliant making-ofs and other effluvia, act as cheapo film-school education, and Troma has gotten into the nonfiction business: In coming days you can get All the Love You Cannes! and see Kaufman, with his entourage of traveling Tromettes and Toxies, assault the prestigious French fest. It's a masterful lesson in marketing, a how-to for anarchists and masochists.
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In various cities across the country, Kaufman has his acolytes working on their own features. In Dallas, for instance, there's Barak Epstein, who is finishing his girls-and-mutants-behind-bars pic Prison-A-Go-Go!. There's another filmmaker in Kansas, and more scattered throughout the country--"Troma sleeper cells," Kaufman says.
"Ultimately there's a lot of hope, because new technology will be the subversive force that will carry a golden age of what these guys and others have to say, even those who never saw a Troma movie," he says, the showman as proselytizer. "And hopefully I try to be a cheerleader. I make my films that three people will show up to. But these guys don't have to. And maybe one day we'll have the Internet feeding movies to everyone, and we won't have the oppression, the kind of brainwashing where everyone has to go see What a Girl Wants. I do think I try to get people to be subversive. But Shakespeare was a shit-disturber. My total existence has been dominated by a theme of the good people of Tromaville being under the thumb and taken advantage of by the conspiracy of the labor elite, the corporate elite and the bureaucratic elite."
So, then, you're a liberator of the oppressed?
"Well, I don't know it's quite that," Kaufman says, turning suddenly modest. "But the good people of Tromaville can run our own lives."