by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2003-11-07
"Thank you for your interest in this modest, independent Jewish filmmaker," booms Lloyd Kaufman down the phone line from New York, by way of kicking off his chat with SJ. Which, as it happens, is a pretty good way of summing up the 57-year-old's career over the past 30 years.
As founder of Troma, the studio famous for such cult classics as The Toxic Avenger, Class Of Nuke 'Em High and Surf Nazis Must Die, he and business partner Michael Herz have spent the last 30 years proving that it is possible to make movies without resorting to Matrix Revolutions-style budgets - and in the process they have attracted a worldwide following.
Over the last 30 years, Troma has been responsible for giving a leg-up to the careers of Kevin Costner (who starred in the 1986 comedy Sizzle Beach USA), Samuel L Jackson (who appeared in the 1990 horror comedy Def By Temptation) and South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, whose pre-Park film Cannibal! The Musical was co-financed by the studio. What's more, Toxic Avenger - the story of a wimpy janitor who is transformed into a crime-fighting hero after falling into a vat of toxic waste - has become popular enough to spawn three sequels and a children's TV cartoon (albeit less graphic and violent than its big-screen predecessor). And as Kaufman explains during the course of our chat, the studio's annual pilgrimage to Cannes has become near legendary.
Now, Kaufman is bringing the secrets of his success to London with a two-day course, entitled Make Your Own Damn Movie, taking place at the capital's Imperial College on November 8 and 9. The event promises to reveal to would-be filmmakers how to go about getting their own efforts made and shown - on a budget, of course. Before then, however, the impossibly talkative Kaufman is more than happy to not only give me a sneak preview of the course during our 45-minute chat but also explain how Troma has spent three decades entertaining its fans without ever surrendering its independence.
What can we expect from your film course?
Well, it's inspired by a couple of books I've written, and the fact I've been making movies for 30 odd years and I've been able to do it without going to any other source - we've been making independent movies outside the establishment, and all of the customary paths of financing, so this masterclass which is inspired by my recent book Make Your Own Damn Movie (published by St Martin's Press), will be a two day masterclass starting from the bottom up - how to raise your own damn movie money, to writing your own damn independent low-budget script, to casting your own damn actors without having to pay a lot of money to making your own damn special effects using everyday objects found around the house. In a nutshell that's pretty much the drill, and I will be illustrating my lecture with filmed segments of the various activities - for example I will show a section literally showing an investor's audition where we get a group of investors in a room and show a project to them. We actually made an eight-minute film of it. And there'll be other short films showing aspects of the filmmaking experience.
Have you done this course before?
I lecture at various universities in the US, but this is a two-day course - I have done this kind of thing before, but it's something special to do two days. It's the first time I've done lectures in the UK. I've been at film festivals and restrospectives but no formal speaking engagements.
Who gave you your first break in showbiz?
Well really my entire career has been devoted to independent filmmaking starting with Troma in 1974 - I got out of college and basically went right to making my own movies. Instead of film school, I did cut my teeth in the industry working on movies like Rocky and Saturday Night Fever, and a movie called The Final Countdown with Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen - so instead of film school I did those kinds of jobs, also learning about the inside business of movies.
What keeps Troma independent after all this time?
I think the reason we've been able to keep going, and in the history of cinema I don't believe you'll find any other independent movie studio that's 30 years old - you'd be hard pressed to find one in the US that's more than five years old. I think the secret to our success has been we make one of a kind films that come from the heart, projects that we believe in. We take our films very very seriously, we don't take ourselves seriously, but we make films about issues that we feel very very passionately about.
Troma is probably best known for the Toxic Avenger films - did you ever imagine the character would become such a phenomenon?
It's historic, in the history of cinema, there's never been a movie where a young boy has his head crushed by the wheel of an automobile that was made into a Saturday morning politically correct children's TV cartoon. It's quite amazing, isn't it? And there's all sorts of unusual aspects of Troma in terms of the history, which is why it's a pity there aren't more independent movie studios. They are the ones which can take the risks, which can move faster, Troma is able to move quickly and aside from making movies like Terror Firmer or Tromeo And Juliet, we make the first of those types of movie. If you look at films like Scary Movie, it's the type of film Troma was making 20 years ago. And yes, they got there, and they spent a lot of money on that movie and I'm sure they've made a lot of money, but we have been able to be successful by being ahead of the game. We were the first studio to fully embrace DVD and the interactive aspects, and I think we may have been the first studio to have a website - we had it since about 1992, and www.troma.com has a huge following around the world. The other thing of course is that we have very loyal and aggressive fans who keep us going, in spite of the fact that we have a very difficult time in getting our movies shown. Our fans will always make an effort to find our films.
What do Troma Productions look for in a script?
Most of the movies my partner Michael Herz and I have produced and/or directed in-house, we have produced our own scripts. We have produced and financed films for outside filmmakers, and what we look for is the same as we look for in their own, that the project should be from the person's soul, and it should not be derivative, it should be totally original. People send us hundreds of scripts every week and they say 'this is the next Toxic Avenger'. We don't need that, we can write it ourselves - and we do. What we need is the first Def By Temptation or the first Monster In The Closet - we want to have movies that are the first, to get there ahead of the game. We have also bought a lot of library titles that don't fit that description. But the movies we produce and finance ourselves must be unique and must be Troma-riffic!
How did you get involved in Cannibal! The Musical and did you think at the time that Matt Stone and Trey Parker would go on to be huge?
We came on board that late in production when nobody would help them and we did. We helped them finish it and I think we had them redo the soundtrack, and then we released it. It's an amazing film, and I think our industry is unable to discern what is good and what is bad, which is why when you go to the box office today everything is a remake or a sequel. Young people are being taught 'don't be original', and it's a shame that people can't come up with original material. There was no question that they would become huge - if you read my first book I have a sidebar about it. It was written all over them, in the same way that if you watch Kevin Costner in Sizzle Beach USA, you can tell that this man is going to win an Academy Award.
Which of your peers do you admire?
The people who inspire are the classics - Chaplin, Keaton, Preston Sturges. Of people today, certainly Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Danny Boyle is great. 28 Days Later was disappointing, it was just a good zombie movie, but Trainspotting was a masterpiece. Those guys are terrific and they seem to be doing things totally independently.
Is it true your next project will be shot in the UK?
Well, we're waiting to be financed by the Wales Film Fund. When they pull the trigger we'll start working, absolutely. We've got the script, and we're counting on it. It's called Schlock and Schlockability: The Revenge of Jane Austen. It's going to be terrific, and it must be shot in the UK.
What's been your proudest achievement?
I think the fact that I've been married for 30 years - and that we've operated in an honest way and inspired young people to go out there and 'make their own damn movie' In the fullness of time, I think the films Michael Herz and I have directed will go down there as a very important body of work. Especially when you look at what the Farrelly Brothers are doing or what Quentin Tarantino is doing - I think eventually the critics will realise that maybe this little studio that's been around for 30 years has had a much further reach than they thought.
You have three daughters - are any of them showing signs of following in your filmic footsteps?
They have been in our films, pretty much all our friends and family have been, but my youngest daughter, who's 16, is a very serious dancer so she is interested in the performing arts. She had a big part in one of our films, Terror Firmer. It's a big family concern only in the sense that I don't have to pay them!
How did the whole presence of Troma at the Cannes Film Festival come about?
Well, before Michael and I founded Troma we produced some independent movies, one of which (the obscure comedy Big Gus What's The Fuss?) was made in Israel for the great Menachem Golan. He arranged for us to come to Israel and shoot a movie with two negatives, one in Hebrew, one in English. And I think once again we accomplished something that no-one else has done in the history of cinema, we made two negatives that sucked for the price of one! At any rate we learned from Menachem Golan that the Cannes Film Festival was a great place to sell your movie. So I went for the first time in 1971 and found out what goes on there - how you try to get the attention of the international buying community - and since there's an enormous amount of industry power there in an area less than a square kilometre, you don't have to spend $50,000 on a billboard - you can do some good old-fashioned grass roots carnival type promotion. So slowly over the years we built on it - we did small things first and now we've developed our parade, and parties, and street demonstrations. Of course the festival has changed quite a bit since 1971.
Where did the Kaufmans come from originally and is Kaufman the original family name?
Yes it is. Both sides of my family came from Germany and my father's family came from a town called Schweinfahrt, if you can believe that - I think it means Pig's Bridge. My mother's family - I don't know where they came from, but my dad's family came over in Napoleon's time and my mother's family came to New York in the 1850s or 1860s. My great great grandfather was one of the founders of Temple Israel, which is one of the big temples in New York. It was one of the first Reform temples that would allow people to just walk in, rather than be members. Of course since 9/11 they've got people with machine guns posted outside.
How important is being Jewish to you and how observant are you?
I went to Temple Emanuel as a kid - the largest synagogue in the world, I think - but they confirmed you, I didn't get Bar Mitzvahed, I was confirmed. I can't say I'm particularly observant, but I am extremely pro-Israel.
What's your favourite Jewish food?
Matzo ball soup. Also I like to get it with two matzo balls in there - it's very Troma-esque, and maybe put a sausage in. Very immature.
When was the last time you set foot inside a synagogue?
Well, Jon Voight, who is a buddy - I don't believe he's Jewish but he was invited by a synagogue in Los Angeles to speak during Yom Kippur, and I went to that service a year ago. I'm sorry that I don't go to synagogue. I regret it.
What are your future plans and what chance is there of seeing another Toxic Avenger film?
I can't say whether that'll happen but I have been signed to write Toxic Avenger the novel. You see, most novelisations come out before the movie, we with the brilliant Troma strategy, bring the novel out 15 years later. That gives you an example of our brilliant business strategy. I'm using irony there. I'm not too bothered about doing another movie right now. But we're working on Poultry-geist, a movie about fast-food chickens and Native Americans.
No plans to do any $100m blockbusters then?
No, if we were offered $100m we would make 200 movies. And we wouldn't make them. I would make one, possibly two and then sign 198 other people to make them and I assure you you would have many many more wonderful films than you have now.
Do you have fond memories of working on big films like Rocky and Saturday Night Fever?
Well actually they were not big films, the budgets were very small by the standards of the day. Troma was hired to line produce all the Philadelphia material on Rocky because there wasn't enough money to do it the Hollywood way. So it was all done under the radar of the unions with Troma crews, the Troma way, and in fact the dailies were made in the Troma editing room. So those two movies, Rocky and Saturday Night Fever, were very educational and both of the directors were brilliant directors and I learned a lot. The next film, The Final Countdown - again I learned a lot and I was very much inspired by Kirk Douglas, I think about him a lot in both my business as well as my art - but working on that movie pretty much turned me off having any connection with the establishment. I could write a whole book about working on that film, it was awful. It's not a bad movie but it could have been a masterpiece were it not for the director and the crew. In fact were it not for Kirk Douglas and his son Peter the movie would not be good. The three of us were pulling against naysayers and mediocrity. It was very little about the art of filmmaking and more about who had a bigger hotel room.
What qualities do you look for in potential Troma employees?
Just an infatuation with film, and obviously they have to be proud of what we do here. Whatever it is we do they have to appreciate it at the very least, there's no other way to put it. In order to make a Troma movie you have to be prepared to sleep on the floor and eat cheese sandwiches three times a day. It's not about making money, it's not about the food, it's all about the movie. It only takes three months pre-production and then four or five weeks filming and then it's done. So if you cannot devote that amount of time, if that cannot be the most important thing in your life - it has to supercede your mummy and your daddy and your marriage and your kids and your car and rent and bills - the movie has to be the most important thing in your life, otherwise go to MGM and operate the Xerox machine.