Interview: Lloyd Kaufman, Decades Deep Into The American Film Market
Like Roger Corman, Kaufman has been in the business of wackadoo filmmaking for over 40 years, churning out a plethora of believe-it-or-not titles with an endearingly haphazard emphasis on production value. Also, like Corman, Kaufman has been a mentor and friend to emerging talents, providing early recognition to greats like Trey Parker, James Gunn, Sam Jackson, and Kevin Costner. Some of the aforementioned names celebrate Kaufman to this day, as seen in his cameo appearances in Guardians of the Galaxy and Orgasmo. Others, likely advised by their management, are less appreciative of their first break, and dissociate themselves completely from his legacy of mad-cap exploitation.
But with the zealous support of his legions of fans - a batch of whom are responsible for running Troma Entertainment - Lloyd is still at it. I caught up with him at The American Film Market in Los Angeles, where sales reps and distribution companies coalesce with the sea of worldwide content fluttering around the Loews Beach Santa Monica Hotel. All of the rooms are rented and refitted into mini-offices inhabited by movie-traffickers showcasing for-sale features and seeking more titles to throw out into the world.
In one such room sits Kaufman and his loyal team, operating the coolest looking office in the hotel. Many who enter the room remark that it looks like a teen dream bedroom, only, instead of cultist replicas, items like the original Toxie mask are on display. Lloyd is quick to incorporate them into the photographs in which he delightedly poses throughout the day.
Over 'Troma-pop' suckers, Lloyd speaks to me frankly about his 50 years in show business and the current state of his company, as Troma enters its 40th year in the marketplace. Having shunned the studio system early on, preferring to blaze trails, Kaufman has traveled to the deepest realms of DIY filmmaking and distribution and wants you to know that YOU can do it too! Just pick up any one of his many books from Make Your Own Damn Movie to Sell Your Own Damn Movie.
Though our chat was often interrupted by the comings and goings of enthusiastic producers attempting to join the Troma family - not to mention, folks behind films like Iron Sky and Cheap Thrills popping in to pay respects to their childhood hero - through it all, Lloyd eagerly discussed his career with a candor and wisdom that were expectedly one of a kind.
ScreenAnarchy: Beyond Troma's countless titles, all of them a blast, one of the things I admire most about Troma is its vigor for DIY filmmaking. You offer a lot of encouragement to the independent filmmaker.
Lloyd: Kaufman: Well, we've written six books. Now there's a Make Your Own Damn Movie channel. Every week we put up a new lesson on how Troma raises money or squashes heads, or does a dubbing, all for ten thousand dollars.
And I believe you've just released a book on DIY distribution?
Sell Your Own Damn Movie. I think it's my best one yet. It's more interesting because I believe that file sharing helps the artist, and I think Taylor Swift made a big mistake. I think her fans are going to be pissed off that she dumped Spotify.
Artists should be sharing their art. They should not be suing their fans. File sharing is not piracy. China pirates. I speak Chinese. I made a speech the other night at the Chinese American Film Industry Festival - Chinese American co-productions. They had me give an award and, since I speak Chinese, I did it in Chinese and I mentioned the fact that Troma's 40 year old independent studio discovered James Gunn, the South Park guys, Samuel Jackson, Vincent D'Onofrio. Oliver Stone started with us. We have many films distributed in China, but none legally, and we would like to get a small amount of revenue.
There's a difference between file sharing and piracy. File sharing is okay. If somebody wants to make a hundred copies of my movie and spread it all over the world, I don't mind. But if they're selling them, that's very bad. That's bad. They will burn in hell for that. The Toxic Avenger will squash their heads and shove them down their throats. Would you like a Troma candy?
Yes, very much, thanks... You studied Chinese at Yale, if I'm not mistaken.
Alongside George W. I believe? Or maybe he didn't study Chinese...
We took a bath together once a week, but other than that I didn't really see much of him. He did invite us down to the White House for a 35th reunion. It's the only time - you know I'm a publicity whore - it was the only time I refused a picture. I'd never refused a picture before. I didn't want my fans to be pissed off. They hate him!
It's amazing because a lot of my Yale colleagues were buzzing. They were just around him like flies to shit. In fact, my poor wife, who is a Republican, wanted to have a photo and they were like these big gazooms who wouldn't let her in. Finally she got one. That's about the only time where... I didn't refuse the picture, I just kind of stayed out of there. But at Yale, I never saw him. Oliver Stone, however, I grew up with, from second grade on.
You made an early picture with him if I'm not mistaken...
I hung out with him a lot at Yale. Then he got into the movie business because of me. We were making movies. The Girl Who Returned and Battle of Love's Return. Battle of Love's Return, Oliver Stone appears in.
Was that the lesbian picture?
No, that's Sugar Cookies. Sugar Cookies is a lesbian version of Vertigo. Oliver was one of the producers. One of the characters in the movie is named Oliver after him. He was writing a really shitty novel. He was trying to be James Joyce. Then I was making movies at Yale and he would drift in, and then eventually it turned out he's a genius. Of course, he dropped me once he made it big.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone are still in touch. They put me in their movies. James Gunn put me in Guardians of the Galaxy. There's no reason why Oliver Stone should stay in touch. We did grow up together. Our parents were best friends and he is a genius, no question about it... Although, kind of a mad genius.
It's pretty interesting that he made W.
That was a good movie. All his movies are good. He's a great filmmaker and thanks to me, he got into movies. I was at a very famous book store in LA called Duck Soup doing a book signing. My book, of course, who knows if they even have it on the shelf. But, Oliver Stone, the book that he wrote back in the Yale days, was In the Window - this shitty, horrible, unreadable book, because he's a movie genius. It was very personal, stream of thought, kind of trippy ... maybe it's good but my father and I both read it back in the 60s. We couldn't get through it.
Where were you living in the late 60s, in the whole psychedelic era? Were you part of that at all?
I was very much part of that. Did acid. I made my decision to stay an independent filmmaker. I had two job opportunities offered to me toward the end of my Yale career. One was working in Los Angeles on a big movie called The Owl and the Pussycat, starring Barbara Streisand. The other was to work for a shitty little company in New York, named Cannon. On acid I decided I would stay in New York and go with the little shitty company instead of working with the whiniest movie star in history.
What were the early Cannon days like?
I was just a ship boy. That's where I met were John G. Avildsen who became my mentor in a way. Luckily, I was asked to go to the set and help with Joe and the first day I went there, Avildsen was setting up a really beautiful shot and I was like 'whoa, this is good.' I was in on some of the pre-production. Peter Boyle was not supposed to be the lead but the bosses didn't want him. They wanted... He was in the Reservoir Dogs, he was one of the colors. Red maybe...
Lawrence Tierney! We were taking him in to get a fitting at Alexander's Department Store, and he pissed on my... I felt this thing on my blue jeans, like that's a weird feeling. He was urinating on me.
Why was he doing that?
He was drunk! They got rid of him! It was a good thing for me because I've literally had a 50-year career with people constantly urinating and shitting on me, figuratively. It never ends. The American Film Institute has pissed and shit on us. We have an intern here from the American Film Institute, and she tells me that she had to fight her way to get to be an intern here. They hate Troma so much. They'd rather the interns work at some sleaze bag sales agent than the person who created The Toxic Avenger. They see Troma and they see people asking me for autographs. Why is Lloyd Kaufman signing autographs? Look at what he does. He does trash! Meanwhile, Toxic Avenger's is being remade by Akiva Goldsman, the guy who wrote A Beautiful Mind and some other major films.
Do you ever wish you did the Streisand picture?
I don't have any regrets. Troma's 40 years old. Made a lot of movies, had total freedom. You're here, you're a good guy.
Troma is more famous than ever, but business is worse than ever, which is very interesting.
It's a hell of an empire...
The major conglomerates are so powerful that the only way to get to the public and make any money is you have to be in with one of the vessels of one of the giant media companies. We don't do that, so it's really tough for us right now. The room you're in, coming here at the American Film Market, is like a $25,000 vessel.
The buyers are very few and far between, and most of these companies are one or two years old and they'll be gone next year. We're 40 years. It's not that these people are making bad movies. Its' just that the Rupert Murdoch's of the world have been able to get the rules changed so that the rules that used to protect the public against monopoly have been done away with, and as a result, these guys can now have vertically integrated conglomerates that are the only pathways to the public that bring any revenue.
The good news though is you can make a movie for very little money. You can make a movie like Mr. Bricks, Heavy Metal Murder Musical, or some other Troma movies for under ten thousand bucks. We made a movie for twenty thousand dollars that has made some money. Return to Nuke 'Em High, the ones I direct are half a million, so it's very hard to make a profit with those. The only reason Nuke 'Em High Volume 1 made a profit was because it was partnered with Stars Media, which is a giant devil worshiping vessel of one of the evil conglomerates.
Have you been coming to AFM since its genesis?
Oh, yes... I was a German for four years. (Slurping a sucker) I was elected - these are really good Troma pops. Originally, I ran for chairman of the IFTA - Independent Film and Television Alliance - in order to get them to use their treasury to lobby in Washington, against what the conglomerates have done and to protect and preserve neutrality on the Internet because without Net neutrality, Troma and any other company beginning with T will vanish. Net neutrality is the level playing field. Without that, you'd have no Netflix, you'd have no Kickstarter, you probably wouldn't have many cures for cancer. With Net neutrality on the Internet, everybody's equal. If you have something interesting, people will go there and yes, you may have to deal with Justin Bieber, but also you have some wonderful innovations.
Look at all the wonderful things, inventions and things brought to you by Kickstarter and Indiegogo. All these great changes would not be possible without Net neutrality. This goes back a year. I saw it coming and I got myself elected chairman. For two terms, we did lobby a lot in Washington to try to do things like help stop Comcast. We fucked up the Comcast Time Warner merger. They have indeed signed a deal that now they're required to at least take meetings with independent TV producers. I am not a TV producer, but they wouldn't even talk to our members. Now at least they're required to at least hear them and also they're required to put up a little money to create some independent TV material. Again, I'm not in TV.
We did some good to fight the bad guys, or the big guys. They are big and bad. This Net neutrality issue is so important because really, ScreenAnarchy, without Net neutrality, without the level playing field, where would you be? Where would Troma be? It would be gone.
Going back to the 60s, after you made your first feature, what did you do with your movie before you knew what to do?
I read a lot of books. Preston Sturgis' autobiography, Josef Von Sternberg, Chaplin. The take away for it was that the suits will kill you. They'll murder you. Chaplin got blacklisted and thrown out of the country. Preston Sturgis' career was ruined. Von Sternberg's greatest movie was destroyed by assholes. I, Claudius. Charles Laughton.. There's a documentary about it called The Epic That Never Was.
I speak fluent French so when I was at Yale, I got introduced to the Cahier Du Cinema. In those days, in the 60s, the articles were written by people like Godard and Truffaut. The French new wave wrote. They were journalists - many of them. I bought into the theory of cinema. I just took it one more step to try to learn distribution and because I figured if we could distribute, we really would have freedom. Do everything ourselves. We wouldn't be famous but at least I could be Stan Brakhage. I could be, what's his name? Hollywood Babylon guy...
Kenneth Anger. Yeah. I could do that kind of stuff. Warhol. I used to hang out with Warhol's gang when I'd come down from Yale and hang along the fringes of his studio, of his factory and Max's Kansas City. They're very interesting... I dressed like this. I didn't have a wooden bow tie. I had my little suit and tie. I was a preppy. I still am... Jewish, Mel Brooks preppy.
I'd hang around with those guys, some of the young people who were fuckable. I was a big fan of Warhol. He was big! I'm still a big fan. He's a genius. I used some of his people in my early movies. We used to take drugs and all that. I bought drugs in Max's Kansas City.
There was a disco called The Underground. It just comes back to me. Yes, I think it was in the 60s. I think Oliver and I went there. We took acid together at least once. We went at three in the morning to see Ahmad Jamal and we staggered into a club. I was like, "I don't know, I want to go home. I don't like this." We were totally out of it. He was much more crazy. I was a good little boy. "I don't know. I don't want to start trouble please. Let's go, stop, let's go." He was the leader... I also took acid with somebody in Disneyland but I can't remember. I think it was my brother.
Yeah, Charles. Thank you for knowing my brother. But that was later. That was like the after deal. A lot of that stuff was in my head. Warhol was pretty much self-sufficient. Troma's probably bigger, more lucrative than Stan Brakhage or Kenneth Anger or those guys. I don't know that if someone like Warhol came along today, that movies would be able to get to the public without having to go through Rupert Murdoch.
We were making movies like Squeeze Play, Waitress, Stuck On You, First Turn On . Those movies - we'd make $135 million in prints immediately. The theaters wanted them. There were lots of theater chains. Family owned. And there were lots of areas around the country that had individual sub-distributors. They needed movies and we were there for them, and our movies made them a lot of money, and the kids bought popcorn.
What happened was Ronald Reagan came along and got rid of the consent decree of 1948, which made it illegal for the studios to own movie theaters or control movie theaters. That went away, and that meant the end of independent movies getting into 2,000 movie screens. Toxic Avenger was the last movie we had that played 2,000 screens. By the time we did our first runs, we would make 100 prints and then move them around the country.
Before you started distributing Toxie and you were just sitting on your finished film, did you anticipate what you had?
We switched horses with Toxic Avenger. We tried something different. Really different. No theater would play it because they didn't get it. They kept thinking it was a horror film and they didn't get the Monty Python type violence. Then one theater in New York did play it, owned by a French woman, Jackie Renal. It was called Bleaker Street Cinema. And it took off!
Backing up a little, what was the real turning point for you and Troma? You say your first great education was at Cannon working on Joe, but what happened afterwards? Weren't you also on the sets of Rocky and Saturday Night Fever?
Rocky and Saturday Night were my film school and I had learned as much as I was going to learn. What made it clear that we weren't going to cater to the mainstream anymore was Final Countdown. Which is not a bad movie. It's not a bad film, is it? No, it could have been so much better if they didn't have a drunken asshole directing.
A lot of really horrible people acting in it and on the crew. Martin Sheen was great. He just had his heart attack. He was a good guy. Kirk Douglas, genius. What a great opportunity. He taught me a lot. He looked at everybody as a bullshitter, and they were guilty until proven innocent. I learned a lot from him. He almost punched me out a couple of times.
What would you say is the most pertinent or valuable lesson you learned from those studio years?
I didn't speak the right talk. There's no way I was going to make it in that world. I'm just not cut out for that. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are the best people in their world. They can do it. Oliver Stone did it. Who else? James Gunn wrote Tromeo and Juliet. He gets what he wants from the mainstream and Guardians of the Galaxy is a fucking masterpiece. But I have my world and here we are at the American Film party.
Well, there's no place like Tromaville. Thanks for the frank chat Lloyd!
You're welcome to hang out... There's Coca Cola!