Troma Entertainment’s Lloyd Kaufman is as unique as his studio is independent. Ironic, sarcastic, or provocatively caustic, Uncle Lloyd has got something to say and gets his point across on several levels simultaneously. It’s more economical. The iconic studio is renowned for cult classics like Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Chopper Chicks in Zombietown, and Surf Nazis Must Die, but the low-budget auteur maintained a diverse career of almost 50 years of “reel independence.”
Troma was founded in 1974 by Yale film society buddies Kaufman and Michael Herz. Their movies were produced on tiny budgets and were proudly proclaimed to make only “the most offensive, tasteless films in the history of cinema.” Even the lowest of low budget studios aspire to the highest of standards, and those without any at all shoot for the moon.
Troma’s newest film disembowels the classics. #Shakespeare’s Shitstorm is a diarrhetic skewering of modern hypocrisy masquerading as a scatological spoof of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Kaufman eloquently broke down the Bard’s most tempestuously insubstantial pageant for Den of Geek, as well as fourth walls, fifth estates, and billion-dollar movies made for a nickel to the dollar. The below interview has been edited for length.
How has the classical community responded to #Shakespeare’s Shitstorm?
Lloyd Kaufman: You may be getting this first, but Stratford-on-Avon, the birthplace of the Bard, has reached out that they would like to show #Shakespeare Shitstorm, as well as a museum in Leeds.
What line made that whole piece click for you as a vision?
The revel speech from The Tempest is heart-shattering, probably the most beautiful speech of any of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s much more cerebral than “what light from yonder window breaks” and “parting is such sweet sorrow.” The revel speech is, in my opinion, really the essence of Shakespeare. Also, the essence, probably, of my career, because I think this could be the last movie I direct. Unless Den of Geek sends me some kind of script that’s one-of-a-kind and knocks me out to do it.
When I was assigned this, my first reaction was, let’s pitch a movie. I’m sad to hear this might be the last time you direct, but I have to ask: Why now? Haven’t people been begging you to stop for years?
Yes, you’re right, and not just us. The entire industry has evolved in a way that totally crushes any form of independent thinking or creativity. It’s not just people like me, but the whole system is against any kind of individual spirit. We have free speech in this country, as long as we don’t say anything, and I continue to say stuff. I think Troma is the last real independent movie studio. We’re certainly the only one in history that’s gone on for 50 years. We’re the herpes of the movie industry. We’re not going away.
Where do you look for new talent, besides asking the writers who interview you?
They come here. We’ve been doing it for 50 years, and I can give you an hour on people who started here, cleaning the bathrooms, who are now making $200 million movies or signing $900 million contracts with Comedy Central. That’s the proof of the Troma school of filmmaking.
There are people all over the world making their own Troma movies, some of which are really good. They end up on Troma Now, our streaming service. It’s the future, but now, and the first month is free. There are a thousand different moving pictures there, from music videos to features, to children’s films, to Bloodsucking Freaks. I can’t find anything on Netflix to watch, but Troma Now? My wife and I love it. All the new James Gunns and Trey Parkers, Eli Roths, and Vincent D’Onofrios. There’s lots of new talent breaking forth that the mainstream doesn’t encourage, but we do at Troma Now, a reservoir of future talent and celebrity, without a doubt.
What’s going on with Legendary’s remaking of Toxic Avenger?
The movie has been shot. I went over to Bulgaria, and it looks like they did a great job. I was only there for a few days, but the director [Macon Blair] is all about Troma. He knows every movie. He’s seen Terror Firmer, I don’t know how many times he’s seen that, Tromeo and Juliet. He’s seen every obscure Troma movie. I think the fans are going to be very, very happy with this $200 million movie. I think the public will love it.
Then it may open up a bigger public for our own four Toxic Avenger movies, and the Toxic Crusaders cartoon show, and the Broadway musical that’s still traveling around the country. It could be a very good thing, not just for Troma, but for the whole movie industry.
The Toxic Avenger re-imagining script is definitely better than the original Toxic Avenger. And you can’t have a better cast than Peter Dinklage, Kevin Bacon, Julia Davis, from England, terrific. A major, major, major talent. She’s not as famous as Elijah Wood. She has a show called Sally4Ever, and they clearly watch Troma movies. She shits on a man’s face, people vomit on each other. Actually, have you noticed that there’s a lot of vomiting going on in both Netflix and Amazon series? Especially the British, they seem to be big on vomiting. Of course Troma pioneered vomiting. The best vomiting you’ve ever seen is in #Shakespeare’s Shitstorm.
How come there was no vomiting in My Dinner with Andre?
That was done after the movie was made. Actually, no, it wasn’t vomiting, it was going to sleep, but I shouldn’t be saying that. Louis Malle was a fan. He loved comic books. It’s a good movie. It’s Louis Malle. People love it. I just didn’t, quite. I read André Gregory’s big thick book. He had an experimental theater, upon which My Dinner with Andre was based. I certainly get it, but the reason I took the job is so it would follow Waitress, a crazy slapstick movie that we made.
My Dinner with Andre was the yang to the Waitress’ yin. They were both extremes. One was extreme satire, and the other one was an exchange of cerebral philosophy and searching inwardly. They both were good. Although, there was no fucking in My Dinner with Andre, maybe there should have been.
People are always shocked when they see that I was associated with it. But I’m a big Louis Malle fan, and I liked André Gregory’s philosophy and work.
How come we don’t say Toxic Avenger with the same reverence as we do with Marvel heroes?
Toxie is the ultimate underdog. He’s not a superhero. He’s got a mop and he can jump. That’s it. He doesn’t have all the fancy schmancy stuff, but he’s heavily influenced by Stan Lee, who was a close friend for over 50 years. We tried to develop a Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. [remake] for Jim Carrey. Stan did everything he could to get Jim Carrey to be interested, but it was not to be.
What did Michael Herz bring to productions as a co-director, and do you think any of the movies you made after Toxic Avenger would have been any different?
I maintain that if Michael Herz had continued to either direct movies, or co-direct with moi, our movies would have made more money. They would be better. Michael Herz has seen every movie, if you can imagine. He keeps quietly up-to-date on the new movies.
He grew up. Rather than direct, he’s in charge of the whole company, basically. In spite of movies that don’t make money and, obviously nobody wants to see, Michael Herz has kept us out of debt. I think we were profitable last year. I still can’t believe it. These movies are like oil in the ground. You don’t make much money with oil or copper when it’s sitting below the surface of the earth.
Squeeze Play is on record as the first American sex comedy.
I would like to say that’s true. It’s a raunchy, very raunchy, comedy with a lot of sex. I think what it advanced was the stuff that developed into Porky’s where you’re having slapstick with sex and raunchiness. We did that for four movies, including Vincent D’Onofrio’s first movie, Turn On. But then the majors started doing the kinds of raunchy comedies we were making, and, as usual, they played unfair. They were using good scripts and good actors. So, Michael Herz decided we must move on to another genre.
Troma’s taken unfair advantage of every genre.
In a fair world. I’d be where [Martin] Scorsese is. He’s very talented, no question about it, and he’s right about Marvel. Those are amusement park rides. A lot of 13-year-olds have reverence for Spider-Man, but go to a convention. If you hang out at our booth, there’s a line all day. People from 80 years old down to 14 years old, they love Troma, generations. But we have a small cult following, 98 percent of the world never heard of the Toxic Avenger. Wait until the big movie comes out. Maybe that will shine a light on Citizen Toxie, which is the best Toxic Avenger movie. Citizen Toxie, that’s the kind of citizen we need.
You described the upcoming Divide and Conquer as real modern feminism, what does Hollywood get wrong?
[Director] Mercedes the Muse is amazing, you should meet her. She made a movie about her concept of feminism, which is genuine feminism. It’s not this Olivia Wilde fake #MeToo bullshit. Hypocrisy, in my opinion. It’s real. Women are going to really enjoy and appreciate Divide and Conquer. Men will be shocked, but women will understand. Coming to theaters. It will have a run at the world-famous Frida Cinema in Santa Ana.
I do worship at the knee of the underdog. Our movies are all about the underdog. In the case of Squeeze Play, the whole idea was the ERA, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the women fighting for equal standing. It’s a hilarious, raunchy movie with a lot of sex, and it’s cartoony, but it does get the point across. Here we are 50 years later and we still don’t have equal rights or an Equal Rights Amendment. In fact, we’re going backwards. Apparently, a woman isn’t allowed to be in charge of her own body. It’s discouraging.
In all our movies, we usually have one foot in a very important social issue, another foot in trying to be original, entertaining, and a third foot trying to find some genuine talent who have the guts to do something a bit controversial. Now that we’ve been around so long, and we’ve discovered so many famous people when we are casting for a movie, there’s a line around the block here in Long Island City. People would think it’s a food bank or something.
Oliver Stone was one of the people that you discovered.
I don’t like Oliver Stone as a person. He’s nasty, a psycho. We grew up together from the time we were about eight years old. We used to have sleepovers, and it would just be a session of him beating me up, and then I’d go home crying and he’d do it again, and it just never ended. But we got friendly. We went to Yale together and kept close contact. He joined us when I was making movies. He hung around. He was trying to write a novel. In fact, he did write a novel when we were at Yale. He was trying to be James Joyce or somebody. It was unreadable.
But it turns out he’s a brilliant filmmaker. I don’t think he’s ever made a bad movie. They’re all great. Salvador was great, Platoon, these are movies that come from the heart. That movie about football too, Any Given Sunday, when that blonde woman is walking through the locker room, and all these muscular men, these beautiful, beautiful beasts. And there she is, she owns the club. It just says so fucking much about everything in our society, especially the world of sports, to him, but he’s a psycho. He wanted to start a company with me and I didn’t want to do it because he’s too crazy. After Sugar Cookies, and he was right: He was telling me from the beginning, I should have directed. Unfortunately, we listened to some older people. Boy, was that a mistake. So don’t listen to anything I’m saying. No joke.
You’ve called yourself the only director who can truly do whatever he wants in film.
First of all, if I ever said what you say I said, I probably was drunk or on the fritz of some sort. I can do anything I want, subject to a very low budget. You look at #Shakespeare’s Shitstorm, that’s a $50 million movie made for under half a million dollars. No joke, we got trained whales… I don’t want to give spoilers, but that movie is a huge endeavor.
So yes, I can do whatever I want, but I can’t get the slickness. Our movies are rough around the edges. Part of the fun of a Troma movie is peeking behind the curtain. If you’re not caught exactly up in the story, you might notice that somebody’s appliance is coming off his nose, or their nose, because I’m so woke. The audience of a Troma movie actually takes part in the making of the movie, because they have to suspend a little bit of their belief, both regarding subject matter, which is not a problem if the movie is entertaining, but also because the movies are rough around the edges. But audiences like that. That’s what Ionesco was about, the Swiss playwright?
Yes, Bald Soprano, I love that.
See? I actually have something to say. I’ve read some books. I studied music. I majored in Chinese studies at Yale in 1965. It’s incredible how unappreciated I am. I’m a narcissist, how could I not be so good?
In #Shakespeare’s Shitstorm, you call yourself a psychopath who should not be put on a pedestal.
Thanks for that, and I agree with you that there were a lot of lost lines in #Shakespeare’s Shitstorm, that “diversity hire” line you mentioned. Depending on the equipment in the theater, some of those wonderful, ironic, satirical lines, they can’t understand. But when you have a good projection system, they all come through. Wonderful truth, 24 times a second.
What does Troma owe to the Factory films?
I was a big fan, still a huge fan, of Warhol. I used to hang around Max’s Kansas City. In those days I always wore a tie and a jacket and I looked like a bar mitzvah boy, and I hung around with the crazy people, just on the fringes.
I loved his movies and I’m not talking about Trash, I’m talking about Lonesome Cowboys, Chelsea Girls with Mary Woronov, who went on to star in Sugar Cookies. Which is a good movie, I’ve got nothing against it, but I think it should not have been the only X-rated movie in history to lose money. If it moved a little faster, we probably would’ve made a profit. Sugar Cookies is our version of Vertigo, but we made it lesbianic instead of Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. I wonder if Michael Bay even saw Vertigo.
You keep a tight group around you at Troma, like John Waters’ Dreamlanders, do you watch each other?
No, I didn’t care for Waters’ movies, quite frankly. I tried to watch Pink Flamingos, but I didn’t get it. I mean, he has a wonderful body of work, but it’s all bourgeois, lapdog of the rich people. It’s not my world. I much prefer Warhol, Stan Brackage, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Chaplin, Roger Corman. Yes, Corman and I were in touch from the time I was at Yale. John G. Avildsen, who I worked with on Cry Uncle. Before he made Rocky, Avildsen made a pulpy, crappy, throwaway paperback book into a wonderful, wonderful, hilarious movie. It’s worth watching.
I worked on Rocky. I worked on a bunch of Avildsen’s movies and learned a lot from him. He was a fighter. He fought for what he wanted. Never mind that he made Rocky and The Karate Kid, and his movies made billions and billions of dollars. His movies are an inspiration for young people, great role models. Rocky is one of the greatest American films of all time, and you can actually show it today. You can’t show Gone with the Wind, apparently. You can’t show a Mel Brooks movie. But Rocky you can still show. How cool.
Then there’s the movies Avildsen got kicked off of, like Serpico and Saturday Night Fever, which I also worked on, and Howard Stern’s movie. There are probably a couple billion-dollar movies that Avildsen should have directed, and would’ve been a lot better if they kept him on. But I got no complaints on Saturday Night Fever. John Badham did an equally good job, and he’s also an important influence on me.
But John Waters, no. If anything, I’m jealous. I want to have that mustache that he has. Because of COVID I’ve grown a little beard, but I wanted to have that pencil mustache to have some fun with it. But my wife said absolutely not. For 20 years, she was the New York State Film Commissioner. She created the incentive which is the reason Spider-Man shot in New York, why 12 or 15 new studios were built in New York state, and created billions of dollars in new jobs, mainly in television series. She changed the world here. Then she moved up the food chain to producing #Shakeskeare’s Shitstorm with John Brennan, who was my assistant, and Justin Martell, who was my assistant years ago.
They, and other Toma alumni, are the creators of The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs, which is the only decent show on Shudder. Other than that, Shudder’s not worth one second of your time. But that show was great. It’s for people who love movies, and who love independent movies. Movies that didn’t necessarily get outed by The New York Times when they were made, but which, indeed, are wonderful movies. Maniac, Maniac Cop, which we distribute, Frankenhooker, Monster in the Closet. Goddammit, Monster in the Closet is a brilliant PG-13 satire about Hitchcock. It’s got some stars in it, and it’s a great film, but unfortunately nobody’s heard of it.
Most people don’t know Troma’s connection with Robert De Niro and Brian De Palma on The Wedding Party. What was the role beyond distribution?
Brian De Palma and Paul Williams, and the toymaker [director Ed Pressman], we all knew each other because they all went to Harvard, and there was some exchange between the Yale film society and Harvard’s filmmaking community. Brian De Palma actually showed up at the Thalia, a great art house. That was the only theater I’ve ever been in where the seats in the front were at a higher altitude than the seats in the back. It made our movies look a lot better to the people in the back.
The Battle of Love’s Return opened there, and Brian De Palma showed up that night. I was friendly with one of the producers. We had nothing to do artistically with it, but if you look at The Wedding Party, De Niro looks like he’s 15 years old. We bought a package of movies. Whenever we had money, we bought. We would buy collections of movies because small companies can’t stay in the business. We did buy Greetings and another one, but it turned out the guy who sold it to us was a grifter, so we don’t own them. We got fucked. The Wedding Party we bought from Woodford Leech.
Kirk Douglas was an early Troma booster. How did that come about?
When Troma was beginning, I had to take production management jobs to pay the rent, and I had a reputation for being able to save money. We even took out full-page ads in Variety that said, “‘He makes a nickel look like a dollar,’ John G. Avildson, director of Rocky.” They were trying to put together The Final Countdown for a lower budget than would normally be done. They had the imagination to contact me.
Kirk was being ambivalent. He really didn’t say a hundred percent he would star in the movie, but finally we were at the hotel where he stayed in New York and we had breakfast. We pushed him a little bit and he did say yes. He committed to it. It was amazing to get. Thanks to Kirk Douglas being in the movie, we got all sorts of wonderful benefits from the Navy and Grumman Aircraft. I’m sure you know he broke the blacklist by letting Trumbo get a credit on Spartacus, which he owns. Well, he’s dead now, but Seven Days in May, Spartacus, most of his big movies, he owns, or his company owns.
I was hired to try to figure out how we can make the movie for very little money and bring some of the so-called knowledge I had obtained through Troma movies, or working on Rocky. All the Philadelphia footage in Rocky was done by Troma with the crew from Cry Uncle. We did eight days, non-union, in Philadelphia. Those almost-iconic shots of Rocky running up the steps of the museum? I had to run up the steps to show Stallone how it’s done. I’d run up those steps, then he’d run them, and I’d run him.
All those amazing scenes were done under the auspices of Troma Entertainment, and Mr. Michael Herz and his beautiful wife Maris were syncing up the dailies. Eventually the teamsters caught us, and everybody went back to California.
There’s a short documentary that Avildson and I wrote. I filmed behind the scenes of Rocky on Super 8 camera. Avildson cut it down to about 15 minutes, and then we wrote this narration to go with it and recorded it. It’s him and I talking over this wonderful archival footage of the making of Rocky, and it’s on the box set collection of all the Rockys.
The South Park people said, “Nobody knows how to make movies that don’t make money better than Uncle Lloyd.” Did you have to pay them for that endorsement?
Well, there’s been nothing wrong with the truth, right? We don’t make money, but we make great movies, and eventually they will have their day. We just don’t want to be bought by a big company that doesn’t give us a shitload of money. They offer you stock or some kind of baloney.
We do everything ourselves, really. I can’t say it works, but we’re still here. The battlefield is littered with the corpses of dead movie companies who also made good movies. But, because of the nature of this cartel, this oligopoly, the elitism of the giant conglomerates in the media, nobody can survive except for Troma, because we created our own universe. Troma Now is doing well, it’s growing slowly because we have no money to advertise, but the subscribers love the movies and nobody leaves.
This weekend is Mother’s Day. My brother, Charles Kaufman, made probably the best movie in our collection, certainly Eli Roth’s favorite horror film, Mother’s Day. It comes to Troma Now on Mother’s Day. So take your mother and buy her a subscription to Troma Now and enjoy Mother’s Day. Our mother loved it. Any woman who’s a mother will appreciate it.#Shakespeare’s Shitstorm is playing in select theaters while on tour now.