The Den of Geek interview: Lloyd Kaufman

Lloyd Kaufman is the president of Troma Entertainment, and the chairman of the IFTA. And we managed to steal half an hour of his time...

Lloyd

Troma Entertainment prides itself on being a truly independent movie studio. Even if you’ve never seen one of their movies, you’ll definitely have seen movies by one of their alumni – people who’ve begun their careers at Troma include James Gunn, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Eli Roth, and lots and lots of others. Lloyd Kaufman has over thirty movies credited to him as a director, but dozens more that he’s produced, and more than a hundred that he’s appeared in. He’s a busy man. Not that that stopped us asking him about everything under the sun…

Your recent MySpace blog mentioned that Troma is about to move into a new building in New York…

Yes, indeed, we have bought a new Troma building; we have renovated it, and it’s going to be a whole new era! It’s in an even crappier neighbourhood and a crappier building, we managed to find an even worse building.

And the neighbours are worse? [The old building was next door to a McDonalds, to which Lloyd attributes the building’s rat infestation]

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That’s why we moved! We wanted to get away from McDonalds!

So you’ve checked out the rat situation at the new one?

The area is so unusual, there’s nothing there. Nothing lives. But there is the Museum of the Moving Image, which has rats of a different sort. And there’s two big movie studios very near us, one of which has the name Kaufman, too. So it’d be kind of fun to call our building Kaufman, too. It’d be funny if Robert De Niro was directed to the Kaufman building and it was the Troma building. That’d be great! His first movie was a Troma movie called The Wedding Party directed by Brian De Palma.

Let’s get to why we’re here: you’re one of this year’s Zone Horror Cut competition judges…

Yes, I had the honour of judging last year’s competition and the movies which were submitted were terrific. I’m hoping that this year there will be more sex and violence… er, that the movies will be even better!

What will you be looking for in a winner?

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I think, basically, originality. But, you know, horror has traditionally been a way in to a very, very closed and elitist industry. Horror has been the most democratic genre – other than porno, of course, but I have never seen a porno so I wouldn’t know. In terms of the elite and in terms of prestige, horror and comedy ride the back of the bus. But what a great way for young people to break into an industry which is still fairly sexist and racist and elitist! It is an industry controlled by a small number of devil-worshipping international conglomerates. So horror is a way in for young people and if there’s any way I can be a part of democratising our industry, I would like to do it.

For Cut, the movies must be 2 minutes long, or thereabouts, and they must have references to what a warm and sensitive person Lloyd Kaufman is – be sure to put that in the rules, that’s very important!

[At this point, a member of the Groucho’s staff asks us to move into another room.]

So what’s going on with Poultrygeist now?

Poultrygeist had a test screening in Peckham, and since they didn’t burn the theatre down, and because the audience liked it so much, there’s going to be a tour. It’ll start in Northhampton, and then go to, I guess, mostly university towns, and then presumably end up back here, at the Prince Charles. The test was very successful, so the film will be hatching around May, maybe. Something like that.

Do you still feel it’s the best movie Troma’s made?

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I would say so, yeah. It’s the most daring, that’s for sure, it’s the most intelligent, too, I think. And it’s got singing and dancing, which is great. The film clearly is not going to be for everybody, but our fans will love it, and I think if intelligent people come and see it, they will find that they learn a lot and have a very entertaining 95 minutes.

Which is what matters, at the end of the day.

Indeed, yeah, it’s about entertainment. But also, it has very provocative themes. I’m not a big fan of fast food, but the satire is not only about fast food, it’s also about the millionaire phoney left-wing people too, it satirises the corporate side as well as the phoney Al Gore types who are using the populist movement to further their own millions of dollars. Even though it’s full of chicken Indian zombies and explosive diarrhoea and people getting their faces grinded off in the meat slicer, the movie has a lot of very, very interesting points to make. And that’s why Troma’s been around for 35 years.

Warner Brothers choosing to go Blu-ray exclusive was just big news, but more importantly – which way is Troma going to go?

Well, we are more homosexual ourselves, but we could be persuaded to go another way… I don’t know, really. You know, I’m just trying to make the movies.

So you don’t have much interest in the high definition formats?

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Well, certainly it looks great, but the bigger issue for us is that we are economically blacklisted. The television markets are blacklisting independent movies unless those movies come in through the vassals of the major conglomerates – Disney Miramax or Fox Searchlight, and these feel-good independent movies like Juno, which is of questionable moral theme, but that’s the kind of stuff that will get on TV. The real shit-disturbing independent movie won’t get on TV because it’s not coming in through the strainer of one of the divisions of one of those conglomerates. So that’s really our concern.

I was just elected the Chairman of the Independent Film and Television Alliance, which is the trade association for all the independent movie companies. The reason I got elected is that I ran on a platform of fighting industry consolidation and trying to protect net neutrality on the Internet, because the Internet is the last level playing field. Nobody thought I’d win because it’s a very controversial platform; many of our members live off the crumbs that fall from the table from the cartel that runs the industry. But I won and we’re going to try to see if we can insert ourselves into the process in Washington and, to some extent, here; to see if we can make the media and the public aware of the fact that we are really getting our art through the strainer of five or six giant conglomerates. We are not really getting the information to find the truly independent art, we are being denied access to it – not just Troma, but many many other important artistic creations. That’s a big deal, really, and I’m very serious about that.

Blockbuster has never had a Troma movie, not even the South Park guys’ Cannibal the Musical, which has sold a couple of hundred thousand DVDs with no advertising and yet it’s never been in a Blockbuster. We’re blacklisted, and it has nothing to do with the content, it’s because we’ve committed the sin of being truly independent. We want to own our movies, we want to own our intellectual properties, we don’t want some studio to come along and take the library and start censoring and chopping up the movies for some kind of silly TV thing. It’s a tough world. The Internet is the last way and we have to fight for net neutrality because the phone companies and the big media companies are trying to create big media and they’re already colonising MySpace and Facebook and YouTube.

MySpace has been useful for Troma, though, hasn’t it? There are so many Troma promotional sites out there; the official ones and the fan ones…

There are many, many fan websites. Even my Lloyd Kaufman website is fan-based; it’s fan-driven, it’s fan-created. The fans do it, I don’t do it. The Tromadance website is by fans – the Tromadance festival which is starting next week. Oh, by the way, very important announcement: the winner of this year’s Cut competition will have automatic acceptance into the 10th Anniversary Tromadance festival in Park City, Utah, which takes place at the same time and same place as Sundance. So that’ll be a nice thing in terms of getting exposure for the winner.

Is there any possibility of having a Tromadance festival in the UK?

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Well, again, it’s all fan-driven. In Utah, it’s very expensive so Troma and our fans have contributed the money to do it. Here, you could do it easily, you just get a venue somewhere – it’s very simple and it doesn’t cost a lot of money. But unfortunately in this small town where Sundance is, because there are so many perfume companies and jewellery companies and Mercedes Benz, they’ve rented all the space, so it’s like $20,000 for one day to rent a venue to show your movies. It would be wonderful to do something in the UK; actually, there was a Tromadance in Edinburgh for a couple of years called the Troma Fling and it took place during the Edinburgh festival. It took place for two years but I don’t know if they’re doing it again. In the States, there’s Tromadance New Mexico, there’s a Tromadance Canada, Denver… and then there are the Tromapalooza concerts which raise money for the festivals. We had the third year this year of Tromapalooza concerts in Las Vegas, and in Dallas, Texas. Basically, bands donate their time and then they get publicity. And if any money is made, then Tromadance gets it. Because Tromadance is all free – there’s no entry fee, the tickets are free and there’s no VIP policy, so it’s not a very good business model. We need sponsors and we need the fans also donate money to make the budget.

Den of Geek’s Duncan says his lifetime ambition is to remake The Toxic Avenger. How would you feel about potential remakes of Troma movies?

If Eli Roth or James Gunn wanted to remake The Toxic Avenger, I’d probably give it to them for free. But Brett Ratner wants to remake it, and remake Mother’s Day, and a guy like that has to pay big money.

So it would all depend on who it was that wanted to remake the movies?

Absolutely. You know, I’m an auteur director and it would all depend. It wouldn’t be about money, it would be about making sure it would be interesting. By the way, Poultrygeist is actually a shot for shot remake of another gore slapstick comedy called Schindler’s List.

While we’re on the subject of Toxie, what’s happening with the Toxic Avenger comics?

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Devil’s Due Publishing out of Chicago has created a graphic novel and it’s Toxic Stories from Tromaville, and it’s very good. That just came out about a month ago. I’m sure you’ll be able to get it off the Troma website, it shouldn’t be hard to find.

There was a previous Toxic Avenger comic done by Marvel, right?

Yes, Marvel did Toxic Avenger and Toxic Crusaders. They were very successful.

But there was never, like, Toxic Avenger vs Spider-Man?

Well, they wanted to do something like that but then they went bankrupt. Ron Perelman bought them – not the actor Ron Perlman but the billionaire, the bald guy with the many rich wives. He bought them and drove Marvel into the ground. So that was the end of that. And they wanted to own Toxie, they want to own everything, so that’s a big problem. I was buddies with Samuel Arkoff, who founded AIP and started Roger Corman and so many others and he told me his biggest mistake was to sell his company to a bigger company because they totally chopped everything up. The whole identity, the whole interesting patina of his library was destroyed. He says that’s his biggest regret, even though he got a lot of money. Except for meeting me, having to have lunch with me was worse. He was a good guy.

Has the WGA strike affected Troma at all? What’s your position on the strike?

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Well, it certainly hasn’t affected Troma, we’ve never had any writers. I don’t know how to write. I’m actually on strike against myself because I don’t pay enough, and I don’t even give myself a decent health plan. I did write a blog where I pointed out that the writers do have a gripe, most of the writers are eating dog food and they do need more money and they’re not getting a fair shake and they should not be excluded from internet sales. But the problem is that they are marching side by side with actors that no-one wants to see who are making a million dollars a movie or more. I can understand that Bruce Willis would be profitable, or Tom Cruise, or Tom Hanks, but there’s two hundred other actors and no-one wants to see them in a movie and they’re marching side by side in the picket line so they can get their faces on TV. The writers ought to be picketing these useless actors who are well overpaid and if they weren’t so overpaid then the writers could get more money. So that would be my advice. But the Writers’ Guild has no affect on us. We’re so blacklisted that nothing can affect us.

Do you think that’ll ever change?

The blacklisting? No. Never. If I get hit by a bus then they’ll swoop in and try to buy all our movies, they’re hoping we’ll go out of business so they can get their hands on Toxic Avenger and have Michael Bay direct the remake. They’d love to have Brett Ratner steal Mother’s Day and make it into X-Men.

Doesn’t bear thinking about really, does it?

Well, hey, if he wants to pay us a lot of money, or not even a lot of money, just some money, fine, we’re desperate, we need money, but for us to give the rights away? These guys never pay you, it’s almost an insult to suggest it. But if Eli Roth or James Gunn or Neil Marshall, or someone like that wanted to do a remake, any of those guys, I’d give it to them. It’s just about the only movie of that type that hasn’t been remade. They want to remake Class of Nuke’Em High, Toxic Avenger, Mother’s Day, there’s about four of our movies that they want to remake and it would just be awful. We’ve got a fairly high price just to prevent that. And we need money, so it would be wonderful if someone paid us that.

Do you think the original movies would become more available if they were remade, though? Would it help with getting them on TV and into Blockbuster and all that?

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That would be the good thing, yes. All the little nerdy fanboys who’ve never heard of Class of Nuke’Em High, when they do Jason vs Class of Nuke’Em High then they might say, hey, what was the original…? That’s the one good thing about all these crappy remakes, a lot of young people who didn’t know the original Halloween will go and look at it. Although actually the Halloween remake was pretty good. Did you like it?

I didn’t see it.

It was pretty good! Rob Zombie, good for him. Because Devil’s Rejects was not terribly great and the other one, the first one, was unwatchable.

That was what put me off.

Halloween was good, it was well written, it was very good. So then these Jason vs Robots and Jason vs Freddy, whatever, those things are horrible, awful, but if they get young kids to go and look at the old movies, hey, nothing wrong with that.

Had you considered doing that kind of thing with Troma characters? Toxic Avenger vs…

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When I was on my book tour for Make Your Own Damn Movie, every time I did a Q and A, someone would ask what would happen if Sgt Kabukiman fought Toxic Avenger? So it’s in Citizen Toxie. Except they’re both good guys, so they would never fight each other, and we had to create the alternate universe with Evil Kabukiman. That allowed us to satirise that whole genre. That was very cool, our fans basically came up with the plot for Citizen Toxie. We do have the Troma universe, so our characters do meet each other but not like that kind of stuff, not Freddy vs Jason.

[At this point, Emily Booth and the Zone Horror crew come in and start setting up cameras on the other side of the room. I’m concerned about time, but they tell me to just carry on…]

I’m about to go to meet with the Minister of Culture right after this, that’s why I have to leave early. I’ve been told not to bring the Toxic Avenger mask, which I do have with me.

What’s the meeting about?

Because I’m chairman of the IFTA, we want to discuss the issues of industry consolidation and net neutrality. The MPAA, which is the trade association of the big studios, state that they are the representatives of the entire movie business. Well, they’re not. Everything they do hurts the independents, they do nothing to help us or the public. Our association is 25 years old and I felt it was time that we present ourselves to the public and the media as representing the independent film industry and we embed ourselves into the process.

We have a lobbyist in the States, the same one that Google has actually, and the lobbyist has set us up with various congressmen. We met with the chairman of the Federal Communications commission to explain to them that Miramax is not an independent movie studio; HBO is not independent, it’s owned by Time Warner, that NBC, Universal, and General Electric are all the same company and they don’t know that. They don’t know that all the regulations against monopoly have been done away with in my country. Because most of them were elected since Clinton and his phoney populist wife and administration did away with all that stuff because they accept massive donations from the Hollywood film studios. As do the senators from California.

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If we can create a little bit of noise, maybe we can frighten them – the one thing that the conglomerates fear is the US government, so if we can create hearings or maybe get the attention of the media, and get the story out that independent art and commerce is basically blacklisted in our country and in most of the world, it might embarrass the big boys so that they won’t blacklist independents any more. Troma owns almost a thousand movies, we probably have one of the biggest library of films outside of the majors, and yet Comcast, which is our big cable company, won’t talk to us. We have to go through a middleman, which is owned by the majors. And then if there is any revenue, they will take most of it. That’s the problem.

Are you hoping the situation will be easier to sort out in the UK than in the US?

Well, you guys have better treatment of your independents, because you have the lottery and your government and I think that you encourage more independent – you have movies like This Is England. Did you see that, by the way?

Yeah.

That’s a great film, huh? That kid is great. It’s wonderful, it’s so original. It’s terrific. So in fact I think the United States is the only country that does not subsidise in any way the true independent. They do subsidise the major conglomerates with the tax system and most of the incentive system is for the big, big, big, big guys. And they throw out a few crumbs if you make a movie, you know, about left-handed lesbian mattress workers, you know something that’s politically correct but has no commercial opportunity, then you might get some money.

Speaking of politics, you’re working on a documentary, Splendour and Wisdom, about George Bush?

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Yes! How did you know about that?

Well, because I looked it up on the IMDB this morning.

Oh, thank you!

There’s virtually no information about it, though, which is why I wanted to ask you about it today…

It’s about the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, he was a blue blood, a rich guy, who was in the CIA and then he switched around to become…

And that’s where we ran out of time, and Lloyd had to go and film his stuff with Emily Booth. So – thank you, Lloyd Kaufman, and also huge thanks to George Mills for arranging this interview for us!

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You can find out more about all things Troma at their website; make friends with Lloyd and Poultrygeist on MySpace; or get the official rules for Zone Horror’s Cut short film competition here.

Interviews at Den Of Geek