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A True Artiste: Lloyd Kaufman on His Career and His Final Film

It’s now hard to remember a time when Lloyd Kaufman wasn’t making his last movie. As a director, Kaufman (“The Toxic Avenger,” “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead”) has been circling his legacy as the leader (and co-founder) of Troma Films, the anarchic and proudly crass Long Island City-based distribution and production studio. Everything from “Terror Firmer” (1999) through both halves of “Return to Nuke ‘Em High” feels like a summing up of Kaufman’s button-mashing anti-brand ethos.

At the moment, Kaufman has no plans to direct more features after “Shakespeare’s Sh*tstorm,” his scatological redo of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But knowing Kaufman, he probably won’t slow down much either, not for long. He’s everywhere that Troma could possibly infiltrate, from movie cameos to museum appearances (catch “Shakespeare’s Sh*storm” tonight at Astoria’s own Museum of the Moving Image). I spoke with Uncle Lloydie via Zoom about the various forks in the road that he’s taken as a filmmaker: Before Troma, when he directed pornography, and then with Troma, like when he was the first American distributor of, uh, “My Neighbor Totoro.”

It seems like you’ve been preparing to make a last movie for a while now, even as far back as “Terror Firmer” and certainly with “Poultrygeist” and both “Return to Nuke Em High” movies. Did you see those movies as your last movie, too?

I didn’t plan to make a last movie. I don't know that people do that. But right now, I don't have anything that I'm obsessed with. If there's somebody out there with a great script, I'm really happy to take it on. I don't need a shitty horror film though; I can write that myself. And it doesn't have to be a formulaic or even profitable movie. It can be a movie like “Shakespeare’s Sh*tstorm,” which probably will be famous, but not terribly lucrative. That’s not why we are artistes. We are artistes to show the world what's in our heart, our soul, our brain.

I’m also now producing four or five new movies per year by young, brilliant James Gunns of the future. The actress who plays Mercedes the Muse in “Shakespeare’s Sh*tstorm” has just finished her movie, “Divide and Conquer”; we're trying to find theaters for it right now. That's a modern feminist movie. Real feminism, not Hollywood crap. And Brandon Bassham, who wrote “Shakespeare’s Sh*storm,” is currently shooting a new movie called “Bring on the Damned,” which I’m producing. Ben Johnson in Tennessee is shooting an anti-hunting movie called “Were-Deer” with much of the crew from “Shakespeare’s Sh*storm.” I think we're gonna get some Tom Lehrer music for that one: “The Hunting Song,” which is an anti-hunting song from 1960. Tom Lehrer was blacklisted, but anyway ...

I continue to be active, though I probably won’t direct much, not unless something really spectacular comes along in the way of a school play. People ask me to do music videos; I do 'em for free, for bands. I like that sort of stuff. I imagine that'll be it until I shuffle off this mortal coil.

I like that you used the word “artiste” since Shakespeare pops up in a few of your movies, usually when you’re making fun of your characters' artistic pretensions. Were there any Shakespeare performances or plays that really shaped how you see Shakespeare? Something at Yale, maybe?

The first time I saw The Tempest was with Maurice Evans at Stratford, Connecticut. Being in the dark with my mother is experience enough—she inspired my brother Charles’ film, “Mother’s Day”—so that stuck in my head. It’s also a very entertaining play. I studied it at Trinity School in New York and then at Yale. I've seen it seven or eight times with different casts and I've seen various movie adaptations directed by everybody from Derek Jarman to Julie Taymor. I think Derek Jarman’s version was my favorite movie of The Tempest.

It’s great. I’m also intrigued by the idea of using The Tempest to reflect back on what you’ve done at Troma since the 1970s. You co-founded Troma with Michael Herz, but his name doesn’t pop up on Troma movies anymore, especially not as a co-director, like he used to ...

Yeah, Michael Herz and I co-directed “The Toxic Avenger.” It’s a pity that he didn't keep co-directing. He pretty much fully removed himself from our movies’ sets because he didn't like getting up at 4:30am and worrying about where the Port-O-Potty’s gonna go. Or where the trucks would park. Or making sure that nobody gets run over by one of those trucks as they back up too fast. That kind of stuff is very stressful, especially if you're making movies that look like $22 million, but you’re making them for $400,000-500,000.

The Tempest pops up in your 1976 porno “The Divine Obsession,” where a struggling actress offers to perform at an audition with a monologue from Shakespeare’s play. “The Divine Obsession” was made outside of Troma, for your short-lived Melody Pictures distribution company. It was a decent-sized hit, too, playing for something like six months at the 59th Street Twin. Could you talk a little about your Melody Pictures phase?

An R-rated version of “The Divine Obsession” played around the country at many drive-ins. We took it very seriously, shooting on 35mm. My Yale roommate, [Robert Kalen] wrote the script, and all sorts of people are in it. My partner [Michael Herz], his wife, and my wife are not particularly proud of the Melody Pictures porn though. I don't think they’re great, but we tried to make real movies. I certainly learned how to work as a cameraman. We’d also have to shoot a movie in five or six days, but that's good, to learn how to do it fast. That  was sort of my film school. I don’t think those movies will surface any time soon though.

I interviewed Louis Su in my third book, Produce Your Own Damn Movie. [Editor’s note: Louis Su is one of Kaufman’s pseudonyms, along with H.V. Spyder and David Stitt.] He was the principal director of those fine Melody Pictures titles. In those days, we had to be very careful, because you could go to jail. And some people did go to jail, like [Screw publisher and co-founder] Al Goldstein, who did a lot to protect the First Amendment and died in poverty. He’s in “Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV.”

Speaking of free speech, pornography, and memorable theatrical engagements: I read about a midnight show re-release of Troma’s “Blood Sucking Freaks” at the 8th Street Playhouse. The movie was picketed by Women Against Pornography. What can you tell us about that?

“Blood Sucking Freaks” had a huge midnight movie audience. The theater thought it was gonna keep playing forever and, to add fuel to that fire, they created a fake demonstration by Women Against Pornography. I wonder if those women are still against pornography. I wonder if they would've preferred to have the actors in our movies wait tables and smoke cigarettes at the Waffle House.

We seem to have a come to a fork in the road for Troma, which is why I mention Melody Pictures titles like “Sweet and Sour” and “The Divine Obsession,” both of which I found on xHamster, the porn website. I don't know if there are any other Melody Pictures titles on xHamster, but those two currently are. Do you think the Melody Pictures films could have an extended life thanks to a boutique Blu-ray label like Vinegar Syndrome, who have already restored and released some Troma movies?           

They've been begging to do it, but my partner and wives don’t want to be associated with those movies ... we have grandchildren, you know, though I was brought up in a sophisticated, Europeanized family. In fact, I'm the first person in my family for four generations who actually didn't get divorced; I've been married for almost 50 years.

Congratulations to you both. But let’s talk about what comes next for Troma. Home video was a huge part of the company’s growth in the 1980s. And many Troma movies can now be streamed on the Troma Now app. You guys also have a YouTube channel, right?

The YouTube channel was our attempt to give our library to our fans, for free. YouTube closed our channel down about 10 years after we started it. “Community standards,” they said, oh boy. Then our fans erupted with a tsunami of anger and YouTube reinstated our channel within 48 hours.

But that's where their brains were at—or where their algorithm was at—so Michael Herz decided that we'd migrate all of our movies from YouTube to Troma Now. Troma’s YouTube channel is more about news and short pieces, some of my editorials and How To videos. Troma’s YouTube is more informative, I guess, whereas Troma Now is all about entertainment and has about a thousand movies, almost 50 years of Troma. And every month on Troma Now, we add six new movies by wonderful young directors.

Have you noticed, based on the metrics you use—or however you measure success on a platform like Troma Now—that your users are really digging in to the back catalog and discovering older stuff, like “Fatty Drives the Bus” or “Doggie Tails”?

They are. I go to a lot of conventions and people definitely talk about things they've discovered, like “Decampitated,” which is on Troma Now. A wonderful film, though we didn't write or direct it (we were executive producers). It’s hilarious and has a very Troma sense of humor. “Fatty Drives the Bus,” from Chicago, is another one that people have discovered. And “Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters,” a serious Indonesian action film that my brother Charles added new dubbed dialogue to, stuff that had nothing to do with the story. He added fart jokes and made the mother in the movie a Jewish mother. It’s hilarious.

I singled out “Doggie Tails” because I read that your wife, Patricia Kaufman, spearheaded 50th Street Productions, Troma’s short-lived family line. I think she also helped to license or was instrumental in licensing “My Neighbor Totoro” for Troma?

No, but she definitely pushed us to try to have a line of movies that was, uh, not Troma. Stoners love “Doggie Tails,” according to my anecdotal experience at conventions and stuff like that. And my grandchildren, who are four and five—they're big—keep asking to see “Doggie Tails.” So it’s very good for kids and stoners.

As for “My Neighbor Totoro”: I was in Japan, talking to Namco about producing “Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.” We met with Hayao Miyazaki a couple of times. He was convinced that nobody in the States was interested in releasing Studio Ghibli movies. So we thought: Well, let’s try it. We brought in “My Neighbor Totoro” and we opened it in some theater ... it did okay at the box office. As for reviews: we’d be ignored no matter what we do, you know? We could bring you “Gone with the Wind” and only get backhanded compliments. But “My Neighbor Totoro” did well. Fox did a great job with the video cassette.

Are there any Troma titles that you want to make disappear, like George Lucas did with “The Star Wars Holiday Special”? Maybe “Big Gus, What’s the Fuss?” or “The Battle of Love’s Return”?

“The Battle of Love’s Return” has a following. That is, we can see that people watch it. I don't know if they finish it; we don't have sophisticated enough information to gauge that. But people seem to enjoy it and it's clearly unwatchable. It was, however, Oliver Stone's acting debut. I discovered him and Lynn Lowry on that one. And it did get good reviews, actually, like Judith Crist in the New York Times. I didn't have a lot of bookings, but it played in a few theaters.

And “Big Gus, What’s the Fuss”?

Yes, I would love it if people didn't watch that. Troma people keep putting it up on YouTube though. They also love to see this video where I get beaten up on “The Morton Downey Jr. Show.” They love that one. But okay, we made a very bad movie called “Big Gus, What’s the Fuss?” when we were very young. We listened to people older than me, some of whom were not telling the exact truth. I should have had the guts to close that production down. That's what I should have done. We shot it in Israel and when I got to Israel, they’d totally changed the script. It was a mess and we should have just shut it down. Nothing is worse than “Big Gus, What’s the Fuss?” James Gunn and I had fun writing about it in my first book, All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger.

The Tempest concludes with Prospero returning to civilization and encouraging his daughter Miranda and her partner to have a life of their own. Can you imagine giving the keys to the Troma kingdom—or perhaps a ceremonial mop—to your own daughters?

That’s a curse! They don't have to take that on unless they really want to. My oldest is a writer and my youngest is a filmmaker. The middle one is not involved with filmmaking, although she has a good job for Amazon. I heard they do something with movies. But she’s in mentoring, something to do with startups. A terrific, terrific job, very creative, very interesting. The youngest one, Charlotte, played the mute child in “Terror Firmer.” She's working with the guy who made “The Jinx” for HBO, which is probably an exciting position. And my oldest daughter directed a little web series, the first piece of which will play at the Museum of the Moving Image prior to “Shakespeare’s Sh*storm.” That was shot by the same first cameraman as “Shakespeare’s Sh*tstorm,” too.

That’s exciting. To wrap things up, I wanted to ask: do you really get confused for Mel Brooks?

All the time. I can't walk through an airport without some kid—like 22 years old, 25, 30—telling me: ‘My father is a big fan of yours, can I get a picture??’ So I think: Well, you know, I've been around for 50 years, so maybe their father is a big fan of me, Lloyd Kaufman. But then as they talk, I realize: Oh, they think I’m Mel Brooks. Then I don't know whether to let 'em take the picture or to tell them I'm another guy. I usually let 'em take the picture because they never mention Mel Brooks by name. I had a situation in New York where people were actually lining up to get photos of me, thinking I was Mel Brooks. I drink a lot and went into a bar at 10am. One person thought I was Mel Brooks, so suddenly, there was a line in the bar. A policeman wanted me to hold his badge and take a picture for him. I did and then I ran back to the Troma booth at a nearby convention. That happens all the time. 

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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