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Interview: Lloyd Kaufman on “Return to Nuke ‘Em High”

LLoyd Kaufman

LLoyd Kaufman

There are few figures in the entertainment industry as endearing and prolific as Lloyd Kaufman, the brain behind Troma studios for 40 years and counting. By establishing the iconic Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High films, Kaufman cemented his legacy as a outrageous independent filmmaker with an admirable, unfiltered and enviable imagination. Even today, Kaufman and Troma are slaying their fans, as Return to Nuke ‘Em High, Volume 1 debuted at the 2013 Fantasia Film Festival to a vocal, supportive response. Kaufman, in speaking to Diabolique for Issue #17, spoke about remakes, independent cinema and the future of Troma…

DIABOLIQUE: When fans of independent horror think of the horror comedy genre, it’s sufficed to say that Troma is one of the brands that come to mind. What is it about horror and comedy that you think compliment each other so well?

LLOYD KAUFMAN: Historically, they haven’t complimented each other so well. Troma was one of the first pioneers to mix slapstick and satire with horror, monsters and gore with The Toxic Avenger. I don’t think there was too much of that prior to 1983. Certainly, James Whale had humor in Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, but there wasn’t obvious humor that went well. In fact, straight horror does much better than what we do, which is satire and is a much more difficult area to be in. Just look at the Troma movies. That’s a much more difficult area to be in. Movies like Scream and Scary Movie don’t have any political content. They’re just fluff and benefit from $50 million ad campaigns, so I don’t think they count. Our movies aren’t even horror films: they’re comedies with political commentary, satire and sex.

DIABOLIQUE: Troma has been putting out movies for 40 years now, and they’re still entertaining fans today just as effectively as they did in its heyday. What do you think has been the key to Troma’s staying power?

KAUFMAN:  In a fair world, our movies would be grossing $50 million to $100 million each, but we’re a small, underground film studio, so we’re basically economically blacklisted. We have no access to the market place, but we have a very strong fanbase that loves Troma. I think the fans know when to go see a Troma movie in the theater, when they can, they know they may love Return to Nuke ‘Em High, Volume 1, they may hate Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, but they know they’ll never forget The Toxic Avenger. They’ll go on a ride they’ve never been on before and have genuine feelings when they see our movies.

DIABOLIQUE: Are there any films in the horror-comedy genre that are non-Troma films that you admire?

KAUFMAN:  Yes, I saw one recently where the college students and the hillbillies are pitted against each other. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil! That was terrific. You can tell those guys are Troma fans and obviously, Troma influenced it, but they added a whole new spin on that concept. To me, it was very smart, well-written, well-acted and a lot of fun. It was also kind of scary!

Because it was both freaky and humorous, I also really liked Killer Joe. But where was it’s premiere? At the shitty South by Southwest festival! It’s a disgrace! Killer Joe should have been at Cannes; it’s a great movie! It’s better than The Great Gatsby, I’ll tell you that. Gatsby is a good movie, and I’m sure the Australian dude, Baz Luhrmann has got his qulalities, but Killer Joe is William Friedkin, and it’s relegated to the basement because it’s independent. That says it all! That says the whole thing. If Friedkin had made it for FOX, or that 90-year-old piece of beef jerky Rupert Murdoch, he would have been the toast of Cannes!

Instead, Friedkin didn’t even want to show up at South by Southwest since he was so insulted. When they premiered it there, he wasn’t there; they had some video tape of him. I don’t blame him! Why would he go and be humiliated by a second rate film festival? Killer Joe should have been at the top festivals.

DIABOLIQUE: I think the kiss of death for Killer Joe came when it was NC-17. I saw it theatrically when it played in New York and I remembered getting ID’d three different times before they let me into the theater. But even then, it didn’t have the violence or the egregious sexual content of other R-rated films.

KAUFMAN: The kiss of death was that it wasn’t given major distribution by a studio or one of the vessels of a studio. It was a great movie and had Rupert Murdoch distributed it, it would have had an R-rating and gone through the roof. But it would be a very interesting double feature to have Poultrygeist and Killer Joe together, because they both deal with fried chicken.

Lloyd Kaufman

Lloyd Kaufman

DIABOLIQUE: Troma was a cult entertainment stalwart in the early ‘80s, and even today, Troma prides itself on a do-it-yourself, independent aesthetic. Do you think Troma’s specific brand of horror-comedy hybrids flourish better through independent means?

KAUFMAN: They can’t flourish because the marketplace is closed. We’re economically blacklisted. If we can’t get on TV or video stores or movie theaters, how can we flourish? And the making of movies has been democratized. Return to Nuke ‘Em High, Volume 1 cost $500,000 to make, which is what The Toxic Avenger cost to make in 1983! If you count in inflation, we’re probably making movies for 20% of what we used to make them for, so filmmaking has become democratized in the same way that the automobile industry in the ‘50s was democratized. You didn’t have to be rich to buy a car, so that way anyone can own a car. Now, you don’t have to be rich to make a movie. Anyone can make a movie. In fact, everybody just about has made a movie.

We are distributing a movie called The Taint and we’re spending more on marketing than the movie cost. The movie only cost about $5,000. So we’re spending $25,000 to make the DVD’s, get it into a few theaters and make a few posters, maybe. That’s nothing, right? So the problem is the making of cinema is democratized but the distribution system is still lagging. Distribution has not caught up with the new technology, so the public is unaware of thousands of young moviemakers. This is why we created “Occupy Cannes” and wanted to educate the environment of the Cannes Film Festival to that effect.

DIABOLIQUE: Critics have called Troma films myriad things, such as “shocking”, “crude” and “offensive”, yet the films always happen to find a steadfast loyal audience of ardent supporters…

KAUFMAN: Well, the major critics, like The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, gives us good reviews and they get it. Those are people who get what film is all about, have a sense of film history and are fairly knowledgeable about the world of cinema give us good reviews. It’s idiots who feel like they need to give us backhanded compliments, like that idiot at Cannes who couldn’t bring himself to give a review and isn’t a real film critic; he’s just a fucking leech. But real film critics get what we do and understand that we’ve been doing it for 40 years give us very good reviews.

If the question is about finding an audience, if you can make something really good, the audience will find you, even if it’s through pirating. A lot of people watch our movies through the miracle of pirating. Half the world watches our movies for free. China? They’ve got 2 billion, 3 billion, however many billions of people and they’ve all seen Poultrygeist. It came out in China before it came out here! But if you make something good, the public is going to find you, but you just won’t be able to make money.

Frankly, we’re artists, so why are we doing this? We’re not doing this to make money, although we certainly want money because money is good, but we didn’t choose this profession to become Donald Trump. We chose this profession to make art, and as such, if somebody is willing to spend a hour and a half looking at Return to Nuke ‘Em High, their time is much more valuable than the lousy $10 they’re going to pay for Iron Man. So I’m just as happy if they pirate it; I don’t give a shit!

Let ‘em pirate it if they’re going to watch our movie for an hour and a half. 99.999999% of all movies ever made, nobody will watch, even if they’re paid to watch ‘em. So the fact that people are willing to invest their time is much more valuable than the money anybody has. I know because I’m a broken down, old low-budget filmmaker who’s running out of time. I may be dead before another interview happens. In fact, your questions are so intricate and sophisticated and stressful, I could die right now! Who knows?

DIABOLIQUE: Return to Nuke ‘Em High, Volume 1 just played at the Fantasia Film Festival, and many fans called it one of Troma’s best efforts to date. What inspired Troma to return to the world of Nuke ‘Em High?

KAUFMAN: Well, the fans wanted us to and The Class of Nuke ‘Em High had three movies, some licensing and merchandise. So it was the fans that wanted more Nuke ‘Em High and then Starz media seemed to be interested in producing it with us so we did it and we were able to write a script that we loved. We never make movies unless we love the script and it’s something we really, really believe in about the script. It’s got to be about a theme, or themes, we really are excited by. There were themes about Return to Nuke ‘Em High that really turned us on, so we got a script that we really liked and we made the movie.

Toxie 5, aka the fifth Toxic Avenger, was supposed to be made before this film but because we haven’t been able to come up with a script that we like, we keep rewriting with writers for 3-4 years, and we haven’t succeeded in writing a script that we like.

Lloyd Kaufman

Lloyd Kaufman

DIABOLIQUE: I was going to ask about The Toxic Avenger 5, but that answers my question. Are you involved at all in the remake of The Toxic Avenger that Arnold Schwarzenegger has been attached to or is that being produced outside of Troma?

KAUFMAN: I believe I’m leaving that to the big guys. Steve Pink has written a wonderful script, I’m told. He’s a great director, in my opinion, and he loves Troma from the few times I’ve met him. He’s a major, major, major Troma fan and I think he’ll do a good job. I think the best move for me is to stay out of it. I’m sure that’s how they feel!

DIABOLIQUE: As Troma has been a great stomping ground for young, developing filmmakers, how does it feel to see supporters and prodigies from Troma like Eli Roth and James Gunn break out into mainstream film?

KAUFMAN: I know James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is going to be fantastic. James is terrific and a great guy. He’s able to balance his work in the mainstream with his integrity and he’s going to make a great movie. There’s no question in my mind. In fact, I went over to London at the end of June to be in Guardians of the Galaxy. I have a small part in the film.

Troma supporters are very loyal! Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, James Gunn and Eli Roth all talk about Troma and are all very fond of the studio. But there’s not much they can do for us besides keep promoting us, which they are doing very nicely and for which we’re very grateful. Trey Parker and Matt Stone were very influenced by Troma and they’re very grateful that we discovered Cannibal! The Musical and that we took a risk. They’ve been very supportive of us: they’ve acted in our movies and they’ve written the foreword to one of my books. These are all good, young people.

DIABOLIQUE: Troma films seem to revel in their oddities and appreciate the fact that they’re unlike anything in mainstream theaters. Do you think the satire and content of Troma films are better fashioned for an underground appeal?

KAUFMAN: No. In fact, Mark Neveldine, who made Crank and Gamer and most recently Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, has said that if Poultrygeist was released in a fair world, it would have been a huge hit. There’s no question about it! If people can’t see it, how are they going to know about it? It’s not advertised, where are they going to hear about it? In fact, Citizen Toxie has never been on any form of American television. Not even Skinemax!

What about Cannibal! The Musical? Both that and Citizen Toxie sold half a million units each on home video with no advertising and neither of them have been on any form of American broadcast. How is that possible? Both of those movies would have huge ratings if they were shown on TV! Don’t you think if Cannibal! The Musical was shown on Comedy Central, it’d probably be their biggest rated show of the year?

Meanwhile, they’re remaking our fucking movies! They remade Mother’s Day, they’re remaking Toxic Avenger for millions of dollars with Schwarzenegger, and what does that mean? In a fair world, our movies would be grossing huge amounts of money but we’re prevented from getting to the audience by the monopolistic practices that go on. The correct word is “cartel”, and that didn’t exist 20 years ago. It was on our buddy Clinton’s watch when the rules changed and the FCC changed their rules about the content on television.

It used to be that television used to have to show 1/3rd of their programming as independent content. Now, the rules changed so now the media conglomerate’s can not only own the networks, but they can own the content that’s on the network. So they’ve made cheap, shitty reality shows and American audiences lap it up, so they don’t need to license stuff from Troma or independents. They can get all their stuff from either Sony or Rupert Murdoch or those kinds of people, or they can make their shows for no money, like that shitty Ryan Seacrest crap. But we’re giving away all of the Troma movies on Youtube to celebrate our 40th year and how grateful we are to people like you who respect us. So you can see Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead and 250 other wonderful movies, including Doggie Tails.

DIABOLIQUE: Are you still going to finish the “Occupy Cannes” documentary, especially now after you were kicked out of the festival? Do you think people outside of Troma fans understood the meaning of the demonstration?

KAUFMAN: Sure, I think people knew Lesbian Marriage is legal in France, even though Cannes shut down our Lesbian Wedding. The festival police shut us down, not the Cannes city police. The Cannes Film Festival is like the Vatican: they’ve got their own private police force. So even though France had passed a “marriage for everyone” law, we were not permitted to conduct a Lesbian Wedding. But everybody knows what that means; you don’t have to be a Troma fan to understand it.

You don’t have to be a Troma fan to know the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, or for the tribute to Roger Ebert, who loved Troma and loved independent movies. Some of the events we staged were very symbolic, like when we had a fat man strip naked to show that independent art must be uncovered, not smothered by the mainstream. The whole mission statement for “Occupy Cannes” was to support independent art. There were so many young, brilliant filmmakers at Cannes who are unknown who were being smothered by The Great Gatsby and the like.

There’s nothing wrong with Gatsby, it’s a fine movie, but I think people know that Gatsby is out there. It probably came out on DVD yesterday. I don’t think it needed a festival to bring it to our attention. I think we do need the Cannes Film Festival to go back to its roots where they supported independent cinema and I could go there and sleep on the beach and nobody bothered me. The people of Cannes used to be enthusiastic of the Festival because they loved the idea of young people being excited about art. It’s no longer like that. I got kicked out of Inside Llewellyn Davis because I was wearing a tuxedo that was the wrong color! We’re all supposed to look like black sheep now. Everyone should look like Gatsby or Iron Man 3 or McDonald’s.

They gave the Palm D’or to a Tunisian film, which was nice, but who gives a shit about the Palm D’or? All the publicity went to Gatsby. Nobody heard of that Tunisian film until it won the Palm D’or. I’m sure some high profile French distributor was presenting it. I’ll guarantee you Killer Joe is better than that fucking Tunisian film.

DIABOLIQUE: Does Troma have any future projects in development or along the pipeline?

KAUFMAN: Yes! We have Mutant Blast, from Fernando Alle, director of Banana Motherfucker. He’s a Portuguese filmmaker and Banana Motherfucker is a wonderful, wonderful half-hour movie. It’s hilarious and based on that, we financed his first feature length movie, which is called Mutant Blast. We’re filming it in Portugal in the Portuguese language to ensure that absolutely nobody will go to see it. Not only will we be economically blacklisted, but we’ll have a movie in a language that nobody really speaks. IT’S GONNA BE GENIUS!

Fernando Alle is a very wonderful young man. He’s on the same level of talent as Trey Parker and Matt Stone. It’s going to be a really fun movie. We’re still trying to write Toxie 5: The Toxic Twins. We’ve gone through eight drafts on that, so we’re slowly putting that together. Otherwise, they’re working on that Toxic Avenger remake, which I think is going to be terrific since Steve Pink is a great director. I think that’ll be a very fine movie in his hands.

Lloyd Kaufman with Trey Parker, Ted Raimi, Doug Sakmann and two fans

Lloyd Kaufman with Trey Parker, Ted Raimi, Doug Sakmann and two fans

For more from Troma, you can check out their Youtube, the FREE Troma Movies Youtube, their official website, the Troma Facebook page or you can follow them on Twitter: @tromateamvideo. For more on “Occupy Cannes”, you can check out the movement’s official Tumblr. For more from Lloyd, follow him on Twitter: @lloydkaufman. You can also keep updates on Troma’s official film festival, Tromadance, at the official website. Don’t forget to pick up the new issue of Diabolique, #17, for exclusive comments from Lloyd himself on the evolution of horror comedy, now available at the App Store, Google Play and on shelves, including Barnes and Noble.

– By Ken W. Hanley

About Ken W. Hanley

Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Fangoria Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.

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