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Lloyd Kaufman (Part 1)

I interviewed Troma supremo Lloyd Kaufman in the world famous London club Groucho's in April 1996. He was over here to help launch Troma UK but I only found out a few hours before he was due to fly back - so I hotfooted it to London pretty damn quick! I have since seen Lloyd at many film festivals (and sometimes at Groucho's!) and he is always the centre of attention because he is (a) a true showman, and (b) one of the nicest people in showbusiness.

'Uncle Lloydy' is a keen supporter of independent cinema at every level and has cameoed in many non-Troma films. For a complete list of his on-screen appearances, see the Where's Lloyd? page.

Jump straight to Part 2 of this very long interview

You got turned on to films when you were at college. Were you not a film fan when you were young?

"Nope! I would have done something useful with my life. But I went to Yale University. There I was roomed, purely by kismet, with a movie maniac. We had a very tiny little bedroom - our beds were side by side - I caught his movie germs and the next thing I know I was making movies, and I couldn't stop!"

What were you studying?

"Chinese Studies was my major. Other than movies, China's my main interest; then my family, well after that. I have my priorities: movies, China, and then a poor third would be my family. So then I met Michael Herz at Yale and we decided that we would set up an independent movie studio."

Had you any idea how to go about that?

"No, it was a stupid idea actually. It was a very stupid idea, but this was the '60s and the individual was important in those day and peace was sort of a good thing and all that stuff. So we took a whack at it, we did it."

What was the first project when you set up the studio?

"The idea, right from the start to was to try to set up an independent movie studio and try to create a Troma Universe. Everything I learned at Yale was comic books. I've had a 25-year friendship with Stan Lee. In fact this Spider-Man tie I'm wearing was a Christmas gift. He and I have written some scripts together. In fact at this moment we're working on a script I wrote called Congressman, about a new super-hero. Stan loved it, and he and I have been writing the script. But the idea was to create Tromaville as small-town America and then try to find an identity.

"We had seen many of the great movies, but we had also seen movies by Roger Corman, and I saw that Roger was doing movies that were beautifully directed, and well-written and had good acting, with provocative scenes. And it proved that one could do good films on a low budget. One could do low-budget and one did not have to work for a giant international conglomerate. So that's what we started.

"When I was at Yale I made a feature-length movie based on Hawthorne's Rapacinni's Daughter with a Bolex: black and white, feature-length. I'm probably the only director in history who's never done a short movie. I've always done features. I've done some promotional charity stuff for people where I've done shorts, but I didn't want to do it, I was just asked. But this was one, long, black and white Bolex movie. No sync sound. We put the music and sound effects and narration on it. Then I did another one, a comedy called The Girl Who Returned which had some of the elements of the Tromatic touch. Then came the first sync-sound movie which was The Battle of Love's Return. Actually, Michael Herz, my partner, is an actor in The Girl Who Returned. Then while I was still at school, one of my Yale chums and I made The Battle of Love's Return and the great Oliver Stone worked on the film and he also acts in the film. Oliver Stone has a cameo performance in The Battle of Love's Return. Then that movie got into very fine movie theatres. It was in colour and black and white. I had to play the main part because I couldn't afford to pay anybody."

Where were these movies getting shown? In the local theatres?

"Well, the first three that I did were in the film societies: Yale, Harvard, Princeton. Rapacinni was extremely well-received. The Girl Who Returned actually did quite well on the college circuit because it was funny and had some decent people. The world was divided up into one group of men and another group of women, and every four years the people from the men land and the people from the women land would come together and hold these Olympic games.

"The Battle of Love's Return came next and that opened at a very famous movie theatre in New York, akin to the Prince Charles Cinema here, where by the way Sgt Kabukiman NYPD will open in May. The Battle of Love's Return got very good reviews and did well enough that I could then go out and raise approximately $150,000 to do Sugar Cookies which was our take on Vertigo. Instead of a man and a woman, I put two women in it. Sugar Cookies was associated with Oliver Stone, and there were a lot of Warhol people in there - this was 1970 or '71. That was a commercial hit, and we just kept going.

"Michael Herz and I slowly got the Tromaville situation under control and made a movie called Squeeze Play that made a lot of money - though not by Hollywood standards obviously - and that's how we bought the Troma Building. Most of our movies are inspired by the newspapers, so Squeeze Play was our take on the women's liberation movement which was starting to get going in the '70s. We did a movie about it; it was a softball movie - very funny though - and it broke the rule that you don't mix sex and comedy. Squeeze Play was a huge success: very, very sexy and very funny; good, old-fashioned slapstick; burlesque-type humour. It dealt with this women's softball team; the fact that every weekend the men would go off and play softball and leave the women in the house and the women would get upset. Fifteen years later, A League of Their Own covered that of course, but we already did it. Squeeze Play lead to Waitress, Stuck on You, The First Turn On - there was a series of these erotic comedies."

Were you building up a repertory company with the same crews and the same actors?

"We couldn't because we always had very small budgets. The actors would become successful and then we couldn't afford them any more."

Where did the name Troma come from?

"'Troma' came from the ancient Latin - Virgil - it means 'excellence on celluloid'. That's where we got the name from; the rest is history."

When you started off, where were you finding the people to work on them? Were these college friends and family?

"Yeah, pretty much. My father's in them; my mother, my brother, my family, my best friend. But then Squeeze Play was a huge success. We have a building in New York called the Troma Building. It's very famous in terms of movie-making because a lot of young people started out there. Squeeze Play, because it was so successful, there was a whole trend of those movies. Then we switched. We did about five of them, and after The First Turn On, which by the way my partner turned down Madonna for. What a loony he was; I never forgave him for it. He says that we should be proud that we turned her down because thanks to us she became a big star. Naturally, while The First Turn On was coming out and underwhelming critics, Madonna was hurtling into the stratosphere as a huge, huge success."

Anybody can turn her down nowadays, but you were there first.

"Yes, that's right. You're absolutely right."

The Toxic Avenger is the archetypal Troma movie. Where did the idea for Toxie come from?

"Like all of our movies, it comes from the newspapers. I was getting some newspapers in the early '80s that were talking about these toxic waste dumps ticking away like time-bombs all over the world. Children in South America going into garbage dumps and finding what they thought to be pixie dust. And the pixie dust turns out to be radium that the hospitals are just throwing away from the X-ray machine. So at any rate, in America, while we've got all this toxic waste and people are throwing away non-biodegradable MacDonalds containers and all that kind of crap, they're going to health clubs. It's the health club fad and everyone's making muscles and cleaning their bodies and eating macrobiotic food. So it just seemed like a very interesting theme for a movie.

"We had to change out of our sexy comedies because the major studios were fighting very unfair. They were doing the same kinds of movies, but they were using good scripts and good actors, so we had to find something else. One day we saw a headline in a trade magazine that said, 'Horror films are dead' so we figured, 'Okay, that's what the experts are saying. We were lucky with the sex and comedy, we broke that rule and did pretty well, so let's see what happens and do a horror film.' Then after a lot of cogitation and re-writing and whatever I figured, 'Let's make the monster the good guy. Why does he have to be the bad guy?' Make him the good guy, and make it a comedy, and make him a hero and a superhero. Let's have a mop! Why doesn't the mop be his weapon? What a great symbol!

"In fact it was at the Cannes Film Festival that I got the brainstorm that the monster was going to be the hero: 'That's what we're missing. That's what's going to make it special.' And the rest is history. Again, when we made the movie we had the same problem that we always had. The movie theatres said, 'Wait a minute. This isn't Squeeze Play. What are you doing? This is a horror film but wait a minute, we're not scared. What's going on here?' I said, 'If you want Squeeze Play, we've got it, you can screen it, I'll give you a print. No, it's not a horror film. It's The Toxic Avenger; he's a superhero; it's a comedy. A grand guignol comedy.'

"Finally we got an excellent movie theatre in Greenwich Village. Are you familiar with New York? It's similar to the area we're in now, but not quite as fun. It's the equivalent of Soho. That theatre there played the movie, and it ran for a year. The night it opened, there were lines around the block. The Toxic Avenger played there for a year, then 400 copies were made of the 35mm print. Enormous success. 200,000 video cassettes. Success in every country in the world. Two more sequels, a cartoon show, licensing - other companies license different types of merchandise based on Toxie. So that's how Toxie began. The Shakespeare element entered into Toxie in Last Temptation of Toxie which was the third one. A Midsummer Night's Dream was an element that helped to inspire the third Toxic Avenger movie. The third Nuke 'Em High movie - The Good, the Bad and the Subhumanoid: Class of Nuke 'Em High Part 3 - has a strong influence of Comedy of Errors. Finally with Tromeo and Juliet we are actually doing Shakespeare."

How closely does Tromeo and Juliet stick to the Shakespeare story? What liberties have you taken with it?

"It sticks pretty close."

There wasn't a woman with popcorn in her stomach in the original Shakespeare play.

"Well, I'm not so sure of that. Shakespeare wrote such a marvellous play. He came so close to a really good work. So we made a few improvements. I don't think we re-wrote more than 80% of the play. We did take a few liberties with the ending, but other than that: it has all the car-crashes, mutations, special effects, decapitations, kinky sex, de-Capulet-ations, and all the stuff that Shakespeare always wanted. That was a pretty good joke there; a very intellectual, Shakespearian Troma joke.

"The interesting thing about Tromeo and Juliet is that it's again sort of drawn from current events. I'm 50 years old; I'm no longer a youth, that's for sure. And my generation, the folks who were baby-boomers, have I think done a number on your generation. People like Clinton and Hillary are so cool in their polo-neck shirts and their designer jeans. Usually their jeans cost more than my suits. They're just so cool, swinging and emotionless. In their world, it's horrible. You don't want to be emotional, you don't want to really be passionate. You just want to be cool. You don't have opinions, you don't have anything. Then on top of it, kids today can't even make love because of AIDS. So basically the way I see it is they turn inward upon themselves: tattoos and piercing. At any rate, Tromeo and Juliet is my take on American youth today, specifically in New York, downtown New York.

"I wrote the script with a young man named James Gunn who's 28 years old, so he's half my age. It's just our beat on what's going on in terms of youth. Obviously love is something the Clintons don't believe in. With most of the post-war baby-boomers, passion has gone. So with Tromeo and Juliet in this powerful world of gang-war and drugs and tattoos and piercing - I'm not saying tattoos and piercing are bad - but this is the world in which they find themselves. And it is Romeo and Juliet. The Romeo and Juliet story was marvellous for what I was interested in."

Are you going to work on some of the other plays? Macbeth or King Lear?

"I don't think so. We've been toying with Two Gentlemen from Troma. Some publishers came to us recently on writing a book on the history of Troma, and I suggested to them maybe we should call it Two Gentlemen from Troma, and once they heard that I think they went round to Quentin Tarantino."

When you're developing new movies for Troma, which comes first: the idea or the title?

"In the case of Tromeo and Juliet I got inspired a few years ago when there was a big Troma season at the British Film Institute, at the National Film Theatre. Somebody from their staff was kind enough - probably to get me away from them because I was so obnoxious - they took me up to Stratford-on-Avon as a day trip. i genuinely love Shakespeare. I don't know that much about him, but I know a hell of a lot more than the people making these Shakespearian movies in America. At any rate, I was genuinely moved. Shakespeare's spirit entered my body - I can't tell you which orifice it came out - and I decided: Tromeo and Juliet. The idea, the title came to me. I wrote a draft. I worked with a 30-year-old young man to write another draft. That didn't work. Then I worked with a guy who was 19; that didn't work. Then finally, this fellow James Gunn and I came up with the direction that I was getting at, namely this treatment of the fact that post-war baby-boomers of the '60s, the people who are supposed to be so full of love and peace and individuality and passion, have really turned out to be these horrendous, cold-hearted, cool, emotionless, passionless people who have done a number on the heads of the people your age. Hopefully you have not been ruined by my generation."

Well, it turned me into a journalist...

"Aaargh! No, the fourth estate is marvellous. So the title was there ahead of the movie. but almost every other movie, I get an idea from the newspapers. It's usually something that festers. When they were building this nuclear power plant right next door to New York City it was just so outrageous and so disgraceful. Why did they have to build a nuclear power plant within a few feet of the most populated area in the United States?"

Continue to Part 2 of this very long interview, where Lloyd Kaufman discusses Shakespeare and Troma's moral stance

Official website: troma.com