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For over 25 years, Lloyd Kaufman and partner Michael Herz have headed Troma Entertainment Inc., a low-budget movie studio responsible for producing and distributing such video and late-night-TV favorites as Class Of Nuke 'Em High (1986), Chopper Chicks In Zombietown (1991), Teenage Cat Girls In Heat (1997) and, most famously, The Toxic Avenger (1983) and its sequels. By developing an identity distinct from other studios, Troma has acquired a cult following devoted to its satiric vision of a world filled with scantily clad women, dismemberment, and vomit of many colors. Benefiting also from a popular website (www.troma.com), Troma's recent output, including the Shakespeare send-up Tromeo & Juliet (directed by Kaufman) and Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. (directed by Kaufman with Herz), has netted the company the greatest attention and best reviews in its history, in addition to being its two most clever and entertaining films. With his memoirs completed and on their way to publication, Kaufman spoke to The Onion about his craft, his influence, the difficulty of marketing singing cannibals, and the importance of being independent.
The Onion: How are things in New York?
Lloyd Kaufman: In Tromaville, the sun shines... Unfortunately, it's a global-warming type of sun, and it's toxic. The UV count is very high. There are mutants being created.
O: How does your slogan, "Movies Of The Future," apply to the movies that come out of Tromaville?
LK: Well, you may have noticed that the battlefield is littered with the bodies of dead independent movie companies. Troma is just about the only independent movie studio remaining, unless you buy the brainwashing propaganda put out by your government and the industry that companies like Miramax and New Line are independents. If you buy that, then I say you have a major problem. Troma has to be ahead of its time: Otherwise, like the other independent companies that have been gobbled up, crushed, intimidated or blacklisted, the public would not embrace our movies. One of the few reasons Troma is still in business is because we are ahead of the game. Our movies opened the doors for other filmmakers. If you talk to Quentin Tarantino, or Peter Jackson, or Shinya Tsukamoto, or Kevin Smith, they will tell you that they appreciated what Troma did with movies like The Toxic Avenger or Class Of Nuke 'Em High, and that we wedged the door open a little bit so they could use elements that we had pioneered to create world-class masterpieces.
O: You mean in terms of the content of the movies, or...
LK: Content, subject... Yes, by all means. The Toxic Avenger is a perfect example. Here's a movie that is environmentally involved before the environment became the puppy-dog of the media.
O: And one example of Troma inserting not-so-subtle left-wing messages into its movies.
LK: Well, we have always had the message. Every movie that I've written or directed basically takes the premise that there is a conspiracy of the labor, the bureaucratic and the corporate elite, and that this conspiracy of elites is sucking dry the little people of Tromavillesucking them of their financial and spiritual capital. And that is indeed the fact; that is the way the United States of America has evolved in my lifetime. And it is now happening on the last democratic medium, namely the Internet.
O: Yeah, I checked out your website the other day and it seemed to have very firm views about censorship on the Internet. Do you feel like that censorship has at least been postponed lately?
LK: I hope I don't sound like a pompous ass, and I apologize if I do, but it's so clear to me that Clinton and his elitist group are out... They've got millions of dollars from the Seagrams... The Hollywood elite has given Spielberg huge amounts of money. Why? There is a deal of some sort. And one of the deals, I think, is that they're going to put up tollbooths on the Internet. They're going to make it so people like you or me will not be able to get on. Or, that when we are on, the public won't be able to find us because Microsoft or Disney... No matter how you punch in, you're always going to get to a Microsoft website or a Disney website. Even if you want to get to the Troma website, you won't be able to find it. It's the same way that Viacom owns Blockbuster, and they blacklist Troma, and Sony owns movie chains. Thanks to Reagan, the consent decree that Truman had prohibiting movie companies from owning movie theaters was done away withso now you can have a liquor company owning not only Universal Studios, but cinemas, television networks, and newspapers and cable systems. And where they don't own them, they own them in partnership with other companies. They control everything, and they're gonna screw up the Internet. A little more than 10 years ago, video was actually a somewhat democratic medium. Now it is totally owned and operated by the major studios.
O: It seems the great days of straight-to-video releases has passed, except for a few cases like Troma.
LK: You're absolutely right. The stuff that's coming out straight-to-video is $8 million movies made by Fox...
O: ...starring Eric Roberts.
LK: Yeah, exactly! So, meanwhile, Tromeo & Juliet came out last month with 10,000 rental video tapes. This is a movie that ran nine months in L.A.; it's gotten great reviews from literally every major critic, and Blockbuster doesn't carry it.
O: How long has Blockbuster refused to carry Troma films?
O: Is it a question of content?
LK: No, it's basically blacklisting.
O: That sounds a little bit conspiracy-minded.
LK: I'd say it is. I mean, they've killed off... Who's left? There are no independent companies left. Variety is basically the house organ of the majors. The MPAA ratings board disemboweled any independent movie that came along in the '70s and '80s. And in those days, you couldn't get into movie theaters unless you had an "R" rating. Movie chains would not play unrated movies. So, in order to get an "R" rating they would totally disembowel your movie. But they would permit movies like Die Hard to get an "R" rating with kneecaps getting knocked off. They would permit heart-plucking scenes in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and give it a PG. Every once in a while they would have a little problem where the public would get pissed off, so they'd create a new rating. To service Spielberg or somebody, they'd create a "PG-13" because Gremlins or Jaws, one of those movies, had a problem. I can't remember which one. So they'd create a new thing. More recently, Disney's subsidiary had a problem with a movie, so they created the "NC-17" category to give it some legitimacyso it wouldn't have to carry an "X." The MPAA has been very instrumental in killing off independents.
O: Would you say it's a combination of a puritanical sensibility and a desire to get rid of independents?
LK: I would say it is solely a desire to get rid of the independents. In my opinion, it is purely a movement toward a cartel system and an elitist system. The V-chip, again, has nothing to do with protecting children. It will be a double-standard. Movies from abroad, or Troma movies, what have you, will get V-chipped so they will have to play at two in the morning, get no sponsorship and therefore get no revenue. But the Schwarzenegger movies and the heart-plucking movies, they'll go on in prime time.
O: But you've been getting more attention lately than you have in a while, for Tromeo & Juliet and Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D.
LK: Yeah, that's true. You know, it's possible that the pendulum is swinging back a little bit. We have a websitesomehow people are still finding our websiteand we get hundreds of thousands of people visiting it. It's conceivable that people are fed up with these $50 million movies that are like baby food. There may well be a growing dissatisfaction with this smugness and this worship of jewelry and women smoking cigars and all this disgusting celebrity-worship. The pendulum has to swing back to some extent. The public is much smarter than the media and the big boys think it is. The problem is that you can brainwash them. Look what Mao did. He never spent 50 million bucks. You know, they put up those big posters and allegedly brainwashed an entire country. Think of what Warner Bros. does with one Batman movie.
O: Tromeo And Juliet got more attention than any Troma film in some time, and Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. was reviewed on Siskel & Ebert, which hadn't happened for a Troma production in some time...
LK: Well, let me tell you something else, speaking of Siskel & Ebert. I'm upset that they ignored Tromeo & Juliet, because I've been directing movies since the early '70s. I've got twenty-some-odd movies. Not that I'm a talented director. I'm probably a footnote in history, but I'm a footnote that's influenced, and they're perfectly willing to say I've been an influence on major directors of the next generation. It would be interesting to call Joel Siegel at ABChe has a policy where he doesn't review Troma movies, and the same with Gene Shalit. Even though we distributed a movie called My Neighbor Totoro, which is an animated film by the world's greatest animator, Hayao Miyazakihe is better than Disney, a major, major talent, and this a G-rated moviethey refused to review it because it's a Troma movie.
O: You started at Yale, right?
LK: The first time I made a feature-length movie, right.
O: And you moved on to make... Are you comfortable calling the movies you made in the '70s exploitation movies?
LK: Everything is exploitation movies. Everything we've ever done. Again, it's a bit of an unfair practice that Face/Off is not an exploitation movie but Tromeo & Juliet is. That's what the bigger movies are all about. Exploiting Batman, exploiting special effects, whatever. We happen to exploit sex and violence.
O: Do you see yourself carrying on the great exploitation tradition of AIP and Roger Corman?
LK: Well, Corman is a major influence on me, without a doubt. We're very close friends, and he loves the fact that we have taken the straight genres that he has pioneered and put them all in a Cuisinart. Our movies combine all the genres. Rather than have a straight horror or science-fiction or sex movie, we put everything in one movie. In 1986, when he was interviewed about Troma, that's what he stated. And that's the first time I was aware of what we were doing.
O: Your movies have been called parodies of B-movies. Would you agree with that?
LK: I don't think that's their intention. I think there are numerous literary allusions in all of our movies, parodies not just of B-movies. From the start, we had this notion of creating a Troma universe. Preston Sturges' satirical depiction of small-town America led me to create Tromaville, this little town that appears in many of our movies. And the characters in Tromaville are influenced by the mugs in Preston Sturges; the only difference is that his mugs could act.
O: It seems the difference between your movies and Roger Corman's is that they're self-consciously humorous in a way most of his weren't.
LK: Yes, and his are more commercial. Comedy is not commercial; it is risky, because what is funny in one place isn't always funny somewhere else. With comedy you take a big risk, and that limits our viability and our audience, because we insist on making movies that are supposed to be funny.
O: But dismemberments, bare breasts and puking are pretty much universal, wouldn't you say?
LK: Well, not necessarily, because Germany, for example, has major censorship. They will not permit the kind of violence that we do, so it's not necessarily universal. There are parts of the world, India for example, where they don't get the humor. We have major followings in most of the world, but there are parts of the world where they simply don't get our humor. I think my masterpiece is Troma's War (1988), and most of the international territories just didn't get it. They thought it was going to be a straight action film. Instead they got this movie that has... It's a war picture, but it's got Siamese twins joined at the head, it's got comedy and slapstick, it's got sex... and they just didn't know what to make of it. I think it's the best film, certainly among the best films, we've ever done. But a lot of people just did not get it. Or if they did get it, they didn't like it. [Laughs.]
O: Has that made you shy away from riskier ventures?
LK: No, they only thing we've done is we've dropped our budgets a bit. The budget of Tromeo & Juliet was $500,000, which is incredible. That is less than the original Toxic Avenger made in 1983. So we can take more chances.
O: Speaking of that film, do you still see that as a turning point in Troma's history?
LK: Well, it certainly gave us a much wider audience. That movie, for whatever reason, appealed to an enormous audience, and I think we ended with 300 or 400 35mm prints. It led to sequels, it led to a cartoon show; there were a hundred companies that made Toxic Crusader toys and merchandise. Recently, Tromeo & Juliet won the first prize at the Rome Film Festival, and when they showed a trailer of The Toxic Avenger, the theater erupted. It was a huge, huge reaction. The same thing just happened in Montreal: The Montreal festival showed the original trailer for The Toxic Avenger before the showing of Tromeo & Juliet, and audiences went nuts. So there's some kind of magic that Toxie's got, and that has certainly helped give us a broader audience. Troma has emerged as kind of a brand-name, and every so often big companies want to buy us, or merge with us, or acquire us, or do something, and part of the reason is that we've got a brand-name perception. People will rent a Troma movie. We estimate that there may be 2,000 video stores around the country that have Troma sections.
O: Individual sections dedicated to Troma films?
LK: Yeah. One of the big newspapers did an in-depth article about five years ago where the point was that Troma... They would question people, and the only studio that people had an awareness of, other than Disney, as a brand was Troma. But the biggest problem is getting the product to the fans. We have a movie called Cannibal: The Musical. Have you ever heard of it?
O: Yes, I have. Is it out on video yet?
LK: See, it's been out on video for months, but we could not get it into any of the giant chains, and it's a wonderful film. The film is terrific. And, again, I had nothing to do with it; the guys who made it are major Troma fans, and they obviously were influenced by Troma, but these guys are major talents. These are going to be world-class moviemakers. The director, Trey Parker, has already been hired by Comedy Central. They've just finished a series of cartoons called South Park. And Trey Parker's got a major movie that he's going to be doing for Paramount, based on Cannibal: The Musical, the movie we helped him with. Yet, Blockbuster wouldn't take it, one or two other chains wouldn't take it, and it's very hard to find. And I know damn well that if Miramax had Cannibal: The Musical, it'd be in every store.
O: Parker aside, it seems that, unlike Roger Corman, you haven't really produced a lot of people who have gone on to more high-profile things. Do you think there's a reason for that?
LK: Um... Well, if you look, we have 150 movies. I didn't direct them, but we have the first two Kevin Costner movies. We did turn down Madonna.
O: When was that?
LK: With The First Turn On, we turned down Madonna. She was begging, begging to be in the movie, too. Absolutely. She created a little costume. The First Turn On is about camping. And my partner just didn't feel she was right for the part. Then, about six months later, while our movie The First Turn On was underwhelming critics and audiences alike, Madonna was a shooting star, a giant supernova. [Laughs.] And I've never let my partner forget that. But Vincent D'Onofrio, he was in that movie. Marisa Tomei, Oliver Stone started with us.
O: What was Marisa Tomei in?
LK: She's in The Toxic Avenger. She's just an extra. Oliver Stone started with us. He acted in The Battle Of Love's Return, which was one of my first feature-length movies, and I think it's going to come out this summer on video. It's never been out on video. It stinks.
O: What's it about?
LK: It stars me, and it's an identity type of... It's part color, which is fiction, and part black-and-white, where the characters are interviewed. Steve Tisch, who produced... that shit movie with the chocolates that I hated... Forrest Gump, he was a production assistant for us. There are a fair number of future stars in our movies, but certainly nothing like Corman. And part of that is because we're in New York, and a lot of New York people don't stay in movies. They go on to theater and other things.
O: The rumor is that The Toxic Avenger is going to be remade.
LK: There is a big-time agent who is a Troma fan. He is the dealmaker at William Morris for Tarantino and a lot of the hot, younger directors. He wants to put together The Toxic Avenger as a $50 million movie, and he had found some development deals with major studios. We did not want to do that, so we hired a writer to rewrite the remake; that way, we would own it, so we wouldn't get stuck in a development deal. In other words, if some big Hollywood company wants to make the movie and pay us a lot of money, they can do it. But what we don't want is to have a situation where the movie gets stuck in a development deal and that kills it.
O: Don't you feel that by dealing with a major company at all, especially with your trademark, you're shaking hands with the devil?
LK: No, because the only way we're going to do it is, they're either going to give me 100% control, which they won't, or they'll give us a lot of money. And if we get a lot of money, we can make more movies, and not only give me a chance to make a movie every once in a while, but allow me to hire more Trey Parkers. There's no middle ground. Either you get a lot of money and you walk away from it, or you take control.
O: Let's step through the creative process at Troma. How does something like Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. come about? What got you to combine Kabuki theater and a gritty New York cop?
LK: Well, we shot about a third of the sequel to Toxic Avenger in Japan. And I had written a bad guy called Kabuki Boy. Kabuki Boy fought Toxie, and whenever Kabuki Boy would come on screen, our editors back in the States would be convulsive with laughter. There was something about Kabuki Boy that they found very amusing. And I was back in Japan when the movie was finished; I was at a press conference, and somebody said, "Are you gonna shoot another movie in Japan?" and I said something like, "Yeah, we're developing Kabuki Boy," just as a lark. And our agent in Japan told me that there was actually a big amusement company that had been watching Troma, and had been impressed with the way we shot Toxic Avenger Part 2, and that they were talking about a Kabuki-themed character for their games. By coincidence, they were thinking about a Kabuki-style game or superhero, so I said fine, I'll write up a treatment, and if you like it, we'll co-produce it. So we came up with Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D., because we thought we would do a satire of the police genre. We didn't shoot it in Japan, but we did have a representative from Japan who understood Kabuki theater, and who also understood American culture, so we didn't have anything that was incorrect in the movie. It's all realthere's no ugly stereotyping or confusing Kabuki with Noh plays or, worse yet, confusing Japanese culture with Chinese culture, which people constantly do. At the time, Japan was getting a lot of bad publicity, so I thought that would be an interesting theme, because basically Japan and the U.S. are very good friends. They love each other, but they have this tremendous new war for the economic and cultural supremacy of the world, and Kabukiman was a metaphor for it. So, I got very interested in that basic theme of the new American/Japanese war, and Kabukiman was the perfect vehicle to get into that. I think that may be why it did well theatrically and acquired sort of a following.
O: It was actually filmed several years ago, right?
LK: Yes, well, it took us a while to get the good theatrical openings in New York and L.A. Then, when it did, we didn't want to make a lot of prints, so we moved the small number of prints from city to city. They played for quite a while, so it took a while before we brought it out on tape. And it's coming out in September.
O: It's an entertaining movie; it seems like the ones you've been putting out lately have been an improvement.
LK: I can direct you to some bad ones if you want. We've got one that came out on video called... Well, actually, we've got another one on video that came out this summer, called Teenage Cat Girls In Heat, that is hilariousit's great, by a first-time director. It's hilarious, but unfortunately, it just didn't do well. Then there's another one called Tomcat Angels which, uh... It's definitely not a good one.
O: What's the worst thing you've ever put out?
LK: Well, I don't think that we've ever put out a movie that we can't stand behind; there's only one that I would have second thoughts about today. And this is a movie that we picked up, and we helped the director complete it the way he wanted to. It had sort of a false start, and we went back and re-edited it so he got his director's cut. It's a movie called Bloodsucking Freaks (1975), and I do believe this movie goes too far.
O: In what way?
LK: Well, it is extremely... In today's world, it's not very complimentary to women.
O: Which is a criticism you've been hit with several times.
LK: Well, that's fucked up because our movies are right on politically. It's absurd. Anyone who's seen our moviesanyone who's seen the movies I've written and directedcan't possibly have that criticism. It's usually people who assume that, because we have some men and women in small clothing, that we are exploiting women or something. That's horseshit. Squeeze Play (1979), which was a big hit for us in the late '70s: The New York Times understood it. Janet Maslin gave it a good review because she understood it. But the idiot in San Francisco said Squeeze Play was made on the garbage scow, and it abused womentotally misunderstood it.
O: So how is Bloodsucking Freaks different?
LK: It's very misogynistic. I mean, you will laugh when you see it. It's very funny, and you should see it, but it's evil. Nasty. But it has a huge following. Huge following. And actually, the younger generation of women are a lot more relaxed; they don't immediately get offended when they see a woman in a bikini anymore. They're having fun with it now. Squeeze Play was about the women's-liberation movement, and the public got it. It was a huge successin fact, that's pretty much how we bought our building. It was about a women's softball team. Not to be confused with the much inferior A League Of Their Own (1992), which came out 15 years later. In fact, Penny Marshall borrowed a print of Squeeze Play when she was organizing A League Of Their Own. And I believe that I may have seen a bit of Squeeze Play's influence in A League Of Their Own, but I may be arrogant in that respect. What Squeeze Play was all about was strong women who had enough self-confidence to understand that they could not defeat men physically, because men are bigger and stronger, but that they didn't have to stay cooped up in the housethat they could do what they wanted. We were ahead of our time. Movies of the future.
O: What's your favorite tag line for any of your movies?
LK: [Pauses.] Well, we have a movie called Macho Woman: "Born to shop, she learned to kill." I sort of find that amusing.
O: What's in the future for Troma?
LK: Well, we would like to empower more first-time directors. We would like to be producing more films like Def By Temptation (1990) or Teenage Cat Girls In Heat or Cannibal: The Musical, where we can give new directors a chance to be totally free and totally beyond extreme. So I think you'll see more of that. We're going to pretty much stick to what we're famous for. I've hired a guy to write the script for a Jane Austen movie that stars Jane Austen called Schlock And Schlockability: The Revenge Of Jane Austen, where Jane Austen and Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy and Mark Twain and others are up in heaven, and they look down and see the baby food that is being made of their revolutionary work. Pride And Prejudice was very hot stuff in its day, and the stuff that's being made now is absolute pap. So, they're upset about it, and they draw straws, and Jane Austen is sent down to earth. She's transformed into a Tromette on the way down with some Jackie Chan powersgotta have the Hong Kong flavorand she kicks cultural ass.