If you’re arriving late to class, here’s the recap: director / producer / modern B-movie legend Lloyd Kaufman directed the original Class of Nuke ‘Em High, a flamboyantly grotesque parody of high school movies and radioactive mutant horror, in 1986. The premise: a high school in Tromaville, the most toxic city in America, is located right next to a nuclear power plant and the students gets contaminated when a dealer sells drugs irradiated from the plant. It spawned two sequels (produced and co-written but not directed by Kaufman), the last one released in 1994. Twenty years later, Kaufman revives the franchise with a new micro-budget epic so sprawling that it was split into two parts (ostensibly upon the recommendation of Quentin Tarantino, a la Kill Bill). Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1 was shown at film festivals and played limited runs and special midnight screenings across the country before landing on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital platforms, which is still the primary mode of distribution for Troma’s cult movies.
In Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1, the old nuclear plant and its giant cooling towers (which loomed over the old high school thanks to cheap optical effects) have been bulldozed under (that’s what passes for environmental clean-up in the Tromaverse) but a new business has sprung up in its place. As guest narrator Stan Lee explains over the opening montage of clips from the earlier trilogy, “Tromorganic Foodstuffs, Inc, was built right over the old Tromaville Nuclear Power Plant. What could go wrong?”
The world knows Lloyd Kaufman (or rather, the part of the world that has heard of Lloyd Kaufman knows him) as the face of Troma Films and the director of the notoriously outrageous zero-budget cult-classic The Toxic Avenger and sequels. Fewer people know that he’s directed dozens of films (including the 2006 return to form Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, now also on–yes, it’s true–Blu-ray), produced scores more and made appearances in over a hundred genuinely independently-produced movies (partly out of solidarity with directors working outside the system, partly to promote the Troma brand). And some may even know that he’s the author of numerous books, most recently the guerrilla how-to guide Direct Your Own Damn Movie!, and a producer of documentaries and box sets devoted to practical tips on low-budget filmmaking.
What is less well known is his commitment to independent filmmaking. Not the kind of multi-million dollar films with major stars and studio backing that Hollywood brands as “Independent,” but independently financed and produced films made and seen outside the studio system. He’s the president of The Independent Film and Television Alliance, the trade association for the independent movie industry, and has been actively engaged in the fight to preserve net neutrality. And he created the TromaDance Film Festival, unique in the spectrum of American film festivals in that it does not charge filmmakers a fee to submit their films nor does it charge admission to the shows.
I interviewed Lloyd Kaufman in June 2009, when he was in Seattle for a horror convention. Troma’s tireless publicist arranged an opportunity for me to interview him between appearances and we spent over an hour in his hotel lobby talking about everything from the democratization filmmaking to corporate stranglehold on the distribution and exhibition of movies in the U.S. (from theaters to TV) to the origins of Troma.
As the 11th Annual TromaDance Film Festival prepares to unspool on April 16, 2010, in its new home at Asbury Park, New Jersey, we present this lively interview with the outspoken and passionate Lloyd Kaufman. And be prepared: Kaufman is not shy about letting his passions through in very colorful language. Take it as you will, as warning or enticement.
You have a very interesting set of credits. You worked on Rocky and you were production manager on My Dinner With Andre.
Yes, I was indeed. Those movies, Rocky and Saturday Night Fever, those were my film school.
How did you move from working on those industry productions to creating the outsider studio Troma?
I was making my own movies constantly, I was always making my own damn movies and I was interested in long form, so at the one time we were trying to figure out… I did Sugar Cookies in 1970, I didn’t direct it, I made the mistake of just raising money and writing and producing, and then the distribution didn’t work out too well. And then we made a movie in Israel that’s probably the worst movie in history, called Big Gus, What’s the Fuss (1971), it’s the only movie I’m embarrassed to show and we got screwed on that one, and then Michael Herz and I decided that we had better learn distribution, and that’s when we started Troma in 1974 to both produce and distribute ourselves. Of course in those days there was just theatrical.