Last summer I worked as an intern for Troma. Here's an interview I did with Lloyd Kaufman, the company's president:

"I look forward to their future and to seeing how much farther they can go with a few dollars, some toxic goo, and a dream." -Roger Corman on Troma

His pinstriped suit, fluent French, Ivy League diploma, and habit of handing out lollipops to everyone in his office all serve to belie Lloyd Kaufman’s status as the high priest of blood and guts cinema. His best special effects require Bromo Seltzer and melons. Tag lines like "They love their grandchildren—well done!" grace his posters. His next film, "Poultry-Geist," will feature a horde of fast food chicken zombies.

Kaufman is president of Troma Entertainment, a film production and distribution company specializing in low-budget horror comedy. He and partner Michael Herz founded Troma after graduating from Yale in 1969.

Today, legions of fans consider Kaufman a deity. His most famous picture, "The Toxic Avenger" (1985), stars Toxie, a crime-fighting, tutu-wearing mutant mop boy. This and Kaufman’s other directorial efforts, including "Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD" (1992) and "Tromeo and Juliet" (1997), have earned massive cult followings due to their anti-corporate themes and unrivaled carnage.

Scanning a list of Troma titles is introduction enough to the gore and bloodshed characteristic of the company’s films. "Surf Nazis Must Die" “Chopper Chicks in Zombietown,” “Teenage Catgirls in Heat,” “I Spit on Your Corpse,” "Cannibal: The Musical", “Nymphoid Barbarians in Dinosaur Hell" and “Bloodsucking Freaks” number among the most popular selections in Troma’s 900-film library.

However, there’s more to Troma than rote exploitation. The company has appeared on the cover of the effete “New Yorker.” Both the Cinematheque Francais and the American Film Institute have honored Troma films.

Nearly 30 years after its inception, Troma still functions entirely independently and has never gone into debt. Yet, as a last vestige of non-corporate competition to the major studios, its destiny is uncertain.

“Troma has never been so famous or achieved such critical acclaim. It’s also never been in so much danger of dying,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman discussed the future of independent art, the problem with Sundance, the death of American satire, and the only subjects too obscene for Troma during an interview in his Manhattan headquarters.

Kate: In your book “All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I learned from ‘The Toxic Avenger,’” you say that many independent movies, like the ones shown at the Sundance Film Festival “seem to be auditions for mainstream films as opposed to being independent film… ‘Independent’ also means independence of character and spirit.” At the same time, you list prolific B-movie director Roger Corman as an influence, but his films frequently imitated popular mainstream films outright. What’s the difference between Roger Corman’s movies and the ones shown at Sundance?

Kaufman: The movies Roger Corman directed on his own in the 50’s and 60’s were the influences. “The Man With X Ray Eyes,” “Fall of the House of Usher”—the style, the lighting, the camera work--they proved that low-budget movies could be provocative and have good acting. Now he’s producing inexpensive versions of mainstream films like “Jurassic Park,” but that’s not what influenced me. It’s a pity he doesn’t direct anymore.

Sundance should be called HBOdance or Miramaxdance. It has nothing to do with sun. The movies shown are either pipelined to the major studios or they’re totally safe flavor-of-the-week auditions for little shitheads who want to be big shitheads.

A festival is supposed to be festive. You’re supposed to have fun and bring new art to the people. What they show at Sundance has already been digested or created by the mainstream. It’s not an independent film festival. At Sundance you’re not allowed to hand out leaflets. That’s not permitted in Park City. There are rules about speaking and leaflets; it’s not covered by the first amendment. Thomas Paine was out of line, according to these people. James Lynch {a Troma volunteer} handed out leaflets, and he spent the night in jail.

Movies like “Killer Klowns From Outer Space” and “Eight-Legged Freaks” illustrate exactly the opposite—the major studios releasing purposefully campy films. Has Troma influenced the mainstream? Has the outcome been positive?

The majors have preempted independent film. Troma has been around for 30 years. No other film studio has existed out of the mainstream for that long. Critics review “Me Myself and Irene” and “Eight-Legged Freaks,” saying they’re like Troma movies from the 80’s, only they cost 50 million dollars to make. There were jokes in our movie “The First Turn-On” that we were excoriated for in 1983. Now they’re reproduced in movies today.

Look at South Park. The guys who make South Park are Troma fans—their show has the same satiric mood and the dismemberments. It’s mainstream, but {the ideas are} ripped straight from Troma movies. They built on Troma in a brilliant way. It’s wonderful.

But Hollywood isn’t doing anything interesting with Troma stuff. Those movies suck. No one’s going to look at “Eight-Legged Freaks” ten years from now, except on TV with the rest of that crap.

Troma movies are far from safe, general market fare, but some might say the excessive sex and violence in a typical Troma production is itself catering to the lowest common denominator. Why are the Howard Sterns of the world popular while Troma remains on the fringe?

Howard Stern is about money. Howard Stern has no interest in art or changing the world. The whole world is controlled by a conspiracy of labor, bureaucratic and corporate elites. If something makes money, it’s legitimate. He’s funny. He’s a good interviewer. But he’s all about money. We’d be happy to make money, but our movies are more than entertainment. The Dean of the American Film Institute wrote that I was one of the few genuine auteurs—one of the only directors with total artistic control. There’s Woody Allen, Oliver Stone, Scorsese. Just a handful. And there’s me.

My budgets are less than one half of one percent of Oliver Stone’s. He actually got into movies through me. We grew up together. He wrote a shitty novel. I got hooked on movies. He was in one of our first films, “The Battle of Love’s Return,” then he went into movies. He was a shitty novelist, but he’s very talented in the visual arts.

The battlefield is littered with filmmakers who have tried to sell their films on sex and violence but failed. Maybe they didn’t like it. It was like painting by numbers for them. The Troma tradition is rooted in the Grand Guignol. It’s nothing new. The movies are not aimed at the lowest common denominator. You have to be smart to understand and appreciate them. We’re interested in creating emotions. At a “Terror Firmer” screening, people laugh or they’re outraged or disgusted or surprised. They’re seeing something they’ve never seen before. Troma movies are adventures in cinema. It’s like eating jalapenos as opposed to $100 million movie baby food.

“XXX” has to please everybody. Major studios have to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and they do. Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” a movie glorifying prostitution. PG rating. Kevin Bacon in “Footloose,” a movie glorifying smoking. PG rating. “Forrest Gump” teaches you to follow orders like a retard, even if you get your ass shot off in Vietnam, and you will be rewarded. You will be a millionaire. But if you’re a gyno-American, you will be punished and get AIDS.

We’re amateurs at appealing to the lowest common denominator—Troma fans are very intelligent.

Roger Corman credits you for the creation of “a universe embraced by psychotic aberrants and the Cinematheque Francais at the same time.” At the time of Troma’s inception, would your films have had such a range of appeal? How has the audience changed?

As a filmmaker I’ve gotten better. With the earlier films, there were times when I listened to the wrong people and compromised. The last four films I’ve made, I haven’t compromised. That afforded us additional respect. We’ve persevered. Our body of work is consistent. The movies revolve around the theme of a conspiracy of bureaucratic, labor and corporate elites. The little people of Tromaville liberate themselves from that system.

You can enjoy Troma movies as festivals of sex and violence or as sophisticated satires. Some people called the humor in “Citizen Toxie” ‘rather courageous.’ It opens with a satire of the Columbine massacre--that’s not exactly “Men in Black II.” “Troma’s War” dealt with AIDS. Do movies like “XXX” have one kernel of thought-provoking substance? What will endure? Nothing. It’s baby food. Meanwhile, there are Troma retrospectives all over the world. We care about our films, and they have substance. They’re ahead of their time.

Have you ever decided not to distribute a given film and later regretted the choice?

No. We regretted turning down Madonna {for a role}. That was stupid. We had a movie with Vin Diesel that we gave back to the producers because he was whining. We own 900 movies. That’s the largest collection of films outside the major studios.

Is there anything too taboo or offensive for Troma?

I wouldn’t do a movie glorifying Hillary Clinton. That’s obscene. Or Hitler.

Columbine was the result of racism, sexism and violence—it should be made fun of and shoved in people’s faces through satire. Until “Troma’s War,” AIDS was not discussed. We laughed at it. We satirized it when it was being swept under the carpet and ignored.

Satire is dying. It’s nice to see South Park and The Simpsons kindling what’s left of American satire, but now there are politically correct police. You’re not allowed to make fun of anything.

I’m sure a lot of people accuse your movies of objectifying women.

Actually, no. Women are the smart ones in Troma movies. We call them gynos because ‘women’ has the word ‘men’ in it. Gynos save the men in “Troma’s War.” Toxie’s wife urges him to stop working for the man. “Tromeo and Juliet” is all about Juliet. She’s the focus. Sure, the gynos are in small clothing, but so are the men.

“Squeeze Play” is about gynos playing softball and being oppressed by men. Sure, there are some fucking scenes. It’s R rated. Why not? Pourquoi pas? I like it. A lot of people do. They aren’t porno films. If you want to see women hung up on a meathook, watch TV. Watch “Friends.” Those women are pansies. Femmies. That’s exploitation. Gynos are heroes, at least in the movies Michael and I did. We’ve gotten very little hate mail.

It seems as though the censoring standards for what can be shown on TV and theaters are gradually lowering. Do you foresee a day when uncut, Tromesque movies enter the mainstream?

Never. The world of art is controlled by a handful of conglomerates. There’s no way we can reach our fans. We get 200 million hits to each month—but Blockbuster acts as though Troma doesn’t exist. We just heard from HBO saying they’d never show our movies again. They’re only getting their movies through the cartel now. Our subject matter will be stolen. Warner Brothers put out a cartoon called the “Toxic Revenger” about a little guy who falls in some toxic waste. They put it on TV before our “Toxic Crusaders” got on. It would have cost $500,000 to sue Warner Brothers, so all I got was a letter from them saying they wouldn’t make any more “Toxic Revenger” cartoons. We couldn’t get them to take the ones they’d already made off TV. Imagine if we had done something about Fugs Funny. They’d put us out of business.

We’ve got millions of fans. Our movies are entertaining, and they’ve got something to say. But it’s difficult for fans to see our movies due to economic blacklisting. The little people of Tromaville need to rise up against the conspiracy. They need the Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman. The only reason we’re still in business is because fans are aggressive about getting our movies. They go to independent video stores and ask for Troma sections. They book our movies in theaters.

What do you anticipate for Troma in the future?

In the fullness of time, Troma will be understood as phenomenal. We’re the only independent studio that’s existed for 30 years in the history of cinema. We were cut off by the mainstream. Shunned. We’re still in the underground. Usually important underground artists become appreciated by the mainstream like Andy Warhol, or they blow their brains out like Van Gogh. They don’t stay in the underground. But whether we like it or not, it looks like we’ll always be here, if we survive.

After Herz and I go into the sunset, and the vassals of the giant devil-worshipping conglomerate get their hands on what we have, Troma will be worshipped. The director’s cut of “The Toxic Avenger” with the head-crushing scene will be shown on prime time.

Right now “Cannibal: The Musical” isn’t even on Comedy Central, even though it has no more sex or violence than Monty Python. Trey Parker wrote, produced and directed “Cannibal.” Even though he created “South Park,” Comedy Central’s hit, they won’t show the movie, even if he introduced it himself. It’s sold 50,000 copies, and that’s huge for a Troma movie. When Miramax gets it, it’ll be on again and again and again.

Their idea is to kill us and other independent artists. We have lots of fans—wouldn’t Blockbuster do well if they stocked Troma movies? Instead, they want to put us out of business. Everyone is being dumbed down. You’ve got to be cool. We don’t believe that. We want you to be hot, alive. They want you to eat at McDonald’s and stay at the Holiday Inn.

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