ARCHIVE: Sprocket Avenger Strikes Back

Blunt force Troma: Indie-film impresario Lloyd Kaufman (seen here promoting the Troma release POULTRYGEIST) is the guest of honor at a multimedia TROMAPALOOZA event, center-lanes this Saturday night at the atom-age Asbury Lanes.

By DOROTHY CREAMER (First published on Red Bank oRBit July 31, 2009)

If the cult classic movie underworld had a king, it would undoubtedly be Lloyd Kaufman. The 64-year-old founder of Troma Studios might not want to take credit for opening doors for all the campy films that have followed, but thanks to Kaufman and his partner, Michael Herz, the Troma Universe, as it has become known, has paved the way not only for independent flicks, but more off-beat (some might say offensive) big studio fare. With the release of early sex comedies such as Squeeze Play! and Waitress!, one could say that the dynamic duo shepherded in a whole generation of farcical fornication films including the likes of Porky’s and Animal House

Kaufman’s big breakthrough came with an unlikely superhero (and Garden State resident to boot). Released in 1984, The Toxic Avenger spins a fantastic tale of Melvin, a nerdy mop boy transformed into a grotesque creature of superhuman size and strength after the obligatory splashdown into toxic waste. The story, with its undertones of social satire focusing on ecological concerns, was met with critical and popular success, and convinced Kaufman that there was a subculture of people craving a braver form of cinema.

Toxie has spawned three sequels, Marvel comic books, an animated television series, Toxic Crusaders and an off-Broadway musical (with music by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan) which had a successful run at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick before heading to New York.

For a man who has perpetually shunned the mainstream, Kaufman acknowledges that being part of the subversive subculture has its drawbacks, most notably in distribution. “The only reason Troma has done so well is word of mouth,” Kaufman states. “Fans tell other people, and it’s only because of that we have gathered an audience. We’ve been economically blacklisted. We’ve never had a movie in a major chain except for Best Buy. We’ve never had a movie in Blockbuster or Wal-Mart.”

Regardless of what the almighty Hollywood machine might do to slow down the Troma train, Kaufman refuses to be derailed in his constant fight for independent films. “We don’t take ourselves seriously, but we take our movies seriously,” he vows.

Kaufman has even gone so far as to take the Sundance Festival to task for not delivering truly independent features. In 2000, Kaufman started the Tromadance Film Festival, a free event celebrating “real independent movies” as a none-too-subtle jab at the Sundance powers-that-be. In order to raise the $30,000 that it costs to stage Tromadance, a benefit of some sort was needed. Enter the Tromapalooza concert series, co-sponsored by G4tv, an event that makes its Jersey Shore debut this Saturday, August 1 at the Asbury Lanes, where subversive ideas flow as freely as Pabst and Tater Tots. The doors open at 8 p.m and a cadre of Jersey-based acts are scheduled to perform including Poultrygeist soundtrack contributor Mike BlackThe HipshotsRigor Mortis Revue Burlesque Troupe, Yula and experimental soundmakers This Way to the Egress. Kaufman (and Toxie) will also be on hand to sell Troma merchandise and sign autographs. The event is open to people 18 and older, and costs $10 at the door.

Red Bank oRBit had a chance to chat with the energetic movie mogul to find out how a nice boy from Yale University became the latter-day leader of the low-budget flick.

RED BANK ORBIT: What exactly happens at a Tromapalooza?

LLOYD KAUFMAN: Tromapalooza is a series of concerts that go on around the country and they benefit the Tromadance Film Festival. We started the film festival about 11 years ago when Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the South Park guys, and I went to the Sundance Film Festival regarding Cannibal! The Musical, a movie that Trey directed  and that Troma distributes. We were astounded that Sundance was sonot independent.  Therefore we set up the Tromadance Film Festival. There is no fee to enter your movie, or to watch any of the movies. Also, there is no VIP policy, so no snotty TMZ stuff. It takes place in the same time, same place as Sundance.

The problem is it’s not a very good business model, because there’s no revenue. Because we are sort of slightly anti-Sundance film festival, any of the big sponsors are naturally going to support Sundance. We have to raise $30,000 to put on Tromadance and we’ve been having these Tromapalooza events around the country. There’s been one in Las Vegas now for five years that is run by Christy Larsen, a member of the Las Vegas roller derby team.

Roller derby has been enjoying quite a surge in popularity. You definitely want to target them.

The Roller Derby gynos (Kaufman’s attempt at gender neutral pronouns) who are in the roller derby are big fans of Troma and very supportive. In Austin, Texas the roller derby team has worn Tromadance T-shirts. That demographic is very pro-Troma.

I’m sure you’ll find a lot of ardent supporters at Asbury Lanes as well, especially due to your attention to New Jersey.

We’ve made more movies in New Jersey than any other movie company. The Toxic Avenger is New Jersey’s first superhero, so we thought we ought to be having an event in New Jersey!

Why did you choose Jersey as the home for your toxic hero? Is this a dig about Turnpike refineries?

Part of my filmmaking theme is to embrace the underdogs. I’ve been making movies for 40 years and [my films] have supported lesbians, nerds…and New Jersey is the underdog. It lives in shadow of the big arrogant city. Tromaville, New Jersey, the town that I’ve written all of our movies for, is a fond satire of the typical, small American town.

What do you think it is that has made Troma such a strong entity?

I think that we have succeeded by creating a brand. I think the people who go to see Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, our latest film, know that they might love it, but they know they hate Tromeo & Juliet, but will never forget Terror Firmer. The people who go to see our movies know they will go on a ride they’ve never been on before. They’ll have an adventure in the cinema. They will have some kind of strong emotion. They might laugh, they might be disturbed, they might be hostile, but they will have a strong emotion. Most movies today are made by committees and cost so much money that as a result they are so bland they are like baby food. Sure, you can live on baby food, but it’s very boring. Troma makes the jalapeño peppers on the cultural pizza. There are a lot of people, usually young people who are looking for that excitement. That’s the core of our fan base.

I’m guessing you’re not a fan of the big movie studio?

We exist in an age of giant, devil-worshipping media conglomerates and the entertainment industry and art world have become very consolidated and very controlled by them. Troma has been able to exist for these 35 years because we are creating movies of the future.

I noticed that’s your mantra on the Troma Studio’s Web site, “creating movies of the future.”

Yes indeed. Although it should be “persontra.” We don’t say girl…we say Gyno Americans.

You are also very involved with the Independent Film and Television Alliance as chairman. What do you hope to accomplish in that position?

The Independent Film & Television Alliance is the trade association for the independent entertainment community film and television. About half the membership of its 200 companies are outside of the U.S., and we all have a similar problem in that we cannot get our films on American television unless they come through the big conglomerates. In other words, Fox Searchlight will show independent movies on Showtime and HBO, Sony Classics will have independent movies on network or syndicated television, but in small numbers, and they usually promote middle class out-of-wedlock pregnancy like Juno or the feel-good, 20 million dollar, so-called independent movie produced by Tom Hanks’ wife about Greek weddings. They aren’t really the independent movies.

I ran for the chairman of this trade association to fight industry consolidation, and to use some of our treasury to lobby in Washington to educate Congress, to get in front of the FCC and to try to get on the radar of the national media to fight for the survival of independent art in commerce.

Why do you think that your art form is so important?

Independent art is the locomotive of ingenuity. We’re the creator of jobs and a major factor in the balance of payments and we are the backwater breeder of new talent. Look at Troma, we have Samuel Jackson’s first movieVincent D’Onofrio’s first movie. We have people in front of and behind the screen who would not have had the training to get exposure to the public and would not have had the environment in which to take risks if it weren’t for the independent film community.

You can certainly take credit for giving many people screen time, including Marisa Tomei and Kevin Costner. Do any of those “big names” acknowledge you now?

Trey Parker and Matt Stone definitely have. They acted in Terror Firmer; they played a hermaphrodite couple, which they did for free. I don’t think their agents and handlers thought it was such a great career move. Trey Parker gets his head squashed in Tales from the Crapper. James Gunn, with whom I wrote Tromeo and Juliet, his next career move was to write Scooby-Doo. So he went from a movie that promotes incest to Scooby-Doo. Then he made a movie called Slither, which is the best-reviewed horror movie in history. He’s always trying to help Troma. Quentin Tarantino, who has never worked for us, is a fan. He’s talked about us at Cannes Film Festival.

Stan Lee recently roasted you at Comic-Con, which was held in San Diego this year. Are you and Stan working on anything together now?

Stan and I wrote a couple of projects together. One was called Night of the Witch that has been optioned two or three times, but never made into a movie. Stan of course is responsible for The Toxic Avenger comic books, and has been very supportive of Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD; a number of Hollywood producers have offered to remake that movie. At one point we were working on a script called Congressman, but it never happened. We’ve been good buddies for a long time. Comic-Con put on the roast and they had him do it. He did a nice job.

I have to ask how a young, Yale undergrad suddenly became interested in a life devoted to making movies that probably aren’t stored in any Ivy League film library.

Basically I made a mistake by going to Yale University. That’s what really fucked up my life. I was going to be a school teacher or a social worker; do good things; make the world a better place; teach people with hooks for hands how to finger paint. But I got put in my room freshman year at Yale with a film nut. It was just pure kismet. I started drifting into the Yale film society that my roommate ran. There was no film program, just one general course, so there were no filmmakers. It was just two guys, my roommate and one of our neighbors. They were proponents of the auteur theory of filmmaking; they were very intellectual. So I started buying into this method of filmmaking in which the filmmaker must control all aspects of the movie. I started watching these films…never heard the term film director until I got to Yale. Never thought of it as a career. I didn’t have any idea that Charlie Chaplin was a movie director. Andy Warhol? I only knew soup cans. I didn’t realize he made movies. I just kept watching these flicks at the Yale Film Society.

One day I was watching Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be with Jack Benny, Carole Lombard and Robert Stack. It was during that screening that I’m going to become a filmmaker. So if you want to blame somebody for Troma, I suggest you go to the graves of Jack BennyCarole Lombard and Robert Stack.

Despite joking that you have deviated from a path of helping people, but your films do tend to have a message or some satirical societal observation.

I think that strong social satire is the reason we’re still around. Most of the Troma movies are not just hard-bodied lesbians and people getting their nuts cut off. If that was it, we’d be long gone, because there are hundreds of movies that are just gore and violence and they don’t stay around. If you check out Troma’s War and that is still relevant to what is going on today. The Cheney phenomenon, the terrorism phenomenon, and the dirty bomb…it’s right on point and it was made in 1987. We have a movie coming out on DVD that we half-financed in 1985 called Combat Shock. It’s the darkest movie about post-Vietnam shock syndrome that has ever been made. It’s absolutely in style today and even more pertinent! That’s what I think makes classic art, not Transformers Part 6.

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