Lloyd Kaufman. Photo via Lloyd Kaufmans Tumblr
Lloyd Kaufman's cult classic films are like jazz. Either you get and love the plots about talking Mexican hamburgers coming out of the closet, serial killers with pickles instead of penises, and Lemmy from Motörhead playing the president of the United States, or you'll never understand them.
Kaufman's universe is like a baroque cabinet of wonder made possible by the production company he co-founded in 1974, Troma Entertainment, which went on to spawn films like The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'Em High. A champion of independent, low-budget cinema, Kaufman is known for being a tad eccentric—but conversation with him is also distinctly more highbrow than one would expect, and I'm not just saying that because he gave me Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV on DVD.
VICE: Hi, Lloyd, thanks for taking the time to meet me. Which directors have influenced you the most?
Lloyd Kaufman: I am sorry for being late—I'm supposed to act professional. I went to Yale University, and because I speak French, I had access to Cahiers du Cinéma, so I became brainwashed by that philosophy of auteur filmmaking. My heroes were Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock—the classics, really.
Who was the man for you as far as visual style goes?
Besides all the classics, I guess Stan Brakhage influenced me the most. He's the greatest visual artist of my lifetime. But Troma has discovered many new mainstream people with unique stylistic vision, too. Take the South Park guys—Trey Parker and Matt Stone—they started with us, and Cannibal the Musical was their first film. Actually, Stan Brakhage is in that movie. He was the only professor at their university who gave them any encouragement when they were shooting the film. We helped them finish it 'cause they didn't have any money. Stan was a good guy. I also brought him to Yale in the 1960s to show students his art and I also interviewed him on the radio.
Lloyd Kaufman, director Ulrich Seidl, and the Toxic Avenger. Photo by Kurt Prinz
Speaking about being in movies, you appeared in the original Rocky movie. How did that come about?
You know, I didn't go to film school. Instead, I identified a young talented director, John G. Avildsen, and attached myself to him. I worked for free and, when he got a job, he hired me. Troma still distributes one of his early movies called Cry Uncle. It's a wonderful film.
When Rocky came along they didn't have enough money to shoot in Philadelphia on location with a union crew, so Troma used a non-union crew to secretly film all the scenes in Philadelphia with Stallone. When the unions found out about it, that was the end. But before that happened, we managed to film for about eight days, so the producers saved a lot of money. And since Troma was involved, I played a drunk in the movie.
Yeah, you're credited as "Lloyd Kaufman, drunk."
I was very good at that, of course. In fact, since then I've been in maybe 300 movies and the young filmmakers who want me to make a cameo always ask me to be either the drunk or a doctor.
You also had a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Oh yeah, thanks for noticing that. [Goes into character, changes voice] MURDERER! MURDERER!
Still from Poultrygeist
How did that happen?
[Director] James Gunn was involved with Troma before—he worked for us. Originally he was a novelist, but he needed a paid job as well, so he became my assistant. I was working on Tromeo & Juliet for about five years with other writers, and I couldn't really get a good script that I believed in, so I said, "Here's $100—go and write a script and come back in three days."
And he wrote a pretty interesting script, so we worked on it together and made Tromeo & Juliet. He also did other things for Troma—he's put me in all these movies so far and now he's the number one guy at the box office! Like that Titanic guy, you know? "I'm the king of the world!" Only James would never say that cause he's such a nice guy.
Watching Guardians and seeing you in the movie, I wondered if that was the kind of movie you would be making with that kind of budget.
James Gunn says that! He says he's channeling my directing style in the movie. But I would never do such a big-budget movie. I just couldn't. I'd rather make 200 movies, or 400 movies for that money! Out of the 400 movies, a small number of them would even be wonderful. But don't get me wrong, Guardians is a masterpiece. Usually, I don't like these big movies—I can't sit through them.
Even the Peter Jackson one, the movie with the ring, it was such a bore! Although I love Peter Jackson, and he's a big Troma fan. But that movie? It's a clock watcher. Just like a "cock blocker"—you know that term?
Sure. A clock watcher can be a cock blocker, too.
Yeah, you're right. I know it's a masterpiece, and Peter Jackson is one of our great directors, but I couldn't get it. I don't even get Star Wars.
Trailer for Return to Nuke 'Em High: Volume 1
Rewatching The Toxic Avenger and Poultrygeist, I had a feeling that those movies were touching on the biggest issues of their respective decades. The Toxic Avenger was about the obsession with fitness and what Hunter S. Thompson called the "Body Nazis" and also about toxic waste. Poultrygeist was about the problem with fast food and media conglomerates, and Return to Nuke 'Em High: Volume 1 is about the lie behind organic food.
Yeah. We're usually ahead of the time. When we made The Toxic Avenger, nobody talked about the environment, but we would go camping and we'd see all that crap in the middle of the wilderness, because McDonald's wasn't biodegradable in those days. The environment wasn't really a mainstream issue then.
Also, when we made Poultrygeist, people weren't so critical of fast food. Now they are anti-McDonald's. But also there are other themes in it, like bullying, which currently is a big issue, and same-sex relationships, or even racism. All those are in Return to Nuke 'Em High: Volume 1 as well. At the moment we're editing Volume 2.
You're always touching the nerve of social issues.
My whole career is inspired by one book: The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills, a sociologist and author who got blacklisted in America during the McCarthy days, even though he wasn't really a communist. He developed the theory that the military-industrial complex is a conspiracy that controls everything. This had a profound impact on me.
But in my philosophy it's no longer the military. Rather, the corporate, the bureaucratic, and the labor elites. The labor leaders in America get millions of dollars while their members are eating dog food. One of the leaders in New York even had an office that was so rich and expensive that he had a second office on a lower floor where he could see the workers. First, people get themselves elected, then they basically work for lobbyists, and afterwards they get a million-dollar business job. It's a big revolving door.
Photo via Lloyd Kaufman's website
What's your take on people who download your movies without paying for them?
Nobody is making money by people sharing art. [But] I want people to take my art and watch it! They can take it for free, I don't mind. We're even giving away 250 movies on our Troma YouTube channel right now. However, if they're making a lot of money off it, that's not right. China is disgusting. The generals own the DVD factories and Troma movies are all over China. I've been there, I speak Chinese. Our movies are everywhere, and I haven't gotten a penny.
Net neutrality doesn't necessarily mean more freedom, though.
Unfortunately not. It would be even harder to maintain something like Troma in today's environment. Back at Yale, I majored in Chinese studies and Taoism was my main topic of interest. It teaches the yin and the yang—you know, the oyster that gets a piece of sand stuck in its asshole and it's very painful, but then it creates this beautiful pearl. Pain and pleasure are always intertwined, you can't have them apart. So I guess the yin is the democratization of making movies. And the Yang is that we can't live off our movies anymore.
Speaking of good and evil, I feel like there are parallels between Troma movies and wrestling. They have the same approach to storytelling, the same larger-than-life characters. Toxic Avenger even sounds like a wrestling name.
Well, he has wrestled in Florida recently. Actually, it was a real wrestler, but he asked us if he could use the gimmick and we said yes. But yeah, there are some similarities I guess. Also the way of how stories are told with bodies and action. In fact, a couple of WWE stars are fans of mine. I've talked to both Dolph Ziggler and Chris Jericho. They know my films intimately.
In Return to Nuke 'Em High you have Lemmy from Motörhead playing the president, saying, "Fucking students, they don't write blogs anymore—they just like to fuck." Is that Lloyd Kaufman talking?
Yes. Because they can't read or write, they're ignorant. Go on Twitter and look at what they say. And it's not even their fault, it's the American education system that has deteriorated ever since the baby boomer generation. It's the grand equalizer for everyone who's not part of the elites. The kids are actually smart, but our system is dumbing them down.
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