There’s one place you shouldn’t miss out if you’re a horror fanatic going to New York and that’s a visit to the Troma Studios. It was only a few months ago when Lloyd Kaufman actually got in touch with me via twitter giving me the contact of his PR guy Josa to organise a tour. Who would’ve thought it’d be so easy to walk into a movie studio and get a tour, but more importantly for the King of Troma to contact me directly. But as my Troma experience unravelled, I learned it’d be so much more.
After speaking with Josa and seeing just how productive the Troma team are (check out their youtube channel here), I figured it wouldn’t hurt to advocate my actress/performer services, the most they could say was “no”. Josa immediately wrote back thanking me in advance for my offer as they were shooting a promo for Theatre of the Deranged 2 and required witches.
When I walk into the studios, Josa welcomes me with open and excited arms, there’s a chicken in a cage – I’m told it’s the chicken from the Poultrygeist movie and I’m introduced accordingly.
I’m then led upstairs where Staff Editor Dylan Greenberg gives me a tour whilst the crew set up and cast begin to arrive. Dylan, also a filmmaker has already directed two feature films, an accomplishment since she looks barely old enough to wear knickers and probably doesn’t most days…she is currently promoting her third film Dark Prism and you can find the link here.
Below you can see the images of the tour.
On my way back from the tour, I recognise a familiar face in the sound booth. It’s Lloyd Kaufman. I didn’t expect to see him there, but he kindly greets me before going back into the booth to do his voiceover. It seems I’ll get an interview with the Troma King after all.
I finally meet my co-stars/witches and they’ve travelled from all over, I meet Natalie Caruso who has just performed at a Tattoo Convention in Philadelphia and becomes my accomplice for the rest of my New York trip.
We arrive on the set and Lloyd eventually joins us. He knows exactly what he wants ‘I’ve been doing this for 50 years plus, so I know what I’m talking about,’ he chastises a member of the crew who questions the shot. And he’s right, this man knows exactly what he’s doing right down to the pace, composition and lighting of the shot. It’s an honour to be standing next to him and been given a line or two! We all perform the scene a few times without many retakes, compliments to the talented cast and crew. When I step off set a tall handsome monster immediately distracts me. It’s more than being star struck it’s monster love. Toxie from The Toxic Avenger movies ambles onto the set and takes his place on the chair, thick hairy legs akin and then the Poultrygeist chicken is placed in his hands. I watch him as he does his piece (not that one), but manage to sneak a picture with him at the end. It’s a passionate affair, if only I could bring him home with me, just imagine our wedding…Uncle Lloydie as the vicar.
You can check out the introduction to Theatre of the Deranged 2 here.
Finally it’s time to meet the man behind it all. Lloyd Kaufman, a shrewd intellectual who has a Masters in Chinese Studies and is also fluent in the Chinese language having studied at Yale and taken numerous trips to China. Lloyd’s business approach is a philosophical one; he’s passionate but most importantly a people person. It’s no wonder Troma Entertainment has been running for over 41 years.
“It’s certainly the oldest independent movie studio and the longest running studio in history that has never had a hit and as long as I’m the president, Lloyd Kaufman ensures you that we’ll continue this unblemished record,” Lloyd jokes.
In the earlier days Troma had a string of notable filmmakers working with them and most were fans before making their own name in mainstream cinema.
“Samuel L. Jackson and the South Park guys are fans. There’s also James Gunn who bought you Guardians of the Galaxy this year. Akiva Goldsman a big time Hollywood producer who got an Oscar for writing A Beautiful Behind, I mean A Beautiful Mind is supposedly going to be making a 100 million dollar remake of The Toxic Avenger with a director called Steven Pink. Troma is a big influence,” Lloyd explains.
Just then one of the actresses from the Theatre of the Deranged 2 shoot comes into the room and says goodbye “Sorry for putting you through so much torture,” Lloyd expresses, you can tell he has the upmost gratitude towards his cast.
“We’re going to be doing another one if you have time? Class of Nuke ‘Em High Part 3: The Good, The Bad and The Subhumanoid,” he advertises and she responds “Absolutely.” It just goes to show how much the cast enjoy working with the Troma team and how at home they feel.
“The Toxic Avenger is a big influence on many film makers today. You see critics who review modern movies say things like ‘Whoever made this movie saw the The Toxic Avenger.’ Much of the humour combined with gore and political satire has become a staple of the big superhero movies.”
But how does Troma survive? After all they’re a small team of 12 people.
“Troma itself is a very small company. When we make a movie we go up to about 80 people and you have to sleep on the floor, eat cheese sandwiches three times a day and learn how to defecate in a paper bag because every penny of it goes up on screen.”
“Our budgets are maximum about £400, 000 or less than that. Return to Nuke ‘Em High volume 1 and 2 together probably cost around £600,000, so the movies that I direct are about one half of one percent of a typical mainstream movie.”
During my tour Dylan showed me the Troma archive, it was here I learned just how many other films Troma distribute and the opportunities available for up and coming filmmakers.
“The younger people today know how to make really good films for very little money. I don’t know how to do that just yet and I doubt that I ever will.
Digital has democratised filmmaking, you don’t need to have a million dollars. I do because I have 1000s of people in my movies and they’re very complicated with many moving parts. I know how to do the SFX and all that stuff myself, which the younger micro budget people know how to do with CGI.”
With a plethora of films and the constant churning out of video promos along with Uncle Lloydies Diary the madness never stops. “If we’re lucky, we produce two movies a year in house and then we invest in other people’s movies in order to get the distribution rights and then we pick up movies,” says Lloyd.
“We’re releasing about one movie a month for the DVD and blue ray markets but business sucks,” Lloyd is honest in the companies disposition but affirms Troma’s repertoire “We want to be known for distributing one kind of movie.”
Another movie which seems an unlikely marriage to Troma was Blaxploitation movie Def by Temptation and one of Samuel L. Jacksons first roles in the heyday of the black film renaissance.
“We financed Def by Temptation and nobody would touch the movie. It was unique in that there weren’t stereotypical black people rapping or running around with DMZ, they were bourgeois normal people. They didn’t have to be black, they could’ve been white or green in that movie. That was a wonderful film and it did very well in theatres. It came out before Boys from the Hood, but because we have a racist country, the video stores were fearful that the black people would burn their stores down. I think Def by Temptation is one of the best movies in the Troma library and it was way ahead of its time but unfortunately it didn’t make any money.”
Lloyd is a stickler for getting his movies made, take his book Make Your Own Damn Movie with contributions from filmmakers and actors such as Trent Haaga (Killjoy) and James Gunn.
“I’ve written the Make Your Own Damn Movie book and my first book which was a memoir All I need to Know About Film Making I learned from The Toxic Avenger, which was written by James Gunn who went onto do Tromeo and Juliet, then he wrote and directed Guardians of the Galaxy amongst other movies.”
“Michael Herz and I have put up our own money for the last 30 years. But we hit a point around the time of Poultrygeist Night of the Chicken Dead when we weren’t making any money. I started writing with Gabriel Friedman and my wife and I spent half a million bucks to make Poultrygeist Night of the Chicken Dead. We lost every dime even though it’s a wonderful film.”
It’s true that anyone can make a movie, but the fact is most independent filmmakers struggle to get their movies seen and distributed. Out of the 100s of movies that circulate the major film festivals, only a few will get distribution let alone own the rights to their movie. And this is where companies like Amazon and Netflix can take advantage of desperate filmmakers who wants their movies to be seen, and will get ripped off for some coverage. Lloyd adds “Even auteurs like Woody Allen, Oliver Stone and Scorsese all complain that they still have to get past a whole army of suits to get their movies made. Spielberg even said that his last movie had to be a TV movie. Steven Soderbergh’s State of Cinema spoke about how they’re too many fingers in the pot and too much attention given to safe baby food movies.”
“The industry is very consolidated so it’s pretty much controlled by a small number of international media consultants. In the States it’s Comcast, Universal, NBC, Sony Columbia, Viacom, Paramount and they own all of the TV channels like MTV and the news Corporation. It’s a cartel and we are a studio, we own all of our negatives and they don’t like that. It used to be against the law for the big media conglomerates to own and control movie theatres, but that rule went away in the 80s under Ronald Regan. There used to be a rule that required the television networks to acquire at least one third of their programming from independent sources. The Financial Syndication Rule prevented the television industry from becoming vertically integrated, the networks weren’t supposed to own the content. But that rule fell away when Clinton was in power, as Michael Moore said, Clinton was the best republican president we’ve ever had. He was totally in the pocket of big business and that pretty much ruined it for the independent studios.”
“The countryside is littered with the bodies of dead movie studios and it’s not because they make bad movies, it’s because they make great movies but they couldn’t complete them and get to the public.”
Making movies is like an addiction for Lloyd Kaufman, but his fans are his faithful addicts who he’ll protest are the reason for the Troma’s survival. “Luckily we have half a million Troma fans that go to our website every month and they somehow keep us in business. We didn’t have enough money to make Return to Nuke ‘Em High. We ran out of money and needed $50,000 for the post production and our fans gave it to us on Kickstarter. I can’t keep putting my wife’s retirement money into movies and losing it all. The good news of course is that I majored in Chinese Studies at Yale and the one thing I took away was Daoism which promotes the dual universe of ying and yang, pain and pleasure so you don’t have one without the other. Take the story of the oyster who gets a piece of sand stuck in its anus, it’s very painful and unpleasant, but it creates this beautiful pearl.”
It’s difficult to see how any aspiring director can achieve mainstream success if even the famous directors are fighting against the big movie machine.
“Well there are good people like Eli Roth whose been in our movies and worked with us. In fact my brother Charles Kaufman’s film Mother’s Day which I think is still banned in England is his favourite horror film. He’s a great guy, successful in the mainstream and making the movies the way he wants on a good budget. James Gunn is the best guy in the world. I’m in Guardians of the Galaxy and I saw him in action, nobody interfered and he made a masterpiece. There are people, like Trey Parker and Matt Stone who’ve made it big and haven’t sold their souls to the devil at all, so you can do it.” He continues speaking about his former working relationship with Oliver Stone.
“He’s not a terribly pleasant guy but we grew up together and he got into movies at Yale. He was writing a shitty novel and I was making movies and he kind of hung around and then he helped me make my first two movies. They were bombs of course but it turned out he was a genius. He’s one of the world’s greatest filmmakers but he got in because of me. He’s kind of fucked up in the head, well at least he was, I haven’t seen him for many years, but he’s decent, educated and not a crook. Most of the people in the film business are the scum of the earth, but there are great people in mainstream and he’s one of them for sure.”
Lloyd then adds ‘I know you haven’t asked for it, but my advice would be if you want the BAFTA and the red carpet type stuff, I think you have to go to Hollywood and go in with those guys. If you don’t mind having a day job or something useful in life for other people, then you can have a great life and still make a movie for virtually nothing, it’s just you can’t live off your film.”
Lloyd reinforces the practicality of having a stable job and how it’s still possible to make movies whilst working in a regular job, “you can be a nurse, a teacher or a police man, serve society and save a little money. Travis Campbell made a movie for $5000. He sold it to Japan and to the States and made a little profit. He didn’t make a enough so he could pay his rent for a year, but he’s got that movie and will make another. And then maybe you can go to a conventions and festivals where you can sell your movies. We get a booth at San Diego Comic Con. If we didn’t have the fans we’d be where all the other dead studios are.”
Perhaps Troma has a hellhound on their tail, but there’s no sign of them giving up. From private investors to fans, they’ll always find a way to make their own damn movies. There’s no sign of retirement and the show will continue
“I like movies as does Michael,” says Lloyd “The next movie which is The Toxic Avenger Part 5 will cost around £500,0000 which is $700,000. I know I can probably get half from friends and when my wife’s not looking I’ll plunder her retirement fund, but I don’t have £500,000. We had a Ukrainian billionaire who was going to put in half of the budget as his daughter was a film student and loved Troma. But then the civil war broke out and he disappeared.”
“I think in a fair world Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1 and 2 would’ve been hugely successful. The same goes for the Poultrygeist. Nevildine and Taylor, the two directors who made Crank and Gamer went to see Poutrygeist in New Mexico and told me the movie should’ve made a shit load of money, but how can we if we can’t get our movies into the stores because the chain stores only deal with the big conglomerate? If we can’t get our movies onto Sky TV, HBO or crappy Skinamax, what can we do?”
Over the years I’ve met horror fans and people who work within the genre that look down on Troma movies. I’ve always wondered why people wriggled their noses when I said that one of my favourite movies (next to Hellraiser) was Rabid Grannies – in fact my dad loved it too and we hired it from the video store at least four times over.
“We’re like a Cuisinart of a genre. I can understand that someone who loves scary movies doesn’t get Troma in the same way how somebody who likes Mary Poppins wouldn’t like Saw. We have a bad reputation but we have around half a million people per month looking at our website.”
Troma is based on a foundation of struggle, productivity, results and desire. They’re the epitome of cult movie making, surviving in an industry run by inartistic people. But there’s hope in Troma’s efforts because for one thing, they show us the importance of owning your work even if it fails.