Lloyd Kaufman is angry. Actually, that’s too weak a word. He is livid. After 35 plus years of making independent film (TRULY independent film) and building his company Troma Entertainment, into a leading outsider force, the 61-year-old maverick is beside himself. “We’re being economically blacklisted,” he huffs, describing his studio’s current position in pop culture. “Hollywood doesn’t want people to get a whiff of something subversive or creative.”
Initially, it sounds like the all too familiar ravings of a man known for pushing the fringes of his bravura business model, both artistically and financially. But when you get a chance to really listen to what Kaufman has to say, to hear his own professional horror stories, the proof becomes all too clear. “You know, it’s depressing that terrific films like Cannibal: The Musical (by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and Citizen Toxie have never played on TV. IFC (the Independent Film Channel) has never played one of our films. The Sundance Channel has never played a Troma movie.”
Granted, his is a brand name that needs little fan fostering support. Since founding the Manhattan based production house in 1974 (with Michael Herz), Kaufman has managed to build an empire that extends worldwide. Initially focusing on the sex farce as a means of cinematic survival, it was the introduction of the Toxic Avenger in 1985 that brought Troma closest to mainstream recognition. Now, seven years after the turn of the millennium, and with hundreds of movies under its belt, the company faces its biggest challenge. Kaufman has created Poultrygeist, a gore soaked scatological celebration of all things fowl, fast food, and undead. Yet the movie (read review here) can’t get a wide release.
“The theaters won’t call me back,” he states, his voice flecked with a hint of resignation. “We don’t want midnight showings, competing alongside something that’s been out there for 10 years. We made this movie for communal viewing.” He adds, “It was shot in 35mm. I don’t care about the money. I just want the movie to be shown on a big screen, as was intended.” There have been sporadic screenings of the film since its completion last year, including favorable responses from this year’s Comic-Con and other genre conventions. But Kaufman is convinced there’s a bigger issue at hand.
His degree in Chinese Studies from Yale helps guide his considered perception: “The dualistic view of the universe—the yin and yang, good vs. evil—that’s what filmmakers are dealing with today. The entire movie business has been consolidated, the public now at the mercy of five of six major devil worshipping media conglomerates.” Such control, says Kaufman, has had a horrendous two part effect on motion picture art. First, it’s given people with “nothing to say” power over the medium. For them the seasoned pro has some very unkind words.
“The studios want to drive these values. They want to produce product by kids whose parents paid for their Ivy League education—(individuals) who’ve never read a book, or fought for their country—so as not to upset the applecart. But there’s nothing there.” Even worse, there’s been a similar chilling effect in the arena he’s played in since the mid-‘70s. “The so called independent movies that get released now are ones that make it through the gatekeepers—or the vassals of the gatekeepers. You’ve got Fox Searchlight determining what independent film is. That’s the bad part.”
So where’s the good? Where’s the light at the end of what seems like a dark and ever deepening artistic void? For Kaufman, it’s one word—technology. “For the first time in history,” he boasts, “the making of a film has been democratized. With the digital revolution, anyone can make a movie.” It’s clear that the advent of DVD, as well as the accompanying PC production dynamic (where editing and other post work can be completed for next to nothing) is viewed by the seasoned veteran as his craft’s salvation. “You no longer have to be invested in the industry. You don’t have to get the Harvard business degree. Spend time Xeroxing contracts at a talent agency. As long as you’ve got something to say, you can save up some money and make your own damn movie.”
A perfect example of this ideal is actor turned auteur Giuseppe Andrews. First spotted by Kaufman when he submitted a short film to the annual TromaDance Film Festival (an outsider showcase that directly competes in Park City with the far more famous Sundance), he’s grown into quite the digital revolutionary. “Ten years ago, (he) couldn’t have made a movie”, the filmmaker adds, “now, he can. And the results are incredible.” It’s the same with a lot of product that the company has distributed (Jenna Fischer’s brilliant mock doc Lollilove) and/or had a hand in creating (the much maligned Tales from the Crapper). It’s enough to give Kaufman cause for optimism. “The old fashioned business model may no longer apply”, he beams, “Somewhere, someone is making a film for next to nothing. Hopefully one of them will be the catalyst to unseat something like Transformers.”
Of course, the purveyors of popcorn still have their accomplices in all of this. “The media drinks the Kool-Aid when it comes big studio films”, Kaufman warns. “They want to go on the junkets, they want the star interviews.” Even worse are the self-proclaimed ‘independents’ who use the Internet as a means of overtly arrogant criticism. “These little bloggers—these little shits—people who like to think of themselves as underground filmmakers… they’re just jealous,” he chides. “They say Troma’s not good enough. They make fun of us. They are people who haven’t seen our films and so they talk about it in a vacuum.”
Such marginalization of the Troma name by both the online and print community really hurts Kaufman. “We should make movies like the Sci-Fi Channel airs? We’d last 35 years that way? I don’t think so.” Even worse, many fail to understand how beloved, respected, and influential the company is. “The (web community) doesn’t realize that Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson, Takashi Miike—there are directors all over who, if you speak to them, will tell you how much they love Troma.” Case in point—at this year’s Comic-Con Saw and Death Sentence director James Wan brought an entire camera crew along to shoot an hour long interview with Kaufman. Similarly, at a recent South Korean horror convention, Grudge director Takashi Shimizu fawned over the filmmaker. “And these f*ckers suggest (we’re) not good enough? What do we have to do? What do they want?”
It’s a question that even the content packed domain of DVD can’t resolve. Like Rodney Dangerfield’s classic catchphrase, Troma currently finds itself in a place of little or no respect. While he can blame the critics—and he does—Kaufman has a hard time understanding the lack of recognition. “Our (discs) have so much inventive material on them, including offerings from the Roan Collection. You think we’re doing that for our health? Think it’s easy going back and interviewing a 100 year old Vincent Sherman?” He goes on to site several cases where journalists dismiss or completely ignore the company’s efforts in this area—even among their peers. “We got Lou Lumenick’s, the New York Post’s critic, commentary on these DVDs and no one gives us credit for it.”
All of which makes the current situation with Poultrygeist all the more meaningful. “Troma’s not out to make a fast buck with this film,” Kaufman confesses. “We made if for $500,000 on film, vs. $50,000 on digital. We wrote songs, recorded them ahead of time (yes, the splatter sensation is a musical), found actors who could sing them, and shot with playback.” Yet according to the director, no one mentions such attention to old school detail. “Poultrygeist is a real film. It should be viewed as such.”
Fortunately, the situation going on behind the scenes inspired the director. “It’s the enthusiasm from fans—we recruit cast and crew directly from them. You’d think the media would be excited about that. Over 80 people from around the world—Japan, Australia, France, Germany, Canada—came together to help. All living in peace and harmony. All sleeping on an abandoned church floor. All eating cheese sandwiches three times a day. Just to be involved. Just to make art.” For someone touching the twilight of his career, it was all very moving. “It was better than getting an Oscar, I’ll tell you that.”
Yet Kaufman remains mystified by that lack of attention. “For two months, there was no escape. Nothing but hard work. And you’d think the media would be impressed. That they would think how cool this is that all these people would come all this way to make Poultrygeist.” Yet up until recently, the latest Troma effort couldn’t get a playdate in Manhattan. “The Tribeca Film Festival wouldn’t show us,” he notes. “Lou (Lumenick) even wrote a piece condemning them. We’ve been in town 35 years, and yet a New York festival won’t show our film?”
With all the travails surrounding this latest release, you’d think Kaufman’s final assessment would be all doom and gloom. Not so. “Troma has created a brand, and our fans remain very loyal. There’s no need to advertise. Toxie is our trademark.” He even sees some hope within the floundering fourth estate. “The real critics, the ones who actually write about film, they get it. They see the sophistication and the subtext. Stephen Holden (of the New York Times) once said that you have to be intelligent to get Troma—and it’s true.” Yet the biggest challenge remains Tinsel Town and its marketing mind control. “It’s all brainwashing,” Kaufman warns. He goes on to state that Asian peasants, with no real need for education, are constantly bombarded by crude government signs convincing them to go to school. And they do. Now, imagine something capable of “$50 million in blatant brainwashing”, says the savvy cinematic rebel. Food for thought, indeed.
Pointing to the ongoing scholarship of Troma by Le Cinema Francais and the British Film Institute, as well as the continued interest in his personal Master Class Lecture Series, Kaufman seems resigned to his company’s continued relevance. “Word of mouth and prestige,” he notes, “that draws our audience”. He welcomes the continued archival interest in the company, and hopes individuals lucky enough to experience Poultrygeist for themselves will hit the messageboards and “spread the bird… word”. Just don’t question the legitimacy of Troma’s legacy. “Toxie (the Toxic Avenger) is famous around the world. There might just be a germ of meaning there” he adds. “Besides, Peter Jackson says that I invented the slapstick gore film.” For Kaufman, that’s the best badge of honor.