Regardless of what you’ve heard (and probably seen), Troma deserves more respect. Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz came out of the muck of New York City and have been throwing mud at the Hollywood system for over forty years. Starting out with sex comedies like Waitress! and Stuck On You! that, believe it or not, supported women’s lib, Kaufman and Herz turned their gaze towards horror once cultural behemoths like John Landis’ Animal House and Porky’s exploded onto the scene in the late seventies. They kept the camp and street smart ingenuity to create a legend and, thus, The Toxic Avenger was born.
Out of the ooze, Troma quickly found their identity cranking out prepubescent classics like Class Of Nuke ‘Em High, Troma’s War, Tromeo and Juliet and the seminal Terror Firmer. But it will always be Toxie that carries the Troma flag, unafraid to plant it firmly up America’s butt. As you may have heard, The Toxic Avenger is even getting a new makeover in the form of Macon Blair’s reboot that will hopefully star Peter Dinklage as Melvin Junko.
In the career spanning interview below, Kaufman spoke with me about the early days of Troma and his excitement for the new Toxic Avenger which he promises is in excellent hands with Troma aficionado Macon Blair, star of Blue Ruin, Green Room, and director of I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore.
For hardcore Troma fans, we also talk about who should be on the Mount Rushmore of Troma and why there are so many chickens in these films.
Also, don’t forget to check out Troma’s streaming service, TROMA NOW.
Dread Central: Would you do a MasterClass of your DVD film school Make Your Own Damn Movie!?
Lloyd Kaufman: I have about a hundred different short videos. I gave two days at Oxford University which is probably why they fucked up the vaccine with AstraZeneca. And I did Yale, I’ve done Moscow Film Institute. Egypt had me come over. Usually they invite me for a retrospective and then give me a few bucks to do the MasterClass Make Your Own Damn Movie.
DC: I love the workshop of your first movie The Battle of Love’s Return. How did you get your first film up and running back in the seventies?
LK: I had made two movies at Yale, feature length black and white movies in sixteen millimeter with no sync sound. So I had made two black and white, unwatchable silent movies. We put on narration and sound effects and then we sent it around to other colleges and charged a dollar. Nobody burned the seats. Battle of Love’s Return was right after I got out. Actually, Oliver Stone worked on earlier films with me and then he was in Battle of Love’s Return and worked on it.
DC: I wanted to ask you about your experience in Cannes at the insane buyer’s market. When did you start going to the festival and were you a part of the whole thing of the poster selling the movie before a script or actors were even attached?
LK: No, that was for the schlockos. And the Israelis…Menahem Golan…
DC: All the Cannon stuff, sure.
LK: The first time I went to Cannes was 1971 and it was a festival, it was a real festival. People were there for the movies. We took sugar cookies and two film cans. We had enough money for airplanes and the theater but we didn’t pay for a hotel. I slept on the beach. Now, the last time we went we got arrested…and had our home movie cameras deleted. The cops are not the problem, the cops love Troma as do the citizens. It’s the festival itself. They had the cops rough us up. They don’t want anything competing with the perfume companies. The parties are more important now than the movie. I made a little documentary if you want to see it called From Festival To Fascism.
DC: What’s the story about you rejecting Madonna after an audition, is that true?
LK: Yes, that’s very true but I can blame that on Michael Herz, the mysterious Michael Herz, my partner. As I recall, I was at Cannes and in those days Michael was still involved with production. We were making The First Turn-On! and he had sent our assistant director…Ilan was his name, Ilan Cohen…he would go around to the discotheques looking for interesting people and he picked out Madonna. Michael just didn’t like her. She said to Ilan that she would so anything to be in the movie. It was The First Turn-On! which was about summer camp. Madonna…even made her own little summer camp uniform. Michael said she looked more like a grandmother.
DC: Talking about some of the earlier films like Stuck On You and Waitress!, you and Michael were making these sex comedies but they were political satires that had women’s lib as an undercurrent. Do you think Troma deserves more respect?
LK: Certainly. In the fullness of time, the people who have worked for us always say the same thing: When I get hit by a bus then suddenly Lloyd Kaufman will be a national treasure. Look at Squeeze Play about women’s liberation movement and the Equal Rights Amendment and #ShakespearesShitstorm! The world has changed. The industry has become a lot more consolidated and the critics are a lot stupider than they were in the old days. We get pushed deeper and deeper into the weeds of the ground by just being ignored by the media. Or they use as a whipping boy. The New York Times isn’t going to lose any advertising by slamming us.
DC: Who came up with the name Troma? Was it you and Michael together?
LK: No, it was Michael Herz. We had made three movies, one of them in conjunction with Menahem Golan which was the worst movie in the history of cinema and it had no sex or violence which was the amazing thing. We decided we better learn distribution and that’s when we started Troma. The New York Secretary of State has to approve your corporation and every name in New York state being there since the 1600’s or earlier. Every name is taken. So, Michael tried to think of the worst name he could think of hoping no would have taken it. Somehow, Troma came into his head and here we are almost fifty years later. Still here.
DC: Why are there chickens in so many of your films? Is it a symbol of the meat industry? I know you’re a vegetarian. Would you say the chicken is the unofficial mascot of Troma?
LK: I think the chicken is a funny animal. In Return To Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1 and Volume 2…it’s the last film I directed before #ShakespearesShitstorm which, by the way, has a chicken, it figures…we have a duck. I won’t work with ducks again. They’re just a pain in the ass and they’re expensive, the ducks. Actually the duck was the highest paid actor in Return To Nuke ‘Em High and Return To Return To Nuke ‘Em High. By the way, Trey Parker and Matt Stone say they’ll never work with puppets again for similar reasons.
DC: The fans are such a huge part of Troma but I was curious if there was a Mount Rushmore of Troma and you and Michael weren’t already two big giant heads of it, who would be the four? Maybe Debbie Rochon or Trent Haaga? Joe Fleishaker maybe?
LK: That’s a very good question, in terms of the people, the individuals. Certainly Joe Fleishaker. Unfortunately we lost him. Lemmy was in a bunch of our movies, Debbie, certainly. I guess the fourth would be maybe James Gunn or Trent Haaga. James Gunn was in a lot of our movies.
DC: What was the origin of The Toxic Avenger?
LK: Variety said that horror films were no longer commercial and Michael and I usually do the opposite of what the so-called experts do. We had to go away from the raunchy comedies because the majors were doing them. We prefer comedy and satire, that’s my beat. My wife and I would go camping a lot and everywhere we would go, there would be garbage. I started looking into the environment and I thought that could be a good theme to work on.
DC: With Legendary and Macon Blair taking over The Toxic Avenger, do you want to have some input in keeping that Troma feel and that brand unique?
LK: Macon Blair knows Troma better than I do. He’s seen everything. He’s seen the cartoon, he’s seen the Halloween special, he’s seen everything. And he loves our movies like Troma’s War and Terror Firmer. I’ve read the script and it’s better than the original and I leave it to him. If I’m called upon, I’d be happy to jump in. I learned on the musical to leave the creative to the creative. I learned to let them ask so if they want me, I’m there.
DC: That’s gracious of you. I did think after seeing the musical version that it would be cool to see Peter Dinklage in one musical number as part of the legacy of Toxic Avenger.
LK: That’s a terrific idea. I hope that Legendary keeps going. If they let Macon Blair direct it, I think it will be terrific. He knows the Troma sense of humor, the combination of slapstick and satire with the environmental theme.