Q&A: Independent Filmmaker Lloyd Kaufman


Published: May 1, 2008

You might not know his name, but you should. Lloyd Kaufman has been responsible for bringing well over 200 films to movie screens all over the world. His most popular work, the “Toxic Avenger” (1984), has helped his movie studio, Troma Entertainment, become the longest running independent movie studio in the history of cinema (35 years). Recently, Kaufman sat down with The Observer and discussed his life as an independent film maker and his new film, “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead,” which is released in New York on May 9.

The Observer: So, you graduated from Yale?

LLOYD KAUFMAN: Yes, Yale University.

The Observer: What were you majoring in there?

LK: I majored in Chinese studies.

The Observer: So movies weren’t originally your thing then…What were you originally hoping to get into?

LK: No, it was the ’60s. I was going to be a teacher or a social worker, but then I got put with a roommate who was movie nut. He ran the Yale Film Society. They would write very good things about Jerry Lewis, Samuel Fuller and [Howard] Hawks, and I bought into all that. One night I was watching “To Be or Not to Be” by Ernst Lubitsch…any name that has the word “bitch” in it is really cool. I was watching this movie “To Be or Not To Be,” and it was at that screening I decided that I would give what I had to the public.

The Observer: What was the first movie you did?

LK: I made a movie called “The Girl Who Returned”—16mm black and white, using a Bolex. Bolex is not a venereal disease, it’s a camera, wind up, Swiss made. It does go at 24 frames a second, but it doesn’t emit a sync pulse so you can’t sync sound. I was forced to concentrate on just telling the story with pictures.

The Observer: How did you end up meeting Michael Herz (cofounder of Troma)?

LK: Michael Herz and I were in prison, and he was my bitch. I spent all my cigarette money on him… No, no, Michael Herz went to camp with my brother Charles “Mother’s Day” Kaufman, and then when I was at Yale, Charles told Michael Herz to look me up. I had a crappy black and white TV set. In those days having a TV was a big deal. Most people didn’t have it. Michael Herz needed to watch TV, so he had to talk to me. Then I graduated and made more movies. When Michael got out of law school, he thought I was having a good time, so he decided that he would produce movies too.

The Observer: You actually got to work with the late Peter Boyle, didn’t you?

LK: Yeah, we were fairly friendly. Well, I was a shit boy on “Joe,” his first movie. Avildsen [the director] always wanted to use Peter Boyle. The producers wanted to use Lawrence Tierney. He’s a very good actor, but he had a drinking problem. We were taking Lawrence Tierney to Alexander’s department store to get his clothes. I look down, and he’s pissing on my leg. He got fired, the producers went with Peter Boyle, and he was just terrific. “Joe” got an Academy Award nomination. Now you have to buy Academy Award nominations. You would never have a movie made in New York for 150,000 dollars by a crappy little company. No matter how good it was. It would never get nominated.

THE OBSERVER: How did you come up with the character of Toxie (“The Toxic Avenger”)?

LK: Well, I love Frankenstein, and I always felt bad that Frankenstein was the one that dies, so I thought lets do one where Frankenstein lives, and let’s make him the hero. All this stuff took time to evolve. My wife and I used to go camping, and we saw this frog hopping with it’s leg wedged in a McDonald’s cup. So the frog was staggering around dragging this cup with it, and I, of course, crushed the frog to death….No, just kidding. At any rate, I got newsletters about toxic waste dumps ticking away like time bombs and that kind of stuff, and it got to me. We are defiling the earth. At the same time, Americans are going to health clubs and eating organic food. We went after the environmental theme long before Al Gore jumped on the bandwagon. “Toxic Avenger” was long before that.

The Observer: I remember passing one of your photo shoots at the old Troma place, and you were doing the Gene Kelly, “Singing in the Rain” lightpost pose. Are you a musical fan?

LK: I’m a big fan. In fact, as a child and certainly going through college, I went to go see every good and crappy musical. I know them all. Certainty from the ’50s to the ’60s, I’ve seen everything. They always had one good song in them. I love the wittiness—the no cowardice lyrics—and “Poultrygeist” is an attempt. We have five or six songs in it. You’ll see the lyrics are very amusing. They’re dark and very [Richard] Rogers and [Lorenz] Hart lyrics.

The Observer: Besides the musical parts, is there anything about “Poultrygeist” that’s different from your other films and stands out?

LK: I think the acting is by far the best we’ve ever had. I think it’s the funniest we’ve made, and it’s probably the most profound. It’s politically significant. It’s sociologically significant, but it’s very much in my style. I’m mixing the genres. We started off with movies that combined sex and slapstick comedy, and we added in the gore. We invented the slapstick-gore. With “Tromeo and Juliet,”  we added the romantic element of Shakespeare, “Terror Firmer” had the science fiction side of it, and with this one, we have all the different genres, and we added the musical singing and dancing.

The Observer: So how does “Poultrygeist” compare with your other movies?

LK: It’s certainly my best work. The theaters that play it: their audiences love it. It’s always the best grossing screen in the town it plays. The problem that we’ve had is that there are booking services that provide the movies for these theatres, and the booking services force the theatre to kick out “Poultrygeist,” even though it’s doing well. They will threaten the theater, and they make the theatre hold “Fool’s Gold” or “Jumper.” This is real thuggery. If Sony is that desperate to squeal and squawk about a theatre with one screen playing “Poultrygeist” for an extra week or two, holy shit, they must be in real trouble.

The Observer: What’s in store after “Poultrygeist”? Are you going to work on something else?

LK: Just waiting to die. My guess is my swan song will be a chicken movie. However, I am looking for another script. I’m looking for an ensemble piece, with a smaller cast where the actors can get a chance, so if any of your readers have anything, that would be really cool.

The Observer: What is the greatest thing you’ve gotten out of filmmaking?

LK: The fact that I’ve been able to make movies for 40 years without anyone being able to tell me what to do. That’s what art is. Giving your emotions, your personality, and your opinions, and sort of painting the screen with your soul. I’ve managed to make a fare amount of movies and have total freedom. The road of my career has been marked by the greater and greater consolidation of the media industry and the destruction of the oversight that used to prevent monopoly, and the fact that I’m still around and making movies is a miracle. Thanks to having a very loyal and vigorous fan base all around the world, we’re hanging on by our fingernails. That’s the secret weapon that Troma has: our fans.