Best known for the ’80s B-movie classic, The Toxic Avenger, Troma Entertainment was founded in ’74 by Yale University graduates Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz. The production and distribution company quickly became the most recognized name in indie film. Known for their iconic brand of outrageous, over-the-top comedic horror, Troma is also where powerhouse names such as James Gunn, Eli Roth, Trey Parker and Matt Stone got their start. While Herz and Lloyd share producer and creative responsibilities, Herz prefers to stay behind the scenes and Lloyd serves as the face of Troma. Matched only by his love for Shakespeare and film, Lloyd’s admirable passion for social political issues is a common theme throughout much of his work. And his upcoming production is no exception. I recently had the distinct honor of speaking with this legendary filmmaker and champion of indie film about Troma’s beginnings, the film industry, his upcoming controversial production #Shakespeare’s Sh*tstorm and so much more!
Act I: The Early Years
SCIFI.radio: Hi Lloyd! Thank you for speaking with me. You’re most known for Troma Entertainment, which is still going strong today. Have you always been a film buff with a soft spot for low budgeted indie flicks?
Lloyd Kaufman: I really didn’t go to movies as a kid. My mother was a theater person and, in her time, movies were still second to the theater world. Films were often seen as less intellectual. At least in my parent’s minds. And I certainly didn’t have any interest in making films. That is, until enrolling at Yale University. I was put into a room with a movie nut my freshman year. He was a good guy who ran the campus film society. So, I gravitated towards film and a group of people who believed directors should be the authors of their movies, have total control over them to reflect their heart, mind and soul. And there should be a consistent style from a real artist. When you see a painting from Van Gogh, you know it’s a Van Gogh. When you see a Troma movie, you pretty much know it’s a Troma movie. So, I bought into all that.
SCIFI.radio: I think that approach has become a Troma signature over the years. And, personally, I love it! How did you get your start in the filmmaking business?
Lloyd Kaufman: During my senior year, I had two offers: production assistant on a Hollywood movie with Barbra Streisand or work for a sh*tty New York based independent company called Cannon. With a decision to make and one night alone in my mother’s house, I took acid. Thanks to our good friend LSD, I chose Cannon, a company that became famous in the ’80s after my time with them. But while I was there, I met John G. Avildsen and I got to work as a set PA on his movie titled Joe. I was hard working and I saw immediately that Avildsen was a talented director. I mean, he later went on to direct Rocky and The Karate Kid! The script he was handed for Joe was a piece of sh*t, but he turned it into gold! It was Susan Sarandon’s debut film, Peter Boyle’s first real role and it won an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay. A 150,000 dollar movie made in New York by all unknowns! That would never happen today … maybe if you were a black lesbian amputee. Then you might get a nomination. But not for the right reasons. The industry has just become too consolidated and monopolized for so many unknowns to become so recognized with a single film.
SCIFI.radio: And, as we all know, you went on to form a partnership with Michael Herz to create one of the most recognizable production and distribution companies in indie horror. How did you get the idea for Troma Entertainment and what is the general history behind this iconic brand?
Lloyd Kaufman: That’s a good question! Right after college, we made some movies and we didn’t see a profit. My wealthier life-long friends put up the money for these films, including Oliver Stone who got into movies because of me at Yale. He worked on the first 35mm movie of these aforementioned films called Sugar Cookies starring Mary Woronov and Lynn Lowry. This was a female lesbionic version of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s a great film! It’s also probably the only X rated film in history to lose money. It’s just very slow and parts of it are pretentious. We ended up making three movies and got screwed on all of them either because of crookedness or incompetence. Or both! So Michael Herz and I decided we better learn distribution. When it came time for Squeeze Play!, we decided to do just that by distributing our own movies. Michael came up with the title Troma … we were in a rush and he decided on the most horrible sounding name he would think of. And it works because it sounds like “trauma.”
We didn’t expect to stay in business. And we certainly didn’t expect to go 46 years. So, Troma became kind of famous. (laughs) A name that means absolutely nothing. But we ended up making a little money by making some raunchy, social political comedies like Squeeze Play! and Stuck on You! before Hollywood started churning them out with bigger stars and none of the sociological themes. We’ve been ahead of our time for a long time. In fact, our catch phrase use to be “movies of the future.” But Michael Herz changed it to “disrupting media for 46 years.”
Act II: The Birth of Toxie & Tromaville
SCIFI.radio: Of course, Troma became known by many for The Toxic Avenger, and Toxie practically became Troma’s mascot. What served as the original inspiration for the film and character?
Lloyd Kaufman: After Hollywood began producing provocative comedies, we decided to go elsewhere. That’s when we started getting into horror. Michael came across a headline suggesting that horror was no longer profitable. So, we went the opposite of these so called experts.
Around this time, I was becoming interested in environmental issues. My wife and I use to frequently camp in the great outdoors. And no matter where we went, there was garbage. No matter how remote of a location, there would be streams with beer cans. McDonald’s wasn’t biodegradable in those days. So there was all this McDonald’s sh*t everywhere we went! And thanks to influential underdog stories from brilliant filmmakers Frank Capra and John G. Avildsen, The Toxic Avenger was born. Toxie and the Tromaville townspeople who are abused by conglomerate manufacturers are the ultimate underdogs! In fact, Marvel director James Gunn and I wrote the book All I Need to Know about Filmmaking I Learned from The Toxic Avenger back in the ’90s. There’s one chapter dedicated to explaining the development of this character and the films.
The idea for The Toxic Avenger was very low-fi. I mean, Toxie’s weapon of choice is a mop. But it worked! It was a huge success! And it still is! Not only did the film become famous for showing a young boy’s head being squashed by an automobile, but it spawned several sequels and was turned into a delightful, environmentally correct Saturday morning cartoon for 5 year olds! I believe it’s the important theme of these films that has kept them alive for so many decades! They’ve been made into every medium including books and a Broadway musical. When we first presented The Toxic Avenger, the mainstream theaters rejected it. But one cinema in New York located in an artsy neighborhood played the film and it ran for a year! The film ended up building a following with roughly 2,000 movie screens picking it up. And it caught on by word of mouth! We’ve never done much advertising and people still know the name today. In fact, Hollywood is trying to remake The Toxic Avenger through a company called Legendary. They’re just trying to find the right actors.
SCIFI.radio: If they pull it off, I hope you’re going to have a hand in it.
Lloyd Kaufman: Michael Herz and I are producers on the film, but I think it’s in good hands. The screenplay writer for this reboot is Macon Blair. He directed a film called I Don’t Feel Safe in this World Anymore, which is currently on Netflix. He’s also in Green Room starring Anton Yelchin and Patrick Strewart, which is an outstanding film! Macon is terrific and he loves Troma! His script for the reboot is actually better than the original film. So, I think they got the right guy. They just need to find a big named actor for top billing. They were talking to Channing Tatum who loved the script, but he ended up turning it down. They’re now talking to Sam Rockwell and it would be great if they’re able to get him. But the project is still in early stages. It isn’t guaranteed to be made at this point, but if it comes to fruition, I think it will be good.
Act III: The Sh*tstorm
SCIFI.radio: That’s a huge endorsement and I hope the remake happens! Troma’s latest feature is #Shakespeare’s Sh*tstorm, which was blasted over social media by cast members while the film was in production. From what I’ve heard, this could be in the running for your most gruesome, over-the-top splatter productions to date. What can you tell me about this feature and what audiences can expect?
Lloyd Kaufman: One of the major themes in the film is the easily offended, keyboard warriors, influencers and their bullsh*t hashtags. There’s no nuance today. I see what’s going on at prestigious universities where they’re suppose to be very smart. But the professors are muzzled! They literally have to tell their students that some historical topics of discussion may be triggering! I mean, really, it’s getting insane! We also tackle the topic of third rate bloggers and social justice warriors who masquerade as though they’re working for the public good. But in actuality, many of these people are out to benefit themselves through clicks and attracting a following. And if they can “cancel” someone, they don’t care who it is as long as they can kluck about it. They try to build their own fame by taking things out of context and destroying other people’s careers.
One such influencer targeted me awhile back. And he does have a following. He makes claims such as Chucky Cheese reusing pizza crust left on customer’s plates … (laughs) obviously they don’t do that. When he came after me, he made claims that I’m involved in Pizzagate while showing family photos of me and my own children. One reason why Troma and I are still around is because our fans are very aggressive and very loyal. They went after this influencer and pounded him back to Tuesday. They wouldn’t stop and he actually ended up doing a retraction. And I’ve had some bad experiences with some other third rate bloggers who also don’t care about the truth. In their eyes, you’re guilty until proven innocent.
Another big theme is Big Pharma and how the last three generations have been brainwashed by these corporations. Industry monopolization is becoming problematic and it’s not just pharmaceuticals. Take the film industry for example. There are two theater chains in the United States that control the whole market. And one of them, Regal Cinemas, has recently announced that they are closing all locations. This means they are f*cking thousands of their workers. They’re not even attempting to stay open. There are plenty of movies out there to be shown! There’s more than big Hollywood blockbusters, but they don’t care! And I guarantee you that Regal Cinemas had their hand out and got a sh*t ton of money from the US taxpayers. And here they are with no loyalty to the workers whatsoever. Now if you go somewhere like the Alamo Drafthouse, it’s a completely different environment. Their workers love working their! They have film fans working there! They do show Troma movies and other less mainstream flicks. And they do great! They’re not closing! Drive-in theaters are making a comeback and we’re booking The Toxic Avenger at these venues across the country! Even today, we’re still finding a demand at these types of venues. The mainstream has just become a monopoly and a monopoly never works.
SCIFI.radio: We are literally living Idiocracy!
Lloyd Kaufman: That’s right! (laughs) You’re right! So, we fashioned all these themes in the style of The Tempest, which is my favorite Shakespearean play. This film is the first American movie to have some scenes filmed in Albania. It’s very entertaining filled with plenty controversial stuff! And it has a lot of boobs and penises. Everyone involved with this production was there to make a film that would last. Something that would become a classic. And it will! It’s a terrific film.
SCIFI.radio: In your personal opinion, what is the bigger sh*tstorm? #Shakespeare’s Sh*tstorm or the current social political climate we’re seeing today?
Lloyd Kaufman: Certainly this year of 2020 is crazier than anything in any Troma movie. On every level. From disgusting things to violent things to … everything. The whole year has just been a sh*tstorm. So #Shakespeare’s Sh*tstorm is probably the perfect movie for 2020.
Act IV: From Filmmaker to Filmmaker
SCIFI.radio: As a filmmaker, who are some of your biggest influences?
Lloyd Kaufman: I would say that Avildsen is probably the most important mentor I ever had. Sadly he passed away last year and, in fact, we dedicated #Shakespeare Sh*tstorm to him, Stan Lee, and my step-mother who also passed away. But Avildsen was the most influential filmmaker in my life as well as Mel Brooks and the underdog supporting elements from Frank Capra’s work such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
SCIFI.radio: With so many resources and platforms available now-a-days, there’s no shortage of inspiring filmmakers. What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into the industry?
Lloyd Kaufman: I think you should decide what you want. Do you want to walk the red carpet? Do you want hookers, fame and cocaine? Then I think you need to go west and work your way up the food chain in the industry. The other direction is to make your own damn movies. And I’ve written four books on the topic as well as my memoir and some novels. I have plenty of regrets, but I’ve had 50 years of freedom. So, you have to decide what you want. If you go by the two maxims “truth and love” and “to thine own self be true,” I think you’ll do alright.
Final Act: Troma Now
While Troma fans eagerly await the release of #Shakespeare’s Sh*tstorm, Lloyd and Michael continue to prove themselves as the world’s longest running independent film studio. After their YouTube channel came under fire for violating community guidelines, the duo launched their own streaming service called Troma Now. This ambitious approach is to connect fans with Troma content without interference from mainstream platforms, which are making life difficult for indie filmmakers while favoring mainstream blockbusters. Lloyd elaborates on this unfortunate reality in his documentary Independent Artists vs Corrupt Cartels.
For a low subscription cost of $4.99 per month with the first month free, Troma Now offers 500 to 600 films, shorts, music videos and so much more. That’s 6 months of Troma for the cost of a blu-ray! While Troma Now gears up to expand with an app for smart streaming devices, Lloyd prepares for another adventure taking him to the halls of Yale and Oxford where he’s been invited to instruct a Master’s Class. And that is sure to be one treat lecture attendees won’t soon forget.