Spending an afternoon with Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman, deep in the bowels of Tromaville (in actuality, a modest two-story in Queens, NY), is akin to stepping into Pee Wee’s Playhouse on acid. Props, posters and hundreds of film canisters and DVDs from Troma’s 43-year history haphazardly “decorate” the office. There’s order to the chaos, albeit in typically ramshackle Troma fashion.
Across from Lloyd’s desk sits the much tidier bunker of Troma’s better half, the reserved and rarely seen co-head Michael Herz. The two met in 1974 at Yale University and balance each other nicely: While Kaufman is the P.T. Barnum and face of Troma, Herz is the man behind the curtain. Herz shakes his head in disbelief at Kaufman’s antics throughout my visit, and you can almost hear him thinking, “Jesus, Lloyd…”
A proud proponent of free speech and anti-censorship, the 71-year-old Kaufman injects his directorial efforts, amid the vomit, gratuitous gore and nudity, with sharp social commentary. The studio’s latest, Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High a.k.a. Vol. 2 takes on greedy corporations, toxic processed foods and LGBTQ rights. The world premiere screenings for the film will be at the Cannes film festival this May 23-25 at Arcades Cinema. After crashing Cannes, Troma fans are encouraged to call their local cinemas and request they play the movie.
I spoke to Kaufman about the film, working with the dearly departed Lemmy and how Troma is the herpes of the movie industry.
Paste Magazine: What’s a typical day for Lloyd Kaufman?
Lloyd Kaufman: I don’t want to talk about it, because if I did I’d have to kill you. All I can say is that Michael Herz and I are the hardest working men—well, he’s a man. I’m kind of half and half. But, we’re the hardest working men in show business. We’re the James Brown of the underground. Forty-three years of disrupting entertainment. No independent movie studio in history has lasted 43 fucking years.
Paste: We all love how good you are to your fans.
Kaufman: I’m not just good to my fans. I’m good to my air conditioners.
Paste: How was the Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High Vol. 2 shoot? Was it crazier or smoother than previous Troma outings?
Kaufman: This has been seven years in the making. My co-writer Travis Campbell and I have been working on this project for seven years exclusively. It’s a big deal. We don’t take ourselves at Troma seriously, but we take our movies very seriously. I think we have the best cast we’ve ever had.
Paste: Your personal politics play into your films. Vol. 2 takes on greedy corporations and GMOs.
Kaufman: That’s true. It’s also anti-bullying. It makes the point that the LGBT community ought to have some rights. This was before Bruce became Caitlyn, so we’re usually a little ahead of the game when it comes to politics. We’re more visionary than the mainstream. We got into environmental issues in 1983 with The Toxic Avenger, long before Fatso Gore discovered the Internet and stole the Nobel Peace Prize from two deserving scientists. [In 1983, h]e and his fat wife were trying to censor music and tell adults what we should listen to. He was busy trying to censor Dee Snider and Frank Zappa.
Paste: Tell me about growing up. Were you born into a liberal, creative family?
Kaufman: Did you say “throwing up”? People have thrown up during our movies. Sometimes I’ll have a big burrito and throw up. Why are you interested in that? Vomit! Farting! Diarrhea! We pioneered that! Now you see movies like Deadpool and Terrence Malick has diarrhea scenes in all his movies.
Paste: Troma has the lockdown on bodily fluids?
Kaufman: We certainly pioneered it. We definitely pioneered the fart. You can ask Trey Parker and Matt Stone about that, [they’re] big fans. Their first film Cannibal! The Musical is a Troma movie. They will tell you that the first couple seasons of South Park are Tromaville. They had a character named Kaufman. They wanted a character named Herz, but Michael is very private. He does not like to be in public. If we were still directing together, I’d be talking to The New York Times, not to Paste.
Paste: Have you always been drawn to the rude, crude and over-the-top?
Kaufman: No! I’m the ultimate bourgeois. I went to Trinity School in New York and Yale University. I’m extremely well-educated and speak French fluently, but it’s a useless language.
Paste: When did the switch happen, when you were suddenly obsessed with gore and bodily fluids?
Kaufman: There’s nothing new about what we’re doing. Grand Guignol has been on theater stages for 200 years. We’re just following in that particular tradition. Satire, politics and social issues are really what we’re getting at. We’re trying to make a difference and appeal to young people. Old people know about Fast Food Nation but they don’t do anything. The rich, old liberal bullshitters in the mainstream opposition read that book but didn’t give a shit. The young people saw Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, which was against fast food, and did something. McDonald’s changed their menu, and now all they have to do is give their workers a decent wage and not torture their animals. If we focus on healthy food, it might eventually be a decent industry.
Paste: Is this a particularly scary time in terms of censorship?
Kaufman: This is a horrible era we’re living in! We have a First Amendment but we can’t say anything. We have freedom of speech but you can say nothing. Steve Martin is older than I am, he must be 100 years old, but he said something about finding Carrie Fisher beautiful and then finding her very smart, and he was publicly shamed for it. I tweeted the same thing about Betty White, who wasn’t even dead yet. This is the era we live in. It’s an age of public shaming, trigger warnings and safe spaces. It’s an age of socially conscious warriors who are constantly whining but doing nothing.
Paste: Do you consider yourself a libertarian?
Kaufman: I don’t consider myself anything really. I think I’m pretty left-wing for the most part. I don’t believe anybody should be making 20 million dollars a year. The quasi-liberal George Soros should be allowed to make 2 million a year maximum. Why should Tom Hanks be making that kind of money? Why should these stupid, scum-filled celebrities, who are telling people how to live their lives, be making so much? It’s obscene! The people in Yemen are dying every second of the day, thanks to our bombs and our Allies. CNN sits back with their asses in a tub of butter. It’s bullshit.
Paste: When I interviewed Roger Corman, he said Lloyd Kaufman makes the most insane films he’s ever seen. Is that the ultimate badge of honor?
Kaufman: When I was at Yale, the reason I thought we could start our own damn movie studio was because I saw his movies. He put it in my head that you could make movies on no budget, with good acting and compelling storytelling. I also grew up on masterpieces by Howard Hawks, John Ford, Renoir, Brakhage and all those guys. Corman was making movies that were entertaining, provocative, well-acted and socially relevant. He was doing it in a way where people would actually show up to watch. I make movies where no one shows up. I’ve refined his model.
Paste: Troma regulars Joe Fleishaker and Lemmy passed last year. What was your experience like working with Lemmy?
Kaufman: He was great! He had this facade of being grouchy and irritable, and occasionally he’d have temper tantrums. We had a huge fight during Terror Firmer and he walked off the set. He was generous, sweet and never turned us down for anything. He never charged a dime, other than a bottle of Jack Daniels. Later, when he saw we were doing better, he moved up to Maker’s Mark and two Tromettes by his side.
Paste: How do you think Hollywood views you? Do fat cats turn their nose up at you?
Kaufman: As far as I’m concerned, Hollywood doesn’t even know we exist. Akiva Goldsman, an Oscar-winning writer, is remaking The Toxic Avenger into a 200 million dollar epic. I guess we have some kind of footprint, in that all these people, like James Gunn, Eli Roth, Oliver Stone, Samuel L. Jackson and tons of others started with us and have gone up the food chain. If you look at Deadpool, that basically is a Troma movie. Those guys are big Troma fans. South Park is very informed by Troma, and we helped them with their first movie. I don’t know how great it is, because Matt and Trey were on 60 Minutes, they dismissed Cannibal! The Musical. They said something like, “I don’t think you could even call that distribution.” They didn’t say, “Gee, thanks Troma for discovering us and giving us a shot.” It kinda pissed me off.
Paste: Can you pinpoint a scene or a Troma film that you’re the most proud?
Kaufman: Maybe this can be a lesson to the social warrior bullshitters, but I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve been married to the same woman for 43 years. I don’t think there’s anybody in the history of the movie business who has had the same partner or studio for 43 years. That’s something to be proud of.
Paste: Who do you envision turning over the Troma reigns to when you retire?
Kaufman: Troma has a life of its own. It’s the herpes of the movie industry. It’s not going away.