From exploitation cult classics like The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ’Em High to modern gross-out satires like Tromeo and Juliet and Terror Firmer, Lloyd Kaufman has spent more than five decades earning the description that The Suicide Squad writer-director James Gunn gave him as “a Cuisinart of genre.”
Since the 1974 creation of Troma Entertainment, Kaufman and business partner Michael Herz have made hundreds of movies featuring copious nudity, toxic waste, vomiting, and lots of New Jersey mockery—along with a surprising amount of anti-government, anti-corporate social commentary. Along the way Troma has helped launch plenty of careers, either by picking films up for distribution (Samuel L. Jackson in Def by Temptation, Kevin Costner in Sizzle Beach USA), or through the company’s actual productions (Marisa Tomei in The Toxic Avenger, Gunn in Tromeo and Juliet).
Kaufman’s also been the on-camera face of Troma since at least the 1990s, performing as the sharply dressed pitchman (dubbed “Uncle Lloydie” by fans) who comes across as equal parts Mel Brooks and P.T. Barnum. It’s that showmanship that seemingly inspired rumors of Kaufman’s imminent retirement, not coincidentally attached to promote his latest opus, Shakespeare’s Shitstorm. A take on the Bard’s The Tempest featuring monster penises and killer whale diarrhea, the film punches up, down, and sideways, targeting Big Pharma, cancel culture and more with a childlike guilelessness.
Whether or not the movie marks his last as a director, Kaufman, whose The Toxic Avenger is being remade by Legendary Pictures with Peter Dinklage in the title role, remains busy shepherding the next generation of exploitation filmmakers into the spotlight—that is, when he’s not busy reading our writer the riot act over The A.V. Club’s sometimes less-than-charitable reviews of his work (possibly Charles Bramesco’s trashing of The Toxic Avenger franchise). Kaufman came ready to give us a piece of his mind, but over this in-depth conversation, we ended up getting several.
Lloyd Kaufman: You know, I kind of want to say “fuck you” to you, so this is going to be kind of fun. Because I was really insulted…you wrote some really bad things about me. So I guess that’s going to happen again, and if that’s true then, uh, what can I say? [The A.V. Club] clearly does not wish to encourage the last dodo bird on the beach. The last filmmaker who is truly independent, that’s has been around for 50 years. And the last time you wrote about me you wrote some nasty, incorrect, ignorant things. And I guess we’re gonna have it again but what am I gonna do? Nothing I can do.
AVC: When was that?
LK: What? I thought it would be you. And what nasty fucking people must run The Onion. What nasty fucking people must run The A.V. Club! How sadistic! To do this to a 76-year-old man whose given his life to film? Well, maybe I’m not a hero. Maybe I’m not Abel Ferrara who beats up women, supposedly. Maybe I’m not a class act like Oliver Stone, who I discovered. But I believe in what I’m doing. I’ve made 50 years of film. And unfortunately, The A.V. Club would prefer to stick me on the back of the bus. To lynch me.
AVC: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
LK: You wrote that stuff. You know damn well what you wrote.
AVC: That wasn’t me. I’m the guy who called Terror Firmer “pure genius.” It’s on the back of the DVD box.
LK: Oop. Sorry. I apologize. It’s a mistaken identity situation. I am very sorry. It was obviously somebody else, forgive me!
AVC: No, that’s fine. But since you’re talking about being the last filmmaker standing, why are you talking about retiring?
LK: Well, I’m not really retiring. I’m producing some movies for younger filmmakers. Brandon Bassham, who wrote Shakespeare’s Shitstorm. And Mercedes The Muse who has made a wonderful film called Divide & Conquer, which I’ve produced. And then Liam. Liam Neeson, who I’ve known for… no, what the hell’s his last name? Sorry, not Liam Neeson. [Editor’s note: Liam Reagan.] From Sheffield, Britain. He has worked on Troma movies for about ten years and he’s making a movie called Eating Miss Campbell, and I’ve produced that. It’s in post-production. So I’m still doing stuff. But so far, I haven’t found anything that knocks me out.
AVC: So is it a retirement from directing, then?
LK: Maybe! Unless something really terrific comes along. I’m starting to work on a couple of scripts. But unless they really come to fruition, I have a feeling I’m gonna be helping younger directors.
AVC: But Troma’s not going anywhere?
LK: Well hopefully Troma sticks around. I think Troma has a life of its own if The A.V. Club doesn’t kill it. Sorry.
AVC: I don’t think we have the power.
LK: The secret sauce and the only reason Troma exists after 49 years is the fans. The fans are so dedicated. I just came back from six cities, Texas and Oklahoma City, and fans drove me. We must have driven 2,000 miles from city to city to city in Texas. And also Little Spark Productions in Dallas drove another car with Toxie and Tori, and they organized this whole thing, and I don’t think you could get that if it was a mainstream company. Everybody would get paid. This was done out of love. And you can’t buy love. And what a coincidence, because it was the week of the Oscars. Which apparently except for the slap, nobody watched.
AVC: So, going back a bit, how do you get from Battle of Love’s Return in 1971—after which you thought you’d never want to be on camera again—to becoming the face of Troma and being the center of movies like Terror Firmer in 1999 and Shakespeare’s Shitstorm in 2020?
LK: Here’s the situation. I make movies, the ones I direct. And one reason I’m producing is that the younger people, A, they’re more talented, B, they’re crazier, and C, they know how to make movies for about 20 percent of what I make ’em. So now, on that kind of a budget, if you make a movie with a couple of thousand people in it and train whales and all sorts of crazy things, big storms and lots and lots of background people, you can’t do it under the Screen Actor’s Guild rules.
We can’t pay people overtime and triple time. We can’t necessarily provide the hot lunch exactly at the sixth hour. We do provide a lunch which gets hot because it probably sits out in the sun. But we try to get there in six hours, and we try to make it vegetar-, vegetable—we try to make it healthy.
But the point is, where am I gonna get old people? The old people, if they’re any good they join the Screen Actor’s Guild, or they’ve got other jobs where they’re making a good living and they’re not particularly willing to devote eight—really about two months—to a movie in which they’re getting very little money. Safety to humans is our most important rule, and I just could not imagine putting another 75-year-old human inside the make-up that [director and special effects artist] Eric Fox made, out West. I was in it, and believe me, at the end of principal photography I did a great tribute to Hitchcock—I actually had vertigo for three days. I had nothing to drink or smoke.
AVC: Now did you have to join SAG or anything to do all the cameos in all the James Gunn films and things like that?
LK: No, I’m in SAG. I’m in SAG but as an interpretive dancer, by the way. But, now that I’m over 70 I don’t have to pay the dues. Very nice union. No, honestly, I don’t know about the James Gunn movies, but I got a penny, I got a one-cent check from MGM for my stirring performance in Rocky V, which got cut out. Some people frame the one cent check. For me that was a good one.
AVC: It’s interesting, when The Suicide Squad came out, I thought, “Warner Brothers just paid a lot of money to remake Troma’s War!”
LK: Well, I wouldn’t say that. I think a lot of people think Lost was very much inspired by Troma’s War—the people on the island, commandos, terrorists all over the place. But oh my god, The Suicide Squad! And the other one, Pacemaker… Peacemaker! It’s terrific! “I’m gonna make peace in this world, I’m gonna have to kill everybody!” That’s so James Gunn. It’s wonderful, it’s great. And I know that you can take the director out of Troma but it’s very hard to take the Troma out of the director. In fact, I’m wearing the hat here, of one Trey Parker, who had a great quote. If you go to my Twitter, he said, “Nobody knows how to make movies that don’t make money better than Uncle Lloyd.” Something like that.
AVC: Do they still not make any money, or do you manage to make a profit?
LK: Ppbbbbbtt. It’s tough. We have made money at times, but it’s been a long drought. We’ve been able to see over the precipice. But we kept the payroll; we had about 10 people total, and all through the epidemic Michael Herz, who’s my partner of 50 years and boss really, paid everybody. And Michael and I never got paid. When we directed a movie we never got paid. But if it’s profitable we get some money. And, thanks to the good people at Legendary who are remaking The Toxic Avenger—and doing a great job—we have a few bucks. So, you know it’s staggering along.
AVC: And what do you think of Peter Dinkl-
LK: Also, sorry Luke, but how stupid of me! Troma Now! Troma Now, the hot new streaming platform from Troma. Fifty years of cinema. First month free. And then every month we’re putting up new discoveries. Because the mainstream don’t know talent very often. They missed Trey and Matt, who we found ’em first. They missed James Gunn, they missed Eli Roth, they missed Samuel Jackson—so, there’s a lot of talent down there in the underground. And Troma Now, you’ll see some movies there by unknown directors like Josh Stifter, who has a movie there that opens this month on Troma Now, and he did the animation for Shakespeare’s Shitstorm. Surprise everybody, there’s animation within Shakespeare’s Shitstorm! You don’t see that too much in a Troma movie.
But the Troma app is a free app, and then you can go to Roku and four or five others, I think pretty much everything. And the first month on Troma Now is free, and then if you like it, it’s $4.99 a month. But I think we’re gonna raise the prices. So get in now, folks! Get in now, especially before I play the clarinet. Don’t listen to the A.V. people, right? [He pulls out a clarinet and plays “This Land Is Your Land.”]. Who isn’t patriotic these days?
AVC: Taking it back a bit farther in your career. I recently noticed your name in the credits of My Dinner With Andre. Your taste in movies is much wider than the kind you make. How did that come about?
LK: Well, Louis Malle actually liked our movies, step number one, but I had just finished Waitress and Andre Gregory was kind of a fan. I don’t think he was a total fan, but he got it. And when it was time to make My Dinner With Andre, I was in the Director’s Guild so they needed a Production Manager because Louis Malle was Director’s Guild. So I did that stuff, whatever that stuff was. And I got in trouble with the Screen Actor’s Guild because something happened with the son of the New Yorker guy [Wallace Shawn]. Maybe he wasn’t in the union, I don’t know. Anyway, the reason I was there was to get it over with. That’s how we used to do it in the old days. You’d hide from the Teamsters. And there was a little bit of that. And I think I was posted on the SAG bulletin board at the time. But it was worth it—it’s a great film!
AVC: Have you ever wished to maybe make something yourself that was a lot more arthouse, but you just knew it wouldn’t sell as well as a typical Troma film?
LK: Well, thanks for asking that. I think I like entertainment, with all due respect. Michael Herz and I are very well educated. And Shakespeare’s Shitstorm, I would guess, in the fullness of time, will be noted for its intellectual quality as much as its entertainment and its so called “graphic” quality. There will be no Power of the Dog. There will be no CODA. There will be Shakespeare’s Shitstorm, and Scorsese, and a few others. I think that’s a fair thing to say.
AVC: You teamed with fantasy sex toy company Bad Dragon for that movie. How did that come about? Did they see the Tromeo & Juliet penis monster and want to work with you?
LK: Well one day we were in the office minding our own business, this box shows up. And it’s a big box with dildos. Three quarters of them were dildos with dragons. They were very arty—I think one of the heads was Hilary Clinton. But the other ones were real dildos, which caught my eye. They were fans, and the next thing I knew I was at AVN signing autographs. They had a big booth, they’re a huge, very successful company. I’ve been to their factory. I would say it’s a happier place than Disney. They were great. They gave us about 10 percent of the budget, like a MacArthur grant. I should get a MacArthur grant, but I got a dildo grant. And they don’t even want a piece of the movie! So Mike is a wonderful guy, and he’s the boss. And I really am grateful. I don’t see anyone else giving Uncle Lloyd a big chunk of the budget for a movie called Shakespeare’s Shitstorm.
AVC: I saw the movie. Since Shakespeare’s Shitstorm is kind of being touted as your last movie, did you have any inkling going into it that might be the case?
LK: I thought so. I’m 76. [But] I’m working on a few things…something that’s based on Dostoevsky, you know, really dark. If something’s been cooking and if a couple of my friends want to lose some money, I’ll try to put it together. I’ve got some money. Also, as I said, I am producing three or four movies right now for Troma with young directors. Brandon Bassham’s movie, Bring On the Damned!, is really kind of personal because it’s sort of a horror comedy Cuisinart of genre, a satire of Saturday Night Fever, on which I had an important function many years ago. So that’s kind of cool. And he’s a talented dude. If you watch Troma Now, you can see Brandon Bassham’s Fear Town USA, The Slashening, and then The Final Beginning: Slashening Part 2 which I produced, which is still going in a few theaters.
AVC: I was just wondering if the whole Big Pharma subplot was something that you really wanted to get into a movie before you were done, like, “if this is my last statement, I’m gonna get this in there.”
LK: To some extent, but every movie that Michael Herz and I have made all have one foot in contemporary themes, which may be the reason why we’re still here and so many mainstream movies have gone away. And even Squeeze Play, which was a raunchy comedy before Porky’s, it was about a women’s softball team and it was all about the ERA, and Women’s Rights. In 1976, you fuckers! How about Surf Nazis Must Die, which we contributed to? Peter George was the director. In 1987, we had a black woman as a lead. We had a fat black woman as a lead, you fuckers. You fucking New York T– uh-oh. My wife’s coming home, I better shut up. But the point is, you cannot fault Troma.
AVC: One theme in the social issues you didn’t mention is you often have blind characters who are both the butt of a lot of humor but ultimately the most positive characters in the movie. Is that a conscious theme?
LK: Sure. Well that’s a huge tip-of-the-hat callback to Mr. Chaplin for City Lights. But the deprivation of senses, since the beginning of my career…every film we’ve done has an important issue that is in there, subtext, along with the crazy Troma stuff which is very much influenced by Mad Magazine, Monty Python, John Ford, Howard Hawkes, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, I mean it’s a real Cuisinart of inspiration. And our movies, which James Gunn vividly wrote in my first book, are “a Cuisinart of genre.”
AVC: Indeed. How has the business changed since you first got into it? Does it feel like it’s dying, or are there signs of life?
LK: I think it’s terrible, to be honest. I majored in Chinese studies at Yale, and the big issue I got out of that was Taoism, yin and yang, that good and evil are intertwined opposites. You know the symbol of Taoism. So beauty and horror go together. And I think the good news is that anybody can make a movie. You don’t need money, these kids are making movies for $2,000. All you need is talent now, and you can make a good movie. You don’t have to have $200 million. You don’t have to have $500,000. So that’s the Yin.
And there’s wonderful talent, all you gotta do is go to YouTube and see all these influencers and these clever, brilliant things that are out there by people who just have day jobs and whatever who are infinitely more talented than the people you saw accepting certain awards [at the Oscars] the other night. So I think that’s a major truth.
The bad part is that the industry itself, where somebody can make a living, or make a huge living is basically controlled by four or five huge, international, devil-worshipping conglomerates. And unless you can speak their language, and unless you have great talent like James Gunn, Eli Roth, Trey Parker, and others who have worked for me, Oliver Stone, you’re just gonna make garbage. You may make some money. The whole thing out there is the big cars and the big houses that they don’t own—and all that stuff, I don’t have interest in that. I took acid my senior year at Yale and I had the opportunity to work on a Streisand movie as a toilet cleaner. And I had the opportunity to work for a crappy low-budget company in New York and I chose Cannon, which is where I met [Rocky director] John G. Avildsen, probably the most important person in my so-called aesthetic life. So thank you Avildsen.
AVC: Where did the name “Troma” come from?
LK: Well, Troma had been making some bombs. And we decided the distributors were either dishonest or incompetent. So Michael Herz and I decided, “well maybe we better learn distribution.” So we had made a movie called Squeeze Play, or we were making it, a very successful comedy. Low budget, about a $100,000, and we wanted to start a company that would distribute, and we had to do it in a hurry. And New York state is very oversaturated with corporations, it’s an old state. You know, “Luke Thompson, Incorporated,” there’s probably 10 companies with “Luke Thompson.” So Michael tried to think of the most horrible name he could think of and came up with “Troma.” And we got an immediate acceptance by the Secretary of State, and 50 years later, it actually kind of feels right.
AVC: Where did you go from Squeeze Play? Was the shift to more violent content with The Toxic Avenger or was that happening before?
LK: Yes. We had the field to ourselves, well, almost to ourselves, for a while—and we were doing great. And suddenly those damn studios started making the stuff we were making. Except they were playing unfair, as they always do. They were using good scripts and good actors. So we had to go somewhere else. If I remember correctly, Michael read a column in the always-wrong Variety that said horror films were no longer viable as a profit-making media. So Michael said, “Yeah, that’s our hit, Lloyd, we’re gonna make a horror film.” And since we like comedy and satire and slapstick, Toxie was birthed.
AVC: And now Peter Dinklage is playing him, which is quite a transition.
LK: Boy we are we lucky. After 50 years, that is really good. That’s manna from heaven, because to get Macon Blair as director and Peter Dinklage playing Toxie, you can’t get any better. Macon Blair is young, he knows Troma better than anybody, the Troma fans are going to ejaculate when they see the movie. And it’s going to be totally original, better than the original. I’ve read the script several times and given notes. And the pathos, the action, the comedy. And I know Michael Herz agrees with me. Fanboys who don’t like remakes, you don’t go to movie jail for making a good remake. A Star is Born, one of the greatest movies ever made by George Cukor, is a third iteration of that. All Quiet on the Western Front is much better in the sound version. And Evil Dead Part 2! It’s better than Evil Dead part 1. And they’re both genius movies.
AVC: The Ten Commandments.
LK: Yes! And of course Steven Spielberg’s remake of Birth of a Nation.
AVC: You mean Amistad?
LK: [laughs] I’m kidding. No, Amistad was very good. And good for him that he did that. It’s a wonderful film. As is Schindler’s List. He’s great, and talented. Lincoln was great. And my wife LOVED West Side Story. I just can’t bring myself to pay $19.99. But as soon as I can see it on Toby. Is that what it is? Kobe. As soon as Kobe gets it, I’ll be watching.
AVC: How did you ever manage to stage that one car crash that you use in every movie? And would you remotely be able to do that again, if you had to?
LK: Well, it would be very expensive. For those who haven’t seen Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD, there is a car that goes up in the air, just a beautiful shot, and it comes down and blows up. And it’s so good, we’ve put it in every film since James Gunn’s Tromeo & Juliet. And James Gunn was the one I think, “just let me put in there.” And he’s in the car in Tromeo & Juliet that spins around. It’s hilarious. So we’ve used it in every film and it’s a wonderful shot. And a lot of times low-budget stunts don’t look good. But when we’re doing stunts, we abide by the three rules of production: One, safety to humans. Don’t kill anyone. Two, respect people’s property, don’t mess up their homes if you’re making a movie. And three, much smaller type, much smaller font, “make a good movie.”
We had a very good stunt team with a Hollywood mainstream connections, a resume, so we weren’t skimping on the stunt. And we had top quality stuntmen driving, and I think four or five cameras. I put myself on the closest camera. Sometimes the stuntmen are cowboys, and this is all Pythagorean arithmetic, but if the cowboy goes too fast, then the thing goes a lot closer to the first camera. And since I crashed a car on Toxic Avenger, I don’t want anyone to get hurt. If anyone’s in danger, I’d rather it be me. So I put myself on the closest camera, and when I was looking through the lens I swear I ran away. But apparently, I got the shot—and it is a beautiful shot. And nobody got hurt, nothin’.
In fact, Troma, knock on wood, nobody on Troma movies has ever been severely hurt. Or hurt, really. “I got hangnail,” that kind of stuff. We’ve been lucky. And we’ve been very vigilant about safety. And I talk about it in all seven of my books, even the fiction.
AVC: Looking back over your career, what are some of the greatest things you think you’ve achieved?
LK: Well the fact that I’m still married to my beautiful wife, that’s a hell of an achievement. Especially, since we lived together during the pandemic, she was commissioner, she produced Shakespeare’s Shitstorm, she’s full of beans. Not exactly the early bird dinner-eater. So, I’m proud of the fact that my wife and I will have 50 years of marriage next year. And the fact that Michael Herz is my partner. That’s miraculous. I think those two things are probably the most important. We’ve never had a contract, if he wants to empty the bank account at times—it’s not very big, but he can do it. He should have stayed a director, but he didn’t want to get up at four in the morning and worry about where the porta potties are gonna be put, has the lunch been organized, where the truck’s gonna park. He grew up. He’s the boss, he’s the CEO of the company, somehow, in spite of the movies that nobody wants to see. And we’ve been profitable actually this year, so that’s not bad.
AVC: Favorite movie you’ve directed?
LK: I’d say Shakespeare’s Shitstorm. If it’s my last film, I’m happy to go out on that. Well, I’d prefer to go out playing a clarinet. But if anyone is offended by that movie, I say go kill yourself. Five years of work. People were fighting—the French compared to me to Marcel Duchamp, who put the urinal up on the wall in 1917, and people fought over it and hated him. And those phony Sotheby’s, they sell them now, those urinals, for over half a million. So art will win out. And Shakespeare’s Shitstorm, it’s gonna premiere on April 8th in New York City in Cinema Village, honestly one of the finest art houses in New York. So maybe it will work out alright. We’re gonna open in Laemmle in June, so that all those newspapers in L.A. can avoid us, can ignore us.
AVC: Well, there aren’t any newspapers any more.
LK: The L.A. whatever it is, that piece of shit ignored us last time I played Returm to Nuke ‘Em High in Laemmle and Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High. Those theatrical movies. All of the L.A. papers ignored it all. But don’t worry, The New York Times ignores everything I do. So does The New York Post. You know who doesn’t ignore what I do? Luke Thompson. And A.V. may say the wrong things, but the internet has spoken and they love Shakespeare’s Shitstorm, so I think the fans are gonna support it. Any rate, we’ll see.
AVC: If nobody was offended, wouldn’t you worry you were doing something wrong?
LK: No, you have to be a moron to be offended by anything Troma’s done. “Come on,” as the President says. When we did Squeeze Play, we paid for advertising [that] had the baseball women in bikinis, and the Buffalo newspaper took magic markers and drew pants. It was like third grade! And then they put that in the ad, and the movie still ran eight weeks! In a blizzard!
AVC: I really appreciate you giving me all this time.
LK: Well, thank you. I’m very grateful, even though I had a pretty difficult experience the first time. But again, I’m happy with any attention! Good or bad, it’s OK. The fans look at it and they go, “Uncle Lloyd’s got something,” and they’ll support us. And they have supported. We would not be here for 50 years if it weren’t for our fans. No question about it. And also, the people who have gone through. James Gunn is very nice to us, Trey and Matt, they’re all rooting for us. And when the chips are down they help us. Shall I play myself off?
AVC: Yes please!
LK: Thank you A.V. [Kaufman plays “God Bless America” on clarinet] Thank you, Luke.
https://www.avclub.com/troma-lloyd-kaufman-career-interview-toxic-avenger-shak-1848744048 In Interview With Troma Founder Lloyd Kaufman