For more than 30 years, Troma Entertainment has operated outside of the studio system, churning out cult movies (among them, the Toxic Avenger series, Class Of Nuke 'Em High, and Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD) that trade in visceral shocks, slapstick, heavy puns, and grotesquely satirical takes on deeper social issues. While the critical response hasn't always been kind, Troma's impact can be seen in nearly every independent filmmaker who cut his teeth in the video era, from Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino to South Park's Trey Parker (whose debut, Cannibal! The Musical, was a Troma production). And the Troma universe has a devoted worldwide fan base to rival that of any comic book. As head of one of the longest-running film companies in history, president Lloyd Kaufman has added more than 800 films to the Troma library, many of which he either personally wrote, directed, or starred in. Kaufman's latest, Poultrygeist: Night Of The Chicken Dead, may be his most ambitious yet, boldly incorporating trenchant anti-consumerist statements, singing lesbians, zombie fowls, and—of course—buckets and buckets of diarrhea. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Kaufman about his latest opus, working with a young Oliver Stone, attending school with George W. Bush, dallying with the Warhol scene, and the things young filmmakers can learn from his long, bloody, shit-stained career.
The A.V. Club: A lot of your movies are ripped from the headlines. Was that the case with Poultrygeist?
Lloyd Kaufman: Well, we're living in an age of remakes, so we decided we'd do a shot-by-shot remake of that hilarious, slapstick-gore movie Schindler's List. But instead of the Jews, we put in several hundred chicken Indian zombies, and instead of the concentration camps, we've got concentration coops. Liam Neeson wasn't quite up to the task, so we hired the very famous Shakespearean actor Ron Jeremy. I predict Poultrygeist is going to be very favorably looked upon by the Schindler's List crowd.
AVC: Well, it definitely has better songs.
LK: We certainly have better dancing. Like so many of my movies, Poultrygeist has one foot in serious political and sociological themes, but it could have also been the junta virus I got when I was cleaning up all this rat shit that occurred shortly after McDonald's moved in next door to the Troma building. In fact, I begin my book Make Your Own Damn Movie! with me in the basement cleaning up rat shit—and I wasn't even meeting with Blockbuster executives! But that's a metaphor for what you have to do if you're an independent filmmaker: You have to do things nobody else will do.
AVC: So was Poultrygeist spawned directly from your enmity with your new neighbor?
LK: We had a new employee who had worked in fast food—obviously Troma is a step down for him—and he suggested it. McDonald's had behaved in such an ugly manner, putting their garbage in front of our door—which our employees liked at first, because they could have lunch, but then it became too much. Then I read Fast Food Nation, and indeed, what a horrible industry. Of course, in [Eric] Schlosser's book, he wanted to put in chicken Indian zombies, but was apparently persuaded against it. So we put them back in, sort of like when we made Tromeo And Juliet. Shakespeare wanted to have car crashes and dismemberment and hot-bodied lesbians, so we put them back in.
AVC: Is this the movie that Fast Food Nation should have been?
LK: Fast Food Nation was boring and aimed at yuppies, and yuppies don't eat fast food. Poultrygeist is aimed at the younger market, and at fat Al Gore riding around in his private jet with his big fat wife who wants us all to feel guilty about using up a little gas or smoking cigarettes when his family made its money off of tobacco. The hypocritical limousine-liberal crowd. The phony-baloney global-warming bullshit artists. We're skewering them. It's satire, like what I've been doing for 35 years.
AVC: Do you consider all your movies to be satire?
LK: Peter Jackson and James Gunn, who did Tromeo And Juliet with me, suggested that I created the "slapstick-gore" movie with Toxic Avenger. South Park comes out of that too; Trey Parker and Matt Stone used to have Troma parties in college. I've brilliantly managed to combine the two least prestigious genres. Whereas horror rides the back of the bus, I have added the comedy element, so that I ride on the back bumper—or actually, I'm being dragged by the bus, as if I was that poor bastard from Texas who was dragged from the truck.
AVC: What made you decide to make Poultrygeist a musical?
LK: I've always been a big fan of Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Being a gay married man, I love Broadway musicals. Of course, this isn't a musical. Poultrygeist is a chicken-zombie satire with some singing and dancing, and probably—I would venture to say—the first slapstick-gore satire with chicken Indian zombies that has singing and dancing. I may have to do some more research, because I think Eric Rohmer may have made a couple of chicken-zombie movies with dancing. But I don't think he had any singing.
AVC: Would you ever want to do a Broadway version of one of your films, like Mel Brooks?
LK: Here's the thing: I'm not against piracy. There were a couple of playwrights and composers who wanted to put on Toxic Avenger: The Musical, and one group did it in Oregon and another in Nebraska, and I never asked for a cent. What harm is it going to do? It may actually help sell some DVDs. And lo and behold, the producers of the Broadway hit Dirty Rotten Scoundrels optioned Toxic Avenger to try and develop a musical. I don't think this has ever been announced before. Bon Jovi's keyboardist, David Bryan, he's written the music—wonderful songs, very catchy, hilarious lyrics. Who knows? Maybe it'll actually be presented someday. And they paid us some money, so how cool is that?
AVC: You're open to people pirating your films?
LK: I think it's actually helped. I've written essays about copyright law and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that Clinton pushed through, which basically gives perpetual copyright to giant devil-worshipping media conglomerates. Mickey Mouse should be in the public domain by now. What a better world it would be if other people were doing things with Mickey Mouse! If Shakespeare had lived in our age, he would have been sued for writing Romeo And Juliet, because as everybody knows, he plagiarized that from an Italian play. With the Clinton act, he would have had his rosy red ass sued right off. That DMC Act is a disgrace. And the problem with independent art in this country is that independent artists have been economically blacklisted. HBO hasn't bought any independent movies for God knows how many years, and if they do, they get them from Fox Searchlight or Warner Independent. Believe it or not, Warner Independent—I did a lot of research on this—is actually part of Time Warner. And IFC, which has never played a Troma movie, is actually owned by Cablevision and the Dolans, who are horrible people as far away from the independent spirit as you can get. The nice thing about piracy is, it allows the public to get independent art, to get a variety of music and movies.
I was recently elected to be chairman of the Independent Film And Television Alliance, and I ran on the platform of lobbying in Washington to educate the lawmakers and FCC that independent art is under assault in this country—and under a pepper, too, but that's beside the point. Comcast won't talk to Troma. We've been in business for 30 years and have 800 movies, and they won't talk to us. If we give one of our movies to some middleman at Time Warner or whatever, then they'll talk to them, so there's another layer of revenue that we lose. The limited access to the marketplace is economic blacklisting. If you're an independent, you don't get on TV. And in the rare instances that you do get on, you get a fraction of what that very same movie would get if it came in through Fox or Viacom. With Poultrygeist, Troma didn't even have the money to put up, so my wife and I had to put it up. I of course told her she was investing in Transformers. Don't tell her.
AVC: No problem. So did she get to have any say in the film?
LK: She made me censor the toilet-cam shot of the big fat guy—which is an amazing technical achievement—where he has the infested crap coming out his behind. She made me censor the actual departure of the turds. Since she put up the money, I had to go with that. On the turd where it says "Censored," I wanted to put "Censored by director's wife," but it would have cost too much.
AVC: Does having a wife who's the New York State Film Commissioner come in handy?
LK: By law, my wife has to recuse herself from anything to do with Troma—and I think she would probably like to recuse herself from anything that has to do with me, period. [Laughs.] But her office did find us this abandoned, bankrupt McDonald's in Buffalo, and we got it for very little money. What was fascinating about our production was that we recruited our crew as volunteers off the Internet. We put up a post saying we were doing our next movie, and you'd have to pay for your own travel expenses. We got volunteers from all over the map. Maybe three months before we started shooting, we put a call out for someone to make vein-covered, pulsating eggs, and a gal in Stockholm responded. We never got them, so I just assumed that—like most people in the film business—she was a slacker, but we found out that she had sent them, but the United States Customs confiscated them. After 9/11, there were apparently new laws about importing mysterious, vein-covered, pulsating eggs. We got about 80 people from Australia, Canada, France, England, Germany. Anyway, people from all over the map converged, and we lived in this Buffalo church. Most of them slept on the floor, ate cheese sandwiches three times a day, and had to learn to defecate in a paper bag, because we only had one bathroom. It was quite an interesting United Nations of idealistic young people. The auditorium of the church—we didn't ever go into the sanctuary, of course—was used as a rehearsal hall, and we had two kitchens that we put special effects ovens in so we could create masks and beaks and things.
AVC: Speaking of special effects, how much fake blood and shit do you think you went through?
LK: I don't know the exact amount, but the Australian guy—the blood boy—said that he was certain it was more blood than Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. We certainly had more explosive diarrhea. Every special effect had to be organized and filmed way ahead of time and shown to me to prove that it worked. With the big fat guy who's having explosive diarrhea, I specifically told the special-effects department to use Baby Ruth candy bars and get the normal size, but they came back with the miniature ones, so I had my little diva moment and stopped shooting. It was like [Masaki] Kobayashi on Harakiri, where there was a big samurai battle and he wouldn't shoot because the clouds weren't right. I don't take myself seriously, but I take my movies very, very seriously.
AVC: Do you think that serious approach sometimes gets lost under all that explosive diarrhea?
LK: Our fans are pretty intelligent. The dean of the American Film Institute has written that I'm one of the very few auteurs in America. I've had freedom for 40 years to create art that is totally personal and is what I believe in. The Cinémathèque Française, The British Film Institute, the AFI at the Kennedy Center have all had Troma retrospectives. Vincent Canby—one of the all-time great New York Times critics—he chose to review Toxic Avenger when it came out instead of the big Hollywood movies that came out that day, because he loved Squeeze Play! and Waitress!, those raunchy early comedies we made. When we went to his memorial service, Janet Maslin told me that he always talked about Troma and how we were underappreciated.
AVC: Speaking of your early days, you started out working with Oliver Stone, yet when he recently spoke at the Austin Film Festival, he basically denied those early films, as though they were beneath him.
LK: Oliver Stone would not be making movies if I didn't make movies. My roommate and I at Yale made two feature-length movies with a Bolex—which is a wind-up camera, not a social disease—while Oliver would hang out. He was writing this horrible, crappy novel—he was trying to be James Joyce or something, but it was awful—but as a result of hanging around us, he went to film school. I've known Oliver forever. We grew up together, from second grade on. We lived a couple of blocks away from each other in New York. In fact, we used to have sleepovers as kids, and he used to beat the shit out of me. He was a bully! [Laughs.] He's better now. He's still a psycho, but much nicer. But at Yale, he would hang out while I was making movies. He's in my first color movie, The Battle Of Love's Return. And with Sugar Cookies, he was associate producer. Oliver had very good instincts on that movie. There were scenes I'd written that the director wanted cut, with a big fat kid—my first big fat kid!—dressed in a woman's nightgown and lipstick, running into the street. Oliver said, "No way," and we kept it in and it became the conversation piece for the movie. He also saw the need to try to have some kind of name actor in the movie, so he got us Monique van Vooren. I had been hanging out with the Warhol gang, so I got some of the Warhol people.
AVC: Were you part of the Factory scene?
LK: I hung around the fringes of that Factory crowd, just observing. I'd see Warhol at Max's a lot. I think he knew my face, but I don't believe he ever saw any of our movies. He's a big influence on my work, no question about it. Anyway, Oliver's early films… Seizure is a very interesting film. The Hand with Michael Caine is great. He shouldn't be ashamed.
AVC: He basically just said that he doesn't appreciate horror, like that's just not his type of film. Is there any cinema you'd consider unworthy?
LK: I would only make a movie that I believe in. If I didn't believe in it, it would be unworthy. Squeeze Play! is very entertaining, but it's also about the women's liberation movement. Stuck On You! is about palimony. Toxic Avenger is about the environment. You know, I don't think I would make a biopic comparing Hillary Clinton to Abraham Lincoln, even though she might have a thicker beard. That kind of stuff would be beneath me. But luckily, I've never been offered a directing job that was lucrative, so I've never had to make that decision. I've never heard, "Here's $800,000 to remake Sisters." [Laughs.]
AVC: Your distaste for the Clintons and Gore—that wouldn't have anything to do with being classmates with George W. Bush at Yale, would it?
LK: Well, Bush was a classmate in '68, and I distinctly remember in freshman year, he was running around campus looking for weapons of mass destruction. We couldn't figure out what that was all about, but now we know.
AVC: You weren't in Skull And Bones, were you?
LK: I was invited! But I didn't know that there was money involved. I didn't know you get taken care of for life, and whatever career you choose, you get. I just saw these jerks. I wish I had joined Skull And Bones. I probably would have had six Oscars by now. Maybe it would be me in the White House. Maybe Bush would have been directing Poultrygeist. [Laughs.] But I was kind of an oddity at Yale.
AVC: How so?
LK: I was making feature-length movies. In the '60s, everybody was doing short, psychedelic stuff, but I was interested in the long form. I showed my movie, The Girl Who Returned, at the Yale Film Society, where I learned two very valuable lessons. One was that once people have paid, no matter how bad the movie is, they don't ask for their money back. And there were two movies shown that night. One was Moonrise by [Frank] Borzage—which is a masterpiece—and the poster on campus just had the title on it. Not a lot of people there. But The Girl Who Returned had a photograph of a gal lying on her back, with her love pillows stretching her T-shirt. We had about 350 people show up. So I learned a little about marketing. The movie wasn't erotic, per se, but I was heavy into Warhol, so the film had these long periods of this girl with nice jugs jogging around.
AVC: You didn't go to Yale for film.
LK: No, I majored in Chinese Studies. I'm probably the only director of chicken Indian zombie movies who can speak pretty good Mandarin. But if I hadn't gone there, I would not have made movies. It was the '60s, and I was going to be a teacher and improve the world. Teach people with hooks for hands to fingerpaint, and teach bums to draw happy faces on beads. But through fate, I got put in a tiny bedroom with a movie nut who ran the Yale Film Society. Our beds were head-to-toe, and at night, I would inhale his Godard-stinkin' feet, and the "aroma de Troma" was born. I didn't even know what a film director was. To me, Charlie Chaplin was a goofy clown, and John Ford—what? Never heard of him. Howard Hawks, Stan Brakhage. Warhol, I'd seen his soup cans. Anyway, I started going to the Society screenings. One night, I saw Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be, and I remember being so knocked out by that film. I decided right then and there that I would make movies. It was as easy as getting up out of the La-Z-Boy and opening up a fresh vial of crystal meth.
AVC: How did you start looking for film work?
LK: The first time I took acid, I made the decision that I would stay in New York and find an independent film company to get a job with. I had two possibilities: To work on The Owl And The Pussycat—with the whiniest actress in history, Barbra Streisand—or I could work with Cannon in New York. On acid, it came to me that I would stay and work for the tiny company. I got lucky there, because John G. Avildsen—who went on to do Rocky—was about to do Joe with Peter Boyle. It was his and Susan Sarandon's first movie. I got on it and learned a lot from him. Originally, Lawrence Tierney was cast in the part of Joe, and he had a bit of a drinking problem. I was assigned to take him to get some costumes in a department store, and we were going up the escalator, and the guy started taking a piss. [Laughs.] It was my first job, and here's Lawrence Tierney taking a piss on my leg. This was my film school.
AVC: You actually teach a Master Class at various film schools now. What's the first thing that you tell your students?
LK: The first decision is, "Do I want the big mansion in Hollywood? Do I want the hookers? Do I want to be on the cover of People stepping out of a limousine with no underwear?" If that's what I want, then I gotta go out to Hollywood and fight my way up the food chain. But if that's not necessary, then no need. One can stay in New York or Chicago or Memphis or wherever and make your own damn movie the Troma way. The other very important thing is, "To thine own self be true"—which is a phrase coined by William Shakespeare, who wrote the bestselling book 101 Moneymaking Screenplay Ideas, otherwise known as Hamlet.
AVC: Do you think most of your students want to create films or just "make it"?
LK: I think the people that show up for my classes are already predisposed to be independent. I think they come as much to be inspired, to hear that it is indeed possible to work outside the system and survive. Even though there is economic blacklisting—even though whenever I, Lloyd, have penetrated the hymen of the mainstream, I've been the one to get fucked—they can see that one can have a satisfying creative existence without selling out. I think they want confirmation of that. It's a lonely world, being independent, and they can come away with the idea that if Lloyd Kaufman can make movies with people getting their heads squashed, with hard-bodied lesbians, women masturbating with pickles, graphic diarrhea, and singing and dancing chicken zombies—if he can do that for 40 years and put his kids through Yale, Columbia, and Duke—if that idiot can do it, anybody can do it.