Tuesday, May 20, 2008

After 25 Years Of Independent Filmmaking, Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman Is Still “Making Art”

During the early 2000s, I penned a pair of articles for MICRO-FILM, a locally produced zine edited in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois by Jason Pankoke. I didn't do as much writing for MICRO-FILM as either Jason or I would have liked, often due to my busy schedule. Besides the two articles, I also reviewed a few films on DVD. Interviews with actor Robert Forster and director Bert I. Gordon were originally intended for MICRO-FILM, but the zine's haphazard publishing schedule made the pieces out-of-date by the time they could have been published, and I eventually posted them at Mobius Home Video Forum, where I have served as a moderator for nearly a decade.

Since no one has had the opportunity to read these articles since they were originally published in MICRO-FILM, I thought it might be nice to make them available here. The following piece was included in MICRO-FILM #3, published November 2000. It's still on sale from Jason for just $3.50 and is of interest to anyone with a love for independent cinema.

"After 25 Years of Independent Filmmaking, Troma's Lloyd Kaufman Is Still 'Making Art'" was written as Kaufman's TERROR FIRMER was beginning to play theaters across the U.S. Admittedly not a Troma fan, I was nonetheless thrilled to chat over the telephone with Kaufman, who was a fantastic interview. Even though he was in Texas to show TERROR FIRMER at a film festival and was talking to me from his hotel room filled with festive visitors, he graciously chatted for nearly two hours. Even when I tried to give him a gracious way out of the conversation, he urged me to continue, telling me how much fun he was having. Pretty soon, our relationship transformed from interviewer/interviewee into a couple of guys talking about movies, politics and humor. One of these days, I'll have to transcribe the interview (what there is of it, as I ran out of tape about 90 minutes into it) and post it as a Q&A. For historic purposes, I have left the copy as it was originally written, so please forgive any outdated information.

It's a sure bet you've never seen anything quite like TERROR FIRMER before. New York City-based Troma Studios, one of the world's oldest and most successful independent movie companies, is celebrating its 25th anniversary with this outrageous post-modern ode to its own unique oeuvre and the sex, blood and slapstick that made them famous. Both slasher movie and satire, TERROR FIRMER combines NC-17-style mayhem with a social conscience that can easily be lost beneath the gore and scatological gags. For Lloyd Kaufman, its 54-year-old director, co-writer and co-star, as well as Troma's president, TERROR FIRMER is the zenith of his three decades in moviemaking.

The plot details the adventures of a low-budget film crew attempting to shoot a gory monster movie on the streets of New York, which can be a harrowing experience under normal circumstances, but becomes more so when the crew is being systematically and graphically slaughtered by a cross-dressing serial killer. The studio-within-the-film is called Troma, and it comes as no surprise that the screenplay was based upon Kaufman's autobiography, ALL I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT FILMMAKING I LEARNED FROM THE TOXIC AVENGER. "I'm writing that book," Kaufman told me, "and it occurred to me that Troma's history and idealism might be the thesis around which to coagulate a Troma movie. And that's really how TERROR FIRMER began. It began from the germ of 'what is independent art?' And independent art, of course, is done by people who believe in it. That's what TERROR FIRMER is. A small group of young people who believe what they're saying."

Using his own experiences making cult classics like SQUEEZE PLAY!, CLASS OF NUKE 'EM HIGH and Troma's magnum opus, THE TOXIC AVENGER, Kaufman developed a treatment which he passed along to a pair of young screenwriters, Douglas Buck and Patrick Cassidy. "I had seen a short film that Doug had made, and it was brilliant. Really dark. Incredibly dark. I wrote a treatment and got him to do the first draft. And it was not funny enough. I had Patrick, and also there's another guy who works for us named Gabe Friedman (who's credited as TERROR FIRMER's supervising editor), and, with Doug Buck, we'd meet once a week at my home, and we basically brainstormed, and Patrick did a lot of the dark humor that you observe in the movie."

It's precisely that sort of "dark humor" that sets a Troma production apart from everyone else. TERROR FIRMER begins with a killer in a dress ripping a man's leg off and beating him to death with it, while a heavy-metal version of "Amazing Grace" cranks on the soundtrack, moves on to a screaming, bloody fetus being torn from a pregnant woman's stomach, and continues on a mad journey through nearly every bodily function and taboo subject one can imagine--from urination to the handicapped, full-frontal nudity to sex with a pickle, government conspiracies to hermaphrodites. According to Kaufman, few subjects are immune from Troma's vision. "We don't do anything we don't believe in. If it's something that in our hearts we can live peacefully, we will make the movie. As long as I believe in it, there's nothing that would stop me. I do not believe in doing a movie that makes Adolf Hitler into a good guy. I don't believe in it, so I wouldn't do it. As long as we--the Troma Team--believe in what we're doing, the sky's the limit, or," Kaufman chuckles, "lower. Hail Satan, as we say!"

Shot in approximately 30 days on a surprisingly low budget of $400,000, TERROR FIRMER gives every indication of being a more expensive film. The cinematography and editing are first-rate for a picture of this level, and much of the movie's quirkiness lies in the guerrilla-style tactics used by Kaufman and his crew to achieve the picture's most indelible images, including an obese man in a blindfold running naked through a crowded Times Square. "Our production manager, who was not exactly a tireless worker, somehow forgot to put on the permit that 'a naked man runs through Times Square'. It said 'man walks through Times Square'. Needless to say, the police were very angry, and, of course, I--being the boss--had to take the abuse. We got that first take, and they shut us down. They were genuinely pissed." A remarkable speeding car stunt is recycled from an earlier Troma production, and for the gory shot of a head being smashed beneath a car's tire? "A cantaloupe filled with hamburger, cranberry sauce, a little bit of food coloring and some Karo syrup," Kaufman laughs. "You can read about that in my book."

More ambitious than one might expect from a gorefest in which severed body parts are nearly as plentiful as lines of dialogue, TERROR FIRMER takes the time to develop an interesting love triangle among the film crew, involving nice-guy boom man Casey (Will Keenan, who also served as casting director and associate producer), obnoxious special-effects technician Jerry (Trent Haaga) and rookie production assistant Jennifer (Alyce LaTourelle). The three leads appear to take their roles seriously, and infest the love story with a surprising level of intensity. Keenan is a Troma regular, having played the male lead in 1998's TROMEO AND JULIET. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Haaga, who had never appeared on film before. "Trent was a major Troma fan," Kaufman said, "and I met with him when his website did a chat with me, and he was unbelievably knowledgeable when it comes to Troma movies. When it came time to do TERROR FIRMER, Trent asked if he could perhaps have a walk-on part, and I said, 'Sure, fine. Why don't you come in and read?' And on the first day of auditions, we all knew--this is Jerry. This is the Troma freak."

The Seattle-born LaTourelle was a surprise choice as Jennifer, since, although Kaufman appreciates her acting skills, she isn't the "zaftig" type who normally appears in Troma productions. "Alyce is an amazingly talented actress. She's got an amazing sense of humor. Nobody expected me to pick her. You know, clearly her breasts are not the, uh, magnitude one would expect (in a Troma film), but I picked her because she was the best actress who came in and the funniest. I prefer small-breasted women, actually."

Ironically, the funniest performance is essayed by Kaufman himself, who is broadly hilarious as Larry Benjamin, the blind, befuddled director of the film-within-the-film. Whether pep-talking his crew with cheers of "Let's go make some art!" or obliviously splashing urine on nearby fornicators, Benjamin is really the heart and soul of TERROR FIRMER. Surprisingly, Kaufman regrets playing the role himself, which was done out of necessity. "We have a wealth of young new talent--you've got them lining up around the block--but older people are not that interested in working for free. So the people available to me in my age group were minimal. Quite frankly, I was a better actor that what the field exhibited. To me, it's purely playing myself as a caricature of myself. I wish I could have had an actor who would have given a little more depth to the character, but I was better than anyone else I could afford."

Kaufman, an outspoken and erudite man who can speak with intelligence and good humor on any number of subjects ranging from politics and literature to economics and the decline of American artistic standards, considers himself an artist, and seems surprised that the filmmaking Establishment (re: Hollywood) doesn't. "I take my movies very seriously. I do not take myself seriously. TERROR FIRMER took two years of my life. There are low-budget exploitation film directors who are interested in churning out the movies and making what is called 'schlock'. I don't make schlock. I make Troma movies, and there's a tremendous difference." Kaufman's films have been feted at various film festivals around the world, including Cannes, and in December, a retrospective of 14 Troma pictures will be highlighted at Anthology Film Archives, an organization dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of independent avant-garde cinema. His influence is being felt among mainstream filmmakers today. "The Farrelly Brothers, as talented as they may be, are doing what we did fifteen years ago. The New Orleans Times-Picayune recently reviewed TERROR FIRMER, and said, 'Without Lloyd Kaufman, there would have been no THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY.' If you've seen ME, MYSELF & IRENE, the Carvel shot was in SQUEEZE PLAY!, which we made in 1976."

According to Kaufman, TERROR FIRMER's theatrical response has been successful. It will hit video shelves in January on both VHS and DVD, with both the R-rated version and the unrated "Director's Cut" appearing on the DVD, along with three audio commentaries, a making-of documentary, trailers and more. Of course, that's assuming TERROR FIRMER ever receives an R from the MPAA. "It has been submitted numerous times, and they are doing their best to disembowel it. I hate them. They clearly are there to do the bidding of the giant conglomerates. They will give Disney (which owns Miramax, the studio that released SCARY MOVIE) an R rating for a movie that has a penis being shoved through somebody's head, but with TERROR FIRMER, we have to cut out vocabulary. You cannot imagine what they're making us do to get the R rating."

Next up for Troma will be CITIZEN TOXIE, the fourth adventure in the TOXIC AVENGER saga, which will premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival. "Wait'll you see CITIZEN TOXIE!" Kaufman proclaims. "It's got time travel, a parallel universe, six different superheroes, car crashes, fighting, gunfights, machine guns--it's just unbelievable, and we've done it for under a half-million bucks". It will assuredly also contain the irreverence and undeniable appeal that keep the studio's fans--dubbed "Tromaniacs"--coming back for more, and sets Troma apart from every other moviemaking force in America today. Love it or hate it, a Troma film is like no other, thanks to the independent spirit of its guiding creative force, Lloyd Kaufman.

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