In 2018, it’s harder than ever to be independent in the world of movies. With Thanos and T. rexes and computer-animated superfamilies descending upon our multiplexes, the do-it-yourself spirit of film history is being crowded out, one IP blockbuster release at a time. But there are still some fearless, indie-minded artists fighting the fight. This week on The Ringer, we’ll look at some veterans of the field and some exciting new entrants, and try to understand where independent cinema will go from here.
There are no fewer than 40 people scurrying around the set of Shakespeare’s Shitstorm. More than two-thirds look as if they’ve wandered in from a strip club or a Coney Island freak show or a high school Halloween dance. There’s a platinum-blond woman in a slinky string bikini and platform shoes, a half-naked girl in a wheelchair with a lipstick joker mouth, several other women in fishnet stockings and lingerie, a bevy of people in ill-fitting suits, a guy wearing a dashiki and wig of gray dreads, and a four-piece band dressed in old-timey black tie as if for a Roaring ’20s party.
And then there’s Lloyd Kaufman. At 72 years old, Kaufman is the cofounder of Troma Entertainment, the world’s longest continually running independent film company. A small, gray-haired man with skinny arms, he’s dressed in drag—a strapless red number with a little ruffle at the bust and an auburn wig. By the end of the day, it will be drooping to expose a bustier. Dark glasses are perched on his nose, and his phone is on a string around his neck. He’s wearing kitten heels and a touch of lipstick. Kaufman is watching a scene live on the monitors. Against a ship-deck background, the band plays “Nearer My God to Thee,” the song that accompanied the Titanic’s sinking. People are drunkenly wobbling across the deck, waving to something in the distance.
“Cut! Fuck! Goddamn it! No no no!” yells Kaufman, waving those skinny arms. The band stops playing. Everybody slumps a little. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to yell,” he says quickly. “You just can’t turn your back to the camera. Do it like this.” In his kitten heels, he struts before the lens.
Known to his fans as “Uncle Lloyd,” Kaufman is an unlikely hero, beloved by hundreds of thousands of followers who call themselves the Troma Army. When he’s not in drag, he’s usually dressed neatly in a blazer with a pocket square and a bow tie. And though he has a penchant for euphemisms and winking, naughty humor, his manners are impeccable. With a flexible, stretchy face that often lifts into an expression of wide-eyed surprise, mouth slightly agape, as if someone had just goosed him or pinched his nipple, Kaufman is the Mister Rogers of the punk-nerd film underground. He’s been making movies for 50 years, and is best known for raising a middle finger to Hollywood while specializing in a genre so specific—a combination of comedy-satire and surrealist shock-horror—it’s simply called “Troma.” Back when video stores still existed, so did sections devoted solely to Troma movies.
Kaufman’s latest film, Shakespeare’s Shitstorm, is a reimagining of the Bard’s The Tempest. Of course, his interpretation takes the story to new heights—or depths, depending on your point of view. In it, Kaufman plays Prospero as well as Prospero’s evil sister, Antoinette, hence the drag. Shitstorm—if you can imagine a literal shitstorm—opens with whale fecal blooms, a blind, masturbating Miranda, an orgy on a yacht, a stripper–Stephen Hawking–like Ariel, and so much more. But, like all Troma films, the absurdity is couched in a scathing societal critique. Shitstorm takes on the pharmaceutical industry, social justice warriors, social media, and political correctness.
Like most Troma productions, the cast and crew is a mixed bag of amateur and professional, sex worker and slam poet. There’s Pat Kaufman, Lloyd’s wife and the former New York state film commissioner (she recently retired and is producing Shitstorm), all the way down to an 18-year-old woman who has never acted. There’s Nadia White, an adult fetish model, and Adam Zaretsky, an artist who works in transgenics. Nobody really gets paid on Troma films—the labor force is provided by volunteers who just really love Lloyd Kaufman and his work. Even so, everybody is happy, buzzing, excited to be in this weird nightclub in Astoria dancing around naked, covered in fake blood, being yelled at by Kaufman. “I love being supported and loved!” someone yells when everyone breaks for lunch. It’s one big, happy, fucked-up family.
Kaufman has just arrived back with some of the cast and crew from Albania. Arranged by one of the producers, Justin Martell, who has a side hustle as a film production fixer in Eastern Europe, the shoot was one of the first by an American film company there. It’s still cheap in Albania, and Kaufman will tell you they’ve got to save money. “It’s not easy to make a $20 million movie for $500,000,” he likes to announce every so often.
Troma sometimes gets its locations at a discount, thanks to the generosity of fans. Shitstorm’s set looks handmade, extras’ costumes are likely self-sourced, and the props include toy money, flour-cocaine, and—eventually—gallons and gallons of oat-based fake feces, plus a few liters of Troma’s signature green toxic goo. That day, the special-effects team was mixing a batch of tapioca-starch-based semen for an orgy scene.
Despite the studio’s 44-year history of disruption and provocation, Shitstorm may be the company’s most outrageous film yet. It may also be Kaufman’s last.
Or at least that’s what he’s telling people. After five decades of directing 30-some features and more than a hundred shorts, after cowriting and coproducing a hundred more, after distributing 500-plus films, it’s over. Final act. Curtain call. Lloyd Kaufman and Troma, out. And without Troma’s perpetual stick-it-to-the-man shit stirring, without its David-to-the-Goliath-of-Hollywood crusade, the truly independent film industry will never quite be the same again.
But hold up — you’ve never heard of Lloyd Kaufman? You’ve never seen a Troma movie?
To be completely honest, before I began reporting this story, I hadn’t either. It’s because Troma is the inverse of the mainstream. The give-zero-fucks, Mad Magazine–meets-Dada-nonsense agitator. Troma is the proverbial rabble-rousing Puck so far outside of the Hollywood system, it’s unclear whether Hollywood is even aware that Troma exists. Best known for its 1984 cult classic, The Toxic Avenger, Troma champions the misfits and weirdos and outsiders and freaks and everything fringe. If you’re a Troma fan, if you’re one of those misfits or weirdos, you already know.
For everyone else, welcome to Tromaville.
Be forewarned: Troma movies are graphic, violent, and full of gross-out humor. Heads crushed by cars, hands reaching out of graves into buttholes, bodies falling into meat grinders, bellies splitting open with popcorn and rodents, up-close nipple piercings, radiation-induced seizures, sex on fast-food restaurant floors, and earthworm-eating kabuki masters. There are brains spilling out of skulls, jingoistic babies, and teeth-torn umbilical cords. But they’re also strangely feel-good. They have a message and a vision. They’re not scary, but they are an outrageous, phantasmagorical, primordial soup populated with gallons of Karo-laced blood, dozens of dismemberments, more T&A than an issue of Hustler, and some of the sweetest antihero monsters ever to grace celluloid.
The point is that Troma movies are specific, and they possess a meaningful legacy. Kaufman argues that Troma has advanced the art of American film. That it’s introduced the world to a whole new way of seeing genre, and to a generation of once-unknown actors and moviemakers, including James Gunn, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Eli Roth, Marisa Tomei, Samuel L. Jackson, Billy Bob Thornton, J.J. Abrams, and Oliver Stone.
The story of Troma is the story of the little guy against the machine. It’s also the story of Michael Herz, Kaufman’s unsung cofounder, and Pat Kaufman, the love of Lloyd’s life. And ultimately, the story of Troma is the story of Lloyd; the two are indivisible.
A fifth-generation New Yorker, Kaufman grew up on the city’s Upper East Side. “It was about as bourgeois as you can get,” he says. His mother was obsessed with the theater and occasionally worked on or invested in productions. He recalls being awoken in the middle of the night by parties with “lots of theatrical laughing.” Elaine Stritch and Bobby Short hung around. Montgomery Clift once knocked on their door. Kaufman saw all the Broadway flops, all the hits, and has an encyclopedic memory for who starred in what, as well as the scores to each. Many of his film’s soundtracks are inspired by operas or riff on classical scores.
His paternal grandfather worked for a stint in vaudeville, and Kaufman’s father was a lawyer who pioneered derivative shareholder law (the proto class-action lawsuit). Charles, his younger brother, says their father had a fantastic sense of humor, and was always trying to make them laugh. Lloyd is the eldest of three. Charles directed films, including the cult classic Mother’s Day (1980), and now has a successful baking business in San Diego. Susan, the youngest, is a set designer for television and films, and is currently working on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Kaufman’s three daughters all work in film as well. They describe being influenced or inspired by Kaufman’s own fearless, unexpected dive into the film industry.
“My parents taught me that you could have a beautiful life without a lot of money,” says Kaufman. “They were pretty free range. Very decent people, but wild socially. Much wilder than I am.” His grandmother, a socialist widow who initiated correspondence with the leftist intelligentsia, introduced him to the work of I.F. Stone, the radical leftist journalist, and C. Wright Mills, author of The Power Elite, an analysis of the average American citizen as helpless against the manipulation of dominant power structures.
Kaufman was deeply affected by these philosophies, and remains indebted to their messages. “Tromaville is abused by the bureaucratic elite, the labor elite, and the corporate elite,” says Kaufman. Whenever Troma makes a movie, it’s always in reaction to the dominant powers.
Kaufman thought he might be a social worker or a teacher, but when he arrived at Yale, his confidence was shaken. He realized he knew nothing about the world outside the United States, so he took a year off and moved to Chad to teach English. “There was no electricity, no telephones. I got every disease you can imagine. It was the opposite of living in Manhattan and watching My Fair Lady.”
When he returned to Yale, he majored in Chinese studies in hopes of broadening his worldview. (“China was one of the biggest disappointments of my life,” he says. He’s been asked to speak at the Chinese American Film Festival where he has castigated the Chinese government for its censorship practices and atrocities against humanity.) Kaufman roomed with a film nerd who ran the university’s film society. He began reading Cahiers du Cinéma, learning about auteur theory, and watching films by Samuel Fuller, Tay Garnett, John Ford, Orson Welles, and Kenji Mizoguchi. By then, he’d caught the bug. Around the same time he met Michael Herz, another film buff and his future partner in Troma. In the summer before his final year, while studying at Stanford, Kaufman directed his first feature, The Girl Who Returned.
The story of Troma as we know it begins in 1974, when Kaufman and Herz formalized Troma Entertainment. It’s a word that actually means nothing, but evokes “trauma.” (“Tromatized” is an adjective that gets thrown around when referencing the experience of watching a Troma movie.) Their first works were “sexy comedies” and included Waitress! and Squeeze Play!, the latter of which was inspired by the Equal Rights Amendment and women’s lib. It preceded Porky’s, perhaps even inspired it. “The [Porky’s] director Bob Clark, great guy, visited us and interviewed us, trying to figure out what we did,” says Kaufman. “The only thing that wasn’t fair about it was he used great actors and had a big budget and a great script.”
When the college-humor-meets-erotica category got crowded, Kaufman and Herz began to cast around for the next thing. Herz saw a headline in Variety declaring horror dead. So they decided to make horror. But preferring to make people laugh rather than scare them, they combined the genres to form what some today call “schlock horror.” More accurately, they could be described as low-budget, surrealist horror-comedy with lots of nudity thrown in.
This is where The Toxic Avenger was born. And the green goo. And the blood and guts. And the breasts and the butts and the head crushings. This is what Troma fans think of when they think of Troma.
The Toxic Avenger centers on Melvin, a nerdy janitor at a health club in Tromaville, New Jersey. Gyms were just becoming a popular aspect of American life, and its working title was Health Club Horror. One day, while being bullied by the gym’s violent meathead/bimbo members, Melvin is exposed to toxic waste and transforms into a massive, mop-carrying, tutu-wearing beast with superhuman strength. Offended by the evil that Toxie sees in the world, he seeks to destroy its perpetrators. In the process, he rescues a blind woman, who falls in love with him. In the end, Tromaville is saved and Toxie becomes its heralded hero.
When The Toxic Avenger debuted in 1984, it got some good reviews, but wasn’t paid much attention by the mainstream. And as tale of the cult classic goes, fans rallied and traction followed. It spawned three sequels; a television cartoon series, Toxic Crusaders; and a musical that had a successful off-Broadway run in 2009 and toured internationally. Conversation about a remake has been circulating for years, but has yet to come to fruition.
The Toxic Avenger provided the classic structure and message of many Troma movies to come. The bad guys are always avenged. The monsters or outcasts ascend to heroes. It’s a tale of the underdog heralded, and the monster living happily ever after. “I always felt terrible about Frankenstein’s monster. Poor monster,” says Kaufman.
Most of Troma’s films are set in Tromaville, New Jersey, an American village tormented by violence and crime perpetrated by greedy overlords. “The people of Tromaville are innocent and have their spiritual and economic capital sucked out and controlled,” says Kaufman. Generations of fans have been introduced to Tromaville through The Toxic Avenger, and for many of those fans, the movies have had a profound effect on their lives.
“There is nothing else like a Troma film,” says Gabriel Friedman, a former longtime Troma employee. “They look like nothing else.” Friedman cowrote Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead and the first outline of Shitstorm, among other works.
“I grew up in Kentucky, and in the early ’80s,” says Trent Haaga, another former employee and actor. “It was a cultural wasteland. I was always a weirdo and a freak, interested in punk and skateboarding when these were not things that you did.” When he saw his first Troma film, it was like someone crawled into his preadolescent brain and made the movies of his dreams. Haaga, a former IT guy at CompuServe, took a major pay cut to work for Troma in the ‘90s. When he went broke, he went back to his IT job for six months, saved up money, and quit again to work for Troma. He went on to write Citizen Toxie and his own recent feature, 68 Kill.
Many Troma employees grew up dreaming of working on a Troma movie. On the set of Shitstorm, I met no fewer than a dozen people who had left jobs or come to New York on their own dime to work on the production. One guy was from London. Another from California. And another from Missouri. And they were all working for free.
When Kaufman shows up to conventions like Comic Con, hundreds of fans line up to talk to him. “People come up to me and tell me very personal things,” says Kaufman. “Many times I’ve had kids stand up and say they were being bullied at school or that they were going to commit suicide, but they saw Troma’s War or something else, and they decided not to.” (Kaufman gave one of these fans a part in Citizen Toxie. For the most part, Kaufman shoots his films linearly, beginning to end—extremely uncommon in mainstream productions—so that he can write in guest actors who show up in the middle of filming; one day on Shitstorm’s set, a couple of dads from his daughters’ high school showed up because they wanted to appear in a Troma film.)
In so many ways, The Toxic Avenger saved Troma, too. Toxie is the outfit’s mascot. He goes to every convention and every engagement. Wherever Lloyd goes, so goes Toxie. Lily-Hayes, Kaufman’s eldest daughter, recalls family vacations in Tunisia and Cameroon, where her father would pull out the Toxie mask on the side of a highway or in front of a banana plantation so he could take a picture or a mini movie with him. Where Frankenstein was misunderstood, feared, and ultimately cast out, Toxie is beloved by the masses—and by the mad scientist who brought him to life.
“Here’s this character who loves his mother, is loyal to his wife,” says Pat Kaufman. “He cares about the underdog and supports the little people. He’s enraged by evil and must stop evil wherever it is. Who do you think that character is? It’s Lloyd! Lloyd was the 90-pound weakling. Lloyd is like the superhero fighting for the rights of little people,” she says proudly. “I have always contended that Toxie is Lloyd.”
The Troma studios are housed on a desolate street in a modest brick building in Long Island City. The roll-up door is covered with a mural that says “Welcome to Tromaville” above a jolly spray-painted Toxie with his mop. Where many East Coast film companies are often shiny boutiques in loftlike spaces, Troma is a homespun living room. The ground floor contains a garage full of props, a room of merchandise and DVDs (Troma still direct-mails all its own orders), and a library stocked wall-to-wall with masters.
Upstairs, Kaufman’s and Herz’s desks face each other in a brightly lit office. Where Herz’s area is Spartan and neat, Kaufman’s looks like a Coney Island funhouse garage sale. There’s a toxic-waste prop barrel, miniature Toxie busts, a giant foam Toxie head, Tromaville bumper stickers and posters, a broken-down mannequin in a tropical shirt, and dozens of pieces of fan art. There are piles and piles of papers and Post-it notes and scripts and books and fan mail. There’s a coded John Nash–like aura about the mess.
Herz, 70 this month, a golf-tanned, fit man, has both feet kicked up on his desk. Kaufman is dressed in a hoodie and running shoes. They both insist I take a tour, and send me out the door with an editor, who proceeds to explain in almost parodic detail each nook and cranny of the Troma office, down to the shower stall tiles used in Return to Nuke ’Em High volumes 1 and 2. It’s difficult to tell whether he’s a super fan or he’s just fucking with me. Maybe it’s both. The Troma universe is like that. Everyone is a super fan, and everyone treats life like one big piece of subversive performance art.
Herz has preferred to stay out of the spotlight, and focuses on the business aspect of the studio. Even though he proclaims to be shy, he’s charismatic and self-possessed, turning a brilliant sound bite when pressed: “I always felt a company should be represented by one iconic individual. There’s Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Louis B. Mayer, and Lloyd Kaufman. There should be one visionary. [Lloyd] is like the Grandma Moses of cinema. Lloyd is the icon.”
On another visit, Herz proclaims a fervent love for President Donald Trump—which feels like he’s trolling everyone, though he never breaks character—while Kaufman makes Rodgers and Hammerstein references and decries a Sloan Kettering doctor who accepted money from drug companies. Every so often Herz lets out a couple of belches, and whenever I address him, he declares he wants no part of the interview. The Troma universe is so bizarre, so outside of normal reality with its monster heads and super-fan tour guides and political dichotomies, I can’t tell what’s a joke and what isn’t. For years Kaufman cast a 500-pound actor named Joe Fleishaker as the character Michael Herz to needle him. It’s one of Troma’s key inside jokes.
Troma movies are full of them, self-referential in the way that South Park or Family Guy or The Simpsons is, but amped up with the feeling that each succeeding gag—and film—is trying to outdo itself. Throughout the years, the films have become more meta, more postmodern, more fragmented in a way that is a bit dizzying to dissect unless you’ve started at the beginning.
After The Toxic Avenger came Class of Nuke ’Em High, about a Tromaville high school next to a nuclear power plant. Then came Troma’s War. Then came Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ’Em High sequels. They were mostly ignored or poorly reviewed. Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. got two thumbs down from Siskel and Ebert, but The New York Times kind of liked it. Around the same time, Troma became more distanced from the studios. When video stores started to fail, the company began to market and distribute their own VHS tapes.
Over the years, Troma continued to acquire libraries and distribute films for up-and-coming talents, many in the horror genre, all of them wildly fringe, with budgets that ranged from $10,000 to just under $1 million. Then in 1996, they had a breakout. Tromeo and Juliet was a modern reimagining of Shakespeare’s classic love story written by Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, who was just starting to work in film. Truly a product of the ‘90s, it features Lemmy from Motörhead as the narrator, music by Superchunk and Sublime, and a surfeit of piercings, flannel, and tattoos. Critics liked it. The Times called it “goofily exhilarating” with “poetry to match its sex and gore.” Anne Morra, the assistant curator of film at MoMA, who included it in her “Breaking Bard” series, says it has “dreamscapes which remind me of surrealism. This is Romeo and Juliet as if Salvador Dalí had a hand in it.” Tromeo and Juliet went to Cannes, James Gunn went to Hollywood, and love conquered all.
In 1999, Troma followed up with Terror Firmer, a postmodernist meta story about a narcissistic blind director (played by Kaufman) making a horror film whose set is plagued by a serial killer. The Times called it “artless,” but also “a piñata of in-jokes,” which, depending on who you are, renders the film brilliant or pointless. Then came Citizen Toxie and Poultrygeist: Night the Living Chicken Dead. At the time of the latter’s writing, Kaufman was horrified about a McDonald’s that had opened next to the then–Troma building on Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. He’d also read Fast Food Nation and, in solidarity with his daughter Charlotte, became a vegetarian. (He remains a vegetarian today, though he professes to hate vegetables.) Poultrygeist was shot in an abandoned McDonald’s in Buffalo, and is about a burial ground where the souls of dead chickens unite with the spirits of Native Americans to seize revenge upon the restaurant built atop it.
During release, in true Troma fashion, the company picketed the Tribeca Film Festival, which forced one of its venues to take down Poultrygeist posters and stop playing its trailers. The film went on to play in international festivals. The Los Angeles Times called it “a heaping helping of political incorrectness gleefully spiced to offend just about every sentient being,” and the Times declared it “as perfect as a film predicated on the joys of projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea can be.” So all in all, for Troma, it did pretty well.
The last few years in Tromaville have been focused on Return to Nuke ’Em High volumes 1 and 2, which were filmed in an abandoned funeral parlor in Niagara Falls. Volume 1 was released to fair reviews—MoMA included it in its prestigious “Contenders” series alongside Blue Jasmine and Blue Is the Warmest Color—while Volume 2 has yet to be fully released. (It has shown in Los Angeles, and will show sometime in the next year in Oregon and Texas.)
In the meantime, Kaufman has been making and starring in Shitstorm, which he seems to be enjoying immensely. Whenever I dropped by the set, he was either calmly directing—an anomaly for most Troma productions, as veteran crewmembers and several behind-the-scenes documentaries will attest—sitting through makeup, or acting comfortably, characteristically as Uncle Lloydie, eyes wide, mouth thrown open, his neck working in a sort of bobblehead circuitry.
According to IMDb he has 343 acting credits, which include a drunk in Rocky, a drunk in Rocky V, and a doctor in Parker and Stone’s Orgazmo. Many of these roles have been cameos in which people ask him to play the Uncle Lloyd they know and love. (He has played Rabbi Lloyd, Llord Lloyd, Lloyd the Coffee Cart Guy, President Kaufman, Floyd Faukman, and Father Lloyd, among others.) In his own movies, he’s often playing the same part over and over again—a version of Lloyd, the director who just wants to make art.
Kaufman and Pat live in a brownstone on a sleepy street on the Upper East Side. Out front, dead center above the door, is a mottled bust of Toxie, looking innocently gruesome, one eye melting down a cheek. “Many women have a strange sexual reaction to Toxie,” says Kaufman in his memoir and movie-making guide All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger (the book, which documents Troma’s work up to 1998, was cowritten by James Gunn). “Perhaps it’s because it was a woman who originally molded his face.” It’s tough to say Toxie is sexy, but even from this gargoyle perch he’s more adorable than sinister.
Inside Kaufman is making a cheese plate. His daughter Charlotte, 30, is setting up her camera to film our conversation. She’s been making a documentary about Troma and her dad for several years. Charlotte is a director of photography for documentaries, including Divide and Conquer, a forthcoming doc on Roger Ailes, and has appeared in Troma movies since 1989, when she played a blind baby in The Toxic Avenger Part II. The Kaufman house is filled with Japanese and Chinese art, china cabinets full of curios from travels abroad, and fan art that Lloyd just can’t bear to part with.
Pat, a tiny, slim woman with blond hair in a scrunchie and purple tortoiseshell glasses, sits down with us, too. After 44 years of marriage, it’s clear they are devoted to each other. Without exception they sit next to each other at dinner, and she travels with him to all of his appearances. “Pattie Pie,” as Kaufman calls her, is a force. While film commissioner, she was appointed by Republicans and Democrats alike (unheard of in this position) and created the incentive for New York–based film crews, which allowed productions to receive 30 percent of costs back. To avoid any conflict of interest, Troma never once took advantage of the incentive even though, arguably, the company needed it more than anyone else in the film world.
When I ask Pat whether she’s ever objected to anything in Troma movies, she tells me she reads every script before anything else happens. She makes notes about what she would tone down or cut out. In Shitstorm, she attempted to contain what she could. “I always tell Lloyd that he’s like Dumbo, and the blood and the guts and the boobs are his feather. He thinks he needs them to be successful.” Pat thinks that he could make a movie without them, that he could make something cleaner with a more straightforward message — all he has to do is spread his elephant ears and fly.
But Kaufman says he likes all that stuff. He shrugs and chalks it up to fun. Charlotte says she’s worried that people will construe things the wrong way when Shitstorm comes out, that they may conflate Kaufman’s views with that of Breitbart or the alt-right because he comments derisively on the current climate of ultrasensitivity. He’s always hated political correctness, he says. For a moment, she was also worried when Gunn was fired from Disney. Because of Gunn’s association with Troma, right-wing trolls stalked Charlotte’s social media. Kaufman put out a statement in support of Gunn, separate from the Hollywood mainstream.
Kaufman, obviously, has a complicated relationship with the mainstream. He never misses a chance to criticize its elitism, money-grubbing, or narrow-minded perception of what a movie should be. He denounces its constant censorship and rejection of art. All of his books are about democratizing filmmaking, sharing secrets with the masses about lens tricks, special effects, marketing, and selling “your own damn movies” as the series is called. A large part of his oeuvre is available for free on Troma Now, the company’s streaming service, and YouTube. But there’s also a feeling that he would like to be seen by the mainstream, to be recognized for his advancement of the boundaries of film. And some people do cite their influence. Quentin Tarantino’s current editor, Fred Raskin, once interned at Troma, and Tarantino himself has cited his admiration of Troma. Trey Parker and Matt Stone owe their breakout to Troma. No matter how fringe Troma is, it’s undeniably prolific, and has shaped a generation of film nerds who have endured the boot camp of its production. A parallel between Kaufman and Roger Corman, the prolific director and producer who gave breaks to Coppola, Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and more, could be made. “We’ve been compared to Corman,” says Kaufman, who has known the B-movie director for years, “but he’s infinitely more mainstream and infinitely more profitable.”
Back in the early days of Troma, Kaufman used to take his films to Cannes, and other film festivals, but pulled back when they became corporatized. “When they made Cannibal! The Musical, Trey Parker and Matt Stone were obsessed with getting into Sundance. But they didn’t even get a fuck-you letter,” says Kaufman of the duo’s first film, which Troma distributed. “They decided that they didn’t not get invited, so they rented a place and screened the movie.” Parker and Stone basically crashed Sundance with Cannibal! And today we have South Park and The Book of Mormon.
A few years later, Kaufman held the inaugural TromaDance festival concurrent to Sundance in Park City. There were no entry fees, no ticket fees, and no VIP sections. “I recall Mickey Rourke waiting in line to get in,” says Kaufman. “I recall quite a few celebrities coming to TromaDance.” One year a couple of employees were arrested for handing out flyers, and the next year they handed out flyers with the First Amendment printed on them. Another year, the cops took away Toxie’s mop, deeming it “a weapon.” Which, technically in the movie, it was. But if there was ever a symbol of the underdog being battered down by the man, this was it. TromaDance ran for 10 years in Park City, then Asbury Park for several years, and is now based in New York City.
To Kaufman, Sundance is not representative of truly independent films, but of mainstream Hollywood. “They’re flying business class or first class and eating at fancy restaurants because that’s all they talk about. They don’t talk about movies very much.” Kaufman argues that these are films with huge budgets, films where boundaries aren’t pushed. Just like Hollywood, it’s exclusive. “For years before anyone else, we had black people and women working for us. Trans people, too.” Is that a good thing? “Not really, because they weren’t getting paid working for us, and couldn’t get jobs in Hollywood.”
The issue, the real reason Troma stands in such stark opposition to the mainstream, will always be its outrageous content. At some point they stopped paying the MPAA to rate its films, which Kaufman calls “disembowelment,” meaning they were forced to remove violent or sexual content, which he believes is less offensive than the mainstream because it’s cartoonish rather than hyperrealistic. “There is no more theatrical distribution for us. When Waitress! came out it was shown in 92 theaters in the New York metro area,” says Kaufman. Now, if he wants a screening in New York, he’ll have to pay a theater. “The IFC told us to stop contacting them,” he says. Over the years, each film has become more absurd, more convoluted, and more limit-pushing than the next.
Anne Morra, the MoMA curator, sees past the shocking surface matter. “The films are deceptively complicated in terms of their narrative,” she says. “On the surface you think you’re watching a monster movie or a high school movie, but what he’s really getting at is a much deeper story.” Furthermore, she sees it as important that people know how intelligent Kaufman is, that they understand what an intense vision he has.
Troma’s tagline is “Movies of the Future.” The company has always been ahead of the curve, even if it is a bloodstained, toxic-goo-drenched, titty-shaking curve.
“Today’s New York Times was slobbering all over themselves to praise Mad Magazine, a division of Warner Brothers,” says Kaufman, referring to an article in which the paper considers a recent comic strip satirizing school shootings. “I have a satire in my 2000 movie Citizen Toxie making fun of those shitty kids at Columbine in the long coats. We called them the Diaper Mafia. No pat on the back for that in 2000.” He is a fan of Mad Magazine, but he laments the sentiment that it requires having an umbilical cord to the mainstream to get recognized. Kaufman just wants you to know that he’s been pushing boundaries and satirizing the evil he sees in the world for way longer than those sellouts up in their cushy Hollywood studios have been—all for the sake of making art.
“He is so serious about his work that it was never even a question that it was art,” says Lisbeth, Kaufman and Pat’s middle daughter, who founded KitSplit, a film-gear-sharing service. “He’s so fanatical about his vision of the world and that he’s trying to change the world, to help people tell stories. Surprise people with a voice that’s different.”
Shitstorm producer Justin Martell grew up dreaming of working with Kaufman because of what he identified as vision. “He’s an auteur. He creates chaos, but believes that from the chaos art emerges. He always follows his artistic intuition and never compromises.”
If this is true, what does it mean to make a Troma movie in the era of #MeToo and Trump and social media and the death of traditional media forms? What does it mean to film a satire that blasts social justice warriors, the liberal elite, the slimy corporate aristocracy, and fascist right-wingers in the same breath?
“Troma films are a maximalist vision wagered in response to a society that operates in maximalist terms,” says Dylan Mars Greenberg, who started working with Troma when she was in high school and now, at 21, directs her own features.
In these terms, it’s as if Kaufman and his troops have co-opted the language with which the world speaks—a brash, ugly, abrasive language—and reimagined it with latex monsters, toxic goo, whale shit, and penis monsters, and volleyed it back with a serious message. Sometimes that message is about the environment (The Toxic Avenger), sometimes it’s about loving who you want to love (Tromeo and Juliet), sometimes it’s about boycotting industrial agriculture (Poultrygeist). But there is always a message.
The oddity of Troma is that all this weirdness, all this fantastical stretching of reality comes from bourgeois, Ivy League–educated, bow-tie-wearing Kaufman. Lloyd Kaufman who is munching on candy corn in his classic brownstone. Lloyd Kaufman who is doddering around refilling a dish full of tortilla chips. Lloyd Kaufman who wants me to see the crazy, 10-foot weed in his neighbor’s backyard because he knows it’s evidence of climate change. Lloyd Kaufman whose daughters attended debutante balls and worked as bankers and went to business school and weren’t allowed to watch R-rated movies until they were 15. All this came from Kaufman, a straight white Jewish man who says he doesn’t give a fuck what you think.
And whatever you think about his movies, whatever you perceive them to mean, you cannot argue that Kaufman is, if nothing else, uncompromising in his vision. “I’ve been preaching ‘to thine own self be true’ for a long time. I think I was brainwashed by the Godards and the Chabrols,” he says, referencing the French auteurs. And despite his single-minded drive to create the movies that he wants to create, he is softened by his appreciation for the people who have “eaten cheese sandwiches, slept on floors, and defecated in paper bags” for him—all the hands and hearts it takes to make movies when there is no money in the till. Ask anyone—he remembers everybody’s name, writes thank-you notes after every film, and will champion anyone who says they are making art for art’s sake. So what does it mean that Shakespeare’s Shitstorm is Troma’s final work, and Kaufman’s exit from the world of truly independent film?
Wait, who told you that? That’s just a rumor. Lloyd Kaufman still has stories to tell, money to raise, meetings to take, hands to shake, babies to kiss, monsters to make. “I don’t think he’s going anywhere,” half a dozen confidantes tell me when I ask what will happen to Troma without Kaufman. Even Herz tells me he’s confident Kaufman will direct another feature. They don’t think he’d give up the dream or the art as long as he’s alive. Kaufman isn’t sure he’ll make another movie, “unless he wins the lottery,” but Troma certainly isn’t going anywhere. At least not until he and Herz make a sound like a frog.
Like a demented, upside-down Marvel Cinematic Universe, Troma will hold on by the skin of its teeth, championing its horrifying heroes, its social pariahs, loser rejects, and hopelessly pathetic, pure-hearted nerds. As long as Lloyd Kaufman is around, the good guys will always be avenged, and the little people of Tromaville will always live happily ever after.
Leslie Pariseau is a writer and editor in Brooklyn, and the cofounder of PUNCH. She’s earning her MFA in fiction at Hunter College.