Produce Your Own Damn Movie!
Troma’s Llyod Kaufman Talks ABout His Latest Book
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando speaks with Troma's Lloyd Kaufman about his new book "Produce Your Own Damn Movie"
"Tromeo and Juliet," "Toxic Avenger," "Poultrygeist." For thrity-five years Troma Studios has been producing gems like this outside the Hollywood establishment. Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman talks with me about Troma and about his latest book, "Produce Your Own Damn Movie."
You gotta admire Lloyd Kaufman. Okay, maybe "Class of Nuke "Em High" and "Dialing for Dingbats" aren't Oscar calibre fare but you have to respect the fact that for more than three decades, Kaufman's Troma Studios has been successfully turning out independent films, and has been providing a film school for people like Trey Parker and Oliver Stone. Troma has been producing a consistent product that not only keeps its fan base happy but keeps them begging for more.
Kaufman himself is also quite a character. When you speak with him you are never quite sure where the showman/saleman ends and the real person begins. He quotes Shakespeare and Pascal and then with seamless kill plugs his latest film "Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead." His series of books -- now known as "Your Own Damn Film School" -- serves up a mix of hilarious anecdotes and observations along with genuinely helpful information about making films outside the Hollywood system. So as much as Kaufman jokes around, he's serious about passing on useful tips to a new generation of filmmakers.
Kaufman's latest book, "Produce Your Own Damn Movie" was recently released and is currently available -- the perfect gift for any wannabe filmmaker this Christmas. I spoke with Kaufman last month while he was attending the American Film Market (AFM). You can read my review or listen to the man himself.
BETH ACCOMANDO: This is Beth Accomando, KPBS film critic, and I am speaking with independent filmmaker and author Lloyd Kaufman. Hello Lloyd, how are you doing?
LLOYD KAUFMAN: Welcome and greetings from Tromaville.
BA: You are actually at AFM right now, correct?
LK: Yes, the American Film Market, I’m actually the chairman of the Independent Film and Television Alliance, which is the trade association for the independent entertainment community. This is the only major film convention that is owned and operated by the two hundred members of the trade association.
BA: And you are there celebrating your 35 anniversary?
LK: Yeah, this year is the 35th year and that’s why “Produce Your Own Damn Movie” came out a couple of weeks ago and everybody’s talking about it because it’s all about producing independent art.
BA: This book is part of a series of books, what is it, “Your Own Damn Film School”?
LK: Yes Beth indeed, indeed it is. It follows “Make Your Own Damn Movie,” which then was followed by “Direct Your Own Damn Movie” and because many people would like to produce so the publishers, Focal Press… so “Produce Your Own Damn Movie” is aimed at young people who’d like to try and be independent and have control over what art they are creating.
BA: How did this book series get started?
LK: There was a retrospective in New York by the Avignon Film Festival. And the curator of the Avignon Film Festival did a panel with me. I think this was for our 20th year. And I’m kind of the Jerry Lewis of the French underground. And Avignon is a well-known French Film Festival that takes place oddly enough in Avignon, where the Chateau Neuf du Pape runs like water. And after doing the Q&A with me he thought, “Gee whiz Lloyd’s life is kind of interesting.” So he suggested that I write the first book, which was actually kind of a memoir. And I told him go ahead and find a publisher. And he did so he became my literary agent and the books have done well. And “Produce Your Own Damn Movie” is the fifth book I’ve written, three of them are in the “Make Your Own Damn” series, and one was a novel called “The Toxic Avenger Novel,” and the one before that was called, “All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned from ‘The Toxic Avenger.’”
BA: Tell me a little about the style you write these books in because on the one hand they are often hilarious and loads of fun to read but they are also packed with a lot of very practical information?
LK: Well so many of these books that tell you how to make your movies or how to direct or how to write screenplays they’re written by people who don’t actually do that and I’ve actually been writing and directing and producing movies with no interference, I’ve had total freedom for forty years. And the only “pari” as Pascal used to say, the only sort of wager, is I have very low budget, half a million bucks is kind of the budget I’ve been working on for 35mm. I’ve got kind of a cache to be able to tell young people how to do it since I’ve been doing it for forty years. And it’s part of my crusade to continue and keep alive the independent arts because we are living in an age of giant media conglomerates and they are strangling everybody, they’re eating everybody’s lunch… That’s part of our crusade is to try to, it’s very discouraging to young people breaking in today because so much of the media is vertically integrated and controlled by a small number of giant devil-worshipping international media conglomerates headed by people like Rupert Murdoch, where they own the newspapers and the TV stations in the same market and they control everything and the rules that used to protect the public against monopolies have been done away with and that is a big, big problem. So my motivation in writing the books is to try and inspire young people to go out and try to make their own art and not worry too much about conforming or try to make something that will appeal to Burger King or that Van Gogh didn’t necessarily sell any paintings but he did eventually in the fullness of time become the most popular artist in the history of the world. So I think that’s kind of my mission. Just to try and give people the inspiration to make their own damn movies.
BA: But you have a nice balance between keeping the book entertaining and helpful.
LK: Well thank you very much and indeed I was aiming at young people so in fact I’ve gotten many emails where they say, “Dear Lloyd Kaufman, I’m a junior in high school and I never read books and I read ‘Produce Your Own Damn Movie,” and now I’m interested in reading books. And I really had a good time reading it. You know a lot of kids think books are scary. They are afraid of books because they watch too much television and they see Jay Leno and idiots like the Today show, not enough of them listen to NPR. Or they don’t read proper journalism, they don’t read the papers, they watch baby food television, and then they see “Transformers Part 6.” And they are scared of books. And why shouldn’t they be, our whole society has been against teachers, against nurses and in favor of Paris Hilton. That’s been the whole value system. So we at Troma, all of our movies, all the movies I write and direct are usually an attempt to raise the spirits and the psyche and the motivations of the underdogs. Inspire people to fight against the conspiracy of elites.
BA: Keep a spirit of rebellion alive?
LK: Well not rebellion for the sake of rebellion but we really do live in this age of limousine liberals and people telling us about inconvenient truths and winning Nobel Peace Prizes that they don’t deserve. And then leaving things out of “An Inconvenient Truth” that might be inconvenient like don’t eat meat, like more global warming is created by bovine flatulence than by any human made thing. But God forbid we put that in “An Inconvenient Truth” because that would be an inconvenient fact that might make us unpopular or that maybe we shouldn’t be watching oil based DVDs and CDs maybe we should be getting our movies from Amazon.com so we don’t use up all those oil based and then throw them away because they never break down. Those things take thousands of years to break down. But the folks who are scare mongering us with the so-called green message they don’t talk about the bovine flatulence or the DVDs that are polluting the groundwater, they don’t talk about that. And that’s the thing that’s so depressing about the world we live in that’s why it is wonderful that Beth Accomando is interested in independent art. Thank you so much.
BA: I have to say that I have always enjoyed when Troma has had panels at Comic-Con. My favorite was showing how to crush a skull using a watermelon?
LK: No, no I must correct you. It’s very important, not a watermelon, in fact we fired people when we had to crush Trey Parker he started, Troma discovered many famous people, Trey Parker of “South Park” is one of them he made “Cannibal the Musical” at Troma. But he had to have his head crushed in “Tales From the Crapper.” And I told the young people over and over again must be a cantaloupe because the skin of the cantaloupe in a quick one-second shot is more human-like than the watermelon. The watermelon cracks, the skin of the cantaloupe gives the way a human epidermis would give. So those people were fired on the spot because they used a watermelon. So please it’s a Crenshaw melon, a cantaloupe perhaps, and of course many of the Troma Special effects are world famous because they are quite inexpensive. And very, very effective and rather amusing at the same time.
BA: And then Styrofoam cups to use for crunching bones?
LK: Well for sound effects. Yes we use them for sound effects. But we can talk about the evils of Styrofoam cups not necessarily from the environmental point of view but people tend to leave them in the middle of a scene. Some crew guy will be drinking out of a Styrofoam cup and on “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead,” and leave it on the set. And then if nobody sees it then when the movie is projected there is nothing that says this is a movie more than a Styrofoam cup in the middle of a scene where there’s nothing to do with a Styrofoam cup. By the way the other thing about Styrofoam cups, and I talk about this in one of my books, is don’t have big Styrofoam cups because people tend to take soda or juice or coffee and they’ll fill up the cup and then they’ll only take two sips and then they put it down and they waste so have very small cups. And I discuss this in a movie called “Terror Firmer.” Because it’s a movie about the making of a Troma movie. So it’s my most personal movie. So it deals with a sexually confused serial killing hermaphrodite.
BA: You mentioned Trey Parker worked on a Troma film are there any others?
LK: Trey Parker made a movie. Trey Parker and Matt Stone made “Cannibal the Musical.” “Cannibal the Musical” was a wonderful film. And Troma is still distributing it very successfully. Although it’s never been on American TV. Because of the media consolidation that I referred to earlier. But those guys went on to do “South Park.” They have been very supportive of Troma and appeared in “Terror Firmer,” Trey got his head squashed in “Tales from the Crapper.” They have been very nice to us. They are the essence of independence and they are totally brilliant obviously. They single-handedly revived the art of American satire.
BA: I was wondering if there are any other Troma Graduates that you might want to mention?
LK: There’s a movie “Def by Temptation,” which Michael Herz, my partner and I, financed. Other than that we had nothing to do with it we put up money for it and Samuel L. Jackson’s first movie was “Def by Temptation.” And the fact that we had nothing to do with the artistic side means “Def by Temptation” is an amazingly good movie. Vincent D’Onofrio started his first movie was “The First Turn On.” “The First Turn On” is about summer camp. He played a character called Lobotomy in “The First Turn On” and if you see him on TV he acts as if he’s had a lobotomy. So he owes a lot to us. To Troma. And Fergie, Fergie from Black Eyed Peas, was in “Monster in the Closet,” and Oliver Stone, who’s a big time director, he came into movies through “Battle of Love’s Return,” my first movie in sync sound, the first time I had direct sound on my movie, and Oliver Stone had a part in that. There are a lot of people; Kevin Costner’s first movie was “Sizzle Beach, USA,” a Troma movie. And when you go to the American Film Market you can see so many different offices, so many different companies that have executives that started with Troma and it’s quite interesting. Troma is sort of like half film school, half camp, half hippie commune, half artist center, and that’s a lot of halves, I was never good in arithmetic.
BA: Now for your book “Produce Your Own Damn Movie,” you spoke to and interviewed some other filmmakers. How did you decide who you wanted to include in your book?
LK: Well I’ve been lucky enough to produce movies for forty years. Troma’s always had the wherewithal and the cash to do it. I have not gone out and done things like preselling movies or putting together packages of stars and then based on the package getting the financing or I’ve never had to do that kind of stuff or just never having done it so I wanted to interview people who for example, Mark Harris who won an Oscar for “Crash,” I wanted to interview him because he’s very independent and he has also come out of the earlier movies when he was young I don’t want to say Troma because that would insult him but lower budget and he did “Million Dollar Baby,” he did “Crash,” but he’s financed them independently so he had total control over it. I interviewed Kathy Morgan who is an executive producer/producer’s representative who has packages of movies where there are big stars like Scarlett Johansson and Tom Cruise’s wife and a big time director and a best-selling book and a wonderful script and she can presell those rights to enough companies so they raise $40 million but they do it independently. It’s not through a studio. And then I interviewed Paul Hertzberg who has a company called Cinetel. And he makes movies for SyFy Channel. And he finances them through Canadian banking and government subsidies and is preselling independent foreign distribution rights. An Steven Paul who’s been independent for a long time, as a filmmaker he did “Ghost Rider,” which was financed independently. He’s now working with Steven Spielberg on “Ghost in the Shell.” So I didn’t really know much about producing so I interviewed all of these producers including Roger Corman, I talked to him about why he stopped directing and only produces. I talked to some of the no-budget producers too who are making movies like… sometimes I act in people’s films like the guys who did “Crank 2,” I acted a little part, they are Troma fans so I interviewed them. They also did “Gamer.” Then there is a guy who did “Bloodbath in the House of Knives,” which is kind of a frommage to the gialo Italian movies of Argento and Fulci and those guys. And he was making a no budget movie and I interviewed him. So I think if you read “Produce Your Own Damn Movie,” You can get a sense of producing movies from no-budget all the way to Oscar-winning $80 million movies. All of the producers I talked to raised their money independently, some of them distribute independently, some of them do their own distribution like Troma and some of them are distributed through the movie studios, through the big conglomerates. So a young student or an old student or anyone can read “Produce Your Own Damn Movie” and not just get the Troma way but half the book is how Lloyd Kaufman produces his or her, its own movies but also you can learn how up and down the food chain of how people are producing movies independently from the no-budget movie produced at home to the $80, $90 million that has big, big stars. All of them are independent however.
BA: You mentioned that you had gotten some feedback about how young people had gotten inspired to read more books but have you gotten any feedback from young people who are filmmakers who have been inspired and felt they learned something.
LK: Yeah and in fact a lot of young filmmakers have read my book and write that they carry my book in their ditty bags, in their kits. And when they are on the set… and if you talk to people like James Gunn who – he actually worked for Troma – he says he channels me, he wrote “Dawn of the Dead” remake, he wrote “Scooby Doo,” he directed “Slither.” He’s in Louisiana now writing and directing a big movie. Eli Roth is a major director, he did “Cabin Fever,” and “Hostel,” and Tarantino has read my books. So there are some people who are kind of well-known who read my books and then there are a lot of students and I get a lot of, a huge amount of emails from young people who are shooting their first film or just shot their first film who say I just finished my movie and your book was in our ditty bag the whole time and the whole crew was constantly referring to it. Because I also have the “Direct Your Own Damn Movie” and “Make Your Own Damn Movie.” And a gyno-American, and again I don’t say girl because at Tromaville we are very politically correct so girl is a bad word and woman has the word “man” in it, so gyno-American, a gyno director wrote to me recently that has all my books on the set all the time and has her crew read them, gives them out to her crew to read at night or when they are not filming for inspiration. She said if there is someone as idiotic as Lloyd Kaufman can make movies for forty years with head squashings and arm-rippings and hard-bodied lesbians then anyone can do it. So she gives out her books on her set to the young people to read. I think it’s very important for young people to know that they don’t have to work for Viacom, Paramount, VH1, or NBC, General Electric, you know Universal, they don’t have to work for a big conglomerate and operate a Xerox machine. They can go out now and through the magic of the digital revolution they can go and make their own damn movies and it’s not beyond the reach and they just have to have the attitude of what Woody Allen says, “Success is about 88% just showing up.” We keep going. Troma is here at the American Film Market, we’ve got “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead,” we’ve got a new Bigfoot movie, that’s really, really good. We are just starting to write the fifth “Toxic Avenger” movie that involves Toxie’s Toxic Twins. And the Toxic Avenger, he gets older in each movie. So my books depending on the subject, they have a lot of my own experience, and my own how-to, but in the case of “Produce My Own Damn Movie” more than half of it is the interviews and sidebars with successful producers as compared to me.
BA: What do you think is the key to the success of Troma?
LK: I think in all honesty the secret is that Michael Herz and I are, even though we are two different people; we totally kind of channel each other. We are lucky partners. That we really respect each other and basically trust each other. We’ve never had a contract, we’ve never had anything in writing and we abide by the “to thine own self be true.” A maxim coined by one William Shakespeare. Who wrote that great best-selling book, “101 Money Making Screenplay Ideas,” otherwise known as “Hamlet.” So I think that’s the lesson. Do what you believe in, “to thine own self be true.” Don’t listen to people do what you believe in and again Troma would not be here without the fans. The fans are very, very, very loyal to us and aggressive. And hard-working. And there’s no question that the reason that Troma is the oldest independent movie studio was because our fans have kept us going. They help us, they spread the word.