I am legend, err, I mean Lloyd

Lloyd Kaufman, CEO Troma Pictures, has been working in the movie industry for 40 years and has seen many changes during that time. Justin Richards caught up with him to find out how digital technology is making a real difference to independent film.

lloyd Kaufman and camera 

Can you give a brief potted history of yourself from say your college days onwards? How would you sum up your life in a couple of paragraphs?

Well I've had the good fortune of making movies for 40 years as an auteur film maker. I've had no one telling me what to do and I've been lucky enough to attract a loyal following and the movies that Troma has made - Troma is probably the longest running independent movie studio in history - have been a huge influence on Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarrantino, James Gunn, Takashi Miike in Japan, Gaspar Noē in France, all these people have written about us or talked about us.

We did movies 20 years ago that are being imitated today. You look at what the majors are doing; they're just spending $200 million on movies we've already done. I saw a movie last night, 'Superbad', it's a fine movie, but check out Troma's movie 'The First Turn On!!' from 1982, it's the same thing. 'Superbad' is basically 'The First Turn On', a Troma movie. The critics say that too. Look at 'There's Something About Mary' - how many critics, when that came out, said, 'well gee these people obviously saw the Troma movies'. There's no question about it - go to my website or check out the critic's own quotes, they're all over the place.

So I think that's the key. We are one of those unique forward-looking companies that, whilst we're totally independent and we're economically blacklisted, we have been a huge influence on everybody from South Park to Spielberg.

So how do you think film making has changed over the years, particularly over the last ten years and would you say that digital technology has helped the film industry or is it a negative thing?

Digital technology is the big hope because, for the first time in history, cinema has become democratised. You used to have to be a rich person to make a movie. My first sound, colour movie called 'Battle of Love's Return' that was $8,000 in 1970, which is probably equivalent today of $100,000. So that's a shit load of money. And now you don't need any money to make a film. You get a little handy-cam camera and 'make your own damn movie' - like the book I've just written.

So there's a lot of hope because now everyone can make a movie. You don't have to live in London, you don't have to live in Hollywood, and you can be anywhere and make your own damn movie. We're going to see better low budget films as young people get more and more adept at doing it. Most of them don't have the $50,000 to go to film school every year; they're learning to make movies, like I did, by making the movies. There will be a tsunami of wonderful movies that hopefully will get rid of shite like 'I Am Legend'.

How important is the internet to the independent film industry?

Well we're the ones who usually come up with the changes to the industry. I mean Troma was the first company, probably the first studio, to release full blown DVDs that weren't porno. We had a website back in 1993. Look at Roger Corman, look at all that he's done for the industry. A lot of the law makers don't know that.

Another big issue that we're fighting for, which is part of my agenda as chairman of the IFTA, is net neutrality because the internet is the last democratic medium. And we are very concerned that 'Big internet' is going to start arising and the major television companies and conglomerates are going to drive the internet in that direction. So we want to pre-empt 'Big internet' and preserve net neutrality so that Troma’s website, which is clever and amusing and has a huge following, can be found by the people.

Right now, if you have something that the public wants and you put it up on the internet, the public will find it. Everybody's equal. But you can already see that the internet is being colonised - you just go to MySpace and see all those pop up ads and you can see what Rupert Murdock is doing with MySpace. And they've got deals with the pages already.

YouTube is doing special arrangements with Viacom, so in a sense the big conglomerates are already starting to colonise the internet. But we're concerned that there's going to be some kind of conspiracy between the telephone companies and the conglomerates to create some sort of super highway which only the rich people will be able to afford go to. The average Joe will not be able to get on it. I mean we (Troma) can't get on the major networks in the United States; I mean most English movies can't get on the television for a decent price. We don't want the internet to be like that.

I attended a lecture by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor, if you like, of the World Wide Web and he was worried about that. He said that his intention, when he created the idea behind it, was that wanted it to be for everyone and not to have so called 'Walled Gardens' like they have in place like China, where access is cut off to certain sites by the state and companies in control.

It's ridiculous. You have these giant companies that will let a movie that's full of violence and blood like 'I Am Legend' or 'No Country For Old Men' be released because it's being released by a major company but if Troma send out an email from a Troma account it gets blocked. No government agency will accept it. You can't email people from private accounts. There's an excuse - but it's OK for Time Warner to send out what they like, to who they like. They've got porno on ACO but it's Ok for them to send out emails.

So you're basically campaigning for a level playing field with no double standards?

Yes, net neutrality is the big issue - that's what we’re fighting for. For example many of the United States libraries and universities have a great many blocked sites, and if, for example, students want to go out and do a term paper or thesis about Shakespeare, and there have been many papers written on our film Tromeo and Juliet, which is a very important movie and is a film on the theme of Shakespeare, but they can't get on the Troma website to find out more. It’s blocked at the libraries and in many universities, even British ones.

But Time Warner's not blocked. You can go and see through them that hard core sex show, that has hard core sex in it; the HBO website is not blocked with the Sopranos and its graphic violence and sex all over the place, so that's what's going on and slowly and surely they are pushing the independents out.

If the public don't know about the independent movie company how the hell are they going to support it? I mean Troma is lucky and we have a big cult following and fans talk to each other but these other companies who make these very good movies, who don't have the 35 years of history, how is the public supposed to find them if their websites are blocked, and HBO isn't blocked - that's ridiculous. It's like Russia, it's a double standard - we have to fight against that.

Lloyd Kaufman, Troma 

What technologies has Troma adopted over the years, particularly as the world moves further into the digital age? In your book you talk about editing digitally, is that something you're pleased with, having taken on that new technology?

Well, we started editing on movieolas, upright Movieolas. Actually the dailies of the Philadelphia shoot of 'Rocky' were edited on Troma's 75 year old upright Movieolas. Not edited, but synched up. The synchronisation was done at our Troma crappy editing rooms. And then went onto flat-bed cam Steinbeck editing machines. When those came in it was like: 'Wow, look at this, your film doesn't rip and you can edit sound and picture at the same time so easily, this is amazing!'

And then we were doing 'Tromeo and Juliet' and I wanted to stay with the film editing, I wanted to edit everything on film. But the younger editors, who were coming up, had all been schooled in video and editing on film is just horrendous. It's cumbersome, you're constantly reconstituting the film because every time you make a change you've got to cut celluloid and you've got to put it somewhere you can find it in case you need it again.

So three quarters of your time is spent book keeping. And on 'Tromeo and Juliet' the editor, who was very young and very talented, got fed up with me and I think I came very close to having the 35mm splicer shoved down my throat. So then we bought Avid.

But I was slow to adapt to digital because I love the film look and I love film and I kind of like touching it. And I thought, mistakenly, that if I stayed in film, because I know film, I know everything about it, I know literally everything, the lighting, cameras, everything, that I'd be OK.

In terms of 1980s technology I know it all. In terms of 35mm celluloid I can do everything. That way, I thought, I can keep control over my art, but that's very wrong because the digital editing permits you to take stuff home. Everything's so small, you get more control over it because you don’t have to reconstitute footage because everything is computerised and digitised and you can find things - it's terrific. So we're using Avids.

When we started our digital editing, when we checked everything out Avid was far superior but now it seems that the trend is changing to Final Cut Pro. (At this point he turns and asks Travis (his editor) for advice, who replies that Avid has a steeper learning curve to Final Cut, making Final Cut easier to learn). Final cut is shoving Avid out now, as the industry standard, so we may have to switch over ourselves sometime in future. For now we’re still Avid - 'Poultrygeist' (the latest Troma film) was all done on Avid.

Project failure is something we hear about a lot in the British press. What general project management advice could you pass on to our readers? Do you have any examples of projects that you saw were about to fail but you managed to turn them around, maybe by using a different technology?

Concerning technology?

Not necessarily. One of your quotes in your book is 'making a movie is like going to war', so therefore, you, as head of Troma Studios, have to be like a bit like a general gathering your crew (army) around you and project managing everything. Hence, do you have any advice on how to project manage the right way?

Well I think the first thing is to believe in what you're doing, to do something that's meaningful to you. 'To your own self, be true.' You start with that. If you start with something that's dear to your heart you'll have a much bigger chance of prevailing. That's the most important thing. It's nothing technological; mostly of an artistic/personal decision.

It's more of a soft skill then? If you can't convince yourself you won’t be able to convince others?

Yeah, exactly and also you've got to put aside your ego. And if you have to sleep on the floor or go down the basement and fight rats, you have to do that. When people see the movie, they see your movie. They don't see that you cleaned the toilets. When they see your movie in a theatre, they don't see you going to the Cannes Film Festival with a bunch of Tromettes, who were naked and threw blood on dogs and did crazy stunts, and generally humiliating yourself in front of the world's media to get your movie noticed. They just go to see your movie because they've heard of it and want to see it. I think you've not got to be afraid to sell your film.

I've known a lot of people who are artists, but are also technology people, who feel it is low class to promote their art or work. They think it demeans them. But Picasso and Charlie Chaplin were great promoters and they were... very rich. Buster Keaton was not a good promoter and neither was Van Gough and they were very poor. And all four of those names were brilliant geniuses.

I don’t think anyone's going to suggest Charlie Chaplin wasn't a great film maker because he went out there and was a good promoter. Certainly Picasso is on a level with the best of other artists. He was one of the greatest artists of all time. And he was a major promoter. So I think that's very important - not to be afraid to whore for your film. And make sure because you're the director or producer you don't merit being treated any better than any other human. You're just a human being.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in the film industry but who didn't know where to begin, particularly, let's say, in a technical capacity, for example, as an editor?

Go find a talented mentor. Find a talented mentor and work for free. If you want to be an editor, identify one who's work you admire, and because no one gives a shit about editors you can get to them, they're in the phone book, you can find them very easily, no one cares (the industry that is - you don't see the editor on the cover of 'Hello' magazine, I don't see 'The Guardian' doing too many in-depth interviews with the editors), so you go right to the editor, knock on their door, and you say 'hey, I loved "strap on Sally Part 13", and I would like to be your intern, and I'll work for free and I'll do your laundry and baby sit for your kids, whatever you want and then you get in and work your way up.

However, directors are a little more difficult to get to, because the ones who have a reputation are seen as being a bigger deal, so it's a little more difficult. But you can still get to them. That's what I would do - go to someone talented and go and work for them for free. Look at it as an investment - you're investing in yourself. I mean what better way to learn the Avid or the Final Cut Pro than working beside a really good editor. And you'll get the creative side - you'll see the magic that occurs.

I used to edit my own movies, but when we got a better budget we hired editors, and also I didn’t have as much time. On 'Squeeze Play' we hired George Norris, an editor who had edited 'Joe', Peter Boyle's and Susan Sarandon's first movie, and I had worked in his editing room as an intern, and I remember seeing the things he was doing that I thought what great, creative stuff.

So we hired him, when he was in between jobs and had the time, and he gave us a good rate. We also hired Ralph Rosenblum because after 'Annie Hall' he had some time off and he loved 'Stuck On You', he loved the footage, so he came in and I learned a lot from him. He edited 'Annie Hall' and all the great Woody Allen Movies - he's written a really good book too.

I was in there every day with him on 'Stuck On You' and I learned a lot about editing. I know those guys were paid but when I worked for John G. Avildsen. I worked for free and he went on to do 'Rocky'. I identified him as a talented editor and I definitely learned a lot from him. I worked for free and then when he got a job he brought me on.

How do you think the internet has changed the film industry as a whole - the way films are made and marketed these days?

I think it's changed it to enable the 'Make your own damn movie' reader to set up their own websites and market their own moves. You can make movies now for £2,000, for £1000, for £500. So you don’t have to sell too many DVDs over the internet, so I think there are now thousands of film makers selling their movies over the internet, which I think is a huge advance. I mean Troma does it - look at the site, look at the store, there's a shit load of movies. Not to mention that we're selling on Amazon, we’re selling on Netflix, we’re all over the internet selling movies - I think that's a big, big change.

How does Troma use the web?

One major aspect of it for Troma is that it enables us to communicate with our fans. We just opened 'Poultrygeist' in Texas and we did not spend one cent on advertising because we only had one theatre in Austin and one theatre in Houston, big cities in the states; in any case we opened in both cities two weeks ago, with no advertising, but by using the internet and our website. Friday night was sold out and we beat 'The Golden Compass' in that theatre and we beat 'Mist' in that cinema - they have 15 screens. We were the number one screen. All thanks to the internet - our fans knew about the screenings from our website.

It's all about viral marketing these days. It's down to good communication - we can talk to them, they can talk to us. That's why it's very important that net neutrality remain because otherwise if you're going to have to dig in through 35 screens to find the Troma website how bad is that going to be. And if you do find it and the quality is not as good as, say Time Warner's website, or the BBC's website, that's going to be terrible.

Do you like gadgets and technology yourself as a person - do you like BlackBerrys, Smartphones, Playstations, things like that?

I have a BlackBerry. I've never cared for games, even pinball. I just don't have the mental concentration. I'm not a game person; I never played games with other kids as a kid. Even Baseball; I love Baseball, but when I go to a Baseball game I don't really concentrate on it, I just like the atmosphere. I mean I've been to Cricket games and I don't even know what's going on. I love it, but only because of the atmosphere. The beautiful field, the ambience of the people, but I just can’t concentrate. I hate playing games though. People want me to play Bridge or to gamble, but I just don't have the ability to focus.

Where do you get your ideas from when it comes to pulling new ideas together for new films?

From newspapers, from real life… For example, with 'The Toxic Avenger' my wife and I went camping a lot and we'd see detritus from MacDonalds in the pristine wilderness. In those days they weren't biodegradable. And then I started reading newsletters about toxic waste and that's how the toxic avenger started.

With 'Poultrygeist' MacDonalds build a store next door to us, at the Troma building, and they were very rude and they put their garbage in front of our door at night and in the morning when we'd come in there'd be garbage all over the place and then we were invaded by hordes of racoon sized rats. So then I started studying about fast food and found that it was a horrible, horrible industry. And Gabe Friedman, whose idea this was to make the movie, he was down in the basement with me cleaning up rat shit.

He'd just been hired, he'd just come out of film school, (he's now worked on a bunch of our movies), and he said 'well, why don't you make a movie about the fast food industry, that would be a good theme for a Troma movie'. And I'd always wanted to do a musical, so I thought what the heck, let's write some songs and then maybe that's what we’d do. And three years later we made the movie.

Have your company ever been affected adversely by IT security breaches by way of Trojans or viruses or malware, etc; has anything like that had a knock on effect as to how the studio operates?

I think the only problem we have is that sometimes - we have our own servers but some how AT &T is involved, the telephone companies are involved, and they screw up sometimes.

The thing that is most damaging is that you have these email companies like AOL and Gmail and when we send an email to someone, Hotmail, it goes into their spam box, why those emails? Why isn't it the other way around? How much email do I get from Hotmail that is spam? That's the biggest problem. In order to do business - I find that those service provider companies have somehow got Troma on a spam thing. And that's terrible.

We don't send out spam - we don't do it. We've never done it. We have a list of fans and we communicate with them - they want our information, we have never ever sent spam. But this is part of the blacklisting of independent companies. Anyone who's controversial, who’s got something to say, they block them. And the excuse is: 'Well it's the content we can't let that through.' So that definitely hurts our business.

My MySpace gets hacked into all the time; I don't accept all the people on MySpace - I don't look for all the people. Everybody on MySpace; I think I've got about 11,000 people, they are all people who we've vetted - they have to know a certain amount about Troma to be admitted. But nonetheless there are people who've hacked in to my MySpace and somehow managed to fuck around in there - or they've put ads in there - they've put a Starbucks advertisement on some kid's profile.

Some kid will send a message to me, from a John Smith, but John Smith didn't send that advertisement.

And I didn't understand that at first, and I was deleting these friends who'd sent commercial messages, only to find out later that it wasn’t them who were doing it. But we haven't had any major screw up. I think the worst of it was where we had a period where the store was down because of something the phone company had done or not done. We might have been hacked though, but I honestly don't remember. The fact that I don’t remember it means we've had reasonably smooth sailing and the internet is a major reason that Troma's still around.

I mean 35 years of the same company, with the same management, making movies about explosive diarrhoea and chicken Indian zombies which are very, very scathing satire, to be able to get away with that, the internet is really important. Our fans using the internet, they go out and book the theatres; we got the two best theatres in Tucson, Arizona, the best in Houston, Texas, and in New York; it's the fans - they go to our website and we tell them the theatres don’t call us back because they're under the thumb of the big conglomerates but if you go into the theatre and ask for 'Poultrygeist' they may listen to you and that's how we booked the theatres this time. Almost all the theatres we've had. We'll get about 300 cinemas around the United States.

The New York cinema screening is only because the fans went in and asked for it. And they've called us back and now we’re going to open on March 14th. And the film's doing well because of the internet - the people can find out about it and go and see it. If you only have one movie theatre in New York to show your film, how can you advertise? 'I Am Legend' spent over two million dollars on advertising, just in New York, that's four or five Troma movies!

Lloyd Kaufman 

What's next up for you and for Troma films?

I'm looking for a script and if you go to the Troma website it tells you what I'm looking for. In a nutshell I'm looking for something that’s a bit more character driven and yet still daring and controversial. I’m looking for an ensemble piece - we have really good acting in Poultrygeist' and so I'm looking for a vehicle which will permit our new group of actors to be able to act.

In 'Poultrygeist' they're terrific but there's so much else going on. The actors don't really get the opportunity to really, really act. I mean the nice thing about that film 'SuperBad', even though it's a very commercial movie, is there's some marvellous scenes between the three or four main characters, when there's real acting. The two buddies who are boys the relationship, the acting, the dialogue, it's great. It's definitely a stupid movie but it’s a lot of fun and there’s some really good acting. Same with that other one that group did, err, 'Fucked up', no, I mean 'Knocked up'. That one too has got some very good acting.

So how would Lloyd Kaufman wished to be remembered - what would you want written on your headstone?

I think as a loyal person who did what he believed.

A good epitaph.

I don't even know what that word means.

A coda, a…

I know, I know, I'm kidding! (Laughs) Oh, and foot fetishist - put that one in.

http://www.troma.com/

March 2008