Like the Toxic Avenger gutting a corrupt, hippo-sized mayor by jamming a noxious hand into the villainís flabby belly, Troma Films CEO Lloyd Kaufman is throwing verbal jabs as he speaks his mind at a quaint coffee shop on the north end of Tacomaís Proctor District. "The Sundance Film Festival is bogus," the outspoken renegade claims. "They hate filmmakers, and theyíre not really independent."
In the take-no-prisoners manner of Terror Firmerís sexually conflicted killer treating a college numbskull to a beer enema and bong bludgeoning, the Yale graduate and father of three calls Hollywood a maker of "baby-food movies, run by a Satanic conspiracy of elites."
Like an aggressive Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD zapping a crime lord with his heat-seeking chopsticks, Kaufman scoffs at the Independent Film Channel. "IFC are [sic] owned by a giant media conglomerate. They should be called FIF, for ĎF*ck Independent Film.í"
Spouting off louder than the Draino-chugging, hillbilly son from Motherís Day, Kaufman continues his heartfelt, impassioned rant. "Iím not against the mainstream in general. Iím just against mainstream people who want to erase images of the World Trade Center from Friends. They should erase Friends from the World Trade Center -- erase those mealy-mouthed little sh*theads from that crappy show."
By this time, however, the coordinator of Americaís longest-running independent studio is mellowing out. He edits the previous comment by adding, "Friends is funny. Iíll have to admit that."
Kaufman goes on to simultaneously praise Jennifer Aniston and flex his movie trivia muscles by stating, "She was great in the film Office Space, by Mike Judge. She was cute, and funny, and subversive. Now, I have a soft spot for her."
Moments later, after the dapper, tie and sport jacket-wearing director finishes a tin dish of rainbow sherbet, he smiles at a waitress who arrives to clear the table. "Thanks, maíam," he acknowledges as she carts off his eating utensils and re-fills a coffee cup. Revealing both an edgy, maverick spirit and a refined, polite demeanor, this Lloyd Kaufman is a complex character, indeed.
Troma Films was born kicking and screaming in 1974, when Kaufman and Yale college-buddy-turned-business-partner Michael Herz cut their teeth with a cluster of sex comedies oriented towards the drive-in theater crowds, that preceded such blockbuster, mainstream counterparts as Porkyís and Animal House. Meanwhile, Kaufman dabbled in larger profile Hollywood features as a production assistant, working with director John G. Avildsen on a string of early seventies hits including Joe, Cry Uncle, and Rocky.
Darting back and forth between the worlds of corporate, big studio movies and low budget, exploitation fodder, Kaufman viewed filmmaking like a mountain climber might scan Wyoming vistas from various Grand Teton peaks. He hunted down places to shoot as a location manager for John Badhamís disco classic, Saturday Night Fever. He took on the role of production manager for the intimate, highly regarded Louis Malle feature My Dinner with Andre. All the while, heíd sneak off from these more respectable stints to produce such lowbrow fare as Motherís Day, about a couple of depraved, Deliverance-style crackers who terrorize young girls to please their equally sadistic matron.
However, Tromaís definitive mascot, and low-budget cinemaís equivalent to the omnipresent fast-food image of Ronald McDonald, was spawned in 1984. The Toxic Avenger followed the grisly metamorphosis of wimpy, absent-minded supergeek Melvin Junko, an ill-fated mop boy slaving away at Troma Health Club. After being humiliated at the callous hands of some murderous, fitness-obsessed jocks, Melvin hurls himself out a window and into a barrel of oozing, hazardous slime. Emerging as a muscular mound of orange tumors and crime-fighting savvy, Melvin becomes The Toxic Avenger and dispatches several depraved crooks in creatively gruesome ways.
"The action is set in the town of Tromaville," Kaufman explains of the fictional, New Jersey-based locale where The Toxic Avenger, and most of Tromaís other features, are based. "The good people there are perfectly capable of running their own lives, but there is a conspiracy of elites that get in their way. Thereís the labor elite, the bureaucratic elite, and the corporate elite."
"The three elites conspire to suck dry the little people of Tromaville and their economic and spiritual capital," continues Kaufman, revealing a political undertone that weaves through all the severed heads and gloppy intestines that more commonly define his work. "Sometimes the people need Toxie to save them, or Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD. In Tromaís War, they did it themselves. Thatís the theme of all of our movies -- that there is a conspiracy of elites that must be stopped."
Kaufman, who was recently honored alongside fellow indie legend John Sayles at the high-profile SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, states that this much-hated stew of conglomerates is at the heart of whatís wrong with Hollywood today. The fact that studio-owning corporations often possess the very theatre chains, video stores, and television networks which feed their product to the public ensures that certain movies are guaranteed public exposure. Meanwhile, those films not directly thrust into such mainstream pipelines are often neglected.
Kaufman can definitely talk the talk, but can he walk the walk when it comes to support of indie films? His latest endeavor, The TromaDance Film Festival, celebrated its third year in January, in the rugged, snow-covered confines of Park City. As a deliberate nose thumb at its more well-known Utah neighbor, the glitzy, star-studded Sundance Film Festival, TromaDance does not charge filmmakers to submit their work. Void of special reservations for the rich and famous, TromaDance rolls out the red carpet for the average film-loving guy on the street, with free, public screenings of all entries.
"Some poor sucker trying to get his movie exposed to the media canít hand out leaflets there in Park City," growls Kaufman, denouncing what he perceives as Sundanceís pretentious, spoiled-kid vibe. "In fact, two volunteers from TromaDance were put in jail for handing out leaflets! The guys from Enron wonít be put in jail, but these people had to spend a few nights there."
"Iím pissed off that in what is supposed to be the freest society on earth, the American Public is denied art. Art is stolen from the people. We have to see the same piece of crap on 8,000 screens, like A Beautiful Mind." Once again, the low-budget icon edits his statement.
"I donít know that itís crap," he reconsiders, "but lets face it. Open A Beautiful Mind at a thousand theatres, then let five other movies play. Because right now, there are masterpieces from Spain, Japan, and Korea, by filmmakers like Takashi Miike, that donít play here."
"Meanwhile, the American public is denied them, because we have to see the same movies, wherever we go, and whatever we do. Whether youíre in a hotel, or an airplane, or a movie theatre, itís the same six movies. Itís a disgrace. These are baby-food movies, attempting to be all things to all people. You can live off baby food, but itís very boring."
Boring isnít a term commonly associated with Tromaís formula, a liberal stew of breasts, brain-splatter, and irreverent humor that makes Thereís Something About Mary look like a Merchant-Ivory Production in comparison. Meanwhile, its utterly crude and distasteful aesthetic is neutralized by the most obviously gut-bucket special effects this side of Ed Wood. While the typical Hollywood film runs anywhere from thirty to eighty million dollars, Tromaís movies average less than half a million to produce. Without state of the art gimmicks, Kaufmann heaps on slapstick action, cranberry sauce, and stage blood.
After some particularly villainous robbers hold up a Taco joint in the original Toxic Avenger film, its pop-eyed hero comes to the rescue with some fast-food combat strategies that must have McDonaldís founder Ray Kroc rolling in his grave. One hyperactive goon is rendered senseless by some martial arts mayhem before having his lungs ripped out by a milkshake mixer. Another offender becomes a human pizza, shoved into an oven to bake long into the evening. The piŤce de rťsistance involves a third thugís hands being thrust into hot oil, his fingers immersed in the boiling goo like ten overcooked french fries.
"We filmed that scene all night," he reveals. "The guy who owned the restaurant was a big Troma fan, and he let us shoot there for nothing. Because the Taco scene was set during the daytime, a lot of the shots are filmed facing away from the windows, so that people wouldnít see that it was dark outside."
Kaufman, whose Troma acquisitions catalog boasts over 1,000 titles, recently completed a second book on such low budget filmmaking secrets, Make Your Own Damn Movie. Slated for a Christmas season release, the book will be available through St. Martinís Press.
Occasionally, an effect that deviates from the directorís specific vision can turn into a major coup. Case in point: Toxieís hideous yet adorable mug, which brings to mind the hairless, radiated bean of The Road Warriorís main scourge, Humongus, cloned with comic book sensation Swamp Thing. "I wanted Toxie to be much more disgusting looking," he confesses. "Jenny Aspinall, the gal whom we hired to create his look, kept coming back with this kind of lovable, lump-headed guy. I kept telling her to make the skin more oozing. Then I ran out of time and money, and had to shoot. She deserves the credit, because everybody loves Toxie. Whatever she did, itís magic."
Magic, indeed. Since The Toxic Avengerís mid-eighties debut, its title character has become a major franchise. His name and slime-slathered likeness can be found on comic book covers, lunch boxes, board and video games, model kits, and Halloween masks. He frequently haunts the Cannes Film Festival, and has marched in the Macyís Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Tacomaís Proctor District is an upper-class nook in North Tacoma, a few blocks south of Commencement Bay and a western border to the expensive, private campus of University of Puget Sound. Itís a haunt known more for its coffee shops, antique stores, and quaint, restored nineteenth-century homes than for norm-challenging eccentricity. In fact, it could almost be the West Coast version of Tromaville.
Yet, the town sheds its polite, disciplined demeanor each Saturday night, as the Blue Mouse Theater hosts everybodyís favorite interactive midnight movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The weekend ritual attracts a colorful freak show of neighborhood nonconformists who eschew Proctorís refined vibe. Even though itís Troma Thursday, and Tim Curryís spandex Ďn mascara clad form is nowhere to be seen, the same motley crew from Rocky Horror have taken over the cinema, anxious to be the first in Washington to view Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger Part IV.
Thereís Sparky, a lumbering man-mountain with the blonde, untamed mane of Metallica frontman James Hetfield. Sparky spouts Troma trivia from the Blue Mouseís front row, and grips a video copy of Tromaís Class of Nuke Ďem High for Kaufman to sign. With his Harry Knowles-sized profile, Sparky claims to be the movie houseís unofficial bouncer, and proudly states that Troma movies and Iron Maiden music are his two greatest passions in life. His friend, a dark-haired geek sporting an oriental, silk shirt and carting around a special edition of Terror Firmer, hopes to get the tape autographed by Kaufman. It seems that most of the Rocky Horror regulars are on hand to be Tromatized.
Others, like the middle-aged couples and college students taking advantage of the free March screening after seeing it advertised as part of a University of Washington Arts & Lecture Series, might have been expecting an ecology documentary. Instead, they watch as Kaufman, the eventís guest of honor, saunters up the left aisle alongside a mop-wielding likeness of Toxie himself. Trailing behind them is Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, another Troma celebrity, who shares the spotlight as the trio is mobbed by about a dozen hardcore fans.
The Troma President is greeted by another wave of rabid applause as he introduces the fourth Toxic Avenger installment. "I think that The Toxic Avenger series is the only set of movies to feature someoneís head getting crushed by an automobile, before getting turned into a childrenís cartoon."
The middle-aged couple suddenly grows wary, sensing that perhaps they arenít ready to enter Tromaís grisly universe just yet. However, Sparky and his cronies are poised for maximum splatter, howling up front as the lights grow dim. Hail, Toxie.