“We’re a cult,” said Troma Entertainment founder Lloyd Kaufman, scrolling through his compliment-filled Twitter feed, nearly invisible behind the mountain of papers and memorabilia covering his desk.
He read one out loud that referred to him as a “cinematic God.”
“The fans are totally devoted,” he laughed.
Troma Entertainment, the Long Island City laboratory that spawned over 800 visceral and transgressive horror-comedy films with enough fake blood and guts to slather the nation, still stands as one of the last remaining independent movie studios. The 1970s brain child of Yale buddies Kaufman and Michael Herz, Troma has shaken and disgusted audiences with films like “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead,” “Tromeo and Juliette” and the most widely-known “Toxic Avenger,” whose flagship character is a six-foot-tall, mop-toting, high-school-aged mutant.
Quentin Tarantino, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson have listed the Troma-founding duo as career influences. “Cannibal! The Musical,” the break-out piece from “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, was distributed by Troma Entertainment. The original tape, sent by the now-famous pair from their former office in Colorado, is still in Troma’s basement.
Kaufman and Herz remain the company’s co-presidents nearly 40 years after its inception, with Kaufman assuming the role as figurehead over a media-shy Herz. Their film fascination began in college with their discovery of the French film publication “Cahiers du Cinéma.” The newspaper contained essays by revered cinematographers including Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard – artists who preached the importance of director autonomy. It was the kind of movie-making doctrine Kaufman adored.
The price of complete control, however, is operating on a bare-bones budget, sacrificing and trimming in script costs and actor quality.
“I could have gone out to LA and tried to do it there but I figured if I wanted to have total freedom I better make my own damn movies,” said Kaufman. “The bargain made was if you have a low budget you have total control so I decided to stay here and have artistic control.”
Kaufman says it’s a love of filmmaking, not pushing envelopes, that drives his creativity.
“I’m interested in art and films that have a vision and a soul and express the vision of the artist,” said Kaufman. “In my case, that vision is very [messed] up.”
French newspaper Le Figaro compared Kaufman to Dadaist Marcel Duchamp in that both artists’ work served to drive genuine emotion – even if that emotion is utter hatred. Many of Troma’s films involve sociological and political satire, including “Troma’s War,” which criticized Ronald Reagan’s glamorization of warfare.
Kaufman prefers to remain independent, evading what he feels are watered-down instruments of mass appeal to which the public is led to by a ring through the nose rather than their own convictions. He found “The Master,” — a recently released, highly regarded film by Paul Thomas Anderson — pretentious and boring. Even his 20-something co-worker didn’t understand the film. But, Kaufman said, at least it’s not “Transformers.”
The current conglomerate environment, Kaufman said, provides an unlivable atmosphere for independent studios.
“The battlefield is littered with the bodies of independent movie companies,” said Kaufman.
Troma recently wrapped shooting on its latest film “Return to the Class of Nuke ‘Em High,” a revisiting of 1986’s “Class of Nuke ‘Em High” in Niagra Falls. The Troma team is gearing up to premier the film at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
Troma does it all not for the press or the critics, but for its slew of adoring fans, who gobble up every last hilariously grotesque bit of film and beg for more. A famous movie critic once quipped to Kaufman that his movies have the best titles.
“[Screw] you!” Kaufman said. “We have the best movies.”