Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I'm assembling as many of the celebrity interviews I've done since my first one in high school with Flash Gordon himself Buster Crabbe for a book titled "Fifteen Minutes With ..."

The gold standard for interviews is of course the intense and in-depth pieces that have graced Playboy's pages for decades. Most of us though are seldom given the days on which those interviews are conducted. Instead once an interview is confirmed, the next question is "How much time do I have?"

The simple fact is most celebs have something to sell and to sell it efficiently their publicists will set up interviews in 10 or 15 minute blocks. Two interviews that had no time limit, which was in a way frightening as I didn't want to over-stay my welcome, was with Bill Cosby – whose P.R. guy said, "You'll know when you're done." – and Ray Bradbury, whose PR guy said, "Call at noon eastern. That's when he likes to talk."

As a working journalist you have to make the most of your time. An interview with Alice Cooper was exactly 10 minutes. Cooper was on message, on time and I would have loved to have been able to speak with him longer, but he had to go to the next reporter.

I've a satisfying career when viewed from a fanboy perspective as I've been able to talk, although all too briefly, with many of the people whose work I've long admired. I think that will be the angle of the book.

In any case here is a piece that saw publication in 2003 in one of our now dead products, the hapless Journal/Bravo, a failed effort at creating a family friendly alternative entertainment bi-weekly. This was the cover story and I had to fight various people at work who had never heard of the Toxic Avenger and believed no one else had either.

Is Lloyd Kaufman feeding me a line? He tells me that if I hold the DVD of The Toxic Avenger IV: Citizen Toxie up to a light, I can see the image of Jesus on one disc of the two disc set and Satan on the other.

He must be smiling on the other end of this telephone interview.

The patter is typical Kaufman, who is a movie director who has taken lessons on promoting himself from masters such as William Castle and Alfred Hitchcock and racheted up the hype to meet these jaded times.

You haven't heard of Kaufman and his company Troma Entertainment? Well, the studio's flagship franchise, The Toxic Avenger, just made the top 50 cult films of all times list published recently by Entertainment Weekly. In fact, Toxic Avenger - or "Toxie" as he is affectionately known - has not only appeared in four films, but has been the star of an animated television show and several comic book series as well.

Besides heading the independent company with his partner Michael Herz, Kaufman has directed a number of the key Troma releases, and has written two books about the tribulations of the independent filmmaking. In the grand tradition of the classic Hollywood studios, Kaufman and Herz has established a highly recognizable style. Warner Brothers was known for its films "torn from the headlines," while Paramount's films boasted an European elegance and MGM had "more stars than there are in heaven."

Troma has brought gratuitous violence, gore and sex to levels that are almost surreal. In fact, Troma's films have captured the attention of mainstream critics because of their no-survivors satire that is in the tradition of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." In fact, some film writers have stated that without Troma paving the way, bad taste and mainstream comedies such as There's Something About Mary may never have existed.

Troma titles include films such as Class of Nuke Em High, Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD and Terror Firmer. Its latest film, which is now being produced, is Tales From The Crapper.

There's no doubt about it that Troma is not for everyone, but Troma fans are highly dedicated to the company. The studio's web site (ww.troma.com) features a gallery of photos from fans who have pledged their loyalty with a tattoo of the Toxic Avenger. When was the last time you heard of someone putting Julia Roberts or Harrison Ford on their forearm?

The company's most recent film, Citizen Toxie - now out in a double disc DVD edition crammed with extras - boasts of scenes with such over-the-top material this writer barely can start describing them in a family publication. The plot revolves around our hero The Toxic Avenger, the hero of Tromaville, who finds himself transported into an evil dimension. The hero of that dimension, the Noxious Offender, is now in Tromaville killing at will and turning the town into his own criminal municipality.

Where else than in a Troma film could the hero be a former health club janitor who thanks to being dropped into a vat of toxic waste has been transformed into a superhero? In what other movie could porn star Ron Jeremy be cast as the mayor of a town or the late Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf play God?

And this DVD version is unrated. You've been warned.

If nothing else, the film takes the "what if" story formula so popular in many of today's mainstream films and shows it for the lazy storytelling device that it is.


Troma is celebrating its 30th year in business, something of which Kaufman is proud, especially considering that there are few other independent companies around with that kind of staying power.

It has been an interesting journey for the Yale student majoring in Chinese Studies, who decided after graduation to pursue a career in film. Kaufman told The Journal/Bravo that rather than going to film school, he decided to "attach" himself to a director and learn by doing.

As an aside, Kaufman said that the pleasure and pain of film making fit right into the Taoist philosophy he had studied.

In his case, kaufman's instructor was John G. Avildsen, the director of such films as Rocky, Joe and Slow Dancing in the Big City. Kaufman began work with Avildsen on Joe, a low budget politically charged film produced in 1970 that starred Peter Boyle. Boyle played a working class conservative who reacted violently to the social changes of the Vietnam War era.

Kaufman said that on his first day as a production assistant, he realized that "this guy [Avildsen] is talented. I worked for free on that movie in order to learn." The film was a surprise hit and Kaufman continued his association with Avildsen with his next film, Cry Uncle, a detective comedy which earned an X rating for its sexual content. Kaufman said, on that film, he "jumped a few rungs" up the career ladder from production assistant because he helped raised money for the production.

Kaufman and his Yale friend Michael Herz had formed a partnership that that slowly but surely began producing their own films while working on other productions. For instance, the Troma Team - as Kaufman calls his crew - shot the exteriors in Philadelphia for Rocky and he recalled zipping around the city in eight days making sure his non-union crew wasn't spotted by union representatives. At a Los Angeles screening of Rocky, Kaufman said, "union guys were trying to remember when they shot that footage."

Another acclaimed director used Kaufman's services, on the arthouse classic My Dinner With André. Actor André Gregory was so impressed with the economical shooting of a comedy titled Waitress! Kaufman and Herz made that the late Louis Malle hired Kaufman as his production manager for that shoot.

Although Kaufman worked on a mainstream film such as Saturday Night Fever - he scouted the New York locations for the film - he is not a Hollywood type of guy, and has a lot to say about establishment filmmaking. Guerrilla movie making seems to be the basis for the Troma style. Kaufman said that Troma tries "to have total freedom" and that the company is "anti-elite." Kaufman believes in the idea that "the purpose of art is to reflect the spirit of the artist. "Troma has a loyal fan base. Some people may hate or love our films, but they never forget them," he added. Kaufman dismisses many mainstream Hollywood films as "baby food," and said that Troma's success shows that people want "half pepperoni on their cultural pizza."

The indifference expressed by corporate media conglomorates over Troma products hasn't helped the company. Kaufman explained that Blockbuster Video would not stock Troma movies, even in R-rated cuts. He charged that attitudes such as this one have "totally marginalized independents."

Kaufman believes there have been "a conscious effort to economically blacklist" that studio. He said that The New York Times refused to run a review of one of his books despite the advocacy of the Times' own film critic, Janet Maslin.

Kaufman's style is blatantly New York, and his promotion of Troma is definitely of the "in your face" variety.

Warner Brothers may have its signature water tower on its Hollywood lot, but Troma's 9th Avenue building in Manhattan has the Toxic Avenger painted on its exterior.


Kaufman's two books detail his adventures in filmmaking, and have encouraged people to become filmmakers themselves. In fact, the most recent book, Make Your Own Damn Movie, takes people step by step through the process from financing to distribution. In the book's press release, Kaufman said "I want to give young filmmakers takes people step by step through the process from financing to distribution.

In the book's press release, Kaufman said, "I want to give young filmmakers a step-by-step guide to making low-budget independent movies so that they can use what works for us and learn from our mistakes... although in Tromaville, we don't call them mistakes. They're impromptu script deviations." Troma films have relied on free labor provided by people who are seeking an education or simply a break into the industry. On the Troma website right now are notices calling for interns and volunteers to help further the Troma cause.

That's right, you may only be a mouse click away from schlepping coffee or holding a light for a Troma film crew or appearing at a comic book store as Toxie.

Although he is definitely a showman, Kaufman doesn't take himself very seriously. The second disc of the Citizen Toxie DVD has a feature-length "making of documentary which I found just as - if not more amusing - than the film itself. The documentary shows Kaufman directing the film and many of the cast and crew complaining about him.

Kaufman doesn't mind though. He said nice things about his crew on the movie's audio commentary and explains their criticism as "the truth as they see it."

For him the documentary is "a window into what it's really like to make an independent movie."

Like his movies or not, one has to give the devil his due. In this era of media giants, Kaufman and Troma Entertainment keep getting away with thumbing their nose at the big boys.

And, by the way, you can't see Jesus or Satan on the Citizen Toxie discs.

Kaufman made me look.

© 2010 by Gordon Michael Dobbs


Dave said...

Great, great piece, Mike. Cool on your new book project (what's the other one?). Is this piece indicative of the format of the book? Or will it be the more traditional:

GMD: Hey, Lloyd
LK: Hey, Mike.

Mike Dobbs said...

It will actually vary as some of the material is in Q & A form.