"Blood, breasts and beasts"

Lloyd Kaufman's splatter movies cost less than Sandra Bullock's hair budget, but his real legacy is Troma -- still fighting "devil-worshiping international conglomerates" after 27 years.


Andrew O'Hehir
January 27, 2001 1:00AM (UTC)

Lloyd Kaufman just isn't a subtle guy. Maybe it's all the head crushing, bloodletting and other simulated emissions of bodily fluids he has perpetrated on film over the past 27 years. When he welcomes me into his cluttered office overlooking the permanently snarled traffic on Manhattan's Ninth Avenue, Kaufman is talking angrily on the phone about Blockbuster Video and the "conspiracy of elites" that is keeping his movies out of the hands of millions of people. Over the course of the next hour or so, he's unable to let that subject drop for more than a few minutes at a time.

Kaufman might cheerfully admit that he's obsessed to the point of mania with making low-budget, high-yield movies and keeping Troma Entertainment, his tiny and fiercely independent studio, afloat. But like all true maniacs, he gets a lot done. You could argue, for instance, that he's among the most successful and influential independent filmmakers of our era. The films he personally directed or co-directed (with business partner Michael Herz, who still shares an office with Kaufman) include "Tromeo & Juliet," "Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD," "Class of Nuke 'Em High" and all three installments of Troma's trademark Toxic Avenger series.

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Without the distinctive Kaufman blend of sex, violence and high-spirited horror-comedy -- or, as one critic has defined the formula, blood, beasts and breasts -- nibbling at the outer edges of the culture for a generation or more, we might have had no "Beavis and Butt-head," no "South Park," no "There's Something About Mary." OK, so maybe those were not works of art to rival Proust and Kurosawa, and indeed many viewers might have been grateful not to have had them, but you get my point.

Kaufman's most important creation, however, is not his movies, as memorable as some of them are. (No one who has seen the head-crushing scene in the first Toxic Avenger film will ever forget it. "It was just a melon in a wig," Kaufman says with innocent glee.) It is Troma. When Kaufman and Herz, who first met as undergraduates at Yale, started the company in 1974, low-budget production houses were everywhere. Companies like Troma cranked out softcore sex and grade-B horror for drive-ins, inner-city grind houses and single-screen theaters in small towns. Now these venues are gone, along with the small towns themselves and most of the old inner cities, and Troma is virtually alone on this cultural landscape.

As we've all heard ad nauseam, any kid with a digital video camera and a few thousand bucks can make a movie. Getting it seen by anyone outside your immediate family is another matter, unless you have the right connections in what Kaufman calls the "devil-worshiping international conglomerates" that control almost all film and video distribution around the world. Say what you like about Troma's movies (and some of them truly suck), the company has proved to be endlessly resourceful in getting them to audiences without surrendering its independence.

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Troma now produces theatrical cuts of its movies with more gore and goo than ever, because the handful of urban art houses that still show them on the big screen like it that way and don't care about Motion Picture Association of America ratings. Then the films are recut to get an R rating so the video or DVD can legally be sold or rented to teenagers. (Unrated "director's cut" versions are also available, of course.) Home video, and especially the burgeoning DVD format with its outtakes, cast interviews, director's commentary and other extras, is where Kaufman and Herz get their money back. And with production costs of $500,000 or less per movie, it's realistic to assume that most of them make a tidy profit.

But Troma has done more than peddle an ever-expanding library of 700-odd trash-culture films. (Maybe you caught "Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town" one night on cable. But what about "Demented Death Farm Massacre" or "Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell"?) In an era when "independent" studios are owned by Disney (Miramax) and Time Warner (New Line), Kaufman and Herz used their Toxic Avenger breakthrough with disaffected loser audiences the world over to build their brand, as Madison Avenue people say. Troma has become its own culture, its own modest but well-fortified empire. Throughout the rabbit warren of offices in Hell's Kitchen, the staff of 50 or so -- nearly all young and nearly all dressed in late skate-punk style -- isn't just running a movie studio. They produce comic books, animations for Troma's various Web sites, episodes for Troma's show on British TV, posters and packaging, DVDs and videotapes. (Troma even markets a modest library of early Hollywood thrillers, horror films and westerns on DVD.)

In person, Kaufman is an irascible, slightly pop-eyed presence with scrub-brush hair who's capable, at virtually the same moment, of poking fun at himself while letting you know he really does see himself as a misunderstood artist. He likes to say the word "cinema" in a sort of fake-sophisticated accent that suggests Mr. Peabody, the bespectacled dog who delivered history lectures during "The Bullwinkle Show." He looks his age, which is 55, but seems to have the boundless energy of a teenager. For all his crusty charm, he's reputed to be difficult to work for -- the long hours and low pay at Troma mean constant turnover -- and I can well believe it.

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I met him just after the prestigious Anthology Film Archives in New York held a Troma retrospective in December, but before he headed off to Park City, Utah, in January to host TromaDance, Troma's alternative to the much-mocked excesses of the Sundance Film Festival. This weekend he will finally unveil the long-awaited sequel "Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger Part 4." It features '80s teen star Corey Feldman along with cameos by Hugh Hefner and Screw publisher Al Goldstein and some usual Troma nonsense (a dwarf playing God, good and evil versions of superheroes Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman, etc.).

Kaufman's magnum opus to date, 1999's "Terror Firmer," is also newly available on DVD. He stars in it himself as a blind independent filmmaker (talk about potent symbolism) whose low-rent horror movie is disrupted by a hermaphrodite serial killer versed in "the ancient and secret art of pickling." As always, the comedy is pitched somewhere between Benny Hill and Luis Buñuel. There are several extended bodily-fluid scenes so disgusting they will repel anybody -- most notably the aftermath to the discussion about whether white chocolate goes with fish -- but Kaufman's notoriously sloppy filmmaking has almost become professional.

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You never see certain scenes referred to in the movie-within-a-movie in "Terror Firmer," such as the "life-affirming rape scene" or the "projectile decapitation by colostomy bag scene." You do, however, see the scene that could stand as Kaufman's testament. A scabrous punk kid with a bad attitude, his legs broken off above the knees, lies dying in a pool of blood. Reaching out to his fellow filmmakers, he turns sincere for the first and last time, crying out, "Don't give up the fight for truly independent cinema!"

You talk all the time about how the entertainment industry is dominated by conglomerates. It's not possible to have a conversation with you where that doesn't come up.

Devil-worshiping international conglomerates of giant magnitude. It's an awful situation.

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This ideology comes through pretty clearly in your movies, even though, for the most part, you're not exactly viewed as a serious or political filmmaker.

Well, pretty much from the beginning all our films have concerned the conspiracy of elites. "Squeeze Play," "Waitress!" "Stuck on You," "The First Turn-On," "The Toxic Avenger," "Class of Nuke 'Em High" -- they all break down to the fact that there is a town of Tromaville where the people are perfectly able to run their own lives and make their own decisions, but, due to the conspiracy of labor, bureaucratic and corporate elites, the little people of Tromaville have their precious economic and cultural fluids drained from them. The conspiracy of elites is sucking everyone dry of their economic and spiritual capital.

I mean, look. Blockbuster doesn't carry the Toxic Avenger movies. Why is that? There have been four Toxic Avenger movies, cartoon shows, toys, a myriad of other pieces of merchandise, not to mention the fact that the Toxic Avenger has become an icon, part of the American language. You go into a Blockbuster store, you got 50 copies of shit like "The Perfect Storm" or "The Patriot." You'd never get "Tromeo & Juliet" or "Terror Firmer," not to mention Spanish cinema or Mizoguchi or something like that. I'm a shareholder in Viacom [Blockbuster's parent company] and I wrote to [CEO] Sumner Redstone, saying, "I think you owe us a better policy." There's some kind of collusion, there's gotta be something fishy there. It makes no sense why they deliberately have this policy of excluding independents.

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You were explaining to me earlier that Blockbuster won't even carry the R-rated versions of your films. You've complied with its policies and it still won't let you in the door?

I've been on a book tour to about 20 cities [for his book, "Everything I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From the Toxic Avenger"], and every time I lecture someone raises his hand and says, "We hate Blockbuster." These are people 18 to 30, the people who should be renting there. They hate Blockbuster. I suppose some mothers like it, and some old ladies who are afraid to go into a real video store. But kids all over the country hate Blockbuster because they don't have anything of interest and they don't want to change. What the hell is that about?

For the purposes of the fascist video stores, we will have the movies rated, and then the MPAA, of course, will cut out scenes that Howard Stern's TV show is permitted to keep in. It's OK for CBS to run scenes of people vomiting where children can walk in the room at any time and see it, but it is not OK in an R-rated movie that screens out people 16 and younger. So the MPAA is another way independents get shafted. It's a so-called regulatory agency paid for by the major studios, which is there not to protect the public but to protect the major studios against the public and against competition. And then, of course, you have the trade magazines like Variety, which are basically in-house publications for the devil-worshiping international conglomerates.

Ergo, Troma is the oldest surviving independent movie studio, practically the only one left, because we have created a brand name and we have created some very famous characters and we have a huge fan base and we get millions of fans -- who can find our movies through our Web site, by direct mail or through Troma sections in about 1,500 video stores around the country. All around the world there are pockets of Troma support. It's a big world out there, and we keep our costs down, as you can tell. We have about 50 people working and that's it. Running a movie studio.

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How much does one of your movies cost to make?

"Terror Firmer" cost about $350,000 to make -- a 35 mm theatrical film with thousands of people, special effects, mutations, head crushings, sex, police, car chases, transformations, hermaphrodites. It has tremendous production values, all for $350,000. "Citizen Toxie," which we're finishing up now, is the fourth Toxic Avenger movie. The entire budget of that will be under $500,000, with massive special effects, massive costuming and thousands of people. If a major studio were to make "Citizen Toxie," they would be talking $40 million to $60 million, minimum.

How do they spend all that money? Where does it go? I mean, I understand that you use nonunion actors and nonunion crew. And obviously you don't have Johnny Depp or George Clooney in your movies. But I still don't get it.

If you look at the posters and ads for these movies, they have eight producers on every movie. So they all have offices and they all have staffs. Then there are all the studio executives who are probably being paid to do nothing and, you know, they try to spin it that it's the truck drivers who are getting the money, but that's not true. Indeed, the truck drivers are getting more than they deserve, but compared to what the bureaucrats are getting, forget it. Then you have these obscene salaries that go to the actors. Making a Hollywood movie is more about how big the stars' honey wagon is, or what kind of limo is going to pick them up. Marty Baum at Creative Artists Agency, a big-time agent, once told me that Sandra Bullock's hair budget -- and this goes back about five years -- was $700,000 in her contract. That's two Troma movies.

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It's obscene. It's ridiculous. It's absolutely absurd in the context of, say, Africa, an entire continent falling off the face of the globe, starving and having each other hacked to death and getting corn-holed, while these people are getting more money for hair than the entire budget of Chad! Yet our media suggests that that is glamour, that Sharon Stone wearing a $400,000 ring or Madonna wearing Princess Grace's tiara is legitimate and glamorous. Maybe Ralph Nader should be glamorous for having saved hundreds of thousands of lives and getting paid nothing for it. Maybe the doctor who just died in Uganda, trying to treat people with the Ebola virus, should be glamorous. They gave him about two lines in the New York Times.

Some people might say that you are fatally flawed as a spokesman for independent art and cinema. Your movies involve naked women; copious amounts of vomit, urine, feces and blood; and what might be called a juvenile sensibility.

Well, if you read the reviews of "Terror Firmer" you will see constant comparisons to Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp. The word "auteur" is used. Elvis Mitchell, the No. 1 critic at the New York Times, just wrote a review of "Chocolat," by the guy who made that shitty "Cider House Rules" movie [Lasse Hallström]. At the end of the review, he said that Lloyd Kaufman should make the sequel. Not to mention the fact that the Los Angeles Times glorifies the Farrelly brothers for doing shit jokes, whereas Troma was doing them in 1975 or 1976. The New Orleans Times-Picayune pointed out, about "Terror Firmer," that were there not a Lloyd Kaufman, there probably wouldn't have been "There's Something About Mary" -- I imagine referring to the semen-in-the-hair joke that everyone loved so much.

Stern got such positive approval for his movie ["Private Parts"], with all its fart jokes and lesbian sex. When we do that stuff, we do it in the context of the underdog and the context of going into new territory. We don't just do it for a cheap laugh. Penny Marshall does a movie about a female baseball team; we made "Squeeze Play" in 1976.

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I have to admit that the New York Times, with Vincent Canby and Janet Maslin, and to some extent Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times, have understood us from the beginning. We have always gotten good reviews from the major critics. Most of the Roger Ebert types who used to cover us are now controlled by Disney. They obviously have been given instructions -- at least that's my opinion -- to marginalize anyone who is not part of the little circle of big-time operators. And it's not like there isn't demand. There were riots at Cannes two years ago because people couldn't get into the screenings for "Terror Firmer." We had to have extra screenings.

Dario Argento's "The Stendhal Syndrome" was distributed by Troma. It should have been distributed by a major studio, but because he committed the sin of making an independent movie, Troma ended up as the American distributor. Certainly Ebert and those guys didn't review it, although this man is a world-class director. The Film Forum, a venue that's supposed to foist the flag of independent spirit, would not play the film. I know damn well that if it had the Miramax label on it, "The Stendhal Syndrome" would have been played by every movie theater in the country, and would have been all over HBO and all over Showtime and all over Blockbuster. If somebody made "A Love Song for Hitler" and it had Viacom's imprint, it would be in every store.

How do you defend yourself when people attack your style of filmmaking -- the three B's, blood, beasts and breasts?

If Troma were making movies with sex and violence as its only formula, we would be long gone. The battlefield is littered with the bodies of dead filmmakers who have tried to make movies by formula, using sex, using violence, using horror. They didn't make movies from the heart. Every movie we make is something that we believe in. The people who make these movies believe in what they're doing not just 100 percent but 1 million percent -- which is better than 100 percent, as any mathematician can tell you.

People come from all over the world to work on a Troma movie for no money -- I'm not joking. On "Citizen Toxie" and "Terror Firmer," there were people from Japan, Spain, Israel, England and France who came at their own expense. They sleep on the floor for three months. They eat cheese sandwiches three times a day. They have to defecate in a paper bag. All for the joy of making a film they can believe in, doing something new and exploring new territory. Clearly we have not made it because of the sex and violence. I happen to like sex and violence. But if we wanted to be more commercial, maybe we would tone it down a little bit.

Maybe we wouldn't have the old woman who gets killed in "Citizen Toxie" -- a car runs over her head. Maybe we wouldn't have a graphic shot of her pissing and shitting as she's dying. You know what I mean? But the audience loves it. It's very funny. I guarantee you that, 15 years from now, the next Farrelly brothers, they'll have some old woman get run over by a car, she'll piss and shit, and the L.A. Times will do a front-page story about it.

What did Marcel Duchamp -- to whom I have been compared numerous times, especially at the Cannes Film Festival -- do at the Paris exhibition of 1907? He put a urinal up on the wall. Fistfights broke out about that. In those days, that was as controversial as the funnel-up-the-ass scene or the life-affirming rape scene in "Terror Firmer." In the year 2000, that very same urinal was sold for $353,000 at one of those sleazy auction houses.

There's a strange kind of honesty to that grotesque scene you just described from "Citizen Toxie." If you or I were run over by a car and had our heads crushed, we would be pissing and shitting as we died, right? Most of the time the movies aren't going to show you that.

Most of the people in our industry are illiterate. They don't read. I have read Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead." One of the most stirring scenes in that book is about a young boy on the beach as they're invading. He shits in his pants. He's so scared and embarrassed, and in that split second his head gets blown off. We just put a satirical spin on it. We try to challenge the audience, but most of our movies are funny. Nobody is frightened by "The Toxic Avenger" or "Tromeo & Juliet." Jon Voight described me as the Aristophanes of America. These are satires and social commentaries, and hopefully they're very entertaining movies.

Certainly our movies are not for everybody. But there's an awful lot of people who want to go to the cinema to be challenged, who want to have a true emotion. To that extent our films deliver. Troma has become a brand, which is one reason we have survived. For the most part, the film industry is just like the presidential candidates: no identity whatsoever. There is no identity to those two guys who just ran for president and there is no identity to most of the movies that you see at the theater or at Blockbuster. You can walk into "The Perfect Storm," then go next door and see "The Patriot," and you probably won't even notice the difference. It's just the same baby food. I mean, you can live on baby food, and $100 million movies have to be baby food -- they have to appeal to all people. You can live on it, but it's mighty boring. And most people don't actually want it. In many parts of the country that's all they can get. They want jalapeño peppers. Troma is the jalapeño peppers on the cultural pizza.

Who else is out there, anywhere in the world, who you think is providing genuine emotion?

I would say that every Spanish film made today -- OK, that's hyperbole -- but Spanish cinema is unbelievable. I get to go to some of the Spanish film festivals, so I see things, like a recent Catalan film called "The Nameless" [by Jaume Balagueró] or Alex de la Iglesia's movies. All of it is unbelievably original, much more mainstream than Troma could ever be. These movies are low budget and unbelievably commercial, yet we never see them, they never play here. There are also British films, Croatian films, Japanese films that would actually make money, but nobody gets to see them. Lots of movies are made all over the world, made for reasonable budgets, but because we are controlled by this combine, this cartel, we'll never see them.

The studio people will tell you that they make the movies they make because people all around the world love them. They're virtually America's most lucrative export at this point. We have this global market now, and what America sells internationally are dreams, the dreams of romance and adventure created by Hollywood.

I would suggest that it ain't true. Now these giant conglomerates are not necessarily American. You've got a French one, a German one, a Canadian one. They still are devil-worshiping international conglomerates. And they've got a great racket. They can pad the budgets and pay themselves enormous salaries and have all these bozos in suits with big stomachs and pigtails and cellphones driving limos. Just go to Sundance. Go to Park City, where Troma sponsors a real festival called TromaDance. You will see every creep in the world. It's absolutely disgusting and it has nothing to do with movies. They're all there to be unpleasant to people like me and to young filmmakers. They're all there to defecate on true artists. That's what it's all about. They've got a great club. They finance their swimming pools, they buy their art collections. They certainly don't take care of the shareholders. What's the debt of Time Warner? Fifteen billion dollars? Troma has no debt. But we're low-class because we make low-budget movies. What do they call us? No-budget schlockmeisters and sleaze merchants? But Time Warner is legitimate! It has $18 billion in debt! We, the public, are subsidizing these bastards! They should be taken out and stoned! The whole value system is fucked.

It's obvious that there is economic blacklisting. It's obvious that there is no intent to protect or serve the public. Disney put out a movie this summer that had a penis going through somebody's head. Troma's not even allowed to have the word "pussy" in the R-rated version of "Terror Firmer." Troma's not allowed to have a shot of me -- me! a 55-year-old asshole! -- eating a taco [well, simulating cunnilingus by eating a taco, really]. Me eating a taco is more disgusting and obscene than a penis going through somebody's head.

Let's talk about the self-referentiality in your movies. The fourth wall is constantly being broken. Characters stop the action and address the audience directly, or the conventions of the film will change artificially, like the scene in "Terror Firmer" when the movie briefly becomes a sitcom with a laugh track. It's like there's an awareness in your movies that the movie itself is a fiction and at least partly a joke. Some people might argue that this is smirking at the audience or condescending to them, but to me it's always seemed as if you were in solidarity with the audience, that you think they're smart enough to get the joke.

We just had a Troma retrospective at the Anthology Film Archives here in New York -- 18 Troma movies, and Michael and I directed most of them. Jonas Mekas [head of the AFA], who as you know is an icon of experimental cinema and a great independent filmmaker, looked at "Terror Firmer" and I thought he would go running out of the theater. But he saw [experimental filmmaker] Stan Brakhage in it, he saw Bertolt Brecht in it. Now I am a great fan of Brecht -- I was brought up on that stuff. But I wasn't thinking about that when it comes to breaking the fourth wall in Troma movies.

The guy who I think is the genius, and who I do copy, is Andy Warhol. Nobody was better at doing that than Andy Warhol. When I was at Yale, I hung around the fringes of the Factory. If you look at some of our earlier movies, you'll see Ondine, Candy Darling, Ultra Violet, quite a number of Warhol's superstars. Warhol would have an actor doing a scene on a bed and suddenly the actor would turn to the camera and say, "Hey, I want to have some lunch," and Warhol would leave it in. We do a lot of that stuff. There's something about it: I think it's the idea that the audience becomes part of the team; the audience can be part of the filmmaking experience. You know, we have very cheesy special effects. Sometimes you can see, when a guy's arm is pulled off, that his other arm is tied behind his back. The audience sort of has to help us. It's interactive filmmaking. And I think the audience appreciates that from time to time.

When that old lady in "Citizen Toxie" is run over and her head is squashed, and you see her eyeball turn around in her skull, it's not remotely realistic. You know she's not really dead, and you know that she's not really pissing and shitting, because piss doesn't come out like a fire hose and the eyeball does not spin around. And it's funny. There are a lot of old people who are horrible people -- most old people are horrible people. So you kind of want to see them killed.

Are highbrow art movies really an influence on your work? Some people have said that "Terror Firmer" is your answer to "8 1/2," in that it's a film about the difficulty of filmmaking. I was also thinking of Godard's later movies, which few people have seen -- a movie like "The New Wave," which is about a filmmaker struggling with his art. You're parodying that genre, but were movies like that actually in your head?

Well, I've seen that movie. But no, not Godard specifically. The big influence on "Terror Firmer" was Frank Capra. I think the reason our movies succeed is that there's a certain kindness that comes across. They're not really dark, although the last two or three are darker than the earlier ones. There's a Capra-esque quality that people have noted. There's even a line toward the end of the movie, after the director is blown up and destroyed, when the special-effects guy, Jerry, says, "Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for." That's a direct quote from "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," I believe. "Terror Firmer" is the first splatter film in the history of cinema filmed through the eyes of Frank Capra. Once again a historic first from Troma.

At Yale, you were a Chinese studies major.

Yes, before I was a foot fetishist.

What is the connection between that field and making low-budget movies?

Taoism. This whole company is run according to Taoism. Michael and I both believe in Taoism, that you flow with nature, and that the little blade of grass that bends with the wind will outlast the giant Paramount -- the giant oak tree that has the arrogance to stand up to the forces of nature. And the yin and the yang, the whole thing of a dualistic universe. Our movies, by the way, are perfect examples. Our movies are so out there that they come around the other side as art. As I have mentioned, the Cinemathèque Française has done a retrospective. Pretty much every country in Europe has had major Troma retrospectives. Most of the theaters in this country that show our movies are art houses, like Landmark Theatres [in the West, especially the San Francisco Bay Area]. They don't show "Forrest Gump" there; they mainly show art films. Those are the places that show Troma movies. The Music Box in Chicago. An art theater in Boston just did a Troma retrospective. Well, of course, they've got Harvard up there. They love sex and violence. They created the Vietnam War, all those Harvard advisors to Kennedy.

I've always hoped we could get something going with China, and we've supported the Shanghai International Film Festival since it began. But it's been very difficult because there's tremendous piracy there. And all film distribution goes through the government. Although when the Shanghai festival showed "Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD" -- a movie about a Japanese superhero, and the Chinese and Japanese are not exactly kissin' cousins -- the theater was packed.

You've been talking a lot about your anti-corporate, anti-authoritarian leanings.

Anti-elites. You mustn't blame only the corporations, because the labor elites are making millions of dollars at the expense of their constituency. You have labor leaders here in New York who have such lavish offices that when one of their members meets with them, they take them to a lower office, a less ostentatious office, in the same building. And you've got, of course, the bureaucratic elite, the government elite. [Vice President Dick] Cheney is the perfect example. He, you know, bombed the Iraqis on behalf of the oil companies when he was defense secretary. As a result, he got rewarded with the chairmanship of an oil drilling company. And he fucked up that company; there's no question that he fucked it up. Everyone touts Cheney as this master of business. Now he does have a lesbian daughter, apparently -- that's pretty cool. But he fucked up the oil company, and now he's got 20 million bucks. Of course, he's also had five heart attacks. That's pretty cool. Don't you think he feels guilty about doing what he's doing? That would be my guess.

There are now so many anti-Sundance festivals in and around Park City, I can't keep up with them. What makes TromaDance distinctive?

This year TromaDance is dedicated to the independent way of life, not just movies. We've got a panel discussion moderated by Lou Lumenick of the New York Post on the question of whether art is being stolen from the people. Last year we got into the copyright law of 1998, where we believe Disney got Congress to extend the law so Disney could continue to own intellectual property that should be given back to the people, including Mickey Mouse, which should have gone back into the public domain. This year we will continue that discussion and bring in the Napster issue and others. We feel the Napster issue is not about protecting Metallica; it's about stopping little garage groups from getting their music out to the public because they might be better than Metallica.

We don't charge admission to the public or to the filmmakers. We do not charge the filmmakers to submit their movies -- and we had around 3,000 films submitted this year. We don't charge anyone anything. It's a public service. At Sundance the filmmakers actually pay to have their movies looked at by the selection committee. When you make a movie you already have to donate a kidney to raise the funds. Why should you have to pay money to have these bureaucrats look at your film? And most of these festivals are fixed anyway, aren't they? Two years ago, Variety had an article saying that 70 percent of the films at Sundance already had distribution. So what's its purpose? Sundance is being used as a tool of these giant conglomerates to promote movies that nobody wants to see. Now, I did detect that last year Sundance seemed to have more genuinely independent movies that were not already owned by giant studios. So maybe the fact that we speak out and we're there helps.

It seems to me that the craft of your films has improved significantly over the years. You would probably admit that in technical terms some of the early Troma movies were pretty inept.

Well, a lot of it is that we are attracting talent now. We've got camera people who get $10,000 a week for shooting M&M's commercials, but are trying to break into features, and they work for us for literally nothing, for expenses. So the lighting people, the sound people, are so much better. We've almost got an ensemble of stock players now -- a little bit like Preston Sturges, the way he'd always have the same group of people. Ron Jeremy, a fine Shakespearean actor, has appeared in three or four of our movies. [This is a joke; Jeremy is a veteran porn actor known as the "Hedgehog," for his hirsute and stocky frame, who has appeared in more than 600 films.] Trey Parker and Matt Stone ["South Park"] were good enough to do bits in "Terror Firmer." It's definitely not budgets: "Terror Firmer" cost less in the year 2000 than the original "Toxic Avenger" cost in 1983. It's all because we're attracting talent and nobody charges us.

You said earlier that your movies are not for everyone. I mean, the copious amounts of blood, vomit, shit and urine are going to turn a lot of people off. Speaking as someone who has seen and liked most of your movies, there are things in each of them that aren't for anybody. There's an extended shit-eating gag in "Terror Firmer," for example, that is aggressively repulsive, to almost an absurdist level. At some point you're intentionally offending people, aren't you?

My wife and my friends feel that I'm heavily motivated by pissing people off, especially people my age. Because I am really pissed off at them, the '60s generation -- the biggest sellouts since Marie Antoinette. It was interesting; I went to see that movie where Jim Carrey played Andy Kaufman ["Man on the Moon"]. It didn't do well, but I thought it was pretty good, especially for a Hollywood movie. And when we were leaving, my wife turned to me and said, "You're just like him. You have an absolute need to piss people off." And it's true.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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