Lloyd Kaufman: The Toxic Director

The filmmaker gets his close-up after 40 years of Troma (more or less)

Lloyd Jr. attended the Upper West Side's Trinity School—he was on the board for years—with a kid named Oliver Stone. "I'd go over to his house for a sleepover, and I'd get beaten up, and it would be kind of the same thing over and over again." One fourth-grade anecdote involves him walking home in his bathrobe, in the middle of the night, after Stone, who lived on 64th Street, beat the crap out of him. "We stayed close—our parents were very close." Here Lloyd raises his eyebrows. "Very close." I didn't ask.

The childhood companions both attended Yale, along with George W. Bush (they weren't acquainted). There, Lloyd's lifelong love affair with movies began. The Chinese-studies major shared a dorm with co-chairs of the Yale Film Society, one of whom was Eric Sherman, son of prolific Hollywood director Vincent Sherman, who directed Bette Davis in 1944's Mr. Skeffington and Paul Newman in 1959's The Young Philadelphians. "I, too, became a celluloid-hugging nancy boy," Kaufman, who had intended to become a social worker, has written. "Raccoon-eyed and weathered, a man obsessed. I needed to see every movie ever made. I wanted to eat them, dream them, put them in an eyedropper and let them seep into my optic nerve." The black-and-white dark comedy that changed his life was Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942), a Carole Lombard and Jack Benny tag team about a Polish acting troupe duping occupying Nazis. Lloyd's epiphany, as recounted in his pseudo-memoir All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From the Toxic Avenger: "I didn't want to help the hobos and the people with hooks for hands; I wanted to film them."

So began the process. A sophomore-year Peace Corps trip to Chad culminated in a 16mm-Bolex short of the locals slaughtering a pig with a machete. Back at home, the footage incensed his peers, which Kaufman found thrilling. "Pissing people off, I discovered, is one of the few satisfying things on this forsaken planet," All I Need to Know also admits. Then came a producer credit on his roommate's $6,000 Hawthorne-inspired short "Rappaccini," followed by the directorial debut The Girl Who Returned, an alternate-reality Olympic-spun fiction made for $2,000 that no one remembers fondly. On the sidelines, his old friend Oliver, who had left Yale for Vietnam and returned to enroll in NYU, was watching. "He got into movies because I was making movies at Yale. It was not on his radar. He was hanging around. Then it turned out he was very talented," Kaufman says, with enough distance to seem partly amused. "He owes me." (Stone would be associate producer on 1972's Sugar Cookies, Troma's early lesbian reimagining of Vertigo. But then, "he became really famous, and he dropped us," Kaufman says.)

After graduation, a 25-year-old Kaufman wrote, directed, produced, composed, and starred in The Battle of Love's Return, an $8,000 satire The New York Times unexpectedly liked. During that same period, while slaving away at low-budget studio Cannon Films, he met future filmmaking star John G. Avildsen. "I was making Guess What We Learned in School Today, he came in to rewind the reels, and it's been a love affair ever since," says Avildsen now, who would bring him on for Joe (1970), starring Susan Sarandon and Peter Boyle, and then Rocky, which shows Kaufman on-screen playing a drunken bum and in the credits as pre-production manager. "A title I had never heard and never have since," notes Avildsen, who also invented credits for nonunion Lloyd, including "executive in charge of locations" on Saturday Night Fever, which the Academy Award winner was slated to direct, but Kaufman ultimately, and reluctantly, finished. (If you're wondering whether Troma creator has always been the same person, Avildsen answers affectionately, "Yes. Totally nuts." )

These Hollywood paychecks supplemented Kaufman's primary ambition, a Roger Corman–inspired independent studio co-founded with Michael Herz, a Yale acquaintance with business acumen who'd enacted a shot-put competition with his future wife in The Girl Who Returned. The dream, which started in a broom closet rented for $87 per month, was to churn out, distribute, and otherwise foster inexpensive movies with integrity. Their first acquisition was Bloodsucking Freaks, a malicious torture-porn indulgence still widely regarded as one of the most offensive movies of all time. They were off to a Tromatic start.

The first lunch with Lloyd Kaufman was in January. In a horse-patterned bow tie, a green-and-white striped shirt, and a suit jacket with a green Troma pin on his lapel, the low-budget icon was delightful. Troma can't afford advertising, so the morbidly witty company president has branded himself into a carnival-barker gore-goof Mel Brooks caricature, a "loud, bow-tie-wearing underground P.T. Barnum" who has made guest appearances in more than 200 movies, many of which he has done for free, and traveled the country for horror, sci-fi, and comic conventions. He had just returned from a multi-appearance trip to Texas that he joked was very "Willy Loman," during which he talked up Father's Day, a Troma-produced 2012 feature about a father-raping madman made by Canadian collective Astron-6, tested Mr. Bricks: A Heavy-Metal Murder Musical, a Troma Team release directed by in-house editor Travis Campbell, and witnessed The Toxic Avenger Musical opening to a standing ovation. The ceremony of applause made him uncomfortable. "I hate that stuff. I only stand because of pressure. I'm the only one not standing, so eventually, I stand." He was directing the way to a lunch counter near Troma's headquarters. "It's definitely good. But a standing ovation? That should be for Richard Burton, right? That's ridiculous."

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