Lloyd Kaufman: The Toxic Director

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

Lloyd Kaufman's speaking-engagement banter tends to cover remarkably consistent themes. He is unfailingly gracious, thanking everyone from the event's host to the audience to the dippy volunteer who spends too long figuring out the DVD player. He is self-deprecating to the point of shtick: This past March, when Kaufman was honored at the opening night of the Queens World Film Festival (QWFF) and introduced with a two-minute clip of Troma high-/lowlights, which included a scene of a woman's boobs getting shot off, he deadpanned, "As you can tell by the film you saw, I don't get too many awards." He enjoys skewering Hollywood's dreck of the moment, often with poop jokes. "We in the underground are not as fond of The Fartist as [the mainstream]—we think the comatose woman in The Descendants did a better job of silent acting."

Lloyd's wife of 38 years, New York State Film Commissioner Patricia Swinney Kaufman, sometimes travels with him. The Manhattan couple have three daughters, Lily Hayes, Lisbeth, and Charlotte. If "Pattie-Pie" is in attendance, Lloyd will introduce her by her impressive job title, but leave the audience to deduct the "Pat somebody-or-other" connection. In her presence, his quips tend to be more PG-13 than R. At the QWFF, held at the Museum of the Moving Image, Lloyd's phallic cracks were a reference to Michael Fassbender's member in Shame ("What a moving image that was" ) and his own ("I will not show my penis, as long as I am married to this woman"). But three months later, before an audience of fanboys at the Philly Comic Con, in her absence, Lloyd got a little more graphic. In talking about illegal downloading, "the word 'pirate' really shouldn't be used—other than 'butt pirate,' which I'm pretty good at." (Many people seem to think Lloyd is gay, which he exploits for punchlines.)

Lloyd also has his own language: Extras are "actor-persons"; Los Angeles industry phonies are "evil, blood-sucking vampire bunnies"; females are "gynos," his rationale being that "woman" includes the word "man." He adores the work of Charlie Chaplin and John Ford. One of the dedications in his first book, All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From the Toxic Avenger, was to Fiona Apple. He keeps pancake make-up in his top-left desk drawer. He has no hesitation about donning a tutu, but resisted an American flag tie because the accessory "wasn't my style." (It wasn't a bow tie.) In a recent e-mail exchange, Lloyd included, apropos of nothing, an attached cell phone photo of a tomato-shaped fat man sleeping in a lobby area. (The same photo later showed up on his very active Twitter feed, prefaced with the caption, "Winner of the Hunger Games")

Nate “Igor” Smith
Zac Amico tries out for Return to Class of Nuke 'Em High
Nate "Igor" Smith
Zac Amico tries out for Return to Class of Nuke 'Em High

"He's extremely eccentric—he really is," says James Gunn, a screenwriter/director/producer who co-wrote Tromeo & Juliet with Kaufman in the '90s. "Lloyd is just charismatic. There's a lot of people who hear about Lloyd and what kind of movies he makes, and they judge him. And then they meet him, and they love him."

The Return to Class of Nuke 'Em High casting call was blunt: "A non-union feature with long hours, low/no pay, great experience!" Released in New York theaters in 1986, the same year as the Chernobyl disaster, the original was set in Tromaville, New Jersey, the same town where 1984's The Toxic Avenger took place, the toxic-chemical capital of the world. The local high school is one mile away from the Troma nuclear power plant, and the pollution has morphed the local honor society inexplicably into spiky, Neanderthal drug dealers called the Cretins. The two main characters are Chrissy and Warren, virginal teenage lovebirds who skip a Fellini festival for a fraternity party, where they're peer-pressured into smoking a joint that, unbeknown to them, is radioactive. They consummate their relationship upstairs at the bash, Chrissy later vomits an atomic-mutant fish-baby, Warren shows momentary shades of an Incredible Hulk mutation, and the school blows up in the end. If they'd only gone to the Fellini festival instead.

"As an inexpensive exploitation film, Class of Nuke 'Em High has its moments of redeeming lunacy," noted The New York Times, adding that the film's creators are "clearly all people of welcome, anarchic humor."

Two decades, two sequels, and countless brainstorms later, Chrissy and Warren have become sapphic lovers Chrissy and Lauren for the remake. The casting call's four lead roles: Lauren, 18, pretty feminine, innocent; Chrissy, 18, attractive, not so innocent; Eugene, 18, cute, dorky; Brick, 18, tough, tattoos/piercings. But most important was this caveat: "NUDITY REQUIRED."

Troma's theory of casting, as spelled out in Kaufman's DIY-filmmaking guide, Make Your Own Damn Movie!, is to make the audition process "as difficult as humanly possible without getting punched." This is because it's common for overzealous actors and actresses to promise nudity in auditions, but then renege on set, especially when they're doing it for free. It's also because Troma shoots are filmmaking boot camp, and it's better to scare away the weak ones early on in the process. Kaufman advises crew members to watch Poultry in Motion: Truth Is Stranger Than Chicken, the making-of-Poultrygeist DVD, where one of the first things out of his mouth is, "This is Tromaville—we don't even care if it's in focus." Barely anyone gets paid. Crew members cry. Kaufman curses nastily. An explosive-diarrhea scene is problematic. One actor got so frustrated hanging around the set—for a paycheck totaling $100 for the entire film—he walked off until Kaufman gave him another $300 to finish the role.

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