Lloyd Kaufman: The Toxic Director

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

The Toxic Avenger introduced the home of the underdog, Tromaville, New Jersey, where grind house parodies like Citizen Toxie (2000), Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. (1990), and Poultrygeist (2006) would also take place. In the 15,000-person toxic-chemical capital of the world, the women are frequently topless and often touch themselves dramatically. American-made cars always seem to be flipping. Old ladies are frequently mowed down. Greed is characterized by fat. Someone is always leaking, somewhere, and it is chunky. Political correctness has never taken hold: Citizen Toxie opens on Take a Mexican to Lunch Day, a holiday celebrated by eating tacos.

What if a movie were all lows? What if every minute consisted of a different stomach-churning set piece and a slimy gag? In the time since The Toxic Avenger—with Troma at its most accessible and cuddly—Tromaville has become the sort of dementedly confrontational reality where a modern Candide meets Mad magazine and 1,000 Porta-Potties. Every minute of Kaufman's recent films is taken to its most extreme or absurd or disturbing conclusion.

During our January lunch, Kaufman told me a story about working on the 1980 release The Final Countdown, a Kirk Douglas film produced by Douglas's son Peter, and framed it as a major turning point. "That could have been a good movie, but all they wanted to know was what was for lunch," he recalls. "There weren't enough chairs for the caterer, crew were glomming as much as they could off the budget. It had nothing to do with making a movie. The director [Don Taylor]—he's dead—he was a total drunk. It couldn't have been worse. We had to fire the entire crew after the first week." Kaufman, a vegetarian of 10-plus years, was eating an omelet as he told the story. "It was a major, major influence on my life. Even though Kirk almost punched me out once. He cocked his fist at me. He did like that"—Kaufman mimics that moment before a punch—"before he realized that I was a straight shooter. He's one of my heroes." He continues, "That convinced me to stay in the underground and do what I do and see where it takes me." Puerile and purposeful failure, it seems, was worth more than meaningless mediocrity.

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

"Lloyd is a genius," says director/screenwriter James Gunn, who parlayed his Troma tutelage into major-studio screenplays (2002's Scooby-Doo and 2004's Dawn of the Dead) and his own creations (2006's Slither and 2010's Super, anchored by Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson). "But his genius is not something that"—Gunn takes a pause—"the greater culture would understand. Lloyd is a visionary. Troma is Lloyd's brain. That's his way of seeing the world. Whether you love it or you hate it, it's very unique."

Lloyd Kaufman wears tighty-whities. You can see them sagging in the rear, peeking out from the pink-and-black tutu around his waist. "Always keep your dignity," the underground icon muttered after he first took off his jeans, which are now by his desk. His legs are bare, pale, and trim, with tube socks pulled up to his shins. He has retained his shirt and his signature bow tie. En homage to his beloved Toxie, he's holding a mop and standing there in a skirt when his assistant, a young woman named Regina Katz, reminds him that an important business e-mail needs to go out by 5 p.m. He needs to proofread the letter, and it's 4:43 p.m. Casting callbacks also begin in 17 minutes, in this space, and a group of returning hopefuls are already gathered outside the front door. Then there's the little matter of this photo shoot—why Kaufman dropped his pants in the first place—which is still under way. The e-mail will have to be finished as he is. In a tutu and tighty-whities. Which is exactly what Kaufman does while his employees snap photos.

Soon after, outside on the sidewalk, posed in front of a Toxic Avenger mural painted on the building's front grate, Kaufman is pretending to deep-throat a mop handle, in the tutu, when a young man walks up and introduces himself. "Oh, hi!" the company president says, springing to congenial authority despite his jockey shorts. "This is Sam, everybody! His father was the producer of Dead Poet's Society."

Sam's last name is Haft, and his dad, Steven, worked with Kaufman on 1982's Traveling Hopefully, a John G. Avildsen documentary short that was nominated for an Oscar. One of Sam's friends had heard "the guy who did The Toxic Avenger" was casting, so Haft told his father, who called his old friend. The 22-year-old native New Yorker had recently acted in Inside Llewyn Davis, the upcoming Coen brothers movie about an East Village folk singer, in the credited role of "Man at Gate of Horn." "I don't know what I'm reading for, or what I'm doing, or if I'm going to, ah, have to show my penis," Haft later says inside, visibly squirming. So what is he doing here, again? "I'm still wondering. I know that Trey Parker and Matt Stone started off doing this," he says. "Lloyd's obviously an iconoclast."

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