I expected that meeting Lloyd Kaufman, president of Troma Entertainment, would be a particularly interesting experience. However, I hadn't anticipated that within ten minutes of meeting him, I'd be standing outside the Soho offices of the British Board of Film Classification, taking part in an impromptu photoshoot.
Thanks to some bizarre mix up over the time the interview was supposed to take place, Lloyd was on his way out of the door when I arrived to meet him at the Groucho, so I was lucky to meet him at all. Because the new offering from Troma, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, is getting a theatrical release in the UK, it's going to be rated by the BBFC; given Troma's difficult history with film classification boards, the fact that Poultrygeist is going to be given an official sanction feels almost like a victory. And hence the photographs. Joining Lloyd is Julia Sandberg-Hansson, a veteran Tromette who bears a striking resemblance to Milla Jovovich, an illusion which is enhanced by the fact that she's currently sporting a bright orange wig. A self-confessed fan of bad movies, she sought out the industry's most hated director, Uwe Boll, and managed to get herself a role as Verne Troyer's girlfriend in his politically incorrect comedy, Postal; so, obviously, I instantly warm to her. A chicken-loving, Apple-hating Fine Arts student, Julia's a long-standing Troma fan, and one of the many who attend Cannes Film Festival to promote the company, making street theatre by dressing up and generally looking like they have more fun than anyone else. Standing outside the BBFC is, however, markedly less glamorous.
The official photographer has about six rolls of film with him, which would seem superfluous for a start, but I've also been given permission to take some pictures with the digital camera I've brought along, and Lloyd asks if I'd mind snapping a few for him on his digital camera. (Which has "L.K" written on it in permanent marker.) Lloyd and Julia pose, gamely, in a variety of different attitudes; including, notably, one where Lloyd sits on the damp floor beneath the Poultrygeist poster and looks dead. Several passersby peer curiously at us but don't comment (or linger for very long); when the door to the building suddenly opens, I wonder if we're going to be told to leave, but it's just a workman popping outside for a smoke. Crisis averted.
Walking back towards the Groucho Club afterwards, Lloyd falls into step beside me. "So, Sarah, what's your lifetime ambition? I'll interview you, instead."
That isn't quite how things panned out in the end: back at the Groucho, we settle into armchairs and Lloyd asks if I want to go and conduct the interview elsewhere, or if it's okay to just sit and chat. The bar is deserted apart from the Troma entourage --Lloyd; Julia; Nick, the photographer; Ernest Henry of Oink News Corp, and Thea Martin, founder of the German Troma festival Tromanale. She claims she's too old to be a Tromette any more, though from looking at her, this is patently untrue. She, too, is clearly extremely passionate about Troma -- as you'd have to be, really, to set up a festival -- and chips in regularly to correct Lloyd, or expand on his comments about the behind-the-scenes atmosphere.
Ernest sits back in his chair, smoking an enormous cigar; once the coffee arrives, everyone joins in the discussion of Poultrygeist, Troma, and film in general -- and absolutely, positively no bestiality whatsoever. The conversation has a tendency to veer wildly off course, but Lloyd, a consummate professional, always manages to steer it back to the original question without ever interrupting anyone, which is an impressive kind of authority.
(It's easier to just transcribe the interview here; you'll see what I mean.)
Lloyd, you've said that Poultrygeist is Troma's best film ever; why is that?
Lloyd: I’d say it’s our most ambitious, and daring film, probably; it’s a very unusual film. And it’s not my opinion – well, it is my opinion, but people on the film who have worked on a number of Troma movies really believe that it’s the best film that Troma has made. Which is not saying much.
So where did the inspiration for an all-singing, all-dancing chicken zombie movie come from?
Lloyd: Troma has a building in New York, and one day McDonalds opened up next door to us. They were very rude and did some unfriendly things, but the worst of it was that our basement became the weekend residence for rats from McDonalds. All of a sudden, these rats the size of raccoons were weekending in the Troma basement. Nobody would go down there, there were so many of them and it was so disgusting that even RatBusters wouldn't touch it. I opened my second book, Make Your Own Damn Movie, with fighting these rats and cleaning up rat shit, just to show what an independent filmmaker has to be prepared to do. And Julia has had chickens all her life – she has raised chickens, she loves chickens. We made a movie called Stuck On You years ago –
Julia: You had trained chickens in that. Why didn’t you have a chicken wrangler?
Lloyd: I don’t want to hurt animals or upset them… In Stuck On You, we had 50,000 egg-laying chickens and we had a lot of different kinds of chickens, special chickens and chickens wearing clothing… Julia is a chicken aficionado, you had pet chickens?
Julia: Yes, yes.
Lloyd: And I went after one of her chickens in a sexual way and she never forgave me.
Julia: The chicken recovered… And then he died.
Thea: And then he had to write Poultrygeist in penance for the death of the chicken.
Lloyd: Yup, so I figured I’d wing it. It’s a very fowl movie. No, we don’t like the fast food industry; that was the inspiration. And the McDonalds thing kicked it off, but then I read Fast Food Nation, which is a great entertaining book, from which they made a very shitty pretentious movie that is not going to appeal to anyone except the people that made it and a few yuppies who want to go to sleep. So Poultrygeist has a very strong message. And the singing and dancing, well, my lifelong ambition has been to remake Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey, but I obviously can't do that. So this was at least an opportunity to put a few songs in; Poultrygeist isn't a musical, but it does have singing and dancing in it. As a kid, I went to see a lot of Broadway musicals in New York, and I love showtunes. Probably I am a gay married man; I do have a strange penchant for Judy Garland and Liza Minelli. And Takashi Miike made a movie called The Happiness of the Katakuris, which gave me the courage to throw in a few random songs because he did it.
You posted a sort of call to arms on the Troma website, asking fans to get involved with promotion of Poultrygeist; how's that going?
Lloyd: We've never had any money for advertising, so the fans are really the only reason we're still in business. They take a very active role, and they've done that for 34 years; we wouldn't be around if it wasn't for them, because the mainstream media totally ignores us. I've written three books and made movies in New York for 40 years, we own a building there, but the New York Times never said a word about us.
So why do you think Troma has endured?
Lloyd: I think that our fans are the weapon of mass destruction that we have…
Julia: And the Lloyd, he won’t stop.
Lloyd: I’m the herpes of film directors, I won’t go away! The VD of film directors, that’s not a bad quote. I think, also, the fact that we make movies that we believe in. The people on each of our movies, if you see the behind the scenes movie, Farts of Darkness: The Making of Terror Firmer, you can see that we're a very dysfunctional, disorganised family, but everyone was very devoted to the movie.
Ernest: When these people get married, they won’t have children they’ll have giblets.
Lloyd: Ernest, by the way, is developing a sequel to Poultrygeist, it’s a Shakespearian adapatation, Omelette. It took me a while to get it…
Ernest: I don’t smash the eggs, I smash the chickens.
Lloyd: No, no, we don’t do that, I don’t eat meat, I don’t want to hurt the chickens or scare them…
Thea: "Is this a chicken I see before me?"
Lloyd: We’re anti-fast food, every issue is taken care of in Poultrygeist: they make people fat, the food is horrible, they pollute the ground with all the animal waste, they torture the animals, the people who work there don’t get any health care or don’t get proper treatment, there’s nothing good about the fast food industry, absolutely nothing. And there’s no reason why they can’t have good food, or why they have to have such ugly places, if you go to a typical American town there’s just one after another, it’s horrible to look at.
Did you think it was important to make a comedy, or a satire, about that, rather than something more serious?
Lloyd: Everything I've done is satire. Which is worse than comedy, it's less commercial. This movie, Poultrygeist, is extremely entertaining, it's well acted, it's a good film, but we are a very small company and we are economically blacklisted by the media.
Did you never want to get involved with the whole conglomerate, big studio, big money scene?
Lloyd: The nice thing is that I've had 40 years of filmmaking with nobody telling me what to do. I've had total freedom; the Cinemateque Francais has done two retrospectives of films that I've directed, saying that I'm one of the true auteur American filmmakers. So that's cool, but it wouldn't be so terrible to have a little recognition. We had more mainstream coverage of our films 20 years ago, before the conglomerates got so powerful.
Do you think things will change? Because there's a trend now where cinema attendance is decreasing, and digital filmmaking is making the industry more accessible to more people now...
Lloyd: That's the tsunami that's coming. It's going to be young people who're going to make these wonderful films using digital video. We just presented a movie in Sweden, a British film called The Evolved, and it cost £1,000 to make a feature-length movie, which Troma is distributing. And there's Giuseppe Andrews, who you'll know from Cabin Fever, who played the sheriff. I produced his latest movie, it's called Okie Dokie, and it cost $800. We're distributing it; we haven't made money, but we will, because it's brilliant, he's a genius. So that's the tsunami that'll come.
Ernest: I think what's important is that Troma is truly one of the last independents. I called one of the people I know, when I was arranging the theatrical release of Poultrygeist in the UK, and he said, this is fantastic, we'll put showbiz back into theatrical cinema. You get premieres in Leicester Square, with all the stars, but that's not showbiz. It's just press, glitz, it comes and it's gone, but this is something else.
Lloyd: Troma's kind of a movement now. We've been putting on the Tromadance festival in Utah during the Sundance festival; there's no entry fee, you can submit your movie free, and you don't have to pay to see the movies, there's no VIP policy. The problem with so many big film festivals is that filmmakers have to pay -- why should they have to pay between $100 and $300 just to submit a movie? Tromadance is completely free.
So back to Poultrygeist and the photos we took this morning -- it's being rated by the BBFC?
Lloyd: Yes, and there's nothing objectionable in Poultrygeist. It's a Monty Python kind of thing. Certainly, if Hostel went through totally okay, we have nothing.
What's your opinion on this kind of ultraviolence movement in horror movies at the moment?
Lloyd: I'm not a fan of the torture movies, I don't see what the appeal is. But Hostel's kind of funny, Eli Roth is brilliant. He's genuinely talented.
He's a Troma alumni, and there are some other pretty big names who've been involved with Troma, too -- James Gunn, for starters...
Lloyd: James Gunn has been very loyal, he talks about Troma in every interview he does. They can't shut him up about Tromeo and Juliet, but the media don't like it, they don't want to talk about Troma. New Yorker magazine did a piece on Hayao Miyazaki and how he was discovered by Harvey Weinstein, but we introduced his first movie, My Neighbour Totoro, and we lost our asses on it. There was not one peep about it. As far as the public goes, Harvey Weinstein discovered Miyazaki in the States; even when we were releasing it, and it was in 50 theatres, the critics refused to review it, because it was a Troma movie.
I can't think of a movie that's less "Troma" than My Neighbour Totoro!
Lloyd: I agree! But that's the way they think.
There's a quote on the Troma site that says if it weren't for you, movies like There's Something About Mary and Deuce Bigalow would never have existed. Do you agree with that?
Lloyd: That was from the Times Picayne in New Orleans. I don't know, but there's no question that things like South Park were influenced by watching Troma movies...
Didn't Troma distribute Cannibal: The Musical? (A movie by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park.)
Lloyd: Yeah, yeah.
What do you think the legacy of Troma is, or will be?
Julia: It will never go away!
Lloyd: We've given an arm and a legacy to our fans... I think the legacy of Troma is, that if idiots like us can make movies for 35 years, then anyone can do it.
Ultimately, it's impossible not to like Lloyd Kaufman. There are innumerable stories on the Internet of awed fans being introduced to him and then finding that he remembers their names; while I'm with him in the Groucho Club, he addresses two different members of staff by their names, saying hello and asking how they are. It's not quite the behaviour you'd expect from the founder and president of a film distribution and production company, but then Troma isn't exactly your average entertainment company.
Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead will be screened in Peckham on April 27th.