Return to Nuke ‘Em High: A Conversation with Lloyd Kaufman
Words fail one when it comes to introducing the outspoken icon, the writer, director, producer, actor and co-founder of Troma Lloyd Kaufman. Just what words would do the sprightly young Lloyd Kaufman justice. Off the back of shooting his subversive documentary Occupy Cannes! The Fan Carpet‘s Paul Risker had the privilege to speak with Lloyd Kaufman about his return to a past Troma classic with Return to Nuke ‘Em High: Volume 1.
As outspoken or as honest as ever, Lloyd Kaufman took us back to his days at Yale where he encountered God in the form of a young mortal college student, before discussing his thoughts on the auteur theory, the politics of film production and distribution in which the Cannes film festival became a casualty of our discourse.
“I wanted to be a social worker; I wanted to be a teacher in order to make the world a better place, and to teach people with hooks for hands” explained Lloyd Kaufman. “But I made the mistake of going to Yale University where my roommate turned out to be a movie nut, and I caught the movie virus from him. So God f***** my life, otherwise I would have done something even more idealistic than to start my own damn movie studio.”
Were there any particular films and filmmakers that caught your eye during your time at Yale?
My roommate ran the Yale Film Society; I happened to speak French and they had a collection of Cahiers du Cinema (the French cinema magazine). François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol were journalists before they were filmmakers, and they contributed to Cahiers where they wrote about the auteur theory, which stated the director should be author, and should have complete control over their movie. I bought into that theory, and so I decided that I would make the kinds of movies that come from the heart and express my soul.
The movies that I saw at the Yale Film Society were movies by John Ford, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Stan Brakhage the experimental filmmaker, Samuel Fuller, Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi from Japan who was probably one of the greatest. But basically it was the classics. I watched all those movies and I kept getting blown away, and then one day I was in the auditorium watching Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be starring Jack Benny, Carole Lombard and Robert Stack. There were about three other people watching the film in this giant auditorium, and it was such a wonderful film that in that moment I decided I would make movies, and give what I have to give to the movie going public. It was as easy as going to the refrigerator and cracking open a beer.
On the subject of the auteur theory, film is such a collaborative medium. Is it possible a film can be that personal where you infuse it with so much of your personality or is it shaped through collaboration?
This is going into our fortieth year and we call ourselves the Troma team – it’s a Troma team production. You may notice that I am the epitome of an auteur filmmaker because I do have complete control over every aspect, and yet I have never signed a movie “By Lloyd Lloyd Kaufman.” I would never do that just because I believe in exactly what you are saying.
In fact we have long pre-production periods with lots of rehearsals. We rehearse in a studio, then we rehearse on location, then I film all of the rehearsals before we finally after what is usually two months of rehearsal time finally get to the set where we shoot. The actors themselves are changing the lines, the guy pushing the dolly, the script person, and even the pizza delivery man come up with jokes, and if I like them I use them, and if not then I don’t. I’m the final word, but it is always collaborative.
In the case of Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1 there has never been a more collaborative or creative cast in my opinion, and with Volume 2 they are even better.
I shot the movie pretty much in order so that everyone including the cast could develop the characters as were going along from what was on the page. It’s difficult for an actor to shoot out of sequence, and so it’s a luxury to be able to shoot it in order. Whilst the working conditions were difficult as it was low budget, the cast did a wonderful job, and what you say is exactly right. I don’t understand how people can say a film is “By”, especially these $100 million movies. How can it be one guy making it – it’s ridiculous. At least in my case I feel that it would be hubris to say, “A film by Lloyd Lloyd Kaufman” even though my films are more a film “By” than 99% of the people who sign their movies as such.
Do you think there is a lack of creativity at the current time or do you think that the level of creativity is being stifled?
There’s more creativity than ever, and if you just go on the internet you’ll see that there is so much good stuff out there. Troma runs a little film festival called Troma Dance, and it’s in our sixteenth year. What you see from the movies being submitted is that the talent is everywhere, because the making of cinema has been democratised, and you don’t need money to make a movie anymore. Rather the problem is that the distribution, the paths to the public have been closed because the methods of distribution are antiquated. They have not kept up with the technological miracle of the digital revolution, and we could all make movies because we no longer need money to make them. I spend half a million on my movies because I want them to reach a certain technical level, and to incorporate thousands of people, car crashes, special effects, monster trucks and such.
We are distributing a little movie called Mr. Bricks: A Heavy Metal Movie Musical, and the budget was only $5000. It’s a very deep dark musical and Lemmy gave us the theme song – it really is a great film. It’s like a French Nouvelle Vague-Troma movie, but it’s a serious one. It cost nothing, and there are likely thousands of similar movies around, but unfortunately the distribution system is not up to date.
We have shot the documentary Occupy Cannes! a sequel to our 2002 documentary All the Love You Can. Occupy Cannes! explores the very territory that you and I are talking about right now. The Cannes film festival is a tool of the giant conglomerates and the media, and it is completely ignoring the independent artist. But how does it compare to years ago? Seeing as we were there screening Return to Nuke ‘Em High anyway, we used the film as a kind of centrepiece. In the documentary the Cannes film festival is used to explore the issue of the antiquated distribution system around the world by using Cannes as a centrepiece and a composite of the world’s movie industry.
Check out occupycannestumblr.com and you’ll see what we are doing. It’s rather subversive but I do believe that it is going to be a marvellous exposition of the true spirit of the Cannes film festival. We do not need a festival to tell us about great Gatsby, but instead we need a festival to tell us about those young and talented filmmakers who no one is paying attention to.
Art shouldn’t be defined or impeded by boundaries. Rather film should be available for all, though it is becoming increasingly dominated by profit or perhaps in truth that has never changed. As a result there are wonderful films out there that the majority of people will never have the opportunity to see, and it ultimately feels as though we are working against the ethos of film, which is an art form for the masses.
Absolutely, and unfortunately the media is in the hands of a small number of giant conglomerates and governments, where every country basically has a cartel. You have very few media in the mainstream that pay attention to Troma for example, and there are very few media in the United States that pay any attention to the true independents. But none the less thanks to the internet the public does find you if you have something good to show, and whilst you may not make money the public will find you.
We have movies that we made twenty years ago that are now profitable because of good word of mouth, along with the fact that the internet keeps them alive, and our fans have supported us for forty years. So we are still here, but I do agree with you that it is a very unfair media at present.
Billy Friedkin made the wonderful film called Killer Joe – it’s a masterpiece. It would be a great to see it on a double-bill with Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, which nobody knows about. They both deal with fried chicken [laughs] and Killer Joe has Matthew McConaughey in it, and nobody saw it. William Friedkin who directed the French Connection and The Exorcist made this movie independently and he paid the price – he was punished. His movie opened in the United States in a second rate movie festival, had no distribution and probably played in fewer theatres than Poultrygeist, which Troma distributed. So you’re right and it’s extremely unfair. Whilst it’s a disservice to the public hopefully the internet and word of mouth will bring more and more independent art to the public’s attention. Hopefully it will rectify some of this elitist attitude that we find in the media, and at the Cannes film festival. It is terrible and it’s totally fascist.
Half the world is starving and we are making $20 million movies, though I do believe the model has to change, and art should be shared. The copyright law wasn’t invented to put Mickey Mouse in the hands of the Disney Company forever; it was supposed to be for fourteen years. The public have supported Mickey Mouse for seventy five years, and so it should be in the public domain. It is all f***** up; the whole system is f*****, but it’s changing and I think the internet is going to do a lot to change the business model. I’m optimistic, and if you just cruise the internet you find some amazing stuff. I found something yesterday where somebody had done a mix of the Poultrygeist music – it was great. He wasn’t paying for it but so what! People are listening to my score from Poultrygeist and it was well done. I discovered it by accident when a fan sent it to me, and my wife and I listened to it while we were doing some work on Toxic Avenger Part 5. So the internet is a big game changer, and crowd funding for the right people can be a big deal.
You previously mentioned Chaplin and Keaton. Unlike books which need to be translated, silent cinema was a universal language – film the universal art form.
The kinds of movies I make are comedy and satire, which are difficult mediums when it comes to making something that is universal. What is funny in the United States may not be funny in Italy, China or Africa, and in fact what’s funny in New York City may not be funny in Texas. So comedy is probably the most difficult, but Chaplin, Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle and D.W. Griffiths were able to make movies that as you say were the international and universal language, and they affected the hearts and minds of everybody. It is very difficult to make humour universal, but that is not true in my case. At a recent screening of Return to Nuke ‘Em High we had a lot of people in attendance who were not the usual Troma fans, and they loved it. So the public may be moving more in our direction, which is very positive.
What does the future hold?
We are in post-production on Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 2, and we are very grateful to Starz for releasing Volume 1. I’m currently writing Toxic Avenger 5 or trying to at any rate – it’s taken me a while but basically that’s the immediate plan. Survival is the main project – how do we keep going? But thanks to you for your interest and thanks to others who make the extra effort to find independent artists. We will preserver and soldier on, and hopefully make movies of the future that will influence the Quentin Tarantino’s and Peter Jackson’s of tomorrow.
It’s all in our hands.
Yeah, word of mouth. One of our movies Combat Shock took fifteen years to break even. It’s a great movie but nobody talked about it when it first came out, but now the word of mouth has spread. Terror Firmer which I directed in 1999, suddenly we can’t keep the DVDs in stock – it’s become popular due word of mouth. It takes time when there’s no big advertising campaign, but it’s a great weapon if you have something the public will eventually like. It may just take time to accelerate if it doesn’t have McDonalds behind it [laughs].
RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH: VOLUME 1 IS OUT NOW ON DVD