Lloyd Kaufman on Shakespeare and Panic Fest 2022

Shitstorm 1

#ShakespearesShitstorm. // Courtesy Lloyd Kaufman

[Panic Fest is KC’s premiere horror and science fiction film festival. Celebrating its 10th year, here is our full coverage of films making an appearance.]

When I got the chance to interview Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman about his new film, I was so happy to be able to do it for The Pitch. It’s one of the few places where I could quote Charlton Heston dropping an F-bomb and later receive a letter from the actor-NRA president thanking me for representing him accurately.

For five decades Kaufman and Michael Herz have been producing or distributing movies with distinctive titles that Paramount, Disney or Universal would probably ignore. They would probably not want to acquire the rights to Surf Nazis Must Die, or Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator, or Kaufman’s most recent directing effort #ShakespearesShitstorm.

It’s nice to be able to represent Troma titles as they are. I would have had difficulty doing the same at The Kansas City Star. They once spent hours debating my use of the word “horny.”

As the title implies, the film, which plays at Panic Fest at the Screenland Armour in North Kansas City on Sunday at 6:00 p.m., is a reworking of the Bard’s The Tempest, which features Kaufman himself as both the wizard (in this case a scientist), Prospero, and his scheming sister. The filmmaker will be playing himself before and after the screening.

Kaufman has been known for presenting the masses with low culture delights like The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke ‘Em High, and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. Curiously, he has also contributed to the Oscar-winning Rocky and My Dinner with Andre.

In addition, Guardians of the Galaxy writer-director James Gunn co-wrote Kaufman’s Tromeo and Juliet, and Samuel L. Motherfuckin’ Jackson had an early role in the Troma release Def by Temptation.

Our telephone conversation last week ranged from whales defecating to experiencing Shakepeare’s work presented by some of the best interpreters ever. He also expresses solidarity for indie theaters like the Armour, who have offered delights while skipping the multiplexes.


The Pitch: One thing Troma seems to have been really good at is titling their releases. You can’t help but love Surf Nazis Must Die and Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator.

Lloyd Kaufman: How about #ShakespearesShitstorm for a title?

You actually watched a now classic performance of The Tempest on stage when you were a kid.

Well, the first time I saw it was with my mother when I was about eight years old, and Maurice Evans was playing Prospero. Watching The Tempest on stage left a huge impression. I liked the play. It’s my favorite Shakespearean play. I very much liked Derek Jarman’s movie. 

Wasn’t Richard Burton playing Caliban?

Well, that’s the kinescope of the black and white TV film of a performance with Maurice Evans, and you’re right. Burton plays Caliban. Lee Remnick plays Miranda. Roddy McDowall plays Ariel, and there are all sorts of people in it. It’s a wonderful, straight, basic version taken from the stage performance. But the first time I saw it was when my mother took me.

I saw a bunch of versions of it, and I studied it two or three times, at least once at Yale and once at Trinity School. It’s the trippiest of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s got a monster. It’s got a fairy. It’s got the subtext about earth, air, fire, and water. 

I wanted to make The Tempest back in 1993, but I wanted to wait until I was older and as old as Prospero, which I indeed am. The Tempest is all about an old man being banished from his kingdom, which certainly I am. I’m being pushed deeper and deeper into the weeds of the underground. Like Prospero, I make magic. Movie magic. I have to deal with the people who betray me, the industry, all that kind of stuff.

It’s probably my most personal movie for sure. And, and most likely like Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, I have a feeling that this will be my last directorial project.

I’m producing a bunch of movies by new young talent: the new James Gunns and the Trey Parkers of the future. I’ve got four movies that I have produced, and two of them are completed. Two are in post production.

I’m enjoying making it possible for young, more tech savvy filmmakers who can make movies now for under $60,000, which would cost half-a-million if it were a Lloyd Kaufman film, but the younger people are making films that are just as good.

Anybody who’s seriously studied Shakespeare knows that the plays are loaded with not just innuendo, but frank sexual talk. So, whales taking dumps on a luxury yacht wouldn’t be that surprising.

I’m with you. As you probably know, Shakespeare did in fact use animal parts in his plays (in Julius Caesar, the actor playing the title role had a sheep’s bladder under his costume to ensure a bloody spectacle during the assassination).

I think anyone who’s read The Tempest is going to have a good time with #ShakespearesShitstorm, but even if you haven’t, most people don’t know the play. At least I’ve been in front of thousands of people in the past month. 

When you have a room where there are 600 people, and you ask who in the auditorium has seen or read The Tempest, very few people raise their hands. And yet, they have a great time at the movie. So, hopefully #ShakespearesShitstorm might be a gateway for younger people to get into seeing Shakespeare, because he really was the greatest. But he very easily could have been making Troma movies today.

It was very hard to train those whales. You know, we went to Albania, where we shot all that stuff. And we’re maybe the first American movie to film in Albania, and getting those whales to do what they did was no easy task. You may have noticed that when they go to the bathroom, they have corn in their stools, which is kind of interesting [laughs].

The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Taming of the Shrew play like sitcoms.

Indeed. Absolutely. And Kiss Me Kate by Cole Porter is delightful. It’s a masterpiece of a musical. The play just lends itself to Cole Porter’s genius. I gave a tip of the hat to Cole Porter. I lose one of his lines from the song “Brush up Your Shakespeare.”

With Troma, have you had to get past the gatekeepers in the entertainment industry?

Well, certainly we’ve been doing it for 50 years. We’ve had to do everything ourselves, and at this point, we have absolutely no attachment to any gatekeepers in the industry. It doesn’t mean we’re making money, but we have our own streaming service called Troma Now, which is growing, and the subscribers love it.

For merchandising, we have the store TromaDirect.com, where there’s tons of different merchandise, Blu-Rays, posters, T-shirts, and jewelry. 

We have our own universe here, and the fact that we keep making movies after 50 years, all thanks to basically to our fan base—I believe the fans are the ones who created this event (Panic Fest).

That’s true. And fans made donations during the pandemic to keep the doors of the theater open.

We had that here, too, with Forbidden Planet, which was the only store in New York that really offers Troma merchandise. We had to give them money because they were on their hind legs.

One of the more amusing gags in the movie is when easily offended young people alert each other to offensive content they don’t like by projecting a Bat Signal, featuring a giant snowflake. There’s also a scene where Caliban, who’s African American, has to explain to well-meaning white liberals that their goals aren’t necessarily the goals of others.

People love that. If you see the movie with a full audience, people get a kick out of that. Those are great scenes. Wonderful. Yes, they’re exaggerated, but they’re the truth. I just have to go look at some videos from Yale University, my alma mater, and see the inability to listen to anybody’s opinion.

Troma has also distributed some unqualified masterpieces. Didn’t you release My Neighbor Totoro?

Yes, we did. We discovered Hayao Miyazaki for the United States market, and the minute we had a little success, Disney bought the whole shebang with Ghibli’s Studios. It’s a long, sad story, but they they screwed us. They used our graphics to announce that they had bought the studio. What they didn’t buy was My Neighbor Totoro.

But because they use the Totoro graphic and the Totoro poster in all their press releases, we couldn’t sell the TV rights. Nobody would believe us. They kept saying, “Oh no, this is Disney.” They bought the whole studio. We ended up losing money. And The New Yorker, by the way, and you’re familiar with that rag?

Yes.

The New Yorker had a big piece on Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, but it wasn’t Troma that discovered Miyazaki. It was the God of The New Yorker, the God of Sundance, the God of the Oscars: Harvey Weinstein.  

He discovered him in an eight-page article about Miyazaki. Nowhere does it mention Troma. Yeah. That’s how the media works, the mainstream media. 

You don’t exist, but if you advertise and you’re Harvey Weinstein, they love you. If you worked for 50 years on movies that come from the heart, soul, and brain of the filmmaker, you are ignored because you don’t advertise. They don’t want you.

You have contributed to some mainstream films, but you quit after working as an associate producer on The Final Countdown, which had stars, a big budget, and was painful to watch. The Toxic Avenger, however, was made for next to nothing, and it’s funny as hell.

Well, the difference is that the people making The Final Countdown  had no interest in making a good movie. There were only a few people who were interested in making a good movie: Kirk Douglas, his son, Peter Douglas, and myself. 

The crew was there to see how much overtime they could get and how much they could plunder from petty cash. Lunch was much more important. There’s a Blu-Ray of The Final Countdown put out by a company called Blue Underground, and they interviewed me about it. I spoke my mind about the experience on The Final Countdown

That’s the movie that made me not want to  waste anymore time with the mainstream. It’s not going to get anywhere. I was lucky enough to work on Rocky and Saturday Night Fever. So, I had two great movies on which to cut my teeth, and I learned from great directors. That was a very important.

I had a reputation for making low budget movies, and actually The Final Countdown was not a huge budget for the kind of movie. It ended up at about $8 million, which was considered a a modest budget for a movie of that scope, but unfortunately as you say, it stinks.

You could argue that both Rocky Balboa and Melvin the Mop Boy, who becomes Toxie, are both underdogs. You love watching him beat up racist, homophobic jocks with his mop.

Yeah, you get it. It took over 35 years for the mainstream to get The Toxic Avenger. But as you may know, there’s a million dollar re-imagining in post-production right now as we speak with Peter Dinklage playing Toxie. It took long enough.

He’s great. I can’t talk too much about it. Even though I’m a producer, I don’t know that much about it. And I have not seen the first cut, but some people from a company got to see a focus group in Los Angeles and said the movie was terrific and funny and just loved it.

Both you and low budget master Roger Corman have used your movies as a platform to discuss challenging issues. Corman’s The Intruder, where a young, unknown Canadian actor named William Shater played a white supremacist, was shot here in Missouri. With The Toxic Avenger and your other films, you explore the dangers of pollution, which normally doesn’t give people superpowers.

All of the movies that I’ve written and directed with Michael Herz, my partner of 50 years, have one foot in serious subjects. Troma’s War is exactly what’s going on now in the world with terrorism and the pandemic. The Toxic Avenger was about the environment class. The Class of Nuke ‘em High was about building a nuclear power plant within walking distance of New York City. 

Every movie I’ve done, certainly #ShakespearesShitstorm, deals with how Purdue and big pharma have killed multitudes of people compared to Putin. There have been 300,000 opioid deaths this year. I don’t think Putin will come close.

With Surf Nazis Must Die—I can take no credit for that movie other than we changed the name from Surf Nazis to Surf Nazis Must Die, because in 1985, Nazis were still a pretty knee jerk name. Look who’s the hero of Surf Nazis Must Die. It’s a woman in 1985. And what kind of woman? An overweight Black woman. 

Did Martin Scorsese do that? Did Oliver Stone do something like that? I don’t think so.

There’s plenty of serious stuff in our movies, and that’s why they’re still here after 50 years. The fans are our secret sauce. The fanbase is probably a million a month that stop by and look at our social media, which is not a big number, but they sure are loyal. They book our films. They act in our films. They even give us money. 

A company called Bad Dragon gave us 10% of the budget of #ShakespearesShitstorm. There were no strings attached. They did it like a MacArthur grant. They gave us $40,000 just because they wanted it. They didn’t even want a piece of the movie.

Categories: Movies