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Saturday, November 22, 2014

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Independent filmmaker values art over profit

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Lloyd Kaufman directed the cult classic The Toxic Avenger. [llyodkaufman.com photo]

If Lloyd Kaufman’s parents didn’t make him learn French as a child, he may never have become the artistic filmmaker that he is today.

The 40-year veteran of independent filmmaking, responsible for cult classics such as The Toxic Avenger, said his first brush with creative film was in the pages of influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma.

Kaufman, 66, discovered the magazine as a Chinese studies student at Yale University in Connecticut. He began reading it regularly as the enthusiasm of his cinephile roommates rubbed off on him. Kaufman describes his university-aged run-in with film as kismet, or destiny.

 “If I didn’t speak French, I probably would’ve become the Michael Bay of American filmmaking,” he said, referencing the action film director who is known for churning out high-budget movies rife with special effects.

Kaufman, who will be in Toronto for the annual Fan Expo convention in August, was once en route to becoming a social worker or a teacher before finding his calling in film. “It was the ’60s, and I thought I would make the world a better place,” he said with a laugh on the phone from his Long Island, N.Y., office.

Instead, Kaufman founded an independent production company, Troma Entertainment, which he runs in partnership with Michael Herz, arguably making the world of film a better place.

Troma, straying far from the Hollywood world of glitz, glamour and multi-million-dollar budgets, works on very low budgets and focuses on unique, often shocking films that offer “genuine emotion” and social commentary.

“Troma is the jalapeño peppers on the cultural pizza, so to speak,” Kaufman said, explaining that while high-budget films appeal to a wide audience, Troma films typically appeal to a niche audience, but are more challenging and interesting for viewers. “I don’t think Batman gives you a genuine emotion – it gives you $200 million of something,” he said.

Founded in 1974, Troma, unlike many independent film companies that have fizzled out due to financial pressure, has been operating continuously in New York for the last 38 years. 

Early in his career, Kaufman took on an Israeli project with director Ami Artzi. The resulting film, called Big Gus, What’s the Fuss? in English and HaBalash HaAmitz Shvartz in Hebrew, was, according to Kaufman, a huge flop, both financially and artistically. “We managed to make the worst movie ever made,” he said with typical frankness.

Although Big Gus never took off in North America or in Israel, years later, Kaufman would learn he still has an Israeli following. While travelling through Israel, one of his daughters found a Toxic Avenger yarmulke, which she brought back for him.

To this day, the 1984 low-budget horror comedy about a “weakling” who falls into a vat of toxic waste and becomes a huge, super-strong creature is likely Kaufman’s most widely known film. It spawned a series of sequels as well as a children’s TV cartoon called Toxic Crusaders.

While many people may be unfamiliar with Troma’s original works, they probably have heard of the many well-known actors and industry professionals that Kaufman’s company helped launch. Among them are Samuel L. Jackson, Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park fame, and filmmaker James Gunn.

Troma’s independence, Kaufman explained, allows it much more artistic freedom in a world where “there are a small number of giant media conglomerates, and most of the media that we get comes from those conglomerates or their vassals.”

Kaufman believes that with the rise of the Internet and file sharing, as well as the ease with which simple film equipment can be acquired, the monopoly of media conglomerates will be challenged.  “The making of cinema has been democratized,” he said. “You can be a teacher, or a nurse or a social worker and still make movies.”

Troma recently posted many of its films to YouTube so that fans can access them free, and Kaufman has also allowed for a Toxic Avenger musical to be made without charging for rights to the material.

For Kaufman, giving people access to the art, emotion and social commentary of Troma’s films is more important than the profit.  “I do believe that if you share your art with your fans, your fans will take care of you.”

Kaufman will be at the Fan Expo convention which runs at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre from Aug. 23-26. www.fanexpocanada.com

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