You got turned on to films when you were at college. Were you not a film fan when you were young?
"Nope! I would have done something useful with my life. But I went to Yale University. There I was roomed, purely by kismet, with a movie maniac. We had a very tiny little bedroom - our beds were side by side - I caught his movie germs and the next thing I know I was making movies, and I couldn't stop!"
What were you studying?
"Chinese Studies was my major. Other than movies, China's my main interest; then my family, well after that. I have my priorities: movies, China, and then a poor third would be my family. So then I met Michael Herz at Yale and we decided that we would set up an independent movie studio."
Had you any idea how to go about that?
"No, it was a stupid idea actually. It was a very stupid idea, but this was the '60s and the individual was important in those day and peace was sort of a good thing and all that stuff. So we took a whack at it, we did it."
What was the first project when you set up the studio?
"The idea, right from the start to was to try to set up an independent movie studio and try to create a Troma Universe. Everything I learned at Yale was comic books. I've had a 25-year friendship with Stan Lee. In fact this Spider-Man tie I'm wearing was a Christmas gift. He and I have written some scripts together. In fact at this moment we're working on a script I wrote called Congressman, about a new super-hero. Stan loved it, and he and I have been writing the script. But the idea was to create Tromaville as small-town America and then try to find an identity.
"We had seen many of the great movies, but we had also seen movies by Roger Corman, and I saw that Roger was doing movies that were beautifully directed, and well-written and had good acting, with provocative scenes. And it proved that one could do good films on a low budget. One could do low-budget and one did not have to work for a giant international conglomerate. So that's what we started.
"When I was at Yale I made a feature-length movie based on Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter with a Bolex: black and white, feature-length. I'm probably the only director in history who's never done a short movie. I've always done features. I've done some promotional charity stuff for people where I've done shorts, but I didn't want to do it, I was just asked. But this was one long, black and white Bolex movie. No sync sound. We put the music and sound effects and narration on it. Then I did another one, a comedy called The Girl Who Returned which had some of the elements of the Tromatic touch.
"Then came the first sync-sound movie which was The Battle of Love's Return. Actually, Michael Herz, my partner, is an actor in The Girl Who Returned. Then while I was still at school, one of my Yale chums and I made The Battle of Love's Return and the great Oliver Stone worked on the film and he also acts in the film. Oliver Stone has a cameo performance in The Battle of Love's Return. Then that movie got into very fine movie theatres. It was in colour and black and white. I had to play the main part because I couldn't afford to pay anybody."
Where were these movies getting shown? In the local theatres?
"Well, the first three that I did were in the film societies: Yale, Harvard, Princeton. Rappaccini was extremely well-received. The Girl Who Returned actually did quite well on the college circuit because it was funny and had some decent people. The world was divided up into one group of men and another group of women, and every four years the people from the men-land and the people from the women-land would come together and hold these Olympic games.
"The Battle of Love's Return came next and that opened at a very famous movie theatre in New York, akin to the Prince Charles Cinema here, where by the way Sgt Kabukiman NYPD will open in May. The Battle of Love's Return got very good reviews and did well enough that I could then go out and raise approximately $150,000 to do Sugar Cookies which was our take on Vertigo. Instead of a man and a woman, I put two women in it. Sugar Cookies was associated with Oliver Stone, and there were a lot of Warhol people in there - this was 1970 or '71. That was a commercial hit, and we just kept going.
"Michael Herz and I slowly got the Tromaville situation under control and made a movie called Squeeze Play that made a lot of money - though not by Hollywood standards obviously - and that's how we bought the Troma Building. Most of our movies are inspired by the newspapers, so Squeeze Play was our take on the women's liberation movement which was starting to get going in the '70s. We did a movie about it; it was a softball movie - very funny though - and it broke the rule that you don't mix sex and comedy. Squeeze Play was a huge success: very, very sexy and very funny; good, old-fashioned slapstick; burlesque-type humour. It dealt with this women's softball team; the fact that every weekend the men would go off and play softball and leave the women in the house and the women would get upset. Fifteen years later, A League of Their Own covered that of course, but we already did it. Squeeze Play lead to Waitress, Stuck on You, The First Turn On - there was a series of these erotic comedies."
Were you building up a repertory company with the same crews and the same actors?
"We couldn't because we always had very small budgets. The actors would become successful and then we couldn't afford them any more."
Where did the name Troma come from?
"'Troma' came from the ancient Latin - Virgil - it means 'excellence on celluloid'. That's where we got the name from; the rest is history."
When you started off, where were you finding the people to work on them? Were these college friends and family?
"Yeah, pretty much. My father's in them; my mother, my brother, my family, my best friend. But then Squeeze Play was a huge success. We have a building in New York called the Troma Building. It's very famous in terms of movie-making because a lot of young people started out there. Squeeze Play, because it was so successful, there was a whole trend of those movies. Then we switched. We did about five of them, and after The First Turn On, which by the way my partner turned down Madonna for. What a loony he was; I never forgave him for it. He says that we should be proud that we turned her down because thanks to us she became a big star. Naturally, while The First Turn On was coming out and underwhelming critics, Madonna was hurtling into the stratosphere as a huge, huge success."
Anybody can turn her down nowadays, but you were there first.
"Yes, that's right. You're absolutely right."
The Toxic Avenger is the archetypal Troma movie. Where did the idea for Toxie come from?
"Like all of our movies, it comes from the newspapers. I was getting some newspapers in the early '80s that were talking about these toxic waste dumps ticking away like time-bombs all over the world. Children in South America going into garbage dumps and finding what they thought to be pixie dust. And the pixie dust turns out to be radium that the hospitals are just throwing away from the X-ray machine. So at any rate, in America, while we've got all this toxic waste and people are throwing away non-biodegradable McDonalds containers and all that kind of crap, they're going to health clubs. It's the health club fad and everyone's making muscles and cleaning their bodies and eating macrobiotic food. So it just seemed like a very interesting theme for a movie.
"In fact it was at the Cannes Film Festival that I got the brainstorm that the monster was going to be the hero: 'That's what we're missing. That's what's going to make it special.' And the rest is history. Again, when we made the movie we had the same problem that we always had. The movie theatres said, 'Wait a minute. This isn't Squeeze Play. What are you doing? This is a horror film but wait a minute, we're not scared. What's going on here?' I said, 'If you want Squeeze Play, we've got it, you can screen it, I'll give you a print. No, it's not a horror film. It's The Toxic Avenger; he's a superhero; it's a comedy. A grand guignol comedy.'
"Finally we got an excellent movie theatre in Greenwich Village. Are you familiar with New York? It's similar to the area we're in now, but not quite as fun. It's the equivalent of Soho. That theatre there played the movie, and it ran for a year. The night it opened, there were lines around the block. The Toxic Avenger played there for a year, then 400 copies were made of the 35mm print. Enormous success. 200,000 video cassettes. Success in every country in the world. Two more sequels, a cartoon show, licensing - other companies license different types of merchandise based on Toxie. So that's how Toxie began. The Shakespeare element entered into Toxie in Last Temptation of Toxie which was the third one. A Midsummer Night's Dream was an element that helped to inspire the third Toxic Avenger movie. The third Nuke 'Em High movie - The Good, the Bad and the Subhumanoid: Class of Nuke 'Em High Part 3 - has a strong influence of Comedy of Errors. Finally with Tromeo and Juliet we are actually doing Shakespeare."
How closely does Tromeo and Juliet stick to the Shakespeare story? What liberties have you taken with it?
"It sticks pretty close."
There wasn't a woman with popcorn in her stomach in the original Shakespeare play.
"Well, I'm not so sure of that. Shakespeare wrote such a marvellous play. He came so close to a really good work. So we made a few improvements. I don't think we re-wrote more than 80% of the play. We did take a few liberties with the ending, but other than that: it has all the car-crashes, mutations, special effects, decapitations, kinky sex, de-Capulet-ations, and all the stuff that Shakespeare always wanted. That was a pretty good joke there; a very intellectual, Shakespearian Troma joke.
"The interesting thing about Tromeo and Juliet is that it's again sort of drawn from current events. I'm 50 years old; I'm no longer a youth, that's for sure. And my generation, the folks who were baby-boomers, have I think done a number on your generation. People like Clinton and Hillary are so cool in their polo-neck shirts and their designer jeans. Usually their jeans cost more than my suits. They're just so cool, swinging and emotionless. In their world, it's horrible. You don't want to be emotional, you don't want to really be passionate. You just want to be cool. You don't have opinions, you don't have anything. Then on top of it, kids today can't even make love because of AIDS. So basically the way I see it is they turn inward upon themselves: tattoos and piercing. At any rate, Tromeo and Juliet is my take on American youth today, specifically in New York, downtown New York.
"I wrote the script with a young man named James Gunn who's 28 years old, so he's half my age. It's just our beat on what's going on in terms of youth. Obviously love is something the Clintons don't believe in. With most of the post-war baby-boomers, passion has gone. So with Tromeo and Juliet in this powerful world of gang-war and drugs and tattoos and piercing - I'm not saying tattoos and piercing are bad - but this is the world in which they find themselves. And it is Romeo and Juliet. The Romeo and Juliet story was marvellous for what I was interested in."
Are you going to work on some of the other plays? Macbeth or King Lear?
"I don't think so. We've been toying with Two Gentlemen from Troma. Some publishers came to us recently on writing a book on the history of Troma, and I suggested to them maybe we should call it Two Gentlemen from Troma, and once they heard that I think they went round to Quentin Tarantino."
When you're developing new movies for Troma, which comes first: the idea or the title?
"In the case of Tromeo and Juliet I got inspired a few years ago when there was a big Troma season at the British Film Institute, at the National Film Theatre. Somebody from their staff was kind enough - probably to get me away from them because I was so obnoxious - they took me up to Stratford-on-Avon as a day trip. I genuinely love Shakespeare. I don't know that much about him, but I know a hell of a lot more than the people making these Shakespearian movies in America. At any rate, I was genuinely moved. Shakespeare's spirit entered my body - I can't tell you which orifice it came out - and I decided: Tromeo and Juliet. The idea, the title came to me. I wrote a draft. I worked with a 30-year-old young man to write another draft. That didn't work. Then I worked with a guy who was 19; that didn't work. Then finally, this fellow James Gunn and I came up with the direction that I was getting at, namely this treatment of the fact that post-war baby-boomers of the '60s, the people who are supposed to be so full of love and peace and individuality and passion, have really turned out to be these horrendous, cold-hearted, cool, emotionless, passionless people who have done a number on the heads of the people your age. Hopefully you have not been ruined by my generation."
Well, it turned me into a journalist...
"Aaargh! No, the Fourth Estate is marvellous. So the title was there ahead of the movie. But almost every other movie, I get an idea from the newspapers. It's usually something that festers. When they were building this nuclear power plant right next door to New York City it was just so outrageous and so disgraceful. Why did they have to build a nuclear power plant within a few feet of the most populated area in the United States?"
What is a typical budget and shooting schedule for a Troma movie nowadays?
"Kabukiman was the big one for us, the biggest we've ever done: nearly $3 million. But a big Japanese company called Namco who have an arcade here in Soho, a multi-million dollar company, they put up some of the financing. So that's the biggest. Tromeo and Juliet was about £500,000. Still minute compared to Hollywood standards, although it's a lot of money."
Are you happy with that level or would you like to go up to big multi-million pound pictures?
"No. I have no interest in going up; I have interest in attracting better writers. I think the young man with whom I'm working now is one of the best we've ever had. It'd be nice to have a touch more money so we could get some better actors. But Tromeo and Juliet, I couldn't ask for better acting. The acting in Tromeo and Juliet is superb, absolutely brilliant. I don't know if you've seen Othello. If you see the Shakespeare that's coming out of Hollywood that they're spending 15, 20 million bucks, it's absolute trash. Othello was just like a student film. It was absolute pure ego. That wasn't the worst, but it was just horrible. Kenneth Branagh was good, and Richard III, with Ian McKellen, but all the other Shakespeares have just been garbage. Because these people have no education. How can they possibly do Shakespeare. What does Lawrence Fishburne know about Othello? What has he done? Has he lived anything? Has he experienced anything? Has he read Shakespeare? Obviously not. He knew as much about Othello as I know about... James Joyce."
Do you think Shakespeare needs updating to make it relevant for today's audiences?
"Definitely not. Kenneth Branagh proved it. His movies are sensational. Shakespeare is something that one achieves over a lifetime. I may be Troma, but I've studied Shakespeare for 30, 40 years. I can't say I've studied it as a professor but I have read it and read it and read it and lived with it and enjoyed it and seen it performed over and over and over again. And I would say that I - and my partner also - we both love Shakespeare and we know more about Shakespeare I would say than any other American, saved people who have had the Royal Shakespeare Company experience. Obviously we cannot compare with British Shakespeare. I can't recall any decent American Shakespeare. There's some stuff that's done in New York in the off-Broadway theatres and that occasionally isn't bad. Pacino's pretty good, he did some good stuff. And Elizabeth McGovern did a Shakespeare that was very good. Obviously she's had some education - you can see it."
Troma films have a cult reputation in the UK but they're so hard to get hold of. Why has it taken so long to set up Troma UK?
"That's exactly why Harvey Goldsmith and Ed Simons decided to take the Troma plunge. They're major mainstream music impresarios. they bring the Three Tenors to Wembley and they do Madonna and the Smash Hits awards show and everything. They're 100% mainstream. They found that, first of all, they love Troma. They've loved Troma for years. They're sort of my age so they've seen Troma for 25 years. And they started to do some research. They would go to universities and say, 'Hey, you ever hear of Troma?' And they would go up to women because usually those kinds of movies appeal to men. And they'd find every time when they asked a student, male or female: 'Troma! Oh, Combat Shock! I love Combat Shock!'
"And the one complaint they found was people can't find our movies. The demand and the following for Troma has outstripped the supply. So what Ed and Harvey are planning is to get the Troma brand name and do what Troma has done in the States, which is to increase the profile. Get video shops to have Troma sections. Have theatrical runs on a regular basis. Obviously they won't be many many prints, but a small number of prints and run them at 30 or 40 venues around England, so that people can see the movies up on the big screen. And then create Tromaville Cafe which is a Troma TV show.
"We have Tromaville Cafe running in Europe now. It runs once a week in most of Europe. It's a 15-minute scripted show featuring Toxic Avenger and Kabukiman and the Tromettes and Melvina. Tromaville Cafe is a restaurant and has all of our characters. The presenter is a waitress-cum-action-news-reporter. So she's wearing the Tromaville waitress outfit but she has a microphone. That's running in Scandinavia, the Low Countries - which were the High Countries before Tromaville Cafe - central Europe, South Africa. It's got a big reach. Harvey and Ed, rather than using Tromaville Cafe, they are going to create a British version of it and have famous people appear on it as guests. So that's part of the plan. We're going to shoot part of Toxic Avenger Part 4 here, and we're probably going to be doing some other movies here. It won't be immediately, but it's part of the plan. We're writing The Toxic Avenger Part 4 now for filming in the UK. We might do a segment of the American Tromaville Cafe in London anyway. We have to do 15 more for filming. So if we did one or two of the episodes here, it'd be fun. The nice thing about Troma is this: I majored in Chinese Studies and taoism teaches you the way to be one with nature and it works."
Do you think characters like Toxie have got important points to make about pollution and such topics?
"Well, the purpose of Troma movies is to entertain. Our movies appeal to couples who want to have fun. They want to be challenged. The problem with Hollywood movies; you've just seen at the Oscars - it was the worst group of movies that I can remember. I'm going to show you the typical submission I get. We get millions of things, but this guy tracked me down. Toilet of Terror. This comes through the Troma solicitors too. They act like I'm nuts. I don't think this is what I'm interested in. I'm not interested in Toilet of Terror. Well, maybe, but there's no script. Where's the script? If the guy's serious, there should be a script in there.
"See, when we do a movie... We financed a movie called Bugged - we're going to show it at Cannes - it's an Afro-American Troma movie. Young kids who are trying to be their grandparents. A young guy who's brilliant, absolutely talented, he wanted to do a Troma movie from somebody else's perspective. Obviously it's going to be different from somebody else's perspective. So he did a movie called Bugged; it's got insects, and the fun of Troma, yet it's profound. This is this guy's first film. He's in a league with Peter Jackson - absolutely top of the line."
Do you watch other people's movies?
"Yeah, all the time. I love movies. And we get hundreds. We have acquisition stuff and an incredible number of movies."
There seems to be only you and Full Moon working on this kind of stuff. What do you think of their output?
"Charlie Band is a genius when he directs movies. But he hasn't been directing them, he's been hiring a lot of hacks. They've been more formulaic. I can't say I've seen anything good for a while. They seem to be following what Hollywood does then doing something similar for a tiny little budget. Of course, we made A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell ahead of Jurassic Park."
Do you think there's room for kids at college today to do what you did and follow in your footsteps?
"I think it's much harder, because of the conspiracy of the labour, bureaucratic and corporate leagues to control the minds, hearts and pocket-books of the little people of Tromaville. I think it's very very difficult. We are literally the only movie studio left consistently making movies. Roger Corman and Troma - that's it. There's nobody else out there that's got any longevity. And it's a disgrace, very sad. You're looking at the dodo bird. No, the dodo bird's extinct. I'm more like a passenger pigeon."
That's extinct as well.
"Is the passenger pigeon extinct?!"
You're like the Mauritius kestrel. There's 20 of those left.
"The vicious testicle, you say? I've got vicious testicles."
What about spin-offs? Ironically, one of the highest-profile things that Troma's had over here has been the Toxic Crusaders cartoon series.
"Toxie's huge. A toy company wanted to do an environmental toy, and they loved Toxie, and then we did the cartoons and the merchandise and all that. But that was not part of the plan, believe me. That was just luck."
Why was it changed from ‘Toxic Avenger’ to ‘Toxic Crusader’?
"Because we wanted to separate the two. We didn't want grandmothers of children buying the Toxic Avenger tapes and having a heart attack. Some stupid grandmother did buy one once and made a big stink about it. How anyone can be that stupid! The Toxic Avenger cassette says right on the front. You'd have to be a total idiot to bring it home for your kids. There was an idiot somewhere. I think she just wanted publicity or something. The director's cut says, 'Warning: This movie contains gross and disgusting footage. If you don't find it gross and disgusting, you need a shrink!' It says that on the package, and this woman somehow manages to bring it home to her grandchildren. Then it turns out she's head of some league of decency. But the point is they yanked Toxic Crusaders and Toxic Avenger from a whole chain of drugstores because of this stupid situation."
Was that a one-off or do you get much trouble from 'the moral majority'?
"No. We've had virtually no problems. Once you look at our stuff, it's pretty good. The New York Times gives us good reviews. The good critics like our stuff. Women like our movies. Once you see our movies, people realise 'These are pretty good.' You see a movie a like Die Hard; hell, that's much more violent than anything that Troma does. Schwarzenegger, Stallone, all that kind of stuff, that's serious violence, so our stuff, going to see it, people go, 'That's interesting stuff.' And as a result all these archival institutions - the French Cinematheque, the American Film Institute, the Kennedy Centre - have major Troma film retrospectives. In order for anyone to cause any trouble they have to at least look at the movie. Once they look at the movie, they go, 'Hey, it's kind of fun!' After all, Braveheart, which is considered the best movie in the world right now, has head-crushing in it, has torture, has many of the elements that Toxic Avenger pioneered. Toxic Avenger has the famous full head-crushing scene. When Toxic Avenger came out in 1983, I remember we had a screening for our investors and two or three of them never talked to me again. They walked out during the head-crushing scene. Eventually they got it, they got the gag. But here it is in Braveheart - people say it's high art."
Can you see a Troma movie being nominated for an Oscar?
"I cannot, no. If it ever happened, that would probably put me over the edge. I would go up to that microphone and I would totally flip out. That's so far from my universe. I think I would crack up. That would probably be the thing that would cause me to blow my brains out, and I would probably do it right on stage at the microphone: bang!"
Troma films have this image of gross and disgusting but funny.
"Even with the cartoon of Toxic Crusaders: 'They're gross but they still get the girls.' That was the line."
What is the level that is too gross, too disgusting for Troma?
"Well, it's not a matter of the grossness. It's a matter of what the movies say. I don't want to hurt people. I would not deliberately do something that is hurting people's feelings. Our movies are uplifting, I think that's why they're so popular. They basically are decent, they have a decency too them. Troma's War: we're patriotic. The movies have a very good value system. I certainly wouldn't do a movie that might make fun of somebody's disabilities. We have a shock-jock in the States and he makes fun of cripples and he makes fun of homosexuals on the radio and he's making millions. I don't like that, and I really don't care for it. People are hurt - people are unhappy - deliberately. Yes, I imagine 99% of the people are laughing, but to deliberately hurt the feelings of even 1% - why do that? I would not do that."
What's the way forward for Troma beyond Tromeo and Juliet, which will obviously be the biggest film this year?
"We plan to have more new directors. The notion of being the independent studio, that is a very sincere goal. Clearly my own writing and directing cannot possibly appeal to the youth and the Troma fans. Troma fans want Troma and we have to give it to them. I write and direct movies and I love doing it. I'm lucky enough at the age of 50, having done 20-something movies, to keep going. But from a business point of view we want to give more opportunities to young new directors, to real talent. That is a major part of what we're going to be doing, and what we are doing, what we have been doing for the past seven or eight years. We have been empowering more new young directors and hopefully out of that group will come the next wave of Tarantinos and Oliver Stones. So that is a very important part of what we plan. In terms of what we're doing I want to do Toxie 4 and I want to deal with the abortion issue in that. We've got a project called The Beaster Bunny which is being developed, and there are one or two other ones. The Congressman project with Stan Lee has been going on, but Stan does not want that to be a Troma movie. He wants it to be bigger; he wants that one to be a really first class production."
Are you going to expand into comics like Roger Corman's doing now?
"We have a big presence at the comic book convention in San Diego called Comic Con. But I don't see us doing comic books. Roger's doing it well, and if I had to I'd give it to him to do. We're good buddies. Comic books are a tough business right now because the market's saturated. I know everybody in the comic book business. If I have anything good, I usually do it the other way round. When I go to the comic book conventions I try to acquire comic books to make into movies. We have a movie called Frostbiter. We acquired the rights to that movie; it was a comic book. At the comic book convention we have a big presence for good will and we're looking for comic book properties to acquire and make movies out of."
interview originally posted 11th January 2005