Make Your Own Damn Movie!: Secrets of a Renegade Director

Make Your Own Damn Movie!: Secrets of a Renegade Director

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by Lloyd Kaufman, Adam Jahnke, Trent Haaga

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Lloyd Kaufman, the writer/producer/director of such cult-classic films as The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke 'Em High, and Tromeo and Juliet, offers a guide to movie-making unlike any other available anywhere. In 25 years, Kaufman, along with partner Michael Herz, has built Troma Studios up from a company struggling to find its voice in a field

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Lloyd Kaufman, the writer/producer/director of such cult-classic films as The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke 'Em High, and Tromeo and Juliet, offers a guide to movie-making unlike any other available anywhere. In 25 years, Kaufman, along with partner Michael Herz, has built Troma Studios up from a company struggling to find its voice in a field crowded with competitors to its current--and legendary--status as a lone survivor, a bastion of true cinematic independence, and the world's greatest collection of camp on film.

As entertaining and funny as it is informative and insightful, Make Your Own Damn Movie! places Kaufman's radically low-budget, independent-studio style of filmaking directly in the reader's hands. Thus we learn how to: develop and write a knock-out screenplay; raise funding; find locations and cast actors; hire a crew; obtain equipment, permits, and music rights (all for little or no money); make incredible special effects for $0.79 each; charm, schmooze, and network while on the film-festival circuit; and, finally, make a bad actor act so bad it's actually good.
From scriptwriting and directing to financing and marketing, this book is brimming with utterly off-the-wall, decidedly maverick, yet consistently proven advice on how to fully develop one's idea for an independent film.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The experience of low-budget filmmaking is so bad it's good. This is the central bit of wisdom writer/producer/director Kaufman (his credits include The Toxic Avenger; Class of Nuke 'Em High; Tromeo and Juliet) gives in this riotous book. Equal parts how-to, memoir and shrewd marketing stunt, it tells young filmmakers to lower their expectations. Taking a reverse-inspirational tack, Kaufman admits indie films probably won't make you rich, famous, happy or very many friends. For emphasis, he begins with an image of him shoveling rat poop from the basement of Troma Studios and closes with a suicide dream sequence. It is to the tremendous credit of Kaufman's profane, self-deprecating, caustic but charismatic sense of humor that the book's opening, closing and everything else in between manages to make the low-budget filmmaking process seem like the most glorious and noble of life pursuits. Seven different contributors regularly interrupt Kaufman with commentary on aspects of the filmmaking process in general and Kaufman in particular. (He's both inspirational and profoundly cheap.) At one point, an argument that's been brewing between coauthor Haaga and Kaufman about whether film or digital video is better dissolves into a five-page, farcical cursing contest. Like the work he pursues, Kaufman's book is at times so bad it's good. 40 b&w photos. (Apr. 7) Forecast: Kaufman's films have a rabid cult following, and his fans will undoubtedly seek this out. Ads in LA Weekly, the Village Voice and other alternative papers will increase awareness among indie film enthusiasts. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

“If you want to make a movie because you want to become rich, go put a thousand dollars down on thirteen black . . . Your odds are way better . . . If, however, you want to make a movie because you want people to laugh, or cry, or puke--then read [this book].” —Trey Parker, from the Foreword

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Make Your Own Damn Movie!

Secrets of a Renegade Director

By Lloyd Kaufman, Adam Jahnke, Trent Haaga

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 Lloyd Kaufman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-7613-8


Let's Make Some Art!

I was surrounded on every side by vermin, roaches, and rat shit. And I wasn't even meeting with executives at Blockbuster.

This was the basement of the Troma Building in New York City. For years, Troma has occupied this four-story building in the part of Manhattan formerly known as Hell's Kitchen. From this mighty temple, we had steered the mighty ship of Troma through such films as Tromeo & Juliet, Terror Firmer, and Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger Part IV. The Troma Building occupied a proud, majestic place on the New York skyline. But now, disease and decay had entered the works. Rats threatened the very foundation of the Troma Building.

The Troma Building's basement is Troma's memory center, its archive, its remembrance of things past. In other words, it's where a lot of shit has been dumped and forgotten about over the years. And now, it had been invaded by rodents. No one knew quite where the rats had come from. The Troma Building had remained relatively pest-free for the better part of two decades. It seemed like no small coincidence that the arrival of the rats perfectly coincided with the opening of a brand new McDonald's directly next door to the office. Thanks to that devil-worshipping, burger-shilling corporate clown, Troma was lousy with humongous, voracious rodents that knew no fear. And now, everything in our basement was contaminated by rat shit and had either been partially eaten by the rats or was in imminent danger of being so.

Now ordinarily, ridding the basement of rats the size of baby coyotes would be a job for anybody but me. After all, I am president and cofounder of the fucking company. You don't see Harvey Weinstein in the flooded basement of Miramax trying to salvage old promotional T-shirts and baseball caps from Playing for Keeps. But, after years of doling out the most backbreaking, humiliating, odious tasks imaginable, I had finally stumbled across a job so disgusting and wretched that nobody would accept it. Even our interns (who are, by their very nature, subjected to more humiliation than our regular employees simply by virtue of the fact that they are unpaid) refused to take it on.

The choice was simple. Either we seal the basement forever like some old, abandoned mine that's been tapped out or rendered unsafe and just write off thirty years of Troma history (an option that was seriously pursued by a small handful of Troma employees who were always looking for an excuse to blow something up) or I had to go down there and deal with the rats myself. The history of Troma was in that basement. A shit-stained, fucked-up history it may be, but it was a history that Michael Herz and I had built. I couldn't ask anyone to defend that history but me.

Armed with a shovel (which I cleverly figured would serve double duty as both shit scooper and rat bludgeon), I swung wide the steel doors that led to the cellar. I switched on the single 40-watt bulb that provided what milky light the basement offered. I could see four or five rats stop what they were doing, look me in the eyes, then lazily make their way deeper into the basement. Presumably these were mere sentries, going off to let the others know that some asshole was about to interrupt them.

I continued into the darkest recesses of the basement. I walked the rickety pallets to the far door, the door that led into the real heart of darkness. Rat Central. A filthy, damp, pitch black storage area that contained those weird items that tread the fine line between garbage and artifact. Too precious to throw away, but far too useless to ever hope of using again. All around me, I could see the physical reminders of my thirty years with Troma. There was a box containing production schedules and the shooting script from The Battle of Love's Return (1971). I thumbed through the papers, trying to decipher the notes I'd written to myself almost thirty years earlier. It just seemed like gibberish now and I wondered if I'd ever been able to read them. That would explain a lot about that movie. Stacked nearby were molding stacks of posters from Troma's War (1988). There were all kinds of posters from dozens of different movies but it seemed as if you couldn't turn around without seeing a War poster. There were decomposing boxes full of Squeeze Play T-shirts (circa 1980), the computer monitor with the smashed, bloody severed head of Capulet from Tromeo & Juliet (1996), and the costume for Tromie, the Nuclear Squirrel from Class of Nuke 'Em High parts 2 and 3 were precariously balanced like gargoyles atop unmarked boxes. I turned and nearly tripped over a pair of metal film cans, coming ominously close to landing face-first in a mound of petrified rat shit. I examined the can and was not in the least bit surprised to discover that I had almost fallen over the work print of Big Gus, What's the Fuss (1973). My worst movie, arguably the most heinous atrocity ever committed to celluloid, continued to find novel ways to injure and humiliate me. It was the only thing I'd found down here that I thought deserved to be locked away and left to collect dust and feces in this dank basement.

As I cast my eyes over the collected Tromabilia, all of a sudden I knew with the certainty usually reserved for either the very pious or the very insane that spread out before me was what my thirty plus years in movies boiled down to. All the hours spent on set, all the disappointment when something didn't go according to plan, all the elation when something turned out better than hoped, all the money-men I'd had to fellate ... and what had it got me? An extremely limber throat and tongue and a basement full of neglected crap that was slowly being transformed into a public toilet for every sewer rat in Manhattan.

I bent over with my shovel in one hand and an open garbage bag in the other. As I attacked the rat-crap with my shovel, the ancient turds exploded into thick, heavy clouds of dust. The dust immediately coated my ears, eyes, nose, and throat. I kept shoveling and, squinting through the putrid dust, saw a huge rat lazily walk past and, I swear to god, salute me with a Bronx cheer, just like the mouse in Tom & Jerry cartoons. Tom & Jerry had been a huge influence on the Troma style of violence. The debt I owed to this thing's animated counterpart didn't prevent me from taking a swing at it with my shovel. The rat seemed unconcerned by this attack and, after staring at me for a few uncomfortable seconds, disappeared between some boxes.

As I returned to my shoveling, I wondered, when all is said and done, why the fuck was I even bothering to make movies? It's certainly no way to make money. Harvey Weinstein and I started in the business at around the same time. Now people flocked to him like flies to shit, while I was actually down in the shit. It was getting to be virtually impossible to even get our movies seen. The vast majority of movie theaters in the U.S. are now once again owned and operated by the major studios, who seem intent on forcing the same Tom Cruise blockbuster onto every screen and driving the theaters into bankruptcy (both moral and financial). Smaller mom-and-pop video stores were being pushed out of business by Blockbuster and one or two other giant chains that impose an economic blacklist on Troma and other independent studios. And every day seemed to bring news of another independent studio going out of business. The "lucky" ones merely lost their independence and were absorbed into a gigantic, devil-worshipping international megaconglomerate. More often than not it seemed the only way to make money at this was to sell out your ideals and give up your independence. But it's not always about money. The late, lamented, legendary Sam Arkoff, cofounder of American International Pictures, once told me that the biggest mistake of his life was selling AIP to Filmways (which was later bought by Orion which later went through a spectacular bankruptcy that has fucked up the distribution of hundreds, if not thousands, of movies).

If it's not money, I thought to myself as a rat the approximate size and color of a kielbasa ran across my feet, leaving a trail of fragrant droppings, maybe I'm doing it for the respect and admiration of others. Yeah, sure. I couldn't even command enough respect to get my own goddamn employees to do the scut work around the office. Maybe I'd vomited green Bromo Seltzer on camera once too often to be a truly effective leader.

Scraping the shit off my feet, I saw another large, immobile rat on the floor next to me. The rats knew they had control, so it wasn't at all unusual that it wasn't moving. But this one looked far too comfortable. It was either completely at home or dead. "Lucky fucker," I muttered and enviously kicked it to make sure it was dead. As my foot hit fur, the rat burst open. Hundreds of spiders erupted from their corpsenest, swarming every which way. Confronted with a plague of rat-born spiders, I did what any pillar of manly American fortitude would do. I squealed like a prison bitch and slammed my shovel down again and again, hitting the floor, my feet, the dead rat, the walls, and, I'm fairly sure, at least a couple of spiders.

Exhausted, I leaned against the wall. A particularly brave rat, unphased by my spectacular display of martial arts, peered at me from atop a box of SGT. KABUKIMAN FOR PRESIDENT pins from 1992. I recognized the contemptuous look in its eyes from dozens of surly production assistants over the years. Whatever my reasons may have been for starting to make movies, the cold reality was that this is what it boiled down to. There was no glamour when I made movies. There was nothing but hard work to be assigned and, more often than not, returned to my lap. This was the world of filmmaking that I knew. No limousines. No craft services. No imported bottled water to wash the starlet's hair. Just a neverending basement full of shitty, moldy rot that had to be cleaned out. Why the fuck was I doing all this?


Thirty-six hours later in the magnificent town of Sitges on the Mediterranean coast of Spain and I have my answer. Every October, the city hosts the Sitges Film Festival, one of the most comprehensive and prestigious horror, science fiction, and fantasy film festivals in the world. I've been fortunate enough to have movies I've directed invited here several times. In 1996, Sitges showed Tromeo & Juliet and in 1999, we brought Terror Firmer here. This year, they were hosting the world premiere of Citizen Toxie. Not only had the festival flown me over for the occasion, they'd also brought along Heidi Sjursen, who plays Toxie's blind wife Sarah in the movie, and Gabe Friedman, the movie's editor. Now it's one thing for a film festival to fly in the director or the star of a movie. But if you think it's commonplace for a festival to fly in a movie's editor, guess again. Editors are notoriously pale, shaky guys who rarely see the light of day. The inhuman amount of hours they spend locked away watching the same footage over and over again causes them to have social graces that are rudimentary at best and a bizarre, unpleasant omnisexuality that makes it very difficult for them to see other people in the flesh without becoming visibly and embarrassingly aroused.

Citizen Toxie was playing in an amazing 3,000-seat cinema that ranks among the best I've ever seen. I took the stage to introduce the film and immediately remembered why the fuck I bothered making movies. Here was an auditorium full of enthusiastic men and Gynos who were genuinely excited to see a movie. Even more astonishingly, they were excited to see a Troma movie. Here were people applauding and chanting "Troma! Troma! Troma!" Here were fans dressed as Toxie, Kabukiman, and the Tromettes. Not because anyone asked them to, but because they wanted to. One group of fans had started their own website,, and arrived at Sitges with their own Toxified bottles of champagne called Tromanpagne. Another Spanish fan club, Fester, had made their own Troma T-shirts using images and lines from the script of Terror Firmer. I was gratified and amazed at all the effort the fans had put into showing us their appreciation. Heidi and Gabe were completely overwhelmed. They had no idea Troma had such a far reach.

I was inspired not only by my renewed connection with the audience but by the other films screening at the festival. Finally, audiences were given the opportunity to see amazing, brilliant movies they'd never have a chance to see through ordinary channels. At Sitges, it was possible to go on a three-day movie binge, watching ten films a day with each one better than the last. Movies like Geoffrey Wright's uncut version of Cherry Falls, Santiago Segura's Torrente, Shinya Tsukamoto's Tokyo Fist, and Alex de la Iglesia's Common Wealth. Seeing these masterpieces in such incredible surroundings with audiences who appreciated them was as invigorating as seeing the movies in my youth that first inspired me to be a filmmaker.

Guerilla marketing at the Cannes Film Festival whilst "campaign for shaved armpits" reaches climax (From left to right). Terry Firmer (super Tromette), Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, Heidi Sjursten (star of Citizen Toxie), Troma volunteer, Toxie, and Troma head of production Doug Sakmann. Unfortunately this picture was taken two weeks after the Cannes Film Festival in Newark, New Jersey.

Finally, I'd found the reason I continued to make movies despite the many, many reasons I could come up with for trading in the whole goddamn thing and trying to do something vaguely productive with my remaining years like becoming an air-conditioner repairman. Days earlier I'd been risking the plague in ankle-deep rat shit, now, here I was, surrounded by people who appreciated what I'd been doing, enjoying free drinks and pot. And I knew that as long as there were people with a passion for watching movies, I would retain my passion for making them.

Tromettes publicize Troma movies at the Cannes Film Festival. Troma-tic tip to aspiring filmmakers: Tell the Tromettes you are gay and challenge them to "in" you!!! (Tartan Burgess)

Over the past three decades, I've directed, produced, written, shot, and/or distributed hundreds of movies and, believe it or not, not all of them received standing ovations, glowing reviews, and orgasmic audiences at prestigious film festivals. In fact, more than a couple died painful, humiliating, protracted deaths. Some of them deserved it. Some of them, I think, deserved better. None of them, good or bad, were easy to make. If you're looking for a book that will help put you in touch with your inner genius and make only good movies while avoiding the bad, keep on a-lookin' (and if you find one drop me a line at lloyd@troma. com. I can use all the help I can get). What this book will help you do is avoid having two days worth of abandoned footage because, for whatever reason, everything fell apart on you at the last minute.

To make your own damn movie, you have to be equal parts dictator and diplomat. You must be both the visionary storyteller addressing the audience at the film festival and the dickhead shoveling rat shit out of the basement because nobody else would and everything would be lost if it didn't get done. You must be both extravagant artist and penny-pinching asshole. It isn't easy, it isn't always fun, and if you're looking to get rich quick by making the next Blair Witch Project then you'd might just as well stop right now. The odds are stacked heavily against you ever making a dime directly off your masterpiece.

So, knowing full well that the road you're about to embark on is long and painful, will probably require you to be publicly humiliated on more than one occasion, and will require your total obsessive attention for more than a year, is it worth doing? Absolutely. Writers know the satisfaction of completing a story. Musicians know the satisfaction of completing a song. But filmmakers know that they've brought people together and created something bigger than any of them could have done individually. They have orchestrated an experience that no one involved will ever forget. They have created something that will have a life long after they're gone. They have made some art under circumstances that would send most people into therapy for the next five years. In the end, it isn't about money ('cause it probably isn't out there) or fame ('cause some of the people who do end up knowing your name or face will hate your fucking guts) or free dope and booze at film festivals ('cause ... well, maybe it is about the free dope and booze a little bit). It's about capturing a vision and sharing it with those willing to watch. Sooner or later, your vision will connect with someone and when that happens, it makes all the rodent fecal matter you've gone through worthwhile. Even the time you had to take a diarrhetic shit in a paper bag.


Excerpted from Make Your Own Damn Movie! by Lloyd Kaufman, Adam Jahnke, Trent Haaga. Copyright © 2003 Lloyd Kaufman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Lloyd Kaufman has written, produced, and/or directed more than 25 films, including The Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, and Terror Firmer. He is president of Troma Entertainment. Make Your Own Damn Movie! is his second book.

Lloyd Kaufman has written, produced, and/or directed more than 25 films, including The Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, and Terror Firmer. He is president of Troma Entertainment. This is his second book.

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