Return to Nuke ‘Em High is Lloyd Kaufman’s Sistine Chapel
Troma Films co-founder Lloyd Kaufman has been making graphic, indie movies since the late ‘60s. Kaufman, who never went to film school, worked a bit on big-budget films shortly after starting out but quickly became disillusioned with Hollywood moviemaking and put all his focus on Troma. He recently revisited his 1986 film The Class of Nuke ‘Em High and its sequel, dubbed Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1, is currently touring the country. Volume 2 is in the editing stages. Kaufman recently phoned us to talk about the movie and his lengthy career.
What’s it been like trying to get the film into theaters?
Well, the theaters have been calling us. The Museum of Modern Art kicked off the theatrical distribution of Volume 1. They premiered it in New York with a big event. We were included in a series called “The Contenders.” It’s what they say are the best movies from around the world. The other directors were David Lynch, Woody Allen, the Coen Brothers and Sofia Coppola. The movie played in New York for a short time after that. It got pretty good reviews and it’s been playing around the country. Sometimes I go to the theaters where it’s playing to introduce it.
What made you initially want to return to Class of Nuke ‘Em High?
If I remember correctly, a bigshot at Starz Media had the idea. Many famous people have worked for Troma or come out of Troma’s backwaters or grown up with Troma. This guy who is a green lighter had the idea to remake the original Class of Nuke ‘Em High. They had been remaking other ‘70s and ‘80s classics. In the case of Nuke Em High, it’s in two volumes so Volume 1 is completed. Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of Troma and he suggested we make something monumental. We were inspired by his two volumes of Kill Bill. I had total freedom and the gentleman at Starz permitted me to direct with no censorship. The only provision was that we had a low budget.
To what extent was the original intended to be a satire of popular teen movies from the ’80s?
I think the movies that Michael Hurst and I have produced and directed that have that flavor of Beach Blanket Bingo also have one foot firmly planted in very important sociological or historical issues of the day. Samuel Fuller was a good buddy of mine and he got the best stories from the newspapers. I do also. In the case of Return to Nuke ‘Em High, Michelle Obama came up with this theme of the food being stuffed down the throats of school kids that that was making them obese geese. In fact, there is a trained duck in Return to Nuke ‘Em High.
Did you try to up the ante with every movie?
No, I don’t think so. I personally enjoy comedy, which is very difficult. What’s funny in one place might not be funny somewhere else. Our beat is basically satire, which is why the South Park guys joined us back in the day with Cannibal! The Musical. They love Troma satire. Satire is very difficult. It’s very subjective and it’s not like blowing things up. It’s not a 90-minute commercial like Lego that appeals to all people at all times but is forgotten the next day. I can’t comment on trying to outdo myself. I do believe that this movie, Return to Nuke ‘Em High, is our Sistine Chapel. It’s a monumental achievement. Volume 2 should be finished before the Cannes Film Festival. This will be in the fullness of time.
You’ve been making movies for almost 50 years now. Was there a turning point in your career when you knew that this is what you’d be doing for the rest of your life?
I made the mistake of going to Yale University. I was going to be a teacher or social worker and try to make the world a better place. I was going to teach people with hooks for hands how to finger paint. But I was put in a room with a movie nut my freshman year. He ran the Yale Film Society. I started going to various masterpieces by Keaton, Chaplin, Fritz Lang, John Ford and Andy Warhol. One night they showed Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be. There were two other people in the auditorium, maybe three. It was right then and there. It was the power of that movie as well as the craziness and the organization of it and the yin and the yang — I majored in Chinese studies — that made me decide I would give what I wanted to give to the public. It was as easy as getting out of the La-Z-Boy and going to the icebox and grabbing a beer. It just was. Instead of teaching people with hooks for hands how to finger paint I wanted to film them. And my life was ruined.
Was it difficult to find people who shared your enthusiasm?
Originally, Michael Hurst, who also graduated from Yale and then went to NYU, and I had some trouble. We were young and people didn’t buy our act. Now that I’m a senior citizen and now that Troma has been the birthplace for stars such as Vincent D’Onofrio, the South Park boys, Eli Roth and James Gunn, who just directed Guardians of the Galaxy, a $200 million extravaganza, it’s recognized as a legendary spawning ground. Now, when we announce a movie, there’s a line around the block of talented young people who want to sleep on the floor and learn to defecate in a paper bag to make something they truly believe in and put something on the screen that the New York Times will give a good review to. This very weekend, American Cinematheque in Los Angeles will show one movie from each decade.
What do you think led The Toxic Avenger to become so popular?
I honestly do not know. As Woody Allen says, success is 88 percent just showing up.
Talk a bit about the relationship that you’ve had over the years with the mainstream movie industry.
I didn’t go to film school. I had enough school after 13 years of Trinity School in New York, which was all boys and a very strict private school, and then Yale, which in my day was all boys and was strict and stressful. I decided to attach myself to talented directors and learn from them. I became an intern for John Avildsen and did whatever he needed. I worked on Joe with Peter Boyle, which was nominated for an Academy Award. I worked on Rocky. Then I got to work on Saturday Night Fever with John Badham. He also did WarGames. Very talented. That was my film school. Michael and I were associate producers of The Final Countdown and that was the one that convinced me to have no more to do with the mainstream. It was a disturbing experience. I talk about it on The Final Countdown Blu-Ray. Nobody but Kirk Douglas and his son wanted to make the movie. In my opinion, everyone else was there to see how much lunch they could eat and how much overtime they could get. That soured me and I thought I had learned enough about the nuts and bolts and decided to stay in Troma-ville and let the chips fall.
How many more movies do you have left in you?
We’re making a movie this summer in Portugal called Mutant Blast. It’s the boy who did some of the special effects on Return to Nuke ‘Em High. He did a short film called Banana Motherfucker. I think you can see on the Troma YouTube channel. It’s about 20 minutes but it’s hilarious. I don’t laugh out loud but I did laugh out loud. He’s directing a movie that we’re producing. We keep chugging along. We’ve written The Toxic Avenger Part V, but it’s written for the Ukraine and so there’s a bump in the road. We’ll be ready to start as soon as the Ukraine dies down and we feel it’s safe enough to get over there and look for locations.
Upcoming Theatrical Screenings of Return to Nuke ‘Em High
Nighthawk Cinema – Brooklyn, NY
Los Angeles, CA – The American Cinematheque
Cedar Lee Theatre – Cleveland Heights, OH
Transit Drive In – Lockport, NY
PhilaMoCA – Philadelphia, PA