10 Filmmaking Lessons Troma’s “The Toxic Avenger” Can Teach You
Troma Entertainment has been synonymous with violent exploitation comedies for nearly 40 years with little sign of stopping. Most recently, the studio released “Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1” which received some of their best reviews in years. Troma isn’t for everyone, but the company champions low-budget filmmaking and the belief that anyone can make a movie. Much like Roger Corman in the ’60s, Troma’s President Lloyd Kaufman is responsible for helping shape the careers of many young filmmakers that have become successful in Hollywood and is an inspirational figure to many.
During the early days of Troma, Lloyd Kaufman and his partner Michael Herz were churning out erotic comedies but it wasn’t until Kaufman had the idea to set a horror film in a Health Club that the company took off. Armed with a need to prove that horror wasn’t dead, Kaufman and Herz created “The Toxic Avenger” which blended their unique sense of humor and graphic violence. The film is quickly approaching it’s 30th anniversary and continues to inspire legions of young, no-budget filmmakers to this day. So, pay attention, and let “The Toxic Avenger” make you a better filmmaker.
1. Let Current Events Inspire You
In 1983, while camping with his wife, Lloyd Kaufman was disgusted by the amount of fast food wrappers he had found littering the once beautiful forest landscape. Shortly after this, Kaufman had read an article about kids in a Rio de Janeiro toxic waste dump throwing ‘pixie dust’ at each other, which turned out to be radium from a hospital. Playing off the current fad of Health Clubs, Kaufman and Herz decided to speak out against the atrocities by making a socially conscious horror film in response to an article that claimed horror was no longer popular.
“The Toxic Avenger” was created and gave the filmmakers a chance to speak out against the dumping of toxic waste, the senseless violence in the world and the effects that bullying can have on a person. The film’s theme coincided with the newspaper headlines and really struck a chord with audiences who came to see it. The film was fun, gory and sexualized but featured a lasting message that displayed the intelligence behind Troma. Sometimes the best ideas can come from the world around you, and by doing so, your film can take on a socially conscious sensibility.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks
Before Troma produced “The Toxic Avenger” they were making a name for themselves by putting out low-budget sex-comedies. Once Hollywood started doing the same thing but with larger budgets, Troma realized it was time for a change. “The Toxic Avenger” was unlike any horror film or comedy that audiences were used to, and it could have spelled ruin for the company. However, the film was a success for it’s art-house meets slapstick style.
Don’t be afraid to move away from the status quo of Hollywood and do your own thing. If you have a burning desire to make a film and it’s unlike anything else being made, grab a camera and shoot it. Show the world your own personal voice just like Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz did, and if the voice is loud enough people might start listening. Filmmaking is a risk anyway you shape it, but if you’re passionate, you’ll gladly take it.
3. Take Your Material Seriously
The art of Troma is that every decision made, whether it be the acting or an effect, isn’t made from lack of ability or skill. It’s made because they can and want to. Believe it or not, Lloyd Kaufman is a perfectionist, and anyone who’s worked with him can attest to that. Even though “The Toxic Avenger” is a fun, weird film, he made it with extreme care and seriousness.
You must believe in your own work with everything you’ve got, because when starting off it can be hard to find others to believe for you. If you’re making a comedy, take it seriously and make the best comedy you can. Don’t let the content of your film dictate the way you carry yourself and the way you’re perceived. If you take your work seriously, others will believe, too.
4. Music is Vital
Music is probably one of the most difficult elements to procure for young filmmakers, but it’s not impossible. Kaufman keeps his ear to the ground for new and unique bands that he can enlist to help him with his soundtracks and it’s astounding how many groups have lent their music to Troma over the years. There’s no real secret to finding music, just use what you have around you. If your best friend’s garage band has a catchy tune, find a way to record it and use it in your film! Don’t think that because you can’t afford the rights to a Rolling Stones song that you’re S.O.L., you just need to be creative.
Another thing Troma does exceptionally well is not only choosing the perfect song to fit the tone, but also the situation. Songs like “Body Talk” by Sandy Farina really give off the Health Club vibe of the 1980s and gives the film an upbeat contrast to the despicable events happening on screen. Almost every film Lloyd Kaufman directs has great use of music because he understands the important relationship between sound and image. Use songs that fit your film, don’t just pick a track because you like it.
5. Use Any and All Available Resources
Part of the Troma charm comes from the creative means they use to simulate a large budget. Troma isn’t against using free labor, cheap or free locations and no budget effects. For example, in one of the more entertaining scenes in the film, the Toxic Avenger stops a robbery from transpiring in a Taco Restaurant and during the scuffle a man’s arm is torn from his body. On a large budget film, this would be done by spending a lot of time and money, but Troma accomplishes the same effect by hiring a one-armed actor and attaching a fake arm to his body. Simple!
It costs nothing to be creative, and having a creative solution to a problem is part of being a filmmaker. Robert Rodriguez once said “Low budgets force you to be more creative. Sometimes, with too much money, time and equipment, you can over-think. My way, you can use your gut instinct”. This is a belief that Lloyd Kaufman and the entire Troma Team have based a career on.
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