St. Martin’s, 2003, 329 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-28864-6
In the world of independent, low-budget cinema, Troma enjoys a solid reputation as, well, a purveyor of schlock. It specializes in films made on a shoestring and often regrettably unbridled imagination. Troma’s subject matter, as the name suggests, is not for everyone, though everyone will be offended at one point or another: Grotesque monsters, nude actresses, gory violence and foul subject matter are where Troma films start: it may be best not to imagine where they end. You may not have seen any of Troma’s films (indeed, I had to seek them out to see what the fuss was all about), but don’t feel too bad about it: Troma’s entire business strategy is to gain a cult following, not mainstream acclaim. If SOUTH PARK is too rough for you, then consider that Matt Stone and Tray Parker’s CANNIBAL: THE MUSICAL is one of the tamest things in Troma’s distribution inventory.
But you don’t have to know Troma, or even to enjoy it in order to get quite a kick out of Make Your Own Damn Movie!, an inspirational tutorial on how to make your own low-budget film. Troma owner/director Lloyd Kaufman has more than thirty year’s worth of experience in the field, and every single page of the book contains some hard-won experience that is of interest to any amateur filmmaker: Far from Hollywood’s excess, most film-making is a matter of sweat and perseverance, not star trailers and personal assistants. You don’t need to be anywhere near New York or Los Angeles to pick up a video camera and make your own damn movie… and that’s the point of the book.
Co-written with Adam Janhke and Trent Hagar (who both play the role of long-suffering assistants to Kaufman’s dictatorial megalomania), Make Your Own Damn Movie! is far, far away from a dry film-making tutorial. Thanks to Troma’s patented tastelessness, the book is crammed with unsavoury allusions, bad language, rollicking anecdotes and a parade of jokes. From a relatively solid structure and useful advice, Kaufman and company have crafted a compulsively readable homage to low-budget film-making. While I can guess that the pressures of making a film on a nonexistent budget aren’t always a treat (let’s just say that the making-of documentaries on Troma films can be more harrowing than the movies themselves), they make for excellent conversation points, and the chatty style of the book makes it hard to stop reading.
Now, don’t worry: I have no intention of making my own damn movie. But I do enjoy looking at the inner workings of cinema, and Make Your Own Damn Movie! carries its own weight as an unflinching examination of the lower rungs of movie-making. While DVD special features have been a blessing in looking behind the scenes of major Hollywood productions, those studio films are only a tiny percentage of the total number of films made every year. Most productions do end up like a Troma shoot: tiny budgets, ill-paid cast and crew, baling-twine production values and a rushed schedule designed for nervous breakdowns. Make Your Own Damn Movie! may be cracking wise with jokes and masochistic suffering, but it’s a great deal more realistic than the average Hollywood shoot. As an insight in what goes into making average films, it’s invaluable.
It’s also uniquely inspiring for any aspiring filmmaker: By the end of the film, even I felt empowered to grab a digital camera and go shoot a first reel. (Fortunately, I reminded myself in time that all I want to do is write.) For cinephiles, Make Your Own Damn Movie!‘s vivid writing is a pure treat, and possibly the beginning of an invigorating discussion. Low-budget filmmakers, having nothing to lose from current conditions, are constantly looking for the next technological innovation. So it comes naturally that among many other things, Kaufman and Haaga entertain a book-long argument about the merits of digital video (which hilariously devolves into name-calling) and Kaufman offers a worthy digression on the current state of copyright and the studio’s overreaction to digital file-trading.
Of course, the book is also a good promotional pitch for Troma movies. But while you may or may not like Troma’s offerings, there is a lot more to this book than make-up tips on how to fake gory effects. Every page contains a joke, a minor revelation, a fun anecdote and a tip to make you own damn movie: it’s impossible to resist.