After The Bob Hope Show ended in 1978, Kaufman moved back to New York. He could’ve stayed in Los Angeles and worked his way up the ladder in the studio system, until finally given permission to direct a film — or he could move back to New York, learn everything possible about the film business, and finance a film on his own.
He landed a temporary job in New York doing “sound” on a small independent film. “I knew that part of the reason I stuttered had to do with my hearing. And even though my hearing was technically not quite right, I had to take the job and make it work.”
He also took a job assisting an agent who sold rights to American films all over the world. The agent brought Kaufman to the main venue at the time, Cannes Film Festival, where distributors screen films, then make offers to buy the rights for certain territories.
Cannes Film Festival was where Kaufman learned the sales part of the industry. His gregarious personality and ability to be funny served him well. “I focused on getting to know the people who bought the films abroad.” Kaufman raises his eyebrows. “I remember one screening, my boss hired 25 Parisian prostitutes to sit in every other seat in the theater during the showing. This way, the agent knew that when the lights in the theater went down, the buyers would be ‘distracted.’ This got more buyers into his screenings and many more offers to buy his films. I didn’t want to have to employ the seedier part of selling, so I made friendships.”
Kaufman took everything he’d learned in graduate school, working behind the scenes and selling films abroad, and put together an idea for his first film. He wanted to start with a low-budget “B” film. “They didn’t require big actors or millions of dollars. They were typically genre exploitation films with low budgets, short shooting schedules, short running times, and minimal post-production efforts.”
He crafted a storyboard of a horror film and “carried it around to everyone I knew,” to raise enough cash to make his film. He even pitched it to his dad, who at first scoffed at the idea.
“After I raised a majority of the money on my own, my father was impressed. My dad thought that if I was this passionate and determined about the project, then he was going to help. He had the money. Although he knew it wasn’t Oscar material, he would finally support me.” Kaufman began production; he even offered his dad a small part. His dad accepted, and thereafter acted in every film Kaufman made.
This was the 1970s. B films, especially horror movies, were raking it in at the box office. Exploitation films developed devout followers, and theaters and distribution companies were snapping them up. Halloween had just grossed over $80 million worldwide; it was made for $320,000.
To Kaufman’s delight and “quite frankly, amazement,” Mona, the first film he wrote and directed, was made for $15,000 and sold for $250,000. With this initial success as a writer/director, Kaufman “wanted to buy a vacation home in the Adirondacks.”
He sought advice from his father, who “was a very smart guy, with good street sense.” His dad said, “Use the money you earned to [film] what you want. That money will buy your freedom. Make it last. It will extend the length of time where you can work for yourself. It will support you.”
Kaufman didn’t buy the vacation home. He took his father’s advice and used his profit to make more films. Once the films were “in the can,” he would get them into theaters, sell them to other venues, and make enough money for the next project.
When The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween made big profits, the major studios took notice. They made their own B films, with bigger and better budgets and storylines.
“The smaller filmmakers couldn’t keep up,” Kaufman says. The studios “monopolized the low-budget genre industry, and little guys like me began to struggle.” Kaufman’s films, along with those of many other independent film companies, were locked out, market after market.
His wife Dori wasn’t all that disappointed. Kaufman’s films left “something to be desired,” she says. Kaufman knew this. His movies were funny yet gruesome. “I made the wise decision not to let Dori see any of my films until after we were married. She was über-intelligent, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UC Berkeley, and working for a school for the blind. I didn’t want to scare her away.”
Dori and Kaufman met in 1988. Kaufman was 39, Dori was 38. Kaufman had been the fifth wheel on too many bowling double-dates when a friend told him about Dori. Perhaps there could be six players? She slipped him Dori’s phone number. Kaufman called.
They had several long conversations before meeting face-to-face. Dori ignored Kaufman’s stutter and laughed at all of his jokes. “She was the only girl who wanted to see my full face without a mustache. That should tell you something.”
Dori remembers: “We discovered we grew up within six miles of each other in New York. Once we began talking, I felt like I had known him my whole life.”
After six months of dating, they got engaged. Three months later, they married at their engagement party at the Plaza in New York. Both had headstrong mothers who intended to have their way with how, where, and what type of wedding Dori and Kaufman should have. The young couple had their own ideas.
The party was in a ballroom at the Plaza. The families met for the first time. Both sides attended en masse, or, as Kaufman jokes, “en mess.”
After awhile, people began to notice that Dori had disappeared. Kaufman quieted the party. He addressed them as seriously as he was able. “I have an announcement. As you all can see, Dori has left the party. You’re ‘family,’ and I have to be honest with you — this engagement thing just isn’t working out.”