Review of Low Budget Hell
By Adam Long in Focus Newspaper
Writer-director John Waters is well known in cult movie circles for being the man behind such films as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester, and, of course, Hairspray, to name a few. Waters himself has written several books over the years detailing his life and films but no one in the filmmaker’s inner circle has attempted to offer an alternative version of the events involved in the creation of his films until now.
Robert Maier, who served as a producer/sound man/production manager, among many other things, on the majority of Waters’ early films, has now penned his version of events in the intriguing new book, Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters. It’s a tremendously well written book that will be of interest not only to Waters’ legions of fans but also to those curious about low budget film making during the pre digital era.
The book chronicles Maier’s career from his involvement in Waters’ 1974 film, Female Trouble, all the way up to the 1990 film, Cry Baby. Along the way, Maier takes us on the trip of his lifetime as we journey with him in his struggles to find his footing and establish a career in filmmaking. In his attempts to cut a path in the low budget film world, Maier also manages to cross paths with a high number of notable celebrities. Among them are Johnny Depp, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein (Blondie), Jack Palance Andy Warhol, Tab Hunter, Bill Murray, Sonny Bono, the Coen Brothers, Jean Michel Basquait, and Donald Pleasance. The stories of these encounters provide only a small portion of the book’s pleasures, though, as Maier recounts his attempts to deal with ever escalating film budgets, egotistical Hollywood players, the union, and a myriad host of other problems inherent in the low budget film world.
The book begins with Maier’s fortuitous initial encounter with John Waters as Waters sought to find a crew to assist in shooting the follow up to the film that had put him on the map, the gross out classic, Pink Flamingos. Waters’s plan was to use personnel from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where Maier happened to work. This follow up film would become Female Trouble and Maier would eventually become sound man on the film, giving him some solid film experience in the process. From there, Maier developed a relationship with Bob Shaye, the head of Female Trouble’s distributor, New Line Cinema. This association would land him work on future Waters films and the non Waters film, Alone in the Dark.
The behind the scenes tales of Maier’s work on films such as Desperate Living, the aforementioned Alone in the Dark, Cocaine Cowboys, Hairspray, and House on Sorority Row that fill the bulk of the book, provide the reader with much entertainment. The book is filled with just enough technical detail as to give the reader insight into the problems that low budget filmmakers faced back in the pre digital era without getting carried away with the technical stuff. Maier presents the world of low budget film as a business with little financial rewards and no guarantees that the finished product would even equal half of what was intended by its creators. As a result, one comes away with the feeling that those working behind the scenes on these films had to have a certain love and affection for what they were doing. Thus, the book allows the reader to sympathize with those who sacrificed so much of their personal lives so that viewers like myself would have these labors of love to embrace and enjoys generations later.
Another asset of the book is Maier’s great sense of humor and insight that he brings to the proceedings. He manages to humanize the people and personalize the places that inhabit the stories that fill the book. At 336 pages, it is truly a great book and a worthy addition to any movie fan’s bookshelf. Low Budget Hell can be purchased online at Amazon.com and I highly recommend it for anyone with even a passing interest in low budget filmmaking.