Robert Maier’s status in the pantheon of cult filmmaking is well assured, as he toiled on five John Waters films (including Female Trouble, Polyester and Hairspray) early in his career. Not only did he live to tell the tale, but he’s written about it in a new autobiographical book, Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters, (346 pages; $15.95 retail), now available from Full Page Publishing.
The book is a breezy, fast-moving account of ’70s and ’80s independent cinema as seen from the ground up, as well as valentine (a quirky one, to be sure) to memories of a Baltimore long gone, as well as a tribute to the can-do spirit of John Waters and his “Dreamland” team of guerrilla filmmakers, who were often learning on the job and who made some of the most enduring cult films in cinema history.
Having previously written textbooks and technical journals, Low Budget Hell was definitely a change of pace for Maier, and he wrote it over two consecutive summers, often forcing himself to confront that empty page each and every day.
“The hard part is finding a rhythm when you’re writing a book,” Maier said. “It’s a really easy thing to put off. You’ve got to sit down and work at it for hours.”
In addition to the films he made with Waters, which are covered in extensive, often uproarious, fashion in Low Budget Hell, Maier’s career has taken him to some interesting places and introduced him to some interesting people. He’s worked with Andy Warhol and Bill Murray (not on the same project!). He was an early patron of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. He befriended Debbie Harry and Chris Stein at the height of Blondie mania — having first met them in bed! He allowed Joel and Ethan Coen to bunk down in his editing offices while they were cutting their debut film Blood Simple. He was one of the last people to be hit on by Divine, one of the first people to have read A Nightmare on Elm Street, the maker of the Edith Massey documentary short “Love Letter to Edie” and the only residuals he sees are, incredibly enough, from documentaries he made for the Catholic Church.
“Nothing from New Line, nothing from Hairspray, but the Pope has helped pay the bills over the years,” he laughed.
Maier also writes about some of the other films he’s worked on over the years, including Ulli Lommel’s unwatchable Cocaine Cowboys (1979), the all-star horror thriller Alone in the Dark (1982) and the low-budget slasher favorite The House on Sorority Row (1983), all of which have found some measure of B-movie fame.
“I worked on a few schlockers early in my career,” Maier admitted, “but some of the others turned out to be important efforts for what they were.”
As a working filmmaker for the better part of 40 years, Maier’s career has had its ups and downs. Some projects that initially looked like golden opportunities were instead dead ends. “I tried not to sound bitter or tragic or vengeful,” Maier said, “but this is what happens. ‘Buckle your seatbelts, folks!’” Having called Davidson his home for the better part of 20 years, he now teaches film and audio at Gaston College, noting that he was teaching when he first began working with Waters.
“I guess I’ve come full circle,” he said.
As Maier notes in the text, Waters himself expressed reservations about the book. “We’re a little bit on the outs,” he lamented, but he stands by his work as an honest, affectionate account of their work together. “The last thing I said to John was ‘You’re going to like it when you read the reviews.’” Maier believes that the book offers “another side to the icon. John has had to deal with the same questions and difficult decisions that everybody has to make… and some, I’m sure, were painful memories,” he said.
“He’s a brilliant performer, very savvy… for the most part, he’s controlled all of his publicity. He really doesn’t want other people speaking for him — and I don’t blame him,” Maier laughed.
Nevertheless, Maier emphasized, “I have no regrets working with him. It’s great. Some really highbrow people have looked at Waters as a real exclamation point in American culture. It was fun stuff. It was funny. We were hysterical on the sets. A lot of times we’d say ‘It’s a good thing we’re here and it’s a good thing we’re filming, because otherwise people wouldn’t believe it was happening!’ “I was there and I’m not sure I believe it!”