Review of Low Budget Hell by David Banash on PopMatters
Peter Bogdanovich made his early career as an historian of Hollywood. In the days before older films were available on video cassettes, he took full advantage of New York retrospectives and the power of museums to fund special screenings. He developed and published narratives about the great auteurs of the studio era, particularly the ‘30s and ‘40s, making Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and John Ford heroes of cinema.
That narrative pitted the visionary director against the studio, and when you read Bogdanovich’s work, the effect is to become caught up in triumph of these men. Even when they fail, as Welles so often did later, that failure itself is a spectacular confirmation of genius. The end of the studio era gave rise to new directors, including Bogdanovich himself, battling not only dying studios, but everything from corporations, to television, censorship laws, and sometimes even the mafia.
The narrative of the auteur who battles the forces of mediocrity only to triumph in bringing a vision to the screen has now become a kind of formula that drives the narratives of the next generation of Hollywood heroes: Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Robert Altman, and more. One can find this story circulating in books like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.
Having accounted for the studio era, and now new Hollywood, the last ten years has seen a surge of books and documentaries about less mainstream filmmakers who produced pornography and horror. One can look at the heroic narrative created in the documentary Inside Deep Throat (2005), and there’s the quite brilliant American Schlock (2003), detailing the golden age of grindhouse pornography. Horror, too, is also being similarly mythologized in documentaries and books, for instance last year’s Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. These low budget outsiders are now seen as a radical avant-garde that democratized movie making and changed the very direction of American popular culture.
All of these narratives feed into a particularly American tradition of the rugged outsider who crashes past the frontiers of taste, or technique, or even just sheer and shameless self-promotion, to become, well, great. But filmmaking is an unforgivingly collaborative art. What about all the people who work on films and don’t make it? They rarely make an appearance in books about the auteurs. What about the humble but essential sound recordists, location scouts, or line producers? How many readers know what a line producer is, and if they did know, would they care? What is their story? How do you write about film when you are not an auteur? Robert Maier takes up this challenge in his recent memoir Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.
Like Waters, Maier grew up in Baltimore and early on, he had an interest in the counter culture. He was in a band with his friends in high school, became an English major in college reading Kerouac and Burroughs, and then he got interested in film, making several shorts before he graduated and took a job at the University of Maryland Baltimore County as an A/V tech in the new film department. Maier seemed to have all the marks of a future director, perhaps what it would take to break into films, and he was putting himself in the right place at the right time.
John Waters partnered with the film professors at UMBC to make Female Trouble (1974), and this gave Waters access to their equipment and students. Though initially excluded because of his full-time job on campus, Maier got his big break taking over for the student sound recordist who was caught shooting heroin: “I had literally saved the day, and at the end of it, John said he wanted me on the crew permanently.” Maier was introduced to Water’s Dreamland crew, and he went on to work with Waters on Desperate Living, (1977) Polyester (1981), Hairspray (1988) and Cry Baby (1990).
Maier did sound and also helped with the editing of Female Trouble, and here is where his book is different. Where others spend time on the star drama, the story, and aesthetic visions, Maier has a head for the least glamourous but nonetheless hugely important tasks. He explains to us in patient detail that he did the matching on Female Trouble, the time consuming task of task of cutting the original negative to match the “work print” that was used in the editing: “The original film rolls represented nearly every penny spent on the movie. There was no back-up copy. f something happened to the original, that was it” (51). You can hear his pride in this, and it reminds readers just how complex an art filmmaking is, especially in the days before the digital revolution.
It also testifies to Waters’s trust in him, but Maier was not just content to stay completely in the background. In his own way, he had huge ambitions, “by the time Female Trouble wrapped, I had a good idea of how a low-budget film should come together. I wanted to produce movies, not just be the sound man” (47).
Maier, if he is known to Waters fans at all, is probably best remembered for the short film he made about The Egg Lady from Pink Flamingos, Edith Massey. Maier became friendly with her, and fascinated by the incredible story of her life, growing up as an orphan, failing as a would-be Hollywood starlet, falling in with organized crime, and finally making a life as the ultimate barmaid and, later, living in poverty as the owner of a thrift store. Maier’s directorial debut Love Letter to Edie (1975), played with showings of Pink Flamingos for years, though with his eyes on the details of the cut-throat world of film distribution, Maier tells us that he later found out that New Line never paid him the royalties it earned, nor did it make Maier famous. Though his name appeared in The Village Voice, he writes “I was finally famous, but only I knew it” (77).
Maier became both sound recordist and production manager on Desperate Living, and here he really takes us into the low budget hell of his title. At 24 years old, Maier writes,
“My hands were always full, keeping track of the sound tapes and exposed camera rolls, discussing equipment problems and needs with the crew, working with Vince and his art department needs, and Van and Chris Mason with wardrobe and hair issues. Money was a big concern, because everyone had extra needs. Light bulbs blew out, a roll of film would get spoiled, more gaffer’s tape was needed, or a tripod part would break. An important day player might have car trouble, and we had to reimburse her cab fare. Sometime the days lasted twelve hours, and I’d have to buy a dinner round of pizza and cokes to keep the crew from passing out.” (115).
This work needed to be done, and Maier did it, and did it well. He tells it well too, though with something of the same kind of earnestness it probably took to be successful in such work.
Though Desperate Living was not a financial success, it seemed to Maier that the door to a substantial mainstream career through the low-budget backdoor was just around the corner. Quitting his new day job at Maryland Public Television, Maier moved to the Downtown scene in New York. He worked as the sound recordist on the Andy Warhol produced Cocaine Cowboys (1979), and he tells stories of working with Jack Palance and The Ramones showing up to hang out. He worked briefly on classics like Downtown 81 (1981), became friends with the like of Amos Poe, and later got into the explosion of low-budget horror as a production manager on both Alone in the Dark (1982) and House on Sorority Row (1983).
Maier would go on to work briefly at New Line itself, hang out with Deborah Harry and Chris Stein, continue to work on Waters Films, like most of the other cast and crew members he worked with, but he never really gained fame, fortune, or even a secure position. The end of just about every production brought on a frantic search for a new project.
Instead of a heroic breakthrough, Maier tells the story of ultimately being pushed out by Hollywood sharks. As Waters and New Line became more successful, they began to bring in Hollywood crews. In one tragic episode, Maier budgeted the first Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) as a New York production for New Line. An L.A. Production manager beat his estimate by a hair, and New Line opted to go to L.A. Maier was offered a small spot on the film, but his skills as a producer were based in a network of relationships centered on the East coast, and the move would have essentially deskilled him.
When Waters began Cry Baby, it was produced by Rachel Talalay, who Maier had mentored in her earliest days at New Line. Maier was passed over by both Waters and Talalay until he called Waters and had a very awkward lunch. As Maier points out, he was the one left behind when Talalay hired almost the exact same crew Maier had hired for Hairspray, and in fact many were people Maier had trained. Pushing Waters about why he didn’t hire him to work on the his first really big budget film, Waters said people complained about Maier. Maier replies, reminding Waters and the reader about the less glamourous side of making movies:
“John, people always complain about the production manager. I deliver the bad news, so you don’t have to. I fire people. I cut their budgets , and I refuse their requests. I’m the bad guy; you’re the good. Of course they’ll complain about me. If you had a problem with it in Hairspray, why not tell me then? Why wait ‘till now? Every decisions I made was for your benefit, to protect the budget, to protect you, and New Line, and Rachel, and that was incredibly difficult.”
Waters relented and hired Maier as location manager on Cry Baby, and Maier unfolds a horrific story of the sharky world of Hollywood. Instead of the camaraderie of the early Waters films, Maier talks about an ethos of cut-throat competition on a $9 million budget when people look out only for their own careers: “The competitiveness of the Hollywoods was so intense that it seemed they cared little about the movie, and much more about looking good to the executives to ensure they would be hired on the next film. Frequently this meant stabbing other people in the back or secretly undermining them to move up in the pecking order.” As Maier tells it, what really put him off working in big-budget films was simply too nice for Hollywood: “So movie making was merely survival of the fittest. It made me feel better I had left it behind.” He became an author of textbooks on filmmaking, moved to North Carolina, and spent years making documentaries for television before finally landing a good job with steady pay in public television.
In Shock Value, Waters himself tells the story of his early career, playing it for absurdity, vulgarity, and laughs. Waters is a brilliant raconteur, and he tosses off one-liners throughout, but you get a strong sense of his aesthetic and ambition. Waters writes about Female Trouble with an ear for shock: “Since I was attending the Manson trial and was visiting Manson’s lieutenant, Charles ‘Tex’ Watson in prison, I decided the theme of my next film should be ‘crime is beauty.’” Waters is clear about his humor and his aesthetic. Maier too narrates the absurd adventures of making low-budget films, but there is a seriousness and earnestness to his voice. He has an eye for the details, a taste for responsibilities, and pride in being the one to hold it all together, but despite his early counter-culture leanings, it turns out that Maier was really a square, and this shows in his writing.
Though he is in low-budget, the extremes of queer culture, horror, and general bad behavior by artists either unnerve him or bore him. This is also part of what creates the odd tone that is the strangest thing about the book, as though he couldn’t quite decide to let Waters be the villain that any director must be. Instead, Maier both lauds him, undercuts him, and then defensively condescends to him all at once. This occurs throughout, but one gets a sense of it from comments like this: “Instead of shopping exclusively at thrift stores, [John] was paying more attention to assembling a wardrobe of cutting edge designer clothes from New York’s most chic boutiques. The Prince of Puke was going through a life change. It didn’t surprise me; I’d been to Europe several times and knew what he meant. It was nice to see John learning that life was not one hideous side show after another” (137).
Here, Maier criticizes Waters for abandoning what he imagines is a commitment to life of poverty, pastiches one of Waters’s later titles, suggests financial success is corrupting Waters, but he then one-ups him by pointing out he himself had already been to Europe, as if Waters was only learning what worldly Maier already knew. One wishes Maier had a sharp editor to insist that he undo this relentless structure of lavish praise followed by hollow criticism and grating condescension. It seriously mars an otherwise interesting account of his life as a filmmaker.
For those new to John Waters, Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste is the best place to begin. Maier’s book is a very different and often fascinating account of Water’s early films, but it demands a larger context. The best thing about Maier’s book is the way it undoes the myths of filmmaking and reminds readers that not everyone makes it big in Hollywood, and that not making it is alright, too. Indeed, it often reads as something of a cautionary tale for those who dream of making it big, and the title says it all. Low-budget hell can be punishing because most people who work on those films will never make it out. Maier made huge contributions to the films he worked on, but he never made it to movie paradise. He finally had to get out of hell by getting out of the movies.