Review of Low Budget Hell by Malcom Fraser in The Montreal Mirror
For a longtime fan of John Waters, there comes a point when you realize that the “Pope of Trash” has a carefully cultivated persona that he never publicly breaks; that the statements he makes in interviews and appearances, far from being off-the-cuff remarks, are well-rehearsed routines. Any hardcore Waters fan will therefore be intrigued to read Low Budget Hell, a tell-all insider account of Waters’ rise to prominence amid the underground film boom of the 70s, written by his onetime long-suffering production manager Robert Maier.
Which is not to say that Waters’ persona is misleading; there are no shocking revelations of square or prudish behaviour behind the scenes. But Maier feels no need to hold back in his candid descriptions of Waters and the people around him. It’s not a smear piece—he makes efforts to be fair and shows an abiding, if grudging, affection for Waters—but it’s clearly the work of a man who’s past caring what other people think about him any more.
Maier came on board with the Waters crew after Pink Flamingos catapulted Waters to notoriety in 1972. His is a document not of the freewheeling early years, but of Waters’ slow rise to semi-respectability, beginning with 1974’s Female Trouble, when Waters was still shakily operating the camera himself, and culminating with the dawn of his “mainstream” period with Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1990).
Production managers have a particularly thankless task in the world of film production; they’re essentially in charge of making things run smoothly, meaning that they’re constantly squeezed in between the artistic demands of the creative team and the financial imperatives of the producers. On low-budget shoots like Waters’, this invariably means taking a lot of crap from both sides, which Maier describes in great detail, airing bucketloads of dirty laundry along the way. It won’t shock anyone at this point to find out that Hollywood types are ruthless and amoral, but Maier is unsparing in his damning descriptions of the studio execs and production minions who held the purse strings and made his life miserable—and, apparently no longer concerned with his rep in the business, he doesn’t hesitate to name names.
The book’s strongest parts are the reminiscences of the early years, when Waters and Maier would go out to movies and then hit the dive bars of pre-gentrification Baltimore. There are also some great stories from outside of the Waters universe when Maier details his sojourn in New York City, during which he worked on several underground films of dubious artistic merit and even sketchier financial backing. This segment includes great stories like getting bawled out by over-the-hill actors, watching the Ramones bum rush the stage at a dive bar, and buying a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting for $100 to feed the artist’s heroin habit (when Basquiat was starring in the ramshackle production that would eventually be released as Downtown 81).
As the story progresses, it becomes a bit of a downer—when Hollywood takes over Waters productions in earnest with Cry-Baby, Maier is reduced to begging for work below his pay grade, and it predictably goes downhill from there. Despite his efforts to be even-handed, at this point in the story Maier shows some sour grapes and seems blind to his own share of the blame for the deterioration of his relationship with Waters.
On a different critical note, the apparently self-published book could have used some finessing—it includes some oddly amateurish touches like the fact that movie titles are never italicized, a strange oversight for a film book.
All the same, Maier’s memoir is an invaluable collection of juicy stories that will please Waters devotees and fans of underground cinema in general. Of particular interest to budding DIY filmmakers are not so much the names as the numbers—Maier cites the budgets of the films, the amounts he was able to squeeze out of producers, daily expenses o