Low Budget Hell: The Other Side of John Waters
You'll pardon us for more or less dedicating our lives to talking about legendary director John Waters (Hairspray, Pink Flamingoes) over the last two weeks. It's just, well, him coming here was a big deal and we wanted to make sure that we covered every facet of it that we could. Curiously enough, there is one more tale to tell.
Robert Maier was a production manager working with John Waters on some of his earlier films. From Pink Flamingoes to Hairspray he had the unenviable job of keeping the films inside their tiny budgets in hopes that bigger and better Hollywood dreams were going to come along. They did, but not for Maier or Waters' old editor Charles Roggero. When the big money came calling to make Cry-Baby after Hairspray was they were the Dreamlanders that were left behind.
Maier has chronicled his time as an East Coast production manager specializing in keeping low budget films afloat in a new book called Low Budget Hell. The memoir is a frankly fascinating read that takes a reader deep into one of the most important and least understood positions in the movie magic machine. Maier moves Heaven and Earth in the book scrounging for equipment, extras, food, and one more dollar to keep the cameras rolling.
Though he started square enough, Maier was enthralled with John Waters at the beginning of his career, and was able through dedication and luck to wiggle his way into recording sound on Pink Flamingoes. From there, he was drawn into Waters' dedication to filmmaking and his cast of curious compatriots. Soon he was right in the thick of things dotting i's and crossing t's to ensure the vision of his friend and director.
Making a movie is hard, and one of the ways it gets even harder is the lack of a handle that people have on the money side of the equation. Raising it is only part of the battle, making sure that insane art directors don't run loose with your budget is just as important. Being willing to haul 200 pounds worth of film canisters through the streets of New York in a heat wave to save a few bucks on the subway, or sleeping at the location so you don't have to hire a security guard to make sure no one steals your stuff are also up there.
This may all sound a little actuarial, and to a certain extent it is. Waters' fans will hardly be shocked by any story that Maier tells. Few of them hold a candle to the bawdy reminiscences Waters' himself has mused on in his director's commentaries or in This Filthy World. What they may find shocking is just how much solid business ethic goes into making a movie like Female Demand or Polyester.
Through it all, Maier is an unsung hero of the business part of show business. He's the one who finds the smoke machine on the cheap and knows a guy who will let you borrow the mirrors you need for your tricks. The movie people don't usually talk about that guy because it takes away from the idea that cinema comes to life only through divine creativity and a few amusing anecdotes that sound like the shenanigans backstage at the school play. Low Budget Hell is an addictive reminder of just how hard it is to make dreams come true, yours or other people's.
So what happened to Maier that saw him set adrift after Hairspray? Simply put, there isn't room in the world for his talents when there's real money behind the productions. Hollywood wants to cut its own deals with its own friends, and saving money isn't necessarily the reason. He was muscled out of the production manager position by the studio. Rather than move to Los Angeles and start over, he elected to stay on the East Coast making documentaries and continuing his production manager work.
Waters fanatics need not worry. This isn't a hatchet job against the Pope of Trash. Instead, it's an honest look at another aspect to the Waters legend, and a testament to the movie business itself. Before you run off and make your independent film, you should definitely listen to what Maier has to say.
We got a chance to fire off a few questions to Maier about Low Budget Hell. Click onto Page 2 for the interview.
Art Attack: Of all the Dreamlanders it seemed like you are Charles Roggero got the shortest ends of the stick. Do you think that has something to do with the technical nature of what you both do? Do you think the Hollywood people who replaced you in post-Cry-Baby movies just wanted to have more control over those aspects?
Robert Maier: I think we were good old friends of John's who had his ear, and because they wanted to hitch their own star to him, had to get rid of us. It was a lose-lose situation for all of us, and it happens all the time in Hollywood and throughout the entertainment industry. They look forward with a knife in their belts and never backwards. It's the main lesson of the book. It's like war. Only a very few make it to the top, and there will be many casualties along the way, so don't be surprised when you get knocked off your perch. And don't kill yourself over it either. From what I've seen, the most successful entertainers frequently have greater problems than those left behind - e.g. Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Lindsay Lohan;, the list is endless.
AA: John recently ranted on people shooting their movies on cell phones, saying that that's the kind of movie people are looking for now. What does your keen, low budget hell mind say to people making movies on that level?
RM: It's funny, if you look at John's earliest interviews, (see Divine Trash) he says his underground movies were the new wave. People didn't care so much about technical prowess as good content, and they should be judged only on that. I think John got very comfortable with multi-million dollar budgets, chairs with his name stitched on the back, luxurious star trailers, the best parking spot on the location, and all the other Hollywood conceits. I still think content is king, and if you can shoot a story on a cell phone, why not? It goes against the Hollywood grain, because in cell phone and YouTube movies there's not enough money for the above-the-line execs to hide the ridiculous salaries and perks that are the foundation of the whole crappy Hollywood movie industry.
AA: Your attitude toward unions is very mixed in the book, praising them often, but always keen to keep them uninvolved in low budget productions. Do unions have a role in filmmaking at the Pink Flamingoes level?
RM: Unions are good and bad. You can't get one or the other. As a production manager in NYC in the 1970s and '80s, I pushed hard for budget-related union discounts for young filmmakers. And we made progress with the craft and actor unions. After some pretty hard negotiations, both gave Hairspray a great deal that paid actors and crew fairly, with overtime and other anti-abuse stuff like short-turnaround and meal penalties. If a film is really no-budget, then the unions should just back out. And they would like to as well, but when their members start complaining loudly that non-union films are shooting in their town, and picket lines should be thrown up, they have to do something. I think unions get it more these days when they see a few kids with a mini-DV camera and wish them luck. When I was first starting out, they'd smash the headlights of our cars.
AA: Though you talk a lot about saving money on productions, you don't really talk about raising money for productions. Do you have any advice on that?
RM: Money, distribution, and exhibition are so tough these days. I marvel that anyone gets any media out there. You can't build an audience anymore, because people's attention spans are so short, like John said. I'd say the best way to raise money is to shoot small videos for YouTube. If your work is good, you will find an audience. As your audience grows, the money will find you. The old days of finding a rich dentist who wants really to be a glamorous movie producer are gone. Everybody's tight with their money in this economy, and people only want to bet on a sure thing.
AA: It's clear that you love making documentaries. Is there anything in particular you'd like to make one about?
RM: How does "Sex and the Single Taliban" sound? I spent some time in Afghanistan helping to set up a TV station in Kabul and got really into the culture. It's totally different from what we think it is. Sex in Islamic countries is uncharted territory. I did a few on camera interviews as a test, and they got huge feedback on YouTube, but the guys I interviewed begged me to take them off because their families back home were getting death threats. So, it might be better as a book -- not that anybody buys books anymore either.
AA: Of all the movies you've worked on, is there any one story that sums up your career?
RM: Female Trouble was a dream. It was always fun and relaxed. Nobody did it for the money, but to learn. There was no pecking order, big egos, or back-stabbing, only encouragement. But we were young. You get kicked in the ass a few times along the way, and you start worrying about who your friends are. Then the fun drains away and all you care about is the money.
Low Budget Hell is available in hard copy and Kindle formats.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events