Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters
US: Jan 2012
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.
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