Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters by Robert Maier

Although film is an important part of my life, I’ve never nursed a secret desire to be involved in film-making at any level. I’ve always thought that while films are great to watch, making them would be hard work. That thought was recently endorsed by reading Robert Maier’s entertaining memoir, Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters. The title is a slight misnomer as while the author did indeed work with John Waters, the so-called Pope of Trash for a number of years, he also worked on other low-budget films, and the book covers Maier’s long involvement with film-making both pre and post John Waters. Robert Maier currently teaches film at Gaston College in North Carolina so that should give a hint about the direction the book takes. 

Maier began working with John Waters in 1973 when he was 23 years old and this was the beginning of a “hair-raising eighteen-year ride through the world of low-budget, underground filmmaking.” He worked on Female Trouble, Desperate Living, Polyester, Hairspray and Crybabymoving from soundman to line producer.” He also directed a 30 minute homage to Edith Massey (the egg-lady) called Love Letter to Edie. Maier has a long list of film credits to his name–too many to mention with the exception of the cult classic slasher film, The House on Sorority Row. Just reading the salient facts of Maier’s career was enough to convince me that I wanted to read the memoir.

Robert Maier began working with John Waters for the film Female Trouble (my second favourite John Waters film next to Polyester). Waters had just completed his infamous film Pink Flamingos, and Maier was working at the UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) film department. John Waters was “hungry to find people who would help make his next movie,” and Robert Maier worked in the department with all the equipment. But their relationship went beyond being in the right place at the right time. John Waters, Divine (Glenn Milstead) and Robert Maier all “grew up in the Towson, Maryland area” and “even had a few friends in common.” So it was only natural that Waters and Maier developed both a personal and a working relationship.

The memoir gives the reader some brilliant behind-the-scenes glimpses of the making-of some of John Waters’ films. My personal favourites come from the filming of Female Trouble:

Dealing  with the public on Female Trouble was always exciting. There was no such thing as a film permit in Baltimore. Except for John’s films, no one could remember when a film had shot in Baltimore. Everyone thought it was way too ugly for glamorous movies. Being on the guerilla film crew, watching the shocked, bewildered bystanders was a hoot. One memorable shot was Divine “modeling” on a busy Baltimore street. He was in full drag wearing a shimmering blue sequined gown, with a big hairdo and Van Clarabelle make-up. We filmed him from the window of a slowly-moving car, so bystanders on the street were clueless. Their reactions were as if Divine had been dropped from a flying saucer and was having an epileptic fit. Not a soul would think it was a scene from a movie.

And if you’ve seen the film, that scene of Divine happily tripping along the streets of Baltimore, is one of my all-time favourite film sequences. It really has to be seen to be believed. Half the fun is Divine, and as Maier points out, the other half is watching the reactions of bystanders. 

In another section, Maier describes an earlier scene from Female Trouble:

The Christmas tree scene, where Divine beats up his parents, topples the tree, stomps on his presents, and then runs away because he didn’t get cha-cha heels, was a memorable location shot. The runaway setup required our small crew to perch behind a bush outside the house. We had a very small profile, so the neighbours had no idea a movie was being shot in their quiet neighbourhood on that cool Sunday morning.

When Divine burst out the front door, howling at the top of his lungs, in his sheer neon-green nightie, we saw neighbors peeking out their front windows, wondering what the hell was going on. The next set-up was even better when Dawn’s father flew out the door screaming, “Dawn Davenport come back here! You’re going straight to a home for girls. I’m calling the juvenile authorities right now!”

Well with those sorts of descriptions, it’s easy to imagine what happened on a formerly quiet Baltimore street in the wee morning hours.

Low Budget Hell is full of these sorts of hilarious memories and details, but there are some reminiscences that aren’t so funny. Maier describes John Waters unflatteringly as a harsh taskmaster, driving the non-union film crew all day long with no lunch break and with the mantra “dollar, dollar, dollar.” Maier comments on Waters’ film style and more than once compares him to Ed Wood while acknowledging that he was “fascinated with how John worked.” Maier recounts grueling schedules and the incredible personal sacrifices made along the way. As his career shifted from working with John Waters, he  shares rich memories of Jean-Michel Basquait and the Coen Brothers who slept on the floor of his editing offices while they made Blood Simple

I’ve read almost all of John Waters’ book (I have a few autographed copies) and I’ve also read two books about Divine: Not Simply Divine by Bernard Jay and My Son Divine by his mother Frances Milstead, so I wasn’t too surprised that while John Waters made bigger budget films (through New Line Cinema), Robert Maier didn’t make a smooth transition to the more lucrative big-time. A few sentences have a bitter edge, and that’s perhaps inevitable. After finishing the book, I stopped and asked myself how I’d feel if I’d had the same experiences and I concluded that I’d feel about the same.

This is a lively, unique memoir for fans of low-budget cinema or for those who want a behind-the scenes look. The memoir shows film-making as a hard, sometimes cut-throat field where those willing to step on others or shift the shit to someone else thrive, and while the book doesn’t directly ask: ‘just how much are you willing to sacrifice to join the ranks of the extremely wealthy and fabulously famous?’ the question is there, nonetheless, on every page.

Review copy read on the kindle.

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9 Comments

Filed under Maier Robert, Non Fiction

9 responses to “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters by Robert Maier

  1. That makes me this of Jean-Pierre Mocky. I couldn’t remember his name the other day when you wrote about John Waters.
    It’s the low-budget films that made me think about him.

    Are there governemnt subsidies for the cinema in America? Here there are financial helps. (tax reduction if you invest in a film-making company, state-run agencies to promote films, special taxes,…) Anything to keep French cinema alive and resist the invasion of US films.

    • I don’t know the answer to that Emma, but I’d guess not. In a recent interview I read, John Waters said that it was virtually impossible to make an indie film anymore.

      • leroyhunter

        I’m pretty sure there are no state aids for film makers in the US (except possibly tax breaks that really only benefit the big players). That’s why you have guys like Robert Rodriguez and the Blair Witch kids making their breakthroughs with the help of Visa and Amex.

  2. I would have thought that he Waters is a bit of Diva, not sure why, just a hunch but then most film directors are.
    It’s a bit disillusioning to think of how a film is made. More so than any other art form. For a while when watching a movie I couldn’t stop thinking of everything we don’t see, the hundreds of people invloved, cameras, cables and what not. I was interested for a while to go to a film school but the amount of people involved was just unthinkable for me. You’re more of a manager really.

    • Waters always seemed very intense, and my opinion wasn’t changed by reading the book–even though it does give another view. The book, did, however, make me very glad I don’t work in the film industry.

  3. leroyhunter

    No matter what rung of the ladder someone has made it to, there always seem to be casulaties left in the wake. Hey! At least Maier has a job teaching….although Gaston College, NC isn’t exactly the Ivy League obviously.

    Isn’t Barry Levinson from Baltimore? Did he shoot there, or recreate the city out west? I’m thinking of his early stuff like American Graffiti.

    • The deliver of Royalties is often problematic, and that issue raises its head in the book. Divine died penniless and all of his property was seized by the IRS, yet he was a club phenomenon in Europe and his cd sales went through the roof–although his royalties didn’t reflect that.

      As someone who has worked in academia, so much depends on how much funding and freedom your department has. I’ve sat on hiring committees and seen applicants from bigger name places desperate to leave from situations that you would think are better but which are strapped cash-wise or contaminated by obnoxious personalities.
      Yes Levinson is from Baltimore.

  4. I’m not sure on the question about Levinson. Edited: I looked up the films on IMDB and yes it looks as though they were filmed in Baltimore

  5. Leroy, interesting that everyone in the movies is perceived to be climbing a ladder, and there will be casualties. Despite the Americanism myth, frequently those at or near the top are the real casualties– their names are legion. Those who look up and see this, and decide to shinny down the back side may be the most fortunate. Read the entire book, and I think you’ll see why I’m so heretical.

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