Tag Archives: John Waters

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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John Waters: Conversations with Filmmakers ed. James Egan

“I’ve always wanted to sell out. The problem is that nobody wanted to buy me.”

I’m a die-hard John Waters fan, and for those of you poor lost souls who don’t know the name, he’s a renegade filmmaker who pioneered Trash Cinema or “Outlaw Cinema”  and earned the name the Pope of Trash while making some of the most outrageous films in the history of film. To quote John Waters: “You see bad taste to me is entertainment.” Are the film titles Pink Flamingos, Multiple Maniacs, and Female Trouble familiar to you? Well if not, what are you waiting for? Dash down to the nearest film rental location and grab some copies. Expect to find them with the porno because the people who judge such things don’t have a clue about what they’re looking at (I’ve also found Benny Hill in the porno section).

Years ago, the film critic Rex Reed, after watching one of my favourites, Female Trouble, made an immortal quote which is the quintessential response to a John Waters film :

Where do these people come from? Where do they go when the sun goes down? Isn’t there a law or something?

To address Rex’s quote, unfortunately there are laws and there are also opinions, and when John Waters, a man whose film characters blazenly “seem to revel in a fringe existence,” began his cinematic career using a camera bought by his grandmother for his 17th birthday, he made a number of underground/cult films which appealed to a minority audience and never hit the mainstream. Working in his home town of Baltimore with a handful of actors/friends known as the Dreamlanders (Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Edith Massey), John outraged just about everybody in America. While John seems to be fascinated by unusual casting (such as Patti Hearst, Iggy Pop and Traci Lords), in more recent years, his  films have included other, more mainstream stars such as Kathleen Turner and Johnny Depp. I went to see Serial Mom and watched people leave the cinema in droves muttering disgust as the door slammed on the way out. Hilarious! They’d come to see Kathleen Turner and had no idea what a John Waters film was all about.

People seem to either love or hate John Waters’ films, and naturally, I’m in the former group. I came across John’s films at a period in my life when I desperately needed to see another side of life, and John showed me the underbelly of American culture through his films which featured characters who were perfectly comfortable being trashy, slutty, filthy, coarse and disgusting. In fact Waters single-handedly raised low-lifes to a new level of art:

What’s more, they [the films] view with undisguised relish the grisly depredations of weirdos, misfits, and rejects of every stripe: love-sick transsexuals, warty lesbians,  gleeful mass-murderers, black-market baby salesmen, psychopathic drag queens–the very scum of humanity. Aesthetically, they seek to elevate, by imitation, the most despicable examples: gore movies, skin flicks, soap operas, the society pages of Violent World, the National Enquirer, and Sleazoid Express. With the ten Most Wanted list as their social register, and Frederick’s of Hollywood as their Yves St. Laurent, these movies dedicate themselves to all that decent men abhor. (from David Chute’s interview Still Waters)

John Waters is an important figure in my life–someone to whom I have a large debt of gratitude for mental liberation. Don’t expect me to be rational on the subject of John Waters, and this goes to explain why I own all his available films, all his books (including several autographed copies), and all his CDs. He’s my guru–someone whose world vision matches my own–except for the issue of the Manson family, and on that topic we come to a parting of the ways.

But enough. What of the book?

The University of Mississippi Press has an Interview with Filmmakers series, and I was ecstatic to see John Waters added to the list. About time, I grumbled as I requested a review copy from Netgalley. Editor James Egan begins with an intro explaining that he’s known John Waters for over thirty-seven years, and he goes on to describe their first meeting:

The streets were foggy and empty as we made our way to a bar light hanging on a converted eighteenth century waterfront warehouse, You could hear the loud music blasting from within. I entered and encountered a scene right out of a Pasolini film. At the center of the smoke-filled room was the Egg Man, Paul Swift, completely naked and playing pool with fellow Dreamlander David Lochary. Leaning against the pool table with her back to me was a thin woman with beautiful straight black hair down to her waist wearing stilettos. When she turned around to look at me, I was stunned: she was actually a very ugly man.

I felt my brain twist trying to comprehend what I was seeing and then I felt a sudden sickness in my stomach. Before I could flee, Margaret grabbed my arm and dragged me to the bar to buy her a drink. There leaning on the corner of the bar was John Waters, twenty-seven-years old, surrounded by a coterie of admirers, puffing on a Kool cigarette and looking more like a young David Niven than the Prince of Puke.

The earliest article is from The Baltimore Evening Sun from 1965, and many interviews are from the 70s. Since the interviews discuss John Waters’ film career, there are, naturally a few cross-over points, but the essential thing here is that we see an incredible overview of Waters’ life–from John in his 20s up to the last interview in the collection when he’s 65. He discusses his very first films made with a camera given to him on his 17th birthday by his grandmother, his university life at NYU which was aborted when he was expelled, and his  incomplete projects such as “an underground version of  The Wizard of Oz to be called Dorothy, the Kansas City Pothead.”  There’s a vast range of information here, including a filmography, the films that most influenced him (the Kuchar brothers, Russ Meyer, Kenneth Anger, Herschell Gordon Lewis), his film budgets (Pink Flamingos cost $12,000 and that “includes the car”) what he looks for in actors (including those who’ve turned him down), and even a home tour.  I particularly enjoyed John’s descriptions of working in a Provincetown book shop whose owner believed “the customer was always wrong.” The more recent interviews cover where he’ll be buried, the subject of gay marriage, the difficulty (impossibility) of funding independent film, and the question that lingers over John Waters’ career … has he sold out?

The interviews have a range of tone, and this is due in part to the dating of the interviews but also to the person doing the interviewing. One of the later interviews, for example, is conducted by Todd Solondz, a film director whose work has created no small amount of controversy, and there’s a previously unpublished interview conducted by James Egan (the book’s editor) in 2o10. The final interview in the collection was conducted in 2011 by Everett Lewis. There’s a treasure trove of quotes here, and I’ve included just a few:

John Waters on the Worst Film Ever:

But the worst movie I’ve seen in my whole life was Rocky. I needed a vomit bag watching that.

John Waters on controversy:

A lot of people were upset that we put the baby in the refrigerator. Well, it wasn’t like we had chilled it for a week; it was only in there for a few seconds.

John Waters on film:

I secretly think Patch Adams is as extreme a movie as Pink Flamingos, in that it scared me. I almost had a nervous breakdown watching it.

John Waters on film budget:

It’s been thirty years since 1964’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, which really cost no money because the leading lady stole the film.

John Waters on Original Sin:

I believe in everybody minding their own business, and I believe everybody’s born innocent.

John Waters on the difficulty of not looking normal:

But the problem was no one would ever let me in their house, because I had real long hair and looked weird

John Waters on politics:

The liberals are the easiest people to offend–although I guess I’m a liberal

John Waters on meta-meaning:

People are always trying to read stuff into my films, but I never said there was any message.

John Waters on his film characters:

Most people in my films are rotten people–they’re not nice or sympathetic characters. Especially in Female Trouble, I don’t think there is any person in the whole movie that has a decent bone in their body.

Joh Waters on censorship:

What can you say about the censor board? There’s not a person that could enjoy films that could see any reason for it. I can’t see any way to defend it from any level. The only kind of censorship that should be effective is don’t go if you don’t like it.

I think something must really be the matter with anyone who would take a job as a censor.

Jon Waters on creative film funding:

On a bicycle I sold diet pills that I’d gotten from Dr. Hiebert. I sold them to friends. It wasn’t that I was a major dealer, but it was once the only way to raise money for underground movies.

John Waters on Divine:

Divine was obsessed with Christmas, really wanted a christmas tree , so they sawed down a decorated one growing on someone’s lawn.

John Waters on watching television:

If you watch TV all the time, you might as well be a heroin addict; it’s the same thing.

John Waters on being gay:

I’ve always been out. I’ve never said I wasn’t gay, but people never have the nerve to ask me.

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