Robert Maier was a production manager working with John Waters on some of his earlier films. From Pink Flamingos 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 Flamingos. 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.