With a title like Low Budget Hell: Making Movies With John Waters, this memoir by Robert Maier is going to appeal instantly to fans of the iconic cult movie director. However, Maier’s book also goes way beyond just working with Waters and is an absolute must read for anybody interested in the making of independent movies, from the makers themselves to the people who just love watching them.
Clearly, though, the main selling point is Maier’s unabashed recollections of making films with Waters, all the way from Female Trouble to Cry-Baby. For a long time, the two young filmmakers were very close friends. So, Maier is able to paint a portrait of Waters that fans of his always knew existed, but that he would never divulge himself.
Waters has always been extremely crafty in creating his public persona of the quirky, outsider oddball. However, one only has to look at his career trajectory to figure out that his growth from making gross-out fests to hosting cable TV shows has all been part of a coolly calculated agenda and not just a result of happy circumstance.
Throughout Low Budget Hell, Maier keeps the book’s focus squarely about himself. This is his own personal story of navigating the often treacherous waters of the indie film world. Athough Waters plays a fairly significant role in Maier’s career, still he’s only secondary character in the proceedings.
For a time, the two were close friends, not only working closely on the films, but also hanging out at bars and going to the movies together. Maier isn’t here, though, to drop salacious details about his former confidante. While some personal anecdotes about Waters are dropped, Maier’s bigger concern is in covering the actual nuts and bolts behind making a series of progressively bigger, i.e. budget-wise, independent movies.
Some of those details aren’t pretty, such as the increasing disillusionment of Waters’ collaborators, such as late actor David Lockery, who felt he wasn’t reaping the benefits of appearing in an instant cult classic like Pink Flamingos. Lockery eventually died under odd, though probably drug-related, circumstances.
However, rivalries and jealousies play a large part whenever any creative endeavor becomes successful, so Maier’s divulgence of the Waters and Lowery rift isn’t any terrible betrayal nor, frankly, is it surprising. Impossibly sad, but not surprising.
While Waters’ recollections of making his films usually focus on the fun aspects of the whole endeavor, Maier digs deep into the nitty-gritty, revealing the peculiar struggles that most indie productions must face. Although Maier usually appears in Waters’ credits as Production Manager or Line Producer, he typically performed a varied assortment of jobs that kept him heavily involved in each film’s production. For everything that went wrong on each movie — and tons and tons of stuff did — Maier packs his memoir with an incredible amount of hilarious detail, e.g. feeding the homeless who served as the residents of Mortville in Desperate Living or coordinating a dangerous helicopter shot for the opening of Polyester.
Maier is an excellent writer, keeping his prose intimate and chatty. He also firmly keeps himself as the star of his own story, never fully turning the book over to Waters. As much detail as there is in the making of Waters’ films, there’s much more about the intimate details of his own career path and personal life.
After finding success with Waters in Baltimore, Maier eventually moved to NYC for even more hair-raising gigs producing movies for other, less organized, independent filmmakers. Particularly harrowing and hilarious is the disastrous production of Ulli Lommel’s Cocaine Cowboys, which was shot on Andy Warhol’s Long Island estate, as well as New Line’s first, forgotten horror flick Alone in the Dark, on the set of which Maier is reamed out loudly and publicly by Martin Landau.
Maier drops lots of names of famous people he got to hang out with while in NYC, from chatting with Warhol at Montauk to escorting Debbie Harry to and from the pharmacy. Although, the Harry anecdote isn’t as salacious as it might sound.
Maier also has a run in with a very young Joel and Ethan Coen and, in the book’s most ironic moment, experimental filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek makes a minor appearance as a villain who almost destroys the University of Maryland: Baltimore County’s film department. Vanderbeek is the one who invented the modern usage of “underground film,” a term that Maier uses to describe Waters’ movies dozens of times throughout the book. (If Maier is aware of this fact, he doesn’t mention it in the book.)
Eventually, during the production of Waters’ only studio film Cry-Baby, Maier and his old friend grow apart spiritually and professionally. Maier also leaves the world of exploitation filmmaking behind and enters the classier world of PBS TV production and industrial filmmaking, where he’s beset by all the same problems. Filmmaking, it seems, is a pain in the ass no matter which part of the industry one works in.
Although the part of Maier’s hectic career that he chronicles in Low Budget Hell took place from the ’70s to the ’90s, his stories are still impossibly relevant and make for great, insightful reading into the art and commerce of making movies. The book is so jam-packed with personal and professional detail that it can serve either as a career guide for the brave or as a trenchant warning to stay out of the business altogether for all others. And, oh yeah, John Waters fans will think it’s a hoot and a half.