“There is so much more to this book, than the absorbing incidents relating to Maier’s evolving relationship with Waters.” –Bill Hughes
“There is so much more to this book, than the absorbing incidents relating to Maier’s evolving relationship with Waters.” –Bill Hughes
For a longtime fan of John Waters, there comes a point when you realize that the “Pope of Trash” has a carefully cultivated persona that he never publicly breaks; that the statements he makes in interviews and appearances, far from being off-the-cuff remarks, are well-rehearsed routines. Any hardcore Waters fan will therefore be intrigued to read Low Budget Hell, a tell-all insider account of Waters’ rise to prominence amid the underground film boom of the 70s, written by his onetime long-suffering production manager Robert Maier.
Which is not to say that Waters’ persona is misleading; there are no shocking revelations of square or prudish behaviour behind the scenes. But Maier feels no need to hold back in his candid descriptions of Waters and the people around him. It’s not a smear piece—he makes efforts to be fair and shows an abiding, if grudging, affection for Waters—but it’s clearly the work of a man who’s past caring what other people think about him any more.
Maier came on board with the Waters crew after Pink Flamingos catapulted Waters to notoriety in 1972. His is a document not of the freewheeling early years, but of Waters’ slow rise to semi-respectability, beginning with 1974’s Female Trouble, when Waters was still shakily operating the camera himself, and culminating with the dawn of his “mainstream” period with Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1990).
Production managers have a particularly thankless task in the world of film production; they’re essentially in charge of making things run smoothly, meaning that they’re constantly squeezed in between the artistic demands of the creative team and the financial imperatives of the producers. On low-budget shoots like Waters’, this invariably means taking a lot of crap from both sides, which Maier describes in great detail, airing bucketloads of dirty laundry along the way. It won’t shock anyone at this point to find out that Hollywood types are ruthless and amoral, but Maier is unsparing in his damning descriptions of the studio execs and production minions who held the purse strings and made his life miserable—and, apparently no longer concerned with his rep in the business, he doesn’t hesitate to name names.
The book’s strongest parts are the reminiscences of the early years, when Waters and Maier would go out to movies and then hit the dive bars of pre-gentrification Baltimore. There are also some great stories from outside of the Waters universe when Maier details his sojourn in New York City, during which he worked on several underground films of dubious artistic merit and even sketchier financial backing. This segment includes great stories like getting bawled out by over-the-hill actors, watching the Ramones bum rush the stage at a dive bar, and buying a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting for $100 to feed the artist’s heroin habit (when Basquiat was starring in the ramshackle production that would eventually be released as Downtown 81).
As the story progresses, it becomes a bit of a downer—when Hollywood takes over Waters productions in earnest with Cry-Baby, Maier is reduced to begging for work below his pay grade, and it predictably goes downhill from there. Despite his efforts to be even-handed, at this point in the story Maier shows some sour grapes and seems blind to his own share of the blame for the deterioration of his relationship with Waters.
On a different critical note, the apparently self-published book could have used some finessing—it includes some oddly amateurish touches like the fact that movie titles are never italicized, a strange oversight for a film book.
All the same, Maier’s memoir is an invaluable collection of juicy stories that will please Waters devotees and fans of underground cinema in general. Of particular interest to budding DIY filmmakers are not so much the names as the numbers—Maier cites the budgets of the films, the amounts he was able to squeeze out of producers, daily expenses o
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.
Robert Maier’s status in the pantheon of cult filmmaking is well assured, as he toiled on five John Waters films (including Female Trouble, Polyester and Hairspray) early in his career. Not only did he live to tell the tale, but he’s written about it in a new autobiographical book, Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters, (346 pages; $15.95 retail), now available from Full Page Publishing.
The book is a breezy, fast-moving account of ’70s and ’80s independent cinema as seen from the ground up, as well as valentine (a quirky one, to be sure) to memories of a Baltimore long gone, as well as a tribute to the can-do spirit of John Waters and his “Dreamland” team of guerrilla filmmakers, who were often learning on the job and who made some of the most enduring cult films in cinema history.
Having previously written textbooks and technical journals, Low Budget Hell was definitely a change of pace for Maier, and he wrote it over two consecutive summers, often forcing himself to confront that empty page each and every day.
“The hard part is finding a rhythm when you’re writing a book,” Maier said. “It’s a really easy thing to put off. You’ve got to sit down and work at it for hours.”
In addition to the films he made with Waters, which are covered in extensive, often uproarious, fashion in Low Budget Hell, Maier’s career has taken him to some interesting places and introduced him to some interesting people. He’s worked with Andy Warhol and Bill Murray (not on the same project!). He was an early patron of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. He befriended Debbie Harry and Chris Stein at the height of Blondie mania — having first met them in bed! He allowed Joel and Ethan Coen to bunk down in his editing offices while they were cutting their debut film Blood Simple. He was one of the last people to be hit on by Divine, one of the first people to have read A Nightmare on Elm Street, the maker of the Edith Massey documentary short “Love Letter to Edie” and the only residuals he sees are, incredibly enough, from documentaries he made for the Catholic Church.
“Nothing from New Line, nothing from Hairspray, but the Pope has helped pay the bills over the years,” he laughed.
Maier also writes about some of the other films he’s worked on over the years, including Ulli Lommel’s unwatchable Cocaine Cowboys (1979), the all-star horror thriller Alone in the Dark (1982) and the low-budget slasher favorite The House on Sorority Row (1983), all of which have found some measure of B-movie fame.
“I worked on a few schlockers early in my career,” Maier admitted, “but some of the others turned out to be important efforts for what they were.”
As a working filmmaker for the better part of 40 years, Maier’s career has had its ups and downs. Some projects that initially looked like golden opportunities were instead dead ends. “I tried not to sound bitter or tragic or vengeful,” Maier said, “but this is what happens. ‘Buckle your seatbelts, folks!’” Having called Davidson his home for the better part of 20 years, he now teaches film and audio at Gaston College, noting that he was teaching when he first began working with Waters.
“I guess I’ve come full circle,” he said.
As Maier notes in the text, Waters himself expressed reservations about the book. “We’re a little bit on the outs,” he lamented, but he stands by his work as an honest, affectionate account of their work together. “The last thing I said to John was ‘You’re going to like it when you read the reviews.’” Maier believes that the book offers “another side to the icon. John has had to deal with the same questions and difficult decisions that everybody has to make… and some, I’m sure, were painful memories,” he said.
“He’s a brilliant performer, very savvy… for the most part, he’s controlled all of his publicity. He really doesn’t want other people speaking for him — and I don’t blame him,” Maier laughed.
Nevertheless, Maier emphasized, “I have no regrets working with him. It’s great. Some really highbrow people have looked at Waters as a real exclamation point in American culture. It was fun stuff. It was funny. We were hysterical on the sets. A lot of times we’d say ‘It’s a good thing we’re here and it’s a good thing we’re filming, because otherwise people wouldn’t believe it was happening!’ “I was there and I’m not sure I believe it!”
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.
John Waters does not want you to read this book! Why? Well let’s just say that Mr. Waters is revealed, in this compelling and engaging account, to have many flaws that are more reprehensible than simply being known as the “Pope of Trash”. He is defined as a very calculating and ambitious person who stepped on many people on his way to international celebrity and great fortune. Mr. Maier clearly labels him a fop and describes how he sold-out friends who helped him to the top. But, this book is so much more than that.
It is the first book, that I can recall, that explains how difficult and trying it is to make motion pictures outside of the mainstream. It clearly paints a picture of what it was like to make movies in ‘low-budget” hell. Maier describes in excruciating detail how actors and crew worked in the freezing cold and were fed the cheapest fast food (Cokes, cold cheese pizza and soggy meatball subs) that the production could get away with. It also describes time and time again how funding just wasn’t there to pay crew the money they were promised and how he had to battle with vendors to get the best deals possible.
The author, Robert Maier, grew up in Towson, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore, and, befriended Waters in his first real job after graduating from American University as a “techie” in the film department at UMBC. It seems that Waters was seeking film equipment that would allow him to make his transgressive films on a tiny budget. What better place to get his career going than with Maryland State owned cameras, recorders and editors paid for by taxpayers? It wasn’t long before Mr. Maier hung out drinking and watching Russ Meyers’ movies with Waters at Baltimore’s Rex Theater. He eventually resigned from his college staff position and became a sound recordist and later a production manager on five John Waters’s films starting with Female Trouble and ending with Crybaby.
The book also is a fun romp through 70’s and 80s. Mr. Maier pursues projects without Waters such as a section of the book he labels Andy Warhol’s Cocaine Cowboys where a wanna–be filmmaker named Tom Sullivan blew millions of dollars he made in cocaine running on a film whose primary mission was to make sure that his Danish supermodel girlfriend was living her fantasy as a movie star. Numerous sexual escapades are described and even The Ramones show up to party and play music
Maier meets up with Johnny Depp, Ricki Lake, Andy Warhol, and even Jean-Michel Basquait. He buys a Basquait painting which he sells for 10k at a Sotheby’s auction years later to help bail himself out of debt. He describes carrying 25k in cash on the subway as part of his Low Budget production management duties and facing gunpoint from Federal Narcotics Agents. He relates constantly moving from Baltimore to NYC and the incredible 18-20 hour days he worked for very little monetary remuneration.
The next to last chapter on Crybaby spells out definitively how Maier felt abused and let down as Water’s budgets grew into the millions. He related that it was time to get out and find work in public television and education.
“Low Budget Hell” is an honest and heartfelt account of what it was like to work outside the Hollywood arena. It pulls no punches and will deliver an indelible portrait of the times. It should be mandatory reading for all film majors at our nation’s colleges and universities.
This book is a note from the underground with perfect pitch: its language is uncannily faithful to its time and place. On one level, it is about people and an art form “on the edge,” in a penniless state of wonder, of emerging, of “making it” – or trying to – and of paying the bills.
But it is also, for me, a parable of human labor – all the way from Adam, on to the present… but especially of labor in America in the late twentieth century, with its edge of desperation, its closing factories and constricted hopes – described from within, with utter fidelity. Though it’s subtitled “making underground movies with John Waters,” it isn’t Waters’ book, so much as it is Maier’s.
The focus is not on what appears on the screen, so much as on the reality of what lies behind, and beneath it, in “the shadows” (in every sense) of the production. Bob Maier was Waters’ apprentice, assistant, and friend, who worked his way through every stage in the process to become production manager.
It was a toilsome way… It is his story, and, at once, that of all the invisible work everywhere that holds up the visible; and because of this, it now belongs to all of us, and to the life of our country.
Having dabbled in the filmmaking community with some short amateur films (both behind the scenes and in front), the process of movie making has always been of interest to me. With advances in technology and easier access to equipment, it has become much more conventional to see people putting together their own projects. But I’m awed by the commitment, energy, expense, and sheer scrappiness that fledging artists needed to make independent films in days gone by. Perhaps one of the more unlikely success stories was that of John Waters. In Baltimore, with a renegade band of misfits including the divine Divine, Waters started out as a gross-out counterculture visionary but transformed himself into a mainstream success. But it wasn’t an easy road. One of the people in the trenches with Waters and crew was Robert Maier, and this is his story as only he can tell it. It features many celebrities and known personalities in key roles, but this is about the journey that Maier chose to undertake.
The book starts with an introduction to John Waters and charts the tumultuous days of shooting the films “Female Trouble,” “Desperate Living,” and “Polyester.” With each film, the budget got bigger and Maier’s role expanded. There are a lot of harrowing and hysterical details about doing what needed to be done, at any cost of humiliation! Sometimes gross, sometimes excruciatingly unpleasant, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny–this is a real insider’s peek behind the magic of movie making. The book also details the periods between these films as Maier engaged in studio politics, hung out with Andy Warhol’s crowd, and took part in non-Waters films that shared some of the same production issues, if not more. Reunited for “Hairspray,” Maier and Waters found themselves in entirely new territory with studio involvement and it changed the course of their relationship forever. Maier ably demonstrates the sting of this new development, and much of the story plays out as a cautionary tale about success (and its cost) within the Hollywood machine.
As a personal memoir, scenes are filtered through Maier’s vantage point and perspective. I think that’s to be expected as Maier is the one and only source for these recollections. So don’t expect this to be a definitive portrait of Waters or even of the films it describes, just enjoy it as personal storytelling. It is a thoroughly engaging ride. Truthfully, I didn’t take anything as a hundred percent fact but that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of Maier’s tale. It showcases a lot of inherent truths about the filmmaking business, things that are just as true now as they were then. Anyone interested in Waters and/or independent movie making should appreciate this warts-and-all portrait of guerilla artistry. KGHarris, 1/12.
Review of Low Budget Hell
by Guy Savage (from His Futile Preoccupations…)
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 Crybaby “moving 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’ books (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.
Review of Low Budget Hell
by Al Sumrall on Amazon.com
Low Budget Hell succinctly tells the personal experiences of the author in the low budget film industry in the 70’s and 80’s. Mainly but not totally, under John Waters, he recalls events and how they affected him and the many people who sacrificed and worked their heart out trying to create films under crushing pressures and often incredibly unreasonable demands of often clearly sociopathic people intent on only their own visions and needs.
Maier writes in a very smooth, pleasing style, like he is talking to a friend over a cup of coffee. He also creates the imagery that puts you comfortably there by his shoulder as he works in interesting situations with some people that are as good as gold, others that are flawed and damaged and yet fighting to stay relevant, and others that are near demonic in their nature. As in life, some of the situations are humorous and you often find yourself chuckling when you feel you shouldn’t be, after all it is reality.
What is described in Low Budget Hell was intense, deadly serious, incredibly hard, sometimes passionate, and in some cases pathetic, especially in those cases where individuals would place themselves in positions of physical and mental abuse for the “artistic” vision or financial greed of people that really didn’t give a damn for them but would use any means to get to their personal interpretation of “the top”. The book also shows the many very good people that contributed and sacrificed much just to be a part of the “film industry”; a few succeeded, some failed, and many just got by until they found themselves kicked or pushed out.
Maier, who apparently was able to hang on through the thick and thin much longer than most, does not get bogged down by details, he includes in a seamless style many of the challenges of the film projects he worked on and he finds different interesting things to say about each project, but but he does not dwell on any of them. You never get bored. You share his frustration and sometimes despair when working with often ill-spirited, selfish people. Yet, you also share his own amazement when most of the projects actually get completed despite all the odds, surviving the bizarre incidents and interference. You are introduced to the constant emotional and financial bribery in the low budget film industry, the constant swallowing of elephants yet choking at gnats mentality of low budget film producers and backers who are everything but professional. But occasionally you do meet a professional who is also a good human being.
You also find yourself often in sympathy with many people that you would walk on the other side of the street to get away from. Maier succeeds in showing the humanity of some very bizarre folks and you find yourself linked to that person and their often bitterly hard lives that they tried to overcome, but as this is reality, some succeeded, some survived, some didn’t. Of course you meet those that wallow in illegal, immoral, and self destructive behavior also. There is sleaze (especially in some mentioning of film content which was at times beyond the pale of any form of decency) but you do see at least in Water’s films, an attempt at making things professional. The films themselves are only discussed in terms of the particular event of production described. You see people driven to desperate and sometimes underhanded behavior, usually needed to get what needed to be done, but also creating at times potential loss and damage to others.
Occasionally you get to see some real stars in their more human form. Maier shows them as real people, often when they are working the business end of their “craft”. And yes, you get interesting insight in what makes some creative people “tick”, especially John Waters. You find out that there are little people and big people in the industry and rarely do they meet except in fleeting moments of creation. All of the above makes for a very entertaining and interesting book and I am glad the author has shared his experiences.
There is much to learn from this book. You don’t have to be a fan of John Waters, you don’t even have to know him as you will learn about him in the book from Maier’s personal perspective, and if perhaps you think you know him you might find something new in his personal dealings with Maier. There is something here for so many people, especially those who dream of creating something from nothing, especially on a low budget. But beware of the Hell that awaits…. the human cost which will never be “low budget”.