“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.