Category Archives: Books

About My Books

Review of Low Budget Hell by Charlene Clark in Hunka Munka

What an absolute hoot to read Robert Maier’s new book about his trials, errors and successes  surrounding underground movie production in Baltimore and beyond. It made me laugh out loud all by myself over and over.  It is an intelligent and forthcoming memoir describing  his unglamorous yet glamorous life making underground movies. “Low Budget Hell: Making Movies with John Waters” begins before 1973 when I met  Robert in the film department at University of Maryland Baltimore County. I was a naive yet ambitious would-be filmmaker like the other the students in our small group. Robert was extremely supportive of us as we were left on our own to figure out how the equipment worked. As the staff member in charge of the film cage, Robert made sure that the valuable cameras and sound recording equipment were checked out properly.  He suggests in his book that our often absent department head dreamed of being an independent filmmaker more than he cared to teach.

Most importantly Robert describes his business and friendship with a younger John Waters still riding the crest of the “Pink Flamingos” wave. John was introduced to the film department members via the aforementioned enterprising professor. Waters had a desire to improve his production quality and they figured the students would provide some intern assistance, too. I remember my initial sighting of Waters  entering the door to the editing room/office where he and another student  quietly edited “Female Trouble” on the precious flatbed Steenbeck. And wasn’t that Divine recording obscene sound effects for the film’s post production in the screening room — where students otherwise sat on a waterbed for classes?

On Friday nights hordes of us gathered at Bertha’s in Fell’s Point for cheap wine (about 50 cents a  glass) and hip conversation about French or Italian cinema. The soundtrack was by Miles Davis, Stan Getz or Gato Barbieri. I think the bartender’s name was Brown who played piano in various Baltimore nightclubs.  We dreamed of making films and soaked up all the bohemian atmosphere that we could hold. There was a fooseball table that really provided  a place to lean or sit rather than for sporty amusement. The “restroom” was about on par with any gas station men’s room of the 1960’s only this one had very imaginative and inspiring graffiti. I loved meeting and watching the characters from Waters’ movies. Most of them were friendly yet oh so cool. The mood of this era was what had been sorely missing from my suburban childhood and I felt that I finally found the off-beat, colorful and artistic atmosphere where unconventional creativity was encouraged.

Within this bohemian time frame of my life, in 1975 I worked for Bob as a key grip on his movie “Love Letter to Edie.” That is a tale to tell on its own sometime. I  will write about it here later perhaps. Working on “Love Letter” is where I acquired a sincere appreciation for Edith Massey. It was not easy at all for her to remember her lines –  often adding curse words that were not in the script. Whether she realized it or not, Edith gave many of us permission to be what we wanted to be without fear of  ridicule. Edith’s thrift shop was close to Bertha’s and she was open late for the bar trade on weekends. Bertha’s closed at 1 a.m. when we promptly moved down the street to Pop and Sis’s bar called Zeppi’s (now John Stevens’).

The elderly Pop and Sis served 25 cent beers and so we had our nightcap there. Sis once told me that for her vacation, when they closed the bar for a week or two during the summer, all she wanted to do was sit on her front steps of her row house and watch the neighbors. I knew what she meant. As we closed that bar around 2 a.m. sometimes we’d witness a gang fight, a la West Side Story, in the metered parking lot at the foot of Broadway. Occasionally it ended with a boy getting wounded by a switchblade and the girls crying for their boyfriends. That signaled it was time to head home to my roommates and roaches in Bolton Hill.

I highly recommend reading “Low Budget Hell.” Robert gives an honest and humorous account of just  how low a budget can go. The book is chock full of little gems and secrets. A good example is his description of Waters’ metamorphosis from Prince of Puke to Broadway Musical Darling.  Robert can tell a story and I am so happy that he told this one for now I know I did not imagine some the things I thought I saw during those free-spirited college days

 

Review of Low Budget Hell by David Banash on PopMatters

Peter Bogdanovich made his early career as an historian of Hollywood. In the days before older films were available on video cassettes, he took full advantage of New York retrospectives and the power of museums to fund special screenings. He developed and published narratives about the great auteurs of the studio era, particularly the ‘30s and ‘40s, making Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and John Ford heroes of cinema.

That narrative pitted the visionary director against the studio, and when you read Bogdanovich’s work, the effect is to become caught up in triumph of these men. Even when they fail, as Welles so often did later, that failure itself is a spectacular confirmation of genius. The end of the studio era gave rise to new directors, including Bogdanovich himself, battling not only dying studios, but everything from corporations, to television, censorship laws, and sometimes even the mafia.

The narrative of the auteur who battles the forces of mediocrity only to triumph in bringing a vision to the screen has now become a kind of formula that drives the narratives of the next generation of Hollywood heroes: Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Robert Altman, and more. One can find this story circulating in books like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.

Having accounted for the studio era, and now new Hollywood, the last ten years has seen a surge of books and documentaries about less mainstream filmmakers who produced pornography and horror. One can look at the heroic narrative created in the documentary Inside Deep Throat (2005), and there’s the quite brilliant American Schlock (2003), detailing the golden age of grindhouse pornography.  Horror, too, is also being similarly mythologized in documentaries and books, for instance last year’s Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. These low budget outsiders are now seen as a radical avant-garde that democratized movie making and changed the very direction of American popular culture.

All of these narratives feed into a particularly American tradition of the rugged outsider who crashes past the frontiers of taste, or technique, or even just sheer and shameless self-promotion, to become, well, great. But filmmaking is an unforgivingly collaborative art. What about all the people who work on films and don’t make it? They rarely make an appearance in books about the auteurs. What about the humble but essential sound recordists, location scouts, or line producers? How many readers know what a line producer is, and if they did know, would they care? What is their story? How do you write about film when you are not an auteur? Robert Maier takes up this challenge in his recent memoir Low Budget Hell:  Making Underground Movies with John Waters.

Like Waters, Maier grew up in Baltimore and early on, he had an interest in the counter culture. He was in a band with his friends in high school, became an English major in college reading Kerouac and Burroughs, and then he got interested in film, making several shorts before he graduated and took a job at the University of Maryland Baltimore County as an A/V tech in the new film department. Maier seemed to have all the marks of a future director, perhaps what it would take to break into films, and he was putting himself in the right place at the right time.

John Waters partnered with the film professors at UMBC to make Female Trouble (1974), and this gave Waters access to their equipment and students. Though initially excluded because of his full-time job on campus, Maier got his big break taking over for the student sound recordist who was caught shooting heroin: “I had literally saved the day, and at the end of it, John said he wanted me on the crew permanently.” Maier was introduced to Water’s Dreamland crew, and he went on to work with Waters on Desperate Living, (1977) Polyester (1981), Hairspray (1988) and Cry Baby (1990).

Maier did sound and also helped with the editing of Female Trouble, and here is where his book is different. Where others spend time on the star drama, the story, and aesthetic visions, Maier has a head for the least glamourous but nonetheless hugely important tasks. He explains to us in patient detail that he did the matching on Female Trouble, the time consuming task of task of cutting the original negative to match the “work print” that was used in the editing:  “The original film rolls represented nearly every penny spent on the movie. There was no back-up copy.  f something happened to the original, that was it” (51). You can hear his pride in this, and it reminds readers just how complex an art filmmaking is, especially in the days before the digital revolution.

It also testifies to Waters’s trust in him, but Maier was not just content to stay completely in the background. In his own way, he had huge ambitions, “by the time Female Trouble wrapped, I had a good idea of how a low-budget film should come together. I wanted to produce movies, not just be the sound man” (47).

Maier, if he is known to Waters fans at all, is probably best remembered for the short film he made about The Egg Lady from Pink Flamingos, Edith Massey. Maier became friendly with her, and fascinated by the incredible story of her life, growing up as an orphan, failing as a would-be Hollywood starlet, falling in with organized crime, and finally making a life as the ultimate barmaid and, later, living in poverty as the owner of a thrift store. Maier’s directorial debut Love Letter to Edie (1975), played with showings of Pink Flamingos for years, though with his eyes on the details of the cut-throat world of film distribution, Maier tells us that he later found out that New Line never paid him the royalties it earned, nor did it make Maier famous. Though his name appeared in The Village Voice, he writes “I was finally famous, but only I knew it” (77).

Maier became both sound recordist and production manager on Desperate Living, and here he really takes us into the low budget hell of his title.  At 24 years old, Maier writes,

“My hands were always full, keeping track of the sound tapes and exposed camera rolls, discussing equipment problems and needs with the crew, working with Vince and his art department needs, and Van and Chris Mason with wardrobe and hair issues.  Money was a big concern, because everyone had extra needs. Light bulbs blew out, a roll of film would get spoiled, more gaffer’s tape was needed, or a tripod part would break. An important day player might have car trouble, and we had to reimburse her cab fare. Sometime the days lasted twelve hours, and I’d have to buy a dinner round of pizza and cokes to keep the crew from passing out.”  (115).

This work needed to be done, and Maier did it, and did it well. He tells it well too, though with something of the same kind of earnestness it probably took to be successful in such work.

Though Desperate Living was not a financial success, it seemed to Maier that the door to a substantial mainstream career through the low-budget backdoor was just around the corner. Quitting his new day job at Maryland Public Television, Maier moved to the Downtown scene in New York. He worked as the sound recordist on the Andy Warhol produced Cocaine Cowboys (1979), and he tells stories of working with Jack Palance and The Ramones showing up to hang out. He worked briefly on classics like Downtown 81 (1981), became friends with the like of Amos Poe, and later got into the explosion of low-budget horror as a production manager on both Alone in the Dark (1982) and House on Sorority Row (1983).

Maier would go on to work briefly at New Line itself, hang out with Deborah Harry and Chris Stein, continue to work on Waters Films, like most of the other cast and crew members he worked with, but he never really gained fame, fortune, or even a secure position. The end of just about every production brought on a frantic search for a new project.

Instead of a heroic breakthrough, Maier tells the story of ultimately being pushed out by Hollywood sharks. As Waters and New Line became more successful, they began to bring in Hollywood crews. In one tragic episode, Maier budgeted the first Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) as a New York production for New Line. An L.A. Production manager beat his estimate by a hair, and New Line opted to go to L.A. Maier was offered a small spot on the film, but his skills as a producer were based in a network of relationships centered on the East coast, and the move would have essentially deskilled him.

When Waters began Cry Baby, it was produced by Rachel Talalay, who Maier had mentored in her earliest days at New Line. Maier was passed over by both Waters and Talalay until he called Waters and had a very awkward lunch. As Maier points out, he was the one left behind when Talalay hired almost the exact same crew Maier had hired for Hairspray, and in fact many were people Maier had trained. Pushing Waters about why he didn’t hire him to work on the his first really big budget film, Waters said people complained about Maier. Maier replies, reminding Waters and the reader about the less glamourous side of making movies:

“John, people always complain about the production manager.  I deliver the bad news, so you don’t have to.  I fire people. I cut their budgets , and I refuse their requests.  I’m the bad guy; you’re the good.  Of course they’ll complain about me.  If you had a problem with it in Hairspray, why not tell me then?  Why wait ‘till now?  Every decisions I made was for your benefit, to protect the budget, to protect you, and New Line, and Rachel, and that was incredibly difficult.”

Waters relented and hired Maier as location manager on Cry Baby, and Maier unfolds a horrific story of the sharky world of Hollywood. Instead of the camaraderie of the early Waters films, Maier talks about an ethos of cut-throat competition on a $9 million budget when people look out only for their own careers: “The competitiveness of the Hollywoods was so intense that it seemed they cared little about the movie, and much more about looking good to the executives to ensure they would be hired on the next film.  Frequently this meant stabbing other people in the back or secretly undermining them to move up in the pecking order.” As Maier tells it, what really put him off working in big-budget films was simply too nice for Hollywood: “So movie making was merely survival of the fittest.  It made me feel better I had left it behind.”  He became an author of textbooks on filmmaking, moved to North Carolina, and spent years making documentaries for television before finally landing a good job with steady pay in public television.

In Shock Value, Waters himself tells the story of his early career, playing it for absurdity, vulgarity, and laughs. Waters is a brilliant raconteur, and he tosses off one-liners throughout, but you get a strong sense of his aesthetic and ambition. Waters writes about Female Trouble with an ear for shock:  “Since I was attending the Manson trial and was visiting Manson’s lieutenant, Charles ‘Tex’ Watson in prison, I decided the theme of my next film should be ‘crime is beauty.’” Waters is clear about his humor and his aesthetic. Maier too narrates the absurd adventures of making low-budget films, but there is a seriousness and earnestness to his voice. He has an eye for the details, a taste for responsibilities, and pride in being the one to hold it all together, but despite his early counter-culture leanings, it turns out that Maier was really a square, and this shows in his writing.

Though he is in low-budget, the extremes of queer culture, horror, and general bad behavior by artists either unnerve him or bore him. This is also part of what creates the odd tone that is the strangest thing about the book, as though he couldn’t quite decide to let Waters be the villain that any director must be. Instead, Maier both lauds him, undercuts him, and then defensively condescends to him all at once. This occurs throughout, but one gets a sense of it from comments like this: “Instead of shopping exclusively at thrift stores, [John] was paying more attention to assembling a wardrobe of cutting edge designer clothes from New York’s most chic boutiques. The Prince of Puke was going through a life change.  It didn’t surprise me; I’d been to Europe several times and knew what he meant.  It was nice to see John learning that life was not one hideous side show after another” (137).

Here, Maier criticizes Waters for abandoning what he imagines is a commitment to life of poverty, pastiches one of Waters’s later titles, suggests financial success is corrupting Waters, but he then one-ups him by pointing out he himself had already been to Europe, as if Waters was only learning what worldly Maier already knew. One wishes Maier had a sharp editor to insist that he undo this relentless structure of lavish praise followed by hollow criticism and grating condescension. It seriously mars an otherwise interesting account of his life as a filmmaker.

For those new to John Waters, Shock Value:  A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste is the best place to begin. Maier’s book is a very different and often fascinating account of Water’s early films, but it demands a larger context. The best thing about Maier’s book is the way it undoes the myths of filmmaking and reminds readers that not everyone makes it big in Hollywood, and that not making it is alright, too. Indeed, it often reads as something of a cautionary tale for those who dream of making it big, and the title says it all. Low-budget hell can be punishing because most people who work on those films will never make it out. Maier made huge contributions to the films he worked on, but he never made it to movie paradise. He finally had to get out of hell by getting out of the movies.

Review of Low Budget Hell by Adam Long in Focus Newspaper

Review of Low Budget Hell
By Adam Long in Focus Newspaper

Writer-director John Waters is well known in cult movie circles for being the man behind such films as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester, and, of course, Hairspray, to name a few. Waters himself has written several books over the years detailing his life and films but no one in the filmmaker’s inner circle has attempted to offer an alternative version of the events involved in the creation of his films until now.
Robert Maier, who served as a producer/sound man/production manager, among many other things, on the majority of Waters’ early films, has now penned his version of events in the intriguing new book, Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters. It’s a tremendously well written book that will be of interest not only to Waters’ legions of fans but also to those curious about low budget film making during the pre digital era.
The book chronicles Maier’s career from his involvement in Waters’ 1974 film, Female Trouble, all the way up to the 1990 film, Cry Baby. Along the way, Maier takes us on the trip of his lifetime as we journey with him in his struggles to find his footing and establish a career in filmmaking. In his attempts to cut a path in the low budget film world, Maier also manages to cross paths with a high number of notable celebrities. Among them are Johnny Depp, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein (Blondie), Jack Palance Andy Warhol, Tab Hunter, Bill Murray, Sonny Bono, the Coen Brothers, Jean Michel Basquait, and Donald Pleasance. The stories of these encounters provide only a small portion of the book’s pleasures, though, as Maier recounts his attempts to deal with ever escalating film budgets, egotistical Hollywood players, the union, and a myriad host of other problems inherent in the low budget film world.

The book begins with Maier’s fortuitous initial encounter with John Waters as Waters sought to find a crew to assist in shooting the follow up to the film that had put him on the map, the gross out classic, Pink Flamingos. Waters’s plan was to use personnel from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where Maier happened to work. This follow up film would become Female Trouble and Maier would eventually become sound man on the film, giving him some solid film experience in the process. From there, Maier developed a relationship with Bob Shaye, the head of Female Trouble’s distributor, New Line Cinema. This association would land him work on future Waters films and the non Waters film, Alone in the Dark.
The behind the scenes tales of Maier’s work on films such as Desperate Living, the aforementioned Alone in the Dark, Cocaine Cowboys, Hairspray, and House on Sorority Row that fill the bulk of the book, provide the reader with much entertainment. The book is filled with just enough technical detail as to give the reader insight into the problems that low budget filmmakers faced back in the pre digital era without getting carried away with the technical stuff. Maier presents the world of low budget film as a business with little financial rewards and no guarantees that the finished product would even equal half of what was intended by its creators. As a result, one comes away with the feeling that those working behind the scenes on these films had to have a certain love and affection for what they were doing. Thus, the book allows the reader to sympathize with those who sacrificed so much of their personal lives so that viewers like myself would have these labors of love to embrace and enjoys generations later.

Another asset of the book is Maier’s great sense of humor and insight that he brings to the proceedings. He manages to humanize the people and personalize the places that inhabit the stories that fill the book. At 336 pages, it is truly a great book and a worthy addition to any movie fan’s bookshelf. Low Budget Hell can be purchased online at Amazon.com and I highly recommend it for anyone with even a passing interest in low budget filmmaking.

New Review and Interview on Low Budget Hell from the Houston Press

 

 

 

from Art Attack by Jef with One F

Read the original here!

New Review of Low Budget Hell in PopMatters by David Banash

New Review in PopMatters by David Banash

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.”  Available on Amazon.com and booksellers around the world.

Review of Low Budget Hell on BadLit.com — The Journal of Underground Film

Review from www.BadLit.com- The Journal of Underground Film.

Amazon.com Review of Low Budget Hell

This 4-star review was written by K. Harris, Amazon’s 7th most popular reviewer– out of 10,000.  K. is  a Waters fan, and an honest reviewer who warned me not to expect a rose garden review when I sent him a copy of the book.  I like reading Amazon reviewers more than the main stream media because they aren’t pressured by editors who just want to cover books by celebrity authorsRead it below or on Amazon.

Guerilla Filmmaking 101: Surviving The Humiliations Of True Independent Cinema
by K. Harris

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.

Indiewire.com Article on Low Budget Hell

Screen grab of artile on Indiewire about book Low Budget Hell

Here’s a nice article in Indiewire, the #1 Blog for indie filmmakers. Quote:

Robert Maier got lucky. He was just out of college when he began working with John Waters on “Female Trouble” and continued to be part of his crew through “Cry-Baby;” he also directed the 1975 short doc “Love Letter to Edie,”which profiles Waters’ longtime muse Edith Massey.

Read the full article on Indiewire.

Read about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.”  Available on Amazon.com and booksellers around the world.