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Review of Low Budget Hell by Robert Goald in Film Festival Today

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.

Review of Low Budget Hell by Jack McMichael Martin on Amazon.com

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.

Low Budget Hell Review by KG Harris- Amazon.com Top-10 Favorite Reviewer

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…)

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 Crybabymoving 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

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”.