Robert Maier on Low Budget Hell


Crimson Celluloid: For the uninitiated, can you give a description of your book Low Budget Hell Making Underground Movies with John Waters?

Robert Maier: The book tells the story of my working for fifteen years with John Waters on five of his low budget films, plus many other adventures that came from my experiences on his movies. When I first met John, I was a pretty naïve kid from the suburbs. But I was curious and counter-cultural, and we hit it off.

A few years later I was working with big name actors, negotiating with top players in the New York City film industry, and hanging out with some of the greatest artists and musicians of the time—but always on very low budget projects. I started at the bottom where it was both painful and fun, and it changed nearly every minute.

The big time always seemed just out of reach. As soon as one door opened, and you thought you’d made it, another door appeared right behind it. But every actor, dancer, musician, artist, filmmaker, or writer goes through that. I worked with people who were giants of their time, like Andy Warhol, Martin Landau, Bob Shaye, Divine, Stiv Bators, Debbie Harry, and Jack Palance. I couldn’t believe a kid from a little row house in Towson, Maryland (also the home of Divine and John) could hang out with Academy Award winners, music chart busters, and millionaire artists. It was a roller coaster ride, but at the end of the day, it was fun and could be very funny. My favorite review quote of the book is “I laughed my balls off.” And it’s true, we did too when it was all going down.

Making money making movies, especially low budget ones, seemed to be a ridiculous way of making a living. You couldn’t survive it if you took it seriously, and that’s really what the book is about.

CC: It really must have been “the best of times, the worst of times” working on those early John Waters films. What did your job entail? What enduring memories do you have of the experience?

RM: When you’re in your 20s and working in the movies, there are no bad times. You think everything is a step in the right direction, and you are positive you will make it big one day. I started working with Waters on Female Trouble as the sound man when the first guy was fired for shooting up in the bathroom on the third shoot day. John had zero tolerance for drugs or sex on his sets, so I got my first break thanks to a heroin addict. It’s just one of the many weird twists and turns I went through.

I started helping John more and more during Female Trouble, and at the end, we were good social friends, and almost business partners. I was both his trusted techie and hetero sidekick. In the next film, Desperate Living, I was the production manager and was involved from the scripting to carrying the first print into the projection booth at the New York premiere. I advised John on what things he dreamed up in the script were possible, and how to make the film-making experience smoother. It was a good education for him.

As I became more expert I got other low budget film-making jobs in New York City and Baltimore. Each one was a crazy experience: lunches of Kools, Cokes, and soggy meatball subs; riding the subway with $25,000 cash; a Federal drug bust on set—at gunpoint; meeting with Deborah Harry and Chris Stein—in bed; getting death threats from the mob, and film crews, fending off attacks by irate husbands; placating enraged actors and squeezing money from skinflint executive producers. Above all, I was John’s confidant and a shoulder to cry on. Every night after shooting, he’d call me to discuss for hours how the shoot went. He could be very insecure and needed constant reassurance that I wouldn’t leave the film—not that I ever would—and that everything would work out well. It always did.

With John, I was frequently the bad guy. He didn’t deal well with internal conflicts with the crew, and never wanted to do the nasty work that might make people dislike him. I was the one who begged people to work for next to nothing, “borrowed” equipment and film stock that was way too expensive for an underground movie, and struggled to keep people fed, warm and dry, fending off disasters with quick thinking, or quick exits.

I loved the challenge and never complained. To most of us it was art, and nothing was too hard. The line from Female Trouble “Who wants to die for art?” could have been our motto. Cold pizza? Hey, when you haven’t eaten in six hours, it was as good as a steak. No toilet paper left? Here’s some newspaper. Swim across a freezing river in December? Just make sure the camera’s warm and gets the shot.

The worst thing was probably on Polyester when a helicopter we rented for the opening title shot over the suburban neighborhood made an emergency landing on a golf course when the engine began to burn out. When the chopper hit the ground, the pilot told the camera crew to run like hell because it would probably blow, but one of them stayed to pull the film from the camera first. The shot’s in the film, and has been commented on many times, but nobody knows how close that shot came to being a disaster. If it had crashed on a house, a lot of people would have been killed and it would have been the end of all our careers. Thinking about it still gives me the creeps.

CC: The films, and their stars, have great cult followings around the world. What memories do you have of working with:

A) Cookie Mueller.

RM: Cookie was an amazingly complex person. She was a daring and fearless artist. She was always on the fringe, and always broke, but was always dedicated and hopeful. I saw her a lot in New York City because we lived in the same downtown neighborhood and hung out in the same places. But she was much more in tune with the riskier side of New York’s downtown scene in the 1980s than I was. She was extremely witty, and even though she had a big following and was one of the queens of the underground, she still warm and encouraging with me, as one of the handful of Baltimoreans who dove into the NYC underground hoping to hit the big time.

In that atmosphere a lot of jealousy and backstabbing goes on, but not with Cookie. A good break for you was a huge break for her. It seemed that every week she had a new idea going: writing stories, poetry and magazine articles, performing monologues, and being in nearly every single downtown underground film. When she was diagnosed with AIDS in the late ‘80s I saw less of her. To die at 40 at that time was inconceivable, and I heard from friends that her reaction to the fatal illness was she was not scared or depressed, but “really pissed off” that she wouldn’t be able to pursue her work anymore. She’d worked really hard being on the fringe and doing things her way, and was just about to make it big. So unfair. I really understand the “pissed off” thing.

B) David Lochary.

RM: I only knew David during the two months of shooting of Female Trouble, though he had been in John’s early movies for years. He was an inspiration for John’s work. He had been to beauty school with Divine and really lived the wacked-out Baltimore life that lured John away from his upscale suburban life. David’s absurdist view of art and culture helped mold Divine and much of the shocking imagery and excess of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble.

I didn’t know what a really innovative artist was until I met David. His film characters were always the elegant, twisted fop, but off camera, he was warm, friendly, earnest, and open. David impressed us on the crew as probably the best actor in the troop. On the set of Female Trouble, he and Divine seemed to be the only seasoned pros. They were believable characters, and on the first day of shooting, I knew they would both go places.

David was ambitious and very confident too. He was the only Dreamlander besides Divine to leave Baltimore for the greater opportunities of New York City, when Pink Flamingos became a success. He struggled there though, because the downtown art scene didn’t really begin to flourish until after he died.

David returned to Baltimore and did a fabulous Job in Female Trouble, then scooted right back to downtown Manhattan to await fame and fortune. Unfortunately, neither came fast enough for him. Seeing the lines around the block for Female Trouble, he thought his phone should be ringing off the hook with job offers. But most mainstream critics saw the films as sideshows put on by cultists in the same vein as the Manson family, which murdered several Hollywood celebrities in 1969.

David’s frizzy platinum blond hair that wreathed his balding head and his ear-to-ear gull wing moustache was far from the classic 1960s Beatles pretty-boy look, and even in New York City didn’t quite know what to make of him.

David also obsessed over the idea that John was becoming rich from his films while the actors were struggling to pay rent. David became so difficult that John left him out of Desperate Living. Being so far gone on drugs, disappointment, and paranoia at that time, David probably wouldn’t have done well in the film. The fact that neither he nor Divine were in Desperate Living, and non-Dreamlander and B-grade celebrity Liz Renay was brought in signaled that John was testing the waters of the mainstream to see if he could make movies without two of the great pillars of his earlier films.

Tragically, David died soon after Desperate Living. The circumstances around his death are a bit too vague. The standard line is he died of a PCP overdose or bled to death during a PCP trip after cutting himself on a broken glass. It wasn’t discussed that much in the Dreamland circle because David was on the outs with John, and when you’re on the outs with John you become invisible. I saw this several times. David’s death could have been anything—murder, suicide, heart attack. Falling on a piece of glass and bleeding to death seems a little sketchy. I don’t think anyone ever covered it very well. It’s an interesting lost detail.

C) Divine.

RM: Like David Lochary, Divine was mostly out of Baltimore when I got involved with Waters. Working with Divine was a real pleasure. He was very professional, but very warm and friendly. As I say in the book, the first time I met him I was lying at his feet holding a microphone during the classroom scene in Female Trouble. He joked and chatted with me between takes like we had known each other for years, promising not to step on me—“after all I need sound to record my lines!”

Divine was one of the few actors I worked with in my career who radiated pure self-confidence and down-to-earth friendliness. His commentary and philosophy were hysterical, and he literally glowed with goodwill and energy. He did want to be famous, but seemed to know intuitively that to get there, he had to treat everyone well, and he did.

At the end of Hairspray, Divine hit on me pretty hard one night while sitting in Bertha’s bar. When I gently reminded him I was happily married with 2 kids—really, not stifling a subconscious urge, he scooted out the door. Van Smith, Waters’ make-up artist who had watched the whole thing, told me I had missed an unforgettable opportunity. I smiled at him and said, “I’m happy just being friends.”

Most of the Dreamlanders earnestly wanted to be famous. Looking back, you could see that germ, even in their early 20s. That they achieved such success built on nothing but brilliance and chutzpah is an amazing testament to the human spirit. Divine had his personal quirks, but above all was a performer. The drag act was a means to an end, which was to be a serious (and wealthy) actor. I have no doubt he was one of the greatest actors of his generation, and it is a horrible, unfair tragedy that he died so early.

CC:I had the pleasure of having some contact with Liz Renay. In fact, I sent her a copy of Shock Value which, to my surprise, she said she had never seen. She was always a delight to talk to. What memories do you have of her?

RM: Liz was a real trooper in Desperate Living. She had been in a few movies, but always had star dressing rooms, and other comforts. She was a high-class broad who hung out with people with real money and was used to champagne cocktails, mink coats, and limo rides. Desperate Living’s shooting conditions were the exact opposite—cold, muddy, rainy, hideously long hours, terrible food, etc.

John always dressed her in the skimpiest outfits to show off her curvy 1950s body, but in the forty-degree weather, she shivered like a leaf, and was always wrapped in blankets between scenes. She lost a lot of her glamour there. Liz confided in me that she had never worked on such a shockingly low-budget movie, and didn’t know it was possible to make a movie in such dingy and lousy shooting conditions—no heat, no green room, no dressing rooms, no caterer or crafts services, and she thought of walking out in the beginning. But she would have felt like such a heel by walking out on this hopeful crew, so she stayed.

Also, the money was good– for her. She only had to be there two weeks for, plus John saw that she had a nice hotel. She never wanted to tie up a PA to take her to the set, and paid her own cab fare to our “studio.” This young movie crew was very kind and respectful to her, and she got into the Low Budget Hell swing of things pretty quickly. At the end of the day, Liz was in her heart a rebel and progressive who was a tough cookie and leveraged her sex appeal into one of the earliest women’s liberation characters (a weird Watersian twist).

CC: I went into reading Low Budget Hell anticipating that it would be a hatchet-job. But it wasn’t like that at all. It’s a great read and the feelings I came out with after reading it are ones of disappointment at the way you were treated and sadness. What do you hope people will take away from reading the book?

RM:I wanted to paint a real picture of working in his and other similar movies of the time. To do so I had to show the highs and lows. Some readers will focus only on the lows and think it’s a hatchet job, and others will focus on the highs and see only the humor and excitement. But the reality is there were both ecstatic highs and crushing lows. That’s life—particularly for artists who risk everything for their vision. Read any creative person’s story and you’ll find a career filled with conflicts and self-doubts, mistreatment, and unfairness. But that’s part of the price of admission. There’s nothing funny or inspiring about people being nice to each other all the time. Humor comes from extremes and those rare moments when people are painfully honest with each other. Describing a few bad moments does not make a hatchet job, and I think every reviewer so far has recognized it. The only bad comments have come from people who haven’t read the book, but imagine it to be something else. It’s a tiny minority.

I wanted people to see a balanced view of Waters, of other movies, people, and situations. I wanted people to see that “shit happens,” but it can be survived, and be productive. The book is not a bed of roses, but it’s not a tragedy. My favorite reaction is from people who say they enjoyed the story and how it was told—and they learned something. From artists, musicians, actors, artists, I love hearing “you sure told it how it is brother. Amen. I’m glad I’m not the person who went through that.”

CC:Have you had any feedback from Waters about the book? If so, what did he think of it?

RM:I spoke to John at length after I sent him an early manuscript. He found it disturbing mainly because he didn’t expect it. I doubt if I’d enjoy reading a book about myself. That happens only when you pay a ghostwriter to tell your story. John was torn between liking it a lot and disliking it.

If you look at the body of work about John, it’s 99% interviews, with John answering easy leading questions that sets him up for a funny comment. This book was a shock to him because it was the first time he did not control the content of a work about himself. Basically he was confused and didn’t want to say anything good or bad about it. It’s hard to leave John Waters speechless, but there you go. If you want to do that, just write a book about him. The main thing to take away is that dozens of some of his greatest fans and supporters have read the book so far and loved it. It’s made John be more human and real to them, which they like. Everyone wants to know more about their heroes, about what really makes them tick. But most heroes would prefer that they not. That’s just the way it is, and is the way it should be. Otherwise, you only get a glossy cover-up. For a fundamentalist, that’s their life, but a curious, thoughtful person appreciates nuances and the whole story—as much as they can get it.

CC: Your Love Letter to Edie documentary is much-loved amongst cult movie fans and people who adored Edie. It certainly stands the test of time. do you get much feedback about this little-seen gem?

RM: DVDs of Love Letter to Edie still sell on e-bay, and the snip on YouTube has nearly 8,000 views. An earlier version had 20,000 views, and I’ve caught illegal uploads that have gotten between 5,000 and 15,000 views, so it’s still viable. It doesn’t sell many copies, but most people don’t want to pay for media these days, so if I put the whole thing up, it might get a couple hundred thousand views.

But there’s no point in that. YouTube would just clutter it with advertisements, and I don’t want that. I used to sell more DVDS and get regular letters about it, but that was another generation. The younger audience must appreciate history and retro culture, but only a small percentage do. Most want what’s new and hot, Lady Gaga stuff, so the movie has become an artifact to be discovered by connoisseurs now. I can live with that. I keep it out there more as a service for the retros. It pays for itself, which is great, and I’m glad so many people have liked it over the years.

CC: Given your film career, association with Waters and the obsessive and protective nature of fans these days, have you had any weird fan encounters over the years or recently because of the book?

RM: I’ve been emailed by “weird” people over the years, who have given me very funny reactions. You can read many of them on the e-bay site for Love Letter to Edie. Never any stalkers or threats though. With the book release, which is still in its infancy, I’m mostly getting new Facebook friends. Many of them are off the beaten track and I’m happy to see how funny and bizarre they can be. Their messages and postings make my days much more entertaining.

Facebook has the best slants on the news, the best jokes, and some of the most amazing art. It’s better than any newspaper or magazine, and most movies. It’s no wonder that traditional media, which is mostly a big echo chamber with a tightly locked gate, is suffering a huge loss of its audience. I friend everybody on Facebook, and I love reading their comments not just about the book, but life and culture with an angle that most other media avoids.

CC: Hollywood seems totally bereft of new ideas these days..remakes and sequels seem to be everywhere. If they ever remake Pink Flamingos do you think Justin Bieber would be ideal casting as the “singing asshole”?

RM: Bieber as sex symbol is just another manifestation of the artificiality of pop culture. There would be no way any of the pop stars would take on anything so risky as a Waters film. They are multi-million dollar corporate properties. I’m surprised that Waters has said such positive things about him, but that’s probably John’s irony. In the past, adolescent girls—like Mylie Cyrus get promoted as that kind of sex symbol god. Now it’s a young androgynous boy. It probably is a sign of the increasing power of gay culture in the marketing world. It would make good sense to use Bieb for that reason, but the corporate entertainment commanders would say hell no.

CC: Aside from the Waters films, you’ve worked on other fan-favourite cult films…Alone in the Dark and House On Sorority Row. Did working within the confines of these “mainstream” films make you miss the Waters films more..or make you realise what you were missing out on all along?

RM: Alone and House were not really mainstream films. They were terribly low budget for what they were. And both were not really serious slasher films like the Halloween series. They were ironic and snarky horror films—a sub-genre, which is why they have achieved cult status. Waters’ films up to Cry-Baby were always really subversive and counter-cultural. Cry-baby, which was a Universal picture, after all, was depressing to work on. It was all about the money—from the lowliest PA on up. And that’s Hollywood. I had no desire to do the Hollywood thing. I wanted to move into the small crew documentary world. I don’t even like watching Hollywood movies for the most part. Indie and foreign film are the only movies worth my time. Hollywood movies, with their wall-to-wall CGI scenes, impossibly super-powered heroes, and inevitable happy endings—are insufferable. In foreign films, people solve their problems through their own wit and grit. In Hollywood people’s problems are solved through some phony super hero, super weapon, or miracle from above. Too many Hollywood movies are shills for religion, promoting a higher power that will solve everything, and be a short cut to salvation.

CC:I’m sure there are many Australian and New Zealand Waters fans who would love to get a copy of the book. Can it be ordered directly through you?

RM: You can buy Low Budget Hell on dozens of on-line book sites around the world. Amazon and Barnes and Noble carry it, but it’s listed on several Aussie and Kiwi based on-line book sellers. Any independent bookstore and get a copy in a few days. My distributor, Ingram, has a plant in Australia that churns them out the same day they are ordered. If somebody is obsessed enough to want a signed copy, they are available on a limited basis on e-bay.

CC: Any parting words of wisdom?

RM: I teach video, and my number one piece of advice to students is to be persistent. Better to be considered a pest than a wimp in the entertainment world. Also, when presented with a problem, hit it straight on. Sail right into the heart of the storm.

It’s also OK to be different in a world that craves conformity. In fact, it should be encouraged. The world’s problems were not created, enhanced, or promoted by the likes of Divine, David Lochary, Mink Stole, and the other Dreamlanders, nor by Warhol’s factory and the other edgy artists and counter-culturists of the past fifty years. It is the conformists who start the wars, repress people, and steal from the poor. They’re the ones who should be avoided and confronted with their hypocrisy, paranoia, and bloated egos.

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