Awesome exclusive interview with Best Worst Movie director
Documentary director Michael Paul Stephenson will visit Berkeley's Shattuck Cinemas on Saturday
The other night, I was whining about how much 2010 has sucked for movie lovers. We're already almost halfway through the year, and the only new films that really stand out for me are Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer and the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money.
To my great relief, I cured my blues by popping in a dvd screener of a film that has been garnering much buzz at film festivals and indie theaters across America: Best Worst Movie. Director Michael Paul Stephenson has taken a brilliant look at the phenomenon of cult movies, by dissecting the rabid following of Troll 2, a tiny-budgeted, early '90s horror film. The backstory is that Stephenson acted in the film at age 10, and was hugely disappointed when the film was released straight-to-video, even moreso when the film turned out to be amazingly, incredibly bad. Stephenson, and others in the cast of unknown actors, quickly grew to hate the film, especially when cable channels showed it over and over.
Then something amazing happened: little pockets of fans started embracing Troll 2 as a kind of accidental masterpiece. A few years ago, Stephenson was contacted by some random fans who let him know that they held Troll 2 viewing parties. Now a thirtysomething filmmaker, Stephenson decided to reunite with cast members from his film debut, and make a documentary about the film's cult status. And he knocked it out of the park: Best Worst Movie is hilarious, touching, and insightful from start to finish, one of the great lemonade-from-lemons film stories I've ever seen. Stephenson will be in the Bay Area this weekend as Best Worst Movie opens at the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley as well as the Lumiere in San Francisco—click here for the details. Also on hand will be Best Worst Movie and Troll 2 star George Hardy, a cheerful dentist from Alabama who is an absolute delight to watch in both films.
I caught up with Stephenson to chat about BWM.
Early in the film you describe the, um, horror you felt the first time you saw Troll 2 on a VHS tape that you received on Christmas morning. Can you talk a little bit about seeing the film for the first time when you still had such high hopes for it?
Sure. When I was making this I thought we were making a great horror film, I thought it would be the next Labyrinth or Gremlins. Shooting it, it felt like it would be a legitimately great horror movie.
We finished, and I thought it would be a few months and I would get to see the movie with my family at my local theater. And it just never came out. Then I received the movie as a Christmas present, and I did not know what it was—when we shot the film it was called Goblin, not Troll 2.
My mom said, "It's your movie, Michael!" We put in the VHS player, we all gathered around the TV. And it was about 10 seconds into the movie when when my dad said, “Oh, no—this is terrible.” That moment set off this long time in my life when I was really embarrassed by this film. It was always on HBO and Showtime, it seemed to play on an endless loop.
Here I was a young kid who wanted to be an actor, and my first role is in the worst film ever. I was cast in some other parts but Troll 2 never went away.I had this uncle who would call and say, "Hey Michael, your stupid movie is on again!" I would get the TV guide out of the Sunday morning and go through it carefully, hoping that Troll 2 wouldn't be on that week. It was complete embarrassment for a long time—something I did not really want to talk about
But like a fine wine, movie fans appreciated Troll 2's flavors over time. When did the midnight phenomenon begin?
About four and a half years ago, when I started working on the documentary. At that time, there was still not a big phenomenon of midnight screenings. But a few months after I moved back to Los Angeles, to pursue a career in the industry, I started getting messages on MySpace from Troll 2 fans, throughout the country and even the world. They would all say, “I’m a huge fan,” but the messages would be so random, it wasn't one group of people, there were these little unconnected pockets. I started getting pictures from kids having Troll 2 parties in their parents' basements. They all thought that they were the only ones doing this.
I started to answer their questions about the movie and I became interested in how this little movie had this will to live. I had this feeling that something special was happening. I woke up one morning and started smiling from ear to ear, and I told my wife, "I’m the child star of the worst movie ever made. There is a great story here."
One thing that Best Worst Movie gets across effectively is this sense of community that is created around the experience of sharing a movie.
Thanks, that's exactly what I set out to do. I wanted to encapsulate this shared experience that people have watching Troll 2—its so much fun to go to these screenings
The film I kept thinking about while watching Best Worst Movie was the Donkey Kong documentary, The King of Kong. Both films show real people who are so entertaining and fascinating that they should have been created by a screenwriter—but they're real.
That makes me so happy that you would compare us to the King of Kong. I am such a big fan of that film. I saw that movie in the middle of shooting and it gave me hope that there is market for documentary that isn't about politics or war.
You could not have picked a better star than the dentist, George Hardy (pictured, right, with stormtroopers). I can't remember meeting such a likable guy in a film. Here is his, running his dental practice in Alabama, and all of a sudden he is going to packed screenings and treated like he's Brad Pitt or George Clooney. Were you able to get his first appearance at one of these midnight screenings on film?
No, his very first appearance was at a small screening in Utah, it was a small gathering of like 30 people. I could not go to that because I was shooting a commercial for another company.
I hadn't talked to George since we filmed Troll 2. I remember that he would show up half the day to film his scenes and go back to his dentistry office in Salt Lake City and drill teeth. So I looked him up, we chatted on the phone, and at that time I did not know who I was going to follow for the documentary.
The first screening I filmed for the doc was in New York with George in September 2006. We did not know what to expect. We were going to this well respected comedy club, the Upright Citizen's Brigade. I remember expecting the worst. I thought they were going to boo and hiss and throw tomatoes at us. I looked at my camera and said "I have to film this".
We took a cab to the theater, and got out and there was this huge line of people in line. We still did not know they were in line for Troll 2, we figured it was for something else. But when people saw George and the line just erupted. And George, well, his face just lit up. He ran over and started signing autographs and taking pictures right away. He looked back at me and said, "Michael, isn't this great?".
How are the audiences who loved Troll 2 reacting to Best Worst Movie?
The audiences are always great—I love going and seeing the movie play in front of a live audience. Every single place we have played, there is an amazing energy.
It's funny—I go to these screenings to support Best Worst Movie, but I’m not the kind of person who would go to Troll 2 screenings over and over were it not for this project. Most of all, I love seeing George react to the energy of the audiences. More than anything else, I love standing in the back, and watch George talk to fans. We recently finished a screening in New York and went back to the hotel and watched a segment that Nightline did about us. When it finished, I looked at George and he had tears in his eyes.
Best Worst Movie opens at the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and the Lumiere in San Francisco on June 4. Michale Paul Stephenson and George Hardy will attend screenings in San Francisco on Friday and Berkeley on Saturday. The Lumiere will also have midnight screenings of Troll 2 on Friday and Saturday. Information at Landmarktheatres.com.