Interview: Director Michael Stephenson on Best Worst Movie, Troll 2 as Geek Phenomenon, the Alamo Drafthouse, Skate Vids, and Pizza!
Posted on Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009 by Hunter Stephenson
One of the best documentaries of 2009 is Best Worst Movie. Whether you have read about it on /Film or watched it unfold before your eyes at a film festival, its very existence is miraculous. At its core, the doc marks the unlikely, unflinching reunion between director Michael Stephenson—the child star of 1990’s Troll 2 (renown for being the worst movie of all time)—and his estranged Troll 2 co-stars and filmmakers. Over the last few years, the notoriety and fandom of Troll 2 has exploded into packed screenings nationwide, fan-organized parties, utterly deranged Internet memes, and frothy endorsements from the likes of Patton Oswalt and the Upright Citizens Brigade. But similar to the broad and hearty appeal of Best Worst Movie, Troll 2’s allure reaches outside the niche yet increasingly mainstream gates of a celebrated B- or F-Movie.
Troll 2 is the Kubrickian starchild of terrible movies. It’s incomparable badness is such that it warps our very definition into slime-colored brain candy that pops with cinematic pseudo-genius. The basic plot is a fairy tale-gone-sour about an All-American ’80s family that vacations in a deserted town called Nilbog. Based on the name alone, it’s no surprise that Nilbog is a human trap created by small vegan creatures in burlap sacks; ones obsessed with milk and looking cheap. As played by Stephenson, the family’s uber-annoying son, Joshua Waits, is surpassed in corniness only by his confident, clueless Southern father (would-be actor, definite cult legend George Hardy). Now an esteemed small-town dentist, Best Worst Movie catches up with Hardy, and follows him as he rides out Troll 2‘s renewed popularity around the globe in the Era of Internet Fame and Unabashed/Fleeting Geekdom.
Stephenson also tracks down other cast members living at differing and fascinating levels of obscurity, normalcy, and dysfunction. In our interview with Stephenson below, he explains that after outgrowing the embarrassment, years later he found himself searching out this make-believe but very real family. And Best Worst Movie goes one step further. It documents how impossibly connective and family-esque movie culture has become outside the eye and coffers of Hollywood. Such is Troll 2‘s power to entertain and unite that it can break through the stale dung of 1,000 McGs like water rapids through a wicked temple built by Druid goblins. Combined, Best Worst Movie and Troll 2 get us back in touch with what it means to love movies, to make them, and to have our lives changed by them for better, and sometimes Worst.
Hunter Stephenson: Before we begin, let us address a big debate that is currently waging. As someone who is directly involved, I hope that you can settle it once and for all: Is Troll 2 the worst movie of all time or is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room the worst?
Michael Stephenson: [laughs] I’ve heard so much about it, but I haven’t seen The Room yet. It’s playing in L.A., and when we were coming back from Toronto [for the Hot Docs festival] we were talking about how we have to check it out. From what I’ve heard, The Room is a little more cynical, whereas Troll 2 is a little more …innocent. [laughs]
Right. Troll 2 embodies the spirit of the 1980s and The Room embodies the aughts’. But what is really odd about Troll 2 is that it’s only become a phenomenon over the last few years. And I think your documentary, Best Worst Movie, it captures this, but it’s also one of the best looks at the progression of fandom in general. When did you notice that Troll 2 had this hold on geek and movie culture; enough so that you could make a doc partially about its popularity?
Michael Stephenson: Up until about four years ago, I ran away from everything related to Troll 2. [laughs] Tried not to think about it; as a teenager I was embarrassed by it. I mean, I was the kid in the worst movie ever made. But four years ago, I started getting MySpace messages from people who said they were fans. [laughs] Their messages would say, “Are you Joshua Waits? Please say it is so!” At first, I thought these people were weird and I didn’t respond. [laughs] It was also weird timing: I had just moved back to L.A. to pursue acting, writing, and being a filmmaker. But then I got an email from a fan who had taken photos from his Troll 2 party. And once I got these pictures, I remember thinking, “Whyyy?” Most of these guys messaging me were 20somethings. And it was so random. There were messages from Sweden, Iceland, North Dakota, Florida, Toronto, everywhere. But these people all seemed really sincere about their love of Troll 2. So, I started to think about everyone involved [in Troll 2]. And I realized that there was a really great, unique story behind this great cinematic disaster. This was before all of the screenings, before Troll 2 screened at UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade in New York].
Do you think Best Worst Movie and Troll 2‘s popularity would exist without the Internet and online fandom?
Michael Stephenson: The Internet has played a huge part, obviously, but I think it was also time and several other events that lead to this critical mass. Years ago, Troll 2 played all-the-time on HBO and late at night on different cable outlets. A lot of fans saw it then, so there’s the nostalgia factor. And then, MGM released a DVD [in 2003] with Troll and Troll 2 together. That was big. Soon after I decided to do the documentary, I created a website, and it seemed like tons of fans came out around then.
Michael, how has your outlook on Troll 2 changed over time? You mentioned being embarrassed for years, but in due time you’ve described the film without irony as “beautiful.” And I’ve had similar discussions with people who laugh at this sentiment, but I really agree with you. I think Troll 2 is almost a legitimately important film. It’s become one of the best time-capsules of the ‘8os; Troll 2 is zany in a way that few films are. It’s also quite surreal. There is so much random weirdness buried in it that connects to what airs on [adult swim] and a lot of memes today. [The film has often become a meme itself, see “Oh My God.”]
Michael Stephenson: Yeah, there really is. It is a very creative movie. And, you know, now that I’ve seen what this movie has done with audiences; I’ve gone to countless screenings, and unlike so many other films Troll 2 never fails to make people laugh. People have so much fun. Sure the writing is bad and the acting is bad, based on cinematic principles. But where it doesn’t fail is that it has heart and it has sincerity. Most movies today don’t have that.
Yeah, there are a lot of movies that aren’t ranked nearly as low on IMDB, like Flubber, Night at the Museum, or Paul Blart. [Troll 2 currently has a 1.9 ranking] I think the world and the culture would be better off if those movies never happened. Troll 2 is a treasure. [laughs]
Michael Stephenson: Oh yeah. You can’t buy that with a big budget; that shines through still today with what [director] Claudio Fragasso did. For me, I feel that Troll 2 is beautiful and it’s amazing. The worst thing you can do as a director is fail to entertain, and Claudio has had an impact, he’s left an impression, and it’s going to go on for decades. When it screened at UCB, I pictured tomatoes being thrown. I was nervous. I remember we were in New York, and George [Hardy] (the dad in Troll 2, above) and I went to get dinner. We left the theater, the show wasn’t going to start for a few hours. And there was this long line around the block. We had no idea it was for Troll 2. And then people starting screaming “Farmer Waits!” So, George just rushed into these fans and started soaking all of this in. And that’s when I thought “That’s my guy” for the documentary: George is this small town, Alabama dentist and Troll 2 was his first and last movie. And now, he’s this cult movie icon. That night at UCB, it felt like family, it was so weird. And at each of these screenings, it’s like a giant hug. It’s wild.
What do you think would have happened if Troll 2 went by its original title instead? What if it didn’t exist as one of these very rare non-sequel sequels?
Michael Stephenson: If it was released as Goblin, instead? [laughs] Oh man. Well, all of the elements came together, and the title included. Some people are like, “There’s no trolls, why is it called this? It has nothing to do with [1986’s] Troll!” Without the sequel status, who’s to say? That’s another reason why it’s classic of the time period, though. Because the Italian film industry was so known for making these rip-offs of Hollywood movies and making these cheap sequels. It’s reflective of this. I mean, not many people know this, but Claudio actually made a Terminator 2. [laughs]
[laughs] What?! Claudio is like the original Asylum. [He’s pictured below with fans] It’s also rad that Don Packard [the crazy-eyed drugstore owner in Troll 2] was able to not only attend your screenings, but he also gets a very interesting and bizarre segment in the doc. Did you know that Don wasn’t mentally stable at the time Troll 2 filmed? [As revealed in Best Worst Movie]
Michael Stephenson: When I was on the set as a kid, I remember Don was off by himself a lot. Honestly, he kind of freaked me out. He was just very…to himself and a little mean and frightening. When the New York City screening came around, we contacted the cast members. And Don took a lot of convincing, because he didn’t get the point of it. He ended up in New York, we had a great time. And after that, I told him I was making the movie. And I got almost the same reaction: That was the worst movie ever made. But now he has these [Troll 2] t-shirts with his face on them. [laughs] So, we’re shooting his interview for the documentary. And he admits that he wanted to kill me and that he hated me. He wanted to shove my face [inaudible]…it was like “Tell me how you really feel, Don Packard?” [laughs]
You have the one hipstery guy in the documentary who is attending a screening. And this guy is seriously infuriated with Claudio because there are “no trolls in the movie!” He’s offended. I wanted to punch him in the face. [laughs] I don’t get that mindset, the outrage.
Michael Stephenson: [laughs] Yeah, well, that’s pretty rare. In L.A., out of all of the screenings, that was my least favorite, which is sad because that’s where I live. It was at the Nuart Theatre, and Claudio was there and that was great, but it was kind of like that. The New Beverly is literally like blocks from my home, so hopefully we can eventually show it there. But this film really doesn’t attract that [negativity]. What’s great is seeing fans in different cities do different things. In Seattle, a kid dressed up as an elaborate tree and stood in a pot and his friend dragged him into the theater. And on a consistent basis, every screening and city is doing certain things, like singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or throwing popcorn during the popcorn sex scene. The sociological profile of these audiences are similar: 20somethings who are into film, music, art. It’s not ironic hipsters who are too cool. It’s really everyone, and Best Worst Movie seems to be a lot of peoples’ first introduction to the B-Movie. A lot of people see the documentary and then go check out Troll 2 after.
Yeah, it works both ways. I was also wondering about the role of Austin, Texas. Because I know that Mondo Tees, and the Drafthouse‘s Zack Carlson, he’s in the doc. But he has also played a pivotal role in spreading the word outside your film. He’s become a geek tastemaker…which some might think is a dangerous thing. [laughs]
Michael Stephenson: Yeah. Those guys…it’s crazy. I’ve made so many friends through this. After New York, I saw that the Alamo Drafthouse was programming Troll 2. And whereas in NYC, we screened in a comedy club, this was in a real theater. I mean, [laughs] it’s the number one theater in America. So, I called, and Zack answered the phone. When he realized who I was, he freaked out. So, I explained to him about the documentary and how I’d like to film it and bring cast members. He freaked out again. But then he came down, because they couldn’t pay to have us there. But I told him we’d pay our way, don’t worry. And that screening was one of the truly great ones. So, Zack is driving us back to the hotel later, and he’s like, “You know, I’ve really been wanting to get a Troll 2 tattoo, if you want to come with me…” So, his tattoo is in the film. It’s great.
I spoke to George [Hardy] and he commended you for being very honest and fair as a director. You have bigger plans beyond this doc as a filmmaker. What do you hope to bring to the medium?
Michael Stephenson: I’m still so fresh to this whole thing. There is a [feature] film set in Tokyo and I’ve been asked to direct it. It was actually written by Zack [Carlson]. He won some awards for the script, it’s a really beautiful script, and it actually has some similarities to Best Worst Movie. But I’ve always been interested in stories with heart. Like we discussed, there are so many films that have these ridiculous budgets, and they’re just…it’s just a business. And these movies usually fail. And if not, they’re not memorable. They don’t leave us with anything. I’m interested in making films that create a dialogue when you leave the theater, and films that you can actually feel…the authenticity. That’s missing today. It’s exciting because I’ve seen people who have Twittered about Best Worst Movie and it leaves them upbeat. And you know, life’s short, you can’t take yourself too seriously. And in this medium, we know that sometimes people take themselves too damn seriously. [laughs] It’s about making good entertainment.
Right. In the past, I’ve spoken to Jason Reitman and Seth Gordon for their first films, and they have both said similar things. I got a similar vibe watching their first films. And with Best Worst Movie, I got it again, and now you say that. You want to make something that’s fun but lasts, and you did. Was [Gordon’s] The King of Kong influential in your decision to make Best Worst Movie?
Michael Stephenson: The King of Kong was HUGE for me. I saw it, we were still shooting our documentary, and I was like, “Oh my gosh. This is what I’m trying to do more or less.” I saw it at the Nuart because they had, like, a one week engagement. And I wanted to make a documentary that wasn’t trying to solve a political or social issue; that was just ordinary people with extraordinary circumstances, who proved that life can be stranger than fiction. And then years before that, one of my favorites was American Movie. So, I think [Best Worst Movie] ended up being between those two. I hope to meet Seth Gordon. And The King of Kong, I’ve definitely kept up with those guys [Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe] since the film came out…
That is cool to hear. I mean, The King of Kong was really a landmark piece of filmmaking because it was one of the first docs where these real life stories continued on with the DVD and with the Internet. Not to compare Billy Mitchell to George Hardy [laughs], but Best Worst Movie, it also seems like these stories will keep developing online. People want to know what happens with everyone involved.
But also, not to compare your doc with King of Kong too much, but a mini-controversy developed online over some of the editing choices and sequencing [in Kong]. When we saw Best Worst Movie, one of my friends brought that up. Was anything in your doc, for instance, scripted or prearranged? One of the scenes that just seems almost too surreal is when you and George randomly go to Margo Prey’s house [she played Michael’s oblivious mom in Troll 2]…
Michael Stephenson: Yeah. I knew about that King of Kong controversy. And from the very beginning, we set out to be just as honest and sensitive—but completely honest. I never wanted to have a lot of voice-over or over-exposition. We were fortunate to get some amazing sequences, and amazing things happened first time-shooting. When Claudio has the blow-up during the actors’ Q&A [in the doc, he’s livid that his film is not getting any respect], I wouldn’t have had that if we didn’t have that many [cameramen]. I had, like, eight that day, and I remember that morning, freaking out. I was spending so much money. Now, looking back, we could have never recreated that. Margo’s house, that was the same deal. You can see how nervous I am. When George and I go to her doorstep, that was the first time we had gone to the door. And then she opened it. And I felt like I had fallen into a frozen lake. [laughs: me] I couldn’t talk. In a very strange way though, Margo [Prey], and Don [Packard], and Grandpa Seth [Robert Ormsby, above], they’re all kind of family to me. So, I felt that responsibility [to not stage scenes].
You know, one of the things with King of Kong, it was very black and white, good-guy bad-guy. Life’s not that way. I wanted to show dimension. Even Claudio, I don’t see him as a villain. He’s very passionate. And, you know, how much courage does it take for a guy to come from Italy to Utah, he can’t speak [English], to work with first-time actors? Some people say, “He was stupid, he was stubborn.” I say, “No,” you know? He took a risk, there is courage, and there is passion above everything else. How hard it is to make a difference and an impact versus how hard it is to play it safe? Practically everyone plays it safe. It’s those people who say, “You know what, I’m going to do it how I want to do it, and that’s all that matters.” They are far and few between. I respect that, and I wanted to show it.
When you first saw the goblins as a kid [Michael, above, in Troll 2], did it hit you how weird and low budget Troll 2 would look?
Michael Stephenson: When I was working on the set as kid, I thought: I have the lead role and I’m the star of this movie. And in a few months I’ll be able to go see this movie in a theater with my parents. I knew nothing about bad movies. I never had the thought that we were making a bad movie, or worse. Everybody was trying to make a good movie, and Claudio had such a presence and authority on the set that people didn’t really ask questions. If they did, he would shut them up and move on. [laughs]
But was it a professional set? I’m still not too clear on that after speaking with George. [laughs]
Michael Stephenson: That’s an interesting question. [laughs] From the outside, you have your DP, it was a small crew, and it looked like a movie set. But, you know, we were fed the same pizza four days in a row. [laughs] I think it was actually Pizza Hut. And it’s funny, what you remember as a kid, because I remember eating this old pizza. And I remember thinking, “Man, can’t they feed us anything better?” But I never thought we were making a bad movie. In my mind, I thought we were making the next Gremlins or the next Labyrinth. You shoot everything out of sequence, you never know how things are going to look in the end. And when you have a confident director, you don’t really second guess.
You’ve also said that when you were cast in Troll 2, you were psyched because you got to skateboard. Was that your skateboard in the movie that seems to magically transport back from [the Goblins’ town of ] Nilbog to your bedroom at the very end?
Michael Stephenson: [laughs] That was not my skateboard, but that started…all through my teenage years, I was a skateboarder. I love it. And I remember, I had worked several 12-14 hour days in a row, and it was not really glamorous. And so Claudio told me that since I had worked so hard, he’d give me the skateboard when we were done with the shoot. [laughs]
What that a Nash? [laughs]
Michael Stephenson: Man, I don’t even think it was as good as a Nash. [laughs] It was definitely one of those generic ones you would buy from K-Mart. It said “Fly Away” on the bottom. I mean, Nash was the lowest quality, but this was worse.
One thing that I’m noticing is that more and more directors coming up cite skate videos as an influence. Obviously Spike Jonze and Harmony Korine were two of the first. I’m wondering if that’s the case with you?
Michael Stephenson: I mean, that’s all I did. My first editing system, I was 16 or 17, and I had Adobe Premiere. All I did was make skate videos. I had a high-8 camera, we did that constantly until I was about 20. Technically, it taught me about cameras and editing. But as far as influence… you know…I always have this thought running through my mind that says: “Show it and don’t tell it.” I get interested in following people and showing a certain shot. I feel like too many filmmakers with documentaries are trying to hang graphics all over the place. Or two-minutes of news reels. I just like to keep things simple. Let’s get back to stories and characters. Like, Bigger Faster Stronger is terrible. There was potential, but it’s too “written.” You know? And then they find visuals for that.
Where does the sequel to the sequel, Troll 2: Part 2, stand right now? [laughs] And what is Patton Oswalt’s role and involvement in Troll 2: Part 2?
Michael Stephenson: Well, Claudio, the first thing he said when he saw the lines in L.A. he goes: “Michael, we have do to a Troll 3.” So, he says, “We’ll write the script.” And from the end of the documentary, that was the idea they’re working from. Some days I have my doubts, but Claudio was able to do the first one. So, why couldn’t he do a sequel? Patton [Oswalt] has always been a big fan of Troll 2, and we Facebook back and forth. He’s a champion of the film and all of the madness. And in the sequel, he would play Lord of Stonehenge Magic Stone, this big villain.
But how would you approach your performance in the sequel as an actor. That’s just a mind-fuck.
Michael Stephenson: [laughs] Yeah, it’s like George says, “How do you capture lightning in a bottle twice?” If I had the opportunity to work with George again, I’d have to do it, you know?
One last question: In Troll 2, there is one “troll” that is not like the others. His eyes are bulging. Were the filmmakers thinking “toy-deal”? [laughs]
Michael Stephenson: [laughs] That goblin has been given a few different names from fans. It’s been called Betty the Bug-eyed Goblin and Shit-Eyes. It’s very prominent. But that’s also an interesting story that [didn’t make it into the film]: Maurizio Trani did the special effects and he made one goblin that had a movable mouth, that he spent a lot of time on. So, Maurizio gets to Utah, and Claudio is like, “You only made one?!? You have to make seven or eight!” So Maurizio freaked out and was like, “I don’t have time.” So, yeah, that shows on screen.
Best Worst Movie launched a new website this week. The film is currently playing all over on the festival circuit. Click here for dates. You can also follow Michael Stephenson and the film on Twitter. The trippy outrageousness of Troll 2 evolves weekly on YouTube.
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila[at]gmail.com and via Twitter. His interview with Best Worst Movie and Troll 2‘s George Hardy will be posted on /Film shortly.