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SXSW '09 Interview: "Best Worst Movie" Director & Actor Michael Paul Stephenson

by Erik Childress

The “Best Worst Movie" Pitch: Best Worst Movie is a feature length documentary about the worst movie ever made – Troll 2. It’s a heartfelt story about a cinematic car-crash that gets a second life and through it we learn how it feels to fail miserably and years later be applauded for it. From embarrassment to cult classic, it’s a story about one of cinema’s greatest tragedies…or triumph’s.

Fill in what you’ve been doing between the filming of Troll 2 and the making of your film.

MICHAEL: Wow! That’s a pretty big gap! I was ten-years old when I was cast as the child star of Troll 2. Although slightly traumatized, Troll 2 did not ruin me…or my desire to be an actor. I led a fairly normal life and spent most of my teenage years as punk-kid making skateboarding videos with my pals and writing screenplays and short stories. I always wanted to be a filmmaker and I continued to work as an actor into my early twenties, primarily in television and commercials.

I enrolled in college and helped a close friend of mine create a pitch for a documentary titled, European Sun. More or less, it was creative excuse for us to travel the world. And we never really thought we’d find funding for the project. But, three weeks later, after pitching a local travel agency, we found our excuse to dropout of college. We backpacked throughout Europe over the course of three months while shooting in 12 different countries.

Afterwards, I returned to Utah and started a creative communications firm with the goal of one-day returning to Los Angeles to pursue acting and filmmaking. Three years ago, I moved to L.A. and the last thing on my mind was anything related to Troll 2. Nilbog was a fading memory. Who’s “Joshua Waits” ? Not me.

At what point did you become aware of the Troll 2 phenomenon?

MICHAEL: A complete stranger sent me a Myspace message that read, “Are you Joshua Waits?!” About three-and-a-half years ago,” Troll 2 fans” started sending me emails including photos of college-aged kids dressing-up like goblins, eating green-food and pissing on dinner tables; pictures of their Troll 2 parties. This was before it became a “phenomenon.”

How much of making this movie was a personal journey for you?

MICHAEL: Strangely, this whole adventure really began twenty-years ago and has now come full circle in a very odd and roundabout way. I knew that I had to tell this story. If I didn’t do it, who would? And once I started, there was no turning back. It was my destiny. What I had distanced myself from for so long (Troll 2) had now become a labor of love. I can’t imagine making a film that could be more personal or meaningful to me. Surreal to say the least.

Did you decide early on to keep a rather low profile in the movie? Did you tell everyone at the screenings you were making this documentary?

MICHAEL: At our first screening in New York City, I started to tell people about the documentary. I had the inclination to keep a rather low profile. I didn’t want the film to be a first-person “Spurlock-type-quest” doc. I had a gut feeling that this story would be better suited if the other characters drove it. I was determined to stay away of over-exposition or any sort of voice-over-narrator-driven crutch or device. I wanted the action, themes, and story to be intimately revealed primarily through the characters.

Whose life story surprised you the most?

MICHAEL: There were countless surprises in this making this film, but I’d have to say that the life Don Packard (The Nilbog Milk Shopkeeper) surprised me the most. I had no idea that at the time of making Troll 2 he was in a mental hospital. Nor, did I realize that he really disliked me as a child.

In the documentary, it seems as if your “white whale” became Margo Prey, who played your mom in the film. Are you worried that showing her as this isolated individual is going to have viewers looking at her as a loon rather than sympathizing with her as just this wannabe actress who is taking care of her elderly mother?

MICHAEL: One morning during post -production I woke up at 3 am with a single thought in my head, “We have to treat Margo Prey with sensitivity.” Thankfully, I feel as though we’ve accomplished finding a balance between being honest and showing-it-how-it-is while remaining sensitive. What you see is what you get. I hope that viewers will find themselves feeling a wide-range of emotions with not only Margo but also each of the characters. It’s not “black-and-white”, these characters have dimension. And to me, dimension is what makes a character honest, interesting and likeable.

One story I was hoping to hear more about was that of Connie Young, who goes so far to remove Troll 2 from her resume, but has the distinction of having worked with Robert Redford at the Sundance Film Lab. At least according to her IMDB page. Can you tell us more about her cause it seems like her story gets lost a little amidst the myriad of personalities?

MICHAEL: Connie Young and I got along great on the set. While making Troll 2, she was truly like a big sister to me. As it turns out, she was the most difficult person to get an interview from for Best Worst Movie. She’s very kind and nice but she was always very apprehensive and hard to commit. She didn’t want anything to do with Troll 2. Finally, after I wore her down with “little-brother” guilt she agreed to help me out and be supportive of my efforts. She continues to act and teaches yoga and acting. She’s married with three kids and resides in Utah with her family.

Did it take a lot for you to ask the director how he felt about making the worst film of all time?

MICHAEL: Yes, and it was even more than nerve-racking to introduce Claudio to the Troll 2 resurgence and bring him all the way from Italy to his first Troll 2 screening. I knew that he didn’t “get Troll 2” and I didn’t want him to take it the wrong way or feel like it was negative or mean-spirited. Once I saw how fans treated him at screenings, and how much he soaked the adulation in, I sighed with relief. After all, it’s hard to feel “bad” at a Troll 2 screening. [br]

Any director is prone to defend their baby, but certain films only gain a greater appreciation for their awfulness when directors like Claudio Fragasso and Uwe Boll make such strident defenses for their misunderstood genius. If you were able to look these guys in the eye and say something along the lines of “LOOK, here’s the deal, this is a bad movie…”, precisely how would you approach it?

MICHAEL: I asked myself this exact question while making BEST WORST MOVIE, “How am I going to break the news to Claudio?” I decided not to TELL Claudio anything per se. I decided to SHOW it to him and let him draw his own conclusions. And ultimately, it’s this process that is revealed in Best Worst Movie.

After all, “bad” is relative and believe it or not, I’ve met many fans who would never consider Troll 2 a “bad movie”. I think the worst thing a director can do is fail to entertain and Claudio certainly does not do that. Claudio is full of heart, creativity and passion and I respect him on so many levels. Most importantly, Claudio gives a “shit” about his movies. And inarguably, Claudio has made a lasting impression. Bad or good? That’s for you to decide.

Best Worst Movie becomes a very interesting view on the nature of the infamous “15 minutes” syndrome. While most of your cast endearingly embraces the sort of infamy that became of Troll 2, you also (wisely, I think) show the flipside in that such fame is fleeting and never in the same league as more universally respected efforts. Can you talk about your own feelings during the fan shows you guys attended?

MICHAEL: I didn’t attend Troll 2 screenings to “sign autographs”. My desire was in making the documentary and attending these screenings helped me tell this story. While at Troll 2 screenings, I’ve never felt anything but positivity. There’s a fun energy that can’t be denied. Everybody is genuinely having a great time.

However, during the England convention disaster and the Fear Fest convention disaster, I had mixed feelings. I found the conventions to be very depressing. The whole convention atmosphere felt heavy with dead careers, has-beens and broken dreams. At the same time, I was happy that we were finally getting a different “note” for the documentary. Up until this point, everything was on a” high-note.” And a good story needs high-notes and low-notes.

One of the recurring revelations that come up is that most of the actors still have aspirations to continue their pursuit of an acting career? Do you think Best Worst Movie will be a blessing or a curse to those endeavors?

MICHAEL: Actually, you would think that Troll 2 would’ve been the ultimate curse to an acting career, but it wasn’t. Darren continues to act, Connie continues to act and even I have been offered other roles. But, all of us act because we love it and fortunately we don’t have the pressure of making a “career” out of it. As for George, I’d love to see him in another role or even get his own talk show. He’s naturally charismatic, honest, and engaging. George was born an entertainer. I can die a happy man once I see America’s favorite dentist and most hospitable father on David Letterman.

Given your choice, would you rather use an ear of corn as a method of seduction or as a lethal weapon as in Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers?

MICHAEL: Most definitely as a method of seduction. I’m a lover not a fighter. And who needs an ear of corn for a weapon when you already have a double-decker bologna sandwich and the power of goodness.

Any films, besides your own, that you’re hoping to get a chance to see while at the festival?

MICHAEL: Without a doubt! I’m really looking forward to catching quite a few films including Sin Nombre, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, Make-Out With Violence, 500 days of Summer, Humpday, The Hurt Locker and Mine to name a few.

Do you have any favorite (or least favorite) film critics? And how important do you believe film critics are nowadays?

MICHAEL: If I may borrow the words of Claudio Fragasso, “I don’t follow the critics. And the critics don’t follow me.” But I say that only because I don’t know many film critics by name. In fact, the only critic I know is Scott Weinberg, who I’ve only come to know through Best Worst Movie. And I must say, he’s more than a decent guy who obviously loves what he does. With that said, I live and die by film critic aggregator websites like Rotten Tomatoes. Film critics are journalists that serve an especially important role in helping the masses discover films that would often times get overlooked.

What would mean more to you? A full-on rave from an anonymous junketeer or an average, but critically constructive review from a respected print or online journalist?

MICHAEL: As a young filmmaker, I feel as though a critically constructive review from a respected source would prove to be more insightful and meaningful than an anonymous rave.

How much did your perspective of Troll 2 (either the phenomenon, the movie itself or its role in your life) changed after making this movie?

MICHAEL: About 3 1/2 years ago, I hated Troll 2 and wanted nothing to do with it. Today, I can honestly say that Troll 2 is one of my favorite movies. I love Troll 2 for what it is and for what it has become.

So would you do Troll 3 if you were asked? Even if it wasn’t Claudio at the helm? Anyone you wouldn’t do it without?

MICHAEL: If George Hardy were the star, I’d find it nearly impossible to turn down another opportunity to work with him. He’s an incredible person.

What are you looking forward to most during your SXSW experience and what would you say to convince people who aren’t already engrossed in the phenomenon?

MICHAEL: I’m a huge fan of Austin and I’m looking forward to catching some great flicks, eating good BBQ, catching up with old friends and making new friends. I can’t wait to watch Best Worst Movie with George Hardy and the other cast-members for the first time. None of the cast-members have seen the movie! Gulp. And, to those who know nothing about Troll 2, enjoying Best Worst Movie is no way contingent upon seeing Troll 2. You don’t have to be engrossed in the phenomenon to be moved by this story.

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Michael Paul Stephenson's Best Worst Movie will have its world premiere at the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival on Saturday, March 14, 9:30 PM at the Alamo Lamar (followed by Troll 2 at 11:30 PM.) Best Worst Movie will screen again at the Paramount on Monday, March 16 (4:00 PM) and Friday, March 20 (9:30 PM) at the Austin Convention Center. Visit the website


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2727
originally posted: 03/12/09 23:59:37
last updated: 03/13/09 00:24:35
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