Friday, May 28, 2010

Michael Stephenson & George Hardy Turn Back To Troll 2

Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour

When I was a kid, I discovered horror films and loved them all -- whether they were good or bad, black and white or garishly colored, muddily shot or poorly conceived. No idea was so terrible that I couldn't watch it. Seeing the many ways someone can rethink the familiar tropes whets the interest of the true horror fan.

In 1989, several unwitting Utah actors starred in the almost-undisputed worst movie in genre history: Troll 2. Directed by Claudio Fragasso under the pseudonym Drake Floyd, the 1990 horror film, Troll 2, was known as Goblin during production but, upon its U.S. release, the title was changed in an attempt to cash in on the more established horror flick. Despite the title, no actual trolls appear in this one.

The plot revolves around the Waits family, who are taking a trip to visit a small town called "Nilbog" (goblin spelled backwards), but are plunged into a nightmare as they are relentlessly pursued by vegetarian goblins, who turn people into plants in order to eat them.

Most of the cast, such as George Hardy (as the father), Michael Stephenson (as the son), Margo Prey, Connie Young (credited under McFarland) and Jason F. Wright, subsequently sought anonymity upon its release -- until now.

Two decades later, the film's child star, Stephenson, makes a documentary about the film's improbable revival as a so-bad-it's-great cult fave. The result, Best Worst Movie, unravels the heartfelt tale of the Alabama dentist-turned-underground movie icon Hardy and this Italian filmmaker Fragasso, who has yet to come to terms with his legendarily inept, internationally revered cinematic failure.

Best Worst Movie begs the viewer to wax philosophical on what it means to make a bad horror film -- or a good bad one -- that was created without guile or irony, yet that finds a new audience once the irony-tinted glasses come on.

For a long time, alot of young filmmaker wanna-bes were lost in the swamp of Hollywood movie hell. But thanks to the down-and-dirty genre of horror, and totally trashy indie flicks like Troll 2, fascinating docs like Best Worst Movie are made, gets its boost and now gets to connect with a substantial public.

Q: You realize, this movie is a permutation on a permutation on a permutation…

MS: Yes, I do.

Q: The original movie, which was not about trolls but goblins, is made by an Italian director who can’t speak English with...

MS: Actors who couldn’t act, all [shot] in small-town Utah, around a plot that involves vegetarian goblins attempting to turn my family into plants so they can eat us.

Q: That has to be one of the most outlandish horror film premises. Then, of course, the lead actor is a dentist in real life.

GH: I was a practicing dentist before I was an actor. It takes on this whole weird life of its own for this film. I was actually thinking about going to that event [a screening of the original movie] when it was in New York. I’m a horror fan from word go. So it’s like, how do you put it all together? Do you sit there and marvel?

MS: As clichéd as it all sounds, it’s just meant to be. It’s weird because when I look back four years ago and until I had the idea for the documentary, up until that point, I wanted nothing to do with Troll 2. I was too cool. I was embarrassed by the film. And it never went away.

I actually continued in my life to pursue areas within the industry like everybody else does; writing scripts, auditioning; I was sending out head shots, resumes and all that sort of stuff.

Then, all of a sudden, fans started contacting me on MySpace with these messages out of the blue. This was before the resurgence, and I remember just waking up one morning -- I’ll never forget this -- and staring at the ceiling having this crazy kind of warm feeling, just smiling ear to ear and thinking, "Wait a minute, I’m the child star of the worst movie ever made; there’s a story here."

All of a sudden it was like, this is perfect for a first film, something that’s so personal and accessible to me. It became this compulsion, and I kept thinking, “What does Claudio think about this film being loved because it’s awful?"

It also felt like there was this critical mass, like it was building, and I kept thinking about this guy doing dentistry while we were filming the movie.

Q: Oh, you had appointments in the middle of the movie?

GH: Oh yeah.

Q: You didn’t take off a week or anything?

GH: No, no, no -- I was practicing and had to go back and forth.

Q: And after the film, did you stay in touch with anyone from it?

GH: No one.

Q: So you get this phone call -- can you recreate the moment that's in the film?

MS: It really started with the fans. There was a fan in Utah -- this wasn’t in the film -- who had organized this small cast members' screening in Utah, and George went to that. I didn’t actually end up going to that screening. Then a couple of weeks later, we were on the phone for the first time since working together 20 years ago.

For me, it was one of these moments that I’ll cherish because from the very first word I could feel the love for life that this guy has, and we were sharing experiences. He had notes on MySpace; I had notes on MySpace; we started talking to other cast members. And then, the next thing I know, there was a New York City screening and that was the very first screening I filmed. And that was the very first screening I went to.

I actually remember going to it and being terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. I really thought, "Are people going to laugh at us? Are they going to throw tomatoes at us? Are they going to boo and say, "You guys suck"?

I really thought the worst, and the only reason I went was that I had a camera in hand and was making this film. I thought, "This may never happen again; here’s the first time that cast members and fans are going to be in New York."

Q: Do you have big posters or anything on the walls in your office now?

GH: No.

Q: Obviously you aren't apologetic about it, but aren’t you exploiting it?

GH: I’ve thought about that and thought I should be documenting this whole thing that’s happening to us now, because I do have in my garage that the theater department at Auburn University did a Troll 2 party.

MS: He’s had people drive for hours to go to his dentistry practice.

GH: Just because they’re Troll 2 fans.

MS: You can buy Troll 2 in his office.

Q: You should be selling this movie in your office.

GH: Well I will once it comes out. But I thought, I haven’t even gotten the movie poster yet, Michael, I need to get the Best Worst Movie poster that’s just come out. Have you seen it? It’s beautiful. You’ve got to see the poster.

Q: The other irony of it is of course the trolls, or the goblins, whatever you want to call them, have the worst teeth possible. Has anybody ever pointed this out to you?

GH: Oh yeah, all the time.

Q: Have you had this fantasy moment where you improve their teeth?

GH: Hopefully when the DVD comes out we’ll have some incredible outtakes. The bottom line is I think we’ve even got that documented.

MS: There’s a scene that will be a DVD extra, I’m sure, but the witch from Troll 2 ended up having a last-minute dentistry need while we were in Utah for that last event, and she called George and asked to get his advice, and he basically said, “I’ll take care of you right now. Let’s go down to the office.”

He called the dentistry office. He ended up doing dentistry on the witch’s tooth in the same office that he practiced in 20 years ago. It was really surreal. And I travel with this guy everywhere and his first impression is, “Man, that guy has got good teeth.”

Q: I need work.

GH: Come to Alabama.

MS: This is so telling of who he is. At the horror convention, when nobody cares about Troll 2 and there’s that down-note in the movie, and George is in his darkest hour, the worst thing he can say about somebody is they don’t floss their teeth or that they have gingivitis.

Q: Then you bring in the Italian director, and he really doesn’t quite see it for what it is. Is it just language issues?

MS: Have you ever thought that maybe we just don’t get Troll 2? It’s funny because I’ll tell you, this whole experience has messed me up so bad that I can’t say that Troll 2 is a bad film. Think of how many films you watch and you’re bored to tears, even films that have far greater resources and are forgettable the instant they’re made.

You have a film like Troll 2 or even Plan 9 from Outer Space or some of these bad movies that were made with such sincerity and are so genuine. I mean 20 years later they’re still making impressions on people; you can’t pay for that.

Even though it fails fundamentally – acting, writing, directing – I mean horribly, abysmally, just awful in every possible way -- it was a cinematic car crash -- but the level of heart that it has!

Q: What happened with the one actress that you had to go and track down? What has happened since?

MS: Margo. Nothing really. She’s a shut-in. It’s complicated with her. I should say that when I started making this film and as it continued to progress, Troll 2 kept resonating with me, both on this triumphant and tragic level.

As we started seeing some of the other side and who these people were and actually seeing the human element connected with the worst movie ever made, it had its ups and downs.

Q: I'm still not sure if it was the worst movie ever made or not.

MS: No. And I would say it’s not. For me I found Margo very likable. Her experience with Troll 2 wasn’t that much further from Claudio’s, and there was a sense of tragedy to it. But when we showed up it was like the bright spot in her year; she was so happy to talk about Troll 2. A shut-in, she takes care of her mom, she’s very… She doesn’t want pity. And even though her experience of Troll 2 is far different than what most people would say is normal, it’s still her experience with the film.

Q: What was Claudio doing between the time when you got back in touch and when he made the film in '89? What's he doing since?

MS: He saw the documentary and wrote in an email, “It’s beautiful. I love it.” I talked to him just a couple of days ago; I still talk to him. He’s written Troll 2 Part 2. It’s crazy because he continues to get movies made time and time again.

If you think how difficult that is, just think how difficult it would have been for him to make Troll 2, work with actors who couldn’t act in small-town Utah; he got it made and still it’s having an impression on people. So he continues to make films.

Q: Darren-- who played Arnold -- is closest to the acting world, how’s he doing?

MS: He’s good. He’s living in Utah.

GH: And works for the Salt Lake City Tribune.

MS: Still going on auditions, a beautiful family; he’s happy. He’s actually been one of the guys from the beginning that has been really along for the ride and having a lot of fun with it.

Q: How many of the people involved were Mormons?

MS: I’m Mormon. There were a few of us. As far as in Troll 2, I want to say the majority. I am a practicing Mormon, that’s my belief, yeah. Generally speaking, there are a lot of misconceptions with every religion until you actually understand it. We don’t have 10 wives and all that other nonsense.

Though Troll 2 has no direct connection to Mormonism, most of the people that were in the film were Mormons, and with Troll 2 being a horror film there's still a very family-friendly innocence to it.

Q: It's in this area of, If it wasn’t made to be art, can it be art in some way? Or if it's art that’s made to be bad art; does that make it good art?

MS: When you make art you’re never thinking about the end result. It becomes something different than what you started out to make. I know this sounds pretentious, but how many people look at art and one person says “That’s amazing. I see so much in it,” and another person says “That’s crap. I could do that.”

It’s wild; I’ve seen Troll 2 in so many environments where people create friendships that will last a lifetime from the singular experience of watching Troll 2 together. And even though it was not meant to be what it is, it doesn’t take away from what it’s become.

Q: Have you been to horror or science fiction conventions as opposed to these slightly tongue-in-cheek fan events? The fan world that appreciates your film about a bad horror movie is one thing, but of course, we’re in a universe where we give support to people making horror films even if they’re bad. Independent filmmaking comes out of horror films.

MS: In the film there’s the horror convention that we go to and even amongst the horror fans…

Q: Where theoretically they embrace horror film, good, bad or ugly...

MS: They were more interested in Nightmare on Elm Street 5. It takes a very certain type of person to like Troll 2. Even in the UK, that audience wasn’t the Troll 2 audience.

The Troll 2 audience that might have been the original audience, they like any bad horror film. Then there’s the Troll 2 audience which approaches it with that degree of irony that you use maybe when seeing say, The Rocky Horror Show, which actually was a good film.

MS: You have the Troll 2 audience that will go to their graves saying it is not a bad movie. That’s the thing; bad is completely relative. What do we go to movies for? To have an experience. So whatever experience that person has with that film is personal, it’s theirs.

Who’s to say my experience with the movie should be the same as somebody else’s? And something I’ve really learned about guilty pleasures; guilty pleasures I don’t know if I believe in. You either enjoy it or you don’t, and, if you enjoy it, why are you too scared to admit you enjoy it?

Q: I’m not sure how much I liked Troll 2 itself, but I love the documentary.

GH: It’s just all about laughter, that’s what it is. It’s about relationships and laughter, and that’s the way I’ve looked at this whole thing.

Q: How do you view all of this? You’ve just been living your normal life, but you’re really enjoying it.

GH: Oh I’m enjoying it. What I’m enjoying is the sense of humor; that’s what I’ve enjoyed more than anything else -- and many of the fans and just being around this whole resurgence of Troll 2 and making the documentary, there’s just so much laughter. I just find that’s what I love about it.

In this time of recession and all this bipartisan, Republican, Democrat, Independent, Tea Party deal or whatever, with the terrorism and real estate prices dropping, with empty buildings here in New York City, people are laughing when they come to see Best Worst Movie.

There are 150 belly-ache laughs in Best Worst Movie and the same thing in Troll 2. I mean my gosh, what’s wrong with laughing and having fun? So I’ve embraced that part about it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Exclusive: Actor Antonio Banderas Curates Classic Spanish Cinema

Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour

While the stylish and ever-charming Spanish actor Antonio Banderas may be running off to promote to his latest Hollywood excursion, Shrek Forever After -- again voicing the hilarious re-invention of Puss in Boots: "I have to do my duty," he says -- his real passion recently has been curating a new, free film series, "Realism in Spanish Cinema 1951 - 1963" at Manhattan's Spanish culture center, The Cervantes Institute (211 East 49th Street). Spanning the post-WWII fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the 10-movie set is comprised of classic works selected for their artistic and historical merit.

Screening from May 10th to the 19th, Banderas, who serves on the Cervantes advisory board, conceived the program's concept and was on hand for the first two nights -- at the screenings of José Antonio Nieves Conde's Furrows/Surcos and Luis García Berlanga's Welcome Mr. Marshall!/Bienvenido Mr. Marshall!

Though known as Hollywood royalty, having starred in Evita, The Mask of Zorro, Desperado and other hits, Banderas' collaboration with director Pedro Almadóvar on films such as the Oscar-nominated Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown established him as a symbol of Spain's post-Franco counter-cultural movement, the Movida.

Though his multi-faceted nature has sometimes been overshadowed by his celebrity, it is at this 49-year-old actor's core -- something amply demonstrated when he was nominated for Broadway's 2003 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for a revival of Nine The Musical. As Banderas explains in this exclusive interview, his versatility is proven again in curating this series.

Q: This is a fascinating opportunity for you to look back at the history of Spanish cinema and explore it in many different ways.
AB: Absolutely. But the interesting thing for me is not only in a personal way, because I knew these movies, it's the possibility of showing these movies. When I came to America for the first time, it was a surprise for me that very little was known about the Spanish neorealist period of movies. People knew about Italy and about France, but very little about Spain. So when Eduardo Lago got this crazy of idea of [adding me to] the Cervantes Institute, I thought hmm, I have to [lend] some value to this title that they gave me.

It shouldn't just be my name on the programs and just my picture to bring people here; it was not enough. So I had this idea that he actually picked enthusiastically. We got in contact with the president of the Festival of Spanish Cinema in Malaga, which is actually my hometown, and a person that I met when I came to New York for the first time in 1984 presenting our movies at the time.

So it was a great opportunity and a framework because it's not just to bring movies in exhibition in big movie theaters, but it's in a very specific environment, the environment of the Cervantes Institute in New York, with the idea that actually this cycle can go all around the world.

There are 73 Cervantes Institutes all around the world; in Shanghai, in Tokyo, in different places in the United States like San Francisco and Miami. With these movies people are going to recognize links that they can see now in filmmakers that are making movies in Spain, like Pedro Almodovar and Julio Medem.

The beginning of that was there in these earlier filmmakers, they're actually like the missing links that will make sense for [cineastes or directors] if they've been following Spanish movies to see this. At the same time, they can recognize different times in the history of my country.
Q: When they did the most recent Spanish Cinema Now series at Lincoln Center this year, I realized how people don't know much about that lost period when Franco was the dictator. These films were being made then, but people don't realize there was all this cinema being made at that time.
AB: Absolutely.
Q: Filmmakers were trying to react or respond even while they were being repressed; they had to work around it. This series reveals that makes a link between the cultural experience and the conflict. This is a chance for us to understand it. Would you agree?
AB: It's a picture, almost like an x-ray not only of Spanish art in general, but of a political period in the history of Spain. The need, the cruelty, of what it was behind the Franco regime and the imposition of religion and other cultural stuff; that has to be known.

At the same time, the way that actually filmmakers at the time got to go around censorship in order to just go with an idea, they do it sometimes through comedy, black comedy, they have to hide. I saw a movie this morning, which I've seen a couple of times before, but today I wanted to just refresh and I saw Death of a Biker / Muerte de un Ciclista. It's unbelievable because there is a moment in which you lose eight minutes of the movie, and you can see the jump in the movie. It was totally eliminated.
Q: Was that the censors?
AB: Oh absolutely. These guys came with scissors and mercilessly cut eight minutes out of the movie. So I think it's important for the people, if they really are interested in the Spanish cinema to see these, because it's almost like a ladder in which they took steps out.

It's very difficult to recognize what is happening now if you don't go back a little bit and have the sight of these guys that were making movies with a lot of imagination, against the dictatorship, without them knowing that they were criticizing them.
Q: What did you learn about yourself as a Spanish person who has lived in the United States -- and not as an exile -- but for creative reasons; you don't always get an opportunity to look at it on an intimate basis.
AB: It's very difficult because for me I get to almost an emotional place, it's of recognition of my own country that sometimes makes me cry. When I see Welcome Mister Marshall /Bienvenido Mr. Marshall!, I see this little village waiting for the Americans to come and fix the whole entire situation with the Marshall Plan and they prepare during the entire movie for that to happen -- then the cars cross in front of them and they never stop -- it makes me cry because this is a story of my country.

I can see my father and my mother reflected there, I can see something that has to do with your genes. And at the same time a certain gratitude that we were able to overcome without a bloody revolution after Franco died, that there was a pass of power that made sense in an evolution, not a revolution.

So it makes me reflect about my own persona, about my own community. For me. it's unbelievably interesting just to see how the Americans are going to react to that, because at the same time in Welcome Mister Marshall, you see people giving opinions, sometimes outstanding opinions, of the Americans that are [supposedly] going to come.

They talk about the Americans, how the Americans were seen in the 1950s and 1960s, and I just can't wait to see the faces of people [in this day and age] when we play Welcome Mister Marshall.

This movie speaks for itself, it is one of my favorites in the Spanish cinematography but I believe that it is very interesting to be showed in the USA.

For me, it was particularly important to show this movie because I have lived both realities, the Spanish one and the American one. They get mixed here in a very interesting way. The USA was like Santa Claus in this movie. The past of poverty that is portrayed in this movie as if it was a fairy tale.

There are two points of view that I would like that you pay attention to in this movie: the view of the priest and the view of the hidalgo [the old aristocrat]. The hidalgo says that Spain was a country that used to be big and the conqueror of the world, some of the visions of the priest are even racist but you don't have to forget that Luis Garcia Berlanga was criticizing these kind of ideas through these characters.
I believe this is the 15th time I've watched this movie but I never get tired because it's really very funny and I even cry a bit. These movies are going to travel around the world via Instituto Cervantes.

Q: When you see the first film Furrows/Surcos and back to back with this you get a two-sided look at Spain of that tie during the Franco regime -- the dark side and the comic one.

AB: The to movies showed the mood of the time, how the people survived and chronicled the society without judgement. The country was destroyed after the revolution and though Hitler tried to pressure Franco into joining the war all the country wanted to do was survive with out money and over a million dead.

I admire this group of filmmakers because they were brave enough to face the Franco regime but they had to do it using only their immagination. You needed to be very smart to avoid censorship and they did it using irony and dark humor but also by creating scenes that were very strong. They knew they would get censored so other scenes were subtle but probably even stronger in a way so they would pass the censors. To me these filmmakers were masters in their field not only because they were very brave but because they were facing the regime in a very subtle way.

Q: Then after Franco died and the society undid the Fascist state, they made a peaceful transition to a democracy.

AB: Yes they made an amazing bloodless transition -- without recriminations or revenge. We made an amazing recovery and filmmaking reflected that as well.

Q: But now there is a crisis again, an economic one as Spain and other countries in Europe formed the Union and tried to stand apart from the U.S.

AB: It is a very difficult situation now, until a year ago, a plumber thought he could afford a Mercedes and then suddenly, everything is crumbling. The situation in Greece is very dramatic. Spain or Europe doesn't think anymore they need the Americans, they are doing it by themselves but they are also connected in the world at large....

People like myself, Javier [Bardem] and Penelope [Cruz] and Pedro or Rafael Nadal, Severiano Ballesteros... We are all people that in a way are helping to shake out this feeling of inferiority that Spain has had for many years. Our success represents shaking out that from the past of our country.

Q: This is a crucial opportunity to reexamine yourself and where you're going. Where are you going now? How will this affect you? Are you going to be directing? The last few movies I've seen you were doing things more lighthearted. How will that change you?
AB: I'm going to work with Pedro Almadóvar again in August. We are going to do a movie finally, after 21 years without working with each other. It's tough movie; he's going back actually to his roots as a balls kicker and I love that opportunity.

And then I have an agreement with another company in Madrid, we're increasing the possibility of doing movies with more quality and quantity too. We have a plan to start producing more often than we were doing with a little company in South Spain.

We're just experimenting; it's almost like a laboratory just to see how we're going to do it. So now is a time to jump and take a leap ahead and so I'm going to be doing that. And after that I may come here to Broadway and just get on the stage.
Q: Do you have an idea what kind of thing? Would it be a serious play or would it be a musical -- isn't it uncanny timing given the situation in Greece?
AB: It would be Zorba. We were doing a workshop here in town like four months ago, just reading in front of an audience trying to refresh the play because we don't want to just clean the dust off it and put it on the stage.

The situation in Greece is very, very critical, I didn't think about that, but it would make more sense that we put in the mouth of Zorba, that street philosopher, things that are happening in actual time.
Q: Have you seen some of the Spanish horror films, some of the genre stuff?

AB: No... I saw [Rec] ....

Q: Of the Spanish cinema you've been seeing now, or cinema in Spanish language, what's been exciting you, who's been exciting you?
AB: I saw the other day a movie of Julio Medem called Room in Rome /Habitación en Rome which is a very sexual, interesting reflection of our life. The relationship between two girls with a lot of style.

I liked [Alejandro Amenábar's] Agora very much; I thought it was a beautiful approach to a big dimension movie from the perspective of a market like Spain; we are not so used to this type of production. And I liked the last Almodovar movie, Broken Embraces / Los Abrazos Rotos.