The Troll 2 cult phenomenon is seemingly unexplainable. That didn’t stop Michael Paul Stephenson from directing a fascinating documentary, Best Worst Movie, about the transformation of the film from a movie mess to must see territory. We had the chance to talk to Stephenson, an incredibly gracious filmmaker, at SXSW about the chance to exorcise the goblins from his life.
You can catch the final SXSW screening of Best Worst Movie on Friday, March 20th at 9:30 p.m. at the Austin Convention Center.
Adam Sweeney: You were the co-lead, Joshua, in Troll 2, which has this cult following. Tim League said it’s a phenomenon in itself. What made you decide to document this following?
Michael Paul Stephenson: For me, it started three and a half years ago. Up until then, I had really tried to distant myself from Troll 2. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I was an actor and it’s not exactly the type of thing that when you’re associated with the film that you want to shout from the rooftops. you know? I was embarrassed by the movie. It’s different when you take it personally. You’re in the film.
But what happened was I started getting messages, a couple of messages here and there from fans on MySpace. I looked at their Myspace pages and would see Troll 2 on their lists of favorite films. Troll 2 would be nestled right in the middle of Shawshank Redemption and Spiderman, you know these big Hollywood blockbuster films. All of the sudden I was like, “what is this?” I didn’t get the joke. I was wondering if it was complete irony or what. Then I started getting emails from fans that would celebrate Troll 2 and have these homegrown parties in the basements of their own houses. They would watch Troll 2 and eat green food, dress up. They were all kind of small, like seven or eight kids. I would get these pictures and it was obvious by seeing one picture that they were having a good time. It was genuine and unlike anything else. The enthusiasm and fun jumped off the photo.
You think of all these movies that try to find an audience and impact people, but they fall short. This here is a movie that by all means is one of the worst movies ever made. I wanted to know why this was happening. So I started emailing and Facebooking people back and forth. It was very warm and inviting. People were really cool. Right around that time, I literally woke up one morning and I thought, “I’m the star of one of the worst movies ever made.” I kind of just smiled and thought that I had to tell the story. How many people can say that? I really saw the genuine and authentic fun that these fans were having. From that point, on I thought up the documentary and just went forward following it. That was before the screenings or any of the big stuff. Months later, we reached this critical mass. We created the website, which was a huge deal because all of the sudden people knew there were other Troll 2 fans out there. It was happening all over the world. It was pretty wild.
I first saw Troll 2 in 1994. There was a flood in Houston and we rented Troll and Troll 2. Having an acting background myself, when you attach yourself to a project and it doesn’t turn out the way you expect it to, there is a bit of shame in that. Looking back at Troll 2 or other projects artists have done, you almost wear it as a badge of honor. You pay your dues. I think Best Worst Movie serves as a remarkable companion to Troll 2. I went back and watched Troll 2 last week and then saw your film. Getting to know the stories of the actors in Troll 2 completely changes the way you look at it.
You look at Dr. George Hardy, the way he endears himself to the audience. It makes you fall in love with the film. What has the reception been like for you at SXSW. Just looking at the film itself, you see Tim League and Zack Carlson of the Alamo Drafthouse and how they have really embraced this film. What has that been like in Austin for you?
Austin has always been in my mind to premiere the film here. Austin gets this film. It’s the right audience. SXSW has been so incredibly supportive in every way. We have had a lot of really positive feedback and reviews, which is always exciting. The thing that has been kind of interesting, Tim and Zack are like family to me. They’ve been on board from the beginning. They’re really great guys who love what they do. I can respect anybody who does what they love. But what has been the best for me is seeing, when I made this film I never wanted to make a film documenting fandom. I wanted it to be character driven and give a perspective of the cast and crew documenting the film. The sell-outs of the screening are only part of the story. I wanted it to appeal to people who hadn’t seen Troll 2. I wanted it to be much broader and something that could interest people. I didn’t want it to seem like you were on the outside of an inside joke. There have been a lot of people who had not seen Troll 2, were at the premiere or saw a screener and were moved by it. They laughed. They were touched. That makes me feel great. There is more to it than just a movie about a bad movie. It’s not a behind the scenes look or play by play expose. It’s character driven. Those have always been the stories that interested me, interesting characters, interesting people and dimension that isn’t black and white. That’s been cool. After the premiere at the Drafthouse, there was a screening of Troll 2. We asked how many people had not seen Troll 2 and eighty percent of the crowd had not seen it. That’s nice. Through the documentary, I hope it can help both audiences, people who have seen Troll 2 and love it or people who have more curiosity about the film.
That makes a lot of sense. I was talking to a couple of people after screening Best Worst Movie and was telling them that it is based on the experiences of the actors and crew from Troll 2. They told me, “I’ve never seen Troll 2 though.” I was like, “It doesn’t even matter.” It’s character driven and a story of people trying to make sense of a film that at a time they didn’t want to wear as a badge. But it’s entertaining. We’ve talked a lot this week about how there is a big difference between the best film and the film you want to watch over and over again.
Troll 2 fits the latter category. Do you plan on doing any narrative films?
I do. I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker. I love acting. What’s most important to me is finding stories that are meaningful to me, whether it is a documentary or a narrative. I’ve had a few friends through this whole deal who have shown me scripts. One script that is very beautiful is actually written by Zack Carlson from the Alamo. At the same time, this process has taken three years. I find myself saying, “Man, the next one is a narrative.” (Laughs) It’s such a commitment. But looking back on it, I love that process, the whole documentary process and getting to know truth and people. If I found another subject matter that I knew I could be committed to like this, I wouldn’t say no to a documentary. They’re different and same. I wanted to take the approach with this that it felt more like a narrative. It wasn’t voice-over driven or driven by exposition, or even first person as in, “This is me. This is my quest to show the worst movie of all time.” I didn’t want that. For me, it’s about finding stories that you care about and can really throw yourself into, ones that are personal. Whether that is a documentary or narrative, I don’t know yet. After doing this documentary, I currently can’t imagine a documentary that I could get so personally involved in. But who knows?
The reason this film works so well is that it doesn’t come off as a first person film. It feels like we’re watching a family. Everyone has their own role. George Hardy is a guy you can sit down and talk to. Claudio Fragasso is the uncle that is difficult but has his purpose. When I was watching Troll 2 again, the first time I was watching it for entertainment, but right before I saw Best Worst Movie I was thinking, “Could this message be anti-vegetarian or a statement on the green movement?” Sure enough, as soon as I watched Best Worst Movie that was the total intention. (AS and MPS laugh) So, in a weird way they have achieve their goal.
What films are you interested in at SXSW?
Before I answer that, I want to comment on what you said about the family bit. It is like a dysfunctional family but still has happiness. With Claudio and George, there’s no one protagonist or antagonist. It’s just like a dysfunctional family would be.
I came to SXSW with a list of films to see but it’s been crazy. I haven’t seen one other movie because we’ve had media interviews and other things. So hopefully I will get some time to check out other films. I want to see Anvil! I have heard good things about Sin Nombre. I want to see some of the other documentaries. I want to see Made in China. That caught my eyes. I have a list so hopefully I will see them.
We will be checking out another screening for Best Worst Movie. Thank you again for the interview.
Thank you guys. A film like this, as journalists you have such an important responsibility to cover films. That is really the only way a film like this can get out. I appreciate what you guys have already done and just coming to the screening today means a lot to me. Thanks.
For more of the best damn coverage of the 2009 SXSW Film Festival, check out our SXSW ’09 Homepage.