Rants and Raves: The Art of Being Bad
Street Justice Films Succeeds at Being Bad
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Films like "Plan 9 From Outer Space" and more recently "The Room," reveal the appeal of bad movies. Neither one, though, was intended to be bad. A small Hollywood company, though, is gaining attention for making films designed to be bad. Listen to my NPR feature.
Meet gonzo filmmaker and part-time ballistics expert St. James St. James.
"In 1990 I was hired to write and direct 'Poolboy: No Lifeguard on Duty' and 'Poolboy 2: Drowning Out the Fury,'" says Saint James St. James.
The legendary filmmaker rocked Hollywood by making his directorial debut at the age of 10. Bucking the system at every turn, he quickly amassed more than a hundred movie credits to his name. His revenge opus "Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury," was thought to be lost. But a massive online petition has brought the film back from oblivion...
What? You've never heard of Saint James St. James? Or "Poolboy"?
Well that's because Saint James St. James isn't a real director. He's the creation of Ross Patterson and "Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury" just pretends to be a bad action film from the 90s. Patterson is an actor who got tired of auditioning for bit roles in formulaic Hollywood movies. Patterson gave Hollywood his best shot now he's giving it his worst.
"'Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury,' literally, is the worst film ever made," says Patterson with pride.
Boom mics drop into frame, peope forget lines, special effects go awry, and actors (including "Hercules'" Kevin Sorbo and "Machete's" Danny Trejo) chew up scenery like it's bubblegum. But there's an art to being bad says Patterson: "The best way I can describe it, is kind of like Los Feliz hipsters out here, where it takes a lot of money to look poor. It takes a lot of hard work to make bad movies."
You still have to cast talented actors, hire top crews, and efficiently plan shoots to make best use of locations. But then you have to make it all look bad.
"It's looking for the right thing," says editor and producer Ivan Victor, "Even though the right thing might be someone delivering a line in a truly awful, bad actressy kind of way. What's the best worst read that you have of this particular line?"
Patterson adds, "There's little things that maybe aren't in the script, like there was a line in 'Poolboy' where an actor in the middle of a scene forgot his line so he just screams out for the script supervisor, 'Line.' So you can hear the script supervisor screaming out the line from off camera, and everyone pauses, and then the actor goes right back into the scene as if nothing happens. That is not in the script but having an editor as good as Ivan, he's like what if we just left that moment in there? And it's a brilliant scene in the movie."
Here's the thing. Most of what Hollywood makes isn't bad it's bland and mediocre. What audiences want is something entertaining, something that's fun to watch with friends. And there's nothing like sharing a deliciously bad movie. Key ingredients are inspiration, genuine passion, and a knowing affection for the source material. Then a kind of alchemy comes into play.
"What you have here is almost like a Hegelian transformation into opposite," says actor Jesse Merlin, "It's something that is so bad it approaches the sublime."
Street Justice Films
Merlin plays Werewolf Hitler in Patterson's new film, "FDR: American Badass." Apparently FDR (hilariously played by Barry Bostwick of "Rocky Horror Fame") didn't contract polio while at his summer home at Campobello. He got it from a werewolf bite, and the Axis leaders are all werewolves.
"You try to describe these movies to people," says producer Tristan Drew, "And tell them that you are making a film about 'FDR: American Badass,' and they can't quite wrap their head around it. They react with, 'Are you serious?'"
And yes they are. Dead serious about making outrageous movies. "Poolboy's" inspiration was the awful "The Room" and its pretentious director Tommy Wiseau while the campy 1966 original "Batman" was the model for "FDR."
Brian Quinn is the programmer and owner of the Grindhouse Film Festival at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. He says there's definitely a market for a deliberately bad film but it's a tricky thing to pull off.
"There's definitely a market for that," explains Quinn, "And sometimes those films can be successful like 'Black Dynamite,' which was pulling from a lot of those 70s blaxploitation movies. But I feel like there has to be a love and appreciation for those films for the people to really get what made them special. In the case of 'Black Dynamite' it's good to get the mistakes but to also to get the good parts and the things that did make them work. If you look at the films that you are trying to pay homage to as junk and ridiculous or just bad films then I don't think you'll be successful at doing a modern version of it because you are looking at it in the wrong way."
Merlin had the right approach. He recalls auditioning for the part of Werewolf Hitler: "It was a funny experience standing in the lobby with the most nervous bunch of Hitlers pacing back and forth with their moustaches and comb overs. I see some of these guys screaming out their lines. My theory on this -- and it's not original -- is that comedy isn't about, 'Oh look at how funny I am.' No. It's about complete commitment to the character and the dead seriousness of the situation. You do that truthfully and honestly and then it's the situation that's funny, not you."
Street Justice Films
Patterson is serious about his business plan, which is to make the films quickly and cheaply, and then release the trailers on the Internet to generate buzz. The plan works. "Poolboy" gnerated hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube and got picked up by a distributor. It's now available video on demand and on DVD. Plus, Patterson was smart enough to cut the film down into a half hour TV pilot, " St. James St. James Presents: Delirium Cinema," and submitted it to the New York Television Festival, where it took first place for comedy and now has a development deal with IFC.
"Each week it will be a look back at the 100 worst films ever made by Saint James St. James," says Patterson, "The pilot right now is 'Breakdance Heart,' it's another terrible movie from 1994 about a girl who gets hit in the chest with a softball at the exact same time there's a breakdance competition going outside in the parking lot and a guy breaks his neck doing a head spin. He dies, she gets his heart, and now this white girl from suburbs is hanging out in the ghetto and is the best dancer on planet."
Meanwhile, the "FDR: American Badass" trailer has been shared extensively on FaceBook and Twitter.
"Getting it out virally to everybody is the best way," says Patterson, "You don't have to depend on a studio."
In that respect what Patterson and his Street Justice Films are doing is something akin to what Roger Corman and his American International Pictures were doing in the 60s -- producing truly independent films that allow people to get real filmmaking experience.
"This is true independent filmmaking that we're doing," says producer J.P. McMahon, "and that's something that we all are very proud of."
Like Corman, Patterson reveals a savvy filmmaking sensibility that serves the company well.
"As an actor I've shot everywhere in Los Angeles doing commercials and music videos," Patterson explains, "So writing a scene in advance I physically know how much that scene is going to cost location-wise. So I can keep a running tally in my mind of how much the budget is going to be as I'm writing the movie."
That's a valuable and extremely practical skill. In the last year and a half the company has shot, edited, and completed 3 movies, with a fourth in the can. Pretty impressive.
"And that's all while we do other jobs as well," says Ivan Victor, "So we love what we're doing and we're going to keep doing it."
Now Patterson is enjoying a new deal in Hollywood as distributors are calling him to inquire about buying "FDR." For Patterson, being bad and never been so good.