“Best Worst Movie” Director Michael Stephenson

This interview was first published in the Tucson Citizen when I was doing a film blog called “Off the Marquee”: June 18, 2010

As a teenager, Michael Stephenson thought he had received his big break. In 1990 he was chosen to star in a horror film. So many actors start out with small roles in horror films that Stephenson had every right to imagine that he might be on his way to a serious acting career. The film not only failed to have a theatrical release, but also became a huge embarrassment to those involved through video and screenings on late night television. Troll 2, the story of a small enclave of goblins that trap tourists for food, went on to consistently register on lists of the worst movies ever made. However the film found life in the hearts of trash cinephiles who found the earnest performances, strange special effects, and preposterous premise engaging. As he grew up and established some distance from the film, Stephenson became aware of loose pockets of fans around the world and produced a documentary that goes beyond exploring the phenomenon of bad cinema and excavates the cast for a compelling story about the true value of art. We spoke to Stephenson by phone as he travels the country making appearances with his documentary Best Worst Movie, a “where are they now” story about the film’s director, cast, and fan base.

Billups: As an actor, Troll 2 was not your only movie with the film’s director Claudio Fragasso?
Michael Stephenson: Beyond Darkness was done about a year and a half after Troll 2.

Billups: I don’t know if it was a mistake, but IMDB has the film listed before Troll 2 as House V. There is that series of films called House. Is there any relation to the other four films?
Michael Stephenson:Absolutely no connection whatsoever. It’s sort of the same deal as Troll 2. There is no connection to the first Troll. I guess in Italy they were notorious for ripping off titles from American sequels.

Billups: It seems Fragasso does not see the same things that the fans of the film do. Does he see some intrinsic value in the film that others don’t?
Michael Stephenson: Claudio Fragasso plays a big part in the documentary. Part of what we see and learn is how he and a lot of the Italian crew really took it so seriously and their perception of what they were making which, in turn, is what we thought we were making. Everybody thought we were making this great horror film. In Best Worst Movie,  you see Claudio and his wife Rosella [Drudi] who wrote the script process it.

Billups: I know Fragasso has worked for Dario Argento. I have always felt Italian horror directors have a different sense of linear narrative than horror directors from other countries.
Michael Stephenson: I think Claudio made the film the way he wanted to make it. I think that is always to be commended. He is full of heart and passion. It is certainly unique. You know, you look at something like Troll 2  and you could say that it failed in every kind of fundamental cinematic way , but it still has this strange competence. It hasn’t failed to entertain. You can’t say that Troll 2 is not creative. I think that makes it a film that is certainly not the worst film ever made. I think the worst film that was ever made was a film that bores you.

Billups: A bad movie to me is one that is not engaging. I find Troll 2 engaging.
Michael Stephenson: Yea, I don’t want to make it sound like it’s Citizen Kane, but it’s a movie that has found an audience and engaged an audience and left an impression all these years later. Think of all the films that are made with far greater resources that are supposed to be much better because  logically they check all the boxes. But they are forgettable.

Billups: I get frustrated with the language of film being steeped in realistic performances and special effects. Do you feel this trend could ever come to a head and people will start appreciating more unconventional filmmaking?
Michael Stephenson: I hope so. I think Transformers 2 is the worst movie ever made. There is this notion of what is considered to be a “good” movie and those movies are just the same thing. It’s exciting to see movies that take risks and are resourceful and do something different. So many of the movies coming out of Hollywood are throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall just to see what sticks.

Billups: There must have been a time after Troll 2 was completed that you realized that the film had at least failed in the traditional sense.
Michael Stephenson: Troll 2 was released straight to VHS. This was 1990 or 1991, and after that it was banished to late night television and it played all the time on late night television  and it was my first movie and I was embarrassed by it. This is the movie I thought was going to be great and everybody said it was horrible. I remember getting the newspaper and rushing to pull out the TV guide and just praying that I wouldn’t see Troll 2 listed in there again. And every Sunday there it was. And right next to Troll 2 was the icon of a turkey. I remember really not wanting anything to do with it.

Billups: When did you realize the film was amassing a cult following?
Michael Stephenson: It wasn’t until 2003 that MGM released a DVD with Troll and Troll 2 together; MGM  acquired the catalogue and had no idea that they were completely unrelated, so they put them together. So that DVD started getting out there and it was just over four years ago when I started the documentary. There had been no large screenings or reunions yet. In 2006 I started getting messages from out of nowhere asking ‘is this Joshua Waits from Troll 2? Please, say it is so.’ At first I thought: Ugh, this thing is never going to go away. Then I started interacting with the fans and I realized the fans did not know about each other; they were all sending me messages thinking they were the only ones who were doing this. It was weird. In a period of two or three weeks I got messages from people from different parts of the world. They started sending pictures of their Troll 2 parties. And there would be eight or nine kids watching Troll 2, dressing up as goblins, and eating green food.

Billups: I often talk to people who are attached to certain movies that they saw over and over again on late night television.
Michael Stephenson: Now so much is on demand. It’s not the same; if something doesn’t grab your attention in the first five minutes you have a million other options. Where as before you went to a video store and try to decide what to rent and watch it all the way through. Films that have the ability to create that communal movie watching experience and bring people to a theater at midnight and have this experience together is remarkable. In a time when art house theaters are being bulldozed and turned into parking lots, the movie watching experience is starting to become disconnected and fragmented. People decide to watch stuff alone or on their phones. Watching films together with friends in a theater is not only a great experience, but also it seems to be passing, and that’s a shame.

Billups: I noticed that the cast was reassembled at some point. How did the others react to your resurrection of Troll 2? Did you find any of them hiding from their past and/or still acting in other films?
Michael Stephenson: A lot of the movie is about that. The movie is more about the humanity of a bad movie and the people who made it. It is not so much about “let’s take apart this phenomenon and define what makes it.” It’s more of a human driven film.

Billups: Best Worst Movie seems to be reaching a wider audience than its subject matter.
Michael Stephenson: You don’t have to see Troll 2 to take away an enjoyable experience. It’s inevitable that if you have not seen Troll 2 and you see Best Worst Movie, you’re probably going to want to watch it. It’s neat to see, because most of these people are not the kind of people who would watch Troll 2. Through the documentary they are introduced to this absurd world through the eyes of a dentist [Troll 2 actor George Hardy became a dentist after the film was done]: a man who is relatable in so many ways.

Billups: The best documentaries to me are ones that where an artistic struggle transcends the subject matter.
Michael Stephenson: It’s been wild. We have played some pretty serious documentary festivals. I would see 50-year-old women walking out saying: ‘Oh my god, I have to go see Troll 2.’