Claudio Fragasso’s Troll 2 is generally considered by most film geeks to be the best terrible movie ever made. For years after its debut on HBO (it never hit theaters), the cult of Troll 2 spread its way across the globe, finally reaching the pinnacle of its infamy last year when Michael Stephenson’s documentary about the making (and aftermath) of the film, Best Worst Movie, hit theaters. Best Worst Movie was great in all the ways that Troll 2 was terrible, and ever since its debut, we’ve been wondering what Stephenson might take on as his next project. Earlier this week we found out, and yesterday we sat down with the guy to find out more. Read on for our interview with Best Worst Movie director, Troll 2 star, haunted house enthusiast, and potential Troll 3 star (yeah, you heard me) Michael Stephenson, after the jump….
I can vividly recall the first time I came in contact with Claudio Fragasso’s Troll 2: it was 2AM, an 8th grade school night, and I was watching HBO. A movie came on that defied logic, reason, and– as I would find out the following morning– description: upon arriving at school the following morning, I sought in vain for anyone else that might have caught this film the night before, but no one knew what the hell I was talking about. Describing the film (“There’s these vegetarian goblins that turn people into plants with the help of a witch who owns her own Stonehenge and they all get defeated by an annoying kid with a double-decker bolognia sandwich”) didn’t help, and searching the video store also proved to be a fruitless effort. It took a few years, but eventually I landed my own copy of Troll 2. By that time, though, there were many, many other people similarly enamored with the film.
The cult of Troll 2 grew over the years, and eventually reached a fever pitch with the release of Michael Stephenson’s Best Worst Movie. Best Worst Movie is the documentary about the making– and aftermath of Troll 2– directed by the only guy that could’ve made such a film: Michael Stephenson, who played the aforementioned “annoying little kid” in Fragasso’s cult classic. Stephenson’s film earned rave reviews (95% on Rotten Tomatoes, suckers), and ever since its debut fans have been wondering what the child-actor-turned-director might do next. Earlier this week, we found out: Stephenson will next direct a documentary about homemade haunted house enthusiasts for NBCUniversal, a project that sounds like a perfect marriage between material and director.
The Untitled Haunted House Project is looking for compelling stories, people, and “haunts” (the industry-term for haunted houses) as we speak over at homemadehaunt.com, which means that it’s probably a ways off. But in the interest of keeping tabs on Stephenson and his film as soon as possible, I sat down with Stephenson earlier this week to talk to him about his hopes for the project, the reaction people had to Best Worst Movie…and what the hell’s actually going on with the oft-rumored Troll 3. Before we get to the interview, here are the highlights:
- Stephenson still isn’t sure what the “plotline” of Untitled Haunted House Project will be, but learned on Best Worst Movie that it’s best to just let the documentary take ya wherever it’s gonna take ya.
- Apparently, Stephenson was as uncomfortable filming some of the scenes in Best Worst Movie as we were watching them. Despite the fact that anyone in their right mind would, he says that he never “feared for his life” while filming some of Best Worst Movie‘s creepier scenes.
- Stephenson is reuniting with the same creative team that made Best Worst Movie for the Haunted House Project, including cinematographer Katie Graham, editor Andrew Matthews, and– in a new addition– the mastermind behind the Alamo Drafthouse’s Rolling Roadshow, Zack Carlson.
- Stephenson says that funding on Troll 3 is coming together as we speak, and that he’s been approached about reprising his role as “Joshua” for Troll 2 director Claudio Fragasso. As you’ll soon see, Stephenson’s wrestling with the decision.
As the interview began, Stephenson and I were talking about a pair of mutual acquaintances: Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews, two Austin-based filmmakers I interviewed a few months back and have since stayed in touch with. Graham did the cinematography on Best Worst Movie, while Matthews edited the film. The pair have been hard at work getting their own project, Zero Charisma, off the ground, and so my first question was whether or not they’d be joining Stephenson for the Untitled Haunted House Project.
Michael Stephenson: Actually, yeah! Katie’s gonna be one of the shooters, and Andrew’s going to edit it.
No shit! That’s awesome!
MS: Yeah, yeah, we’re all working together on it. It feels good, because– not only is it going to be a fun project– but, when you find people that you really like to work with, it’s fun to continue working on these projects together. Y’know, I’m just happy if I can be working on projects with the people I like. We’re just surrounded by really great people.
And it’ll feel a lot less like work when you’re doing it with your friends.
MS: Right! After all, it’s supposed to be fun, right?
Hopefully! So, for Untitled Haunted House Project, what drew you to the project, or what was the kernel of the idea that got this one going?
MS: This is interesting, because we’ve been working on two projects, (unintelligible) and Destroy, a narrative feature that we’re setting up right now. What happened was, this project really fell from Meyer Shwarzstein, from Brainstorm Media. He handles most of the domestic rights for Best Worst Movie– he sells the domestic rights– and we learned through him that one of NBCUniversal’s cable networks had become big fans of Best Worst Movie, and eventually they just asked Meyer, “What’s Michael doing? We’d like him to do this documentary, a haunted house documentary”. And Meyer came back to me and was like, “Hey, you’re gonna like me! I’m finding you projects!” And he tells me they’re fans of Best Worst Movie and they want this haunted house documentary, or special, or something. And so, I started thinking about it, and the whole homemade haunted house kinda thing is something that I find really endearing. Not so much the commercial side of Halloween, but the kind of handmade spectacle that’s created with a lot of love…but not a lot of money, people celebrating one of America’s greatest traditions. So, we kinda put a pitch together– how we saw it playing out and so on– and went to New York, pitched it to the NBC execs…and that’s how it happened. It’s been a pretty amazing process.
So, until people start submitting their applications– or whatever it is they might be submitting– at homemadehaunt.com, do you have any plans going forward, or are you just going to see what you get (from people) and go from there?
MS: We want to open up the doors to people who are out there besides our own research, and let them contact us. The announcement’s ended up bringing in about 100 submissions– I dunno, maybe less than that, maybe 75– over the past few days, but before that we’d done our own research finding these homemade haunts throughout the country. And it turns out that there’s no shortage of these amazing people across the country. Y’know, with the documentary format, you look for a good premise and you hope to find characters that are compelling and engaging, and this seems to offer it up in ways that I think people will be surprised by. We’ve found so many people so far, actually, that I think the challenge is going to be honing in on the ones that have the most compelling stories. In many cases in documentaries, the subject or the topic is the wallpaper in a more personal story. Hopefully we’ll get a dynamic range of characters…but again, with documentaries, you gotta see where it takes you. These types of projects are a blast.
MS: You have no idea (laughs). Ultimately, it comes down to an instinct with a project– in addition to going through the twists and turns, letting the project take you where it’s going to take you– where you’ll have these continual indicators that, yeah, it’s working out well and I’m telling a good story. I would argue that all really great documentaries, part of what makes them great is the unknown that allows them to contribute to that particular picture. In Best Worst Movie, there were so many times where it was like, “Wow, where did this come from?!” I can see why some people can get hooked on documentaries and never make another film, because when you get those moments– where you’re at the right place at the right time– it’s amazing. With this project (the Haunted House project), we have no idea where it’s gonna take us. We have the principles and the overall guidance of what we hope to find in the overall premise, but the fun is going to be in discovery, and the challenge is what’s gonna make it exciting.
Are you going to be limiting the film to stuff that’s happening in the United States, or will the film cover Halloween stuff happening outside the country? I know, for instance, that Japan is really big on haunted houses and Halloween shit.
MS: I would love to, but…y’know, we didn’t get a lot of creative notes from the network, but one of them was definitely that it had to be within the country. That’s not to say it couldn’t evolve into something that’s more worldwide, but for right now, it’s staying in the States.
You said you have locations and people already in mind, right?
MS: We have a list of individuals and haunts that’re scattered throughout the U.S., and we’re in the process of reaching out to individuals and getting to know them more….ultimately, we want to settle on one to four of the most compelling cases, but we’re hoping that we’ll find a compelling enough story that’s contained in a small number of haunts as opposed to…y’know a snapshot of all the haunted houses in the country. We want it to be more personal, so we’re trying to hone in a little more on a smaller number of haunts.
Cool. If I could go back to Best Worst Movie for a second, I gotta tell you that it’s extremely surreal for me to be speaking to you. I grew up with Troll 2– and I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times, but while I’ve got you on the phone– I’ve got one of the original VHS copies, I’ve seen it a million times, I’ve had Troll 2 parties, I made a point of Best Worst Movie being the first film I saw at the Drafthouse when I moved down to Austin: I’m a huge fan. So, first of all, this conversation is really weird, and it’s an honor to be speaking to you. Moving on–
— and I thought that Best Worst Movie and Exit Through The Gift Shop were the best documentaries I saw last year, but Best Worst Movie felt more personal to me given my history with Troll 2. I’m sure it was really personal and strange for you, too, but what more I’m interested in is this: there are a couple of moments where you revisit a few of your former co-workers, and they seem…I’m trying to word this gently…a little unhinged. Were there ever any moments filming Best Worst Movie where you felt, like, uncomfortable or maybe even a little…unsafe?
MS: (Laughs) There’s a moment where…look, those moments happen. Don Packard– he’s the drugstore owner– had, completely unbeknownst to me, wanted to kill me as a child. When you have this happening, there’s this feeling of, “How the hell is–? You couldn’t even write this!” With Packard, we had a long interview with him– like, a long interview– and at the end of the day, he kinda turned to me and gives me this creepy smile and says, “Well, I’ve told you everything. Now I really do have to kill you.” And I looked at (cinematographer) Katie and said, “Alright! We’re done here!” (Laughs). But it was funny: he actually offered us a slice of pie and we were like, “Uh, no, thanks, we gotta get going.” I wouldn’t say I was ever worried for my life, but…y’know, with a documentary, it wouldn’t really be worthwhile if you weren’t putting yourself in a position that wasn’t unknown with uncontrollable factors. I didn’t fear for my life, but I was uncomfortable a lot. You’re out of your element, y’know?
Now, for the past decade or so– and particularly after the release of Best Worst Movie– rumors circulated that Troll 3 might get made. There were rumors that (original Troll 2 director) Claudio Fragasso would be filming and writing, that Patton Oswalt might be involved, that the cast was returning…what’s going on with that? Is that just empty gossip, or is there any truth to the rumors of Troll 3 getting made?
MS: It’s…it’s hard…because…well, I actually talked to Claudio three weeks ago. They’ve written a script, he’s working with Italian producers and getting it financed, and they’re seeming really intent on making it.
Really?! Are they wanting you to be in it?!
MS: (Pause) ….they do, yeah. And they want all the cast members back. But I don’t know if…look, it poses an interesting argument. Because one, could it happen? If someone writes a check and says, “Make this movie”, it’ll happen. If Claudio was able to get Troll 2 made, I have every reason to believe he can make this happen, too. I can absolutely understand why someone would be like, “Naturally! Let’s make a sequel!” But two, do I think it’s right to make a sequel? No. My feeling right now is, anything in addition to what he made is unnecessary. I just don’t see…I guess my question is, why?
It is interesting, though. Because, on the one hand you might say, “Well, that’s not gonna be any good, I don’t wanna be involved in that.” But on the other hand, it’s not as though anyone would be expecting Troll 3 to be sweeping the Oscars.
MS: (Laughs) Yeah, the expectations are pretty…
They’re pretty low (laughs). Unless something absolutely disastrous happened, I think the bigger issue is, how can you capture that lightning in a bottle twice?
MS: No, you’re exactly right! What was created with Troll 2 was like this perfect amalgam of every event, everything that could’ve happened to make a good bad movie…you can’t make that happen on command. (Troll 3) would be something different. Stuff like Snakes on a Plane or, y’know…
You can’t force a real cult movie.
And all the actors would be…y’know, the first time, they’re acting in earnest. Bring ‘em back a second time, and everyone’s in on the joke. Everyone would be winking at the camera, and it would change the entire thing.
MS: Yeah! And at that point, all you have is irony. And we have plenty of that already.
All of that said, though: I would watch the shit out of that movie.
MS: (Laughs) And that’s the thing! Many people would watch it. I don’t have any easy answers, but it’s an interesting question. Part of me is like, what are the odds of something like this actually happening? And if it did, why wouldn’t you do everything you could to support this thing? I mean, who would’ve ever though that might happen? And to see that happen firsthand, any excuse to see George Hardy (who infamously played Stephenson’s dad in Troll 2) pick up a script and do his thing? Why wouldn’t I want to be there for that?! I would want to be a part of that. It’s a hard question…
Let me come at it from this angle: if they approached you and said, “Look, we’re doing this with or without you. Everyone else is coming back, but if you’re not gonna do it, we’re gonna recast your role”. Would that make any difference to you?
MS: (Pause)…I don’t….I don’t think it would.
You don’t feel any (laughs) ownership of the “Joshua” character from Troll 2?
MS: (Laughs) No, for me it would be more…honestly, I think the most important thing– and this almost seems silly, but– it would have to come from Claudio and Rosella (Drudi, who co-wrote the original), and it’d have to be from their hearts. And if it felt like they were getting that opportunity again and it wasn’t just, “Let’s sell some more DVD’s because of this cult phenomenon”, well, that’d be a pretty good reason to get involved. If it’s just, “Let’s make some more money”, I think that takes away from what Troll 2 has become.
Just in talking to you about it, I can totally understand why this is kind of a torturous decision…
MS: I have wrestled with it, for a long time. You can look at it from so many angles. If it actually materializes, I’m gonna have to take it in that moment and decide. That’s really all I can do.
Fair enough. Well, man, that’s all I got for you. Let’s keep in touch, and we’ll talk to you again once you’re a little further along on the Untitled Haunted House Project, yeah?
MS: Absolutely! Very nice to finally meet you. I’ll be in touch.
Yeah, you too, man.
And that, my friends, was my time with Troll 2 star, Best Worst Movie director, haunted house enthusiast, and potential Troll 3 star Michael Stephenson. Special thanks to Ryan Fons and Fons PR at the Alamo Drafthouse for setting up this interview, and double-extra special thanks to Michael Stephenson for taking the time to talk to us. We’ll be keeping you up to date on any further Untitled Haunted House Project (or Troll 3) information as it becomes available, folks, so stay tuned!