A Lunch with Glenn Berggoetz, the Most "Unsuccessful" Film Director of All Time

Filmmaking mania, shoestring budgets and $2,000 feature films from the master of micro-budget moviemaking

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A Lunch with Glenn Berggoetz, the Most "Unsuccessful" Film Director of All Time

August 22, 2011 was the day Glenn Berggoetz learned his name was entering the cinematic record books for perhaps the least desirable reason any director could imagine. It was a Monday, two days after the L.A. premiere of his fourth feature film, a ramshackle 1950s sci-fi parody called, I shit you not, The Worst Movie Ever!. As if somehow sensing its own title, the movie had completely failed to draw an audience during two Friday and Saturday night showings at L.A.’s Laemmle Sunset 5, selling just ONE ticket to a mystery viewer who is now lost to history. Who was that person? Did they have any idea of what they were seeing? Did they stay until the end of The Worst Movie Ever!, or leave early? Did they realize they were present for an auspicious event in cinema history?

Because when part-time English professor Glenn Berggoetz called up the theater that Monday morning, the news he received was historic: The opening weekend gross for The Worst Movie Ever! was $11. No missing zeros, no misplaced commas. It was the new low-tide mark for a record that has stood in some fashion for more than half a century. It was the smallest opening weekend gross of all time, and it came completely unexpected for Berggoetz, who is nevertheless accustomed to not breaking (positive) box office records. But this result? This put him in Ed Wood territory. In Coleman Francis territory. In trivia question answer territory.

And that’s a shame. Because the story of Glenn Berggoetz is an utterly fascinating one, the tale of an impassioned film obsessive who is driven to create and share his stories, regardless of the outcome. His record as the most “unsuccessful” director of all time brought him a degree of infamy when the story broke, but his films deserve attention for entirely other reasons, as do their director. Because Glenn Berggoetz is a uniquely compelling, bizarre individual—there’s simply no one else like him.

And with that in mind, I reached out to Berggoetz as a fan of offbeat cinema. We connected via Facebook, where the director graciously offered me burned DVDs of his films, which are largely unavailable to buy commercially. I watched them at home with friends and we howled with laughter, both at their quirks and ostensibly low quality, while simultaneously being unable to deny the obvious passion behind them. Realizing that I would soon be taking a trip to the director’s home city, Denver, I hatched a plan—I had to meet Glenn Berggoetz. I had to meet the man behind The Worst Movie Ever! And so, I broached the idea to Glenn, who happily accepted, likely seeing a chance to get his work in front of a slightly larger set of eyes. And that’s how I ended up sitting at a table with Glenn Berggoetz in an Italian buffet called Cinzzetti’s, on a warm May afternoon in Denver, chatting over pizza and ladles of heavily sauced chicken. That’s where the full Berggoetz story came spilling out.

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Cinzzetti’s Pastatorium

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The restaurant that Glenn has chosen makes me chuckle as soon as I pull in—it’s so close to what I’m already expecting in advance that it seems perfectly suited to both his exuberance and self-avowed thriftiness. This is, after all, a man who scrapes together stray dollars left and right so he can crank out $2,000 features over the course of a weekend. You don’t get together with that guy and expect to dine at The Ritz, especially after reading the entirety of his book The Independent Filmmaker’s Guide: Make Your Feature Film for $2,000 (as I most certainly did), particularly the portions about how he feeds his crew on set:

“Yes, it would be nice to have food catered in for your shoot, and many filmmakers spend hundreds and hundreds, even thousands of dollars doing this. However, you can feed a cast and crew of 15 people on $20 for an entire weekend.” [Details how to buy lots and lots of granola]

The restaurant, then, is fitting—a garishly colorful assemblage of stucco-looking walls and Olive-Garden style statuaries immediately put one in the mood to scoop blobs of this pasta or that meat out of long buffet tables—Google refers to it as “Italian buffet in old-world setting,” if you were curious. It appears to be filled with senior citizens and maybe office workers trying to catch a cheap, quick lunch. And of course Glenn, conducting an important business meeting with the press, as only Glenn can do.

Glenn Berggoetz, the director of The Worst Movie Ever! arrives a few minutes later, and I can’t stress enough that his arrival is a dramatic one. He’s wearing what is perhaps the loudest, brightest, most complicatedly colorful shirt I’ve ever physically witnessed in person—it’s like a collection of unrelated quilt squares that have been haphazardly sewn together by someone’s addled grandmother. Immediately, I comment on its uniqueness, and he tells me it’s his “interview shirt,” the garment he wears for good luck when doing job interviews or public speaking. He’s not kidding—look no further than IMDB. It’s the exact same shirt. He’s even wearing it in his Twitter photo. The man likes the shirt.

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Glenn Berggoetz and the Technicolor Dreamshirt, at Cinzzetti’s

We get ourselves seated and make small talk about the area—it’s my first time in Denver, and I’m primarily passing through at the time to tour craft breweries and write beer-related features for Paste. Glenn, meanwhile, is doing his usual, teaching part time as an English professor and sinking every available dollar into his passion for filmmaking. To date, that passion has yielded seven complete feature films, most of which I’ve seen. They range from the blatant Die Hard parody To Die is Hard, in which Glenn plays the lead (a badass English teacher) to hilarious effect, to the self-explanatory Midget Zombie Takeover and of course, The Worst Movie Ever! Through the first six, every one was made for around $2,000 or less.

Between bites of chicken parmesan, I start to learn a few things about Glenn that I’d wondered for quite a while. For one, his favorite movie is a classic spoof, The Naked Gun. For another, he’s 47 years old, but still clings to a very real hope in his heart that one of his films will explode overnight into popularity and earn him a real chance at the big time. It’s something he’s been planning for so long that he must almost feel entitled to it by this point, as passages of The Independent Filmmaker’s Guide make abundantly clear. Despite being a micro-filmmaker—really a nano-filmmaker—he wrote his book from a position that suggests he knows quite well what he plans to do once he finally has millions of dollars at his disposal.

“If you have some success with this film and are able to get a budget for your next film that’s in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, you might be able to land that star you’ve long wanted to work with. And don’t feel bad that you’re only paying your cast members a pittance to be in your film—when you gain enough notoriety to get a substantial budget to make a film, use these same cast members again, and pay them a good wage for their work then to make up for the work they’re doing for you now.”

The only problem is of course that if a filmmaker never ends up with “hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars” to work with, it can be difficult to put any of that advice into practice. The book is filled with this sort of well-meaning advice, rooted in experiences that Glenn has never actually had, but hopes to have someday. It’s a bit like writing a book called How to Invest Your Lottery Winnings based on “What I would do with the money, if I won the lottery, but I haven’t … yet.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve given you a basic idea of who Glenn Berggoetz is today, but the obvious question is how did he get to this point? How did this middle-aged master of $2,000 feature films come to be? I asked, and he told me.

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Berggoetz: Origins

Glenn Berggoetz was born in New Jersey but spent most of his childhood in Indiana, which he considers his point of origin. An avowed New York Yankees fan, his early life revolved around playing baseball, which he’s still extremely passionate about. At one point he was also a golf pro who ran a teaching facility in Indiana, where he co-wrote several books on golf drills, kindling his love for writing. It certainly beat any number of other minimum wage jobs he also worked: 7/11 cashier, temp agency gopher, substitute teacher. Despite a lack of lucrative employ, he somehow managed to scrape together several degrees, including a Masters in secondary education and history. But it was the writing that spoke to him.

“It was the ’90s when I first started writing and had a few short stories published,” he says between bites of Italian delicacies. “I wrote a couple novels that would make you cringe. I wanted to write something in-between the two and decided that scripts seemed to me like the best medium for me to tell my stories. By the early 2000s, I had stockpiled half a dozen complete scripts for films.”

Despite having so much completed material on hand, however, this early 2000s version of Berggoetz had never shot so much as a frame of footage. A pure writer in his mind, he never had any real interest in getting into the director’s chair—rather, he intended to just keep pitching his scripts in the hope that a talented young newcomer would want to help him launch his career as a screenwriter. When that showed no signs of happening, Berggoetz first began seriously considering directing his own work, buying a filmmaker’s handbook and approaching the process academically. But he was shocked to discover the presumptive cost for making a movie.

“I was reading the handbook and was like, ‘I can’t do this stuff, I don’t have $50,000 or $100,000 to make a movie!’” he recalls. “So I said well, I’m going to try it my own way; I’m going to wing it and see what happens.”

By that point, the upstart filmmaker had close to a dozen completed scripts to his name (16 complete at the time of the interview) and was bouncing back and forth between his home in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Dallas, where his brother lived. He surfed couches to save money, worked menial jobs, and kept on writing in his typically eclectic fashion—any style of movie can be a Berggoetz movie, provided it can be done on the cheap. Comedies. Psychological thrillers. Dramas. Most recently, horror. When he scored a semi-regular teaching position in Denver, he knew it was finally time to bring one of his scripts to life. He chose a comedy called Therapissed. It was 2007. Since then, Denver has remained his home and base of filmmaking operations.

Next: How to make a feature film for $2,000

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