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 moviemakingPhotos by Jim Vorel Movies Features Glenn Berggoetz
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.
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.
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.
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
How to make a feature film for $2,000
So, how does one make a feature-length film for roughly the cost of a 20-year-old Toyota Tercel? The answer of course lies in thriftiness and the cutting of corners, and in all aspects of this game I must stress that Berggoetz is a master. He has to be. There’s just no way to do what he does without total dedication and a spartan lifestyle.
Glenn Berggoetz is a modern aescetic. He doesn’t drink, as far as I know. He doesn’t date, going so far as to specifically state in The Independent Filmmaker’s Guide that women aren’t interested in sleeping with a director to get cast in a $2,000 feature, so don’t try. His book is rife with his disdain for social lives and “partying,” all of which he views as an unnecessary waste of precious resources that could otherwise be sunk into making films. He doesn’t see the appeal to such things—you can read the book and get a very clear picture of his mind working, calculating, “If I go out for the night and buy $___ worth of food or drink, that’s ___ fewer minutes I can afford to shoot.” He simply isn’t a man of vices, because vices are expensive. Vices would slow down his filming schedule, so he has no time for them. To quote one of my favorite segments of the book:
“First, if you’re not married, don’t get married. If you are married, don’t take on any extra lovers. Spouses and lovers cost money to keep happy, so keep them to an absolute minimum. Second, don’t have kids. If you do have kids, don’t have any more. There aren’t many things more expensive than children, so avoid having them at all costs. Third, don’t date, or if you must, keep your relationships on the casual side and don’t get serious. Serious partners usually like to go out and do things, which costs money that you could be putting toward your next film.”
It sounds a bit like very dry comedy, but I assure you it’s not. Berggoetz is like a modern filmmaking monk who has given up pleasures of the flesh or the thought of “going out and doing things” in favor of his life’s work. And he’s totally serious about that dedication. It informs every aspect of his life, as he confirms immediately afterward in the book’s addendum on vehicles:
“Cars are also an unnecessary burden to your filmmaking career. I have never paid more than $4,000 for a car in my life, and this has given me a lot of economic flexibility and gone a long way toward allowing me to set aside the money I need to make films.”
Judging from the above, you might assume the director would also be miserly toward the people he works with, but this isn’t the case at all. Very much to the contrary, this is the one area where Berggoetz is actually quite generous. He doesn’t have much to work with, but one of the keys he insists upon is that everyone working on his films is paid. It is, after all, in his mind a professional film set, and professional filmmakers pay their staffs. It may only be $100 for acting in a feature film, but it’s something—especially considering that $100 is 5% of the operating budget. And especially considering the fact that most of those actors were first found via Craigslist.
Berggoetz, starring in To Die is Hard.
This is also why Berggoetz’s films necessarily have to be shot so quickly, and it’s a factor in their rushed appearance and questionable quality from a professionalism standpoint. Every feature that Glenn has ever shot has been filmed over the course of either one or two weekends. Many (The Worst Movie Ever! included) have been fully wrapped in just two days. That’s TWO DAYS to shoot what eventually becomes an 80-90 minute movie, cramming as many as 60 scenes into a single day. These are ludicrous numbers. Unheard-of numbers to anyone who has ever done even the most amateur film shoot. When my own friends and I participated in 48-hour filmmaking challenges, we struggled to get a five-minute short film shot over the course of a weekend. Berggoetz takes that same time period and shoots 15 to 20 times more material. One wonders if he ever sleeps, or whether he’s some sort of filmmaking robot sent from the future without need for such things.
“The biggest challenge is audio, with only one or two takes,” he admits. “I felt bad for the cast in some of the films because so many of them were so much more talented than comes across, but we’re shooting so quickly that there are so many times we shoot a scene once, look over at the camera guy, say ‘Did that look okay to you?’ and move on.”
In the director’s mind, though, that’s what it takes to be fair to his cast and staff. He recalls another independent horror film that shot in the Denver area for nine days and tied up local actors for excessively long periods of time without anyone being paid, and he vows to never let the same thing happen on his watch.
“People had to take whole weeks off from work and lose money to be in that film, and it was just miserable. I feel like when I’m paying people 100 bucks or whatever to be in the movie, I can’t expect them to take off from work or devote every weekend for two months to getting it shot. I feel like I owe it to them, since I have so little money to pay, to get it done quickly and not take up their time.”
Call that the Berggoetz Code of Honor, if you will. Ultimately, however, the quality of each individual feature is dependent on much outside his control. The technical issue of equipment access is one of the biggest factors—Glenn doesn’t own a single piece of moviemaking equipment (once again, expensive). The cameras for each film are brought along by whoever he hires as a director of photography—this is why, for example, To Die is Hard looks surprisingly crisp and professional while Midget Zombie Takeover looks more like a high school class project in terms of sound and visuals, despite the fact that Midget Zombie Takeover was made two years later. With each project, Berggoetz becomes the dream-hawking vendor once again: He can’t offer much in the way of money, but he can offer a condensed version of the dream that lives in the heart of every filmmaker—shoot a movie with me this weekend, and maybe you’ll end up famous.
“The selling point for them is the same thing that’s the selling point for me,” Berggoetz says matter-of-factly. “The dream that the film will get a following and be a stepping stone to something bigger. There are so many people here in Denver who want to make it, so they’re willing to take that chance, make a couple hundred bucks and take that gamble.”
At the time of the interview, Berggoetz is hard at work preparing for his biggest project yet, a horror film called The Ghosts of Johnson Woods, for which he’s scrounged together a princely sum—$6,000. At three times the budget of a typical Berggoetz picture, he has high hopes for it, even as part of him can’t help but consider spending that much money to be overly decadent. That’s what it costs to land a C-list celebrity, though, and for this film Berggoetz has reached out and managed to court someone familiar to the serious horror geeks in the audience: Joe Bob Briggs, well-known as a TV host on TMC (Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater) and TNT (Monstervision). To the mainstream film fan that doesn’t mean much, but to Berggoetz it’s a very significant step in the direction of legitimacy. Although his answer to the question of “Why Briggs?” reveals the humor that Glenn is never without: “Well, I mean, Tom Cruise turned me down.”
“We have four days set aside to shoot,” he says excitedly, doing his best to sell me on the movie concept like a potential investor. “We’re going to have three camera people with three top-of-the-line cameras, top-of-the-line sound equipment, really breaking the bank. Hopefully with it looking much more polished and having Joe Bob, we can get it in some festivals and really hammer my contacts at movie theaters—maybe get it into 50 or 100 theaters?”
That might sound overly ambitious, from the descriptions I’ve given of his ramshackle filming style, but it’s by no means out of the question. Berggoetz is tenacious in every aspect of filmmaking, and especially in getting his films screened. And they do get screened on a regular basis, whether it’s at festivals for weird genre stuff or by small, independent theaters he can manage to convince to give him a one-night engagement. He’s a fighter, and he never quits trying to promote his past work.
Ghosts of Johnson Woods is now complete, although the film is still hanging somewhere in developmental limbo, awaiting a final edit and an official premiere, which the director says will come in early fall. Through Facebook, Glenn and I chat on occasion, and he feeds me sporadic updates on the progress of various projects. Ghosts of Johnson Woods, like so many other shoestring indie productions, has been hamstrung along the way by delays of all kinds, especially due to a series of accidents and medical emergencies suffered by the film’s editor, one of Glenn’s regular collaborators and confidants. They’re the same kinds of setbacks I’ve heard about from nearly every indie filmmaker I’ve ever interviewed, the kinds of things that would shut down anyone without the somewhat foolhardy drive to press forward.
For that movie, Berggoetz dreams of a New York City premiere hosted by Joe Bob Briggs, and keeps plugging away even as he plans his next film, another horror feature titled Paralyzed With Fear that he says will star Kane Hodder, well known for his work playing Jason Voorhees in four Friday the 13th movies. If that project and casting actually comes to fruition (Glenn says the contracts are signed, Hodder is paid, and shooting begins in July), it will be easily the largest coup of his career—Hodder has real caché among horror fans in a way that Briggs does not. Of course this is all a matter of comparisons—we’re talking about a feature that could potentially get into bargain bins of video stores or VOD services rather than the Internet crevices you have to explore in order to find ways to watch a film like To Die is Hard. But still, that’s a very palpable step up the food chain. And you can be sure that Berggoetz will not give up. He’s just launched a brand new, admittedly ugly-looking Indiegogo campaign (no video, grainy, low-res photo) for Paralyzed with Fear that will help cover the odds and ends of the production: In his words, the money is for “camera rentals, the makeup artist to do Kane’s makeup, and to pay the other dozen-plus cast and crew members,” among other things. For that, he’s seeking an exceedingly modest $1,000. I’ve already made a small donation.
Flash back to Aug. 22, 2011, and Berggoetz is receiving the news that the L.A. premiere of The Worst Movie Ever! has netted a record-low $11 over the course of two nights. The main reason, aside from the film’s intended and unintended poor quality (and it is quite bad on an objective level), is the fact that Glenn never intended to premiere it there at all. In fact, the entire sequence of events has taken him completely by surprise.
“I’d already booked its premiere maybe six weeks before then, when the theater in L.A. sent me an email saying ‘Hey, we have a spot open Friday and Saturday night of this week, would you want us to show it?’” he recalls. “And of course I said ‘Heck yeah!’ I just figured, because I’m such an idiot, ‘Hey, this is L.A., 50 or 100 people will just walk in because they’re looking for something to do and they’ll see it on the marquee. Problem is, they didn’t put it on the marquee, and it was the first time any of my films had ever screened in L.A.”
And so, the director quickly transitioned from hoping for a decent payday to abject shock on Monday morning, when he learned that precisely one mysterious person had purchased a ticket for one showing of the film on Saturday night. Honoring a promise he’d made to a friend at the website Box Office Mojo, Berggoetz called in to report the gross, whereupon he was informed that he was the new record holder for “lowest opening weekend” in history. He intended to keep that detail to himself, but little did he know that the subsequent coverage of that story, although relatively modest, would provide him with his biggest audience to date.
“The next day was the first day of the semester, so I went to my classes, and when I came back to my office the number of views on the YouTube trailer of the movie was over 30,000,” he says, mimicking the surprise he felt at the time. “Before I knew it we were up over 200,000 views (around 350,000 today) and inquiries about the movie were coming in from Europe, South America and Japan. So what started out as being really embarrassing ended up being pretty awesome, actually. The shame didn’t last too long.”
That’s the thing about Glenn Berggoetz—he doesn’t particularly care why you’re watching, as long as you’re watching. Unlike, say, a Tommy Wiseau, the director of The Room, he doesn’t hold a ton of pretenses about the relative quality of his films. He’s perpetually humble, whether it’s a feature film comedy where he’s just trying to court a few cheap laughs or a potential TV series about a psychic using her clairvoyance to search for Bigfoot. (This is an actual Berggoetz project still in the works.) And like just about any B-movie director, he’s practically impervious to criticism—If 99 people tell him they don’t like a script and 1 person says they like it, that’s all he needs to confirm the idea in his mind. It’s practically a necessary trait: If you’re the kind of person who’s easily discouraged by someone telling you they don’t like your work, you’ll never make it in movies. This attitude leads to a rather hilarious series of hypothetical questions that Berggoetz sprinkles liberally throughout The Independent Filmmaker’s Guide. Just a small selection:
“Did I go to film school? No.”
“Could I get anyone in Hollywood to take a look at them? [scripts] No.”
“Were we the beneficiaries of pure, dumb luck? Absolutely.”
“Can this make your film look low-budget? Of course it can.”
“Will your social life suffer? Of course.”
“Do I make a ton of money? Hardly. Do I have benefits? Not one.”
“Had he ever acted before when I asked him to be in one of my projects? No.”
“Would storyboarding be effective in speeding up your shoot if you do it? Probably.” (This is my favorite.)
On another hand, though, he does aspire toward being a Tommy Wiseau-like figure. His desire for success is all-encompassing, and it’s more important to him that people want to watch his movies than whether they truly believe in his skills. He proudly tries to feed the impression that there’s a large “cult following” for his films, because some notoriety is better in his mind than anonymity. To that end, he’s extremely generous with offering information—that’s how I saw all of his films in the first place, because he willingly shipped them to a stranger in the mail, expecting nothing in return. Unlike the notoriously guarded and mysterious Wiseau, he proudly volunteers just about every possible bit of information about himself or his films. Just look at the wiki pages for films like To Die is Hard, which Berggoetz has clearly edited himself. He goes so far as to list the exact dollar amount of its box office to date—$4,189. No rounding up, no exaggerations. Glenn is honest to a fault. That’s just how this guy is, a middle-aged man chasing the impossible dream.
Berggoetz, chumming with zombies in Midget Zombie Takeover.
At the end of our lunch, our discussion having threaded its way through every aspect of Berggoetz’s filmmaking life, Glenn attempts to generously pay for my meal. I decline, respectfully, and ask if we can split the bill. He relents.
As I walk back to my car, no doubt heading toward my next brewery destination, I think about the sheer improbability of what Glenn achieves every time he sets aside a weekend to create one of his trademark no-budget features. I think about my $10 portion of our lunch and what that means in Berggoetz’s universe. To me, the $10 is something I’ll probably never think of again, a fair price for several pounds of starchy pasta. For Glenn, that $10 represents roughly 30 seconds he can shoot of his next feature film. That’s a not-insignificant figure for someone who makes his living on the razor’s edge of profitability, and I wouldn’t want to feel like I’d somehow stolen those 30 seconds of completed footage from him. Not from the guy with a lengthy section in his book about how to stretch the closing credits of a film to increase marketability:
“You can leave each name in the credits up on screen an extra second each. You can add in a lengthy ‘thank you’ section in the credits with made-up names and businesses. You can make up some crew roles that didn’t really exist, and then credit your actual crew members. Finding four or five ways to add an extra 10 or 20 seconds into your closing credits might make your film much more marketable if that extra minute or two takes your film up to the 70- or 80-minute mark.”
In some small way, I guess that means I’ve done my part—although I hope this piece can make an even more tangible impact. More film fans, especially those with an interest in Henry Darger-esque outsider art, should take an interest in what Glenn Berggoetz has done and what he’s doing. That starts with viewing his movies, which you can do with some difficulty online. Start with To Die is Hard, which can be found on an odd streaming site called OnlineMoviesBox for .99 cents. I promise, it’s an experience worth far more than a dollar.
And Glenn: Don’t ever stop doing what you do. The movie business would be unbearably drab without you. You may hold a record that will be difficult for anyone to ever break, but in terms of scoring an emotional response, you’ve already succeeded in a big way.
If you feel like supporting the work of Glenn Berggoetz, visit his Indiegogo for Paralyzed With Fear and chip in enough to film another 30 seconds.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he has a passion for off-the-wall cinema. His favorite Glenn Berggoetz feature is To Die is Hard. You can follow him on Twitter.