It's funny the turns life takes.
The thing that nearly killed Michael Paul Stephenson's movie career just might turn out to be the thing that jump-starts it 20 years later.
That "thing" is "Troll 2," the infamously bad, 1990 horror movie about vegetarian goblins. The film is regarded as one of the worst ever made. (On the popular Internet Movie Database website, the movie is ranked by users as the 60th worst of all time.)
So needless to say, the movie has been the source of great embarrassment over the years to Stephenson, who was its child star.
"For years, even thinking about 'Troll 2' would make me physically ill," the 32-year-old filmmaker explained. "I tried to forget it, but it would keep resurfacing in some form and giving me heartburn all over again."
Stephenson had those hard feelings about the movie up until five or six years ago, when users on the once-popular MySpace social network tracked him down online. Most of them were rabid "Troll 2" fans who were hoping to converse with him about the film.
"I honestly thought it was a joke at first, that people were doing it to make fun of me for being in 'Troll 2,' " he said by telephone from Los Angeles. "But then more and more it became apparent that somehow, some way, 'Troll 2' had suddenly found its audience."
After a couple of months, he decided to make a "Troll 2"-centric documentary, "Best Worst Movie." It examines how a film "so completely inept in every facet of filmmaking" and one that went straight to video could become a cult phenomenon.
"It's amazing to see the second life the movie has had," Stephenson said. "That's not just true for the United States but around the world as well. People genuinely love the film and are devoted to spreading the word about it."
("Best Worst Movie" is playing at Salt Lake's Tower Theatre, and Stephenson will be there for post-screening discussions today and May 29.)
Early in the filmmaking process, Stephenson decided not to focus on his story but the stories of his cast and crew mates.
"I guess that makes me a bit traditional, but I've always thought it was sloppy and too easy to go that direction," he said. "Besides, I was much more interested in hearing what the others had to say and where they were in life now."
Most of the "Best Worst Movie" spotlight shines on George Hardy, who played Stephenson's father in "Troll 2" and who now has a successful dental practice in Alabama.
"George is such a likable guy that he's the perfect leading man for my movie, at least," Stephenson said. "And George certainly hasn't suffered since he starred in 'Troll 2.' "
However, it's not all a happy story. Hardy is shown as being content with his newfound "stardom" and seems to realize that it won't last forever. Other "Troll 2" cast and crew members haven't fared as well.
And then there's Claudio Fragasso, the director of "Troll 2." He's shown in the movie as being annoyed when audiences mock his movie or being told of its cinematic notoriety.
"It was important for me to get that in the movie," Stephenson explained. "And I certainly wasn't doing it to make fun of Claudio, who was unbelievably supportive of me and my efforts to make this movie."
Plus, "eventually Claudio embraced the fact that audiences loved his movie, whether or not it was in the manner he intended."
Stephenson has strong Utah ties. He grew up in Utah (he now lives in Los Angeles) and "Troll 2" was shot around Heber City and Park City.
And he showed "Best Worst Movie" at last year's inaugural Salt Lake City Film Festival — an event that convinced Stephenson he might just have a future behind the camera. "Things have really taken off for me and the film from there."
He plans to follow up "Best Worst Movie" with other projects, including a narrative feature that he's keeping under wraps.
"If you had told me that I would be getting all these opportunities by way of a documentary that came about from a really awful film, I would have called you a liar," he said. "But I guess it's true what they say, that what doesn't kill you really does make you stronger, or at least more successful."
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