Michael Paul Stephenson’s best-known movie is also one of the worst movies ever made. So when he decided to pick up a camera and create Best Worst Movie – a documentary on his childhood claim to acting fame, Troll 2, and the place that picture holds in horror movie history – the results were a personal and thoughtful take on cult cinephilia. His follow-up, The American Scream, was a profile of homemade haunted house performers, further exploring outsider artistry and shedding a light on what any creation can mean to its creator. Now comes Girlfriend’s Day – an absurdist slice of surreal comedy starring Bob Odenkirk as a down and out greeting card poet. It’s a bitingly hilarious hook that also finds the gloomy humanity in its silly sad sack of a central character.
We recently had the chance to sit down with Michael, and what followed was a breezy conversation that covered his first foray into narrative features and what it’s like to work with Netflix’s fresh distribution method…
BMD: You’ve made two superlative documentaries with Best Worst Movie and The American Scream. How’d it feel to jump into features for the first time?
Michael Stephenson: It was intimidating. But it was doubly intimidating to work alongside Bob, who I’d looked up to for many, many years. When I first read the script, it came off as such an interesting animal. There were moments when I smiled, moments where I laughed, and then moments where I was just like “what is this thing?” It’s so unusual, and I’d never read anything like it before. During that same period, I was reading lots of horror scripts and everything was exactly the same. But then I read Girlfriend’s Day, and part of the allure was the challenge of trying to establish some sense of real stakes inside of a world that’s built on an absolutely absurd premise. That was fun.
Ultimately, it was also a great opportunity to grow. Being a documentary filmmaker, you’re always “in the moment” and everything is guided by naturalism, and I made the choice early on to not do something that felt like a natural progression. I didn’t want it to be a half-documentary or mockumentary or something. No clichéd naturalistic indie comedy/drama. Girlfriend’s Day lent itself toward exercising a completely different set of muscles than I was using as a documentary filmmaker, specifically with style. I pushed and committed to formalism on the opposite side of the spectrum.
BMD: There’s even a noir element to it, too.
MS: Yeah, you’re like halfway through, and then all the sudden you have a murder mystery. One of the things that was really intimidating when I first read it was that, not only is it a unique world with a lot of shapes and colors, there’s a lot of characters in it, too. I get a lot of joy out of being thirty-six minutes into a movie and suddenly you meet a new character. That’s fun. Plus, you’re in this world that feels slightly like your own, while also slightly disconnected from reality.
BMD: It’s almost like Thomas Pynchon fan fiction. But, at the same time, you retain the same warmth that you exuded in your other movies. How do you maintain a sense of caring at all times for characters who are goofballs?
MS: The things I’m most obsessed with are interesting characters and interesting spaces, whether it’s a documentary or something like Girlfriend’s Day. When I first started working on it, I broke the script down in order to find the core of what the characters were trying to say. With documentary films, you get to know somebody so well on a psychological level. It’s so intimate. They can be saying one thing, but you know they mean something totally different. To me, the only relationship that’s closer than [documentarian/subject] would be with a loved one or significant other.
With Girlfriend’s Day, I found ways to relate to each character and enjoy them for who they are, with the exception of the college kid who organizes Bumfights. That guy is irredeemable in my mind. I hate that guy. But outside of him, I’d try and find the humanity in what they were saying, even when it was completely absurd.
A great example of this is when Ray [Odenkirk] gets fired, and he’s in his boss’ office, and he says “I’ll fold.” And his boss says “you’ll what?” And he says: “I will fold [the cards]”. What I hear there is “I’m desperate, and I will do anything.” That’s just one example, but that’s the process. When you have something so absurd on paper, you’re trying to find the core emotions and values behind what they’re trying to say. Then just treat the character with respect, and you have someone that you love and you’ve smuggled a deeper truth beneath the comedy.
BMD: And that’s what’s remarkable about the movie. You could’ve just presented everything as over-the-top satire. It’s all so surreal. But it ends up feeling like an exploration of depression, and how we can all fall into these doldrums and let rough patches get the better of us.
MS: [laughs] It’s certainly an examination of a flawed guy. Ray is a flawed artist. But despite the absurdity of his craft, and the world that he’s a part of, he was once the greatest at what he does. Then he loses it, and struggles to gain it back. For whatever reason, I relate to people who think they had something once and they’ll never get it back; specifically, artists. I respect Ray for what he once was and now have sympathy for the guy who tells the same fish story every Monday in the break room, and probably even embellishes it a bit.
BMD: Now – how did the script come to you? It’s been kicking around for a while, right?
MS: The original writer, [former Mr. Show scribe] Eric Hoffman, started the original draft maybe eighteen years ago. Then Bob got involved, and there were a series of re-writes so he could put his touch on it. I came in like five years ago and, what happened was, I was finishing editing The American Scream, and my wife Lindsey and I were sitting around and talking about actors who are primarily known in comedic circles but have largely untapped dramatic sensibilities. Because there’s a lot of real pain and humanity in the jokes they craft. So Lindsey was like “let’s write down our dream names on the whiteboard”, and Bob Odenkirk was one of mine.
I was fascinated by what was going on with him at the time. This was when Breaking Bad first started getting big, and I always love these talented guys who’ve been around forever and get popular later in life. About a month later, I’m on a website and I read this interview with Bob, and he mentioned his appreciation for Best Worst Movie. That was the moment I was like “I may need to reach out to this guy and say ‘hello’”. So I invited him to the premiere of The American Scream at the Cinefamily, and he came and brought his children. Afterwards, he asked me if I’d ever be interested in doing something in the narrative world. A month after that, he sent me the script, and I’ll never forget the email attached to it. It said “Michael, I’ve been working on this for far too long. I keep coming back to it because it makes me smile. I hope one day I get a chance to make it, but I don’t think I ever will.”
I didn’t expect what the script made me feel – the humor and the darkness. It was all so completely original, and only could’ve come from him. We worked on it for four and a half years and, at a certain point, there was a momentum behind him. He came straight from shooting Better Call Saul and we shot Girlfriend’s Day.
BMD: How has it been to work with Netflix?
MS: In every way, Netflix has been amazing to work with. It would be so hard for a movie like this to have any chance of getting made, let alone screened. When I first read the script I was like “this would make for a good Netflix special”, because they hadn’t been shooting movies yet, but were doing some comedy specials. Plus, they’d been really supportive of my smaller, weirder documentaries. As time went on, I learned Bob had sent a copy of the script to Ted [Sarandos, Chief Content Officer] at Netflix about ten years ago. Ted had been having a really bad day when Bob sent it to him, and he emailed him back saying, “thanks, this really made me smile.” Fast forward a few years, and Bob just recognized we had this window because the awareness regarding his work was just that much bigger, and Netflix got really excited about it and said “let’s do it.”
From the first day of shooting to the last, and every day in-between, we couldn’t have had a partner who was more supportive. They let us do what we do best, and they took the movie and did what they do best. That’s really unusual. For me, to be able to make something like that with such support, and then be guaranteed an audience? That’s a huge deal. Trying to make any sort of independent film nowadays and then get people to see it is next to impossible. First you get into a festival, then you get a distributor who is more just looking for platforms to put the film on. So to have somebody like Netflix who has an audience of ninety million people, and Girlfriend’s Day will always be there on the shelf, waiting for them if they’re interested? That’s a great feeling. Plus, they’re able to take risks on stuff like this. They don’t have to just buy and distribute things based on opening box office numbers or appeal to advertisers or a certain demographic. That’s incredibly freeing.
Girlfriend’s Day is available now on Netflix.