If you were fortunate enough to have seen Best Worst Movie or The American Scream, you are already familiar with Michael Paul Stephenson‘s work. Having starred in the unforgettably bad film Troll 2 back in the 90’s, he grew up and made the very personal documentary, Best Worst Movie, about the film, its cast, and the emergence of its cult following.
I enjoyed meeting Michael in Austin, Texas to discuss his latest film while Bob Odenkirk cookies stared us down.
Girlfriend’s Day sounds like something super sappy, but the story of greeting card writers is anything but. Clever dialogue and subtle (and not so subtle) humor immerse the viewer into a slightly different version of the world to which we’re accustomed. One of my favorite bits of dialogue involves a discussion on the difference between being cynical and being a cynic, so I asked Michael if he was one of those or something else.
“I’m a dreamer, you know. We’ve been in LA now ten years, and I have definitely seen myself become more cynical over that time, but for some reason, I still have enough foolishness in me to think that you can dream, and it will actually happen.”
Is it foolish to believe a dream can happen? I tend to disagree, and I think throughout our brief interview, Michael himself provides the evidence that supports my viewpoint.
While Troll 2 undoubtably had different effects on different cast members, Michael’s experience with it shaped him into the filmmaker he is today. “I have a sincere and genuine love for the director of Troll 2, Claudio Fragasso, and the older I get, the more I think about him and his commitment to a crazy dream.” Michael explained further, “I think about the value of creating something memorable. For me that is the ultimate goal with any story you tell, and Troll 2 did that. At the core of that is a sort of reckless dreamer who just went into it with heart and never stopped.”
“When I’ve tried to make things of my own, I’ll think about him and how difficult it must’ve been for this guy to make that movie, and all the hurdles he must’ve had. He did it, and it’s still having an effect on audiences. They’ll remember that movie. Ultimately, I think that’s what I aim to do one day with some measure of success; just create and tell stories that are memorable.” I would argue that he has already succeeded in that endeavor with his first documentary film, Best Worst Movie.
How does a documentary filmmaker shift to making a narrative comedy? Well, it’s a funny story (pun intended). During post-production on his 2nd documentary, The American Scream, Michael and his wife decided to make a list of actors with whom they would like to work one day.
“Primarily we were talking about actors that were mainly known in comedic circles but that we felt had very strong, untapped, dramatic sensibilities. I wrote down Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul). A month after that or so, I came across an interview on The A.V. Club with Bob, and read it and was surprised to find him mention the appreciation he had for Best Worst Movie. I got in touch and invited him and his family to the LA screening of The American Scream.”
That night Bob Odenkirk asked Michael if he ever thought about doing something that’s narrative. “Soon after, he sent me this script, and it just started moving from there. Really crazy. I never would have thought that that would be the design of the whole thing.”
The script for Girlfriend’s Day had been in the works for years, with the original writers Eric Hoffman and Philip Zlotorynski having started it well over a decade ago. Bob got involved and was excited about the project. Once Michael was on board, casting discussions began. While Bob suggested Amber Tamblyn (127 Hours, The Unusuals), he demonstrated the type of collaborator he was by telling Michael to meet with her and make sure it felt right, as well as to think of other people for the role. “Casting became this process of ideas. Our intent was to create a cast that was fun and comedic obviously, but understood the importance of playing it dramatic, not playing it as a joke. One of the benefits of having four years to sit around and think about a thing is you get time to marinate and talk about cast and have those sparks.”
One afternoon in an underground parking garage, Bob asked Michael, “What about Stacy Keach for Gundy?” Michael’s cynical side thought, “We’ll never get him. There’s no way!” His dreamer side expressed, “That would be amazing!” Michael had been a fan of both Larry Fessenden and David Sullivan for a while, and they had connections or were fans of Bob Odenkirk. “And we had a terrific casting director who understood the tone of this, and she brought forth ideas. It was just this spirit of collaboration that centered the whole thing” and ultimately was guided by a desire to create a fun and unexpected cast who are not only very good at comedy but also great in more serious situations.
Girlfriend’s Day is now available on Netflix. After you watch it, maybe you should contemplate whether you are a cynic, cynical, or perhaps a dreamer. I hope you’re the latter. The world needs more dreamers.