Is This the Worst Director in Hollywood?

Let’s get this part out of the way: Uwe Boll is not the worst director in Hollywood. He’s not, as TheMovieBoy.com once alleged, “a director so incompetent that the very job title of director seems too praiseworthy” or, as another message board suggested, “a worthless, life-sucking little maggot.” No matter what StopUweBoll.org would have you believe, a puppy is not run over by a car every time Boll makes a movie. And though there is also a Web site named UweBollIsAntichrist.com, Uwe Boll is probably not.

It is true, as his critics like to repeat, that three of the video-game adaptations Boll has released theatrically in the United States— House of the Dead, Bloodrayne, and Alone in the Dark—are all regularly ranked on the Internet Movie Database’s “Bottom 100” list of the worst movies ever made. But as Boll himself points out, “It’s absurd. Out of something like 5 million movies, only 200,000 can be on those lists. That leaves 4.8 million movies that aren’t even counted.” Nonetheless, The Dallas Morning News did give credit to Alone in the Dark for proving “it’s possible to dumb down a video game,” and Bloodrayne prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to opine that “Uwe Boll is such a bad director that it must be intentional.”

From Ed Wood to Roger Corman to Troma films, there is a long tradition of celebrating both B-movies and filmmakers who insist on working Outside the System. Uwe Boll has not exactly been a beneficiary of this romantic view. Instead, he is booed wherever he goes. The IMDb, for most of us a sober, objective compendium of data, is for Boll a howling chamber of hate. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that Uwe Boll (pronounced oo-vuh bowl) is the most hated director in Hollywood—or more precisely, outside Hollywood, since he insists on producing all his movies himself, a kind of Robert Altman of schlock. It’s a common (if ridiculous) rumor that his films are financed with Nazi gold.

But Boll says all this is about to change. He’s about to release his sixth video-game adaptation, a film that, unlike his previous work, he says expresses his personal vision. Postal is a comedy that involves, in no particular order, biological weapons, crooked cult leaders, hot blonds, sex with obese women, Verne Troyer being gang-raped by monkeys, a love affair between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden (played by Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi), and Boll himself, in lederhosen, as the führer of a Third Reich– themed amusement park.

“In Postal, people will finally see what I want them to see,” says Uwe Boll.

On the morning I come to see him in Vancouver, where he lives half the year and produces most of his films, Boll sits slouched on a sofa in a dark, crowded editing suite, sipping a Starbucks cappuccino with a straw. He’s shown up an hour late at a special-effects meeting for the action movie Far Cry. Packed in the small room are an editor, an effects producer, and a host of others, holding clipboards and laptops. The 42-year-old director has little patience for meetings, and he stares fixedly forward as the questions fly: “Do we want to pop a missile head onto the grenade POV?” “Should we go for a kind of Predator effect here?” “I can’t remember, is this the funny version or the gory version?”

Those who imagine Boll as a feral beast prowling the streets for brilliant, sincere scripts on which to defecate would be disappointed to meet him in person. Physically, he lives up to the role of movie villain, with his squat fighter’s frame, crew cut, crooked grin, and slight limp (a legacy of competitive handball in his youth). It helps, too, that he speaks in a near parody of a German accent, Colonel Klink hamming it up for The Producers. But the Raging Boll of Internet myth is mostly absent. He lives a relatively quiet life in Vancouver with his fiancée, Leeanne, and the couple’s two dogs. His default mode is less a blitzkrieg than a kind of distracted hurry, one foot always pointed toward the next item on an agenda he appears to keep only in his head.

Boll unconsciously taps his foot as a scene from Far Cry unspools. In it you can see a jeep being flipped over by a cable running offscreen. The cable will be easy enough to paint out digitally. Problem is, nobody can seem to remember why the jeep was supposed to roll over in the first place.

“We can stabilize this shot,” says Doug Oddy, the visual-effects supervisor.

“We don’t need to stabilize it,” Boll says. “We need a fucking mutant running around flipping over cars.”

Someone suggests that an alien from an earlier scene could be the jeep flipper. Boll slurps with the straw on the bottom of his cup and shrugs. “Okay, we try that.”

Thus is the plot of a feature film born.

We leave the editing suite and tour a floor of the studio devoted to all things Boll. At one end of the long hallway, an employee is doing some final work on the credits sequence of 1968 Tunnel Rats, the Vietnam War movie that Boll shot in South Africa in 2006. In the office next door, someone is working on the audio mix of a trailer for In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, Boll’s $60 million fantasy epic that went on to gross $3 million its opening weekend. In another office, one young staffer is doing promotional work for the slasher flick Seed while another is stamping screeners of Postal (out in May) with a digital antipiracy watermark. Whatever cinematic crimes Boll can be accused of, laziness isn’t one of them. He likes to work, work quickly, and then move on. One of his heroes is John Ford, who directed some 140 films in his career, including nineteen silent Westerns in one year.

Like Ford, Boll has developed an informal group of actors he likes, among them Michael Paré, a kind of poor man’s Tom Berenger, and Kristanna Loken, a poor man’s Angelina Jolie. (Africa doesn’t have enough poor men to account for the entirety of Boll’s casts.) As a rule, he seems to subscribe to the belief that actors are inconvenient necessities, those noisy objects on which blood squibs are affixed. He is proud to say that he has never paid an actor more than $1.5 million (Jason Statham in Dungeon Siege). He once boasted about hiring Romanian prostitutes to act alongside a vampire king played by Meat Loaf on Bloodrayne: “For 150 euros apiece, they would be naked and do what they were told.”

The meeting over, we climb into Boll’s car and wind our way to the top of Mount Seymour, where a key special effect is to be filmed that night. At the top, we find a scale model of a helicopter on a swivel tripod, a huge tank filled with freezing water, and a bunch of very cold PAs doomed to spend most of the night up there as the model is filmed tumbling into the water and blowing up from every possible angle. This is Boll’s element. His movies are filled with swooping crane shots and helicopter flyovers and huge, impossibly bright explosions. He loves slow motion with swelling music and flashbacks filmed in black and white. His are the movies that boys enact in their backyards, complete with elaborate slo-mo deaths and men screaming “Noooooo!” That is to say, the kind of movies you’d think would be perfectly suited to video-game adaptations.

To spend any time at all with Boll is to become fluent in the secret vital language of Hollywood: numbers of screens, print and advertising budgets, Chinese distribution rights, Croatian tax abatements, Spanish DVD-distribution deals—all the unglamorous ways in which the movie industry actually pays for its excesses.

Other directors like to pretend they’re above the vulgar details of commerce, but Boll is a genius at it. For years he brilliantly capitalized on a German tax loophole that allowed citizens to invest in his films taxfree. When he set his heart on making Tunnel Rats, a film with all unknown actors and an unhappy ending, Boll overcame the obvious funding obstacles by proposing to develop a Tunnel Rats video game at the same time. Before we met, I was intrigued by the uniformity in the length of his films; every one of them clocked in at almost precisely ninety minutes, as though reflecting some cinematic philosophy. In a sense, I was right: Ninety minutes is the typical length a film needs to be in order to be later sold for TV broadcast.

Boll pays himself only $120,000 to direct each movie but retains all the rights and takes 7.5 percent of the revenues. To raise the $25 million to make Bloodrayne, he crisscrossed Germany, assembling some 800 small investors. (Bizarrely, almost half were dentists.) For Boll, as for more filmmakers than would like to admit it, the art of filmmaking is the art of getting a film made.

“I think he gets lost in the job of being a producer,” says Zack Ward, who stars in Postal and acted in Bloodrayne II: Deliverance. “He’s always on the cell phone worrying about the next thing. I’ll tell you, if he would put all that aside and just do one movie a year, concentrate on directing, I’d jump in and do it for no money.”

But Boll says he’s just not that kind of director. “I’m not like Stanley Kubrick or somebody who wants only to do one particular project and make a masterpiece,” he says. “Even if a studio would finance something where I could have eight months to shoot it, I would still not do it. I would not see what I gained from it.”

Critics like to deride Boll’s use of the Bond-villainish title “Dr. Boll,” but he really does have a Ph.D., in German literature. His doctoral thesis, from the University of Siegen, was about the boom in genre stories that occurred in eighteenth-century Germany—one of the earliest blossomings of mass-entertainment culture.

He’s also made a few stabs at serious drama. In 2003 he filmed Heart of America: Homeroom, a surprisingly ambitious if somewhat clumsy take on the Columbine high school shootings. It was a hard lesson in the ways of Hollywood. Boll was happy with the film, but it wound up being released only on DVD. “At the parallel time, Gus Van Sant made his movie Elephant,” he says, shaking his head. “I saw it, and I think Elephant was superboring. But he got all the A-list invitations. I got shit.”

“Shit” in this case included an offer to produce and direct an adaptation of the Sega zombie game House of the Dead. “They told me, ‘Go outside to the streets of Vancouver and ask anybody under 20 if they know this game,’ ” he remembers. It was a convincing poll. The director developed the script—about a group of twentysomethings that sail to an island off Seattle for a rave, there to be picked off one by one—and shot the film for $7 million. Despite universal pans, it grossed more than $10 million.

“I thought, You make a good movie like Heart of America and it doesn’t make money; then you do House of the Dead and you double your money. I want to make movies, I want to keep going—so I started looking for other video-game properties that interested me.”

House of the Dead is terrible—though, it has to be said, not significantly more terrible than you would imagine a movie version of House of the Dead to be. The same goes for Alone in the Dark and Bloodrayne. They’re clunky. They’re incoherent. But they’re also chockablock with more than enough material to become camp classics: Tara Reid playing an anthropologist; a doughy Michael Madsen slaying vampires; expository lines like “We broke up a few weeks ago so I could study and she could fence.” This is one of the more puzzling parts of the Boll phenomenon. Snakes on a Plane is so-bad-it’s-good, but Alone in the Dark is an affront to cinema? Dungeon Siege is singled out as pandering, derivative crap when it opens the same weekend The Bucket List earns $19.5 million?

“At least people should respect that I made something out of nothing,” he says. “This is what I don’t get: They hate me this much only because of the movies? You have to go deeper into a person than that.”

Eric Vespe, who writes under the name Quint at the Web site Ain’t It Cool News and has been one of Boll’s most fervent critics, says that it’s a question of intent. “I don’t buy the comparisons to Ed Wood, because I don’t believe that Dr. Boll loves what he’s doing,” Vespe says. “I think that he loves the attention. He loves the glamour. But I don’t think he loves movies.” Furthermore, says Vespe, in an industry known for a herd mentality, Boll’s failures spell doom for other, presumably more heartfelt filmmakers. “When he comes out with a terrible R-rated horror film that bombs, Hollywood doesn’t say, ‘Oh, this German guy made a terrible movie.’ They say, ‘There’s no market for R-rated horror,’ ” he says.

Ultimately, such economic arguments and George Bush–style assessments of Boll’s soul (“I looked the man in the eye and found he didn’t really love zombies”) seem like justifications for something far more visceral: Boll’s critics really hate him. And Boll accommodates them by fighting back.

One day in Vancouver, we sit in the living room of the cluttered house he shares with Leeanne and watch footage from what may be Boll’s most famous moment as a director: a series of boxing matches to which he challenged his critics in September 2006.

The four writers who showed up in the ring seemed unaware of just how seriously the director takes the sweet science. In fact, he spent much of his youth in the ring. The bout may have been a grand, old-fashioned publicity stunt—Boll secured sponsorship from GoldenPalace.com and press coverage all over the world—but that didn’t stop the director from training hard for months leading up to it. And his performance was fueled by real anger and real hurt. He chuckles as we watch round one of the fight with Richard Kyanka of SomethingAwful.com. Boll gives him a hard punch, and you can see the exact moment when it begins to dawn on the writer that this lunatic actually wants to hurt him.

“C’mon, this wasn’t ‘I’ll pay for you to fly to Vancouver and we’ll have a nice meeting,’ ” Boll says, eyes glued to the screen. A little later, we watch a writer for Ain’t It Cool News pull off his postbout oxygen mask to vomit on the floor. Boll laughs again.

Zack Ward says, “A big part of Uwe is a little boy that wants to be carried out of the theater on the audience’s shoulders. But he’s like, ‘If you’re not going to love me, I’m going to make you fucking hate me.’”

One of the charges Boll’s critics hurl at him is that he doesn’t sufficiently care about the games he adapts, that he only uses popular titles to finance whatever films he wants to make. It’s a valid point, though it’s debatable to what extent setting Bloodrayne in eighteenth-century Romania, instead of World War II Germany, constitutes a significant loss to the culture.

Nobody can complain that he didn’t capture the essence of Postal. The game, which first appeared in 1997, is a deeply retarded first-person shooter in which a character named Postal Dude wanders the streets smoking meth, returning library books, shooting cops, and generally behaving as nihilistically as possible. It was Boll’s either brilliant or disturbed insight that this game could in fact be a more accurate expression of what it means to live in post-9/11 America than any number of Reign Over Mes or In the Valley of Elahs.

“I believe the world is in need of a movie that is tougher in its mockery of the globe than South Park,” he wrote in a press document titled “Why I Produced and Directed Postal by Dr. Uwe Boll.” “Our world is out of balance, and Postal will reflect just how fucked-up we are.”

The film’s first and funniest scene takes place in the cockpit of one of the airplanes heading for the World Trade Center. (There is some disagreement on the number of virgins the pilots can expect in paradise.) What follows is a mixed bag of sharp satire and juvenile misfires that attempts to piss off as many people as possible. So far, it’s worked well enough to cause an uproar in Germany—a fact that seems to simultaneously delight and outrage Boll. Few things infuriate him more than the self-congratulation with which his countrymen greet pious movies about the Holocaust. “This is courageous? To say the Holocaust was a bad thing—in 2007? Postal is about things happening now. That is brave,” he says. In the film, he appears as himself, showing off a pocketful of gold teeth.

“If you are offended by the movie, it is not the fault of the movie. It is your fault,” Boll tells the audience at the film’s L.A. premiere. The film may not shift the public’s perception of Boll 180 degrees, but this is a sympathetic group. After the screening, there’s a reception in the theater lobby. A number of well-proportioned Web film writers hold court. “We get, like, sixty free DVDs sent in every week,” one tells the attractive girl he’s chatting up. The actor Michael Paré, who has appeared in no fewer than ten Boll movies, is standing by the bar, singing the director’s praises. “I think people misunderstand him because English isn’t his first language. In German, he’s a poet,” he says.

Boll himself looks haggard. He’s flown in from a whirlwind tour promoting Postal in Germany, and the airline lost his luggage. He clutches what clothes he has in a plastic bag. In the next several days, he will have a marathon marketing meeting with Vivendi Video, which is releasing Postal. He’ll make an appearance on MTV Networks’ online show Bonus Round and duly mention Zombie Massacre. (A fan site will announce that another title is set to be “raped and murdered.”) He’ll have lunch with Freddie Prinze Jr., who is interested in working with him on a romantic comedy. Then he’ll fly off to a horror-film festival “somewhere on the west coast of Lake Michigan.” This turns out to be Milwaukee.

First, though, there is the gala closing ceremony of the Hollywood Film Festival, where the Hollywood Awards are bestowed. The black-tie dinner is held in the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton. It is one of those events that seem to exist only because the people involved agree they do. If everybody were to look away at the same time, you get the feeling that the whole place would disappear, leaving only a few pieces of chicken rollatini and fluttering valet-parking tickets.

Boll, whose luggage is still at large, is wearing a black T-shirt and jeans. He sits uncomfortably at a table far from the stage, pushing a dollop of mocha cream around on his plate. At one point, he goes to the bathroom, and several minutes later my cell phone vibrates. Boll has accidentally wandered out of the ballroom, and security won’t let him back until I go vouch for him.

I’ve now spent several days with Boll and haven’t decided if he is a misunderstood artist, a cynical businessman, a courageous maverick, a venal philistine, or just a guy determined to keep working even though his desire might outrun his talent. I do know that every one of those traits is something we like to celebrate as essential to the American character, with one proviso: that they come packaged in a winner. And that may be Boll’s real and only unforgivable sin: So far, at least, he hasn’t been committed enough or talented enough or just lucky enough to do anything but lose.

Onstage, Brad Pitt bestows an award on Casey Affleck. Jennifer Connelly and John Travolta make speeches thanking people who will never know it, since the ceremony is untelevised. Boll fidgets as director Marc Forster accepts the Director of the Year award for The Kite Runner. The tuxedos and ball gowns happily applaud themselves. This may be the dead geographic center of the Hollywood circle jerk, but that is also a warm, comfortable place to be. It must be hard for Boll, I think, to always be on the outside looking in. Especially since he knows this: They may take meetings at Craft instead of a mall; they may be financed by Weinsteins instead of dentists; their genre may be Oscar trash instead of horror trash; but every person in that room is, in one way or another, a Raging Boll.

As though reading my mind, the real Boll suddenly looks up at me across the table. His bottom lip curls forward like a child’s in a leering caricature of self-pity. Then he grins his crooked grin.

 

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