Saturday 23 June 2018

THE INSUFFERABLE GROO - Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018

One of the highlights of this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest was The Insufferable Groo, following the exploits of notorious low budget film director Stephen Groo as he tries to raise funding for and then direct a remake of his own elf/human fantasy romance, the Unexpected Race.

Welcome to the world of Stephen Groo, a filmmaker based in Utah who has what can only be described as a DIY aesthetic; writing, directing and starring in his films for a small but dedicated audience of family, friends and subscribers to his YouTube channel. Unlike his most obvious comparison Tommy Wiseau, Stephen Groo is far from a one hit wonder. Firstly, he's yet to have that hit, and secondly, since his graduation from college he has made films constantly. At the most recent count he's at 205 films since the turn of the millennium, not counting his music video tributes to Backstreet Boys and Nickelback.

"I read it to my Mom last night and she felt it was pretty solid". And with that statement you get a fairly good idea of what kind of filmmaker Stephen Groo is. He's a one man Asylum studio, funding unofficial spin offs to Resident Evil and Yu-Gi-Oh, and thinly veiled "homages" to the Twilight and Lord of the Rings series' that would have any copyright lawyer rubbing their hands together with glee. Achieving a certain degree of notoriety and fame through his Kickstarter generated film projects whilst his family lives off his wife's earnings, this doc captures Groo at a turning point in his life; about to embark upon his highest profile film yet, but also in danger of losing the apartment (complete with flooded basement) that he shares with his wife and four boys. Luckily for him he has a fan in Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess (who also produced this documentary), who has spread the work of Stephen Groo to his former cast members, including one Mr Jack Black whose schedule has just opened up.

Using a mixture of animation and behind the scenes filming to tell Groo's story, this film is also intercut with some of Groo's previous work, including his acting masterclass/self-help videos that at first appear to show him as completely delusional, but given time persuade you that this is just a person who has complete faith in his abilities, however misguided that faith might be. In an age when people can be rightly celebrated for the effort they put in and not just the end result, Stephen Groo should be championed. This documentary could quite easily make Groo a figure of fun, and whilst the opportunity to gently mock him is always there, the filmmakers wisely keep their distance and let his work speak for itself. At various times during this film he is shown to be an absolute tyrant on set, unwilling to take on board any of the ideas put forward by his first-time director of photography to the point where she almost walks away from the film, but then also a man who is fully aware of what scenes are vital to complete his vision. Never one to consider applying for permits to shoot on location, when asked to pack up and move on by a park ranger his instincts kick in, mobilising his crew and completing about a dozen set-ups in the space of 15 minutes.

With a slightly bizarre wardrobe that consists of a never ending supply of muscly superhero T-shirts and peroxide blonde hair, reputation as someone who's difficult to work with and a strange and immediately identifiable surname, Groo is a ready made outsider artist/filmmaker in the mould of Tommy Wiseau, just waiting to be discovered and revered by students and stoners across the world.  His life, as well as his films, may be chock full of moments of unexpected comedy and dubious filmmaking standards, but his passion is undeniable and thoroughly endearing.This doc is pre-emptive in that Stephen Groo has yet to have that moment where he tips over into the ranks of classic cult movie directors, but on the evidence of this, it's only a matter of time.

As a study of that special kind of madness that filmmaking stirs up in people, the Insufferable Groo is up there with American Movie, Best Worst Movie and The Disaster Artist. Sure, it's quite probable that Groo's ambition of walking the stage at the Oscars will forever be a pipe dream, that is unless they start to give out awards for perseverance. Then he's a shoo in.

Insufferable? Occasionally. A mad man? Maybe. Admirable? Definitely.


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