I’m surprised, and a little embarrassed, to say that up until watching the documentary about him and his work today, The Insufferable Groo, I had never heard of the titular director, Stephen Groo. I feel as though I should have, because I have often dwelled on the outside fringes of the world of cinema. However, now that I know who he is, I am incredibly fascinated by the man and his immense body of work.
Groo has been making films since 1999. He majored in film at Brigham Young University and has been making movies ever since. As of the production of the documentary, Groo has directed 200 films, and since then, it’s quite possible he’s made more. The best way I can think of to describe Stephen Groo to the uninitiated would be a man with the aesthetic sensibilities and talents of Tommy Wiseau, the work ethic of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and the scope of storytelling of an early Mario Bava or Jess Franco, with a little splash of Uwe Boll for good measure. Does that not make any sense? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t, and that’s fine, because I’m not sure if it’s supposed to make sense to anyone but Groo, himself, and his fanbase.
His fan base includes fellow BYU classmate Jared Hess, director of such goofy goldmines as Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre. Hess joins us at the outset of The Insufferable Groo on a journey to help Stephen acquire the funding to make a new version of one of his old films, with a real producer and stars that aren’t just his friends, including Groo fan and Hess alumnus, Jack Black.
“…the history of Groo’s career and many (many) attempts at greatness…”
We are told the history of Groo’s career and many (many) attempts at greatness via the device of an acting instructional video that Stephen directed in 2005. We’re introduced to many of the regular actors on Groo’s films, his mother, his wife, and kids. We enter his world and somewhat, sort of, begin to understand him. At first, Groo seems like a nerdy but affable artist, but when the shoot for the re-make of his older film Unexpected Race starts, we see where the titular “insufferable” originates.
Working on films with zero budget requires a lot of hard work from everyone on set, and often, no one gets paid, the days are long with minimal breaks, and the shots have to be fast if you’re shooting without permits. Not everyone can deal with this workflow. Groo is also incredibly uncompromising of his vision, at the expense of basically everyone. There are several times throughout the shoot where cinematographer Lauren Vanderwerken is either fired or quits…but she always comes back.
In one particular bout of frustration, Vanderwerken says “ The narcissism that he exudes with every interaction I’ve ever had with him, it makes it impossible to collaborate with him. Especially when you’re not paying anyone, when you’re insisting on working 19-hour days, when you’re saying ‘take 20 minutes for lunch and that’s it!’. I just cannot condone that attitude.”
In many ways, it’s completely understandable that someone would feel this way, and there’s not really an excuse for that kind of behavior, but many directors since the first time “action” was called have been uncompromising, demanding, and insufferable. We as a society forgive them for that because of the end product. The thing with Stephen Groo is that he has definitely drunk quite a lot of his own kool-aid and sometimes has a problem empathizing with other people.
“…one of the few jobs where you’re allowed to have as many tantrums as you want…”
On the other hand, Groo is a great person to his family. Also when things are going his way, he’s fine. His demeanor when Jack Black and Jared Hess are on set is entirely different than when dealing with park rangers shutting down shoots in the Utah woods. Being a director is one of the few jobs where you’re allowed to have as many tantrums as you want because, at the end of the day, you’re the one who’s in charge. It’s not exactly fair, but it’s how the world of film works across the board, even in independent productions. Sometimes, especially if the stakes are high, a boorish take-no-prisoners attitude is precisely what one needs to get the job done.
Groo also has to deal with the financial hardships of being a creative person who has yet to “make it”. We see he and his family lose their home, and Stephen starts a $10 an hour job creating cosplay axes. He, his wife, and his three kids have to move into a 950-square-foot apartment. The film we watch him agonize over for the entirety of The Insufferable Groo doesn’t get picked up by any festivals or distributors at the time of the film’s release (it was shown at the Sydney Underground Film Festival in 2018, however), yet Groo is still making films. Despite however pugnacious he can be, there’s something to be said for that kind of dedication and passion.
The Insufferable Groo is a great how-to (or how-not-to, depending on your school of thought) film on all that goes into creating an independent film. It’s very reminiscent of Chris Smith’s American Movie (1999), so fans of that film will certainly enjoy that one. If anything, The Insufferable Groo will make you reconsider your commitment to whatever your passions are. As frequent Groo collaborator Steve Walters says towards the end of the film “So few people have the passion to just go for their dreams without ever quitting, no matter what obstacles jump in their way and I gotta respect that because I’ve got a lot of dreams that are unfulfilled and the man (Groo) just goes for it.” However you may feel about the man after watching the film, that is not something you can take away from him.
The Insufferable Groo (2018) Directed by Scott Christopherson. Starring Stephen Groo, Jared Hess, Jack Black, Lourie Bloomfield, Sherry Groo.
7 out of 10