Faculty member Scott Christopherson discusses his most recent documentary about an eccentric BYU media arts alum
When BYU media arts professor Scott Christopherson found himself at the end of a 2015 tour for his latest documentary, the inspiration for his next project struck close to home.
As both a former student and a current professor, Christopherson’s roots are firmly planted in the BYU media arts program. Over the course of his undergraduate studies, he learned of another BYU alum, Stephen Groo, who had become something of a legend in both the media arts program and the world of independent filmmaking.
Groo has made more than 200 films in the last two decades, a proliferation fueled almost exclusively by a passion for filmmaking; he has never made a profit on a film, nor has he ever had a film picked up for distribution. He makes do with minimal budgets and the support of his family, who often find themselves in the cast or crew of Groo’s latest project.
By most industry standards, Groo is a categorically unsuccessful filmmaker, yet he has remained remarkably undaunted over the years. This persistent spirit, along with Groo’s eccentric approach to life and filmmaking and his ever-growing cult following, made him the ideal subject for Christopherson’s next documentary, which will have a theatrical run in December and is now available for pre-order on iTunes.
“I had just finished touring with ‘Peace Officer,’ which was really difficult and draining to make, when I saw that a good friend of mine, Eric Robertson, had acted in one of Stephen Groo’s short films,” said Christopherson. “I had forgotten about Stephen Groo, who was a student at BYU long before I was. I had heard about his films and I knew that he had some prominent fans. Eric and I set up a lunch with him, and I told him that we wanted to make a film about him.”
Several other filmmakers had tried to make documentaries about Groo over the last 20 years, but they all gave up for various reasons, including Groo’s often difficult personality. Christopherson’s documentary would ultimately be called “The Insufferable Groo,” which Christopherson notes “is not an easy title.” Still, he was determined to follow through and shed light on the BYU legend.
“When I find a character like him, I feel like I can tell that there’s enough meat on the bone to carry a whole feature-length movie,” said Christopherson. “There was something about him—he was either strange enough or charismatic enough. Whether you like him or dislike him, there’s enough there that people should see and experience him.”
Even after Groo agreed to allow Christopherson to follow him as he directed his next film—an elf-human romance called “The Unexpected Race,” in which the FBI tries to wipe out the elf race—there were still logistical issues to iron out. “In that lunch meeting, I told Steve that I wanted to get Jack Black to be in his movie,” said Christopherson. “I said that day one, but I didn’t know Jack Black. We had no idea if were were going to be able to get him.”
Christopherson was again able to tap into his BYU roots, connecting with fellow alum Jared Hess, whose comedy films include “Nacho Libre,” starring Black. Christopherson had also heard that Hess shared his interest in Groo.
“This documentary wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for BYU,” said Christopherson. “Steve is a BYU alum, so he was educated by BYU professors. So was I. So was Jared Hess. Now Jared is a big player in the Hollywood comedy world, but he’ll still come back and hang out with students here at BYU. He’s really giving to the film department. I eventually met him when he came here to speak, and I went to lunch with him as faculty.”
Like Christopherson, Hess learned about Groo during his time at BYU. “He’s a big Groo fan,” said Christopherson of Hess. “He’s purchased the rights to use scenes from Groo movies in his own movies. He passes out Groo movies to all the actors and actresses he works with, so Jack Black was actually already a fan as well.”
Hess came on as a producer for the documentary, joining yet another BYU alum, Jared Harris, and reached out to Black, who accepted a role in Groo’s newest feature film. With Black onboard, production was in full swing under Groo’s characteristic whirlwind direction.
“We watched Steve direct an entire feature-length movie in about 10 days,” Christopherson said. “It was an insanely short period of time. He would work incredibly hard, pushing 20-hour days three or four days in a row.”
“It was interesting to watch his process,” Christopherson continued. “He’ll pay attention to really specific details and then he won’t care about others. For example, his wigs are maybe 13 years old, but he’ll pay close attention to the lighting in one specific shot. Jared Hess said, if you took Steve and plugged him in as a director in a studio system, he could probably pull it off. He’s very detail-oriented and he’s very organized.”
For Christopherson, one of the highlights of documenting the production was watching Groo direct Jack Black. Groo’s cast and crew, most of whom were BYU students, traveled to Los Angeles for a day of shooting with the actor.
“Steve lives a really tough life, and he doesn’t catch a lot of breaks, it seems,” said Christopherson. “It was exciting to see him have that opportunity to work with Jack Black and to somehow play a part in that.”
“And Jack just lights up the screen,” he added. “That’s one of the best parts of the documentary. He plays the sheriff in Steve’s elf-human love story, and he’s naturally charismatic and funny and very easy to work with. It was fun to see him interact with Steve.”
With production for “The Unexpected Race” wrapping toward the end of 2016, Christopherson set to work editing his documentary. He encountered new challenges in the way he could—or should—present Groo.
“If a documentarian says they’re being objective, they’re lying to you,” said Christopherson. “No one is objective—it’s impossible. The minute you make a cut, you’re shaping reality just as you are in a fiction film. I can represent Steve however I and my team choose to represent him, but we wanted to do it in a charitable, kind, generous way. At the same time, you have to be honest about who someone is and what is happening, and that can be challenging. I also had to consider Steve’s family and how representing him could affect them.”
Despite the eventual title of the documentary, Christopherson knew that there was much more to Groo than the more difficult parts of his personality.
“The most challenging thing was trying to uncover who Steve really was,” said Christopherson. “I had to try to figure out who he was below the surface. He’s very good at performing for the camera—he acts in a lot of his movies, if not all of them. I had to get past that and get him to trust me enough to open up. Part of being a documentary filmmaker is exploring, and half of the fun for me was trying to unpack who he was and understand him.”
“The Insufferable Groo” premiered at the international Sheffield Doc Festival in June 2018, kicking off a tour that would introduce Stephen Groo to audiences around the world. After a November screening at Doc NYC, the largest documentary festival in the United States, the film will have its December theatrical run in select cities across the country, including Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Houston, with more to come. It will then become available on at least 100 video-on-demand platforms, including iTunes.
Christopherson hopes that audiences latch onto both the humorous and the unexpectedly relatable elements of Groo’s story. “The film is funny, and that’s part of why I made it, but I didn’t want to poke fun at Steve in any way,” Christopherson said. “It’s just what happens on set that brings the humor; it’s Steve being Steve. The fact that he’s shooting a feature-length movie in 10 days creates pretty crazy, entertaining experiences.”
“At the same time, I think that everyone can relate to wanting to pursue their dream and having to figure out what price they should pay to do that,” continued Christopherson. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a filmmaker or if you’re an athlete or a business person. Everyone can relate to having to figure out if pursuing their dream is realistic or if it would affect their family in a negative way. That’s the broader human theme of the film.”
Photos courtesy of Scott Christopherson.