How Jack Black Was Cast in Cult DIY Director Stephen Groo's Microbudget Elf-Human Fantasy Romance

Credit: Stephen Groo
Jack Black in 'Unexpected Race'

Scott Christopherson's new documentary 'The Insufferable Groo' explores the world of Stephen Groo, who in 20 years has made more than 200 films, not one of which has secured distribution or turned a profit.

Among the 200-plus films that screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest, which ended last week, one standout fit into that classic mold: movies about moviemaking. But The Insufferable Groo takes a somewhat different path than most, focusing on possibly the world’s most prolific yet unsuccessful filmmaker. 

A cult figure for many students of film in the U.S., Stephen Groo has spent 20 years making more than 200 microbudget DIY movies, boasting names such as She-Hulk, Circle of Fire: The Dark Lord and Challenge of Faith. Despite his efforts, not one has secured distribution or turned a profit. 

Scott Christopherson’s entertaining and, in many places, inspiring documentary opens a window into Groo’s curious and hugely creative world, looking at how the relentless pursuit of his dream impacts his family, which survives solely on his loyal wife Sherry’s monthly income of $1,000, and following the director as he attempts to put together his next big project, an elf/human fantasy romance, Unexpected Race. Along the way, he boasts of being able to complete hundreds of shots in a day, battles with his often beleaguered (and largely unpaid) crew and comes up against the sort of challenges that would make your average filmmaker turn and run. But against all odds (OK, with a little help from Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre director Jared Hess, also a Groo fan), he manages to cast an A-list star in Jack Black.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Christopherson discusses getting his subject to open up (and add the film’s producer on Facebook), comparisons to The Room’s Tommy Wiseau and how they managed to persuade Black to come on board.

How did you first come across Steve Groo?

My producer and good friend Eric Robertson was a big fan of Steve’s and was acting in one of his short films that he’d put on Facebook. I’d known about Steve because I’d attended the same film school years ago, and he was kind of a legend. After I saw the film on Facebook I was, like, we’ve got to do something or meet this guy. Three of four other filmmakers had tried to make films on Steve over the past 15 years, but hadn’t succeeded, Steve told me.

Was he worried that your doc might poke fun at him?

Steve is always a bit hesitant or puts up his guard whenever anyone wants to do a film or critique him. But I think he trusted my producer, Eric. He had become friends with him over the years. Steve is interesting because he’s very picky about who he adds as friends on Facebook. So Eric was consistently trying to be added as a friend on Facebook and he loves Steve work, and finally he did.

Was he OK with exposing both his filmmaking process and his family life?

Not at all. I think it took a lot of courage for he and Sherry to open up. Although filmmakers had tried to make a film on him, I don’t think anyone had tried to cover his family. For me as a filmmaker, that was really important, in order to see what his wife was like. Early, early on, I sat both of them down and said, "Look, if we’re going to do this film and do it right, we need to see what your life is like, warts and all, see what your struggles are, see what you’re problems are. And I don’t want to sugarcoat it." Even after that discussion, it still took a lot of persuasion and three years for Steve to really open up.

Do you think there’s a message in the film about the cost of following your dreams?

Jared Hess talks a bit about that at the end of the film, and says a lot of people think Steve should just quit what he does and get a steady job. But that would kind of be a tragedy, because I think Steve needs filmmaking to cope with the tragedies of life. For me, filmmaking for Steve is a big deal — it’s his way of life, it’s what he’s most passionate about. But I would say if you’re going to glean a message from it then, yeah, it’s — if you’re going to follow your dreams, I think of course you should ask yourself at what cost. How much is that going to affect your family?

Getting Jack Black was quite a coup. How much were you involved in making that happen?

From day one we said we thought it would be amazing if we got Jack Black. I didn’t know him from Adam. And I didn’t even know Jared Hess. It was kind of like a pipedream for Steve to make a film and then get this A-list actor. We connected with Hess, who’s good friends with Jack from Nacho Libre. And there’s no way it would have happened without Jared. For me, you don’t pray for conflict as a doc filmmaker; you let Steve be himself and don’t solve his problems for him and let conflict happen. And then when Jack Black decides to do it, it’s just like this huge win for him. And Jack was very gracious and super cool about it. I think it was between two films, The Polka King and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. He had a short period.

I love that it’s going to be on his IMDb page.

Oh, it’s on there. Steve made sure that Jack is listed on his IMDb page.

With The Room and Tommy Wiseau having become household names, do you think there’s any hope from Groo that his films could tap into that kind of market?

I thought about the comparison between Steve and Tommy a lot. Steve has this huge volume of work, he’s made 200 films, whereas Tommy has made one. But Steve just wants any success, if that means people laugh at his films or buy his films. Steve doesn’t want to be laughed at, but at the same time he would take any amount of success if that means buying his films or more people watching his films. He’s all for that. And I certainly think Steve’s films could have a huge audience, like Tommy’s.

What does Groo think of your film about him?

I was pretty nervous when I showed him the film. The title itself is a challenging title. Being called "insufferable" is not always easy! But I think he took it pretty well. At the premiere, it was electric, and I was frankly surprised by how many people were inspired. It’s not like he’s a villain or an antihero, which we expected because onscreen you can see that he can be difficult and demanding. But people loved him, and I think he’s shown a lot of maturity with how people respond to his films.