Ben (Jamie Brett Gabel) and Arthur (Sam Mraovich) celebrate their wedding in Ben & Arthur. Ariztical Entertainment
"If Tommy Wiseau's The Room is the overwrought, melodramatic and self-pitying heterosexual camp classic of choice, then Sam Mraovich's Ben & Arthur is its gay equivalent," wrote Rotten Tomatoes' Michael Adams. "Every scene, every line, every hissy fit is simultaneously hilariously amateur and hysterically fever-pitched."
But there's no need to tell Mraovich, who wrote, directed, produced, co-edited, scored, and starred in Ben & Arthur, what's wrong with the movie: He's the first to volunteer that information.
"I left a tripod in the background," the now 38-year-old Mraovich told BuzzFeed News in a recent phone interview. "And the airplane wasn't even a real plane for passengers. I think it was a Fed Ex plane. And I got my locations mixed up, too, in the editing process, where the actors were supposed to be going to Vermont, and there were palm trees in the area."
Of course, Mraovich wasn't the only one to notice the mistakes. They're part of what's transformed Ben & Arthur from a tiny, low-budget indie to a notorious disaster.
"The film was destined to have some mistakes," Mraovich said. "I definitely think the mistakes have helped incredibly to publicize the film, by all means. So maybe I am glad that they happened because there sure is a lot of talk about it. And when people are talking about your creative project, that's always good, even if it's bad."
"Looking back," he added, "the mistakes helped publicize the thing, just like when Janet Jackson's boob flopped out."
Whether Ben & Arthur has the same lasting power as an errant nipple remains to be seen, but Mraovich certainly has a uniquely optimistic response to his critics. It might seem disingenuous, but there's an unmistakable earnestness in his voice. It's the same attitude that led him to pour his time, energy, and finances into a passion project he wasn't sure would ever see the light of day.
Before writing Ben & Arthur, Mraovich was, by his own designation, a "struggling filmmaker." He worked odd jobs, none of which stuck, while trying to make his Hollywood dreams come to fruition.
Writing in his spare time, Mraovich took six months to complete his script for Ben and Arthur. A year and a half after he'd finished writing, he finally set about getting the film made. But it wasn't inspiration that kept him motivated; it was disgust at the lack of marriage equality in the U.S. "It was just a very hurtful, painful reality check that the country just does not give any respect to gays or lesbians," Mraovich said.
Ben & Arthur follows titular couple Ben (Jamie Brett Gabel) and Arthur (Mraovich), who are desperate to get legally married. But, aside from the legal struggle, there are some other impediments in their way: There's Ben's wife Tammy (Julie Belknap), desperate to win Ben back, and Arthur's brother Victor (Michael Haboush), a homophobic religious fanatic who will stop at nothing to "cure" Arthur of his homosexuality. It all culminates in a violent, high-stakes conclusion that makes most Lifetime movies look tame.
For even the most seasoned filmmaker, Ben & Arthur would not have been an easy project — and Mraovich was far from seasoned. Once he began the process of turning his screenplay into a movie, Mraovich, who was only 24 at the time, realized he was lacking many of the key components to filmmaking success: money, experience, and any interested buyers.
"I was young. I never went to film school. And I had a little bit of money to go ahead and do something, but obviously it wasn't going to be equivalent to a Hollywood production," Mraovich said. "I did everything on spec. It's not like I knew anybody who said, 'Hey, if you ever make a film, you've got a distribution deal with us,' or something like that. I totally made the movie with the expectation and possibility that it might have just never went anywhere. It would have sat in my closet collecting dust."
Despite being aware of the hurdles ahead, Mraovich admitted the filming process was even more daunting than anticipated. It didn't help that he was doing everything himself: casting, directing, filming, and starring as Arthur, who delivers the movie's most dramatic (and loudest) speeches. And because he had a day job at the time, all filming had to be relegated to weekends.
"I really didn't know what I was getting into," Mraovich said. "But I do know … I work hard. I don't give up easily on things. So I was up for the challenge of making a film. It was a lot more involved than I thought, but you've gotta kind of be flexible and take the punches as they come. So I started shooting July 2001, and I kept shooting all the way till March of 2002."
To find actors, Mraovich placed an ad in Backstage West, an entertainment-industry magazine. Even though Ben and Arthur was a small project with an unclear end date and slim prospects, he received over 900 headshots. Mraovich could only offer his actors minimal pay, though he prided himself in always offering something in the way of craft services.
Once he had finished shooting in early 2002, Mraovich began the arduous process of editing, with help from his 17-year-old brother Chris, credited as "editing supervisor." It wasn't long before he realized that Ben & Arthur needed a lot of work. As much time as he had put into the project, he was always one man taking on multiple essential jobs, and it showed.
"I did not do the best that I could have done because I felt like a chicken running around without its head," Mraovich said. "When you don't have a lot of money, you really can't pay people to do certain things that the money people have. So I had no script supervisor. I had nobody really making sure that the scenes were continuous."
The biggest problem was the soundtrack, which was, by Mraovich's own estimation, "horrendous." The version you hear now if you watch Ben & Arthur was cleaned up by the film's eventual distributor, Ariztical Entertainment. Before that, dialogue had to compete with everything from planes flying overhead to the sounds of an especially loud refrigerator.
But Mraovich was dubious about ever getting exposure for what was sure to be an imperfect movie. Now that he could see the technical flaws, he knew the next step would be a struggle. On some level he resigned himself to feeling accomplished for merely finishing the movie, but he continued to look into ways of finding an audience.
"There was a ton of rejection. Everybody was saying no. I didn't really know what to do at that point," Mraovich said. "So I told myself, You know what? If this film could just get played in a theater, I'll be happy with that, and the heck with this distribution stuff."
Arthur and Ben squabble over their delayed nuptials. Ariztical Entertainment
Although Ben & Arthur had made a sizable dent in his finances, Mraovich was able to cobble together enough funds to rent out the Sunset 5 movie theater in West Hollywood for a one-night-only screening of his film in May 2003. He sent out invites to as many different distributors as he could find addresses for, while also handing out flyers outside of bars in West Hollywood.
Much to his surprise, Mraovich was able to get an impressive turnout. People were seeing Ben & Arthur, and they were talking about it — and even if they weren't saying nice things, at least they were saying something.
"It got some notoriety in the press," Mraovich said. (You have to take his word for this, as no reviews from the May 2003 screening appear to be available online.) "I mean, they're still talking about it. You go to IMDb you'll see people still beating me up to this day over it. But the point is, it really got people talking."
As far as Mraovich was concerned, that would have been enough: Ben & Arthur had made it into theaters — or one theater, to be exact. More to the point, it had started a conversation. Mraovich didn't mind that critics wondered out loud, "How did this get made?" Just to ask that question meant that they had seen it.
But the Sunset 5 screening also attracted the attention of Ariztical Entertainment, an independent gay film distribution company, whose biggest title to date is 2004's Eating Out. Ariztical ended up distributing Ben & Arthur on DVD, which — of course — widened its audience far past those who had shown up for the one-night-only screening.
"I always try to keep myself grounded, so I told myself, If this gets distributed maybe in the gay scene, in L.A. and in New York, then OK, I'm happy. But it turned out that they really did a good job releasing it," Mraovich said. "They got it at Blockbuster and some of the other really big retailers all across the world."
To call the reviews of Ben & Arthur "bad" is something of an understatement: A quick glance at the responses on Netflix reveals a string of one-star reviews and an impressive amount of vitriol.
"I rarely get angry at a movie," the top review reads. "This is an exception."
Below that is another one-star review: "It might be the worst film ever made. It is positively laughable. Bad script, bad production values and possibly the worst acting you can imagine."
To Mraovich, who insists that the negative feedback is mostly focused on his technical mistakes and not on his writing, these reviews do nothing to dissuade him from the perception of Ben & Arthur as a success story. At this point, he has heard it all — and even the most hostile tirades against the film have done little to faze him.
"Nothing at all about the film has ever hurt my feelings," Mraovich said. "Whenever you make a project like that and it gets into the public's eye, you have to be ready to take whatever people say about it. And it's not always gonna be good. I mean, even if you look at anybody else, Madonna, Cher, even when they're dealing with mega-millions, even they get criticized."
There are positive reviews too, he's quick to note, but either way, it doesn't really matter to Mraovich. And as response rolled in from outside the U.S., he could scarcely fathom his tiny film's spread.
"I never thought in a million years that the film would go global like that, and people from different parts of the world are saying things about it," Mraovich continued. "Even if it was something bad. I was just mesmerized that they were out in France or Germany or whatever, way, way, way, way, way, far away. I was like, Geez, they may not have said anything good about the film, but gosh, somebody in Germany watched it!"
Because to Mraovich, nothing anyone says can take away from the fact that a film he never thought would leave his apartment is now available for purchase internationally.
"For this film to come literally out of nothing and to go as far as it did, with the biggest named retailers on the planet, Blockbuster and all that, that to me kind of — that's where the happiness is, and the pride, and the thankfulness that it just went somewhere," Mraovich continued. "And all these things that people are complaining about, they wouldn't be complaining if they didn't have access to the film in the first place."
Arthur faces a violent confrontation with his brother Victor (Michael Haboush). Ariztical Entertainment
Depending on how you look at it, Mraovich's ability to put a positive spin on the response Ben & Arthur has garnered is either admirable or deluded. When he reiterates that the project brought him "nothing except happiness, just complete bliss," it's hard not to question his sunny disposition.
And yet, in the context of his unambitious goals, the story of Ben & Arthur is a happy one: If all Mraovich ever wanted was for people to see his movie, then he can rest easy. He often asks his most vocal critics if they watched the film all the way through.
"Everybody who I asked always watched it to the end," he proudly reported. "They never turned it off."
These days, Mraovich isn't making films, though he's not sure what the future holds. Now living in Las Vegas — not where he wants to end up, he clarified — and an atheist turned Mormon, he's mulling over his next move. He has a BA in education, but he hasn't abandoned his filmmaking aspirations. And there is still work to be done when it comes to marriage equality.
"Until the U.S. Supreme Court puts an end to this inequality and makes all states offer it to all people, the fight will continue on," Mraovich said.
Still, he considers Ben & Arthur to be a dream come true, which should serve as some comfort to anyone who has felt guilt over panning such a small, low-budget endeavor. And those same folks can rest assured Mraovich has no interest in fighting back. In his mind, "everybody has the right to criticize."
Mraovich even considers his film's placement on "worst movies of all time" lists to be a blessing in disguise: Seeing Ben & Arthur listed alongside much more notable cinematic disasters means that his movie has reached a level of fame he never could have imagined.
And, of course, it gets people watching and talking.
"You can't pay to get that kind of publicity," he said.