SALT LAKE CITY — In the summer of 1989, Italian director Claudio Fragasso brought his crew to the Beehive State, distributed an awkwardly translated script to fledgling Utah actors and within a month filmed what has come to be known as the “best worst movie.”
Called “Troll 2,” the film had no affiliation with the 1986 dark comedy “Troll” and actually had nothing to do with trolls.
Instead, “Troll 2” focuses on a suburban American family that goes on vacation to the town of Nilbog — spoiler alert, it’s goblin spelled backward — and then gets threatened by vegetarian goblins that attempt to transform them into edible plants.
Although the film has developed a strong cult following throughout the country, it holds special meaning in Utah, as Nilbog is actually the town of Morgan — about a 45-minute drive from Salt Lake City. The film was released in the United States Oct. 12, 1990, and 27 years later, two of the Utah-based actors spoke with the Deseret News about their experiences taking part in the film.
“Troll 2” auditions
If there’s anything Jason Wright learned from being in “Troll 2,” it’s to never accept a role without reading the script.
Wright, who is a New York Times best-selling author, was only 18 years old when he stepped onto the set of “Troll 2.”
He’d moved to Provo and started school at Brigham Young University just two weeks after his high school graduation, eager to develop a career in acting. One day, when he was leaving the LDS Motion Picture Studio, he overheard the receptionist on the phone speaking about a last-minute audition in Park City. Wright bribed his roommate with gas money and a Sprite to give him a ride to the audition.
“I sat in a hallway with 50 other guys that looked a whole lot like me,” Wright said. “And I went into the room that was totally just filled with smoke and smelled like a strange mix of pop tarts and Diet Coke, and I read for the part. I hadn’t seen the script or anything; I didn’t even know what the film was called. And when I was done, they all spoke Italian around me — I had no idea what any of them were saying.”
Dave McConnell can’t help but laugh when he reflects on his audition for “Troll 2.” A recent graduate of West Jordan High School, McConnell was looking for his big break as a young actor.
“It was one of the worst auditions I’ve ever been part of in terms of direction. (The filmmakers) said, ‘Could you just sit in that chair and then pretend that you are growing into a plant?’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ And they say, ‘Yeah, it’s really scary,’” McConnell reflected. “There’s so many other ways to bring (fear) out of an actor than to ask them to act like they’re becoming a plant — you can’t even relate to that! It’s not like they said, ‘Just pretend like you fell on a box of snakes.’ Because that makes more sense. The direction was terrible and it didn't get any better.”
Both McConnell and Wright received calls just a few days later informing them they’d gotten the parts.
And then they got hold of the script.
“I just wept,” Wright said. “Because I read it, and I thought, ‘What have I done?’”
Filming “Troll 2”
Throughout the brief filming process, Wright and McConnell struggled to understand the film’s poorly translated script.
“The script made no sense,” McConnell said. “I didn’t know what the plot was, I had no idea what my character's intentions were, my motives, I had no idea. But I didn’t care. … I couldn’t have entered that first day of shoot with more energy.”
Wright was horrified when reading his lines with actress Connie Young (“Singles Ward”) on the first day of shooting. He even tried to alter the script because in addition to not matching the way American teenagers talk, the dialogue was at times highly inappropriate. His efforts were met with a lot of visible outrage and hand flailing.
“There was a lot of hand gesturing,” Wright said. “(You could) get a sense of what they wanted based on how hard they were pointing and how furrowed their brow was. (But) they were kind and they were creative. This was important to them, and they really felt like they were making an important movie that was going to really entertain audiences. And they treated us like professionals, even though really none of us were.”
Not long after filmmaking wrapped, Wright left to serve a mission in Brazil for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He’d mentioned the movie to some of his companions, but word really got out once “Troll 2” was available in the U.S.
“I was on my mission and people were talking about it and asking me if I’d seen it,” Wright said. “Someone actually saw it in a video store in the city I was serving in, and I went in to look at the cover, but it wasn’t there and I was kind of grateful. So I sort of just pushed it out of my head because I had a lot of time to go (on my mission).”
McConnell was also on a mission in Brazil when the film was released in the U.S. — an event that came to him as a huge surprise.
He was worried what his family and friends would think of him being in one of the film’s more “provocative” scenes in which the goblin witch, played by actress Deborah Reed, tries to seduce his character. On set, the director had informed him the film would only be released in Italy with English subtitles and that people in the United States would never see it.
That’s why it came as a shock when his cousin mentioned seeing him in a movie on HBO. McConnell couldn’t believe it when he learned that the film was indeed “Troll 2.”
“I’m in my first area on the mission, … and I was far from thrilled about this,” he said. “I wasn’t excited at all to hear that family members had seen this movie.”
Both Wright and McConnell got the chance to see the movie after returning home from their missions.
McConnell couldn’t watch the film in one sitting.
Wright watched the entire film with his mouth wide open.
“Seeing the whole thing was one of the more surreal experiences of my life,” he said. “Reading the script, it really didn’t give me a sense of how this was all going to play out. My initial reaction was that this was a parody, that the Italians, everybody, we were in on a joke. I mean, how do you not notice that nilbog is goblin spelled backwards? Come on!”
But speaking with other cast members, Wright learned that this was far from the truth and the director had aimed for the film to be “a serious movie about serious issues and vegetarianism.”
“That was not my takeaway,” he said.
A cult following
While Wright is grateful for the friendships he made on the set of “Troll 2” — he and McConnell are good friends to this day — as an LDS bishop, his participation in the PG-13-rated-film is something he could do without on his resume.
“I never would have probably come close to doing it if it had been right after my mission,” he said. “But when you’re 18 and you want to be an actor when you grow up, all you can think about is being in a movie, and that’s all I could think about.”
McConnell said he ran away from “Troll 2” for many years.
“This is not the entrance into the industry I ever dreamed of,” he said. “It’s not like (‘Troll 2’) launched me in any way in my career. … What I did garner from doing that job is the friendships that will last me a lifetime, and it gave me that experience of being on film and seeing how it works, even at a very low-budget level.”
But to both McConnell and Wright’s astonishment, nearly two decades after the release of “Troll 2,” the film had evolved into a cherished cult classic — a journey that is depicted in the 2009 documentary “Best Worst Movie,” directed by “Troll 2” child star Michael Stephenson.
“Bad movies are often beloved because they are so bad,” Wright said. “This one sort of took on a new level of awful. I think the movie just sort of hit at the right time with the right crowd, and people just kept talking and talking and talking and talking about it.”
“It kind of made its way deeper into the industry than I ever thought (it would),” McConnell said. “(You just have to) take it for what it’s worth, enjoy the ride that it’s taking right now and enjoy what it’s become in the film world.”