John Waters is the undisputed Godfather of Gross-Out, ignobly enjoying a legendary cult status for the insane and nauseating images he has indelibly stamped into our consciousness. The most notorious, for the uninitiated, is Divine eating dog poop in Pink Flamingos.
Even as his work shifted from counterculture shock to more mainstream, bordering on sweet, storytelling, Waters has always retained a penchant for the odd, the quirky and the disturbing. His latest film, Cecil B. Demented, is a hilarious satire skewering all sides of the independent cinema vs. Hollywood movies battle. And, yes, the film has Waters’ signature creepiness all over it.
Recently, John Waters discussed Cecil B. Demented and his place in cinema history.
A lot of people are saying Cecil B. Demented is you…
See, I kind of disagree with that. I think there are some things that are real. But basically my parents loved me. So it made a big difference. You know, Cecil’s parents always told him he couldn’t direct. So he had to be much more extreme, much more insane. Cecil is a criminal. I’d follow (his escapades), I’d cut out his clippings, I’d keep a scrapbook, I’d go to his trial, and I’d picket against his execution, but I don’t think I am Cecil B. Demented.
So you don’t see anything autobiographical in Cecil?
A little bit. Everybody asked me if I was Pecker, and they asked me if I was Cecil B. Demented, and they couldn’t be two more different characters. I mean, they’re completely different. “Are you Pecker?” Well a little bit. “Are you Divine?” Well, a little bit. I wrote them all, so they’re all in me. I understand why people say that because we ran from the police. Some of the things are true, but I hope I wasn’t that much of a megalomaniac. Hopefully, I had a better sense of humor about myself and was a little more tolerant of the cinematic politics of others.
But you did ask Mink Stole to set her hair on fire once?
I did, that’s true, but at the same time, thank God she said no. I don’t know what I was thinking. At that time I guess I was on marijuana. The truth is that so was the audience, so was the entire cast and so was everyone who made that film a hit. It was a pothead movie and basically I did ask her, and I don’t know what I was thinking about, and I didn’t ever think it would hurt her. If she had said yes she might look like MASK now and I’d just be getting out of jail. So thank God she said no to it.
Considering the proliferation of gore and violence in films today, where can the line of taste be drawn anymore?
I like fake violence. I have no problem with fake violence. I don’t watch reality TV that has real violence. Spielberg made a gore movie, didn’t he? His last movie, the first twenty minutes were very much like Blood Feast. There’s no edge left with anything. That’s why my joke with Cecil B. Demented -- Do you have to die? Is that the only thing left to get respect as an “edgy” filmmaker? I think it’s funny that I retired a long time ago from the gross-out wars. I liked Scary Movie, but nobody believes those things are real. Where everybody knows the end of Pink Flamingos was real. And if I had tried to top that, I don’t think I’d be sitting here today. I won.
Do you think the kind of family film audience you attack in Cecil B. Demented would see a transvestite eating dog shit as a victory?
They’re an extreme audience too. They will only see “family films.” And the thing that family audiences say that gets me crazy is “This film has language.” You mean bad language. What is this a silent movie? Makes me crazy! The MPAA says “Rated R for language.” Well, you mean BAD LANGUAGE! I don’t get it. I feel like Cecil B. Demented when I read that “language.”
Did the Christian Right declare war on you back in the day when they were the Moral Majority?
The Christians don’t even come to see my movies. I’m a lost cause, you know what I mean? And my movies are not big enough. Every time Pink Flamingos was accused of obscenity, we plead guilty. Because it is. But it’s joyously obscene and you can’t tell a judge that, and in a courtroom it is very different to watch the movie than at the NuArt at midnight, believe me. It’s a different experience. You had to be there, as they say. But I don’t think I’ve ever been a target of the Christian Right. I think I’m beyond the pale for them anyway.
In the movie, you celebrate old school movie houses and decry the trend of SuperMega-cineplexes. Do you see a time when movie houses are completely extinct.
Well, I go to see movies all the time. I’m sure this movie is playing in a cineplex. To me, what I fear is that one day there will be three movies that cost a hundred million dollars each and they will be playing in every single movie theatre in the entire world opening the same day.
Sadly, that day is swiftly approaching. Are midnight shows gonna disappear forever, too?
Midnight shows are a lost art. Although I was just in San Francisco and Hairspray is playing at midnight and people are coming and doing the dances, and that’s a new one. I think video kind of put midnight shows a little bit out of business because you can smoke pot at home now and watch your movies with your friends. Before you had to smoke it and go to the theatre.
I heard you were a big fan of karate flicks.
Yeah, I love them. Well they’re certainly an extreme movie. At the Patterson movie theater, the exact same place in the movie where they go to see the karate, that is where I saw all the karate movies. The best one is Crippled Masters. That’s when one guy has no arms, the other one has no legs and everybody picks on them until they jump on each other’s shoulders and become a killing machine. I tried to get the rights to it and couldn’t get it.
Did you ever have any fears that some of the more esoteric film references would be lost on the audience?
No, it was the opposite of dumb-it-up. If they don’t get it, maybe they’ll ask and learn who somebody or something is. Isn’t that the point of going to see a movie? To learn something new. Even if it’s negative.
Did your portrayal of the Maryland Film Commission raise hackles?
The real Maryland Film Commissioner is sitting right behind the guy playing him in the scene, slurping oysters through the whole thing. They gave us all their stuff to use. They’re introducing me at the premiere next week. They were a great help in making this movie. Everybody in Baltimore has a great sense of humor. The Chamber of Commerce just put out a bumper sticker that says come to Baltimore and be shocked. John Waters and The Chamber of Commerce. I made the joke that they should put up a bumper sticker for 20 years. They can’t get rid of you. Stick around long enough, they have to embrace you. It’s just another day in a life drowned with irony.
You wrote the raps in the movie. Did you write and record those during the screenwriting process or right before production?
I had the titles and what they were going to be about, certainly, I wanted to do a gangster rap about the movie business, which I think is a first, even if you hate it. Then I met a local producer who produced the songs. I gave him pages of notes of words to use and different kind of rhymes and stuff like that, but mostly movie terms and what they should be about and what they were against. Most of the rappers in Baltimore were great but they don’t know craft services and some of the movies terms basically that aren’t in rhyming dictionaries.
Did you have trepidation in giving this script to Patty Hearst?
One percent, maybe. And I didn’t hear from her for two days and then she left a message on my answering machine, “You’re a sick man.” I knew that was a good review. I think she is a very gifted comedian or I would have never used her four times. That’s why I put her in movies, but certainly I cannot deny that her case had something to do with this movie. It’s one of many many influences.
Patty Hearst must have a great since of humor considering that the kidnapping and brainwashing of Melanie Griffith’s character in Cecil B. Demented is so similar to what happened to her…
Well, there’s a lot of dissimilar things, too, but certainly, I cannot deny that Patty’s my muse. I don’t think she thinks it’s funny what happened to her, but she does have a sense of humor about it. Patricia Hearst made all the right decisions with what she did because she’s alive and they’re dead. I think it’s ridiculous she ever went to prison. And maybe by playing this role, she gave a review of the judicial system in Los Angeles. I cannot deny that Patricia playing the part of a terrorist’s mother is certainly, I can imagine, snubbing her nose at both sides of the defense and the prosecution of the legal system of Los Angeles.
Cecil B. Demented lampoons the industry that Melanie Griffith is a big part of. Was she game for everything you threw her way?
Certainly. The only hard thing to talk Melanie into was the eye make-up -- she’s the Revlon woman, isn’t she? Not exactly the same look. She was fine with the humor. Never could a woman have survived being a movie star since she was 13 and growing up in Hollywood with Tippi Hedren as your mother and marrying three movies stars without a sense of humor.
When can we expect the John Waters Collection on DVD?
They’re all coming out next year. Female Trouble is being re-released theatrically in November and then, from Pink Flamingos on, every two months. And then it ends in a box set. I’m doing the commentary tracks now.
Are you recording different tracks then what were on the laser discs?
I had already done them on laser disc, which I guess become the Beta of this whole thing, but the laser disc companies won’t sell it back to the DVD companies, so I had to do it all again, so I had to think of new anecdotes. You can hear some of them where it’s just somebody sitting there, “She’s cute. I had sex with her. It was cold out that day.” They are not so interesting. Producer Mark Rance does every one of my things. You know, I never listen to my DVD tracks. Does any director except Barbara Streisand?
Are you excited about the prospect of DVD bringing your films to a whole new audience?
I’m the only director that wishes somebody would colorize Mondo Trasho. Basically, it’s the only way, in the old days, you could see it in Iowa City. Multiple Maniacs? It would have never played there in any theater. So now with video or DVD everybody can see everything. You don’t have to go to New York to see a movie, you don’t have to go to L.A. Wherever you live in the country, you can see every movie which is certainly much better than it was.
Right. And with all this exposure people now mistake you for Steve Buscemi and vice versa?
Well, in Baltimore too, they yell to me, “Barry! Barry Levinson!” Which makes me laugh. They all think we all look alike. Steve Buscemi, well, my Christmas card a couple years ago was Steve Buscemi dressed as me, and it was great. If there’s ever a movie about our lives, I think he should play me. He’s 10 years younger so I love that I’m mistaken for him. Also I think he’s a great actor and a really good director. I’m friends with him, and I like his wife very much, too.
On that subject, who are directors that still wow you?
Directors that are still working? Well, certainly the ones that I like are the ones that are tattooed on the arms of the characters in Cecil B. Demented. I mean, they’re the ones I’m really in awe of. I think there’s a great new generation of filmmakers that I really like, but they have to be around for ten years to get a tattoo.
Do you think the new gross-out guys like the Farrelly Brothers and Matt and Trey of South Park think of you as an influence?
I don’t know if they’ve ever even seen my movies.
Did your films open the door for these guys?
It was so long ago. I don’t know if they had anything to do with it. My films are more foreign than those movies. Those movies are certainly more widely released. But mine, unfortunately, are more elitist, I think. They’re like foreign movies. Do I feel part of the genre? By saying, “No,” I don’t mean it as an insult. I thought Scary Movie was hilarious. Something About Mary I really liked. I like those movies. But nobody thinks somebody really shot semen in Cameron Diaz’s hair, where in Pink Flamingos everyone knows she really did eat dog shit. So that’s why I don’t compete.
Do you see a budding John Waters out there now? Is there someone to take the crown…
The Filth Imperial Margarine Crown? (laughs) It’s in my closet where I’m waiting to pass it on to my heir, which would be Todd Solondz.