The Trouble with John Waters

Since the 1960s, John Waters has stood on the cutting edge of filmmaking, proving himself to be both a cult icon and a crossover success with movies like Hairspay and Serial Mom. Now he’s sending up filmmaking itself in his new film, Cecil B. Demented. Steven Dorff stars as the title character, leader of an underground revolutionary cinema terrorist group, the Sprocket Holes. Intent on carrying out his cinematic vision, Raving Beauty, Cecil kidnaps A-lister Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) to make her his star. To save her own life she complies, but it’s not too long before she’s chanting the Sprocket Hole mantra: “Demented Forever.” Waters manages to simultaneously satirize underground filmmaking, Hollywood glam, America’s puritanical values, the cult of celebrity, and cults in general while still making a really funny, sexually charged action film.

Is the character Cecil B. Demented based on anyone in real life?
John Waters: No, it’s not. It’s a joke on how far you have to go to be edgy today. Do you have to die? Is that all that’s left to get people’s respect? He’s my hero. I would cut out his clippings; I would go to his trial. I would visit him in prison, I’d sneak him in, like drugs, and I’d picket against his death penalty. And I’d visit his grave. He’s not me or you.

But it’s based on some of the rhetoric of underground filmmakers?

JW: It’s based on the rhetoric of the Weathermen and SDS and Black Panthers. I read all my radical books and took all the slogans and changed them into this… One of the first feminism things was “A woman’s work is never done, put down the mop, pick up the gun.” I changed it to “An usher’s work is never done, put down the flashlight, pick up the gun.” It was all based on that kind of radical politics, which I didn’t want to make a nostalgic movie about, because who cares about that today? But I think if people’s movie taste was that militant, it would certainly be interesting. If the Angelika attacked the Union Square 14, it would be fun. Perk up the movie-going experience; make it worth the $9.50.

Melanie Griffith is such an interesting choice for this. Did you write the role with her in mind?

JW: No, I don’t write roles for anybody anymore — in case I can’t afford them or they’re not available or they say no. But this movie almost happened another time before, after I wrote Serial Mom. I made Pecker and then I went back to Cecil B. Demented, and she was the first one then. I went to her house and she had on a skull T-shirt and no make-up, with, like, great confidence. Kind of like the Revlon girl gone bad, you know? And [during filming] she left to shoot Revlon stuff, which I loved. She’d be on the roof with her hair on fire and the next day she’d be in that Revlon ad: “Defy your age.” It was great that she could do both things. It wouldn’t have worked to play even the best actress in the role that wasn’t a real A-list movie star. It had to be, besides a good actress, a real A-list movie star.

Have your parents seen all of your movies?

JW: No, they’ve never seen Pink Flamingos. My mother saw the earlier movies and she’d leave weeping. From Polyester on they were greatly relieved. But even of Pecker, my father said, “There were some good parts and there were some bad parts.” And then he said to me, “You’re getting crazier, boy.” My parents are 80.

Why do you still live in Baltimore? A lot of filmmakers would have moved to New York or Hollywood.

JW: There’s more edge in Baltimore than there is here now. We have frontal nudity in bars — you don’t. Baltimore does have more edge in a way. Everywhere does now. New York is so — and I love New York, I have an apartment here — but the edge that I knew in New York has been gone for quite some time. And Hillary ain’t bringing it back either. And I like Hillary, but you know she ain’t re-opening the Mine Shaft, I promise you.

You’re not anti-Hollywood?

JW: I came here in a limo — look at this room. If I was Cecil, I’d be living a in little cardboard box with a little camera looking up people’s skirts when they come by, or stabbing people in the leg and getting shocked looks on their faces. I’d have hitchhiked up here. I would have forced people to be in the movie. Stuff that I have done, but I don’t want to do it now. I don’t want to go backwards. I have nostalgia, but it’s like looking through an insane high school yearbook. For me to look at Mondo Trasho and remember, “oh, we stole that”… we used to do that stuff. Even as late as Hairspray. I remember Van Smith — the costume budget was used up — he’d go to Bloomingdale’s and rent clothes, and Ruth Brown wore them and then they had make-up all over them, and they’d take them back the next day and get the money. Stuff like that. I’m not saying I have to live like that to do it.

Did you enjoy that you weren’t living like that [while making this movie]?

JW: The only thing I don’t want to be ironic is my death. I’m hoping for a traditional death. Everything else can be ironic.

What’s your favorite Hollywood movie?

JW: I haven’t seen any Hollywood movies lately. I go to see all these art movies. I saw Criminal Lovers last night, which I actually liked. The movies I’ve seen recently are The Virgin Suicides, 8 1/2 Women and Chuck and Buck. I haven’t seen one Hollywood blockbuster this summer. But I’m not against them.

Who are some of the actors out there that you’d like to work with?

JW: Meryl Streep. That would be the ultimate irony, wouldn’t it? John Waters and Meryl Streep together at last.

What’s the balance in working with big Hollywood stars like Melanie Griffith and then the cast of characters that John Waters’ films are known for?

JW: It’d be like a really good dinner party. You have all types of people together. The first day, when Mink Stole and Kathleen Turner were in rehearsal [for Serial Mom], I heard Mink scream at Kathleen Turner “You cocksucker;” I knew that my worlds had really come together in all ways. I like doing that, putting everyone in that’s been in my movies, and the stars like that too. If they’ve seen my movies they know that Mink’s been in all of them. They like Patricia Hearst, Ricki Lake. Even Mary Vivian Pierce, who was in the movie a month after brain surgery with her face paralyzed. So I try to get everybody in it. Every person that’s alive that’s been in my repertory group is in this movie. It’s important to me. It’s people who have grown up in the films. It’s a reference point.

Are you at a point in your career where people have actually grown up with your movies?

JW: Most died because my original audience was made of gay people that couldn’t stand gay culture. Bikers, criminals and hippies that really were punks — they looked like hippies but hated peace and love. That was my original audience. Most of that audience unfortunately has died through things that affect the creative community: AIDS, alcoholism, drug addiction. It’s youth. You have to get new audiences to keep going. Because eventually they don’t go out if they are alive.

Do you have to deal with the Motion Picture Board?

JW: Yeah, for ratings. [Cecil B. Demented] got an R for extremely gross sexual something, drug use, violence and language. What does that mean, language? They mean bad language. I hate when they say that — language. What? You mean people were talking. They gave Female Trouble an NC-17, which we’re fine with, but I was kind of surprised. Still? I can get an NC-17? I mean why, compared to a lot of R-rated stuff. But I’m proud. I’ll take the NC-17 badge with honor, because not many people do.

Originally published August 2000, Paper Multimedia Inc.

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