On the new release shelf of your nearest bookstore — assuming you still have one — you’ll find a little illustrated gift book written by John Waters called Make Trouble. Adapted from a commencement address he delivered at the Rhode Island School of Design, it encourages readers to go out and, well, it’s right there in the title. The word “trouble” — like the words “trash” and “filth” — has a different meaning for Waters than for most people. From his first films, made in the suburbs of Baltimore with a group of friends under Waters’ Dreamland Production banner, Waters set out to make viewers laugh through their discomfort and challenge the status quo via bad taste.
Yet there’s always been more to Waters’ work than just shock value, even if that term wound up as the title of his first book. Listen to the audio commentary of Waters’ 1970 film Multiple Maniacs — his second feature and the recent subject of a theatrical rerelease and Criterion Collection Blu-ray — and you’ll hear him describe the political unrest, and political convictions, that inspired it. It’s an impulse that’s served him well over the years, both through his years making shocking underground cult classics mostly starring his friend Divine and as he inched into the mainstream via the 1987 hit Hairspray, which has enjoyed a long afterlife as a Broadway musical that was subsequently turned into a film and an NBC special.
Waters hasn’t made a new movie since A Dirty Shame in 2004, but he’s stayed busy, writing books like Role Models (a collection of essays on his inspirations) and Car Sick (inspired by an attempt to hitchhike across the United States). Then there’s his legacy to tend to, which has included both the Multiple Maniacs re-release and, out today, a new Blu-ray and DVD edition of Serial Mom, his 1994 comedy starring Kathleen Turner as a seemingly ordinary housewife who begins acting on her murderous impulses. From his office, Waters spoke to us about that movie, humor, politics, and the time he tried to get Don Knotts — the subject, via a flea market painting, of one of Serial Mom‘s most memorable throwaway gags — to serve as his date for a movie premiere.
I was talking to a friend of mine about this movie, about Serial Mom, and he noted that it’s a movie that would not get made today.
I think it would have more chance to get made to day. Because now every cable network in the world has true crime. You can’t turn on a TV that isn’t… They’re looking for crimes.
It got me thinking, though: I have a hard time understanding how it got made in 1994. Was it a difficult process.
No, it got made actually pretty easily. I pitched it… It went through a couple of things. I had a development deal with Columbia, and then that particular executive went to another studio. That always happens, you go somewhere else. It was all about who was gonna play her. As soon as Kathleen said yes, it got greenlit. You know, I got a development deal for every movie I ever made from Cry Baby on, so everyone of those, including A Dirty Shame. I went in, pitched it, and they paid me to write it, which is hard to get.
I knew how to pitch, I guess, pretty well because there were two other ones that never got made and they also paid me to write. I guess when I went in I had always completely thought it out. That’s the main thing they want to know. Do you really know how it ends? Do you really know … Of course then what always happens is once you have a test screening, they just go crazy and just completely put every belief in that. Even the head guy of the test screening said to me, “What norm do we test you against?”
It was fair. You know, I had a big budget. They paid me well. I had a lot of fights at the studio at the time when it got released. It wasn’t a hit when it came out really. It wasn’t a flop either, but it wasn’t … I don’t know if it’s ever broken even. I don’t know if it has. It certainly didn’t make a lot of money, but as the years went by, it was liked more and more. It showed on television all the time, especially on Mother’s Day.
When did you get a sense it was picking up a following?
It had its fans from the beginning. We got a lot of good reviews when it came out. It opened, and I do remember this, it’s not an excuse, but a little bit it is: It opened in the spring on the very first nice day on a weekend that all winter had been one of the worst winters everywhere with snow. It was the first beautiful spring day. Nobody went to see any movie. You know, they went out in their yards for the first time. There’s things like that that get lost in box office reports. But I remember it was a big deal that every movie did poorly that weekend. Would Serial Mom have done any better if it rained? Who knows. Today it doesn’t make that much difference in my life.
You had just made a pair of fairly family-friendly, PG-13 films at that point–
I’d go with family un-friendly PG-13, but people still come up to me all the time… And there really only two that were PG-13, and that is Cry-Baby and Hairspray. None of the other ones were… Come up to me always and say that when they were a kid that that movie was so shocking to them, and they loved it ’cause they were eight and ten years old. They grew up with those movies. And Cry-Baby, I think, is similar to Serial Mom in a way. It has a much bigger following today than it did when it came out.
It’s not that family friendly when you think about it when she’s chugging down a jar of tears. I don’t know how family friendly that is. And Hatchet Face, I don’t know how family friendly. Ricki Lake being so happy she’s all knocked up. I don’t know how family friendly. Depends on what kind of family you’re talking about.
You said Serial Mom came together when Kathleen Turner got involved. What was the casting process for this like, and how hard was it to get her?
Well, I liked her always, and it was a name that was brought up. I sent it to her, and as soon as she said she was interested, I just jumped on the plane, went straight to her apartment, and brought up every scene that she could have been uptight about, then explained it to her. Same thing with Sam Waterston. You bring up the things right away that you think they’re worried about and don’t have the nerve to say right off.
We got along great, and she said, “Yes,” and then the movie happened. She was a joy to work with. A lot of people had warned me how she’s difficult. She wasn’t one bit difficult. She doesn’t suffer fools but we didn’t have any fools. I know one thing, when you have any star, but especially a female star, you never leave them alone when they’re on the set. When they’re on set, you’re with them the entire time. Don’t leave them alone. They want you to be interested in them and tell them what to do and direct. The worst thing you can ever tell a strong star is, “I don’t know, what do you think?” They hate that. They want you to know what you want. At the same time they come up with something that you think is a good idea, too, that maybe you didn’t. Certainly Kathleen was like that.
Is that something you learned from experience on other films?
Yeah, I never left Divine alone either. When the star of the movie is there, you… They’re taking a risk for you. Especially in my movies, especially Divine. You want to pay them as much attention as you can.
Divine was different because Divine was my friend in my real life. I was with Divine all the time and we had many rehearsals and everything. Divine completely knew how all of us thought and what we thought was funny and our timing and all that which is different when somebody just comes in cold from Hollywood.