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.
Over the years you’ve worked with a lot of friends. You start at your whole history with the Dreamlanders is of friends making a movie together. Did that make things harder or easier for you?
It made it not harder. It made it both because all the Dreamland people were thrilled to be able to work with really good actors. I put the best ones in with the Hollywood ones. Kathleen Turner and Mink [Stole] got along great. I think it’s one of Mink’s best performances. It’s hard, but I think everybody rose to the occasion, certainly, each time.
The first time we ever reached out, oddly enough, was Liz Renay who was a stripper and a burlesque star and had written a book called My Face for the World to See and was semi-notorious for being Mickey Cohen, the gangster’s, girlfriend. She was the first outside one, and she was a real trouper. She was a star name in a weird way. Then we had Tab Hunter who was our first Hollywood star who really set a great example for a team player that joined up … They all joined up excitedly because they don’t get blamed if it doesn’t work. I do. The critics, weirdly, give them credit for having the balls to do it in the first place, I think.
I think, in some ways, the most horrifying detail in this movie is is that sign on Scotty’s wall that say, “If I don’t get laid soon, someone’s going to get hurt.” Was that something Vincent Peranio made or did he find it?
No, I think that was a real sign.
Oh, God. That’s horrible.
I know, but that’s true, isn’t it, in scary, macho, straight bar… I guess that could be in a gay bar, too. It might have been in Jeffrey Dahmer’s bar. Yes, that was a real sign that he found somewhere. It’s certainly, “I’ll sleep when I die,” or “At last call everybody looks good.” Isn’t that one also?
Why Don Knotts for the painting?
I always identified with Don Knotts. People always think that I’m Steve Buscemi, and I told Steve Buscemi that. He said, “They think I’m Don Knotts.” I always just loved Don Knotts when I was young when he was on the Steven Allen show, acting get nervous all the time. I always thought that Don Knotts and Mick Jagger looked exactly the same to me.
I can see that.
I asked Don Knotts for a date once, and I think it made him nervous. I asked his people if he would be my date to the premiere of Pecker, and they didn’t know what to say. I thought, “I’m not hitting on him. I hope they don’t think that.” Maybe they did think that, I don’t know, but they said, “Well, Mr. Knotts is elderly now, and he doesn’t really do public events.” I said, “Come on. All he has to do is go to a premier with me.” I did want to step out of the limousine onto the red carpet with Don Knotts. That would have been really good. Without telling anybody.
Did you ever actually meet him, or was that a blind request?
No, I never met him, but his relatives have sent me stuff. I do have a … I still have that Don Knotts painting. I have a Don Knotts collection. I do have an art piece called “Self Portrait” where I turn into Don Knotts in it. You can probably find it online.
How deep are your archives? Do you keep a lot of material from your films?
Yes. It’s all at Wesleyan University. I have an amazing film archive. They’ve been keeping it since 1980, and I gave them everything I had up ’til then. It’s also Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, and Ingrid Bergman. I’m in really good company, but they have the most complete. Maybe because I started it so young. They have everything, and when I die, they get everything. All the personal stuff and everything, so it’s so much information that no one will ever be able to write a book. I have too much information.
Is that something you’ve ever pursued? A formal biography, or do you–
No, because I think the New York Times asked me about it last week. Who did I want to be my biographer? I said, “One that I can control from beyond the grave.” Because what Truman Capote said is true, “History is gossip.” It depends what your biography is who’s the last one living that talks. The longer you live, the more chance you have control of it because as soon as you die, people start making up shit. They can turn anything that isn’t true… There’s no laws. You can’t libel he dead, and everybody gets looser and starts … I don’t know, I’ve seen what they’ve done to Andy [Warhol] over the years.
You have a smaller funeral, though. The younger you die, the bigger the funeral.
I find it kind of interesting that one of the characters goes through a weird relationship with violence in this film from really being obsessed with screen violence to being repulsed when she encounters real life violence.
That’s me. I never would watch … When they had that newscaster [Christine Chubbuck] that killed herself, I would never look at that footage. I would never look at those girls that eat puke. I don’t want to ever see real violence ever, but I have not the slightest problem with watching porn torture movies. Because I know it’s fake and so does the audience.
What do you think is the appeal of screen violence in that case?
Oh, its appeal. Certainly it’s exciting and it’s better if it didn’t happen to you but happens to somebody else. Everybody, in a way, feels like killing people. They just don’t. That’s what Serial Mom is about.
I guess that comes from a personal place then.
Yes. I have millions of things I could kill people for. Especially how people dress on airplanes today. I could have been convicted of 20 murders if I could have offed the people that I saw in the most appalling outfits on airplanes on this book tour. You’re now in your bedroom when you’re on a plane. Please remember that when you decide what to wear on a plane. No one wants to see you naked or you in your pajamas or in your workout uniform with the sweat stains and B.O. and hairy, scabby legs.
My parents’ generation dressed up to fly.
I believe you should still to a point.
So you were okay with those girls getting kicked off for wearing leggings?
Well that isn’t so bad. At least she’s covered. Some people are nude that should never be nude in public. I understand they feel good about themselves, that’s a positive thing, but feel good about it in your life not mine. I just see people that they get on the plane like they just, literally, in underpants practically.
I’ve seen that, too. There’s a lot of pajamas on–
The pajamas are really… We’re not at a rave. I guess if you’re on Ecstasy or you’re an adult baby, that’s the only possible way. If you’re an adult baby, I guess you’re allowed. I have little patience with companion animals who I’m glad one is not sitting next to me or I’ll be hauled off the plane. If you’re that mentally ill then you should stay home. I don’t want a giant dog sitting next to me on the airplane.
Has that happened?
Yes, once and it was Lassie and it was this seat up front. He sat there. I’m sure there was twenty Lassies, but it was when the Hollywood remake came out. Sure, I mumbled semblance of, “Lassie must be on drugs.” The trainer got really mad, “Lassie is not on drugs. Lassie is …” I said, “I can’t believe I’m having an argument if Lassie’s on drugs or not.” But I must admit, Lassie was incredibly well behaved. It just sat there in a seat with a seatbelt on. That’s allowed? Lassie was the last person that got on the plane, so she wasn’t a companion animal. She was flying as a star. Maybe that’s okay.
Between this re-release and the Multiple Maniacs re-release, you’ve had to do a lot of reflection on your career lately. What’s that process been like?
It’s a reflection in a way I always think the future’s going to be better. I’m writing a book now called Mr. Know It All, which is my advice to everybody how to get through life, so I’m looking forward. Those movies are still there. I’m proud they keep getting a younger audience. They still seem to work because wherever I go, the kids have them. I sign them at every book signing. The still keep coming out, and they’re there. And Multiple Maniacs is ludicrous. It’s 100% favorable reviews with Rotten Tomatoes which even I find laughable, but some of the reviews were really amazing. I thought, “God, when the movie came out it didn’t get one good review,” so it went from 0-100. That is, I guess, the luxury with time.
There’s really nothing else like them. I think they’re still a rite of passage for young film fans. I think there’s, certainly I can see your influence other places, but no one else makes John Waters movies.
Well, I’m proud of that. No one’s copied me, I agree. There isn’t somebody that says, “Oh they’re trying to be John Waters.” There really isn’t.
Where do you see your influence?
I’ve said this before but it’s true, but I’ve made trash .5% more respectable. That’s why I was put on this Earth. Now when you call somebody trash, people pause and think, “Is that good or bad?”
It’s been a long time since you’ve made a movie. Is there any chance that’ll change?
Well, it’s not been a long time since I’ve had my last development deal. I’ve had four Hollywood development deals that never happened since I made A Dirty Shame. One for Fruit Cake, one for the sequel to the Hairspray musical, one for a TV show of Hairspray, and mostly recently with HBO for the sequel to Hairspray. They never got made. They paid me Hollywood money. Treated me fairly, but maybe get made someday. Hairspray keeps going. NBC just did a [live musical]… Who knows what’ll happen. The porn version. I keep saying Hair Pie. That hasn’t come out yet. That’ll kill it. That’ll be the final thing. They did make a porno version of Pecker. Guess what the title was, Pecker. Not kidding. I though, “Well geez, I was witty.” Of all the funny porn titles, that was the title.
I really liked Pecker. Is there any film of yours you feel that hasn’t gotten seen enough?
Well you always root for the ones that didn’t do … Cecil B. Demented is the one I always pick when I have to appear somewhere because it makes me laugh still just because it’s, I don’t know, it’s cinematically incorrect. Although, today I think we would need Cecil B. Demented more than ever with these $100 million Hollywood movies that I’ve never heard of that make $100 billion in China.
It’s an interesting situation now where you go to the theater, and it’s hard to see a movie that doesn’t cost $100 million.
And that they don’t tell you the entire plot and show you every big scene in the trailer, so why would you go?
Does it concern you that there’s less room for smaller movies to break through, especially in theaters?
No because now television is where you go. I think you make more money, more people see it, if it’s on television. Art movie theaters are just like independent book stores. They’re not going to die. They find their own audience and they encourage and they develop it and it becomes successful. But it is a different game. They want all the movies to cost less and less and less and less. And people say to me, “Why don’t you do Kickstarter.” I own three houses. I’m not going to be that much of a hypocrite. You know, “I’ve never made, it’s my first movie. Would you help me?” I can’t do that, and I don’t want to do that. I’m not going backwards. My books do great now, so as long as I keep telling stories, that’s all I need.
I really enjoy your audio commentaries. On the for Multiple Maniacs track I like how you contextualized how much it was motivated by the politics of the day. Is our current president motivating your creative process at all these days?
Certainly. I have a lot about him in my This Filthy World show that I do now. How can you not? Yes, I think he should be impeached for his musical taste alone. The acts that he had at the inauguration. Just go Google Pelican 212 if you want to see the most obscene, honky group of musicians you’ve ever seen in your life.
Do you have any optimism about where things are going?
Well, I have optimism for trouble. My book’s called Make Trouble. I think it’s the best time. I think college students shouldn’t be studying today. You should be out marching. I think we need Yippies again. We need humor as terrorism to embarrass the enemy, and we have a perfect enemy that rises to the bait.