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?”