- PHOTOS COURTESY OF MOVIEWEB.COM
- ALLITERATION : Among his other acting gigs and appearances, John Waters starred as Pete Peters in the 2004 flick Seed of Chucky.
The San Luis Obispo International Film Festival is a space where movies matter, be they such tried-and-true classics as Some Like It Hot and Roman Holiday, locally produced gems including The Happy People and The Bike Happening, or a film that will plunge you into a new world in another country, like Amal and A Thousand Oceans. From March 6-15, the festival will breathe cinematic life into spaces not often inhabited by film, including Cal Poly, Corbett Vineyards, Santa Margarita Ranch, La Perla Del Mar, and Downtown Brewing Company, as well as celebrating the art form within its more customary habitation—the Palm Theatre, Downtown Center Cinema, the Fremont Theatre, and Paso Robles’ Park Cinemas.
Besides the dozens of screenings, the festival will feature King Vidor Award recipient Malcolm McDowell in a March 6 award ceremony, the ever-popular surf night on March 12, and the independent film awards including John Waters on March 14.
Filmmaker, author, actor, and general ne’er-do-well, John Waters will be performing his one-man show, “This Filthy World,” on March 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Fremont Theatre. Tickets cost $35, $30 for students and film society members. The Baltimore resident’s projects include Eat Your Makeup (1968), Mondo Trasho (1969), Pink Flamingos (1972), Hairspray (1988), and Cry-Baby (1990), among many, many productions. He is perhaps best known for repeatedly featuring the same performers, including Divine, Mary Vivian Pearce, Patricia Hearst, and Edith Massey, alongside such better known actors as Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci. He happily cultivates a reputation for making campy, quirky, and peculiar films, exploring the possibilities of “good bad taste” in a manner that only those with extremely good taste can do. Waters took the time to discuss his good taste, a lobster rape scene, and his near arrest in San Luis Obispo with New Times.
NEW TIMES Is San Luis Obispo an odd destination for you?
WATERS No, I used to spend a lot of time there, actually. It’s the only place ever, in my entire life, that I almost got arrested for drunken walking. Which, I wasn’t even that drunk but I was coming home from a bar and I was walking, not even driving and the police turned up. This is in the ’60s. ‘Sir, have you been drinking?’ ‘Yeah, that’s why I’m not driving. That’s why I’m walking.’ I never got over it. I didn’t even know that was a crime. And I wasn’t staggering or anything. I think it was just because I had long hair and I looked crazy. They should have been glad I was drinking and not tripping in those days. I did spend a lot of time up there because I had a friend in prison in the California Men’s Colony so I used to come visit him. And there was a lovely woman that used to drive the van. I spent a lot of time there during the ’70s. I wish I could remember the nice woman’s name who ran the organization that gave you a ride to the prison; she was very kind to me, so if she’s still there I hope she comes.
NEW TIMES What can you tell me about “This Filthy World”?
WATERS I’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s my spoken word act where I just talk about everything—my obsessions, I talk about crime, fashion, my movies, making my movies, censorship, politics, everything. I do it 20, 30 times a year all over the world. I’m going to Denmark and doing it three days in a row soon. It’s what I do for a living.
NEW TIMES Given that you became famous for pushing the boundaries of what people will accept, do you perceive an element of irony to your celebrity?
WATERS Sure. I think there is. At the end of Pecker I toasted the end of irony way before 9/11 when all the editorial sections were saying this is the end of irony. I already said it was the end of irony because irony is elitism. Irony is looking down on your subject matter. And I am an elitist. I am an irony peddler. That’s what it should say on my tax forms. But at the same time I’m weary of irony and that’s why I live in Baltimore. There’s no fake biker bars. There’s real ones. In New York those are faux biker bars. It’s about fashion and just the fact that you move to New York means that you’re ironic. But I mean in Albania is there irony? Can there ever be something so bad it’s good if you’re hungry? It is an elitist concept, irony, in the first place.
NEW TIMES To what extent does budget shape the movies you make?
WATERS Right now it’s a big problem because I was trying to make this movie Fruitcake. I think it’s part of the economy, but this year at Sundance, I think only one or two sold for a million dollars. I certainly can’t go back to making movies like I did with Pink Flamingos because there’s all these unions and we have to make a living. And I don’t especially want to go back either. That’s what you do when you’re young. You pay your dues and you make these raw movies.
- PHOTOS COURTESY OF MOVIEWEB.COM
- BRING ON THE CHEESE : John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray was remade in 2007
WATERS I don’t have the luxury of that happening so many times. I said yes both times. I said yes to Cry-Baby probably a lot quicker because one of the producers was the same, I had been through it, I knew what the process was, and it was a lot of the same creative people, so in many ways it was doing something that I had already done and it turned out to be a wonderful experience. When I first went on Broadway with Hairspray I didn’t know what was going to happen and I believe it was Margo Lion, the producer, who said to me, ‘I’m gonna keep your voice in it’ but it had been optioned to be both a TV show and a Broadway musical before and that fell through so I never was quite sure it was going to happen.
NEW TIMES Do you have anything that you regret making?
WATERS No, I don’t regret anything. I look back at my films and I think they should all be shorter. There’s no such thing as a long big joke. Every one of my movies should be 10 minutes long.
NEW TIMES Being an English major, I have to ask; was there any particular significance to Divine being raped by a mechanical lobster in Multiple Maniacs?
WATERS Well, it wasn’t even mechanical. The lobster was one of the first things Richard DeAngelis did for my movies. He went on to do The Wire, Homicide, lots of movies. He was in it. You could see his and his brothers’ legs sticking out of it. Where the lobster came from, there used to be a postcard of a lobster in the sky over the beach and I think it came from smoking pot and looking at that postcard and thinking about, ‘suppose the lobster came down and attacked.’ In surrealism they use lobsters a lot. Lobsters have always been kind of surreal. It was very much influenced by Theater of the Absurd, something that people don’t talk about very much now but it was very popular. Not that many people are worried about, after they just killed three or four people, being raped by a lobster. I was imagining Divine as sort of a monster himself so it seemed good at the time. It’s not symbolizing anything. It’s just a comedy.
NEW TIMES You’ve been quoted saying that censorship is the best press.
WATERS It used to be. It isn’t anymore. Now it’s just a pain in the ass. It used to be fun because people would rise to the bait. And Pink Flamingos, when it came out, the ad was all negative reviews and we would battle censors. But now people don’t want to go if it gets a bad review. It’s different. The critics are all set now so they’re not going to rise to the bait. The biggest censorship I’ve ever had is the Motion Picture Association of America. I saw Friday the 13th last night. I loved it, had a great time, thought it was good. But that got an R rating and, you know, A Dirty Shame got an NC17. There was more sex in that than there was in mine. I never understand how the rating boards, how they rule on things.
NEW TIMES Maybe it wasn’t the sex so much as undermining basic social mores.
WATERS That’s what movies are supposed to do, in my book. It reminded me of ’70s sexploitation films. And I’m not against that. I thought it was great. I guess that’s OK because you get killed immediately if you have sex. In my movies, you’re happy.
NEW TIMES Are there any taboo topics that you wouldn’t touch in a film?
WATERS I certainly would never have kiddie porn, and I would never have a snuff movie. But I could make fun of that. And have. I think it depends on the tone of the joke, really. My films really are politically correct in a weird way because the people that win in my movies just mind their own business and are happy with their neurosis and the people that are villains in my movies are judgmental and don’t mind their own business. So that’s politically correct, right? I’m for minding your own business, at least until you know the whole story …
WATERS That’s not so strange because I just bought my gravestone. I don’t know. I have to figure that out. Nothing too funny. Maybe rest in peace. I don’t know that there is such a thing as a timeless joke.
NEW TIMES What’s the difference between a movie an audience will remember and one they won’t?
WATERS Well, that’s not always different. I think the ones they never forget they love. It has to be original. It has to be one person’s vision of their world, even if you hate that world and they make you interested in it. It helps to be obsessed with your subject matter. It helps to know your subject matter. But it can’t be written to make money. It can’t be written just because you think it’s going to be successful. I mean, I want my movies to be successful. I never understand kids who say, ‘I don’t care if anybody sees my movies.’ Well then, you won’t make them for long. Or, ‘I hate rich people.’ Well, who do you think’s going to give you the money to make them? Poor people? But at the same time I think you have to make it out of your own obsessions. The best way to interest someone is to make them laugh first and then they’ll listen.
NEW TIMES You’ve said that to understand bad taste one must have very good taste; would you say that you have very good taste?
WATERS To break any rules with style you have to know the rules. Yes, I do have good taste. That’s how I make my living.
NEW TIMES And there are different levels of bad taste?
WATERS Certainly. Good bad taste is not judgmental. It is not classist. It is not making fun of the subject matter. Bad bad taste looks down and makes fun of people. Good bad taste looks up to them in awe, at their freedom, not worrying about what other people think and the fact that what they think is so different from what I do but at the same time that they’re proud of it. The perfect example is a yuppie that has a new pink flamingo lawn ornament is offensive to me. An older couple that’s had them since the ’50s because they think they’re pretty, lovely. One is making fun of the other and looking down on them. That’s what I don’t like. I try to look up to everything I make fun of.
NEW TIMES You hear a lot about the differences between European and American cinema; how do you perceive these differences?
WATERS I have always loved foreign films. I never understand when people say they don’t like subtitles. It’s like ‘really, can’t you read?’ I love foreign films. When I was young they were the films that broke the censorship barrier. Because they were artistic they could get the laws changed. I still like foreign films, especially French films. And there’s lots to see. New York is the only place that really has lots of foreign films always playing. I do think that’s why Netflix is so good; it can bring movies to communities in which they would never play. Foreign films always take more chances. I mean, there are bad foreign films. But I like them very much. I even like subtitles.
NEW TIMES Do you ever tire of being labeled strange, weird, or peculiar?
WATERS No. I think all those are fairly realistic descriptions. But at the same time I think I have a very happy, well-adjusted life.
NEW TIMES What makes you laugh really hard?
WATERS People that act in a very strange way that don’t think they’re strange. That’s my subject matter, and that’s the people in Baltimore.
- PHOTOS COURTESY OF DOWNES BROTHERS ENTERTAINMENT
- HOW TO MAKE A WISH : Mira Sorvino as Wendy Porter, with her son Joey (played by Maxwell Perry Cotton), whom she seeks to reclaim after giving him up for adoption in the heart-wrenching film, Like Dandelion Dust.
NEW TIMES In your production company, who decides which projects to take on?
DAVID In our company, which is Jon Gunn and myself, either one of us can bring a project in and then we both look at it and we say, ‘Do you really want to do this and dedicate a few years of your life to it? Is this something that we’re really passionate about?’ For us, it’s definitely a conversation. No one person decides.
NEW TIMES In order to make that commitment, knowing that it’s going to be a few years of your life, what do you look for?
DAVID There’s so many people trying to make movies but it’s passion that really gets a movie made. We both read the story, which was a book by Karen Kingsbury and were struck by a lot of the themes, which was first of all, what is parenting? What is a family? If one person in the family has a religion and the other person doesn’t, how does that affect a relationship that otherwise is very strong? And then, the biggest question is just how far will you go to protect your child? You have this really wealthy family and on the surface it’s like their family seems to be a perfect family, they have money, they seem happy. And you’ve got Rip [Porter, Berry Pepper] and Wendy [Porter, Mira Sorvino] who seem obviously from the wrong side of the tracks and they’re trying to start a new life …
NEW TIMES Did all of the baby-related things going on personally in your lives give you a greater stake in the film?
DAVID It was very interesting how it happened because Jon and Lisa had just had a baby.
I’d actually just lost a child. I was going through something where I wasn’t sure that I would be able to come to the project and be there fully for or if it was just something that I would shy away from. But it was actually a great catharsis for me. Kevin [Downes, producer] and his wife were trying to adopt a child. But the thing that was interesting, outside of just the four of us that were making the film, I’ve known Stephen Rivele for several years. He called me and said, ‘What are you working on?’ I hadn’t been signed on to it long and I told him the story. Now, he’s a multimillion-dollar screenwriter. We could never have afforded him usually. And he said, ‘There’s something you don’t know about me. I adopted two girls.’ And he had a 4-year-old son who he had taken to Haiti, and there’s not many movies that go to Haiti. He had so many coincidences with what the story was about, he really related to it … I don’t think it would have happened had he not had those coincidences with his two adopted children and then his own children. So there was a lot of baby energy around it.
- PHOTOS COURTESY OF DOWNES BROTHERS ENTERTAINMENT
- WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKS : Berry Pepper and Mira Sorvino as Rip and Wendy Porter in Like Dandelion Dust, which was recently named Best of the Fest at the 2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival.
DAVID You find something very raw in the moment that isn’t written that comes up between the two characters. At the beginning of our shoot, which was mostly the scenes between Rip and Wendy, Barry Pepper and Mira Sorvino, both of them were very good at improv and they both went really deep into this role. The upside is finding these intense moments between them. And also some very sweet, loving moments between them that weren’t written. That’s the upside. The downside: It can get expensive because the days can go longer and not as planned and we had a very tight budget. And the other downside is that not all actors are great at improv. A lot of them are great at rehearsed lines, memorized lines, and improv’s a little scary to some actors. And you never know until you try it which actor’s going to be really good at improv and which actor’s not going to be so strong.
NEW TIMES Is there a particular moment during the process—either filming or editing—that you know a movie is going to work or be successful?
DAVID Yeah, definitely. It’s interesting because you can actually be on set and think you have something really special and get in the edit room and it’s just not as special. And that’s the magic of film. Sometimes it just works. Jon had edited the first 20 minutes and he called me in and we watched it and I thought ‘this is really good.’ That was my moment anyway.
NEW TIMES Where are you in the process of getting it out there?
DAVID We are distributing through 20th Century Fox. We only played one film festival so far. We debuted at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and we were named Best of the Fest, which was ever so exciting …
NEW TIMES One of the things that I really respected about this film was the lack of black and white. To be forced into this sort of gray situation where nobody completely wins, it’s very human.
DAVID At the beginning of the process, one of the things that Jon and I kept contesting was throw it on its head. So Rip is a bad guy, what if Rip wasn’t a bad guy? Now Rip’s a good guy. Everything that’s a stereotype we would question, whoever the character was. Because Jack at one point, he was just too perfect. He’s this rich, gorgeous, successful guy. Well, he’s not. He’s been distracted from his family and you find out later that he never really took Joey’s adoption on. And that is life. Life is the gray area. And that’s where we live. And there is no black and white. In fact, if this movie had been about the absolutes and the black and whites I don’t think it would have worked out.
Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.