John Waters looks just like John Waters. Tall, almost as thin as his pencil-line moustache, and wearing a plaid blazer he might have purchased from the estate of a ’50s girlie-bar barker, he resembles no one else in the lounge of Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel. Indeed, the Baltimore filmmaker probably resembles no one else who’s ever been in that lounge.
Still, that’s not why the hostess refuses us a table. Waters may have made the scandalous Pink Flamingos and cultivated an appearance that suggests a vintage wanted poster, but he’s no longer shocking. His latest film, Cecil B. DeMented, is about suicidal cinematic guerrillas who kidnap a Hollywood star (played by Melanie Griffith), but it’s actually quite tame. We’d be seated immediately if only we were prepared to order afternoon tea.
Baltimore bows before him, too, only more so. DeMented’s depiction of a bloody assault on a Maryland Film Commission reception, Waters recounts after we’re seated outside the tea zone, only inspired the organization to give the director an award at the film’s world premiere (which occurred the night before in, of course, Baltimore). “Everybody in Baltimore has a good sense of humor about themselves,” he says. “The film commission is one of the best ones in the country. They were a great help to us. They gave us all the stuff to use in that scene. They thought it was hilarious.
“Last night they gave me an award on stage,” he adds. “They gave me a painting of the Apex Theater, which is a porn theater. Which I thought was great. They get it. They just get it,” he chuckles.
The director has an apartment in New York and is summering—when not doing publicity tours—in Provincetown. Yet he still lives in Baltimore, and his scripts are so rooted there that they usually begin with maps of the characters’ neighborhood. “That comes from living in a city where the normal people are insane but think they’re really normal,” he says. “That’s what I make movies about. I don’t make movies about people who are normal but want to be insane. That’s New York.”
DeMented’s opening credits are a love poem to Baltimore’s movie houses, including the Apex. “These were the movie theaters that I grew up in, that aren’t totally torn down. A lot of them are closed. Where it says ‘For Rent,’ that’s all true. We didn’t change any of them. So it’s like a documentary, a little documentary about genre movie theaters and their demise in Baltimore. Some of them are still open. The Senator, where we had the premiere last night, is the one where she’s kidnapped. The Apex is still open and, happily, at peace with the community.”
Much of the movie’s action takes place in these theaters, and the terrorists even make their headquarters in a prominent abandoned one. Wherever possible, Waters stayed true to the cinematic shrines of his youth. “We couldn’t go in the Patterson, which is the karate theater that is now closed,” he explains, “so we used the Earle, which is another porno theater. The Hippodrome, their hideout, is still bombed-out. We did nothing to it—that’s exactly the way it is. Inside was really the Town, because the Hippodrome had asbestos, and I don’t want to get involved with that with SAG,” the Screen Actors Guild. “The Benjie’s drive-in, where I grew up seeing every Herschell Gordon Lewis movie”—those include such ’60s and ’70s classics as The Gore-Gore Girls, She-Devils on Wheels, and Moonshine Mountain—”is still there, but now all drive-ins that are still in business are big family places. It’s the opposite of what it was when I was young.”
“You had them all here [in D.C.], too,” he adds. “I used to come over here, too. What was the big blaxploitation theater? It was on New York Avenue.”
“Yeah! I used to go there. Every big city, especially on the East Coast, had those same theaters. The karate theater, the porno theater—they weren’t porno, though—they were sexploitation. Before that, nudist-camp movies. In Baltimore, it was the Rex. That’s a church now and there’s no marquee, so it didn’t translate. I would have loved to use that, because that’s where I saw all the nudist-camp movies. With airbrushed crotches and endless volleyball games, nude. Which were really exciting.” He chuckles. “It’s really amazing that that was ever a turn-on to anybody.”
Given how personal all this is, the logical query is whether cult leader Cecil B. DeMented (played by Stephen Dorff) is a self-portrait. “It’s an obvious question,” allows Waters. “I would ask, too. Some of it’s true. But my parents loved me and paid for Mondo Trasho,” his first feature. “My parents never said to me, ‘What made you think you could direct?’ Cecil was cuter than I was. He was straight. He had a much worse sense of humor than I do—he didn’t have a sense of humor. No cult leaders have a sense of humor about themselves, or they can’t brainwash people. He was much more extreme than I was, and meaner to his cast and crew. He expected them to die. Although for Pink Flamingos I did ask Mink Stole to set her hair on fire,” as Cecil requests of his kidnapped leading lady. “I don’t know what I was thinking. Thank God she said no.”
There’s more autobiography in DeMented’s followers, known as the Sprocket Holes. Each of them has chosen a director to follow, and the list includes such flamboyant figures as Otto Preminger, Sam Peckinpah, William Castle, Kenneth Anger, Pedro Almodovar, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Samuel Fuller.
“They were certainly very influential to me,” Waters acknowledges. “Also because they became famous for being directors themselves. They became almost caricatures. Isn’t Otto Preminger more famous for abusing Jean Seberg than he is for Advise and Consent? Maybe some young people don’t remember them. But Cecil B. DeMented is a traditionalist. He doesn’t shoot in digital video. He shoots in 16 mm. He doesn’t believe in editing. There’s no postproduction on a Cecil B. DeMented film. You die. And the TV news shows may show it to turn you into a cinema martyr. Which is my real joke on what you have to do to be edgy anymore. To have ‘edge credentials,’ as one actor put it.”
Although going DeMented may well give Melanie Griffith an edgier reputation, Waters never promises to transform a performer’s standing as an inducement when casting. “I don’t think I’ve ever hurt an actor’s career,” he says. “And I don’t want to. I hire people because I really do like them. They know I know what I want. And that’s all any actor wants. Even if you don’t like it, I do know what I want. I’m the opposite of Cecil. The worst thing you can do if you’re making a movie is in the middle to say, ‘I have a vision! I’m changing everything!’ That means you’ll never make your schedule. That’s why I had him constantly saying, ‘I have a vision!’ It’s a producer’s nightmare. Those are the words they dread hearing.”
In fact, Waters made DeMented with remarkable efficiency. Asked if he ever considered making the film in the guerrilla manner of DeMented and his followers, the director responds in purely practical terms: “I could have never made this movie if I’d covered it from every Sprocket Hole’s angle. My God, it would have taken 10,000 shots. And you wouldn’t have used them anyway. I shot the exact movie. I didn’t cut one thing out. Which is really scary, because now they’re always gonna want me to do that. Never to make one possible shot that you don’t use—that’s beyond Dogma ’95, that’s Dogma Hell!”
Ironically for such a pragmatic filmmaker, Waters has made only six movies since 1977. “There was a long period when I didn’t [work] because I very stupidly tried to make the sequel to Pink Flamingos,” he explains. “It took seven years, and nobody said no. That’s why I don’t get stuck anymore. If they don’t happen, I write another one and move on. That was very frightening.”
Waters describes DeMented as his version of such late-’60s youth-rebellion flicks as Wild in the Streets, which are about “how much fun it is when you riot.” The film’s implicit political reference, however, is to a slightly later period: The mother of one of the cineterrorists is played by Patricia Hearst, who herself was kidnapped by a violent cadre.
“She was fine with it as long as she didn’t have to play the kidnap victim,” Waters says. “That would have been bad taste. Although some reporter did ask her if she would have taken the role and she said, ‘Well, it’s a big part,’” he reports with an approving grin.
“Patricia Hearst doesn’t think what happened to her is funny,” he adds. “But she has a great sense of humor. And she trusts me. I think people really like that she did this movie. I think people are amazed. But in Pecker she jumped on a table and danced in her slip. If she’s gonna make a John Waters movie, she gets it, too.”
Waters doesn’t mind that his references to scandals from the distant past—before Reagan’s presidency, say—might be lost on today’s young filmgoers. “When I go into studios now, most people say, ‘Take off anything on your resume that was in the ’70s.’ Makes you look too old. I don’t worry about that. I pitch 20-year-old kids and tell them these stories and they look at me like I’m insane. They can think I’m insane; that’s better than thinking you’re too old. Insane at least means you still have a chance.” —Mark Jenkins