INTERVIEW: John Waters, "Demented" Forever
by Anthony Kaufman
There’s more to John Waters than simply “Pink Flamingos,” Divine, Mink Stole, and his trademark paeans to bad taste and perversity. There is, in fact, something familiar to all of us: another struggling filmmaker trying to get his unique voice out into the world. Though he’s been doing this for over 30 years — and a certain mastery comes with the experience — every film is a labor of love with all the usual pitfalls of production, financing, promotion and distribution. And his latest film “Cecil B. Demented,” opening Friday, is as much a reflection of one filmmaker’s frustration with a stodgy, restrictive and box office-obsessed film industry as it is another wild and wacky Waters ride.
“It’s a fantasy,” admits the 54-year-old writer-director, about his alter ego creation, Cecile B. Demented (Stephen Dorff), a guerilla filmmaker with an Otto Preminger tattoo, who takes to the streets with his horny crew of cinema terrorists wreaking havoc on Baltimore, kidnapping visiting Hollywood starlet Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith), and forcing her to make the ultimate underground movie.
indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman met with Waters in his West Village apartment (and it hasn’t changed much since he interviewed the director for “Pecker” two years ago). Here, Waters waxes on such topics as doing press, casting pressures, his own Dogma rules, and the politics of film-going.
indieWIRE: So this is the first interview you’ve done for “Cecil.” I know you’ll be doing a whole lot more. And you seem to be pretty good at handling them; we’re in your apartment, there’s no handlers here, no publicists, you’re very good at doing press.
John Waters: I’ve done it for 30 years. I’m a participant in the media. I read it; I get a hundred and something magazines a month. You use me; I use you. It’s an old game. I’m a participant in it. Part of the reason that they let me make movies is because they know I’ll do this. If you don’t do this, they hate it. The distribution companies. Because you can’t buy editorial space, it’s not about money, it’s the only thing. And they’ll know that I’ll work for the film because I want people to see it. And I think that helps a little. No one is standing in line to make my movies; I don’t have a three picture deal anywhere. But I want to keep making them and I’ll do what I can [laughs].
iW: Does that element though, the “factory” I call it, get a little frustrating?
Waters: It doesn’t get frustrating. It gets ludicrous when you do a junket, when you sit in a chair with that TV thing and they come in and you have to say the name, the TV person from each city. “Hi Bill” “Well, Bill, I’ve been thinking. . .” “Hi Francis. . .” I can do it. It’s like a challenge almost. Sometimes there are junkets where I say, let’s see if I can get through this and never give the same answer. That’s the challenge of it. And in a way doing interviews back to back is like going to the shrink in some ways, because you say things that you actually end up using later in a movie. It is part of making a movie. Does it get weary? Sometimes, but it all gets weary.
iW: So now, the money people. Canal Plus came in early on in the script stage?
Waters: Canal Plus bought this film for the whole world and then they sold it to Artisan for America. And then they sold it everywhere else all over the world. So they were involved from the beginning. It was developed by another French company with a development deal, UGC. And then it fell through, really due to casting, before I made “Pecker.” I wrote this before I made “Pecker.” That’s why it happened fairly quickly after “Pecker,” because usually it takes another year for me to write it and get through the process. So I had written it already, I did a rewrite but still it didn’t take me a year.
iW: Is this the closest that two of your films have ever come out?
Waters: Well, in the old days, “Mondo Trasho” and “Multiple Maniacs” I think were a year apart. But pretty close.
iW: Was that exciting for you, one after the other?
Waters: Yeah, it was fun. Still not that much because you have to get through so many hurdles to get the green light and get it made and get the amount of money you need and all that. But I was glad. I just want to keep making ’em. I wasn’t complaining.
iW: What sort of hurdles were there for this one?
Waters: There are always hurdles. You have a green light depending on casting, but that’s where many, many movies fall through, because for some reason all the money people always feel that certain stars are insurance that the movie will make money, but as we all know, that’s completely not true. We have all different box office successes and failures. But you have to agree, and then they might suggest someone you really can’t stand and you have to do a little bit of a dance.
iW: So with the original French company, it was a casting dispute?
Waters: Not a dispute, but it’s very hands on, who’s going to play what.
iW: Melanie wasn’t enough for them?
Waters: They had to approve the part of Melanie, Stephen and Alicia; those were the three roles they had to approve before the green light. And they did. But it also goes through different times: who’s available; money; there’s so many different factors involved in it that it’s always a tricky period. I think that a lot of movies fall through in that period.
iW: How did you get Melanie Griffith?
Waters: Well, I love Melanie and I met her before, and suspected she had a good sense of humor. She was brave to make this movie, certainly there’s dialogue that’s a little close to home. [laughs] And I think Melanie gives a really good performance. She’s the straight man in this movie; everything happens to her. And she starts out in that kind of movie star way Melanie can be, and I think ends up very strong in the end. So I had a meeting in her house; she has a very movie star house, a big gate with two sports cars in the driveway. She had on skin tight Levis, a skull t-shirt and no makeup, which is great, you know, I thought, “I can get along with her.” She made that Larry Clark movie. I mean, you can see the kinds of movies she’s making, she’s obviously trying to take chances and make good movies. And risks. Which is a risk when you’re in your 40s and you’re known as a glamour girl and everything, to certainly allow yourself to go a very different way than the ingenue kind of role. And I just suspected she had a sense of humor underneath it all, and she did. And I think Antonio [Banderas] was very supportive of her making this movie. He started out with Pedro [Almodovar] and I think that helped. He started out making not so dissimilar kinds of things. So I don’t know if he encouraged her, but he was certainly on the set a lot and was very, very supportive.
iW: You’ve been in the studio system; how does that compare to the independents?
Waters: The studio system and the independents are almost the same now. There is very little difference. Unless your movie costs less than $1 million and you’ve raised the money yourself through a limited partnership, which is what I used to do, it isn’t too different. For the studios, you have to do this [interviews] [laughs]. Would Cecil do interviews? He would kidnap the top general, force him at gunpoint to write the kind of review that he would dictate, that’s what he would do. Would he form a limited partnership? No, they would steal the money, which they did. They robbed construction sites, they said, our budget is zero dollars. But really Cecil didn’t care if it was ever shown. If you really looked at it, he only cared about getting the last shot. He almost edited it in the camera. He didn’t do coverage as we know; he was against coverage. Which is a joke because in the beginning, I didn’t do coverage either. I didn’t know you were supposed to. “Pink Flamingos” was filmed like a play. So in those scenes when they were watching their dailies up on the wall, it was very, very nostalgic. It was exactly how we used to watch them afterwards when we’d shoot them. They were filmed with the same camera and everything, so it was really kind of eerie to see, because it was really close to what it was like.
iW: There’s this recent new campaign to capture “reality” or at least get closer to it. In Mike Figgis’ new work, he shoots 96 minutes continuously, no cuts. And then there’s the Dogma 95 people who are trying to get reality. Where does your work fit in?
Waters: Well, “Pink Flamingos” was a Dogma movie. No, wait, because you can’t have death in it. But I did my John Waters Dogma rules for French Premiere Magazine. And my rules were NC-17 with no sex or violence, a soundtrack that was so atrocious that no record company in the world would release it, a blind cinematographer, and only hire people that haven’t worked in 20 years and pay them a lot of money. Instead of getting A-list stars and paying them scale, get old people who haven’t worked in 20 years and pay them $1 million. That’s my Dogme 2000 John Waters. So Cecil certainly has his own Dogma. And a lot of the dialogue in the movie expresses that. And Melanie’s character in the beginning tries to fight him when she gives that speech about, “Ask theater owners anywhere in the world, we make the best movies.” Well, there’s truth to that, too! That’s why all the other film businesses are going out of business in every other country. We are terrorists toward the film businesses of every other country because we’re putting them all out of business with our movies. So the Hollywood movies in a way are terrorizing the nationalist film communities in every country in Europe.
iW: But independent film, established independent film, is just as culpable, right?
Waters: The Canal Plus people and the press release kept calling the movie ‘Cecil’s independent film,’ and I kept crossing it out saying no, no, no, no, no, it’s not independent, it’s underground or outlaw. He would hate independent film equally as much, and I’m not saying I do. Recently, I was in New York for two days; what movie did I pick to see? I went to see “Eva,” the Joseph Losey film, and that’s still the movies I want to see. Cecil would have gone to see that, because he’s a purist to the ridiculous point. I mean, to have a Pasolini festival today, it’s possible, but no one would come. I went to see — I won’t name this movie because I feel bad for him — a popular new independent film that played in Baltimore and I went, and I was the only person in the theater. And the film broke down, and I just sat there and nobody fixed it. And then I went out and said, are you going to fix it, and they were like oh, all right. No wonder people don’t go to movies. I wish I could turn into Cecil B. DeMented right then and there and pistol whip the projectionist. [laughs] No wonder people don’t go to the movies anymore, look at this! So that kind of experience can drive me to rage.
In the movie, they attack verbally almost everything that gets on my nerves about going to the movies. So going to the movies is political, and how you watch them is political, and why you like them is political, and how they are distributed is political, and in this movie, even the guy in the delivery truck has an opinion, he says, “Eh, he’ll never get distribution.” So everybody seems to know about the movie business now. Another thing, like where 20 years ago you had to read Variety to know what the grosses were, now my mother knows what the second biggest film in the country is. Which is meaningless because it doesn’t tell you how many theaters it’s playing in or how much they spent to advertise it. So the public follows this meaningless top 10. You can be number one and a big flop yet be open in 3,000 theaters with a per screen average of $2,000. You can still make a huge amount of money, but not profit. So they’re all wildly following this top ten that is almost meaningless.
iW: In the climate that you attack and that you are working in to some extent, do you feel like you will be able to continue to make movies like this?
Waters: I hope so, so far I have.
iW: You’re not afraid?
Waters: No, because I think the people who are in the movie business will laugh at this movie. I don’t think they’re going to be offended by it. In the same way that the art world was one group of people who liked “Pecker.” Because I basically attack things I like.
iW: What do you think about the general climate of filmmaking today?
Waters: The general climate is pretty good now, I think. They’re ready for anything. Certainly not when I was making “Pink Flamingos.” Now they are. They’d love the weirdest kid from East Bumfuck Kansas to come in with a snuff movie they thought was real, that looked good. The problem is, he’d have a Hollywood deal and the next movie would be a $40 million movie. That’s the problem. Too fast acceptance, whereas everything that happened to me happened so gradually over 30 years. You never get a chance to be confused by success. It is gradual and you grow with it. I didn’t fly first class until I was 40-years-old, so I haven’t the slightest embarrassment of only doing it now [laughs]. I paid my dues.