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Filth 101:
An open discussion with John Waters
August 2001

Schirmacher: This guy is here for many reasons. He should be your role model. He did all the stuff you can't show your parents and he was still successful. But not so successful that he really got corrupted, he only got corrupted a bit.

Waters: I started corrupted.

Schirmacher: But always keep in mind, successfully - so he earns a bit….He's our more expensive professor, by the way! For him I could get two! But, what can I do, I can't afford not to have him…. John Waters.

Waters: You applaud me now, but will you speak to me one hundred and ten minutes later? We decided that we would call the class 'Advanced Filth', so maybe this presentation can be 'Filth 101'. Today I'm trying to show a film that's very very important to me, that really personifies my taste. I used to show it on first dates. If they didn't like it I could never go out with them again. It's the best failed art film ever. It's called 'Boom!', it's a ridiculous re-title of the Tennessee Williams play 'The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore'. It stars Elizabeth Taylor as Sissie Goforth, the richest woman in the world. It is the ultimate drag queen role. Rupert Everett even played the role on the stage in London a few years ago. I can never forgive my parents, as a play it came to Baltimore when I was twelve, and then it starred Tullulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter, and my parents didn't take me to see it, which I think is child abuse basically. It also stars Richard Burton as a poet nicknamed 'the angel of death', who has the unfortunate habit of calling on wealthy women the day before the undertaker. It was directed by Joseph Losey, and if I ever had to get a director tattooed on, I think it would be him. I like his failed art films the best. Failed art films seem to be a genre today that we don't see anymore, because now the independent film in America takes all the screens from all the foreign films that we used to see. This is probably the biggest audience this film has ever had. It was a huge flop when it first came out, it was just released on video but it's already out of print, it was in print for about five minutes. There used to be only one print of it in the world and I used to tour with it to film festivals and present it. It was a giant flop when it came out, they had it called 'Boom', and it didn't work so they retitled it 'Boom!' with an exclamation point, which is the most pitiful marketing I've ever seen. Joseph Losey bragged that he was the first director to ever lose money with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and he mentioned in his book that everyday on the set they started out with bloody marys, so basically they were all drunk. Elizabeth Taylor's performance is just staggering. It really influenced Divine and I, we used to watch it all the time when we were young. I finally met Elizabeth Taylor, I went to her house for a cook-out, and I think I was invited because she has an all-gay staff and they like my work. I walked in and I said to her Oh, I love 'Boom'… she said that's a TERRIBLE film….she got really angry at me and thought I was insulting her, I thought she was going to throw me out. She looked like Divine, kind of. I don't mean that badly. I mean, Elizabeth Taylor was Divine's idol, Divine even smoked Salem cigarettes because Liz smoked them. Noel Coward is also in the movie, he plays the witch of Capri, in a staggering scene where he has a dinner of sea monster with Elizabeth Taylor. They asked Katherine Hepburn to play the part and she turned it down it, insulted to have been asked. The sets are amazing. The art direction has suddenly caught on, there was an article in the New York Times about six months ago, saying this is the art film that everybody from Vogue is watching, about how Anne Wintour watches it everyday, which really made me angry, because I've loved this movie for years and everybody else hated it. The production designer is a guy named Richard McDonald. The costumes are mindboggling and they're by someone I've never heard of, Tizzioni of Rome, that is his name, which is a pretty great name for a designer. I don't know about the rest of Tizzioni's career, I've been trying to find out about it.

Audience: I think it's a costume house rather than Mr. Tizzioni.

Waters: Oh, I'm so disappointed! Because she wears a kabuki outfit you would not believe. Tennessee Williams loved this movie, and in his book he said it was the only film that really captured his work. I think Tennessee Williams meant this to be funny. I think that in the very end we'll see that he was right. So let's watch 'Boom', because you can see how this influenced my aesthetics. It's the most ludicrous Tennessee Williams film you've ever seen.

[Waters shows 'Boom!']

Waters: Does it remind you of any other film?

Audience: 'White Heat', or 'Contempt'.

Waters: 'Contempt' was badly received when it came out, too. This was universally panned, it got howlingly bad reviews, until recently. Elizabeth Taylor's performance is amazing. No one ever said 'you might want to bring it down a little…' She was encouraged to chew the scenery, I think. There was part of 'Pink Flamingos' that was cut out which you can see at the end of the new footage, when Divine is alone in her trailer and writing her memoirs as the filthiest person alive, and 'Boom!' is certainly where that came from, because I saw this probably right before we made 'Pink Flamingos'. It was this movie, and the drive-in movies, and all these movies that were universally hated at the time that I was trying to celebrate, and to put together with these really bad art films. I mean, this movie has great shots in it and everything, that house is so amazing, it looks very much like the most atrocious house in LA. I've been in many houses in LA that look like that. It's politically correct, too, she has midgets, and that really misogynistic scene about women and their periods, that line that Noel Coward says about smelling the fish, I couldn't believe they just said that….and imagine Katherine Hepburn in that part….the drunkenness could have explained some, the excess and the pacing. The art design looks like Easter Island.

Audience: I was trying to guess the exact year of the film without looking it up, and I would guess 1974, the year Elvis Presley died, because it's got that bloated….

Waters: It was 1969…

Audience: That's incredible, it's ahead of its time. It has everything about 1974 in it, Jimi Hendrix meets Liberace.

Waters: Well, I sort of want those white sunglasses…just walking around her private island like that. In that period a lot of films came out like that. Losey made some more like this afterwards, like 'Secret Ceremony', 'The Go-Between'….Did you ever seen 'Hammersmith is Out', again where they play the richest people in the world again, and there's a lot of fart jokes, and then she made 'The Driver's Seat', Andy Warhol's in it and they dub his voice in, and the plot is that she has to find someone to have sex with her and kill her, it's kind of an amazingly bad movie too.

Audience: It seems to have created a new genre, maybe of neurotic realism. Or histrionic realism.

Waters: It's almost a parody of a Tennessee Williams play…I mean, Tennessee Williams could always be histrionic and over the top, but this one, the play is like it also, try to imagine it with Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter….Tab told me that when they did the play the entire balcony was filled with Tallulah's gay fans, and every time she said one word they would start screaming….you couldn't even do the play right, the audience reaction was like Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Audience: Did they take it seriously?

Waters: I don't know! Do you think they were in on it? Where they trying to make a comedy, in a way? I think so.

Audience: Losey was a very self-conscious director, if you see his entire work…

Waters: I think that's why Tennessee Williams liked it. But it's a very thin line to know if you're in on the joke or not. Especially since they tried to buy the house.

Audience: Perhaps Losey wasn't in on the joke, and what blew him away was he had two great actors in a great location…

Waters: .and Noel Coward. But the producer was Lester Percy, who was a notorious lunatic. But I hope you all can use this in your work, in some way. Because melodrama is very important in my work. Todd Haynes right now is supposed to be doing a Douglas Sirk type movie, with rear projection, that kind of thing…but I don't think any of that was rear projection, do you think on the terrace….

Audience: The Easter Island thing was matte, but aside from that…

Waters: I think they might have just stuck some Styrofoam behind them, what's the place where you get those drinks with big umbrellas? Trader Vics, that's what is looked like. Now, melodramatic movies, that's a genre you don't see so much anymore. When Sirks' movies came out they were thought to be women's pictures and they were kind of dismissed by the critics. Fassbinder certainly kind of reinvented that. I met him with Sirk when they were together at the Berlin Film Festival, I almost fell to my knees. They were an odd combo. Sirk was a great director who today the young kids are really discovering again, and doing homages to. This something that students would not have done before, especially when I was in film school.

Audience: I was wondering if it wasn't a parody of Antonioni's 'La Ventura'….

Waters: Maybe, because it's that real art film style that was out in the early sixties, all that kind of slowness, I mean it took her forever to die, and that coughing scene, they had to be in on that. It was like she had the croup, and then for no reason they said 'oh no, an unscheduled eclipse of the sun…'

Schirmacher: John, if I can bring you back to a more philosophical ground. Intentionally bad taste, to do anything intentionally is in itself a very tricky business. American movies, for me, for example, they mostly ruin their comedies, they don't trust the intelligence of their viewers, they always have to rub it in again. But also for the director, the point is here, how much should he know about the comedy stuff? How much should he keep a straight face, and trust that the future will find what he could not put in explicitly?

Waters: I direct every actor in my movies to say the lines completely as they believe it, never wink at the audience, because people who come to my movies know they're supposed to be funny, I don't have to say 'get it? get it?' Even when Stephen Dorff had to lick the Panavision camera I said 'do it like you're so overcome by the love of film that you have to lick a camera, don't ever wink…' and I think it's funnier that way. What you're saying about Hollywood is that they're dumbing it up, they always say 'make sure people get it'. I think you can make different jokes…In 'Polyester' I had a scene where they have a Marguerite Duras triple feature at the drive-in. Believe me, I knew middle America was not going to get that joke. But I knew Vincent Camby would, the critic of the New York Times, and he did mention it. And later people said, 'Who is Marguerite Duras?' The funniest thing when we shot it was that people tried to come to the movie, it was called 'The Truck', so they thought they were coming to see like an action movie. So you can make a joke that people don't get, but so what? Maybe they ask about it, maybe they get it later. When I did an interview with Cahiers du Cinema this year, the guy told me that he was really mad that in 'Polyester' Divine is reading Cahiers du Cinema. He was offended by it but then he realized it was a joke, but they were mad at first because they thought I was making fun of it, but I was making fun with it. I make fun of things I really like, I think that's very important in comedy. Nothing's funny if you make comedy about something you hate. It can be funny for about ten minutes but it doesn't really work unless you love what you're making fun of. I look up to bad taste because it's a freedom I don't have, I do care what people think. I don't sit on my front steps in my underpants and give people the finger when they go by. I'm jealous of people that do that, because they don't care. Bad taste is a great freedom if you have it, and the people who have it I respect as long as they aren't doing it to make fun of people.

Schirmacher: My point was that people that aren't as gifted as you are should stay away from trying to make bad taste. With 'The Name of the Rose' Umberto Eco always understood that on the most superficial level it should make sense as a book as such. All the other layers are something that middle America shouldn't even think about. It can be for the people who enjoy a good film, a good story, but an intellectual challenge as well. This way it takes a lot of constructing. At the end it looks very easygoing and simple, but this bad taste stuff is a very difficult thing to achieve. The wrong thing is to go in and just say 'let's be in bad taste'…

Waters: I agree. The best bad taste is when they're not in on the joke. 'Showgirls'…he made that movie seriously, but it couldn't be funnier. 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' is a good example of a really great bad taste movie.

Schirmacher: But Verhoeven's early stuff was done so intentionally, he got better, you know, but in the beginning he was so German in the intention….you could see his finger….

Waters: You're saying that they're trying too hard. But you see that bad taste in America has now become Hollywood movies. It's on every television show. Kids don't make trashy movies, the independent films don't, Hollywood does, now, these big bad comedies. The only gross things people try to make now are in Hollywood. The golden age of trash is over. 'Pecker' isn't trashy. 'Cecil' isn't trashy, it isn't really about bad taste, those days are ended. I think it really ended when pornography became legal and there weren't any rules anymore, so you had to reinvent everything, and then everybody started to glorify this as a genre, but they were in on the joke. Irony has infected all humor, and real exploitation and real trash never uses irony, because the audience it's made for knows you're laughing at them. And you are. Satire or irony is elitist. You are making fun of the original people who like this genre and they know it. That's why it's tricky because with movies you have appeal to everybody. So I'm talking about the Duras joke, well regular people don't know who Duras is, and I'm not judging them, but it was a fancy drive-in, with people drinking champagne, they got the joke, it was a chic drive-in. You have to do jokes on a couple of levels, I'm not against putting in critic-bait.

Audience: What do you think of filmmakers like Woody Allen…

Waters: I'm the most jealous of his career: an American director that can make one movie a year, exactly how he wants, without asking anybody. I was in his last movie, and I said to him, is it true that the day you finish the first draft of a script you write is the first day of pre-production? And he said, yeah I guess so, and I said I hate you. Because no director has the freedom to do that, and he continues to make movies that are an incredible body of work. That's the thing I respect the most about a director - you can still pick any of them and know it's a Woody Allen film. I like films where the director can take you into his world, even if you hate that world. I'm for that. I think that's the imprint, that's what a director can do. I like some Hollywood movies, even the worst kinds. I liked 'Titanic', I did. You probably saw it after all the hype, sometimes that can ruin a movie. But do all of you feel, no matter what you've done, that the American bad-taste thing has affected your work?

Audience: It's a vernacular, you're breaking out from it but you're still commenting on it, you have to accept it. The danger of irony is that everything's ironic, there's no way to do comedy in a way that you can't be ironic…

Waters: Every television show, even the most mass-produced ones, people expect it…

Schirmacher: But no television never dares to do some things, still, in your films there's always one or two images or scenes that are so distasteful and outrageous, that you say 'is it possible?' For example this 'Something about Mary', the hair semen thing…

Waters: Well, but it looked fake. the difference is you know Divine ate shit but you know that wasn't real cum in her hair. Nobody thought that they said 'come here….' No one thought that. Even the dumbest people, they don't watch 'Chainsaw Massacre' and say 'do you think they were really hurt?'

Schirmacher: And the scene with the rats having sex, they're not just rats from horror movies, it was a very, very well-presented moment that didn't fit at all. It was your handwriting exactly.

Waters: The worst was when we filmed the scene. There were just two people holding the rats…we tried everything, we showed them rat porn, nothing worked. It was somebody on top holding them. There was the vet with the rats, it didn't have sound, so I'm on the other side of the wall watching the monitor, joking around saying get it baby, fuck me!….I said 'cut' and looked over and the veterinarian's six year-old daughter was standing there…sometimes there's worse horror behind the scenes.

Audience: Did you ever feel at any point that you had to pull back?

Waters: Well, I look back at 'Pink Flamingos', and the real blowjob scene is something that I wouldn't do today, because at the time it was a parody on 'Deep Throat', and porno had just become legal so it was like porno chic in 1972….I probably wouldn't do a hardcore porno scene today. Maybe I would. The chicken thing, would I do that today? Probably not. Even though I've defended it forever, we made the chicken's life better. It got in a movie, it got fucked and it got famous. Would I today kill an animal in a movie? Probably not. I mean we ate them. We didn't have craft services, then, on 'Pink Flamingos' you had to go find something in the woods, kill it and eat it. There was no 'lunch' or anything.

Schirmacher: Did you know the singing asshole cost me a student? He signed up, got his money, was about to wire it to the school, and he went to the online class with Natalie, who had just given the praise of the singing asshole, and he said 'no no, to this school I don't want to go…'

Waters: Let me tell you a good story about the singing asshole. Someone just said to me, 'there's this guy you should see, he can sing with his asshole'. I said, 'ok send him over'…now I would say, please don't, I said 'yeah, show it to me….ho ho!…a star is born….' He's married now, he has a family, he's a computer technician. I asked if anyone recognizes him and he said well, they aren't looking at my face…and then during the 25th anniversary of Pink Flamingos somebody offered him three thousand dollars if he would come to this big nightclub in Boston and do his act. He said, 'well you know the muscles aren't what they used to be….' During the anniversary rerelease he would go into the audience, this is terrorism, he would tap the person next to him and go 'that's me'….People would really freak out. Can you imagine? I asked him if he ever showed it to anyone and he said 'there's a woman at work, I gave her the tape, she put it on my desk the next day and refused to comment…Can you imagine someone at a straight job…'want to see a movie I'm in?' 'Sure!' 'That's the guy I work with!' But I'm sorry you lost a student…maybe you gained a couple too.

Schirmacher: It's a good litmus test. If you hate John Waters, don't come to our school.

Waters: Who do I call when Forrest Gump starts running? There are scenes that to me are obscene. The singing asshole was a joyous scene - he told me it was a yoga exercise. I've never revealed his name.

Audience: Do you find now that working in a larger budget, with more limitations imposed on you that it's more of a struggle?

Waters: It is still a struggle. With 'Cecil B. Demented' we had thirty days to film an entire action movie with all union teamsters…I'm not against doing that, it was really hard, I had to do one take alot. We didn't even have overtime. I think the only time I had enough money was 'Serial Mom.' Everybody on every movie has to do that, the guy that did 'Titanic' had to put his salary up. You never really have enough to do it how you want it. Every movie halfway through cut things and changes things, puts two characters together, which is everyday on the set but you have to learn how to do that. There's a bond company now that takes the movie away from you if you go over. Your reputation is about coming in on budget. If you go over budget you really will never get it made. Cecil was probably about eight million dollars. There were seven or eight main characters, they didn't work for scale, we all had the big trailers. I'm sure Melanie worked for less, but she was a real good sport. You can't expect that kind of movie star to come and take a piss in the woods. You have to be realistic about it.