I Was Never Like Anybody Else 
Interview with John Waters
feature by
Cynthia Fuchs , 4 August 2000

John Waters wears a plaid jacket and a white shirt buttoned up to the top. While he talks, he takes off his shoes and sits cross-legged on the expensive-looking sofa in the Four Seasons Hotel "tea on silver trays" area. He looks young and rambunctious, like he's ready for trouble. In truth, he is, but for now, he'll settle for talking about his new film, Cecil B. DeMented, in which Stephen Dorff's squad of guerilla filmmakers kidnap a movie star (Melanie Griffith). The Sprocket Holes, as they call themselves, are not interested in celebrity or power or even their next project. They see themselves as visionaries, modeling themselves after brilliant obsessives like Preminger, Peckinpah, Almodovar, Warhol, Fassbinder, and Sam Fuller, and they are willing to take their vision to its ultimate end: death in the name of art.

Cynthia Fuchs: People will obviously think that Cecil is a reflection of you. How do you think about your own experiences and persona in your movies?

John Waters: Well, they couldn't be two characters more completely different from each other. I get the question; it's the first question everybody asks, "Are you Cecil B. DeMented?" "Are you Pecker?" I mean, am I Divine? Am I Serial Mom? I guess I'm all of them in some way. They're all fantasies. They are all characters that I would like to be their friends. I mean, I would collect Cecil B DeMented scrapbooks if he was loose. I would have been in his movie. I would have gone to his trial. I would have written him in prison, maybe, I might smuggle him drugs. Certainly I can't deny that yes, we ran from the police when we were young, we stole equipment. The best was when we would run out of a costume budget, and we would go to Bloomingdale's, buy an outfit, have the actors wear it, and then take it back the next day. It would have make-up and perspiration stains all over it. At the same time, my father loaned me the money to make Mondo Trasho. I didn't have any "cinema abuse" in my family as Cecil did. And hopefully I am not as much of a megalomaniac and have a little better sense of humor.  Sex: use it for control.

CF: I was at the Cannes film festival where [screenwriter/director Paul] Schrader's Patty Hearst premiered, and to this day I remember some interview where you said that Patty Hearst was your favorite celebrity.

JW: I was obsessed by her. I had been to her trial. She didn't know me and I didn't know her. She later said to me that it was because of people like me that she went to prison. She was right. Because I wanted her to be someone she wasn't. I wanted her to be Tanya, this left-wing, rich girl gone bad. What she was was a victim that made the right decision to stay alive. She would have burned up in that house. It was only by luck that she wasn't in it. She hates the SLA for kidnapping her and she hates the cops for putting her in prison. When does it end? She served her time, yet it will never, ever, end. She doesn't think it's funny, what happened to her, but she does have a great sense of humor. She's made three other movies with me. Bad taste would be asking her to be in a bank robbery scene. She never used to sign autographs when she was asked for them. Why would she: she was a kidnap victim? But now that she's been in four movies she signs them: it's given her freedom to sign autographs. Finally, a way to have some sort of pleasure from this celebrity that she didn't ask for when it happened.

CF: As an image - not a person -- she embodies or maybe prefigures the sort of celebrity that people now seek out now, through talk shows or reality TV.

JW: The surprise of Patricia Hearst being in my movie is no longer, that was finished after the first time. It's not stunt casting, I wouldn't use her unless I thought she was truly a good comedian, and she's become part of the repertory, second generation.

CF: How do you think about your work now, in relation to your own celebrity, in the midst of making "independent" art?

JW: I don't know that I'm an independent filmmaker anymore. I've made Hollywood movies, I've made independent movies, and there is very little difference in what you go through. Well, Hollywood pays better. That's the real difference, in your paycheck. Hollywood is always looking everywhere for the next weird little movie. It's trying to find the next Pink Flamingos that was made in East Bumf*ck, America. But they certainly weren't looking for it when I made it. Now, [after they buy a film], they still have to spend a million dollars to market it. That's the difference, there is no real time for word of mouth.

CF: Does the festival circuit serve that purpose?

JW: It starts the buzz. But the buzz is much more critical. It's the arts editors who decide how much and what they are going to cover, who decide how much space you're getting in a magazine. The buzz really starts with journalists at those film festivals. Does the general public really know what is a hit at Sundance? No, because they can't see it for two years or something. The press gives it a pedigree.

CF: Do you think the internet press alters this scenario at all?

JW: Well the internet has totally f*cked up marketing, because internet journalists all sneak into test screenings and write up reviews. Press agentry is all about controlling the press, and they can't with the internet. The internet is the great outlaw area of the moment; there are no rules there. Everybody's struggling to figure out what to do about that. The only thing I hate about internet press are those interviews you have to do where they type everything in directly. I hate that: it sucks any spontaneity out of the interview. The best typists never know one thing about movies. "How do you spell Ed Wood?" They never have any idea what you are talking about, so they are always asking, "Could you repeat that?" It is the least spontaneous of any interview. It may reach a lot of people, but the process itself is draining.

CF: But soon, the technology will be such that it will just record or transcribe you direct to the net.

JW: Like a Barbara Cartland novel. I've done a million of these things, I helped with the design of the website for this movie [www.dementedforever.com], even though I personally can't type. I've written fifteen movies on legal pads. I hate email. Just makes my workday another fifteen minutes longer. I want to be harder to reach. Email, faxes: how many answering machines do you need in the world?

CF: Are there venues for underground films, aside from festivals?

JW: Well, there's the Chicago Underground Film Festival, and the one in New York. There is a sort of venue, but the films are all really violent; the new underground is obsessed by violence that even makes me uptight. There certainly is an underground --Slamdance and Slumdance -- but they hate independent movies for being too whiny. But there isn't yet a commercial place to show them. There are underground places, but they are not even as commercial as the first midnight-movie houses. As far as having one place that is known to screen underground films and is successful, there isn't any.

CF: At one point in Cecil, Honey tells some protesting mothers that "Family is just a dirty word for censorship!" How do you think your movies, which are so queer, help or hinder the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian politics and culture?

JW: Buying a ticket is political. There is such a thing as movie politics: it can matter were you buy your ticket, what time of day, what candy you buy, if you sneak in your own candy: And I'm gayly incorrect sometimes, you know? I don't always feel comfortable in gay culture: too many rules. My biggest fans in the beginning were gay people who didn't like gay culture, gay people who went to punk rock clubs, criminals, and hippies who hated other hippies, who looked like punks. That was my original audience. So gay people have always been a huge part of my audience. But, I don't always feel in tune with gay culture. I am against all separatism, I think it's completely defeating. Gay people need to use humor as terrorism. ACT-UP began using that. We need gay terrorists like Abbie Hoffman or the Yippies, activists who humiliate their enemies. It's great activism and it really works.

CF: Your films function as an antidote to things like the Millennium March on Washington and the Human Rights Campaign, which are all about family and respectability.

JW: I don't want to get married or have children. I know you have to fight for it, but I personally don't want it. I never wanted to be like everybody else. I don't think gay people should. I liked it when the public was afraid of gay people, when families ran at the sight of a drag queen, not inviting them to dinner. I'm against that! I was never like anybody else. That's why I don't like this "mid" gay culture, which seems to want to say, "We're just like everybody else." I'm not! Speak for yourself!

CF: Melanie Griffith is kind of drag queeny in this film.

JW: Well, it's a different look than Revlon! It's an old tradition in my movies that the stars get there and sob when they see their costumes. That scene where they give her her makeover and she says, "Oh, my god. I look terrible!" and everybody applauds -- that's true. But Melanie had no qualms with dialogue or anything. She didn't mind saying the rudest stuff. She spent three days in a porno theater with all the extras jerking off around her. She wanted to make this movie. But you know, movie stars have to reinvent themselves if they're in their forties. We don't have forty-year-old women movie stars. No women star in movies, except Julia Roberts, and she's not forty. Computer effects and men are the stars of big budget movies.

CF: How is it working with people who are stars already?

JW: I've always loved movie stars. In the old days I made my friends my stars because I didn't have budgets. And Tab Hunter was the first one. I believe in movie stars: we need them. It is how movies get made: studios greenlight with casting approval. So you don't go to people who you think might say no because studios get nervous as soon as stars begin to turn it down. And Melanie's last two movies, Celebrity and Another Day in Paradise, were both taking chances, doing edgy stuff. So I thought she would do it and she had a sense of humor. Which she did, obviously.

CF: How do you think about the film's "outlaw aesthetic," or Stephen Dorff in that role, because he seems to bring some of that affect or reputation with him?

JW: I always knew it was going to be him. I had this picture I tore out of a magazine of him on the toilet with bleached hair, that Greg Gorman took. I had seem him in other movies, and he's a good actor, but I knew he could play Cecil without ever winking at the audience, that he could play it completely for real. Then I met him at Squeezebox, a "hetero friendly gay club" in New York. I love that they advertise like that: it means three-quarters cool gay people. And they play punk rock, which gets rid of all the disco rats who don't like it.

CF: You also usually cast young people, especially in the more recent films.

JW: When I'm working, I want to see a lot of cute, sexy young people, plain and simple. But... everybody always talks about "crossover," and the only crossover to me is a young audience. I have youth spies who tell me what's cool, so I don't have to go out a five in the morning to some club. They're also my friends. I'm hardly the type of person who says, "They don't make 'em like they used to." Thank god!

CF: It is unusual to respect young people that way.

JW: I love working with young actors who are not unknown, but have great spirits and are really into the making the movie. I pick the ones I know I will get along with. You know, I don't pick the brats, the ones who are assholes already. The only real celebrities who act like assholes are mid-level, whose careers will be over in two years anyway. I can tell that in the first interview. It's hard enough to make a movie without being trapped with a tribe of assholes.

CF: Doesn't the industry also train people to be assholes, on some level?

JW: That's usually what happens when they have one huge success too quickly. They don't know anything else. They're ill-equipped to handle the good things that happen to them. And they get bad advice from people who are supposed to look after them.

CF: It's heartening that it's the action adventure and porn fans who come to the aid of Cecil and the Sprocket Holes.

JW: Well, they would be, even though the real action fans are probably right wing, even if they are criminals. I have had criminals ask me to sign their parole cards. It really moves me. And the porno fans save him from the teamsters, they're true outlaws; it's the only outlaw cinema left. I went recently to the big video convention, the "normal" one, because all my videos are coming out in this boxed set. But then I also went to the porno convention, and all the fans were like, "John! We love you!" I did feel like Cecil B. DeMented; I wanted to shout out, "Friends of porno!" I was given so much porno there I had to mail it all home. But I like the idea of genre audience, because there is no such thing anymore. Even porno theaters are only for the really poor who can't afford a VCR, or for public sex, which is rare these days. Even karate movies, if they make them, are big-budget Hollywood movies. John Travolta's in them.

CF: Porn connects back to the question of "normality" and "respectability." Porn these days seems cleaner than before.

JW: I like the amateur porn. Bobby is my favorite director. All those Marines: Bobby gets them all. He's a busy boy, I tell you. And these Marines are so cute and so stupid. The films are really like Andy Warhol's Blow Job, just him and the Marines. Bobby's my auteur hero. The only director I really look up to today is Bobby.

Click here to read Dan Lybarger's review.



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