KILLER VALUES: JOHN WATERS AND “SERIAL MOM”

John Waters is possibly the only living American director incapable of making anything other than a signature piece. Starting his career with the likes of “Roman Candles,” an arty anti-Catholic short that requires three projectors and a tape recorder to properly display a nun smoking and priest drinking a beer, Waters is a curious breed of filmmaker and surely one of the most audacious of all time. But unlike others who wallow in human depravity and gleefully take sacred cows to the slaughter, Waters has actually come up smelling like a rose by crossing over to the mainstream with his integrity fully intact. In a way, that would make him more dangerous – as now he has access to even more young minds.
Polite almost to a fault, Waters talked with us about murder, musicals and making movies in his home town of Baltimore.
[ Do you think the death of the traditional family has weakened the social fabric of the country? ] ^ Only because the family unit is responsible for so many of the psychological problems that have kept this country going the way it has been for so long. I definitely don’t have a problem with the “family” concept, I come from one, I have parents, but I don’t believe in the “values” or structures that go along with it – especially not how they’ve been presented lately.
[ Has anyone stranger than usual contacted you regarding "Serial Mom"'s murder/comedy angle? ] ^ There was one person who came up to me at the end of one shooting day. Right when they said ‘Wrap,’ he was standing right there – which is always kind of scary. And he said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but listen to me for a minute. My mother is a serial mom, she killed my father and my brother.’ He started giving me specifics, details, and I remembered the case. It was in Baltimore, eleven years ago. I remember the names and everything. And he said, ‘Would you sign a “Serial Mom” banner to my brother and myself and put her name on it?’ I think he was telling the truth, but I don’t know. If not, he was incredibly ahead in his acting. It really seemed – and while he was telling me this, I could see one of the crew looking at us, not knowing what to do and wondering if he should get this guy away from me. But I was kind of interested. They couldn’t believe it. Their eyes were like – ‘Oh no!’
[ Aside from movies and books, there are serial killer comics, trading cards and tons of other associated stuff. What do you think about the fact that "Serial Mom" is going to appeal to that whole murder-obsessed subculture? ] ^ They send me all that stuff, and I actually have mixed feelings about that subculture because I have taught in prison. The murderers I know who are in jail – I really think it hurts their chances of ever getting out. I’m working to hopefully get those people someday, so while I’m aware of this whole movement, and I totally get it, I generally refuse to be part of, for that reason. That it eventually does hurt people who are trying to get out of jail.
[ But you do address it in this picture. "Serial Mom" has an autographed picture of Richard Speck. ] ^ Of course I’ll joke about that kind of stuff. Certainly. I get newsletters that are only about serial killer collectibles. People have offered me stuff for sale that you wouldn’t believe. I don’t know if you saw that Sotheby’s in England had a catalog of executioner’s belongings for auction, including the book that had the name of every person who has been executed in England – amazing stuff.
[ It's one thing to be kind of interested in that, and another to be really involved. ] ^ Yeah, I mean, I’m not really involved – I’m involved enough that I teach in jail, but I do that seriously, not as a joke. In the film, I treat it in a cavalier kind of “groupie” way, which is basically what it’s about. Criminals do have groupies. And the ones I know never answer those letters, or are very fearful of that, because it’s the worst thing for someone trying to get paroled. It’s very hard if you’ve done something terrible one night in your life to ever get a chance again. And if you are ever are cavalier about it, or if you ever are not showing sorrow – this is of course to victims’ relatives who talk about this stuff – people go berserk.
[ Have you heard about the organization M.A.S.K.? Mothers Against Serial Killers? ] ^ Whatever the word is for “camp” for criminals, which there isn’t a word, but that’s what that sounds like. Actually on the other side of it, there is a group of parents of murderers that meet to discuss their trauma which they’ve had to deal with. That would be the group that I’d be more apt to be involved with. Isn’t everyone against serial killers? But people’s perceptions about criminals change if they personally know someone who has committed a crime. In the beginning of “Serial Mom,” Sam Waterston’s character believes strongly in the death penalty – he states that someone should be put to death. But in the end, he has on a “No Capitol Punishment” button. You’re against it until someone in your family did it, and then you change your views. Same way that if somebody killed my mother I wouldn’t be making this movie. I recognize that, too. You know, it’s personal, there’s no fair answer to any of it.
[ Have you been contacted by any "victims of family-type" groups? Has there been any protest? ] ^ See, I’m not so sure they’ll hate this film. Basically the movie is, in a way, saying that America had made serial killers into the new celebrities – which is something I think they are against. I’m neither for or against, but I can see both sides of it. You know what I’m saying? I’m not going to say anything here, I’m not going to take a position on this, except how absurd it is. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, because I’m interested in even things that are wrong. If only Dan Quayle was still around to rise to the occasion. I’m sure someone will say we shouldn’t be making a comedy about a serial killer. But in all my movies – I mean, racism isn’t a funny subject but Hairspray was about that in some ways, and it wasn’t a usual subject for a comedy.
[ I could see this film getting picketed when it comes out, though - which could be great publicity. ] ^ Well, it all depends. Sometimes it’s not good publicity. I’ll leave that one alone. I guess I don’t know how I feel about that issue. I can’t imagine it, because there’s such a satire on it. Also, studios are always uptight about those kind of films. But independents aren’t, but studios are because they have stockholders. They gotta listen to all the bullshit.
[ This set seems very relaxed. Is it a lot different from your last film, "Cry-Baby"? ] ^ Well, every movie I ever made, except for the ones I personally produced myself, has been watched closely by the people who put up the money. New Line, for instance, always watched very closely. Whoever gives you the money watches – if we’re on schedule, on budget, and if they like the footage, they’re happy. This film is different. It’s a little easier because it’s not a period piece, it’s not a musical – those are two levels of extreme difficulty that we had on both “Hairspray” and “Cry-Baby”. l’m very optimistic about this movie, probably more so than I’ve ever been before, which is scary. I feel like I’m going to be cursed for saying that, but the dailies look great and I think it’s going to be a very funny movie.
[ There are certain scenes in each of your films that only John Waters would do. In "Hairspray," there's the one where the girl pops a zit. But here, a baby gets a big loogey right in the face. How was that done? ] ^ Well, don’t give away everything! We got the baby from somebody we knew because strangers wouldn’t let us do that. We asked, begged, her mom for three months. And the baby only flipped out when the mom started screaming in the scene. I mean, when they flung the thing, it was actually egg whites, in the kid’s face, it just went like that. (Motioning with the flick of the wrist.) We shot that in a church scene, with real people from the church there, and they were gagging with embarrassment – but we did it.
[ It must be a real trip for you to still be making films here in Baltimore but on a completely different scale. I was here yesterday, while you were doing a tiny insert shot, and you called for make-up on Ricki Lake's hand. I thought, "make-up on Ricki Lake's hand"? ] ^ Well, that was because she had something… It’s come a long way, but it’s been so gradual. I had that kind of support, that kind of crew on “Cry-Baby” and “Hairspray” – but it’s been thirty years, literally, since I made my first film in 1964. Nothing changed that quickly – it’s completely changed – but over such a slow period that I think it’s been pretty easy to adjust. It still amazes me, it still makes me happy to see Kathleen Turner with all her hair people and the makeup people, the cranes, the equipment and everything. And that’s always what I wanted when I was 16, but it’s just taken a long time to get there. I’m still doing the same kind of stories, it’s just that production values have increased.
[ Do you think you have a lot of advantages because of that experience? Versus a lot of other filmmakers who have been handed everything very suddenly? ] ^ Well, I’d think it would be hard for someone who made a good film and was immediately snapped up by Hollywood. Of course Hollywood never wanted to snap me up until Hairspray. But by then I had struggled and learned so much about how the business works that I was ready. It was the next logical challenge to make a big “Hollywood” film. And believe me, it’s been no harder. It’s easier because if they agree to make a “John Waters Movie,” they let me make it. They just pay me better. And the distribution is better. Although “Cry-Baby” was not my best movie – a fact I’m well aware of – more people saw it than any other movie I’ve ever made in my life. That was the advantage of having Universal Pictures’ muscle. New Line did a good job at distribution, they got my films out, but things aren’t the same anymore. It’s a very difficult time for independents, but of course New Line isn’t the same company anymore. Getting the films out there was gradual too -having “Polyester” not open as a midnight movie, “Hairspray” being a PG release.
[ Have you gotten the musicals out of your system? ] ^ Yeah, I did. What I learned from “Cry-Baby” is that audiences don’t like musicals, especially when people just start singing in the middle of a scene. I do, but they don’t. Also, if you’re making fun of a genre that pre-dates your audience, they aren’t familiar with the territory. They never saw those movies, so they just don’t get it. They just think they’re square. Unfortunately, Middle America hates two things: Camp and Surrealism. I love those two things, but they don’t and I don’t have either of them in “Serial Mom”. Not like I used to. Now, I’m talking about a shopping mall theater audience in Middle America. They don’t get it, they don’t like it. I’m not saying that’s right, but that’s what I’ve learned. Serial Mom is played very differently, it’s played for real. All the scenes are directed straight, like it’s real life. The script is so crazy that this was the only way to do it. In fact, I was in a book store the other day and overheard some one asking for the book “Serial Mom,” the case John Waters based his new movie on. I loved that.
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Posted on April 13, 1994 in Interviews by
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