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INTERVIEW : He Really Can’t Help Himself : Shockingly eccentric writer-director John Waters offers yet another look at the gruesome with his new film, ‘Serial Mom.’ It stacks up nicely against his cult faves ‘Pink Flamingos’ and ‘Mondo Trasho’

<i> James Grant is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles and is an occasional contributor to Calendar. </i>

John Waters, the eccentric and ascerbic writer-director, stands in a claustrophobic little guest room upstairs in his sprawling Baltimore mansion, giving a tour and offering impromptu tips on being a sterling host.

He looks on pointedly as a reporter picks up a book from the night stand titled “How to Care for Your Gerbil.” “This gets them every time,” he snickers. “My guests start to get a little nervous once they get a look at this in their bedroom.”

You were expecting cookies and milk from the man who has been dubbed Hollywood’s Rapscallion of Repulsion?

Waters is back, basking in Hollywood camp and bad taste in his latest film, “Serial Mom,” set to open Friday. It stars Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston and Suzanne Somers in the story of a suburban mom who is a cheerfully psychotic cross between June Cleaver and Ted Bundy.

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“Serial Mom” marks the 12th film for Waters, 47, who first came to prominence after his 1972 film, “Pink Flamingos,” achieved impressive worldwide grosses in more ways than one. Waters has since served up such bad-taste classics as “Mondo Trasho” and “Polyester.” His two most recent forays, “Hairspray” and “Cry-Baby,” have attempted to take his humor more mainstream.

Waters fields the tough questions with aplomb; it’s the niggling details that stump him. “What kind of trees are those in your back yard?”

“I don’t know. Say they’re green,” he says.

“Who designed your clothes?”

“Say I wore green tennis shoes and a blue shirt.” In other words, he doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

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Question: In “Serial Mom,” Kathleen Turner plays a mother with sociopathic tendencies, often expressed in revenge for slights against her family. What fascinates you about psychotic behavior?

Answer: I wish my own mother had done that, basically. But I think everybody wishes that their moms would come to the rescue. “Serial Mom” is a good mom. I don’t think of her at all as a villain of this movie. She’s the heroine. She sticks up for her kids, who may happen to have an interest in gore movies, but so what? She wants her daughter to be happy. She’s a liberal, good mom.

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Q: With just a few bad habits . . . .

A: Well, she means well. She doesn’t kill out of meanness. She does it out of really caring for her family. And once she did it, it agreed with her. It was like a new set of pearls.

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Q: You are equating her penchant for killing to acquiring a new set of pearls?

A: Well, she does it stylishly. She leaves a signature every time. In one scene, she picks up a knife and then says to herself: “Oh, everyone does it with a knife.” There are no guns in this movie. It’s a gun-control movie.

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Q: Tell me about your childhood. You were educated partially by nuns, weren’t you?

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A: Yes. The Daughters of Purgatory. I look back on them and think that they were the first witches I ever met in my life.

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Q: But not the last.

A: No. The evilest, though.

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Q: How did you know that you had an early fascination with the macabre?

A: Whatever I seemed interested in, my parents went: ‘Oh, kid, no!’ I just knew that it was better to keep my interests to myself. I’d be playing in the baseball game, and I wouldn’t be paying any attention; the ball would be at my feet, and people would be running around bases while I would talk to someone about Dagmar! She was the first buxom, kind of sexy TV comedienne. I liked her a lot when I was a kid, but I realized that maybe that wasn’t right. I couldn’t tell the teacher when they were talking about sports and stuff that I liked Dagmar. So I learned to have secret interests. Now almost everything I’m interested in I use for my work.

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Q: How has your notoriety changed your life?

A: Well, fame is protection if you go to a scary place. Fame is fun. A lot of people don’t say anything and you don’t know they know who you are. But then later they say something that makes me realize that it’s a good thing I was on good behavior.

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Q: But at that moment, don’t you wonder if you really were on good behavior?

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A: Yeah. But I figure, so what if I wasn’t? It’s not like I make Disney movies. It’s not like I’ve got a morals clause in my contract with Savoy. I had one with “Polyester.” New Line had just never taken it out from the standard thing. So I called New Line, because it said that I couldn’t make a movie that would offend the community. I said: “Are you kidding? That’s what you pay me to do!”

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Q: What led you to cast Turner as the psycho mom?

A: When this film was with other studios, we did not have the budget to hire Kathleen. But when we did, she was my No. 1 choice, believe me. She’s delightfully wicked.

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Q: I only met her once, and she had the firmest handshake in the world.

A: Well, she’s a physical woman. She does her stunts a lot. Kathleen is not one to shrink away from doing anything. She had to duck with knives being thrown.

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Q: You’re known for your eclectic casting. Who else would you like to work with?

A: I’d like Sharon Stone. Meryl Streep. Really the big wheels. I’d work with Johnny Depp again in a minute. I think “Cry-Baby” probably reached the zenith in terms of casting with Joey Heatherton, Iggy Pop and Patty Hearst.

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Q: Would you ever consider directing a film from another writer’s script or conception?

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A: I have no interest in ever making a movie I didn’t write. If they were going to take my house away, then I guess I might have to. But my agent knows not to even bother sending me the scripts. The fun of it is thinking it up. Then, when I direct it, I’ve been living with these people for a long time in my head, so I get to bring them out on the screen.

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Q: I watched “Pink Flamingos” the other night.

A: Oh, I haven’t seen that one for 10 years. It still delivers. It still gets arrested in places!

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Q: Are you surprised that after all this time, the film still holds up in the shock department?

A: Yeah. I’m proud of it. It’s like having a serial killer movie. It still works. It still gets threatened with film jail. But on video, it has problems. Where are you going to put it? If you put it in the X-rated, people don’t want to find it.

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Q: You’ll be happy to know that you have your own section in West Hollywood video stores.

A: (Laughter.) That’s great. Well, West Hollywood ain’t Omaha, believe me! It doesn’t get busted in West Hollywood. It gets stolen in West Hollywood!

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Q: How has filmmaking changed for you from those early days? Obviously, the budgets have changed, but has your actual approach?

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A: It’s exactly the same in some ways in that I’m very serious about making my comedies. Hollywood, at least, knows about me by now. I come in on budget. I make the exact movie I tell ‘em I’m gonna make.

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Q: You have a reputation for being quite meticulous, and although your films look somewhat improvisational, you don’t like your actors to ad-lib.

A: No, we don’t ever ad-lib much. But we do have rehearsal. We rehearsed “Serial Mom” right here in this living room. Kathleen, Sam (Waterston)--all of them. That is where I see that perhaps the lines I’ve written don’t work and if Kathleen or Sam had an idea, I’d listen and change it.

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Q: What was the budget on “Pink Flamingos”?

A: $10,000. I thought I had a lot to work with. I had $5,000 with “Multiple Maniacs.” It’s been 30 years since 1964’s “Hag in a Black Leather Jacket,” which really cost no money because the leading lady stole the film.

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Q: She actually stole the film?

A: Yeah. And the developing.

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Q: You once said Laundromats have the best lighting. Is that still true for you?

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A: No. That was when we had no money for lights. I actually hate fluorescent lighting--but you know, the coolest bars in Berlin have that on purpose only because the people there are so young and cute that they want it to be bright. It keeps old people out. What do they care? They look great and they’re 18.

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Q: Some critics have carped that now you’re mainstream and that you’ve lost your edge.

A: They say that every time. They said that with “Female Trouble"--everything after “Pink Flamingos.” That’s the only thing that sometimes makes me . . . that is a little unfair, and that’s when they go back and say: “Oh, this one doesn’t have the rawness and energy of ‘Pink Flamingos.’ ” And I remember: They hated “Pink Flamingos.” I have the clippings!

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I’m not trying to be as raw. Definitely I’m trying to make a hit Hollywood movie. I have unapologetically been trying to make a Hollywood movie. I have unapologetically been trying to make a Hollywood hit movie with the last three movies. One was (“Hairspray”); one wasn’t (“Cry-Baby”).

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Q: Why is having a hit film so important?

A: It’s the only challenge I have left. They don’t have cult movies anymore. There’s no such thing as midnight movies. It would be foolish to try to make a cult movie--where would it play? What movie has caused a sensation on video, except “Faces of Death”? Hollywood makes all kinds of movies now. Only in the last five or six years has it been possible for me to make Hollywood movies. I never even asked before. I made independent movies. It’s the same strain and the same trouble as before, only you make more money. I don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t know any other job that I could really get.

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Q: Well, what would you do?

A: I could work in a bookstore again. I was good at that.

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Q: What sort of bookstore?

A: Oh, a good one. A very good one.

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Q: Is there anyone that you would not cast in your movies?

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A: Well, there are people that I wouldn’t have bad taste-wise. I wouldn’t put Heidi Fleiss in one of my movies. I wouldn’t put Zsa Zsa Gabor in one of my movies. There are people who are bad, bad taste who aren’t witty or funny. I only put people I really respect in my movies.

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Q: Who’s turned you down?

A: Stockard Channing for “Hairspray.” And who’s the one who wears the dirty makeup? Mamie Van Doren. She said that she deserved better than Divine. And Lisa Marie Presley. I have her book upstairs, called “My Dad.”

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Q: That’s not her book. It’s unauthorized. She’d never write a book about Elvis. Not in a million years.

A: Well, I’m sure she didn’t write it. I’m a fan of hers. She looks like the prettiest girl in Baltimore ( grins widely ) .

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Q: After 12 movies set here, would you ever make a movie anyplace else?

A: I think it would be asking for bad luck. Certainly many of the people I work with behind the scenes live here. I filmed parts of the re-shoots for “Cry-Baby” in L.A.; it’s not as if I would have a nervous breakdown if I had to do it. The amusement park in “Hairspray” was in Pennsylvania.

But it would be difficult for me to write a movie somewhere else. That’s why I need to be here. I need to be cut off from things. It’s also great to be able to drive around and spy on people, which I do when I’m writing. You’d be surprised. People tell me the most personal things about their lives for no reason--on airplanes, everywhere I go. People just blurt out secrets. I’m not sure why. I think that they see in my films that nothing will make me uptight. I’m not going to judge them.

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Q: Now that it’s wrapped, how do you feel about “Serial Mom”?

A: I think it’s my best movie, actually. But you can’t tell that until a couple years after. Certainly if I drop dead tomorrow, my obituary in the Los Angeles Times will say: “ ‘Pink Flamingos’ and ‘Hairspray.’ ”

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Q: The sad irony of Divine’s death just as rave reviews for “Hairspray” were coming in must have been a tremendous blow to you.

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A: Yeah. I hope nobody dies when this one opens.

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Q: Was it difficult for you at first to continue on as a filmmaker without one of your principal sources of inspiration?

A: Yes. That’s why with “Cry-baby” I made a movie about a man. But I certainly never thought I couldn’t make a film without Divine. I’ll be honest with you: I made “Desperate Living” without Divine, so I’d already made a movie without Divine. But I missed him on the set. I always had to fight to use Divine in my movies. Nobody ever wanted me to. And now he would have been so mad that a heterosexual drag queen (Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire) had the No. 1 movie in America. He would have felt gypped. If you have a wife, they love you in drag. If you don’t: kinky!

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Q: Patricia Hearst is in “Serial Mom,” playing a key juror in the trial of Turner’s character. You have admitted that you had been obsessed with her.

A: Well, I was. I was obsessed with her trial, which made her nervous. But she didn’t know that when I was at her trial. That was the hardest trial to get into since the (Charles) Lindbergh baby. People waited three days in sleeping bags and stuff. I waited 12 hours, easy.

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Q: What did you think of her then? And was that how she really was when you actually met her?

A: The Paul Schrader movie called “Patty Hearst” changed my mind about everything. Patricia has said to me: “It’s because of people like you that I went to jail, because you wanted me to be something that I was not!” And she’s right. We wanted her to be this bad-girl heiress when really she was brainwashed and a horrible thing happened to her. She was sitting at home doing her homework. But we didn’t want to hear about that. So we made her into this together thing that really she was not.

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Q: On a somewhat related matter, I understand that you advocate having convicted Manson follower Leslie Van Houten released from prison.

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A: Well, if I’m talking about this for the Los Angeles Times, I have to clarify that: Los Angeles is the place where it happened. I know it is a very delicate situation. Leslie is a friend of mine. I’m not talking about anyone else in the “family.” I met her in 1983 when I was interested in interviewing her for a possible story for Rolling Stone. We became friends, so I didn’t write an article about her.

I believe in rehabilitation. If you believe in rehabilitation, Leslie is rehabilitated. The psychiatrist at the prison says: “She shouldn’t even have to see me.” The parole board knows she’s rehabilitated. I believe she deserves a second chance. I am not saying any of this for shock value. What she did was horrible; I’m not saying it wasn’t. She isn’t either. She’s been in jail some 20-some years. She is paying for it.

At the same time, I’ve made a movie that’s a comedy about a serial killer. That’s a very, very different thing. I want to keep those two issues separate. I told Leslie I was making this movie just so that she would not think it was about her or about my experience with her.

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Q: What’s your perspective on the Menendez case?

A: Well, that was certainly an interesting case, especially now, because everybody has doubts. There are also some wild inconsistencies and they never say they did it. It’s never as interesting if they admit guilt.

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Q: Well, they admit they did it but contend that it was in fear for their lives.

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A: But they don’t admit the guilt! They have reason, blah, blah, blah. What I’m saying is that is why it is the A-list trial in America. Suzanne Somers was offered the part of Kitty Menendez in a TV movie. She called me roaring to tell me. I said: “You should take it! I’d love that!”

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Q: Are you a romantic?

A: Valentine’s Day is my mother’s birthday. If I’m wildly in love, I’ve sent people chicken hearts, which seems to appeal to the kind of person that I’ve been in love with. But no one got a chicken heart from me this year. It’s an off year. I’m only in like. I just received a very funny card from a friend of mine. Have you seen these new cards where you open it up and you can record anything you want for the greeting? His said: “I hate you!” I bet they just made a fortune because everyone must be saying: "(expletive) you!” You can really abuse what they thought this up for, which I think is great.

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Q: Is it safe to assume that you are out of the closet?

A: Oh, sure. I’ve always been out. I’ve never said I wasn’t gay, but people never have the nerve to ask me.

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Q: What do you think about fellow gay filmmakers who are not out?

A: That’s their business.

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Q: You couldn’t care less?

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A: I care. I’m certainly not going to tell other people what they should do with their own personal lives. I think it’s certainly easier for a director to be out. What difference does that make? The public is not going to see a movie because the director is gay or straight. It’s maybe a little harder for an actor or actress because of, you know, the love roles and stuff. But gay people have been impersonating heteros in the movies for years, and this year a straight person--Tom Hanks--won an Oscar for playing a gay person. So, hopefully, that is becoming less of an issue. I think it would have been really great if a gay person had played a gay person. That’s brave!

I think Tom Hanks was great in “Philadelphia,” but the Baltimore Sun came to me and asked: “Didn’t you think he was brave?”

I said: “Brave? No--he’s a known heterosexual. It’s a great stretch, and he’ll win an Oscar. What’s brave about it?”

I’m a film director. Gay is an adjective that I certainly am, but I don’t know that it’s my first one. I think if you’re just a gay filmmaker, you get pigeonholed just like if you say I’m a black filmmaker, I’m a Spanish filmmaker, I’m a whatever.

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Q: What would surprise people about John Waters? What is your one dirty little secret?

A: (Silence. ) I once voted Republican. For President Ford. I still like him. I like the whole family. That’s why I voted for him. Once.

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Q: Is there one theme in your films?

A: There is an overall thread, and it’s always that outsiders win and people that are comfortable with their insanity and are not bitter. And the losers are always the people who are uncomfortable with their own insanity and complain and are bitter and try to take it out on others. “Serial Mom” is comfortable with what she does. She is not guilty. She is doing what she thinks is best. I do too.

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Q: In your book “Crackpot,” you include among your favorite Hollywood things Frederick’s of Hollywood, Pia Zadora and the National Enquirer. Do you have any new discoveries that make Hollywood special for you?

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A: Well, I was there a day after the earthquake. So I experienced all of the aftershocks. I admit I went ghouling around to look at earthquake damage. And when I was in Santa Monica, I saw a beauty parlor that had been hit and the front had the plywood on it. Spray-painted on the front was: “Alive and Still Doing Hair!”

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Q: What’s the last book you read?

A: (Putting on a thick Southern drawl) “M-y-y S-o-n!” (actually called “A Father’s Story”) by Jeffrey Dahmer’s father. I’m very interested in the families of the people who did something horrible. It is an incredible trauma for them also. It’s a scary story. People threw eggs at their house, and he had to go back to work. He said that some of his co-workers said: “I don’t know what I could possibly say to you.” Some would offer help, and some would act like nothing had happened. Imagine! Your son is Jeffrey Dahmer, and your friend says: “Hi! Have you been on vacation?”

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It’s the infamy of crime which has really always fascinated me. Much more than the crime itself. That’s what “Serial Mom” is about. Reading the Dahmer book was very relaxing. It was snowing out; I stayed home all day and read it cover to cover. (Smiles, then pauses.) It was a perfect Sunday.

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Q: May I see the rest of the house? I see you have an electric chair in your hall.

A: (With much pride) Yes. . . . Oh, Gawd. I feel like Jackie Kennedy giving a tour of the White House.

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* John Waters will speak at a special screening of “Serial Mom” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Laemmle Monica Theatre, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, in an Independent Feature Project/West discussion moderated by Quentin Tarantino. For reservations and information, call IFP/West, (310) 392-8832.


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