On the Waters front

Rating: NNNNNYou wouldn't know it to look at him, with his lime-green pants and trademark skinny moustache. But underneath John.

Rating: NNNNN

You wouldn’t know it to look at him, with his lime-green pants and trademark skinny moustache. But underneath John Waters’ flamboyant exterior beats the earnest heart of a businessperson.

He’s learned a lot about the filmmaking industry in 30 years of directing gross-out classics like Pink Flamingos and Polyester. Maybe too much.

While in town Monday to promote his latest trash opus, Cecil B. DeMented, Waters regales me with a long, detailed lecture on the behind-the-scenes process of putting a film together.

He likes being involved at every stage, from thinking up the first shocking idea (his favourite part, naturally) to suggesting a marketing campaign. Then he sits back and sorts through his reviews. “I read the mean ones once and the good ones twice and then put them all away.”

Even bad reviews serve a purpose in Waters’ world. “We got one for Cecil B. DeMented in the Washington Post that was so mean I put it in the ad,” he says with glee.

Unlike most creative types, Waters actually seems to enjoy dealing with the press. He admits to using interviews as “exercises in improv,” which means he gives charming quotes on all sorts of subjects, sometimes including the ones you’ve asked him about.

Guerrilla tactics

His love for the film business is so genuine that he can’t believe some critics think he hates Hollywood just because the character Cecil B. DeMented does.

For starters, Waters will only mock the things he likes. “If you make a 90-minute movie about something you hate, after 40 minutes I think the audience hates you.”

He also meant for Cecil’s guerrilla filmmaking tactics to look at least as ridiculous as Hollywood moviemaking. “In a way, I’m making fun of independent films more, because what do you have to do — kill yourself? Do I have to light myself on fire and jump in front of the camera to have edgy credentials?”

Waters says there’s a crucial difference between himself and his morose lead character. “Cecil’s parents didn’t love him and mine did,” he explains.”That’s why I have a sense of humour and he doesn’t.”

For the heck of it, I ask if he knows shock rocker Marilyn Manson, who also came from a surprisingly happy home.

Waters tells me the singer called him to his respects. “He said that when he was a child he used to play Charles Manson Goes To Mortville, which is from Desperate Living, one of my movies.” Waters was touched.

Bemused dignity

Despite this connection, Waters doesn’t think of himself as elder statesman to today’s crop of shock artists. He’s never met the Farrelly brothers and hasn’t seen their latest film, Me Myself & Irene. He did like Scary Movie, which he thinks is the best in “this new battle of filth that I watch with bemused dignity from the sidelines.”

Oddly enough, his favourite young directors are the dramatists Todd Solondz (Happiness) and Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine). These choices hint at a serious side — rarely seen in Waters’ films — that can be seen quite clearly in how he conducts his personal life.

When he’s not shooting a movie, Waters reads, collects art and goes to the cinema. He doesn’t think he’s ever had a conventional hobby, though. “A hobby to me is when you’re bored.”

He travels all over the world and knows a lot of “good, smart, funny people,” yet he’ll admit that much of his socializing is business-related.

When he’s home, he gets up early and works long days, but never weekends.

He’s dabbled in acting, most recently taking a small role in Woody Allen’s Sweet And Lowdown. He denies reports that Allen is a lackadaisical director. “It’s a lie, what they’re saying,” he insists. “He told Sean Penn what to do and he told me what to do, and we did it.”

Clean living

Acting doesn’t really interest him, however. The only role he’s sought out is something in the next Chucky film. Anything.

He just loves Chucky. “When Chucky gets older I want to marry him,” he laughs.

Waters is so disciplined, he’s even managed to kick his last vice, cigarettes. Apparently, it’s been a long road to clean living. He says he stopped smoking pot right after Pink Flamingos became successful, but he’d never make an anti-drug ad because he had only good experiences with drugs.

He acknowledges that many of his friends weren’t so fortunate. “The same people I took LSD with later became junkies and OD’d.”

So how did he make it through his experimental years unscathed?

Waters says he told the only other journalist who asked that question that it’s because he got up early. Now he’d rather just chalk it up to luck.

CECIL B. DEMENTED, written and directed by John Waters, produced by John Fiedler, Joe Caracciolo Jr. and Mark Tarlov, with Stephen Dorff, Melanie Griffith, Alicia Witt and Adrian Grenier. An Artisan Entertainment and Le Studio Canal + production. 88 minutes. Opens Friday (August 18). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 67.


Cecil B. DeMented as a whole isn’t as great as some of its parts. The jabs at Hollywood are hugely entertaining, but they’re mostly in the background as sight gags and one-liners. In the foreground we have the unfunny, uncharismatic Stephen Dorffplaying a guerrilla filmmaker who kidnaps a bitchy star (Melanie Griffith) and forces her to act in his anti-Hollywood movie. The supporting characters and action sequences feel laboured, but Griffith saves the day. She makes her character seem human, which is the best and most rebellious thing about this film. KL

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