InDepth InterView: John Waters Talks HAIRSPRAY: IN CONCERT, HAIRSPRAY 2, Favorite Movie Musicals & More
Today we are talking to the proud "Pope Of Trash" himself - the iconic writer/director of such seminal cinematic entries as cult classics PINK FLAMINGOS, FEMALE TROUBLE and DESPERATE LIVING, as well as HAIRSPRAY, CRY BABY, SERIAL MOM, CECIL B. DEMENTED, A DIRTY SHAME and many more - the one and only John Waters. Packing a characteristically caustic conversation into a relatively brief time slot was no trouble for Waters, for he and I cover a wide range of topics, from his favorite 2012 films to his all-time favorite movie musicals and much more in this career-spanning chat. Most importantly, Waters discusses his process in adapting the hit Tony Award-winning stage property HAIRSPRAY into concert form and what we can expect from his newly-penned narration and role as narrator in the live Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presentation of HAIRSPRAY: IN CONCERT on January 24. Additionally, Waters expounds on his experiences creating the original HAIRSPRAY film and how it compares to both its musical sister as well as the hit 2007 feature film adaptation of it (in which he makes a cameo appearance as - what else? - "the flasher who lives next door"). Plus, Waters opens up about the plot and themes of HAIRSPRAY 2: WHITE LIPSTICK, a project he was commissioned to create a few years ago as an original musical film but which is currently on hold indefinitely. All of that, filming the remarkable 2012 horror film EXCISION, memories of the recently deceased Patti Page and his unforgettable use of the Bob Merrill pop earworm "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?" at the grand finale of PINK FLAMINGOS, an update on his next film project, FRUITCAKE, as well as details about his new book, CARSICK, and what else we can expect from Waters in 2013 - plus, how Justin Bieber is clearly the new Shirley Temple. All of that and much, much more awaits!
More information on HAIRSPRAY: IN CONCERT with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is available at the official site here.
The Guy Can't Help It
PC: EXCISION is a masterpiece - one of my favorite films of 2012. Did you enjoy participating in that project?
JW: Oh, thank you. Yeah, it was a lot of fun to do that. As you know, I play a priest and Traci Lords is an uptight mother in it, so, clearly, times have changed... [Laughs.]
PC: You can say that again!
JW: Still, it was a lot of fun to do. The kid who directed [Richard Bates Jr.] is good, I think - really good.
PC: He could be the next Ken Russell, given those fantasy sequences.
JW: Well, I'm not a big fan of Ken Russell's - Ken Russell, to me, always seemed like he directed as though he wished he was gay, but wasn't.
PC: Did you ever meet him?
JW: No, I didn't.
PC: Did you ever have a desire to evoke him in any of your films anyway, especially given his absurdist bent?
JW: Well, I was just not a fan that much - I didn't love him that much. I mean, I liked THE DEVILS... I never say negative things about people, though. I try not to, at least on the record. [Laughs.]
PC: In your list of your favorite films of 2012, you list Christoph Honore's pseudo-musical BELOVED. He is another remarkable filmmaker, reinventing the musical genre with many of his films.
JW: Oh, I love BELOVED! But, I loved LOVE SONGS even more, the first musical he did. Did you see it?
PC: Of couse - it's superb.
JW: Oh, it's great, isn't it?! He's great. You know, he keeps doing these sort of endless tributes to UMBRELLAS [OF CHERBOURG], but, still, they keep getting better and better! I'm such a big fan. I think he's so great.
PC: William Friedkin's film version of the Tracy Letts play KILLER JOE also made your list, insofar as theatrical endeavors go.
JW: Yes, I loved that.
PC: Did you ever see it onstage?
JW: No, I never saw it onstage, but, as I said in ArtForum, I think that it was the best Russ Meyer movie of the year, even though it was made by a man in his seventies - William Friedkin!
PC: A genius.
JW: Yes - and, he's even older than me and he can still make a movie that edgy.
PC: Not an easy feat.
JW: And, he's married to Sherry Lansing!
PC: That's a way to get financing fast.
JW: [Laughs.] So, yeah. I think he's great and it's great.
PC: Have you ever gotten a proposal to do a piece onstage at any point?
JW: Like a theatre piece? No. Theatre really isn't my thing - but, I have learned a million things about it, certainly, from my experiences on HAIRSPRAY and CRY BABY on Broadway. But, I don't write that kind of piece - it's certainly not something I ever set out to do or ever felt like I had to do, really.
PC: You weren't inspired to pursue that medium.
JW: You have to remember, CRY BABY is a musical, but the original HAIRSPRAY is really a dance movie - there was no original music in that, except for the title song sung by Rachel Sweet. It was all great, real songs that I had loved from the era - which, certainly, was understood by Marc [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman] when they wrote the stage version.
JW: They understood that era and they understood the music from that era and the music that I really loved and they translated it incredibly well into something for Broadway.
PC: With Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Score, among others, to show for it.
JW: Actually, back here in Indianapolis, in rehearsal, I got flashbacks to when we started and being in the rehearsal rooms for HAIRSPRAY in the beginning... only, this time, I am sort of in it, which is scary. [Laughs.]
PC: Patti Page recently passed away, and, of course, you contributed perhaps the most classic use of one of her songs in cinema history with "How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?" in the unforgettable final reel of PINK FLAMINGOS.
JW: Oh, I know! She just died and the New York Times didn't even mention that! [Laughs.] I couldn't believe it.
PC: Did you ever meet her or discuss that scene with her?
JW: No - unfortunately I never did. You know, when you get the rights to a song for a movie, you never deal with the singer - you deal with the publisher and you deal with the writer of the song. So, somehow, the wonderful music supervisor of PINK FLAMINGOS made that deal. Whether or not Patti Page ever knew that someone had used her recording of that song in PINK FLAMINGOS, I have no idea, but I thank her, even beyond the grave, for having helped make PINK FLAMINGOS the notorious success that it was and is. [Laughs.]
PC: Bob Merrill must have been OK with it, at least!
JW: I know! The writer and the publisher have to be OK with it, so they must have signed off.
PC: Also, you remark in the SERIAL MOM commentary about the ungodly fee you were charged to use "Tomorrow" from ANNIE in that film.
JW: Right! That was the most that we ever had to pay for something and I don't remember exactly how much it was, but it was a lot - not a million, but, if you consider the average song usually costs $25-30,000, that one cost significantly more. I think that the reasoning behind that was mostly that they didn't want to give it to us... [Laughs.]
PC: Which isn't that hard to believe given the scene.
JW: We not only used the song - we murdered it!
JW: As you know, the song went on after that and Jay-Z even made a rap song out of an ANNIE song. So, you know, ANNIE has inspired SERIAL MOM, Jay-Z - lots and lots of things you would have never imagined.
PC: And maybe a Willow Smith remake, too.
JW: Well, I am not going to comment on her, but I think she was good in the Justin Bieber documentary.
PC: So you're a Bieber fan?
JW: Yeah, I love him! Sure! I met him, actually.
PC: No way! What was that like?
JW: He drew on my mustache, actually!
PC: How chummy.
JW: Yeah. We were on THE Graham Norton SHOW together and he drew it on after the show - it was in all the papers in London. I think Justin's great - he's like Shirley Temple!
PC: What an apt comparison!
JW: And, I love it when he's black-esque - I love his attitude.
PC: Have you ever done a stage play as a performer before HAIRSPRAY: IN CONCERT?
JW: Well, I'm not really doing it, I'm just in it! [Laughs.] I guess with HAIRSPRAY: IN CONCERT, I sort of look at it as I am kind of the editor and I am just there, speeding it all up, and, at the same time, I have added a bunch of stuff, too - stuff about where the ideas really came from and some of the inspirations for the characters.
PC: That will be fascinating for fans of the show, no doubt.
JW: Yeah, I wanted to open it up a little bit and add some real-life, historical background to it. That's mostly all of the new material that I will be adding to it, though.
PC: Your role is newly written for this new concert version.
JW: Yes. My role is completely new - what I wrote for myself is entirely new.
PC: Is HAIRSPRAY: IN CONCERT going to be licensed in the future?
JW: I really have no idea - I just have a contract to do these shows. But, yes, definitely, it could be - we'll see what happens after these concerts.
PC: You could tour with it!
JW: Yes! I'll go on tour! HAIRSPRAY will be my new career.
PC: You've written HAIRSPRAY 2, as well, have you not?
JW: Yeah, I wrote a whole script for a HAIRSPRAY 2, but it never happened - but, it still could. You never know - HAIRSPRAY is the gift that keeps on giving. You know, I said that I wanted it to finally be an ice show - as a joke, when I was on television - and, the next day, producers actually called and wanted me to do it.
JW: Think about it! Fat girls on skates?! It could be a big hit!
PC: Is it true there is a singing zit in HAIRSPRAY 2?
JW: Yes. [Laughs.] There is - it happens with Link. You see, HAIRSPRAY 2 - well, it's callEd White LIPSTICK, really - is about when the real sixties hit and the show [THE CORNY COLLINS SHOW] isn't popular anymore. It's the new hip coming in - which really happened. So, you know, the black kids want to have their own version of the show now - they don't want to have to share with the white people! [Laughs.]
PC: What a concept!
JW: Yeah. Little Inez kind of turns into Angela Davis. Link has to pretend that he is British to get a singing career kind of going - because the Beatles just hit and everyone wanted their kind of music. So, he has these pimples underneath his Beatles haircut because he never washes it, and, so they start singing to him - kind of like the Chipmunks.
PC: Did you develop the project with Marc and Scott at all?
JW: We never got to the songs. In the script, I just described what the songs should be, but it was just a development deal. I mean, Marc and Scott really laughed when they read it, but I don't think the producers themselves did... they might have been horrified for all I know. I honestly don't know. [Laughs.]
PC: It's a shame that it hasn't been pursued further.
JW: It still could - it still might. I mean, it was PG-13. But, yeah - it was completely what would have happened to everyone afterwards.
PC: Are you pleased with Adam Shankman's film adaptation - especially now, looking back?
JW: Oh, I was and am completely, totally happy with the movie musical. I actually just interviewed John Travolta onstage in Baltimore for a benefit for the Maryland Film Festival. I think that he did a great job - I think that everybody in it did. You know, I think that each time they have changed it and adapted it, they have turned it into something new, and, I think the same is true for this concert version now. It's, hopefully, something new.
PC: Something fresh for fans and those new to it alike.
JW: Yeah, you know, it's something new - it's when you just keep doing the same thing again and again and keep doing the same medium that it doesn't work.
PC: Beth Leavel is so fabulous - you have a great cast assembled for HAIRSPRAY: IN CONCERT, for sure. Are you enjoying the rehearsal process?
JW: Oh, yeah - the whole cast is great. Some of them have done it before, too - a lot of them have done it in different places; here, on the road, on Broadway. There are many HAIRSPRAY alumni - plus, some new blood, too. I love new blood.
PC: What do you think of the next generation of theatregoers and filmgoers being influenced by GLEE and SMASH and the modern movie musical renaissance, in particular?
JW: Well, I am particularly happy for SMASH because, of course, Marc and Scott are involved - and I love Anjelica and her character is based, in part, on Margo Lion, who was a producer of HAIRSPRAY. So, I am all for it. I have seen GLEE, but I don't watch a lot of TV in general. But, you know, I like to read more than anything and you just can't do both.
PC: Too true.
JW: I think that there probably is better stuff on TV today than there is in the movie theaters in some ways - especially for some directors - but, I just have a problem with a piece of furniture talking to me.
PC: What a way to put it!
JW: I just have a problem with it. I hate people who walk into a room and the first thing they do is turn on a TV. I have a hard time with electronics - even turning on my TV is hard for me.
PC: It goes against your nature.
JW: Like, I go to Provincetown every summer and I always get the cable hooked up and everything, but I rarely watch it. The only time I ever watch TV is when something hideous happens - like a war or some horrible feud or something. So, this year, when I tried to turn it on in August, it didn't work, so I called them up and they came to see what was wrong and they said, "This is broken. This was never even installed right!" So, I hadn't even turned it on at all, I guess. [Laughs.]
PC: That's hilarious.
JW: I'm not saying it to be a snob or anything - I know that there is great stuff being done and many, many of my friends really love it, but I just can't do it. I can't read and watch TV and if I have to choose... [Pause.] I can't do both! I would rather read a book than anything else - it just relaxes me more. That's how I like to relax most.
PC: Are you internet savvy these days?
JW: Oh, I'm on the internet all day now these days - I've got a Blackberry; I've got it all.
PC: There was a time when you were less technologically adept, is that true?
JW: I think that I have been forever! I mean, yes, at the very beginning, my assistants used to fax me e-mails, but since those days, I've been online a lot.
PC: Your books - CRACKPOT and ROLE MODELS - are so fantastic. SHOCK VALUE does not date at all.
JW: Thank you.
PC: What can you tell us about your next book?
JW: Well, CARSICK is the next book - that's the one I wrote about hitchhiking across America. I am in the process of rewriting it right now and it will be out soon.
PC: Will you be back on REAL TIME WITH Bill Maher this go-round? It returns this week.
JW: Oh, yeah - if he asks me, I will. I love doing Bill's show and I love Bill. I think he's fantastic. I've done his show forever - from the very beginning; way back when it was on Comedy Central.
PC: It's a shame he doesn't really get the awards recognition he richly deserves, isn't it?
JW: Well, we will see! He was on the shortlist this year and I sent in my nominations already - let's see who gets picked!
PC: Can you reveal any of your top picks for this awards season besides Bill?
JW: Well, I never tell - because I'm a member and you can't. You know, I have friends who are on the committees, so I keep it all secret. I vote for everything, though - I vote SAG, DGA, Oscars, Razzie Awards, Spirit Awards; I vote in all of them.
PC: I hope you will return to host the Independent Spirit Awards some year soon! Nobody does it better.
JW: Oh, I did that for a long time. I still go every year and I always enjoy it. I will be there this year, too.
PC: From the source creator of one of the best recent movie musicals and an Oscar voter, I am curious to hear your thoughts on LES MISERABLES, the current hit movie musical?
JW: Well, for me, I don't know if I think it's a good movie. I don't really know the musical. I did watch it, but all I can say is that I really... [Pause.] I just don't know how to react to musicals like that, let's put it that way! [Laughs.]
PC: A diplomatic response if ever there were any!
JW: My assistant loved it, though - I can tell you that much!
PC: It seems you either love it or you hate it. It's pretty daring - and divisive, to say the least.
JW: Yeah. I didn't mind how they shot it or anything, but, the music and the musical itself is probably not what I would pick out as my favorite musical... but, that has nothing to do with whether it is a good movie or not.
PC: You recently contributed a great featurette on the DVD edition of your favorite movie musical, THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT.
JW: Yes. It is. And, let me tell you: no color ever looked as good as the color in THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT!
PC: It pops.
JW: Technicolor, baby!
PC: Lars Von Trier's DANCER IN THE DARK is another of your favorite recent movie musicals, correct?
JW: Oh, yeah. Just an amazing movie - astonishing. It's so amazing and so crazy. I cannot say enough good things about Lars Von Trier - I think he is just amazing and one of the most important filmmakers.
PC: A true landmark accomplishment. Are you looking forward to NYMPHOMANIAC, then, I take it?
JW: Oh, God, yes. I actually hosted an event at the Sydney Opera House a while back called DOUBLE FEATURES FROM HELL and opening night was IRREVERSIBLE and ANTI-CHRIST! [Big Laugh.]
PC: Oh, my God.
JW: You should have seen the audience. [Laughs.] I was like, "Did anybody bring a date?" One person raised their hand. [Laughs.]
PC: Another influential auteur: what did you think of Quentin Tarantino's DJANGO UNCHAINED?
JW: Oh, I thought it was a good movie. I thought it was great. And, it's a giant hit, too.
PC: What are your thoughts on the place of the n-word in cinema in general? Did you ever consider using it in HAIRSPRAY since it would appear to be contextually correct?
JW: I didn't. But, I think that calling it "Negro Day" was even weirder and funnier and said the same thing about racial prejudice - because, you know, at the time, saying "Negro Day" was actually politically correct, if you can imagine.
JW: Yeah! Yeah. Imagine that! But, yeah, in real life, people in Baltimore did call "Negro Day" a different name by using the n-word, but I think not saying it in the movie was better. I think that saying the n-word would take away from the spirit of HAIRSPRAY - it was kind of like a sneak attack to get you to accept everything that I talked about in HAIRSPRAY. Two men singing a love song to each other; your white daughter dating a black guy - and, none of it was threatening. And, it worked and people embraced it like maybe they wouldn't in real life.
PC: Will you be reprising your onscreen role as the Flasher from the recent film in the upcoming HAIRSPRAY concert?
JW: [Laughs.] No, I will not be flashing the audience. Maybe I should bring that option up with the director, though...
PC: Lastly: is there a future for your script, FRUITCAKE?
JW: Oh, FRUITCAKE I have been trying to get made for years, but I really don't know if it will ever happen. It will be a fun movie if it ever gets made.
PC: What's next?
JW: Well, after these HAIRSPRAY concerts, I am on tour with speaking engagements and doing THIS FILTHY WORLD for Gay Ski Week in Aspen and things like that. And, as we discussed, I'm working on CARSICK - I am about two-thirds through the second draft of that, so I am getting there; CARSICK is my main priority right now after HAIRSPRAY: IN CONCERT.
PC: This was a dream come true - thank you so much for this today, John.
JW: Thanks so much to you, too, Pat. Great questions. Bye bye.
Photo Credits: Walter McBride, New Line, etc.
More On: John Waters, Patti Page, Bob Merrill, Justin Bieber, Shirley Temple, Ken Russell, William Friedkin.