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INT: John Waters

09.24.2004

John Waters’ new comedic sex movie, A DIRTY SHAME, was slapped with an NC-17 rating, in the aftermath of the infamous Janet Jackson "boob incident" and simultaneous conservatism spreading like wildfires in America. The Catholic News Service criticized the movie for “almost non-stop rough, crude and profane language, full frontal nudity, sexual imagery, obscene gestures, scatological humor, casual portrayal and descriptions of deviant sexual practices, a glorification of freewheeling sex and some sacrilegious imagery." While such a critique may seem like an artistic death sentence to many film-makers, Waters was thrilled by the rave review. He is probably having it framed and mounted on his living room wall, as we speak.

The film tells the story of a repressed suburban town that has its worst fears realized—its townspeople are slowly but surely, becoming rampant sex addicts. Suzanne Shepherd plays Big Ethel, leader of the ‘Neuters’ (nickname for the people of the town who won’t jump on the hormonally decadent band wagon), and Johnny Knoxville plays the leader of the sex addicts. "Let's go sexing!" he announces whenever he and his cronies get a sexual itch they’d like scratched. Needless to say, they get the 'itch' more than a room full of kids with the chicken pox. Fetishes, exploitation, and deviant behavior proceed to shake the foundation of the town to its very core.

Waters was nice enough to take time out of his busy schedule for this interview. He is extremely intelligent, witty, and one-of-a-kind. If you decide to check A DIRTY SHAME out in theaters, be prepared for a lot of perversion, raunchiness, and all that jazz. Here is what he had to say:

JOHN WATERS

In a way, is it harder now to make a movie this outrageous than it might have been before 1972?

I’m just trying to make a funny movie. I think it’s a sweet movie in a way, I don’t think there’s anything hateful about this movie. Even the eating shit scene in Pink Flamingos, that was a publicity stunt, but you know, it was also a humorous publicity stunt. It wasn’t *just* shocking. I mean, people laughed as they gagged.  I never tried to top that and I think it led to Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass, which was very similar in spirit to that, but at the same time, I’m just trying to make you laugh. I’m trying to surprise you, trying to make you laugh at things that you might not think are so funny in real life.  But shock, it’s easy to do that, it’s really easy to just shock somebody. But it’s hard to be witty about it, and hopefully that’s what I’m attempting.

The ending certainly had a ‘full facial’ effect on the audience.

There was a full facial at the end, I know, and that was something where we thought it needed one good beat at the end. I do chuckle at thinking of the MPAA’s face when that’s the last image I gave them. Even if they had been undecided watching this movie about what to rate it, because in the appeals they said it was unanimously on the first round, NC-17--there was no debate. Even though a few reviews we’ve gotten so far (Variety, Rolling Stone, etc), have questioned that, saying it seems a bit strict.

How did Tracey Ullman get involved with this movie?

Same way every movie is made. My agent at CAA called her agent, then we had a “meeting” as they say, and it went very well. She said she never gets to be controversial. Right now she’s doing Once Upon A Mattress for television with Carol Burnett. My father’s brother’s wife’s brother wrote that, so that was a weird connection.

Did you always have her in mind?

No, I didn’t have her always in mind. It was suggested to me early and I thought, what a great idea, because she sends the perfect message for this movie. Yes, it’s about sex, it’s about Tracey Ullman starring in it. It’s a comedy and right away you know it’s a comedy. She was very eager. Her husband very much encouraged her to do it, and her daughter was on the set, the day of the hokey pokey scene. I was in the utility closet watching the monitor with her daughter as we did that scene, and they were great about it. And her young son was there a lot too. Johnny Knoxville was great with the kids.

Chris Isaak is one of the more normal characters of the movie. Is he similar to his character in real life?

He is a good actor, I think. In real life? God no, he’s no Neuter. I promise you. But at the same time, I think it was a role that he had never played before. He’d never played the Neuter type of uptight husband and I think he’s the straight man in this movie. He has to react to everything. I think he does a very good job. He’s trying to understand, but doesn’t.

What drew you to Selma Blair for the part of Ursula Udders?

I thought of her as being a really good comedian and a really funny actress, and someone that has obviously chosen unpredictable roles and not let herself be pigeon-holed as the ingénue. This definitely isn’t an ingénue part.

Her absurdly enormous breasts are one of the biggest sight gags you’ve had in your movies for a while. Did you ever talk to any women that are really that well endowed?

Yeah! I know a couple of women that have them that large. I would just try to imagine, what do they wear when they go to the dentist? See *that’s* what this led to. I get when they’re strippers, but what about when they have to go to the department of motor vehicles? What outfits do they wear? That’s what I think is the funniest, when she goes to the sex addict meeting, and she wears the little Laura Ashley dress. That’s the thing--if you have them but you want to be a Neuter, it’s hard to find the proper outfits.

There are people that are really into that fetish. You know, the bigger the better. And I just said, bigger than her head. I think Juggs is the magazine that has the biggest ones. Zena Fulsom is the one that I remember, so it’s sort of based on her--an English porn star that had these tits that were obviously fake but the budget was so cheap, I couldn’t really figure out how they did them. These weren’t that cheap, but they looked cheap.

Ursula Udders aside, compared to some of your movies in the past, this is a movie which has normal looking people in it (by Hollywood standards). Could you talk a little bit about getting the Baltimore locals involved?

Tracey Ullman even looks like a normal person in this, and in order for it to be funny for her to be a compulsive sexual lunatic, it would have to take place in real America. This wasn’t supposed to be sexy-- it was supposed to be funny that somebody that was normal all of a sudden had no mental breaks in their sex life. So it would be like your horror, if you went home and suddenly your mother said, “I fucked the whole neighborhood!” and then if she could come back and realize what she’d done, that there was comedy in there. But it had to look like real life. It had to be real people, and I’ve already said there’s no such thing as an extra in a John Waters movie. The extras themselves are ones who look like real people. And in L.A. they look like sitcom stars (extras) because they are. In Baltimore, they are real people.

Could you ever imagine actually making a movie outside of Baltimore?

I’ve done reshoots outside of Baltimore. I mean, I could do it, you yell “Action!” and it’s the same thing. But I mean, I don’t think there’s any reason to. Baltimore is a supporting player in the movie and it’s a part of it, since they’re all set there. Nobody is clamoring for me to go somewhere else. So no, I hope not. We have a great film commissioner that tells people you know, you have to let us put an anus on your tree in your front lawn, and they say “okay” (laughs).

Did any of the actors have problems with the dialogue or what they’d have to do?

Tracey was uptight about saying an “arse-opener”, and I said why? It shocked me, of all the things in the movie. What I found out is that ‘arse’ is really offensive in England, way more than it is here-- the same way people say ‘cunt’ in England all the time and it’s not bad like it is here.  It’s just different versions of what’s ruder than not. But she said it, I didn’t force her to. I was like “That one?! Of everything in the whole script?!”

Some of the older actresses didn’t have anything offensive to say.

Big Ethel was horrified by the whole thing. She got the part the day before, Suzanne Shepherd, who I think was wonderful in the movie. She was just horrified. She read the script on the way down on the train and was sobbing, actually in the office. And then she came to the rehearsal that afternoon and was totally won over, thought it was funny and everything, and by the end of the day she was a cult member. She was very enthusiastic about the film now, but it took her 24 hours for us to brainwash her a little. I think she had to hear it, and when she got to the rehearsal, Selma was just saying the rudest thing to her, not even knowing. She’s like “I’ve never heard of any of these things, what is this?” but later she realized that some of her friends were ‘bears’.

A Dirty Shame reminds me of those film strips you used to see at school of “Here’s what happens when…”  Did you see films like those when you were in Sunday school and also High School?

You mean like the prom movies about “Don’t drink and drive?” Yeah, I saw a few of those, but in Catholic High School they showed us some of them, and I would love them. Mostly I’d seen them later, after I’d taken LSD at midnight movies, to laugh at, basically. So were they influenced by this, for sure. I was inspired by Mom & Dad, that’s the one I’m obsessed with.

Why do you think movies with sex and nudity get NC-17 ratings and are always labeled, and movies with graphic violence like Passion Of The Christ or horror movies get R ratings?

Because we as Americans love violence and hate sex. It’s perfectly obvious that it’s true. And in Europe, they love sex and hate violence. It’s frustrating dealing with the MPAA. They weren’t horrible to deal with, but liberal censors are scary. In the newspaper advertisement with Selma’s breasts-- the east and west coast newspapers were running those ads, in middle America the breasts were smaller, and in Utah they’re even smaller. I’m not making that up. We have to get acceptance around the country, breast acceptance. And I don’t get it because in Utah you used to be able to have six wives. (laughs)

With the R ratings now, I guess you have to be 17 anyway.

I just hope that if you’re going to sneak into a mall to see my NC-17 movie, *please* pick another independent film. Don’t give my money that you’re going to see to Disney or somebody that won’t distribute NC-17 movies. Sneak in and at least pay a distributor that will release an NC-17 movie.

A Dirty Shame, Cecil B. Demented, Hairspray, and Crybaby all have 2 groups of people with different names for each other. Do you feel that you’re part of a group which is against everybody else?

No, I can see both sides of the story. Basically I think people should be free to do what they want--but I think adult babies are creepy. However, I don’t think we should beat them up. I think it’s a thin line. When are we slack in our liberal behavior, if we don’t join a march? When can tolerance go too far? I think people come out of a lot of closets, and I think the ‘Adult Baby’ closet is a tough one to come out of. If I know anyone that is, I hope they don’t tell me.

Has Hairspray changed your life?

It’s changed my life, I mean, now I have like a passive income. Has it changed my life—everything changes my life. Everything I put out in some way, successful or not, changes my life. Yes, Crybaby’s coming out now as a musical. We have three touring productions-- one in New York, the touring company and the Toronto company, with more to come. It’s been a great experience. My mother finally can say she loved something I did artistically without lying! It changed my life, certainly. When Hairspray won all the Tonys that night, I thought anything can happen, now I finally can start wearing an Ascot (laughs). Winning the Tony gave me permission to wear an Ascot. I haven’t yet, but there’s time.

What is your favorite fetish?

In the movie, the funniest one to me is the dirt-licking, because I really like James Ransone, I think he’s a good actor. It’s all a sight gag really. I only pick funny ones. I didn’t pick mean ones—like fisting, or things against women, etc. This is a comedy, it’s a sex education comedy. But even a few times, I don’t tell you what they mean. Like platejobs—you’ll just have to figure that out.  You’ll have to do research. I don’t even tell you what it is.

If you got bopped on the head, have you thought about what your fetish would be?

Well it seems to me it would be the opposite. People ask me what would I be, and I guess I would be a heterosexual womanizer (laughs). If you go along with the logic of the script, you become rabidly sexually the opposite way.

Do you have enthusiasm that might be considered a fetish?

If enthusiasm is a fetish, then I have one. I jump out of bed. I get dumber as the day goes along, but I jump out of bed to go to work every day. I enjoy what I do for a living. If I was going to share a sexual fetish, it would be in a book where *I* got the money, not you (laughs).

Source: JoBlo.com

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