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|Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, Female Trouble. Does John Waters really need an introduction? From these early - now cult - films to more recent big-time features like Cry Baby and Serial Mom, John Waters has mined a particularly American vein of culture that may have otherwise remained uncovered - a fact not lost on the more squeamish guardians of cinema. Bad taste, white trash, kitsch, drag and perversity galore may now be business as usual on the afternoon talk shows, but John Waters was there first. His inspired casting alone should guarantee him a place among the few truly individual directors working today. From his original ensemble of Divine, Edith Massey, and Mink Stole to Hollywood legends Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue, a post-Cher Sonny Bono and post-porn Traci Lords, along with bona fide stars like Johnny Depp and Kathleen Turner, his casts have always been wonderfully idiosyncratic, but you can never imagine anyone else n any of these parts.
Recently, John Waters has been showing photo works that he'd been making for years, without telling anyone - using stills from old Hollywood films as well as from his own. He refers to them as his way of redirecting films as well as from his own. He refers to them as his way of "redirecting" films. And like his films, the cast of characters is unpredictable as always, with everyone from Charles Manson to Liz Taylor.
We went down to Baltimore and visited John Waters in his studio, got a preview of all his new photo work, and, of course, talked and talked about movies.
JOHN: Now, if you want me to take the plastic off any of these, I will. But they're all wrapped, kind of to go.
PETER: Are they separate prints?
JOHN: It's all put together, almost like I'm trying to re-direct other people's movies. It's how I want people to remember them now, maybe in a different way. This one is called The Thirteenth Station: Jesus Pukes. It's from my oldest movie, but it almost looks like a really old photograph. And what happened is, the bad technique that I didn't know, from my early movies, really is helping me now with this. It's come full circle. Then it was truly a mistake. And my mistakes from then, I can really use now in a whole different context.
BOB: So, some are from your movies, and some are ...
JOHN: Sometimes I don't even tell what movies they're from because it's not so much about that.
This one is called The Rat Drive-In. It's for collectors that have a rodent problem because this is really a rat trap. So you could have art and catch rats at the same time.
BOB: That's from the movie, Ben.
JOHN: And you know that was the sequel to Willard, which was a very famous rat movie.
BOB: Michael Jackson's finest moment.
JOHN: Yes. And the cheese is, of course, to lure them in. And this is the concession stand/rat trap. So, it really works. You can catch eight rats in each one.
PETER: I've known your work since the mid '70s. So, I first saw them when I was in art school, and it was an era very much influenced by Warhol, at least for me. And I was always so fascinated that, in particular, you didn't become an artist, but made movies.
JOHN: I did it in reverse. Artists are becoming film directors now, so I had to even do that wrong.
PETER: It seems very natural that you became a director, but I'm curious about how you became involved with art and the art world.
JOHN: Well, I always was very interested in art when I was young. And then I was away from it for at least fifteen years, and then I got back heavily into going to it. I did these for four-and-a-half years without telling one soul - even all my friends in the art world.
BOB: Why were you keeping them to yourself?
JOHN: I just didn't want to tell anybody, and I wanted to get a whole body of work. This is called Facelift. It's Elizabeth Taylor, but the stitches are very much like my moustache. She turns into me. Take her head off and put mine on, you know. It's a facelift from her to me.
PETER: But what was it taken from?
JOHN: Well, I never tell. I mean, there was a movie where Elizabeth Taylor got a facelift.
PETER: But this isn't somebody sneaking into the hospital ...
JOHN: Oh, no. They're details of scenes that were on the screen. And all the pictures of me were taken from talk shows. These things are literally edited, like a movie. So I'm just making the same kind of humorous movies I always did, only in a different form.
This one is called Edith Tells Off Katharine Hepburn. Because I always loathed Katharine Hepburn.
JOHN: Oh, she took herself so seriously. And Edith, to me, was a better actress than Katharine Hepburn. Now, my biggest religious piece isn't here, but I want to show you a picture of it. It's called Movie Star Jesus. And it's all Christ, from every different movie.
PETER: Oh, wow.
JOHN: This one is Dorothy Malone's Collar. She always wore her collar in every movie. And I was obsessed by that, so I went through and told her whole career through her collar. I hated when she did period movies, when they wouldn't let her have it on. But even the last one, which is Basic Instinct, which is the last big movie she made, she had it on. It was her signature.
PETER: Basic Instinct is Verhoeven, right?
JOHN: He made really good early movies. Like Spetters. I loved those movies.
PETER: What fascinates me is that he could make the same movie as an art movie or as a Hollywood movie.
JOHN: Do you think he still could make an art movie? That's what I would like to see.
With this one, you have a curtain for when the parents are over, or the cleaning lady is there. It's called Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot. So, it has to have some censorship.
It's really hard to get shots of an asshole ... and every one of these is one second before a hand or a dick comes in. I had to fast forward through so many porno movies to find shots with not a dick and not an asshole.
JOHN: This is the worst. That's a colostomy in that person's future. Well, there are some star assholes ...
BOB: Star assholes?
JOHN: I mean, this one looks okay, but that looks hideous.
BOB: Oh, I thought some of these might be famous people who later went on to legitimate work.
JOHN: No, no.
BOB: But the dirtiest thing in there really is the foot. Everything else looks pretty scrubbed.
JOHN: Well, I don't think they're dirty. There probably is such a thing, but ... fudge videos?
BOB: Isn't that Otto Preminger?
JOHN: It's called Otto, and this is of course about Otto torturing Jean Seberg. She was a little farm girl, and he discovered her, and picked her to play Saint Joan. It's Otto Preminger who was always pretty nasty, right? And she eventually died in the trunk of her car. A very sad life she had. And he burned her at the stake. He was really S&M here. I liked this shot ... and he's watching it over and over.
PETER: Was he notoriously sadistic?
JOHN: Not sexually, but he was supposedly mean to the actresses he worked with. And she was the most famous.
PETER: Is it tempting, if you're a film director, to get sadistic ...
JOHN: To me, it isn't. Because I don't think you get a good performance out of that. I think they hate you. I mean, I'm very selfish with it. I don't understand people that are mean to their crews. Then they're going to be shitty to you and they're not going to help you. It seems to be very counterproductive to me.
PETER: And what do you think makes people do it - compulsion?
JOHN: They're just mean people. I'm sure there are some directors that think they get, from tension, a performance. I don't believe that. To me, the happier and the smoother the set runs, the better performance I get.
BOB: Isn't this from Baby Doll?
JOHN: You went to hell in the '50s if you saw that movie, if you were a Catholic. This is called Baby Doll Gets Up. Look, that's all that happens. She gets up and she's gone. It really is a little movie. You make a feature into a one-second short subject.
BOB: Who's this?
JOHN: Remember Gurdy? The woman, I showed you the portrait of? This is the first second she walked out of jail after serving twenty years. And you could see, she took, obviously, hairdo lessons. She looks better. She was ready to walk off in the world as a new woman. She found religion. And right next to her was a huge black preacher that looked like B.B. King, who was her mentor.
And I loved this shot. You know, how sorry can you be, really? After twenty years, no matter what you've done, saying sorry, in a way, does lose its meaning.
PETER: This is extraordinary.
JOHN: I don't know if anyone else ever noticed it, but it haunted me because I've been obsessed by her for so many years.
It's called True Crime.
BOB: How many people did she kill?
JOHN: Just one, but in a very horrible way. She and her children, every day, tortured this little girl, threw her down the steps. "Can we do it again?" And they'd bring her up and kick her down the basement steps - "ha, ha, ha, ha, ha."
Here's another crime one. It's called Scramblehead. That was actually someone in the Manson family who's free today, and should be. But a very different man. He got better.
BOB: He's free?
JOHN: Yeah. Steve Grodin. He should be free. I'm for the freedom of most of them. They are rehabilitated.
BOB: But didn't he kill someone?
JOHN: Oh, he did.
BOB: But I thought they'd never get out.
JOHN: Yes, they will. Linda Kasabian will get out. That's a whole different subject, though ... because I know her.
BOB: You know her?
JOHN: Oh, I'm very active in helping them get out. I very much believe in their freedom. But he's a perfect example. He has been out for six years and is totally rehabilitated. He was not at Tate/La Bianca. He has no ... none of them would want to have any contact with Manson. They look back at Manson with horror.
BOB: What does he do?
JOHN: I know what he does, but I don't ...
BOB: Like, a normal job at the gas station?
JOHN: He's in a band, actually.
BOB: He's in a band!?
PETER: Now, what do you mean by "rehabilitated?"
JOHN: What rehabilitated means to me is that you serve a long period of time; you're incredibly sorry for what you've done; you've figured out through psychiatry why you did it, so you won't do it again; you have big support from the outside world that you've managed to keep up for twenty years; you have a job and you're going through life without attracting any attention to yourself. To me, that is rehabilitation. And I believe in it. But if I was the mother of Sharon Tate, I wouldn't think that.
PETER: The other thing you're raising, which I can never figure out, is I would assume you can understand why people did things like kill other people.
JOHN: I like murderers, actually. They're the best friends you could have, if you forgive their one bad night. Most people can't. But they're very loyal.
PETER: Murderers are a category of people?
JOHN: After they've done it, they're similar. But I've never met a murderer before they did it. I've only known murderers after they've done it. Well, the doorman here at the bar we all go to murdered somebody. I knew him before.
PETER: And you distinguish between kill and murder?
JOHN: I guess, if you kill somebody in a war, it's not murder. But it all depends. Serial killers ... I don't think should get out. They will do it again. But the Manson girls, they were nineteen, they were with a 30-year-old con man, who was quite good at it. One of the most notorious madmen in our contemporary time. I remember shit I did in the '60s. I didn't do that, but I did some stuff that I look back on, I can't believe.
Those girls didn't think up the idea. At that time they were on many, many drugs and believed they were doing the right thing. If they hadn't been born, maybe the crime would have still happened. But they take responsibility. They do not blame Manson for it. At the time, they did not understand why people didn't think they had done a good thing. They believed they were at war. He had them very, very deeply ... like Patty Hearst. Lots of things can happen to you ... to your mind.
PETER: Looking at these photo works of yours, even though they're in an art format, I think they read really differently than art.
JOHN: Well, whatever you call it, it doesn't matter to me. Because the word "art," to me, is a word I don't ever say. I certainly would never say it about what I do. Art's a word that I don't think anybody should go out and say about what they do.
BOB: This is still about being in the motion picture business.
JOHN: It's about being in the movie business and it's about why I like what I do for a living. And certainly, it's remembering all the things that influenced me, the way I want to remember them. Maybe not the way they were supposed to be remembered ...
PETER: That's the impression I get.
JOHN: Like, this was from my first film. This is Manson Copies Divine's Hairdo, but you know, we made this way before. I mean, he only had that hairdo for about a week. Oh, my God, Manson and Divine had the same look for one week!
PETER: I thought you collaged that.
JOHN: No, it's real. And here's David Lean. Do you know who he is? He's like, the most respected Academy Award-winning good taste director.
PETER: What movies?
JOHN: Lawrence of Arabia, Ryan's Daughter. Katharine Hepburn movies, that kind of stuff.
BOB: You've got his name on a piece of metal, all crumpled up.
JOHN: It's like I'm trying to destroy his critical reputation. But I mean, he is unimpeachably thought of as a good director.
JOHN: I don't think so. At all. I hate his movies. To me, they're pompous and boring. But it would be very hard to find someone who would agree with me, in any world.
PETER: Lawrence of Arabia?
JOHN: That is a very well thought-of movie in film history.
PETER: Gee, I never knew that.
JOHN: He did a lot of movies. American in Paris. Movies that my mother loves.
PETER: I just saw a clip of Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando doing a scene together ...
JOHN: That's from Streetcar Named Desire.
PETER: It was so amazing.
JOHN: Well, have you seen Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau? It's a great, the most staggering performance that came out this year. It got some of the meanest reviews ever. I thought it was a great ... it was the closest to Divine I've ever seen another actor.
PETER: Why did you like it?
JOHN: Well, it took chances. I mean, in one scene he wears an ice bucket on his head. He weighs about 350 pounds. He wears Kabuki makeup for no apparent reason. It's just a very curious choice. I think it's a staggering performance. It's either the best performance or the worst, and I'll never know which.
PETER: Do you think Brando is more than just somebody who threw his life away?
JOHN: I never said he threw his life away. He's in movies all the time. He still gets lots of money. I just think he's a very eccentric man in real life. Really eccentric. Beyond anything I can imagine. What he's really like, I don't know. But I respect him.
PETER: Respect his work or ...
JOHN: Well, that he doesn't care that he's fat. I've always had good luck with fat actors. Many of mine were. So, when I hear people say, "I'm trying to lose weight for your film," I think, for what reason? You know, I took Divine and Ricki Lake. Why would you want to lose weight for my films? And I'm not a chubby chaser. That's not what I'm into. But on celluloid, I like fat people.
PETER: And some of his eccentricity is like, living in Tahiti ...
JOHN: Well, he lives in L.A. So he just goes there ... I think he has a sort of escape there, when the police are looking for members of his family. I'm not sure if we have a ... what's the law?, to get you back.
PETER: So he drives a car and stuff?
JOHN: That I'm not sure of. He may have a driver, I would suspect.
PETER: But he leaves the house ...
JOHN: He has to. I mean, he goes on location to do movies. Johnny Depp made a movie with him and loved him. I know people who worked with him and loved him. He doesn't necessarily listen to the director, though. That is something you can tell. And they probably don't know what to say.
PETER: That must be really interesting.
JOHN: "You're going to do what?" "Well, I'm going to wear an ice bucket on my head." "All right." You know, I don't think most directors have the nerve to say, "Well, maybe that wouldn't be a good idea." So, I find that really interesting, to see how much he scared every director. But I think in this movie he gave a good performance.
BOB: Maybe he should direct a movie.
JOHN: Maybe he doesn't want to. That's hard work.
PETER: My intuition is that he's too narcissistic. He's about what he wants to be.
PETER: Whatever that means.
BOB: How often do you go to the movies?
JOHN: I go three nights a week. I see everything.
BOB: What's the best thing you've seen?
JOHN: Crash, by David Cronenberg, which hasn't come out yet. That's my favorite movie. I really loved it. It's so out there. It's very glamorous and funny and smart and crazy and arty. It's my favorite movie of the year.
PETER: Where did you see it?
JOHN: At a screening. It's not opening until the spring, but I don't know why. And it's a hit in Paris. I think it's only opened in Paris.
BOB: I'm going to see it there in a few weeks. Actually, I called somebody who's doing the publicity, and was told it's delayed. And the guy said - and he's working for the company that's supposed to promote this movie - he said, "You know, it's not exactly Academy Award material."
JOHN: To me, it is, and I vote in the Academy. Here's an Academy member who is telling you ...
BOB: I've never met one!
JOHN: ... it is Academy material.
PETER: Is there something wrong with this movie, that they don't want to release it?
JOHN: Well, it's about people that are erotically turned on by car accidents, and they fuck and have car accidents through the whole movie.
PETER: But that's very common in this country.
JOHN: Well, it speaks to me because I even had it in Female Trouble, where Kathy plays car accident. And I used to play it as a child for real. So this is shocking to me, that there is finally a dirty movie about it. I mean "dirty" in a joking way.
It's about having sex and car accidents at the same time. I think it's a wonderfully eccentric movie. They recreate famous car accidents and then fuck. Like James Dean's and Jayne Mansfield's.
BOB: But not Jackson Pollock's?
JOHN: No, but I did almost recreate a Jackson Pollock. Who was in the car? It was Matthew Marks, myself ... let me think. We went to the exact spot where it happened. I forget who played which character, but we recreated it for ourselves. I just started doing it and they were like, "Oh, God!," as we were riding along. I always remember it as a really fun memory from the Hamptons.
PETER: You knew where it was exactly?
JOHN: Well, Matthew knew the exact place, and I knew what happened. You know me, I'm always trying to create a little movie. So we just kind of re-enacted it. Somebody did that to me on the Kennedy route once.
PETER: Oh, God.
JOHN: I went to speak at a college. They picked me up at the airport, and we're driving along and they said, "Okay, look up." And I said, "To what?" And they said, "That's where he got shot." I looked up right at the Texas Depository.
PETER: I heard that somebody is doing a tour ...
JOHN: It's a gift shop. You can go up there now.
PETER: No, no, they have a car, and for $25 they have a voiceover and you go in the car ...
JOHN: Well, that's what we did, only just for ourselves.
BOB: Did you go into the gift shop?
JOHN: It only opened in the last five years, and they don't call it a gift shop. It's a museum. But I bet you can buy something.
BOB: What's the worst movie you've seen lately?
JOHN: Oh, I wouldn't say. My specialty is praising things that most people dislike. The only time I say something negative is when something's so thought of as great, that making fun of it is only another kind of joke in a way. But I'll tell you the movie I hated, that I wanted to stab people sitting around me, because they liked it. It was Forrest Gump, which I hated more than any movie I've ever seen.
PETER: A lot of people say that.
JOHN: That is the kind of movie that I loathe. I hate sentimental, feel-good movies. I like feel-bad movies. I could feel all the people around me loving it. And that made it even worse. Very rarely do I want to ruin their enjoyment, but in that movie, not only did I hate it, I wanted to spoil other people's enjoyment of it.
I like things that at the end, you're like, "Whoa, God!" I don't like "Aw!" That's the thing I hate the most, that's when I lose it. That is the sound I fear. If there's such a thing as hell, that's where I'll be, with people for the rest of our lives going, "Aaaaaaw!" Oh, God!
PETER: There are all these movies that are really successful, and I think they're terrible and I won't go see them. So what's an example of a movie like that, that you kind of liked from the last couple of years?
JOHN: Well, Independence Day. I didn't hate it or love it. But it didn't make me mad. I wasn't sorry it was a hit.
PETER: You didn't think it was incompetent?
JOHN: No. It was exactly what I expected it to be - a fake '50s big-budget movie that was shameless about making money. It didn't bother me one bit.
PETER: And they knew what they were doing?
JOHN: I think it was a very shrewdly commercial movie. It was a money machine. And you think that's easy to do? It is not easy to do.
PETER: It really isn't?
JOHN: It's impossible to make a money machine. A lot of times I've had producers or executives say, "We want a hit, give us a hit song and title." We can't just order one up. You can't just order up a hit movie, either. It's really hard to make.
PETER: Actually, my assistant came in after seeing it and said it has a lost dog ...
JOHN: It's shameless, that's why I liked it.
BOB: The White House gets blown up.
PETER: No, but there's really a list of hooks - lost dog, mother who was a stripper, the list went on and on.
JOHN: But it didn't offend me because it didn't pretend to be anything other than exactly what it was. Where the ones that I hate, people think are literally good. That's what bothers me.
BOB: Don't you know Steve Buscemi?
JOHN: I love Steve Buscemi. He's really like Don Knotts, and I'm jealous because I always wanted to be Don Knotts, so to speak. We always argue, and people think we're each other, and we really don't look alike, but I get it. We both say that we're going to fight each other for the part, but we're both getting a little old to make The Don Knotts Story.
I tried to get Don Knotts in one of my movies, and his agent said he was very slow, very expensive, and blind. And I said, "Well, I'm glad you're not my agent!"
BOB: And you said, "But what's your point?"
JOHN: I said, "Yeah, well, send him over." I couldn't believe the agent said that. That's worse than, "It's not Academy Award-winning material." Well!
PETER: We've discovered a worse category than music or actors' agents. It's sports agents.
JOHN: I hate sports. To me, it's worse than David Duke. I even did an ad in Baltimore and said I hated sports. I put this in my book, that if people mention a sporting event to me, I reconsider our friendship. But I am interested in one thing I think is funny, and gay people are really mad about. There is a hugely successful wrestler now ...
BOB: Oh, yeah.
JOHN: ... that is gay, and tries to grab the other guy's dick and stuff, and then they beat him up. Actually, I know it's so politically incorrect to say, but I think it's funny. It doesn't offend me. But I want to see him, because I love villains in wrestling. That sport I like because it's not a sport, it's show business. When I was young, Gorgeous George was a huge influence on me. They couldn't say he was gay then, but he was like Liberace. He had bleached long hair, wore leopard and everything. That was sort of the same thing. Now, he didn't grab people's dicks. Does he do that? I think that's hilarious, if it's true. Have you seen this new guy?
BOB: I haven't.
JOHN: I hope he does that. And then I'm a fan of his, whoever that is. There's nothing really much lower-brow than wrestling, so that's why I kind of like that. Real wrestling I have no interest in.
BOB: You probably didn't like our Sports & Games issue.
JOHN: I liked all your other issues. I just hate sports, so how could I like that?
BOB: Our new issue has an interview with Gus Van Sant.
JOHN: I love Gus. He's been in Baltimore.
BOB: And Jeff Wall did the interview.
JOHN: Oh, I'm a big fan and I also know his son, too. I like Jeff very much. He's a director ... a film director.
PETER: I'm interested in what you see when you look at his photographs.
JOHN: I have every book on him. I've been a fan of his for a long time. To me, they're little movies, and I love especially his rehearsals of casts. They're movies, except it's a still. I think that's an incredibly original, wonderful idea that no one did.
PETER: Though, Cindy Sherman did it ...
JOHN: That's different because that was about herself and that was also about movie stills. He has a narrative, where hers is about how you thought you remembered those films. Most people in the beginning thought it was her exact Antonioni film still or something, but it wasn't, which was why they were so great because they made people think they were even something they weren't.
PETER: But the irony about someone like Jeff Wall is that paintings before films were like that, too.
PETER: I mean, a Poussin is put together the same way, like, bring in the extras, and we need more rocks ...
JOHN: That he did those like lightboxes that were generally thought of in a very negative way, you know, Kodak moments in airports. So he didn't just have one great idea, which is really what most artists have. He had two great ideas, put together.
PETER: Can you put your finger on what it is about sports?
JOHN: Basically I hate it because I hate the idea that men assume other men have an interest in it. When you get in a cab in a strange city, and they talk about a football game, I think, How dare you say that to me? Would I get into a car and say, "Wasn't Fassbinder's last movie great?" No, I would never do that. So why do you think I'm interested in that? Also, my father, who I get along with great - I love my father - but as a child, he felt it was his duty to take me to sporting events. And it was torture for me. I remember sitting there the whole time trying to imagine what would happen if the stands collapsed and every person would die. And I pictured thousands of ambulances coming in. That's how I'd sit there, imagining destruction and death, with my father. So, I hated it always. [intercom buzzes] Who is it? [silence] Just delinquents.
BOB: Tomorrow's stars today.
JOHN: I doubt it.
PETER: How do you write?
JOHN: I write every day, Monday through Friday. I get up at six. I write from 7:30 to 12:00 every single day, with Bic pens, legal pads, scotch tape, and scissors. I've written thirteen movies and four books. I'm writing my movie right now in the same way.
PETER: That's incredible.
JOHN: All writers write every day. You can't get it done if you don't.
PETER: And you really can write every day?
JOHN: Monday to Friday. I go out every Friday night, like a coal miner with a paycheck in my pocket. I never go out during the week. I never think of having a drink then. I even say, "Oh, I can't go, that's a school night." But I don't just get up and write. It's always for a project.
PETER: There's always one in the wings?
JOHN: Yeah, if one just fell through, then I have to pick up another one and write the treatment, and then pitch it to get the development deal. I'm always writing something.
PETER: I guess you've written a lot, but people think of you as a director.
JOHN: But I'm more a writer because I've never directed a movie I didn't write, and never will, hopefully - unless they come to arrest me for not paying bills. And that's why it's harder to get it made. The studios basically hate that because they know you have more control if you wrote it. And they want you to have the least control. That's how you get work.
PETER: But as a director, it's unusual for you to be such a writer. Or are there others ...
JOHN: Well, who has the best career in the world? The most enviable career is Woody Allen.
PETER: And he writes them.
JOHN: He writes every one of them. And nobody says to Woody Allen, "I don't like this scene, how about this?" He doesn't take notes from studio executives, I promise you.
PETER: And from you that's really the high praise, that he has the best career in the world.
JOHN: Almost all directors would agree with that, no matter what they think of his films. He says that the day after he writes the end, he pulls the page out of the typewriter and that's the first day of pre-production. That's amazing. What you have to go through between those two things, usually, to get the green light to make a movie ... it's incredibly long and complicated.
PETER: And how do you think he did it?
JOHN: His movies make lots of money in Europe, and it's prestige. Because eventually, even if they lose money, they don't care. Everybody wants the prestige of Woody Allen. I'm very much a Woody Allen fan. I like his serious ones better. The ones that people don't like. The dramas are my favorite.
PETER: I've got to say I like his work, but it is an unusual example of somebody growing up on film as a director.
JOHN: I think it's the most stunning American career there is. I think Scorcese is the best American director, and Woody Allen has the most enviable career.
PETER: And why does everybody say Scorcese is the best American director?
JOHN: To me, he just makes the best movies. He has more film knowledge than probably any human in the country.
PETER: More than you?
JOHN: Oh, way more. He has an obsessiveness about movies that makes me look like an amateur. I think he's incredibly intelligent, driven, and makes incredibly wonderful, well-directed movies.
PETER: So, you're saying that if you have this incredible body of knowledge in your head ...
JOHN: And certainly, the technique that Woody Allen has, just about where to put the camera ... And what are the shots. But beside that, I like the kind of subject matter he uses. I like the actors he picks. I like how his movies look. I like what he is obsessed by. Not only do I like his obsessions, but he really knows how to make beautiful movies. There are some directors that can make beautiful movies, but I'm not quite so interested in what they're making movies about.
He's tough. He has hard-edged subjects. He doesn't make life-affirming movies. Even though The Age of Innocence ... I loved that movie because it was fetishistic to me. It was almost sexual ... looking at a plate, a dish. And I like that. I feel obsession is the most important thing in what I like in other people's work. And he is a driven, driven man.
PETER: Driven to make ...
JOHN: Movies. Period. He would kill somebody. If nobody would let him make a movie, he might kill somebody to be able to do it. And I respect that.
BOB: I don't know if you want to talk about it, if you don't, it's fine, but you've mentioned the title of you're doing next movie...
JOHN: Have I?
BOB: Here and there.
JOHN: Cecil B. Demented. But that's the one that fell through.
BOB: Oh, that fell through?
JOHN: Now it's in turnaround. Someone could make it, but it's a movie about teenage terrorism against Hollywood for making bad movies. So, it's not going to be made in Hollywood. It was cinematically correct in Europe. Very cinematically incorrect for Hollywood.
JOHN: So, I hope to make that one day, but I wasn't going to sit around and wait, so I thought up a whole new one, and I got a whole new development deal that I'm writing now.
PETER: So you go straight on to something else?
JOHN: Well, I learned that when these things in Hollywood die, they die ... overnight they're dead. Once it stops, it dies. Your phone calls aren't returned the next day.
PETER: I couldn't take that. I don't see how you can.
JOHN: I've learned that I have to take it. I'm in the business where that happens. I don't have a choice. What is my choice? Sit down and not do anything? But it was very hard to go back up to my room that day and start, get out my blank pads. And I take a picture of them every time. It's one more obsession. And I have to go buy my paper at the same store every time, too.
PETER: You have to be tough to do that.
JOHN: People always say that to me, how can I be so self-disciplined? And I think, if I wasn't, I'd have to go get a job. To me, it's just like the easiest thing in the world to be. I can write in my underpants. If I had to get a job, I would have to get dressed.
PETER: I meant tough to just go and work after such an emotional upheaval.
JOHN: Well, when I tried to make the sequel to Pink Flamingos, I waited three years trying to do it.
PETER: You always read about somebody saying, "It took us seven years to make this movie!"
JOHN: Well, that hasn't happened to me. But it would be easier if you're just the director, you just read scripts all the time, and you find a script you like, and you can either make it or not. If you're a writer/director, it's tripled, really, the amount of time it takes to make a movie.
It takes me usually three months to think it up, or to write the treatment, enough to go pitch it, and four months to write it. Then there's that gray area - if they say yes, whether it's about ready to happen. It's like being almost pregnant. There's no such thing. One executive said to me, "You have a blinking green light." I said, "Wait a minute, there's no such thing in any traffic system in the entire world." There isn't.
BOB: So more or less it's a year.
PETER: That's like writing a book.
JOHN: And then it's another year to make it because you have to do pre-production, then you film it, then you edit. And then the worst - the testing. That is the thing I hate the most. And the thing they all believe in, no matter if they give you one million dollars or 800 million dollars.
JOHN: I remember, they even tested Polyester and everybody walked out and hated it. But what made them believe in testing was because they did it, and changed the ending to Fatal Attraction, and it became a billion-dollar hit. So, since then, every movie is tested.
Of course, the mistake they make is, when it's over, they go right to the people that didn't like it and try to get you to change it so they will like it. Instead, they should go to the people that loved it and find out what they didn't like, and change that. That I'd do. That I'd listen to.
But you can never make the people that hate it like it. And all my movies are usually ... all movies test the worst that have any extremes.
JOHN: And then you have these things called focus groups, that directors call "fuck-us groups," that's what they're known as. Where they make you pretend - and I'm lucky that I'm a recognizable director - where they say, "Just sit in the back. Most people don't that you're sitting there." And they just pick twelve people that they wouldn't spit on any other time of the year, right? And then ask them this stuff, like a shrink, a marketing shrink interviews them. And what they say really matters.
PETER: Do you think these marketing people have any idea what they're doing? Or is it sort of a scam?
JOHN: The problem is this: movies that test extremely well can be huge flops because the people that saw them liked them, but that doesn't mean they're going to pay to see them.
PETER: So it's not a science?
JOHN: If it really worked, then every movie would be a hit.
PETER: Right. I know you have a place in New York now, and I know of the strong role that Baltimore plays in your work, but beyond that, I have this theory that people can't write in New York.
JOHN: I can.
PETER: You can?
JOHN: I write in Baltimore and New York. I write in both places equally as well. Whichever apartment it is, I keep the same hours. It makes not one bit of difference to me.
PETER: You have to give lessons to New York writers.
JOHN: My New York apartment is exactly like my Baltimore house. I wake up sometimes and I don't know which place I'm in.
PETER: And you get a certain creative charge out of some people you see in LA?
JOHN: Let's put it this way, I have friends I adore in L.A.
PETER: Work friends?
JOHN: No, real friends. Then I have work friends. But I get out of there as quickly as I can. Because what little power I have there would evaporate if they saw me at parties. I'm there for one week. It's either, they're going to go for it or not. If they see me all the time, I won't even have that.
PETER: That's poignant. It's smart, as well.
BOB: It makes them want you more, I mean, if you're always around ...
JOHN: ... they get used to you. But if you're there for one week and they have to decide in that week, you can do all the appointments that you have. Otherwise, you could do one a week, and it would take six months.
PETER: Now, one stupid question I have for you, as we talk about all these films. I happen to like a lot of movies that were directors' first movies. But a lot of directors only seem to be able to make that one movie and then fall apart.
JOHN: Well, you know what Alfred Hitchcock always said, "Self-imitation is style."
BOB: There's obsession again.
PETER: But a lot of directors just disappear. I've recently become a big fan of The Last Picture Show. He essentially doesn't have a career.
JOHN: I loved The Last Picture Show. But he made about ten movies that were not successful.
BOB: There's also Terrence Malick, and Days of Heaven.
JOHN: He's a very famous case of - what happened? They use that all the time. But, well, Stanley Kubrick - when is the last time he made a movie? And there are certain directors that make them, one every eight years or something. And that's part of their image, too. I mean, certainly Kubrick could make a movie tomorrow if he wanted.
BOB: I'm wondering who you would work with, if you could work with anyone.
JOHN: In a movie?
BOB: Yeah. Even from forty or fifty years ago.
JOHN: When people ask me, "Who did you wish that you worked with?," I always say that I have, so my dream cast really has been the people I have worked with. But you mean dead people. Certainly, there was always somebody I loved - Dagmar. She was an early television star, a blowzy comedian that was really big on '50s television. I tracked her down when she was about 80 and went to visit her and tried to get her to play the grandmother in Polyester. And she wouldn't, but I loved that I met her and went there.
Dorothy Malone I like very much. I had lunch with her recently. And she didn't have her collar on. And I had never met her, and told her about that. I loved that she put it right up. So endearing and sweet, and she did it.
PETER: Actors are really sweet, aren't they?
JOHN: Some are. I can think of some, that that wouldn't be the first adjective ... I get along with them.
PETER: Innocence and vanity, I think.
JOHN: Well, kid actors are innocent. What's hard is if you've been a star a long time. It's really hard not to be driven crazy eventually.
PETER: I can imagine.
JOHN: Because you're so afraid that you're going to lose it.
I think all the celebrities that hate being recognized when they go out, what they really fear ...
PETER: ... is that they won't be recognized.
JOHN: Gore Vidal said it's a big drag to be asked for an autograph, but it's a bigger drag when they stop asking. That's true because you get used to it.
PETER: I really don't know people with that kind of super-visibility, but it must be incredibly drug-like.
JOHN: Well, one time with Johnny Depp, at the height of his being a teen idol, I remember we went to this screening, and when we came out there were about fifty teenage girls fainting and crying and running in front of us with photographers. And it was surreal. I started laughing. I couldn't believe they would cry. "You like him, you're looking at him. What are you crying about?" I don't get that reaction to seeing your idol and to bursting into tears.
That was the only time I experienced that kind of lunatic thing. That's teenage hysteria. And it is scary because they kind of try to rip your clothes ... Not mine, but his. Me, I was like Uncle Remus. But he was like, "Get me in the car!"
PETER: He was just plain old frightened?
JOHN: I guess at that time he was kind of used to it, but just mortified by it. I mean, he was embarrassed by it. He handled it nicely. He didn't act like an asshole to them. I hate that, when they're shitty to them. You ought to be glad, they buy every (inaudible) you're in. Who's paying your mortgage? I always think that.
I remember they tried to buy his sewage from his trailer. The girls asked the Teamsters. And I said to him, "No, get a cold. We'll make a fortune. Come over and get the bug, some handkerchiefs ... we can sell snot, ear wax, the whole thing. Really make some money here."