Urbane Guerrilla: John Water's 'Cecil B. Demented'
With his pointed new comedy, the filmmaker takes aim at a hollow Hollywood
What’s so funny about the movie industry? Don’t even get John Waters started. Having spent the past 36 years creating such delicious cinematic flotsam as Pink Flamingos, Polyester, and Serial Mom, Baltimore’s most aberrant auteur is now directing his outrage toward Hollywood. In his latest comedy, Cecil B. DeMented, the filmmaker rails against all manner of showbiz stupidity — from clueless studio execs (”I don’t even go to the movies,” admits one) to execrable sequels (Gump Again, starring Kevin Nealon) — while charting the exploits of a terrorist director (Stephen Dorff) who kidnaps an aging ingenue (Melanie Griffith) and forces her to star in an action movie made with real bullets and bombs. Here, the 54-year-old Waters elaborates.
The film is a pretty savage send-up of Hollywood. What inspired you to make it at this particular cultural moment?
They always say write what you know, and I know terrorism and I know the movie business and I know the ludicrous search for the edge that seems to obsess all of Hollywood today. My joke is, what do you have to do to have edge credentials anymore, die? Is snuff the only thing left? Now everyone’s hip. There’s no difference between an underground movie and a Hollywood movie. Which is probably good.
At one point Cecil complains, ”The Hollywood system stole our sex and co-opted our violence.” How can you be shocking and provocative in this anything-goes climate?
If there’s a battle of filth going on right now — and there may be — I’m not against it, but I’m not a participant. I won it [with Pink Flamingos]. There are no more sexploitation, gore, or blaxploitation movies. Now Shaft wears Armani. The reason you had those movies was because Hollywood wouldn’t do them. Well, Hollywood does all that now. I mean, Spielberg’s last movie was a gore movie.
And yet there’s schlock like Patch Adams, which your movie mocks fairly mercilessly.
Patch Adams is a great movie. It shocked me. I was speechless. I felt like an old lady watching Pink Flamingos.
Why? If you had cancer and somebody came with an enema bulb on his nose and started telling you jokes, you wouldn’t be shocked? Some people who see my early movies call the censor board, right? Who do I call?
It’s a little hard to picture you with a tub of popcorn watching a Robin Williams weepie.
And I was alone. I really felt like a pervert. I didn’t make a lot of eye contact.
Who goes and sees those movies?
People who Cecil B. DeMented would want to punish. I’m not that way. I’m glad when people go see any movie. But Cecil has been driven insane by movies. He hates all movies. He’s a criminal. That’s the joke. Kids always say to me, ”I’d die to make a movie, I’d kill to make a movie,” but they wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. Cecil would.
It seems like you’re taking pains to distance yourself from Cecil.
That’s the No. 1 question in every interview: ”Are you Cecil?” I’m a little bit of him. I’m a little bit of all of my movies. But I don’t want to be them.
When Cecil says something like ”Technique is nothing more than failed style,” it does sound like you’re in there somewhere.
Yeah, I can believe that. I mean, my early films look terrible, but they’re still playing. Digital effects and all of that are very uninvolving to me. It becomes a science project, not a movie. Do people say, ”That was a beautiful reversal shot on reel 2”? Spending $100 million on special effects doesn’t have anything to with whether the movie’s good or bad. But it can be good. I liked Titanic.
Finally, who would you most like to cast in a movie?
Meryl Streep. She’s a great actress. I’m writing this movie about sex addicts called A Dirty Shame; I’m not saying she’d do it, but who knows? It would be the ultimate irony. I’ve never asked anybody to be in my movies who I didn’t think was really good. Some people ask if I’d put, I don’t know, Tonya Harding in. No. They have to have done something clever.