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Pecker's Head

Right at Home With John Waters

By Jack Purdy | Posted 9/23/1998

So I walk into John Waters' house, tucked away on a side street in one of Baltimore's better ZIP codes, to talk about his new film Pecker, and all conventional notions about Baltimore's bard of bad behavior are immediately challenged. With its polished dark wooden floors, this place is about as trashy as the Johns Hopkins Club. Waters has muted, very masculine taste in home furnishings, and his surroundings are neat but comfortable, not fussy. Yes, there is a Thompson submachine gun laying casually in the hallway ("A gift from Johnny Depp," the filmmaker says), but otherwise any senior executive at T. Rowe Price would be thrilled to live here.

And over the course of a 75-minute interview/riff fest, Waters demonstrates his conservatism isn't limited to his taste in décor. Now, let's make this very clear: By conservatism I don't mean political views. When Waters, talking about a scene in Pecker in which Edward Furlong and Christina Ricci do it in a voting booth, asserts that "people pick very unlikely places to have sex," I can't resist saying, "Yes. Look at the president." Waters pounds his couch: "I'd vote for Clinton today in one second," he asserts before quickly adding, "Oh, do we have to talk about this?! I haven't had a meal where we haven't talked about Monica Lewinsky's . . . vibrant mouth in the halls of the White House, her oral adventures."

No, there will be no Clinton-bashing here. Later, as if his political beliefs need to be made clearer, the name of the late Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver comes up and Waters says, "Oh, he became a bad fashion designer and then a Republican, which is even worse."

No, when I describe Waters as conservative, I mean that, at 52, he holds certain values that are precious to an older generation of Americans--values such as hard work; not selling your good name for quick cash; and knowing who you are and where you come from. And Waters is plain-spoken, with no media kiss-ass. He comes off as much closer to, say, Harry Truman than to most denizens of today's celebrity culture.

Just how plain-spoken Waters is surfaces shortly after we sit down. Naively, I ask him why it's been four years since his previous film, Serial Mom. His tone is playful, but he obviously feels insulted. "I never had one day off," he says. "It makes me insane when people say that--'Gee, what took so long?'--because I work 14 hours a day. It makes me want to jump over and strangle you." In 10 years of talking to film folk publicizing their product, Waters is the first one who's threatened me because of a stupid question. It feels good.

"I have had not had one day off in 20 years, except on weekends. . . . I'm making phone calls, writing, revising, dealing with agents. Cecil got very close to happening," Waters says, referring to Cecil B. DeMinute, his yet unrealized story of terrorism in the movie business. "I got a development deal, I wrote it. It was all French money. . . . And they wanted a star who will remain nameless because she has not talked about it. And she wouldn't do it . . . it fell through because of the casting.

"So I thought, Move on. And I thought of a whole other movie. Then I got the development deal, which takes months, then write it, which takes months, then get the green light. And that movie is Pecker. " Waters smiles. "So that's what my laziness was."

Writer/directors like himself "always have the hardest time getting movies made, because they're more insane . . . and it takes at least a year longer to get a script through the green-light process," Waters says. "If you just did other people's scripts, you could get movies made much more easily." That, of course, is something Waters has never done. And it's clear it would take desperate circumstances to make him a hired gun.

"Well, if they were going to take my house away," he says. "I mean, you never say never, but I wouldn't know how to direct someone else's words. I wouldn't know what to do. I have been asked to do things I really, really like. But I don't think I'd be good at it. I wouldn't be obsessed with the project."

I ask if Waters has ever been approached about doing TV work, and he again proves he's not for sale.

"Oh, sure. When David Lynch had a hit with Twin Peaks, the call went out, 'Get all the other nuts,'" he says. "TV is just less money, shorter time to work, and more restrictive. . . . I already have 14-hour days." When I suggest to Waters that he could just put his name on it, like fashion designers do on jeans and sheets, he says, quite seriously, "The problem is, I can never do that. Because then someone else has to think it up. That wouldn't work."

Waters also has zero tolerance for show-biz folks who bitch about the horrors of being famous: "As I read somewhere, if you're ever in show business, whenever you leave your house, you're at work. I hate people who went into show business and say they hate being famous. I want to say, 'Well, what kind of a career were you thinking of?!' It's ludicrous to me."

So, there are no downsides to fame for John Waters? He answers very plainly again, but this time his words aren't quite so Truman-esque.

"I joke that the only negative thing about being famous is that I've lost my right to have bad sex--I can't do that. Like you're in a back room and someone says, 'I have your Odorama card,'" referring to the scratch 'n' sniff marketing gimmick for Waters' 1981 film Polyester. "That puts a damper on sex. You have to keep your dignity."

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