Inside the Making of John Waters' A Dirty Shame
The script arrived at my home in Los Angeles unannounced late last summer, in a FedEx envelope: A Dirty Shame, by John Waters. It wasn't totally unexpected; I'd known it was in the works for ages, but it's one thing to anticipate and another to hold it in your hands. Eager as I was to read it, I'm an actor, with an actor's ego, so I immediately skimmed it for "my scenes." Any actor who tells you that's not the first thing he or she does is flat-out lying. I didn't actually read my lines; I just counted them. Only after assessing the size of my part, which, to my enormous relief and gratification, was substantial enough to make me happy, could I read the whole script.
This would be my 13th movie with John. I met him in 1966 and, that same year, played several parts in the 8-mm, triple-projected Roman Candles, which, after more than three decades of invisibility, is now being seen again as part of his museum show, Change of Life. And, although John has made a couple of short films that I am not in, I've been in every feature film he's made. So closely identified am I with him and his movies that often, when I'm out and about the neighborhood, strangers call out to me by my characters' names. "Hey, Taffy," they'll say (Female Trouble), or, "Oh my God, you're Peggy Gravel" (Desperate Living). Serial Mom's Dottie Hinkle is a big favorite, too, and I get repeated requests to "say 'pussy willow.'" My roles in John's more recent films, Pecker and Cecil B. DeMented, were considerably, and disappointingly, smaller, however, so I was elated to have another real character to work with.
I exhaled, sat down, and started from the beginning. It wasn't long before I was totally engrossed in John's alternate universe of eccentric sexual addictions, militant neuters, pornographic foliage, talking vaginas, concussions, and miraculous conversions. I'd been negotiating to do a play in San Francisco at the same time filming was to start, but once I'd finished the script my choice was clear. Not only was Marge the Neuter right up my sexually repressed alley, but after years of relative respectability, John had written another movie my mother won't want to see. Probably just reading this article will be a painful reminder to her of just how big an embarrassment I can be.
The plot centers around Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), who with her low-wattage husband, Vaughn (Chris Isaak), and her mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), owns and operates the Pinewood Park and Pay, a 7-Eleven-type convenience store. When Sylvia gets hit on the head with a lawn-mower handle, she finds herself caught up in a mystifying cult of sex worshippers, led by Ray Ray (Johnny Knoxville) and including her daughter Caprice (Selma Blair), who soon takes over her Harford Road neighborhood, much to the chagrin of Big Ethel and me, Marge the Neuter, who rally the opposition.
I couldn't wait to tell John how much I like the script, and when he told me that Ted Hope and Christine Vachon were producing I got even more excited. Between them they had produced about a hundred films, including American Splendor and The Ice Storm (Ted), Far From Heaven and Boys Don't Cry (Christine), and my favorite movie of 2001, Todd Solondz's Storytelling (both).
The first rehearsal was set for Sept. 18, 2003, which was the same day Tropical Storm Isabel was due to hit Baltimore. On Sept. 17, due to a misunderstanding with the airline, I missed my red-eye flight and was forced to spend several pre-dawn hours in Phoenix, fretting all the while that BWI would be closed before I got there. Fortunately, Isabel held off and we landed safely, albeit six hours after my originally scheduled arrival. A safe landing was only half my concern. I'd done some major schedule shuffling to get to Baltimore by the 18th, and I didn't want to miss this rehearsal. But the production assistant assigned to gather me from the airport told me the reading had been postponed. I had plenty of time to drop off my things at the apartment, shower, change, and be ready to leave for John's house--if I could do it in 10 minutes. Clean, and only slightly damp, I was downstairs in nine.
John had hired a terrific cast, and I was eager to meet them all. I'd been a fan of Tracey's since her Fox series, and Selma was the main reason I'd liked Storytelling so much. I had at least one Chris Isaak album in heavy rotation, and Johnny Knoxville--well, any guy who could transform himself into a role model for adolescent boys by having tennis balls flung at his crotch had to have some kind of weird sense of humor. Plus, he looked pretty good on the cover of GQ. I liked him instantly--he was as open and friendly as a puppy dog--and when I complimented him on the GQ cover, he modestly admitted he had only agreed to it after Johnny Depp had done one.
Chris wouldn't arrive for a couple of days, so Tracey, Selma, Johnny, and I made ourselves at home in John's comfortable, art- and book-filled living room. When John was called away to take a phone call, we broke the ice with a lively, get-acquainted discussion about the absent Mr. Isaak's manhood. None of us had ever seen it, but we'd all heard the rumors. It may not be exactly the seventh wonder of the world, but it is reputed to be comparable to that of a large four-legged mammal.
Also present, sitting quietly and taking no part in our adolescent prurience, was a tall, striking 60ish blonde who turned out to be Suzanne Shepherd. She's probably best known for her recurring role as Carmella's mom on The Sopranos, but, as I'm HBO-deprived, I didn't recognize her. Cast as Big Ethel, Tracey's mom and my best friend, she'd accepted the role without reading the whole script and was still undecided as to whether she'd just made the best or the worst decision of her life. Fat Fuck Frank, Selma's on-screen beau was also there, a sweetheart of a guy known to his wife and neighbors as Wes Johnson. And the lovely Susan Allenbach, the only one in the cast to actually appear nude in the movie--brave girl--took time out from her other duties as John's assistant to pop in and do her lines.
I always get kick out of John's rehearsals. Back in the old Dreamland days, in the late '60s and '70s, in what was obviously a hangover from his youthful career as a puppeteer, he would gather us together and read each part in turn, exactly as he wanted it done, leaving us actors with the job of finding a way to make the roles our own without actually defying his direction. He stopped doing that ages ago, but, since a full cast reading would have meant cramming dozens of people into his living room, he was happy enough to read all the parts of the missing cast. But what really sets John's rehearsals apart from everybody else's is the kid-with-a-new-toy look he always gets on his face when he hears his lines out loud the first time, and, with this script in particular, his gleeful explanations of the obscure sexual practices he'd put in it.
I had expected Tracey's humor, Selma's intensity, and Johnny's hipness, but when Suzanne opened her mouth every jaw in the room dropped. She had a voice like a frog with the flu and a deadpan delivery that stopped us cold. She might not have realized it yet, but she was Big Ethel. If I hadn't known otherwise, I would have sworn John had written the part just for her.
During a break, Tracey quietly asked me how set in stone John's scripts are. She told me that Woody Allen encouraged her to use the script as a taking-off point for whatever improvising she was inspired to do. I told her that it might be different for her, but historically John was highly resistant to anyone's changing so much as a comma without clearing it with him. Fans of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble are often surprised to learn that there is not one improvised moment in either film--we memorized every single word. We had to. Not only were we intensely aware of the tightness of the budget, but John never left his place behind the camera. He was always there, silently mouthing the dialogue while the actors worked a scene, on high alert to any potential unauthorized paraphrasing.
It did happen occasionally that some additional dialogue was needed to fill an unforeseen dead space, but so rarely that the first time John told me to "just make something up" I nearly swallowed my tongue. My fear of saying nothing, however, was far greater than my fear of saying something stupid, so I did what he told me. In Desperate Living, in the scene where the newly crowned Princess Peggy Gravel is toiling over her cauldron of rabies potion, that little couplet about a pinch of bat and a touch of rat? That's mine.
Then it was off to the production offices, wherein lay the lair of the "ugly expert," Van Smith (no relation to the City Paper writer of the same name). Van has been wardrobe designer for John since Pink Flamingos, where he created the oft imitated, never duplicated look for Divine's Babs Johnson--the filthiest person alive--and for every John Waters film since, including Female Trouble and Desperate Living, for which two movies alone he deserves an Academy Award. He's had me dressed in tutus and tiaras (though not at the same time), Hutzler's cashmere and thrift-store bed sheets, and I was more than a little curious to see what he'd come up with to torture me this time. In the script, Marge was described as "frighteningly plain," so I was half-expecting brown oxfords with navy crew socks, L.L. Bean walking shorts, and limp, straight hair. But John had added "Christian" to the mix, which, for some reason translated into a brown jumper dress with floral appliqué, a beige cardigan, and a teased-to-transparency 'do. Not my prettiest look ever, but haute couture compared with what I'd been expecting.
John works with the same people, movie after movie, so this film was much more than a job to me--it was a family reunion. So while the others were busy with costume fittings and Selma, who is even thinner than I used to be, was trying out a pair of the enormous prosthetic breasts she'd be wearing throughout the film, I wandered around. Jet-lagged and in need of a caffeine fix, I was mainly looking for coffee, but I was looking for old friends, too. With filming due to start in just a few days, everyone I found was too busy for a lengthy visit, but I was able to grab a moment with Rolande, the key costumer, and plant a congratulatory kiss on production designer Vince Peranio for finally marrying his longtime lady love, Dolores Deluxe.
But I knew I'd be seeing everybody soon and Isabel was getting restless, so when the van was ready to take me back to the apartment I'd barely looked at, I jumped in. They had put me at the Promenade, which was just fine with me--or at least it was after I hid all the artificial ivy and off-price store tchotchkes that some well-meaning but ill-advised building employee had arranged throughout the apartment. Blocks from my old Fells Point stomping ground, it also boasted, if you stood at just the right angle, a fine view of the harbor and the American Visionary Art Museum, and an odd gilded, flame-shaped monument I'd never seen before but was later told was a memorial to the Polish war dead. That wasn't the only thing new to me.
I moved away from Baltimore in 1977, before Harborplace and the National Aquarium were finished, and, although I know all this renovation has been good for the economy, and for civic morale, I couldn't help miss the downtown I'd known as a child, when Howard Street was lined with department stores, lunch was a tuna salad sandwich and a Coke in a paper cone in the mezzanine tearoom at Read's Drugstore, and the air was filled with the smell of cinnamon from the McCormick spice plant just a few blocks south on the edge of the harbor.
Tracey was in the same building, as was Selma, who was traveling with her adorable little one-eyed dog (named Wink, natch), and, as often as he could be there, her equally adorable brand-new fiancé, Ahmet (who always introduced himself as "Ahmet--like 'vomit'") Zappa. And Suzanne was right next door. Due partly to proximity, partly to our on-screen friendship, and partly to the fact that we just plain liked each other, she and I got pretty chummy, and she often pounded on my door (her door-knocking technique was as distinctive as her voice) to invite me for a drink, or show me her Baltimore-bought treasures. Apprehensive as she had been about the project as first, she had fallen under not only John's spell, but also Baltimore's, and before filming was over she and her husband, Carroll, were seriously looking for some Charm City real estate.
Tracey was a little concerned about her accent, so, even though John had said he didn't want her sounding "too Baltimorean," I took her, Selma, and Ahmet to HampdenFest. No sooner had we strolled onto 36th Street than Tracey turned and whispered to me, "Did you know that Baltimore was voted the city with the ugliest people in America?" There might have been more than the usual Baltimore quota of bad hair and teeth on display that day, but the shops were full of good cheap stuff, and we made quite a few shop owners happy. I found a particularly stylish hat I have yet to find an occasion to wear, and among Tracey's many purchases was a black leather jacket that was such a good deal it worried her. "No one died in this or anything, did they?" she had to ask.
The first day of shooting was easy for me. I merely had to lop off some immodestly protruding branches from an ornamental shrub and muttering disgustedly about "things growin' all dirty," while Chris Isaak, who was bringing a surprising (at least to me) subtlety to his role, walked by and said hello. This shrub was the first, and the least suggestive, of the increasingly imaginative and fabulously erotic bushes and trees Vince Peranio designed and the greenspersons--that's their official name; I read it on the call sheet--created that would, over the course of the movie, overrun the neighborhood.
In the old days, when John's budgets were too small to allow for mistakes, I prided myself on being "one-take Mink," but the days of single takes are no more. There's always a reason to do it again: a flare on the lens, a sound glitch, even an occasional flubbed line, all require one more take. Even on a moderately budgeted movie like this one, it takes dozens of people to get the job done. The actors work while the camera is rolling, but when the director yells "cut!" the crew takes over. The lighting people reposition bounce-boards, screens, and filters; the makeup and hair departments rush in with hair spray and powder; prop guys reset props; and, on this day, the person I got the biggest kick out of, because what she was doing so personifies the art and artifice of filmmaking, was Devra, the key greensperson, who before every new take had to reattach the branches I had chopped off in the previous one.
There is nothing on earth more fun than making a movie, and I love it, but anyone who still imagines it's glamorous work has never done night shoots. Since the whole movie takes place over the course of one weekend, and so much of the action takes place outdoors, nights outside were what we had to do. Often the residents of the Harford Road neighborhood we were using would come out to watch us between dinner and bedtime, but by the time we broke camp at daybreak, there'd be nobody left shivering on the streets but us film folk. No matter how many nights in a row you force yourself to stay awake, the body never adjusts.
We did so much night work that I began to feel like a nonprescription Judy Garland, needing vats of coffee at 6 p.m. , popping dollar-store no-brand sleep aids at dawn. The ass-backward sleep cycle was hard on all of us, and I was happy to share my "little helpers." I was like the pusherman, creeping around the halls of the Promenade in the wee hours of the morning to tuck baggies of little blue faux Tylenol-PMs discreetly into the corner of Tracey's doorway. I saw Tracey at a benefit recently and she confided to me that the "stuff" I'd given her was still "the best."
What complicated the night shoots for me was that, since I was doing my best to sleep during the day, the nighttime was the only time I had to work on my Think Mink column, and my "trailer," a tiny compartment in what is euphemistically called a honey wagon, was useless for anything more than peeing, changing clothes, and catching the occasional uncomfortable catnap. I tried to work in it, but the slightest movement in the wagon gave my computer the heebie-jeebies. Deadline nights would find me wandering around base camp, an orphan with a laptop, looking for a quiet place to work. Gary Fiorelli, the second assistant director, to whom I will be forever grateful, took pity on me, and from then on, whenever I needed it, always found me a corner in the vacant house they had rented as the on-set production office.
This second floor of this house also was the on-set workshop for the prosthetics designers, the guys responsible for Selma's impossibly huge breasts and some of the movie's other sexually oriented "miracles," including Ray Ray's snake penis. I had just finished a column and was lounging around with Tracey, when Johnny came down the stairs laughing and pointing at his crotch. Right behind him were tech guys Tony and Connor, holding a small board on which were mounted a couple of joysticks. As they twisted and turned the controls, a foot-long rubber snake protruding from Johnny's fly writhed and danced. Tracey was hysterical and immediately started calling for a camera. Before we could take any pictures, however, Chris walked in. "OK, Chris, now let's see who's the big man," Johnny joked, and for a moment everybody in the room looked hopeful. But Chris just smiled, and whatever he has between his legs remains a secret between him and his tailor.
Some actors chafe at the enforced idleness between scenes, but not me. I like to hang out. I spent lots of time in the hair and makeup truck. Hep Preston, the key hair designer, his wife, Anne Marie (who created my fabulous 'do), and his daughter Sarah live like I'd like to one day--way out in the country with about a million dogs. Hep's a musician, too, and collects motorcycles, and he and Chris hit it off big time. Or I'd chat with the makeup gals, Cheryl "Pickles" (Suzanne always called her Pickles) Kinion and Amanda Johnson.
Often I'd just go up to the set to watch. I wasn't the only one watching, either. On many evenings, production assistants had to be assigned to chase away "bogies," spectators who might get in the way of a shot. Not surprisingly, they were out in force the night Selma, big fake titties and all, danced half-naked on the roof of the Harford Road convenience store we were using as the Stickles family's Pinewood Park and Pay.
Selma's a real pro, with a wicked, unpredictable sense of humor. One morning after a long night that ended only because the sun had come up, our van driver was dropping Chris off at his hotel before taking Tracey, Selma, and me home. As he got out of the van, Selma started screaming, "Is this it, then? You fuck me, then you just leave?" It took the horrified hotel guests who happened to be waiting outside for taxis a few long moments, and Chris's bemused, yet guilt-free look, to get the joke.
I also spent a lot of time with John and the producers in the "video village," an area behind the camera that's set up with small video monitors showing exactly what the camera is seeing. But whatever I found to do to keep myself awake, I had so many old friends around, like Pat Moran, John's lifetime best friend, associate producer, and extras casting director and wrangler; Pat's son and everybody's favorite, Brook Yeaton; and Vince Peranio, plus all my new friends on the set that I was never lonely or bored.
My longest, hardest night was the night Marge (me) got her concussion. Take after take, I pretended to slam my head into a well-padded doorway of the Park and Pay after chasing hordes of sex-addicted extras into Harford Road with a broom, then spin around and hurl my body at a large magazine rack, while my seducer, Ronnie the Rimmer, lurked in the background. But my favorite night was the night we flew.
As part of the movie's finale, a number of us were going to "levitate," so large steel scaffolding had been set up straddling a side street off Harford Road. This would hold the wires that would, in turn, hold us. Ever eager to try something new, I hopped into my harness, which, when it had to support my whole weight with wide canvas straps cutting into my groin, was moderately painful, but I didn't care. John had already decreed that during the actual filming there would be no "Peter Pan" moves, so I knew if I was going to play it would have to be during my safety lesson. As the rigger lifted me off the ground I leaned forward, raising my legs behind me. When I put my palms up, the rigger pushed my hands, and I swung merrily back and forth like a slightly cockeyed pendulum. Whee!
Movies are usually shot out of sequence, and unless an actor is in every scene, there can be a lot of time off between working days. John likes a five-day week, which gives him and the crew an almost adequate amount of time to rest and do laundry. This is a big change from the old pre-Polyester days, when John functioned not only as writer, director, and producer, but also driver (he'd pick us all up at the beginning of the day, and take us all back at the end--often to where we still lived with our parents) and caterer. (Caterer is overstating it a bit. Meals, when we got them, were usually burgers from the Little Tavern or sandwiches from Harry Little's.) The cast members all had day jobs of one kind or another, so filming took place only on weekends. Now of course we have Teamsters to drive us, and real food, and the production even provides me with a car to use while I'm in town. This is a perk I really appreciate; I have a lot of family and friends in Baltimore, and without a car I'd be uncomfortably dependent on other people to get around. During the six weeks I was in town for the film, I only actually worked about 12 days.
On some of my off days, I'd stop by the set, like the day I came to see Bonnie Pearce in a scene involving a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting. Bonnie, known variously to her fans as Cotton, Donna Dasher, and Princess Coo-Coo, is the only person to have been in every movie John Waters has ever made. She was laughing when she told me that this time she'd been cast as the recovering addict who discovers the "upper decker" left by Mr. Payday in the rest-room toilet tank. Bonnie's an amazing gal. A talented writer who's been hit with some pretty serious health problems, she works at the Maryland Institute College of Art as what she calls a "nontraditional" life model. I knew she rode her bicycle everywhere, but I was stunned when she told me she was planning a bike tour of Vietnam. Vietnam! Bonnie and I are the only surviving actors of the original Dreamland troupe, and when John came outside to talk to us I felt a frisson, a little thrill of happiness, that the three of us were together again on a movie. I believe Bonnie felt it, too; I know John did--I could see it in his eyes.
That day I also met the fetching, kvetching Jackie Hoffman, who has the distinction of being simultaneously in a John Waters movie in Baltimore and in the Broadway production of Hairspray. I'm always glad to see Patricia Hearst, who for this scene was all preppied out in camel slacks and a navy blue blazer; her character's sex vice of choice is frottage. John's used a lot of actors over the years. Some have only worked on one film with us, but others, like Ricki Lake and Patricia, were family from their first day on the set.
I also dropped by the night Miss Jean Hill, who played Grizelda to my Peggy Gravel in Desperate Living, was working. She's lost quite a bit of weight, but she's still a big gal, and she keeps a portable oxygen tank with her at all times. I was impressed that she was able to climb a narrow staircase to the second-floor set.
"Hey, girlfriend," I said. "I've come to help you with your lines."
She rolled her eyes at me and hollered, "No you ain't, motherfucker."
"Good," I said. "Perfect."
As much as I enjoyed my stay in Baltimore, however, not everything was peachy-keen perfection all the time. Isabel had mildly and temporarily inconvenienced me, but she'd done major damage to some of my friends, including Bob Adams, the unofficial Dreamland photographer and historian, whose house flooded, ruining his priceless, unique, and totally eccentric collection of Christmas decorations. Although the wardrobe crew kept me supplied with coats, gloves, and chemical hand and foot warmers, the nights were colder than I, as a nouveau Southern California weather-wuss, was happy with. And the news from California was bad. My faithfully filed absentee ballot had not been enough to stop the Gray Davis recall and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California, which, as though that were not bad enough, resulted in my being forced to endure endless "Governator" jokes from the non-Californian crew members. Right. Like Maryland's never had an embarrassing governor. Has everyone forgotten Spiro Agnew?
But the worst was that, a couple of weeks after I arrived, my mom, who had broken one hip in the early hours of the new year and suffered a long and difficult recuperation, fell and broke the other one. The replacement surgery was a success, but she still had weeks of rehab ahead of her. I did get to spend some good time with my sister Jane and her family at their home in Towson, and got out to my brother John and his wife Grace Zaccardi's place in Parkton a couple of times, but my mother's accident meant that most of the family gatherings were bedside. My mother's always been strong, and she has, at the time of this writing, nearly fully recovered and resumed walking without a cane, but she had yet to take five pain-free steps in succession by the time I went back to Los Angeles.
Because the inevitable, my last night on the set, had come. Much like on my first day, I had only one scene to shoot, and, also like my first day, it involved erotically offensive plant life--this time a tree with a crotch carved to suggest labia and a strategically placed triangle of moss. There is a tradition of saying an on-set goodbye and thanks to cast members who are "picture wrapped," and when the announcement was made and the crew and remaining cast gave me my round of applause it was hard not to cry. But not that hard. I was tired, I was cold, and, although I would miss everybody very much, I was really looking forward to sleeping nights again.
And I wanted to get back to my band. Yes, I have a rock band, and except for making movies, it's the most fun I've ever had. I started with a guitarist, a bass player, and a drummer, but I've recently added a keyboard player, and I'm writing and producing my own show called It's All About Me, where I tell stories and sing. I've done two sold-out versions so far, and am working on the third draft.
I'm looking forward to the opening of A Dirty Shame, which is set for sometime this fall. If the good time we had on the set translates to the screen, I think I'm really gonna like this picture. And who knows? Maybe my band will play the premiere.
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