John Waters: Ironic John

On a driving tour of the rundown Baltimore neighborhoods where he made all his films, writer/director John Waters talks about how Christina Ricci and Edward Furlong got their parts in his new movie, Pecker, theorizes that Catholics have better sex than Jews, and explains why he's a devoted member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

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Director John Waters opens the door to his Baltimore brownstone, grabs my hand and leads me into his living room. Placing me in a chair, he reaches under the couch, pulls out a Polaroid camera and asks, "May I take your picture?" Before I can respond, the flash has popped. "I keep a set of pictures of everyone who has ever been in my house," Waters says proudly. Then he walks me upstairs to his office and proves this by showing me his card file full of photos, each one with a name and a date.

In person Waters looks exactly like you think he would, except he doesn't look at all creepy. Actually, he's quite handsome. He looks way younger than his age (52), And yes, the rail-thin mustache does straddle the line between kitschy and downright obscene, but on Waters it works.

Waters starts to walk me through the rooms of his house, trying to dazzle me with the highlights: the gorgeous Cy Twombly paintings and the walls and walls of books (there's a whole section on true crime, and another on psychological deviations). "I probably know more about Tourette's syndrome than any layperson in the world," he says with a laugh. Then there's the electric chair where Divine got fried in Female Trouble. But Waters has given every person whose picture is in his card file a tour of his house, so there's nothing new to report here. Plus, I'm not easily dazzled. So I suggest, "Let's take a walk."

"A walk?" he asks incredulously. "No, let's take a ride."

Waters has been driving the same kind of car, a four-door sedan, for the past 30 years. When one car dies, he just calls a dealer and waits for another used one. When he turns on the current Buick, we are both nearly blasted out of our seats by earsplitting rap music. Waters just smiles and lowers the radio. He drives with his left foot tucked under his right knee and a sort of herky-jerky motion that has me reaching for my seat belt before we've left his street.

"Good idea," he says, and straps in too. Within minutes, we have left his pristine neighborhood and are headed into the territory Waters has depicted in Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living, Polyester, Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Serial Mom. Bored-looking kids stand on corners, smoking cigarettes. Stores are run-down or boarded shut. I glance over at Waters. He looks delighted.

In Waters's new film, Pecker (it doesn't mean what you think it does), which was also filmed on these streets, Waters takes a look at fame and finds it seriously lacking. The movie stars Edward Furlong as Pecker, a goofy Baltimore teenager who works at a sandwich shop and takes grainy, out-of-focus photos of his bizarre family and friends. When a New York art dealer (Lili Taylor) becomes enamored of his work, his whole world changes--and not for the better.

Most of Baltimore's citizens would probably not recognize the city that Waters used as the backdrop for Pecker and every other film he's made. "They try to pretend that side of town doesn't even exist," he says, only half kidding.

"It must be fun for you to spoof the art world," I say, knowing that Waters is a big art collector himself.

"Wait a minute," Waters says, swerving a bit. "I love the art world. I'm in it, I'm one of them. So I don't see it so much as a spoof. But I think the things I bring up in the film are funny--that people can be swept up in the brilliance of someone else's work, even though they don't get what's so good about it in the first place. You know how that hysteria kind of comes along and sweeps people up? That's the part I was making fun of. I don't want people to think that it's a blanket statement against the art world--"

"Oh please, John," I interrupt, "you have offended so many people in your films, I can't imagine that you'd be worried about offending some art snobs."

Waters takes his eyes off the road and taps the tape machine. "She said that, I didn't," he pleads. "Really, I love the art world."

"OK, I said it, I said it," I shout into the tape recorder, hoping he'll look back at the road.

"This is right where I filmed Pecker," he says, slowing way down to a speed at which the car is starting to shake in a funny way. "I think this may be the only film in history where things are really where we say they are. See, there's Pecker's house. And right up the block, right where we said it was, is the bar that Pecker's father owns. I mean, really, you don't need much art direction if you have a neighborhood like this to begin with." People are looking toward the car and smiling. Besides Barry Levinson and Baltimore Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken Jr., John Waters is Baltimore's favorite son.

"Sometimes they think I'm Barry Levinson," Waters admits. "I'll be out on the street, and someone will say, 'Hey, I loved Diner.' I just smile and say, 'Be sure to watch Homicide.' They never know the difference."

"You've always cast your films well," I say. "Using Johnny Depp in Cry-Baby was inspired, plus it ended his teen idol thing. You brought Ricki Lake national attention in Hairspray. Patty Hearst has been in three of your films, and you've used a number of people who seem like they would never even go see one of your movies."

"I read the tabloids religiously, looking for casting ideas," Waters admits. "I've looked in the National Enquirer and said, 'So that's what they look like now.' And it's given me ideas. I told this to Polly Bergen, who appeared in Cry-Baby, and she was appalled. But that's how [casting director] Pat Moran and I get our best ideas."

"In Pecker you've got a great cast. Christina Ricci as Pecker's girlfriend is terrific. She runs a Laundromat and treats her job as if it's a religious calling."

Waters starts rocking in his seat. "I called Christina and asked if she would read for me, because some of them won't read at all, you know, once they get to a certain level. And she said 'Sure.' I was a fan of hers, of course, from The Addams Family and The Ice Storm. And when she came in to read, she did the same thing Ricki Lake did to me, which is she gave me exactly what I wanted, without my saying anything to her. You see, when I write a movie I play these parts out in my head for six to eight months. I've talked to myself, I've been their character. And on a cold reading, Christina just came in and did it right. Every once in a while that happens, and then you don't want to look for anybody else. I think she's a terrific actress."

"What about Eddie Furlong? This kid has been on the verge of major stardom since he was a child in Terminator 2, but I'm not so sure about him."

Waters swerves over to the side of the road. "Oh no, you have to be sure about him. This kid is great. Eddie never played a happy character, he's always playing these miserable people. And Pecker is a happy kid. So the first thing I asked him was, 'Can you smile?' As soon as I saw his smile I knew he was right. And when he read for me, there was something so endearing in his voice--it would crack. When he came in to loop the picture, I asked him if he could do that again, because it worked so well with the character, and he said, 'Oh no, John. I was just so nervous in the beginning.' He's 21 now, not so much of a kid anymore. When I wrote the film, I said that Pecker was 'dweebishly cute but didn't know it.' And Eddie has all those characteristics. He's a very handsome guy, but at the same time he doesn't look like he thinks he's sexy. I predict a huge career for this kid." Waters finally eases the car back into traffic.

"What about Martha Plimpton? This is the best work she's done in years." Plimpton plays Pecker's sister, who runs a bar where guys just out of prison strip for money.

Waters starts to laugh. "I used to teach at a prison in Baltimore, and right next door was this bar. When these guys got out of jail, there were no jobs they could get, so they'd go work at the bar. The guys who were stripping were straight, for the most part, and the guys who were watching were gay. And the girl who would introduce them would say things like, 'This is John, he's a second-story man, been inside for four years for a burglary he committed in Maryland.' It was just the most bizarre place. So when Martha Plimpton came in to read, she seemed a little leery of the whole thing, like maybe she didn't get what this girl was about. But then she put on this black wig, and I swear, by the end of the first week, she was carrying on with the strippers and she just loved the role."

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