Film Scouts Interviews

John Waters Press Conference on "Pecker"
at the 1998 Toronto Film Festival

by Henri Béhar

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Attending: John Waters, director, Edward Furlong, actor

TORONTO - Sunday, September 13, 1998

Although, unlike Alfred Hitchcock, he almost never appears in his own movies - except as an obscene caller ("Pecker") or a serial killer on the phone ("Serial Mom") - director John Waters displays a showmanship that most stand-up comics would kill for. Flanked by actor Edward Furlong (who befriended Arnold in "Terminator 2" and Jeff Bridges in "American Hero"), Waters is in town to promote his latest opus, "Pecker", and to present Joseph Losey's "Boom" in a Festival sidebar.

Taking place in Baltimore, where John Waters was born and still lives part of the year (as does fellow Baltimorian Barry Levinson), "Pecker" (not what you think, you smutty-minded you!) is the story of a young short-order cook or delivery boy (does it matter?) named Pecker (Furlong) who takes photographs for his pleasure, be it of his mother (Mary Kay Place), his Laundromat "fiancée" (Christina Ricci), his sister (Martha Plimpton), his grandma's Virgin Mary statue or a close-up of a stripper so extreme it's almost abstract. Spotted by a gallery owner (Lily Taylor), he become the "coqueluche" of "le tout-New York"...

A brilliant conversationist, Waters enthralled a press corps made of film critics, movie buffs, gossipers, and even linguists eager to discover the exact meaning of "tea-bagging", a practice Martha Plimpton forbids in the full-montied strip-joint she bartends at. In a way, a perfect John Waters audience.

QUESTION (to Edward Furlong): What kind of camera were you using for Pecker’s photographs, in order to get that tick-tick-tick-tick that I can't get on my Leica? (Laughs)

EDWARD FURLONG: I can’t remember. Kind of like an old Nikon.

JOHN WATERS: It was a prop camera. But you could take pictures that way. Someone else, actually, took the pictures that were Pecker’s photographs in the film. He wasn’t a unit photographer, it wasn’t Greg Gorman who took the poster photo, it was basically... a new film job! I don’t know what the term would be. The credits read: "Pecker’s photographs by..."

They were taken on the last walk-through rehearsal, just before the first take. Because they had to be in the scene I was shooting. The whole film had to be scheduled around those pictures. And since we didn’t have access to the location before that day, we had to fake it, the scenes weren’t blocked... it was very complicated. But it was taken with a Nikon and purposely made to look like mistakes were made. A "humane Diane Arbus," as one critic called him.

QUESTION: You’ve still got the camera?


JOHN WATERS: I do. (Laughs)

QUESTION (to John Waters): Pecker taking pictures, such as they are, then becoming famous - there's some sort of irony there. Is there a little bit of Pecker in yourself?

JOHN WATERS: Well, in the beginning there is no sense of irony in his character. Pecker was artless in the best sense of the word to me. Completely unselfconscious, taking the photos for the right reasons. What happened to me later after the success of some of my earlier films did happen to Pecker. I mean, news teams still come down to Baltimore and say, "Show us a woman with a beehive." Like I’m supposed to have them on demand, walk into a restaurant and go, "There’s one!" And the whole news team swarms over while they’re trying to have lunch... (laughs)

That kind of thing happens. In some of my early films - certainly in "Pink Flamingos" - some people did not like the attention. One person was even wanted by the police. The movie came out and, Great! There he was! He couldn’t exactly give interviews! (laughs) Many of my friends in the New York art world do like come to Baltimore to meet heterosexual men, that they don’t meet so much in New York. That happens (laughs) But no, I don’t feel my career was like Pecker’s.

QUESTION: Would you do a sequel? Like, "Pecker in Hollywood"?

JOHN WATERS: Certainly! I could imagine Pecker going to Hollywood, directing his first movie, he'd become a cocaine addict for a while, and he’d be wildly out of control for a while until he was saved by his Baltimore roots. Yeah, it could be a funny movie.

QUESTION: Do you have as much contempt for the art world as the movie seems to indicate?

JOHN WATERS: I have no contempt for the art world. I love the art world. I collect contemporary art. I’d be on that Friends of the Whitney bus coming to Baltimore. I don’t make films about subjects that I have contempt for. I make fun about things that I really respect and love... I think.

QUESTION: What happened to the photographs?

JOHN WATERS: They’re going to be shown at the restaurant and the party after the New York premiere. Then they’ll go to my film archive at the Wesleyan University. You know, Clint Eastwood’s archive is there and Martin Scorsese’s, and I told Clint Eastwood that I could certainly rest in peace knowing that Divine’s fake breasts were next to Dirty Harry’s badge. (Laughs)

QUESTION (to John Waters): Never has the Baltimore neighborhood of Hamden looked so good and so... family-oriented. You made it look like Bedford Falls.

JOHN WATERS: Well, certainly Hamden is a blue-collar neighborhood in the middle of the city of Baltimore. I have made it the ultimate John Waters version of it. Meaning, I have eliminated most of the problems there and made it the best possible neighborhood I could make. I wish I lived there, I wish I went to that bar every night. Especially the bar at the end; it's the ultimate John Waters bar, where there’s all kinds of people, all sexual persuasions, and Patty Hearst dancing in a slip on a table. I can’t think of a better bar than that, really.

I like that neighborhood. When I wrote the movie, I hung out at the laundromat, I hung out at the bar, I talked to all the people around there... And I knew that no one had made a movie there, so it was probably a really protective neighborhood.

QUESTION: And was it?

JOHN WATERS: Yes. In certain neighborhoods, they sit outside and they give you the finger as you drive by. I’m amazed by that. But they were also really sweet about it. Even when we had the rally where everybody was screaming, "We Want Bush!" (laughs) We just told them it was a political rally! (Laughs)

About family values now... I’ve seen many supportive families in that neighborhood. It’s not because it can be described as a lower-middle class neighborhood that there aren’t good families there. There are probably even more of them.

Baltimore is a very strange city, and that’s why it inspires me. I go there, I eavesdrop. Everybody there thinks they’re normal, but they’re insane! And that’s what’s interesting. In New York, everybody I know is insane and wants to be. So it’s completely different. It is really what I make movies about, that kind of community, and it’s very important for me to be there. I have some really old friends, and they never ask me about the grosses. (laughs)

There's a very strong feeling of a neighborhood in Hamden. It’s very close to where I live, and people there, not only don’t they ever leave Baltimore, they hardly ever leave the neighborhood! Three generations can live in the same block. In the house where we filmed, one of the children was on home detention, which was kind of neat; he came down the steps and said: "I’ve seen you on TV." And it felt really nice (he laughs).

We didn’t really change that house. We didn’t even have to bring in any furniture. That’s amazing when you can find a house that’s already art-directed. It had styrofoam beams on the roof. I was really impressed! I mean, it was a vision in brown. (laughs)

I welcome the freedom of bad taste. I was raised to worship good taste. The only way I could rebel was to make a career glorifying bad taste. But it is a freedom.

QUESTION: Do you and Barry Levinson ever get together and decide which is the way to go?

JOHN WATERS: I like Barry very much but we didn’t know each other that well. We met about ten years ago, we were on the cover of the Baltimore Magazine together. He’s making a film in Baltimore right now. I’m a fan of his Baltimore movies. We make movies about very different subject matters, but still, it’s about extremes of Baltimore. Different extremes... We run into each other in airports. What is funny to me is that certain people will yell in the street to me, "Hey, Barry!" (he chuckles) "Oh, hi!" (Laughs). Kind of, "They all look alike." (He chuckles) I was in the subway in New York recently and a woman came up to me and said, "Excuse me, are you Robert Altman?" (Laughs)

QUESTION: Why did you decide to live in New York?

JOHN WATERS: I like New York a lot, it’s a big part of my life, I love to go to art galleries, I love to see the new movies the day they come out. And I have a lot of friends there... I’ve worked very hard in my life for one reason: to never be in contact with the middle. New York and Baltimore are very different experiences, but they both have their own rules, they’re both very hard to get in, and I kind of like being able to lead two completely different lives. It’s like great schizophrenia.

QUESTION (to Edward Furlong): Were you wary about working with John Waters, particularly with his reputation, and about doing comedy?

EDWARD FURLONG: It's true most of the characters that I’ve played so far are kind of like suicidal. Really dark roles. Which I like. But I wanted to do something different and John gave me a chance to do that. Before I met with him, I didn’t see "Pink Flamingos", "Female Trouble" or any of his earlier films. I just liked John. And as I worked with him, and found out more about his stuff, I got more of an admiration for him.

JOHN WATERS: I don’t usually encourage people to see "Pink Flamingos" before I try and have them in my movies (chuckles). It might scare them somewhat.

EDWARD FURLONG: That's true! He said, "Don’t watch it before! Don't watch it!"

JOHN WATERS: But the main thing is Eddie understood the part. Completely. I just had to talk him into believing that he had a great smile! And he should smile more often! I’d never seen him smile in a movie before. His roles are usually very intense kind of brooding kids. And that’s part of what attracted me to him. I never cast comedians in any of my comedies. I always think the roles are funnier if people are not winking at the audience and are known for being funny. I always try to make THE LINES be funny.

QUESTION: Would you now cast Monica Lewinsky as the Stain Goddess?

JOHN WATERS: I would never cast Monica Lewinsky in anything! (Laughs) I like good bad taste, not bad bad taste. (Laughs). I’m really sick of talking about her, but I would like to make the porno film that I know someone is making today - I’m sure it’s called "The Oval Orifice" (Laughs)

QUESTION: Is it easier to get Patty Hearst in a movie now? Is she more receptive?

JOHN WATERS: Oh, she always was. From the very beginning. I met her in Cannes when she came with the Paul Schrader movie. And I deliberately sat next to her at dinner. I had been at her trial, and she said, "It’s because of people like you that I went to prison, they wanted me to be someone that I wasn’t." But that was so long ago. Really, she’s made more movies than trials now. She certainly is, I think, a gifted comedienne. I like her very much in my movies.

QUESTION: Would she work for other directors?

JOHN WATERS: She has. I don’t have her exact filmography in front of me, but she certainly has.

QUESTION: Did you have any trouble getting her to dance on the table in a slip?

JOHN WATERS: No. She brought her own slip to make sure she had the right one. I was never gonna ask her to do anything that I thought she might be uncomfortable doing. To be honest, when she came to Baltimore for this, she walked into my living room and said, "How’s this?" And she unzipped the dress she had on and I went, "Fine, you’ve got the part". And that was that. She’s a pro, she likes the experience, she’s good at it, she’s great to have on the set...

And it's something she enjoys doing. I mean, she didn’t have any choice in her being famous. She was famous for being a victim -- who wants to be famous for that? She made the right decisions: she’s alive. I think she deserves a pardon. She was home doing her homework, and she was dragged out her front door by terrorists. Whatever she did to stay alive, no matter what, she made the right decisions. Most of them burned up in that house, and they thought she was in there. But nobody’s gonna put Patty Hearst to burn, excuse me! (Laughs)

QUESTION (to John Waters): Any movie directors, past and present, that you feel a kinship with? And what’s your favorite movie?

JOHN WATERS: Oh, my! There are so many filmmakers I was following when I was growing up. Certainly Walt Disney, because he always had the best villains. And underground movies: the Kuchar brothers, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol... That kind of people. And then art films. Certainly Ingmar Bergman. You know, Bergman's films were first shown in Baltimore as dirty movies. Because he always dealt with all those forbidden matters.

New filmmakers I like? There are many. In this country, Canada, I really like Bruce LaBruce, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan - I thought "The Sweet Hereafter" was a wonderful movie. I also like Todd Haynes, Hal Hartley... And Todd Solondz's "Happiness" is the best movie I’ve seen in ten years. I think the duty of new filmmakers is to get on my generation’s nerves in a new creative way about sex and violence.

My favorite movie is "The Wizard of Oz ". Because of the witch. That’s the first person I ever wanted to be (laughs) and I never understood why Dorothy ever wanted to go back to that dreary farm and Aunt Mellie’s stupid animals when she could live with winged monkeys and gay lions. (laughs)

QUESTION: You talked about young filmmakers’ duty. What about your duty?

JOHN WATERS: My duty is to be a responsible filth elder. (Laughs)

QUESTION (to John Waters): How has up-and-coming counter-culture film-making changed over the years?

JOHN WATERS: The major difference is that "Pink Flamingos" took two years to thread its way through America. You don’t have that time anymore. You have one weekend , no matter whether the movie cost 100 millions or 1000 dollars. It’s a very different market place today. And they can tell you on Saturday morning what your world-wide gross is going to be, after you’ve opened on Friday, depending on how many people went to the first matinee. That’s frightening, because you really don’t have time for word-of-mouth. You used to have months, sometimes years, for it to spread from one theater and then to another and then to another town... It’s very rare for that to happen anymore.

On the positive side, every studio is looking for that kid in Iowa to make this weird little movie. When I made "Pink Flamingos", they were definitely NOT looking for that. The difference is the time, and the amount of movies that are coming out today. If you looked at the Fall Preview section of the New York Times, it’s staggering the number of films that are coming out. It’s scary for every movie, because the competition is such that...

QUESTION: Do you think then that the industry is beating art into the ground?

JOHN WATERS: I wouldn’t say that. I think the industry is more open to art than it was, actually. In the old days, I couldn’t have made a Hollywood movie. But after "Hairspray" was successful, all the Hollywood studios did want to talk to me. It’s not that different anymore between independents and studios. You still test-market, you still do all the PR... It’s just that generally independent film people don’t try to change it into something that it isn’t, which seems what studios do. They were good to me, but they’d say, "This is not going to be a John Waters movie, is it?" "Well, yes, it is." "Oh!" You don’t feel that with the independent distributors.

QUESTION: During the making of "Pecker", did you feel you were making a film that was perhaps more mainstream than any other of your movies?

JOHN WATERS: No. I was making the next John Waters movie. People have been asking the same thing since "Female Trouble". I knew that in "Pecker", nobody was going to eat dog shit, but somehow that’s what everybody means: am I ever going to top that? I doubt I ever will. Why? Because I won. I don’t have to be in that contest anymore. No, I just try to make the next movie, and I hope people like it.

I never calculated that much, except maybe once, when I made "Polyester": I knew that I couldn’t make midnight movies anymore, because there wasn’t a midnight movie circuit anymore. Video completely changed that.

QUESTION: As a gay director who practically launched the trend with "Pink Flamingos", what do you think of gay cinema today?

JOHN WATERS: I always felt I was a director who was gay rather than "a gay director". My sexuality is not how I completely define myself. "Pink Flamingos" was also liked by bikers and by insane people at large. It was loved more by people who had anger and a sense of humor no matter what their sexual persuasion was. Hippies that thought like punks. Those were the people who originally supported "Pink Flamingos." I certainly see the new gay movies, and I always say that "Gay is not enough, but it’s a good start." (Laughs)

QUESTION: "Pecker" is your first film in nearly four years. Were you taking some time off?

JOHN WATERS: I haven’t had a day off yet. I wrote another movie called "Cecil B. DeMented". It was developed with UGC in Paris and it came very close to happening. I hope I’m going to make that next. So no, I’m no slacker. If you write and direct, which I always do, it always takes at least two years, if everything goes perfectly and it never goes perfectly.

QUESTION: What is "Cecil B. DeMented " about?

JOHN WATERS: It's about a lunatic young film director and his band of young cultists who kidnap an A-list Hollywood movie star and force her to be in their underground movie. It’s about teen terrorism against the movie business.

QUESTION: Switching to semantics... what’s "tea-bagging"?

JOHN WATERS: (He laughs) You mean, is tea-bagging a real thing? (laughs). It’s a much bigger challenge than making a good movie to come up with a new sex act. If I could ever do that, I’d really be proud! (Laughs). Tea-bagging is real, it’s hitting someone in the forehead with your testicles. It’s a fleeting moment (Laughs). And it’s safe! (Laughs)

MODERATOR: Anyone has a follow up to that?

JOHN WATERS: There is. It’s called "Helicoptering". "Helicoptering" is when you have an erection and wap-wap-wap-wap! you hit someone in the face. (Laughs) And on that note...

QUESTION: Since we're discussing semantics, the words "camp" and "kitsch" have long been associated with you...

JOHN WATERS: I never use those words. "Camp" to me is like two older gentlemen in an antique shop talking about Rita Hayworth. And "Kitsch" is the same in Germany. (Laughs) I don’t know, they seem very dated words to me. It’s also, maybe, an anti-gay word that studio executives came up with. When they say, "It’s too camp!", they mean that. I don't think "Pecker" is so bad it’s good - isn’t that what "camp" originally meant? It originally meant "outrageous". But it’s just become mainstream American humor. Comedies about subject matters that ten years ago nobody would have dared make a comedy about. I think American comedy is dark, and also very widespread all over the world.

QUESTION: We were given to understand that "Multiple Maniacs" is about to be re-released?

JOHN WATERS: No, we’ve been holding that back, like Disney held back "Fantasia" (Laughs) But "Female Trouble" will come out with a whole new print and a whole new video. ‘Cause that’s my favorite of my older movies.

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