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John Waters on Cry Baby

By Mary Vivian Pearce
Film Threat, Issue 21
August 1989

John discussed some of the actors and his directing style in a recent interview with me at his home in North Baltimore. According to John, directing the professionals is not very different than directing the Dreamlanders. “When we first started, I didn’t know any different . . . I just directed, like how in my mind I expected people to do it. And I still do that, the difference is, not with you, I’m not saying . . . But with people who have been in 10 movies and made TV shows . . . They know completely how to make a movie, you don’t have to explain about marks, eye lines or all the technical stuff. And because they have done it more, they basically . . . I’m not saying they take direction any better . . . but they are professional . . . so they . . . they . . .” John threw up his arms and exclaimed, “I don’t think it’s any different.”

The rehearsals were also very much like those of the early films. “We had rehearsals here, Johnny Depp was here, Polly (Bergman), Patty Hearst . . . they all were here. And we did it like how we did it with you all . . . We did a reading of the whole script, sitting down. By the day before we started shooting . . . you know . . . the couch was the car . . . we were acting it out.” John went on, “And then on the set, you always have a run through or two, before you shoot, so really it’s not really different. But some of the people from the old days, who were basically my friends . . . I can think of a few I’m not going to name . . . they weren’t exactly stellar performances . . . Some of the actors, like Polly Bergman, who has been in show business for forty years . . . you still direct her . . . I guess if there is any difference it is that they know the techniques, which we discovered ourselves. I didn’t know it either when we started,” John explained.

Patty Hearst, the newspaper heir, was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. She participated in bank robberies with them, and then served a prison sentence. John had been obsessed with her and had gone to her trial. She has a small role in Cry Baby, opposite David Nelson. Patty Hearst was at the Cannes Film Festival, promoting the movie Patty Hearst. It was there that John met her. “I went over to her at a dinner party and said, ‘I’m John Waters, I was at your trial, and the movie (Patty Hearst), made me believe you for the first time’ . . . We sat down together and the photographers went insane . . . we pretended we didn’t notice them . . .” Later, John contacted her about being in the film. “She read for us, the reading was not great . . . because she didn’t know she had to read.” After Hearst had practiced the part she was much better. “She had really worked on it, and was funny the first time. Patty Hearst was the only person I was starstruck by. I couldn’t believe Patty Hearst was sitting in my living room,” John said. Patty Hearst’s arrest record became a joke on the set, with everyone asking who else had been arrested. “It was amazing,” John said with a laugh, “everyone had a record . . . people you never suspect . . .” One exception; David Nelson, but he told the crew, “My brother Ricky was arrested.” “I think he was sorta embarrassed because he hadn’t been arrested,” John added.

Traci Lords, who acted in sexually explicit films as a minor, is trying to make it as a straight actress. John thinks that she will be the first porno star to cross over. “She showed up for the reading wearing blue jeans, a tee-shirt and no makeup and gave us a funny reading,” John recalled. “The studio did not balk, which I thought they might, (about hiring Lords.) Everyone liked her and she got to be a kid again. God knows, we don’t judge people . . . we all have pasts. I hope she turns it around. In a way it happened to us. I love the idea of taking something negative—what people think of as negative—and goofing on it, making a joke about the whole thing and turning it around.” Lords is, as john describes her, beautiful. “It’s a sin how beautiful she is, she has a body that is just amazing, a 50s kind of va va voom, you just don’t see people like her. People do double takes when she walks by. I think it’s hardly surprising that Traci and I are making a movie together, people could have predicted that.”

Joey Heatherton, a singer-dancer-actress who was well known in the 60s, is in Cry Baby. John described her as “odd.” “She was very professional, she always showed up on time, and she knew all her lines, but she was just odd. Her part was to speak in tongues and the problem was to get her to stop speaking in tongues.”

Directing the actors in the “real” movies may not have been different, but securing the vintage vehicles certainly was. In the Dreamland days when John spotted an old luxury car, usually a Cadillac, he wanted to use, he flagged the motorist down and simply begged for the use of the vehicle. Just why anyone would hand over a priceless collector’s item to an underweight twenty-year-old, with long stringy hair, claiming to be a “movie director,” could be debated endlessly.

For Cry Baby, Frank Tamburo of Props and Sets was responsible for getting the vintage vehicles and having them in running order. “We advertised in the newspaper and the car clubs, then we held a rally. We used over 200 cars, “ Tamburo explained, as we lunched in a trendy Fells Point bar. And because the cars are so old, a mechanic was hired to work full time at location. Tamburo did, however, have difficulty finding the school bus. After a harrowing two and a half month search, he finally found one, via a contact, in a field, deep in the Maryland countryside. “The bus had been painted black, with red flames, and it had no motor,” Tamburo went on. “It (the bus) had to be completely restored and then we had to return it to its original condition,” Tamburo lamented. “The problem is no one collects school buses. We found a museum in North Carolina which had them, but they didn’t lend them out.” The nightmarish search still haunts him: “Every time I see a school bus I have to know what year it is.”

But in some ways, securing the Harley Davidson motorcycles, was similar to the old days. Tamburo told me about clandestine meetings with bikers. They took place in “Pigtown,” a run-down section of West Baltimore, infested with crack houses. The motorcycle enthusiasts had acted paranoid, and Tamburo suspected they were under the influence of PCP, and/or the bikes were stolen.

Finding locations for the “real” movies is also quite different, with a department which does just that. Bob Mayer was location manager. It was his job to get permission from the land owners and cooperation from the local police. In the Dreamland days, we often ran from the cops. For example, in Mondo Trasho an actor performs nude. Without bothering to ask permission, we filmed the scene on the Johns Hopkins campus. Not surprisingly, a student complained, probably a jock or a business major, and the police were called. Incredibly, Divine, wearing gold lame and driving a fire engine red ’59 Cadillac, eluded police. But other actors were arrested, Mink Stole in the bathtub. Always one for a quotable quip, Mink told the press: “There was more indecent exposure in the arrest than in the incident.”

We also used the hit and run technique in Mondo’s pigsty scene. As John puts it, “I guess that farmer looked out his window and thought; ‘Oh well, there’s a 400 pound man dressed in gold toreador pants (Divine) crawling through pig shit and a girl dressed as the Blessed Virgin Mary, and another character with monster feet in my pigsty. On Sunday morning, in a sleet storm.’ To hell with location! Of course, I didn’t ask. It never crossed my mind to ask,” John said with a chuckle.

Although animals have had roles in many of John’s movies, for the first time in Cry Baby their treatment came under the Humane Society scrutiny. Because the Hollywood Humane Society didn’t know the trainer of Harriet, a woodchuck in the movie, they asked Mrs. Kitty Thornton of the Baltimore Humane Society to go to location and observe the treatment of the animal. Mrs. Thornton, who happens to know John, told me on the phone: “Well, I enjoyed it, everything was fine and Harriet did her scene in just two takes—the first time she ran the wrong way. I had a wonderful time . . . I had lunch . . . I met the star . . . what’s his name? (Johnny Depp) I didn’t know him, but the girl I had with me did.”

Fortunately, the Humane Society was not alerted when we filmed the “chicken scene” in Pink Flamingos. In that famous scene, Crackers (Danny Mills) makes love to Cookie (Mueller), in a chicken coop, which doubles as Crackers’ room. As part of the foreplay, Crackers pops off a couple of chickens’ heads, while Cotton (me) spies through the wire window in voyeuristic ecstasy. But don’t be alarmed; Danny and I dined on the chickens. However, we did alarm our driver, Rick, (not his real name) who had taken us home. Under the influence of speed and grass, Rick had become paranoid and stricken with amnesia. When he opened the trunk of his car and saw the bloody headless chickens, he recoiled in horror, thinking that the Mafia had planted them there as a warning.

Susan Lowe, who starred in Desperate Living, is an extra in Cry Baby. She worked with Patty Hearst, Polly Bergman, David Nelson and other stars. She described her part to me in a telephone conversation: “I’m a square and I think I’m a mother. I don’t know. I had no lines. I just do lots of facial expressions—I look shocked . . . I cover my mouth with my hand . . . I sat next to Polly Bergman, (in the scene) so I guess I’ll be in the movie.” Susan, not known to be shy, boldly asked Patty Hearst if she had had any “meaningful relationships” while serving time in prison. “I was a bit shocked when she told me she liked the prostitutes.” Beyond that, Hearst had not elaborated. According to Susan, David Nelson is a gentleman of the old school, untarnished by feminist propaganda. “When he’s around you just don’t open a door,” Susan explained.

Not only did Susan meet interesting stars, she claims to have turned in a stellar performance: “I think I deserve the Academy Award for best extra.”

If there is an Academy Award for best extra, Susan will have to compete with me.

During the Cold War in the fifties there was an hysterical fear of Atomic Attack. States set up defense programs in which citizens were taught how to protect themselves. In the text Civil Defense for Maryland (1952), you are told the chances of survival are greatly enhanced if you get under cover immediately. If no cover is available, fall flat on your face. Remember, a split second may save you from radiation. And don’t look at the blast—it will blind you. If you are indoors and you don’t have time to get away from the windows, get under any “suitable” piece of furniture. During the attack, CD for MD advises you keep your home free of unnecessary junk, especially the attic because old papers and old rags will just add fuel to the fire. (Never mind you would have about two seconds to do this.) Don’t make phone calls, and don’t start rumors. Don’t go outside to see what’s going on. Presumably to settle your nerves, and rinse the radiation away, the text advises you to take a hot bath, “paying particular attention to your hair,” as soon as possible. So that citizens would learn to do these things instinctively, Air Raid Drills were held often.

In my scene, Cry Baby is being pursued by a cop. They are both on motorcycles. When they rush by squares having a picnic, air raid sirens are heard. Everyone “ducks and covers,” except Cry Baby, who reasons, correctly, that it is a stupid square practice. The civic minded cop of course, immediately “ducks and covers,” allowing Cry Baby to get away. I jump up from the picnic table and yell, “Air Raid!”

May I have the envelope, please?

Mary Vivian Pearce lives in Baltimore and works at a race track in between acting in films.

-- donated by Theresa

-- photos added by Zone editors