John Waters on the 25th Anniversary of Serial Mom [Exclusive Interview]
Joe Lipsett: So we’re talking on the 25th anniversary of Serial Mom.
John Waters: I know. Which I guess is a horror movie. My mother thought they were all horrible. Serial Mom – I always thought of it as a true crime parody. I guess there’s certainly gore and horror in it and there’s even clips of Dead Feast in it, so…
JL: Of course. You’re such a big fan of Herschel Gordon Lewis.
JW: Yeah, I was lucky enough to have dinner with him the year before he died. I hadn’t seen him in awhile and we had dinner. It was really a lovely night. He was in great spirits, telling wonderful stories as he did.
JL (laughs): I love the fact that you incorporate a lot of your influences into your films.
JW: Oh yeah, even in the early movies. In Pink Flamingos – you can see posters of movies hanging on the walls that kind of influenced me at the time.
JL: So thinking about Serial Mom, it’s a bit of a departure for you. I’m wondering if you can elaborate on the genesis of it: where did the idea come from? How did it evolve?
JW: I’ve always read true crime books. I used to go to trials and I was a true crime buff. And every movie I make is a satire of some genre and I’d never really done a true crime movie. It was kind of a little bit ahead of its time because, in a way, it’s like OJ. Now there’s scenes out of it that look right out of OJ (laughs) OJ hadn’t even happened yet. Court TV hadn’t really happened yet (pause) Well…maybe it had.
But to me, it’s the best movie I’ve ever made. And it’s also the only one where we had enough money!
JL (laughs): It’s also your first studio film, right?
JW: Well no. I think from Hairspray on, they’re all studio films. I dealt with the Hollywood system. I mean New Line had become a Hollywood studio; they were financing film sales and everything. I went through test screenings. I went through all of the steps you go through on a Hollywood movie. So I actually think Polyester was the last of my true independent films. I guess in the end, A Dirty Shame is an underground movie. But they were all done within the Hollywood system, completely, with all of the unions, the test screenings, and all of the usual headaches of releasing a studio film. Plus: studio paychecks.
JL (laughs): Always a bonus
JW: Yes, well, it’s a bonus. It’s a math problem: the higher the cheque, the more the troubles they give you. But that’s fair. That’s just algebra in Hollywood.
JL: So I know you’ve talked about the test screenings a few times, but when you were making the film, did you get any kind of pushback about content or the script?
JW: They never do. I have a big chapter on that in my new book coming out in May called Mr. Know-It-All. That’s what always happens: you make the exact movie that you said you were going to make, they read the script (supposedly) and then the first time they see it, they freak out. “I said I was going to do this. Why do you suddenly want to change it into something else?!”
No, I actually had a lot of battles – the most battles of all – on Serial Mom because they were freaked out when they saw it. They wanted me to change it so that she got convicted at the end and all of this stuff that was impossible to do and it would have failed, too.
JL: That’s crazy. That misses the entire point of the film.
JW: Yes, but their job is to make money and if it doesn’t make money, they lose their jobs. And it [the film] didn’t make money (laughs)
The problem is this: you can never make everyone like a movie, especially my movies. And even the head of the test screening place said to me once “What is the norm that we test you against, really?” But what they should do is spend all of the money and all of the effort to try and make the people who like the film love it rather than make the people that hate the film like it.
It doesn’t work.
But you can make people that like something love it and that’s the best chance you have of having a commercial hit.
JL: That’s true. And that’s sage advice considering how the film has persevered over the last 25 years.
JW: So that’s the thing. Yes, in a way, it’s nice that it’s still playing. Serial Mom always gets booked on Mother’s Day. You know, it’s like making a Christmas movie. So yes, in the long run, has it broken even yet? I have never received a financial report that said that, so…maybe not.
JL: But there must be some sense of satisfaction that the film is still talked about, it still gets played-
JW: It got re-released last year on a new digital copy. Criterion’s doing all of my old movies. Oh, it’s great! They keep coming back. They have a shelf life with kids who weren’t even born when I made these movies, so, yes, it’s very gratifying. ‘Cause that’s what counts. If it can last.
JL: Why do you think this film resonates so strongly with people? Why do you think people still quote it?
JW: Well maybe they wish their mother would do the same thing? Figuratively, not literally. Everyone wants their mom to stick up for them when they’re attacked by grouchy teachers or bad boyfriends. And I think it’s a genre that everyone knows pretty well. True crime on television is just overbearing, there’s so much of it! So I think it’s a satire that people can get fairly easily.
JL: So you were satirizing true crime at the time, but now 25 years later it feels like true crime is having a rebirth or a new moment.
JW: Yeah, it has. I hear Court TV is coming back, even
JL (groans): Oh Jesus.
JW: But I even satirized that in it, too, because there’s the part where Suzanne Somers is going to participate in the TV movie so I already sort of had that joke poking through already.
JL: Yeah, it’s very ahead of its time. It’s almost prescient in the way that it forecast a bunch of things.
JW (laughs): I mean, I guess Capote started it with In Cold Blood, so he suddenly made true crime respectable and a new genre with the most imitated book ever. So yes, I think it is a genre that has lasted, like horror movies; those have gone through all different iterations. They were scary, then when scary wasn’t enough, they got really gory with Texas Chainsaw, then there was nowhere left to go so they did parody, they made them all funny, and then when that was over, they went into torture porn (laughs) And now it’s back to Art Horror, or really intelligent horror. I think Get Out and Us deserve every bit of success they’ve had.
JL: For sure. Turning specifically to the film, what are some of the fondest memories that you have from the time you were making Serial Mom?
JW: Just Kathleen [Turner] being on the set. That was kind of electrifying because she was such a pro and such a good actress. She doesn’t suffer fools, but was a complete team player. As long as you were on your game, she was even better. So I have great memories of being with her through the whole movie.
I have great memories of Vincent Peranio being able to finally build whole Hollywood movie sets and try to make them look like real people’s homes. And Van Smith, who had thought up every insane costume I have in every one of my movies, actually trying to make people look real and sane, which is a whole different look. So I guess it was just fun to see my old gang finally making a movie with, for us, a huge budget.
JL: How much bigger was this compared to Hairspray or Cry-Baby?
JW: Well Hairspray was $2.7M and Cry-Baby was, maybe, $8 or $10M? Serial Mom was $13M, which for an independent movie is a GIANT budget.
JL: I’ve got a few questions that are unique to my experience watching the film. I really love the time stamps, and I know that that’s part of the satire of true crime tropes, but did you always have them in there?
JW: Yeah that was always in the script. The only thing I kept changing over and over again was the final text that reads “Beverly Sutphin refused to cooperate in the making of this film” (laughs) And that made people really believe it was real. A lot of people thought it was real and that’s why they were so outraged that she got off in the end. But if that was the case, you would have heard of the case before! (laughs) But that [the time stamps] was always in the script, yup.
JL: Interesting. ‘Cause I know that the first time I watched it, I thought “Oh wow she really comes unhinged over the course of a single weekend”
JW: That’s true. She springs into action, so she was a spree killer, really.
JL: That’s true! (laughs) The other thing that I wanted to chat with you about is the final murder she commits before she gets caught, when she kills Scotty (Justin Whalin) at the concert.
JW: Oh the final one is…does she kill Patty Hearst at the end when she beats her in the face? I don’t know if Patty dies? We never say do we?
JL: I feel like people always assume that she is.
JL: But I wondered about Scotty’s death at the concert because he seems like a bit of an innocent compared to everybody else.
JW: Oh that’s the death that made the studio go crazy when they saw it. They said “You can’t have her set her best friend’s son on fire.” And I said “Well that was always in the script and it was a joke.” I mean…he didn’t wear a seatbelt.
So he wasn’t a true innocent.
JL: I thought that was the bravest murder in the film.
JW: And she kills him with a can of hair spray, too!
JL: In front of an entire audience of people! She knows she’s going to get caught!
JW: Yeah, so why not do another one?
JL: So dark.
JW: Well wait…he saw her didn’t he?
JL: Yes, of yeah.
JW: So she was eliminating a witness at the same time. She had more reason to kill him than just the seatbelt. He was a snitch! He was a closet snitch!
JL: Ok, I’ve got one more question. As a member of the queer community, the line that always comes up if I’m watching this film or speaking with you, is the one about wearing white after Labor Day.
JW: That’s not just gay people that know that. I think a lot of young gay people don’t know that, either.
JL: Oh gosh. That’s sad, then.
JW: What it is is people with proper breeding know that, if they’re straight or gay.
JL: Mmmm, yes.
JW: I still believe in that. I am right wing on that issue. But what’s your question?
JL (laughs): What elements do fans bring up with you when they say that they love Serial Mom?
JW: Well a lot of the time they say “pussy willows” and “I’ll get you, pussy face.” At the John Waters summer camp – the first year – a camper, on his own, made up hundreds of those little post-it-notes that said “I’ll get you, pussy face” and slipped them under everyone’s doors at 6am, which I thought was a lovely gesture.
JL: Very funny.
JW: Let me think: what else? I mean, gay people always seem to have a good sense of humour, so I think it doesn’t really have to be a gay joke, it just has to be something that’s maybe a little obscure like wearing white after Labor Day…but gay people laugh just as hard at the gore when Kathleen’s slips on the thing or the Franklin Mint joke? Little things like that get a bigger laugh.
JL: Do you have any final recollections of Serial Mom at 25?
JW: I just always remember all of the things that went wrong, like we built all of the sets in a warehouse in some kind of industrial park and then as we started to shoot we realized that there was a wood place very near that used woodchippers and buzzsaws all day! So we had to go over there with Kathleen and beg them not to, which – how could they not do it? That’s their whole factory! But they did somehow work with us and I think Kathleen helped a lot to negotiate the buzzsaws that were ruining our sound takes!
JL: Oh my god.
JW: That’s the kind of thing that you remember: the stuf that goes wrong.
JL: The stuff that seems insurmountable at the time, right?
JL: Too funny. Well, thanks for taking the time to chat with me about Serial Mom.
JW: I’m looking forward to coming to Salem. I’ve never been there before. Home of the Satanic Temple, so…I’m looking forward to it.
JL: It’s a very good time! It’s Halloween everyday in that city.
JW: I know! That’s why I could never wear Halloween costumes; it’s cause every night when I went out of the house when I was young, my father would say “It’s not Halloween, you know?!”
JL: And how wrong he was!
JW: Oh yes, he was wrong. Everyday is Halloween.
The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder by John Waters is aVailable for preorder
Joe is a TV addict with a background in Film Studies. He co-created TV/film festival blog QueerHorrorMovies and writes for Bloody Disgusting, Anatomy of a Scream, That Shelf, The Spool and Grim Magazine. He also co-hosts two podcasts: Horror Queers with Trace Thurman (about queer elements in horror films) and Hazel & Katniss & Harry & Starr (about young adult literature and their filmic adaptations). While he loves all horror, if given a choice, Joe always opts for slashers and creature features.