John Waters remains a true independent spirit, a maverick in American cinema. His latest film, Cecil B. DeMented, may be his most outlandish, as it delves deep into anarchic Hollywood. Paul Fischer spoke to Waters and his outspoken co-star Alicia Witt, about the world and philosophy of one Cecil B. DeMented.
John Waters, that gregarious of anti-Hollywood iconoclasts, that natty man with the pencil-thin moustache, the broadest sense of humour and the obsessions with female serial killers and the Manson clan, is the filmmaker who has given us such cult classics as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Hairspray. Cecil B. DeMented is Waters’ 14th film. Arriving for interviews dressed as outlandishly as his films, bright and decorous to extremes, the director’s latest movie appears, at least on the surface, to be a savage comment on the nature of safe Hollywood. The lead character is an underground film terrorist who despises the world of mainstream America. Naturally that begs the question: Are Cecil and Waters one and the same. Yes and no. Waters, however, refutes the notion that he is anti-Hollywood. “You know me, I only make movies about things I LIKE to make fun of. I think Cecil would also hate Sundance and blow THAT up as well. I think he hates all movies. The movie revolves around self-styled guerrilla filmmaker Cecil (Stephen Dorff), who leads a Baltimore movie-making collective/street gang called The Sprocket Holes, which includes Cecil’s girlfriend and frequent leading lady, a low-rent porn actress named Cherish (Alicia Witt). Desperate for attention, they kidnap a famous Hollywood actress, Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith), during a Baltimore publicity stop and force her at gunpoint to star in their latest production, Raving Beauty. Before long, Honey joins the Sprocket Holes in their bid to take over the film industry. While admitting there are a few parallels between Cecil and filmmaker, they are few and far between. “Unlike Cecil, I think I have a sense of humour, my parents loved me and encouraged me to make movies.
Though Waters insists that he has an affection for mainstream Hollywood, the director takes pot shots at Hollywood’s worst excesses and undue obsession with manufactured sentiment. One of the funniest references in the film refers to Patch Adams (The Director’s Cut), and images of little children crying not to mention audiences. “To be perfectly frank, I almost LIKED Patch Adams because it shocked ME. When I saw that movie, I felt like calling a censor, so I’m all for it. I’m actually thinking of getting a Patch Adams tattoo, because imagine how kinky it would look to bring someone home, take off your clothes and show off your Patch Adams tattoo? It was an extreme movie. Would Cecil hate it? Of course because he would hate all movies that were perceived as successful. Perhaps then it is ironic that he chose as his lead female, an actress who once defined herself as the quintessential Hollywood star: Melanie Griffith. Parodying her own image, Griffith delivers her best performance in over a decade, and Waters knew that this was the right time for Griffith to do this kind of brazen film. “Like ALL women in their forties who are Hollywood stars, they have to keep on reinventing themselves, because they don’t HAVE movies that star 40-year old women. Therefore they don’t have a choice, but to kind of reinvent it. In some ways, I was making fun of MYSELF with this movie and I asked HER to make fun of herself as well.
It has been some 20 years ago that Waters burst on the scene with what was then considered overly edgy and irreverent. Last year, Pink Flamingos was re-released to much fanfare and acclaim, yet it represents a different Waters now prevalent in the likes of Pecker and Cecil B. DeMented. Asked what it is he sees when confronted by Flamingos all those years later, John sits back and pauses for a moment. “I see a surreal, happy moment of our youth, he confesses smilingly. “I look back and realise it’s not the best of my earlier movies [Female Trouble remains his favourite] but Pink Flamingo still works and I retired quite confident in my mantle of filth. Today, he has no desire to compete with “who can do the grossest thing , but nor has he mellowed. “I’m not an angry 54-year old; I’m just trying to make the next funny movie, whatever that is. Waters adds that it’s important to write what you know. For the record, his next movie is about sex addicts. “It’s called A Dirty Shame, and it’s about blue-collar sex addicts in Baltimore and their search for dignity.
While Melanie Griffith symbolises the once safe haven of Hollywood, Waters also cast the tall and beautifully statuesque ALICIA WITT as Cherish, one of Cecil’s Sprocket Holes. A former porn star in love with her past, this is what the actress loved about this character. “Cherish is a great character because she’s completely proud of herself and takes great pride in this career that she’s created. In her world she’s the best at what she does and is a GREAT porno star. In one hilarious sequence, we see Cherish doing some anal things with a gerbil. Witt plays the scene straight down the line, getting into the reality of being a porno star, because she’s “seen a lot of pornos and knew how really bad the acting is , she confesses laughingly. Witt didn’t need to research playing a porn actress because she had already seen enough and “that’s why I loved the character. She’s so funny, because the acting in these movies is so over-the-top and so far from being genuinely sexy. It’s like appealing to the lowest common denominator, some guy who couldn’t get laid if he wanted to. Of course in Waters’ porn’ movie, Witt’s character shares a scene with that gerbil. “It’s safe to say that this porno scene is probably the funniest ever to be put down , she maintains.
Beyond her affinity with porn, doing Cecil was a dream come true for Witt, who had always been a long-time admirer of John Waters. “He was one of those directors that I’d always wanted to work with my whole career. He’s amazing the way he just blasts holes in all the social standards and all the things that people take for granted.
Witt has had a diverse career. She has played her gallery of dark and serious characters, from her debut in David Lynch’s Dune, to the adolescent murderess of Fun, through to the flute-playing student in Mr Holland’s Opus, the serious student of Urban Legend, even as Zoe on TV’s Cybill, the ex-pianist loves to explore the dark side of humanity. “I just like playing roles that are different from things I’ve done before and I try to look for characters that will challenge an audience’s opinion, not only of me as an actor, but to challenge what they might have had a preconceived notion about in people in general. Witt has been drawn to both mainstream and Indie Hollywood, and somewhere in between came her unexpected stint as Cybill Shepherd’s rebellious daughter in the somewhat facile Cybill. Witt was relieved when the TV sitcom came to a close. “I think I sleepwalked through the last two seasons , the now 25-year old confesses. Initially, Witt recalls loving the character “and the money they were offering was more than I ever dreamed of , given the fact that at the time she was earning $500 a week playing piano at a Los Angeles hotel. Witt won raves for her hilarious portrayal of the glib teenager, but eventually “it stopped being written in an interesting way for that character.
Witt made a recent return to television in The Sopranos. “If they want me back I’ll be there in a heartbeat, it was so much fun doing that. Next, the actress returns to her roots as a pianist, in the Indie film Playing Mona Lisa.