Waters runs deep

By OWEN GLEIBERMAN  |  November 15, 2006

Waters is currently counting off the days till the Larry Layton trial. Layton, you’ll recall, was one of Jim Jones’s wackier sidekicks at the People’s Temple of Guyana. Waters’s large, serpentine eyes light up at the merest mention of Jonestown (“It’s the best thing that’s happened since Manson”). He was so excited about the Guyana massacre that he obtained the tapes (through a New York Times “special offer”) of Jim Jones’s suicidal sermons. “It was like ordering Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits,” says Waters with a giggle. “Now, if I’m having a party, and I want my guests to leave, I put them on. It works better than yelling ‘Fire!’, I’ll tell ya. Either that or Nico. You put on either one, it gets the same reaction.” When the exploitation flick Guyana, Cult of the Damned opened last year, Waters was on hand “every night” and was even asked on the local news for comment. “But the guy who owned the theater upstaged me,” says Waters. “He sad, ‘A lot of the relatives of the victims are here, so I think we’ll do pretty well.’”

That’s the sort of anecdote John Waters relishes – a story that shows up some middle-class-businessman type as a slimy, insensitive worm. And that, in a way, is what Polyester’s about: the movie is set in a respectable suburb whose inhabitants are a pack of colorful degenerates. One gets the impression that Waters didn’t think he was stretching things. “I’m petrified of suburbia,” he says. “It’s enemy territory. I don’t know how those people think. They’re the ones who are the most hostile to me. I mean, I’ll walk through the Combat Zone and feel right at home. But I go into suburbia and I’m looking over my shoulder in shopping malls.”

Shooting Polyester in one of Baltimore’s ritzier suburbs, Waters couldn’t wait to leave. “During the first day of filming,” he says, “we had rented a helicopter to do the overhead stuff and had to crash-land it on the golf course of the country club. So we entered the neighborhood with a bang. When we finished the film, it was like escaping from prison.” Master of exploitation that he is, though, Waters took full aesthetic advantage of the locale. Several of the neighbors were cast in bit parts, and Francine Fishpaw’s home was furnished entirely out of local stores. Waters and his set designer simply combed the city for the tackiest, most garishly middle-class paraphernalia they could get their hands on. And when the shooting was over, “the neighbors bough every stick of it up.”

Polyester was three years in the making, and Waters is counting on the highly publicized Odorama to help sell it. The idea of distributing scratch-‘n’-sniff cards to the audience was actually Waters’s first inspiration for the film – and, he admits, it helped get the project financed. “Kids now buy scratch-‘n’-sniff cards like baseball cards, and trade ‘em,” says Waters. “They have, like, pizza, pickle, all these things.” This sort of cultural debris is endlessly fascinating to Waters. He’s just finished writing a book about his sleazy obsessions – a lavishly illustrated paperback entitled Shock Value, which will be out by August. And another film is in the works. “It’s about triplets,” says Waters. “Divine’s going to play two women and a man.”

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