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6 Filmmaking Tips from John Waters

Pink Flamingos
By  · Published on July 15th, 2015

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of John Waters.

John Waters hasn’t made a feature film in over a decade, since his 2004 comedy A Dirty Shame. In his most recent book, Carsick, the filmmaker describes a daydream in which a stranger offers him five million dollars to make his next movie. As Jason Bailey detailed in his obituary to mid-budget auteur cinema late last year, American filmmaking no longer supports the type of idiosyncratic crossover films that Waters longs to make. As Waters’s recurring joke goes, “I’d love to sell out completely. It’s just that nobody has been willing to buy.”

The incredible irony is that, despite the director’s difficulty in the contemporary film landscape, Waters’s influence has never been more culturally pervasive. His ’80s and ’90s films have become successful Broadway productions, he works mostly as a public personality and prolific author, and irony has grown to become an instinctive way of looking at popular culture. As he’s stated in numerous interviews, Waters is as surprised as anyone that he’s now part of some mainstream without ever really having to compromise his signature camp sensibilities.

Let’s hope the tides turn for Waters and he gets to direct again soon. In the meantime, here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the self-nominated “People’s Pervert”

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from John Waters

1. “Technique is Nothing More Than Failed Style”

My early films look terrible! I didn’t know what I was doing. I learned when I was doing it. I never went to film school. I didn’t learn from porn or anything; I just learned how to turn on the camera. [That] was hard enough. But if you like those [early] films, you said they were ‘primitive.’ If you hated them, you [said they] were ‘amateurish.’ It is the same word. I gave the line to Cecil B. DeMented, a film I wrote, where the character says, ‘Technique is nothing more than failed style,’ which I believe. I believe if you come out of a movie and the first thing you say is ‘the cinematography was beautiful,’ it’s a bad movie.”

Waters’s films, especially his early work, have rarely shown an interest in technical polish and rigor as a presumed criteria for the worth of a film or the skill of a filmmaker. Rather, as the poster for 1972’s Pink Flamingoes puts it, Waters’s filmmaking is a decisive “exercise in poor taste,” an impassioned study of what one might dismissively term “low culture.” In so thoroughly devoting his cinematic work to shock, camp, and pop, Waters subverted the arbitrary values we ascribe to taste, making great, memorable, canonized films out sometimes (literally) execrable material. Rather than a platform for trenchant statements about the world, Waters’s filmmaking is a playground that turns society’s values on its head.

2. Understand Irony

Waters’s analysis of ’50s pop culture aficionado Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It is excellent, and it really places his sensibilities as a filmmaker into a fitting historical context. It’s worth watching in full, but I particularly enjoy Waters’s description of pop culture as a worthy obsession, and an ironic take on pop culture as a true privilege. This style of irony, especially as camp, emerges from a genuine love and affection for the subject at hand, one that fully realizes and embraces pop’s beautiful lack of “seriousness.”

3. Watch Filth

4. Read

“We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”

Taken from his 2007 one-man show This Filthy World, the above quote has become something of an Internet meme (further evidence of the ubiquity of Waters’s personality as a cultural figure despite his recent difficulties in getting a film funded). But Waters expanded on the importance of reading in a less bumper-sticker form in a subsequent book, Role Models, where he stated,

“You should never just read for ‘enjoyment.’ Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior; or better yet, your own. Pick ‘hard books.’ Ones you have to concentrate on while reading. And for God’s sake, don’t let me ever hear you say, ‘I can’t read fiction. I only have time for the truth.’ Fiction is the truth, fool!”

This is not a direct filmmaking tip per se, but it would be hard to imagine that Waters doesn’t see informed reading and filmmaking as mutual skills. In fact, Waters describes reading as a unique opportunity to understand others and become “less judgmental.” As a filmmaker who specializes in the marginalized, the queer, the subversives, and the outcast, reading the writing of others is certainly a powerful means of empathy with those who may have a radically different experience with the world.

Also, reading helps with writing, which Waters argues is the key to filmmaking…

5. Write

The Dissolve: Is the core of a great movie concept?

Waters: It’s the writing. I hate improvisation. Every director now allows too much of it.

The Dissolve: If I may force you to throw modesty to the wind: Is there a moment in any of your films where you see your writing transcending lofty goals?

Waters: There’s a line in Female Trouble that is so ridiculous, and people constantly quote it to me. It worked. “I wouldn’t suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!” Some of the dialogue, the way it’s said, the way it’s acted ‐ it came across exactly the way I wanted it. I don’t sit around and watch my movies, but people quote them to me.

I can’t think of a truer sign of a filmmaker successfully accomplishing their goals than having a line like that affectionately quoted back to them.

6. Become a Crazy Person with Power

This year, Waters spoke in a widely shared graduation speech at the Road Island School of Design, and while it seems that every May there’s some new graduation speech that briefly spikes interest on the web, it’s unlikely that Waters’s pearls of wisdom were shared in your usual politician’s speech. The above excerpt sums up Waters’s current position quite succinctly: Waters is a very unlikely person to have achieved power and mainstream renown, yet there he stands, the director of Multiple Maniacs and Serial Mom, giving a keynote speech at a major art university after several of his films have become tourist fodder on Broadway.

In arguing for his listeners to become “insiders,” Waters doesn’t necessarily suggest conformism, but rather a subversion of power from the inside out. Find a way to force your twisted perspective into the mainstream when nobody’s looking, and make the world a far more interesting place to live as a result. As Waters asserts later in this speech, “Go out into the world and fuck it up beautifully.”

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