Mark Waters

Director Mark Waters talks about making "House of Yes" -- a different kind of JFK film.

Published October 17, 1997 9:45AM (EDT)

TOO OFTEN, FILMS that require suspension of disbelief demand suspension of your imagination as well, deliberately filling in for you every gap in logic with quick-dry cement. Not so with the dark comedy "The House of Yes," Mark Waters' clever directorial debut about the deeply dysfunctional Pascal family, whose idiosyncrasies are inextricably tied to the events of Nov. 22, 1963 -- the day President Kennedy was shot and the same day that their father left their McLean, Va., mansion. Watching the film (adapted from Wendy MacLeod's play) is a bit like riding a roller coaster, and not only because of its often predictable but nonetheless thrilling dramatic dips and turns. You've paid for a taste of danger; when it's delivered in the form of real tragedy, it feels more like gratification than betrayal.

Parker Posey is literally hysterical as "Jackie-O" Pascal, the half-crazy sister who is in love with her twin brother, Marty (Josh Hamilton). As her mother (played by the magnificent Genevieve Bujold) tells it, Jackie-O was "born holding her brother Marty's penis." When Marty, in a desperate attempt to create some semblance of normalcy in his life, brings his sweet but unsophisticated fiancie (a surprisingly convincing Tori Spelling) home for Thanksgiving dinner, Jackie-O is determined to win him back into her bed. Her shoo-in seduction device: to engage Marty in their childhood game of reenacting the Kennedy assassination, where she plays both murderer and widow (complete with the pink suit and pillbox hat), first shooting Marty and then covering his lifeless body with kisses.

Though Waters is not a stranger to the way success builds upon itself in Hollywood (his brother Daniel wrote "Heathers," "Batman Returns" and other films), he seems somewhat bemused by all the attention the film has received since it first screened at Sundance last winter. A young-looking 33-year-old, Waters has the air of someone who feels both fortunate yet deserving, having worked for many years in theater before trying his hand at film. On a recent visit to San Francisco, Salon spoke with Waters about his leap from theater to film, his new status as an "official director" and the thrill of not having to relinquish control.

When did it first occur to you that "The House of Yes" might make a good film?

I was a theater director and an actor and really didn't even entertain the idea of making movies, but I saw "The House of Yes" as a play here in San Francisco at the Magic Theater, and I really just loved it. The kind of theater I was into doing was more performance-based, so it was weird for me to even like a straight play. This had these elements that took it beyond a lot of banal material -- there were these very extreme emotions, very stylized elements. I got a copy of the play from an agent the next day and just put it away, and I didn't think about it again until after I graduated from the American Film Institute.

I actually tried to make other movies -- bigger-budget movies that nobody really wanted to give me a chance to direct. I thought about "The House of Yes" again, and thought I could make it cheaply and yet it wouldn't be boring. A lot of first-time filmmakers are almost apologizing for their movie by saying, "Well, we only had 18 days to shoot, you know." I knew this could be really exciting and very interesting, yet at the same time stay within the economy of means.

Was it difficult to persuade the playwright [Wendy MacLeod] to let you adapt it?

She'd been contacted before by people who weren't creative people -- executives and producers from production companies, but she was very resistant to let anybody do it. She actually thought most theatrical productions of it were screwed up, so she wasn't very trusting in letting other people have it. I was the first person who contacted her who was a creative person -- a filmmaker and an ex-theater person -- and so we could talk on a different level about things. I didn't have any money to offer her, so I was saying, "Look, if you want to take a chance on me, you practically have to give me a free option. You basically don't know who I am." I had some student films, and these scripts, but in the end it was my own persistence and the fact that I was that passionate about it. Eventually Wendy broke down and said, OK, if you give me final approval of your screenplay, then I'll do it. Luckily from there it was very easy.

The movie reminded me a little bit of "Six Degrees of Separation ..."

I think I might spit up my steak ...

... only in the sense that it feels very closed-in, very stagy. How loyal to the play were you, and how difficult was it to adapt it to this medium?

Most adaptations of plays I hate, because they don't envision something as cinema at all, you know? There are very few things I watched beforehand that I thought were good -- "Virginia Woolf," I thought that was a good adaptation, "The Servant" by Joseph Losey is great. But I didn't like "Six Degrees of Separation" at all.

One thing I was trying to do with this movie is to have it be claustrophobic but not stage-bound. I wanted to keep everyone in one place. For inspiration, I was looking at Polanski movies like "The Tenant," at Michael Powell's "Black Narcissus," and getting this feeling of people trapped in one location. So I tried to make that something that was working for me, as opposed to against me, as a cinematic device.

As far as faithfulness, as Wendy MacLeod likes to say, it's "an irreverent but faithful" adaptation. I changed everything that I wanted to change, and I threw out a lot of dialogue that I thought was too much repartee for repartee's sake. I put the dialogue away and reenvisioned the whole thing as a movie -- splitting up scenes and moving them around. In the final tally, what remains is 85 to 90 percent of Wendy MacLeod's dialogue and her characters.

Parkey Posey won special recognition for her role at Sundance, and critics can't say enough good things about her in their reviews of the film. How did it come about that you cast her in the role of Jackie-O?

When I took the play out and read it again, I'd just seen "Sleep With Me," and I thought if we could get Parker Posey to play Jackie-O, it would be perfect. When I finished the adaptation, it occurred to me she was the first person who should see it. Luckily, her manager let her read it -- the hardest thing about the process is getting an agent or manager to let someone read something -- and within a week we were meeting. The first thing she said to me when we sat down was, "You know I have a twin brother, right?" I was like, "Uh, no ..." So then basically I broke down and said, "You have to do the part, I wrote it for you." And she said, "Of course I'm going to do it. Who else is going to play it?" So she was easy.

It seems the mental health of her character is left intentionally ambiguous -- it's not clear whether she's truly crazy or, as her brother's fiancie points out, just spoiled.

She's supposed to come across as someone who seems like she's on the borderline of insanity, but also has these moments of lucidity where she actually sees things more clearly than anybody else. The way we worked on the character was not in a clinical, psychological way; instead we tried to think about Jackie as this person who is stuck at different important latency ages of her life. For instance, the 2-year-old is very prominent -- that's the Jackie that has that will that extends out into the universe, who will have a tantrum if she doesn't get what she wants. The 7-year-old is the one who's damaged from their father leaving and the 14-year-old is the one who's becoming aware of her sexuality and knows how potent it can be. There would be times when we'd do different takes and I'd say, "More 2-year-old," and Parker would say, "OK, got it, more 2-year-old." When you put it altogether, it gives the illusion of someone who doesn't have control over themselves, and so seems borderline schizophrenic.

How did you decide to make the leap from theater to film?

I didn't get into movies like my brother did, because I didn't like blockbuster movies. I didn't go see "Star Wars." But because San Francisco is one of the few places with really great repertory houses, I started seeing indie cinema, old cinema, foreign classics, and I realized how good films could be, how great an art form it was. Around the same time, I would go down to L.A. and visit my brother on the sets. I would see the directors trying to work with the actors and failing, and not knowing really what to say to them. I realized, hey, I already know how to deal with actors much better than them -- if I could learn this camera stuff, I could do this.

Once I went to film school, I realized that film directing was actually much better than theater directing, because you kind of get to stay in control of it all the way through. You don't relinquish the piece to the actors like you have to in theater, you stay in control through the very end.

What was it like going to Sundance as a first-time filmmaker?

I'm actually a bad person to ask, because my Sundance experience was so lucky, so blessed, really. The pipe dream of what might happen when you bring your movie to Sundance is exactly what happened. It was very, very bizarre that things played out the way they did.

The thing is, before you go, you're saying, "Maybe if we get picked up by Miramax, we can replace the score. And maybe if this happens, then ..." And lo and behold, first day we were there, the first time we showed the movie, we had the stereotypical bidding wars with everybody on their cell phones. We were trying to have dinner with my family and the producers, and all the execs were in the restaurant at different tables on their phones yelling, "October's talking to him now!" It was very bizarre.

But I'm glad Sundance exists as this arena where people get excited about things. They go there ready to get in a lather about something, and it gives them an excuse to get in a lather.

Now that you're securely on the Miramax roster, what kind of movies do you want to make?

I have this screenplay I wrote that I'm going to make -- I'm kind of stealing the premise from the Greek play "Lysistrata," but instead of a war between Athens and Sparta, I have a racial gang war in a high school. The black girls and the white girls get together and decide they're going to withhold sex from the boys in order to try to stop the violence. It's called "Strike."

Do you have other ideas that you plan to resuscitate?

Well, I once adapted this noir novel to a screenplay, and then I wrote a couple of original screenplays of my own. But before, nobody wanted to give me a big enough budget to do them, because I was a first-timer. Now I'm not a first-timer anymore -- now I'm an official director.


By Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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