Movie Interview: Peckerhead

John Waters talks about nude prisoners, illegal pubic hair and the unlikelihood of getting laid at New York art parties.

Published September 24, 1998 4:33PM (EDT)

For a man who has made movies in which an enormous transvestite shoots up with liquid mascara, wallows in a playpen filled with dead fish and noshes on dog excrement, John Waters lives in a rather tastefully appointed apartment in New York's Greenwich Village -- but that's not the only paradox this legendary underground filmmaker contains in his seedily dapper, whippet-thin person. His latest movie, "Pecker," takes its modest, cheerful hero from snapping photographs of his friends and family in their working class Baltimore neighborhood to success in a Manhattan art gallery, where a black-clad admirer coos, "He's like a humane Diane Arbus." Like Pecker, Waters is a faithful son of Baltimore (he always sets his movies there, and keeps another home in the city), but unlike his shutterbug hero, he finds New York comfortable, too.

"Happy-go-lucky me," gulps the corn-pone music on the soundtrack as Pecker (Edward Furlong) skips good-naturedly through his life, despite a grandmother who inexpertly ventriloquizes a statue of the Virgin Mary, a sister who emcees at the local gay go-go club, a bartending dad who broods about losing business to a lesbian strip joint (called the Pelt Room!) and a kid sister with a perpetual sugar jones. Like all of Waters' movies ("Pink Flamingos," "Hairspray," "Serial Mom"), "Pecker" is full of freakish eccentrics and depravities, but like all of his recent work, it also feels strangely innocent and clean -- even as he's filling the screen with the image of two (patently fake) rats humping. You couldn't find a better argument for gleeful degeneracy than Waters, who seems delighted with life. His enthusiasm infects everything he creates -- especially "Pecker," which he calls "a feel-good movie for lunatics."

Your title for this film manages to be obscene without actually being censorable.

I would argue that it's not obscene, although it's certainly vulgar. You can't talk dirtily with it -- no one says "Suck my pecker." Men don't use it, but women do, to slightly make fun of someone and take away a little of the power of the penis. It's a word I've always wanted to use because it's funny and almost no one ever says it anymore.

What about "peckerhead"?

That's an insult, and a Southern one, a white trash word. No black people are peckerheads. A peckerhead is a dumb white person, a hillbilly.

Did the name come first, or was it the concept of the young photographer?

The name. I'd had a series of characters in movies whose last names were Pecker, including one character name Rodney Pecker, who was a stalker of a movie star and was going to be played by Johnny Depp. I liked the name because writing it and saying it out loud made me laugh. And I thought that I could get away with it, which so far I have, barely. The Motion Picture Association of America first said we couldn't, but we got it overturned. The foreign translation is tricky, though. It should be "Willie" in England, but then my explanation for his nickname doesn't work, the idea that his family calls him that because he pecks at his food. Because there's nothing especially sexual about peckers in the movie. Like everything else about Pecker's family, in context it's completely normal. Out of context, people snigger and laugh. Irony changes everything.

Many people are going to see this film as autobiographical.

I think they'd be wrong, although it's a fair question. The difference is, I was in on the irony of my career from the beginning. I was ambitious. I read Variety from the time I was 12 years old. I was very anxious for someone from New York to discover me, and it didn't happen accidentally. I tried for eight years to show my films in New York.

My irony was intentional. It was terrorism against hippies, really -- even though that was my audience -- glorifying violence and everything. I remember one of my friends tried to volunteer for the Venceremos Brigade to go pick sugar cane but she had eight-inch heels, bleached blond hair, red lipstick and looked like Jean Harlow, and they said, "Get out!" That was a political sin, to be a lipstick communist. All my friends were lipstick radicals and gay yippies, which was pretty rare then.

There weren't many gay yippies?

The gay movement was pretty square in the '60s, until drugs. Drugs made gay men much hipper. I used to go to the riots because all the boys with the bombs were so cute. I was against the war in Vietnam, but I was more interested in the parties.

I remember the first gay liberation speech I ever heard. It was at Yale. We'd crossed state lines, to riot basically. None of us had jobs, the whole thing. It was to free Huey Newton. There were big riots, fires, tear gas -- a wonderful weekend. This guy got up and gave a gay liberation speech and everyone, Abbie Hoffman, was horrified. They weren't against it, but the Black Panthers were taken by surprise. It was a new thing, off the coattails of women's liberation, which was also a new thing to them. These women were getting sick of cooking for all those radicals while they were out throwing bombs.

All that lentil soup.

Exactly. All that macramé -- they were getting ready to strangle them with it! So it was very rare for someone to be openly gay in the context of Vietnam, Black Panthers and Rap magazine. That sort of stuff was really about the fun of being a brat. It wasn't completely out of the goodness of my political soul that I did it. It was fun.

That's a valid combination. Fascinating as this is though, we should get back to the movie. It's about an encounter between New York and Baltimore.

"Pecker" reflects two sides of my life that I'm very fond of: blue collar Baltimore and the New York art world. Every weekend I decide if I want to go to a biker luau or a dinner after an opening at the Museum of Modern Art.

All of my movies gently make fun of the things I love, which is why all of my films, even the most radical ones, were never mean-spirited. I looked up to what I made fun of. I never put it down for real, except for people who judge other people -- they always wind up murdered in my films. No one's murdered in this movie. There's not one violent act.

Baltimore does come out on top, though.

Well, the New Yorkers do adapt and come back changed. They all got laid. That's one thing that never happens at a New York art party. The dilemma of Lili Taylor's character [a lonely gallery owner] is basically true. Everyone is so cool in the art world. It's so much about positioning and intelligence that I think not a lot of people get laid after art parties, no. I've never heard of it. Everyone's too cool, and sex, in a way, is admitting you need something. And there are a lot of cute straight guys in that bar in Baltimore.

Not all of them are straight guys.

They're all straight guys!

Some are women in drag!

Well, yes, some of them are drag kings, and pretending to be a straight guy is how one gets a woman to dance with her. I love sexual terrorism. Confusion with sexual identity in bars is the most fun. Otherwise it's so boring. In "Pecker," Martha Plimpton plays a woman who works in a gay bar and is turned on by the strippers who appeal to gay men -- strippers who all identify as straight, by the way.

The bar is real, isn't it?

It is, but I made it better.

Let me guess: You made the guys cuter?

Yes. But it used to be even better than it is in my movie because it's right next to the prison and the guys would get a job there when they got out of jail. So it was nude prisoners -- there's nothing better! It's all based on reality, even though it's not like that anymore. It's still next to the prison. The prisoners would yell when the bus with the actors pulled up: "Action, get off the bus, go in the fag bar, cut!"

The Pelt Room, I'm told, harks back to troubles you've had with the authorities about showing pubic hair in your films.

Pubic hair has always been an issue. In nudist films, back in the beginning, you could show everything but that: tits and ass, but no pubic hair. Pubic hair used to give you an X and later an R rating, and in Japan you still can't show it. In bars you could always strip so far, but you cannot have pubic hair and liquor. Each state has its pubic hair rules. It's a complicated pubic issue.

I used to fight with the censor board all the time, even when it got beyond pubic hair. She'd say: "You have to cut that vagina," and I'd say, "That's a man. It's not a vagina, it's a cheater." I'd have to explain that a cheater was a fake pubic thing that goes over a penis with a merkin on top, which was a pubic hair wig, which I'd try to explain to her just to horrify her. She'd scream, "Don't tell me about sex -- I was married to an Italian!" I'd spend every penny I had on a movie and she'd hand me a pair of scissors to ruin a brand new print to cut two frames of what she said was "Rear entry!" which I loved, she'd scream that out -- "Rear entry!" I never heard anybody say that in my life.

Now I'm proud to say that we have a full-screen shot of pubic hair in an R-rated movie. I think they were very fair about that, the MPAA. They always claim it's about "overall tone." The overall tone of this movie isn't offensive. It could easily be offensive to show a man staring at a close-up of undulating pubic hair, but in a place called the Pelt Room it becomes a joke.

This movie, like a lot of your more recent movies, has a very sweet spirit.

I think it does. I'm happier in my life at 52 years old. At 25, when I made "Pink Flamingos," I was more insane, angrier maybe, but still happy. It's 1990 now, not the '60s, when there was a cultural war going on. Now I'm rooting for the president to get blow jobs! It's very different. "Pecker" has some of the edge of my earlier movies but a sweeter spirit. The sense of humor is the same. "Pecker" is a feel-good movie for lunatics.

Your sensibility has gotten a little bit sweeter, and at the same time your brand of humor is a lot more common out there in mainstream culture.

My humor and American humor generally have come towards each other, amazingly so. Who knows, "Pink Flamingos" may someday play on television. Anything can happen. Now "There's Something About Mary" has close-ups of cum and balls caught in zippers. I think that's great. It makes my life easier that it's out there and has made money and was a hit. That would have been unheard-of in a movie 10 years ago, and I like to think I've had a little bit of influence in making that possible. I'm proud of that.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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