Two weeks before the opening of the new movie musical Hairspray, based on the 2002 Broadway musical smash based on John Waters' 1988 surprise hit comedy, Waters talked on the phone to Sun movie critic Michael Sragow about his delight with every version and his involvement with all three. Here are some excerpts:
Waters on the need to reinvent Hairspray each time out -- and his love for all three versions:
The movie was kind of realistic, and the Broadway play was, hey, let's go to Broadway, and let's be a musical. The musical on stage had to be exaggerated; it was all on one stage! But even in the Broadway musical, when they say Essex Community College people go crazy -- ECC has sent up jackets, everything to the Broadway show. And I put that name in at the very end of the Broadway musical, because they had referenced Goucher, and I said, "That's not going to work."
The new movie has reinvented the musical and the film.
I think if it hadn't done that, it would have suffered the fate of The Producers or Rent, which was because they just wanted to do the play. I mean, I saw the movie myself, and I was scared; I mean, if I had hated it, I wouldn't have bitched about it. But still, I really loved it. And it was kind of really moving to me just to see a third little girl maybe become a star from this part. I think all three Ednas made it their own and were really wonderful in the part. Everyone is thinking of Saturday Night Fever and Grease when they talk about John Travolta now, but to me the great Travolta moment is in Pulp Fiction, when he just barely dances, when he does that thing with his two fingers, the Zorro; I almost went through the ceiling; for but for me it was Pulp Fiction and the Zorro, because I forgot that dance. If I'd remembered the Zorro dance I would have put it in my Hairspray. And Michelle Pfeiffer in this movie is the kind of villain I liked as a kid, she was a Disney-movie villain. As a kid I would have been obsessed with her.
The new subplot where Michelle Pfeiffer tricks Edna into thinking she and Wilbur are having an affair works, I think Little Inez winning clicks. It sort of didn't when I read the script.
But you've got to keep reinventing the same thing even if it works.
The only thing that went terribly wrong with my Hairspray was that the movie came out and a week after it opened, Divine died, so it really screwed it up. Not only for me emotionally, but who rushes to a comedy the day somebody dies in it? It did hurt everybody, everybody was stunned by it. So it's kind of nice that all the reviews talk about how great Divine was in it; Divine got good reviews when it came out, but he didn't have very long to read them. All my friends, the few who have seen this, even with the play, but now the third time, they cry, they love it, but it brings back the memory of so many people we worked with who aren't here anymore, remembering when we did it this day with no money out in this field. So it's all positive but it's like a flashback of how did this all happen, it's just so weird. So many of the people that were involved, Chris Mason who did the hair, Van Smith who did the costumes, Divine, Sonny Bono, so many people are not here anymore. So for us to watch it those ghosts are so very evident, and I don't mean that in a bad way, you can't help -- it all sweeps over you and you're just incredulous that it's happening for the third time.
Waters on the Waters-iness of the new Hairspray:
I did talk to (screenwriter) Leslie Dixon and was involved through the whole thing talking to the producers (Craig Zadan and Neil Meron). I was up on the set a couple of times. And Leslie threw in "John Waters" things like the pregnant women smoking and drinking as you walked by there, that was hilarious and completely true then. That's the kind of thing you're always amazed gets through in a Hollywood movie, but I guess the audiences who were at the test screenings went for it.
I always said to [director] Adam Shankman, hey, I told you do whatever you want right out of Hairspray, but there is also a shot in the bathroom, when they go into the bathroom and there are three girls in the bathroom, that's out of Female Trouble, and when John Travolta goes into the dressing room, that's Edith in Polyester. I'm saying there's two shots that really made me laugh. And I mean somebody must have read everything. And that shot of her going to school in a garbage truck? Divine went to the premiere of Female Trouble in a garbage truck. Somebody read that.
Waters on the director, Adam Shankman:
There were many names discussed for director, but one of the main reasons I was for Adam Shankman was that (songwriter) Marc Shaiman knew him very, very well, and they were friends and Marc thought he could really do it. And I met Adam, and he said, "This is really my chance."
He did a great job. And he deserves the credit. It took a choreographer to direct it. Because he was that he deserves a lot of credit. This was directed by a guy who maybe critics didn't like a lot of his other stuff. But he sure showed something to me on this.
And to be honest, all his other movies, they all made money. Every one of them made money. That is something no matter what you say studios very much look at. And he came down and said, 'I want to honor you,' and I think he did. 'This is my chance,' he said. 'I'm not trying to make it anything it isn't.'
Waters on the movie's Baltimore roots:
Adam and I had lunch in Fells Point. And then my tour. I know the tour; I've done it many, many times. It's basically out Eastern Avenue, which used to be the hairdo aorta of all of Baltimore. All back in there, and all the streets up in there, and then my favorite street in West Baltimore, Ramsay Street, that makes me crazy, Ramsay Street; there's a dead end back there where usually it looks like there's some trouble back there. It's kind of scary, and people are always like "Oh my god, where are you taking me?" But I'm really big on Ramsay Street. But that's more Cry-Baby, that's more juvenile delinquents. Also there's a dead end that looks like a shut-up subway or some bombed-out overhead trestle. But East Baltimore is mostly the tour, because that's where we filmed the movie, and that's where the Buddy Deaners were really big in East Baltimore and Highlandtown, that's where the hairdos were the highest. The biggest ones always got hairdos done there and we filmed it there. And if you saw the Broadway musical even outside the theater there's Formstone -- the entire front of the theater is Formstone and the sets are all Formstone. David Rockwell, who did the Broadway sets, we were sitting in the car and he said, "Necco Wafers," because of the colors and the Formstone and everything.
I just did the tour for the Cry-Baby people, I just did it for them; but that's a different tour, we go to Morrell Park, but they all come, because no matter what you tell them after they come and see it, it makes everything better, it makes it realer. Once you come here you know my films are documentaries. They aren't exaggerations. You see people who look like Divine on the street now. You see that and I think that really helps. The productions send people down like exchange students for the day. I pick them up at the train station. Here we go.< My movie of Hairspray isn't a musical, it's a dance movie. Cry-Baby was my musical. Hairspray has only one original song in it and it's Rachel Sweet singing the title song Hairspray. Cry-Baby, in addition to all the vintage songs we used, there were 10 or 12 completely new songs done for the movie. Cry-Baby was my musical, Hairspray was my dance movie.
In the new movie, I love the kids dancing in a bus. And all those scenes through the back clothes lines. Always when they make a movie, they "open it up," they call it; but here everybody's dancing from the beginning, and it works. It's like what my friend Cookie Mueller (no longer with us) always used to say. She grew up in Baltimore but she lived in New York, and every time she came back she'd say, "It's the only city where you always see people dancing at bus stops." And I still see that. People waiting for the bus dancing, I mean today, you could walk around and see that -- and I never see that anywhere else. And that kind of thing, you feel it. And if everybody's dancing all the time, it isn't weird when they start singing.