When Joshua Grannell, 36, was growing up in Annapolis, he didn't realize how supportive his parents were when he was being "a little creative dictator." Most wouldn't have encouraged his creation of extravagant haunted houses, much less dress up in costume and sell tickets (as his mother did) or pursue a little-girl actor with a chainsaw (as his father did, after removing the chain).
Now they have the satisfaction of seeing Grannell's drag alter-ego, Peaches Christ, become a cultural hero in San Francisco and beyond. Peaches has turned the hosting of a midnight-movie series ("Midnight Mass") into freewheeling performance art. A six-part series, "Midnight Mass With Your Hostess Peaches Christ," aired nationally on the HDNet Movies channel.
Peaches also appears in Grannell's camp horror extravaganza "All About Evil," which gets the midnight-Mass treatment at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring on Friday night (at 9:30 p.m., actually) and at Creative Alliance at the Patterson on Saturday night (at 8 p.m.). With his debut feature, Grannell has, in a way, become John Waters and Divine, all rolled into one.
In the movie's timely story, the unhinged anti-heroine, the daughter of a zealous single-screen theater-owner, makes a series of extraordinarily successful snuff films to maintain the family legacy. They carry titles like "Gore and Peace."
The characters include a projectionist who has spent too many decades in the dark and, scariest of all, evil twins fit for a Diane Arbus photograph. The cast includes Natasha Lyonne ("The Slums of Beverly Hills"), Thomas Dekker ('Heroes," "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles"), Cassandra Peterson (aka "Elvira, Mistress of the Dark") and Waters superstar Mink Stole.
Grannell says he owes his creative life to Waters. He takes special pride in presenting Mink Stole to the crowds who turn up for "All About Evil: The Peaches Christ Experience in 4-D!" But since Baltimore is Mink's hometown and Peaches will be making his local debut, Mink will introduce and interview Peaches at Creative Alliance. (Grannell will show up as himself for a Q&A like this one.)
Question: Just how big an influence was John Waters when you were growing up?
Answer: Seeing "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" at Marley Station in Glen Burnie, discovering John Waters films and discovering they were made right down the road were all life-changing things.
I was going to a very conservative school, St. Mary's, in downtown Annapolis, which has a certain conservative-preppy-historic-white thing going anyway. I was in junior high school when John was filming "Hairspray," and when it came out, it was the only John Waters movie we had access to as younger people. But my friend Kathleen had an older brother — he might even have been a senior — and he was into all the great outrageous, transgressive movies we learned about afterward. He got them out of a video store that was actually called "Mom's Video," on Kent Island. He got us "Pink Flamingos" when we were way too young to be watching that movie. I could not believe it!
Q: Was it the notorious final act that blew your mind?
A: I loved "Pink Flamingoes" the same way I loved horror movies, because it was shocking and upsetting. Divine as a man playing a woman was in and of itself so shocking to me. Divine was this creature from another planet. And I loved the audacious, shocking way that Mink Stole talked to people. I knew these were my people, and I wanted to be a part of their world. Knowing that Waters was doing this in Maryland — to a kid growing up in Annapolis, this was liberating. There would be no Peaches Christ were it not for Divine.
So it's very surreal, all these years later, to be buddies with John Waters, to have dinner at his house, to hang out, to go to movies with him. We're friends, but to me he's still an idol, and I'm this huge, huge fan.
Q: When did you realize you were going to be a director?
A: I was the cliched kid putting on theater in a basement or getting the kids in the neighborhood together and making little movies on our VHS camcorder. I was always drawn to show biz, from a really young age. And after I saw "Psycho" and "E.T." (I was obsessed with "E.T.") I wanted to do what [Alfred] Hitchcock and [Steven] Spielberg did. It wasn't until high school that I learned how hard it was going to be to pull this thing off.
Q: When did you know you could create a character like Peaches Christ?
A: I was in an improv group in Maryland — not improv-comedy, but improv-theater. We would go to schools and community organizations and do subjects like teenage suicide or bulimia. We were high school juniors and seniors, but we tailored our act to the age of younger groups. Audiences would ask us questions of our characters, so I learned to talk, onstage, off-the-cuff and in character. That gave me the confidence to create Peaches. I was always attracted to "4-D characters" like Pee-wee Herman and Elvira, who could go on David Letterman and be in character.
I went to Penn State — don't ask me how I ended up a Big Ten university that has the largest Greek system in the country. I was in a four-year film program that was really competitive. … Everyone else was into Martin Scorsese or arty-art filmmakers like Hal Hartley or Gus Van Sant — it was really a straight white male film school. But for my movie, the only black woman in the department did the sound, and the crazy Christian did the cinematography, and the Jewish-slapstick guy wrote the script. We were making it for all the right reasons: we believed in it. But we were the rag-tag leftovers. The administration made it clear that if the movie wasn't going to be top-notch, they were going to dissolve the production.
So with a friend, I put together a grant to bring John Waters to Penn State my senior year. It was an easy way to show everyone that you can have a legitimate career making offbeat, subversive movies. It was also a way to spend a lot of time with John Waters. It wasn't until years later that we reacquainted ourselves. By then he knew me as Peaches Christ, and I told him I was the boy who brought him to Penn State.
Peaches Christ was born in [the film]. I had a drag-queen character in the movie, and the actor wasn't working and as a director I was feeling a sense of doom. So I stepped up and put on the wig and pulled off the part and saved the day. I graduated a week later and moved to San Francisco. John had something to do with that, since he was talking about how he and Mink and Divine had done all this stuff with the Cockettes. The underground scene there was so rich and vibrant it was like going to the motherland. I became part of this grungy group of drag queens called Trannyshack, a creative community of young naïve people who never thought they'd become internationally renowned.
Q: What is the appeal of Peaches Christ?
A: It's really a throwback to vaudeville. When Peaches Christ hosts the "Midnight Mass" series in San Francisco, we celebrate our favorite midnight movies with outrageous pre-shows and shocking forms of entertainment — drag-queen roller-derbies with 40 drag queens in the aisles throwing each other into the theater seats. Or mother-and-daughter mud wrestling before every Joan Crawford movie. Peaches speaks to anyone who's ever felt outside of the mainstream. She really is self-deprecating, just a big dork who's a fan of everything the fans are. She's like Joan Crawford meets Bozo the Clown. She sets the stage for the audience to have as much fun and be as much a part of the show as the performers.
Q: So is "All About Evil" meant to be an audience-participation film?
A: It's born out of the midnight-movie scene and was designed to be presented in a midnight-movie environment. As a champion of old, single-screen theaters and movie-going as a churchgoing experience, I think "All About Evil" is best served with an audience.
If you go
"All About Evil: The Peaches Christ Experience in 4-D!," hosted by Peaches Christ with live appearance by Mink Stole, goes on at 9:30 p.m. Friday, at AFI Silver (8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring), and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Creative Alliance at the Patterson (3134 Eastern Ave.). For tickets and information, go to http://www.afi.com/silver or http://www.creativealliance.org.