Park City, Utah-- --As he scheduled an appeal with the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board of the NC-17 placed upon his comedy A Dirty Shame, a woman on the phone told filmmaker John Waters that the association would be serving cookies and asked that he please not get crumbs on the floor. When the group declined to rescind the NC-17 rating, Waters said, he wanted to smash the cookies to bits.
Waters is one of the most engaging sources in Kirby Dick's documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a buzzed-about peek into the secretive MPAA ratings board, which makes its official Sundance premiere tonight.
"The scariest thing about the MPAA is that they're nice to deal with," Waters said during a Sunday brunch thrown in his honor by the gay television network here! to celebrate the Feb. 3 premiere of John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You. "I did [the documentary appearance] because it's something that should be investigated, because they have such power over all the filmmakers here today. They've been very fair to me except for A Dirty Shame."
An NC-17 might have rung the death knell for A Dirty Shame at the box office. With limited distribution, the 2004 film made about $1.3 million compared with the $66.7 million generated by Waters' 1988 hit Hairspray.
Waters said he was told by the MPAA that the overall tone of A Dirty Shame offered no wiggle room for negotiation and editing.
"John discovered that not only can you not make a movie showing sex, you can't make a movie that talks about sex," said Dick, whose Twist of Faith was nominated for an Academy Award last year.
Waters reiterates that he has no ax to grind. His early midnight art-house works such as Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974) opened when the MPAA didn't exist. He successfully argued for keeping the title of his 1998 film Pecker after the MPAA had red-flagged it.
Besides, none of Waters' dealings with the MPAA, which Not Yet Rated portrays as a clandestine body, rivals that of his verbal smackdowns with Mary Avara of the now-defunct Maryland State Board of Motion Picture Censors, he said. He recalled when Avara would make him trim scenes with a scissor - in front of her.
"My main grievance with the MPAA is that they don't go out and support their rulings," Waters said. "If they went out with all their lobbyists to Blockbuster and Wal-Mart and made them accept their NC-17 movies, I wouldn't care.
"If they want me to sell their logo, then support it," he added. "Help me go out there and make that logo be accepted."
The MPAA has already slapped an NC-17 on This Film Is Not Yet Rated for "graphic sexual content." The film deploys a split-screen to demonstrate how the board treats homosexual love scenes much more harshly than virtually identical - but heterosexual - scenes.
Waters said all of the sex in his movies is so ludicrous that the board's standards do not apply.
Not Yet Rated explores what Dick perceives as a bias against independent movies. He also shatters the MPAA's anonymity, using a cloak-and-dagger investigation with a private eye to reveal the names of all eight members.
"I love to see them pulling back the curtain like The Wizard of Oz," Waters said.
The documentary's tone is light, and Waters gets to indulge his raconteur's impulse, but he gets serious when disputing the MPAA's spoken mission of protecting children. Waters, 59, tells the camera that teenagers have seen so much hardcore material on the Internet that perhaps it is time to re-evaluate what is offensive.
Dick enlists a former MPAA chief to suggest that the current membership at least hire a psychologist to research the effects of sex and violence on kids.
The largely independent filmmakers Atom Egoyan (Where the Truth Lies), Jamie Babbit (But I'm a Cheerleader), Mary Harron (American Psycho) and Kevin Smith (Jersey Girl) also weigh in. What makes Waters' contribution important, producer Eddie Schmidt said, is his long history with censorship and a current beef because of A Dirty Shame.
The New York Times described Not Yet Rated as a one-sided documentary, but "the movie isn't saying anything that isn't true," Waters said. Still, the director couldn't help feeling a little uneasy about the MPAA board's reaction to his on-camera moment.
"I'm afraid now. Maybe they'll be meaner to me," Waters said.
The Sundance Film Festival
Park City, Utah
Number of films:
120 (fiction and nonfiction)
Friends With Money stars Jennifer Aniston as a lovable, unmarried pothead who quits her job teaching at a private school and scrapes by cleaning houses as her well-to-do married pals (Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener and Joan Cusack) offer advice and sympathy while messing up their own lives in creative ways. The Darwin Awards, Sundance vet Finn Taylor's genial off-center comedy starring Joseph Fiennes and Winona Ryder as investigators looking into the stupid ways some people die.
Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Jonathan Demme's masterful concert film focusing on the rock veteran's recent concert in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
"I would rather err on the side of a run-on sentence."
Alan Berliner, director of Wide Awake, responding to an audience member's comment that the film could have benefited from a little judicious editing.
"Once the festival achieved a certain level of notoriety, then people began to come here with agendas that were not the same as ours. We can't do anything about that."
Robert Redford, whose Sundance Institute oversees the festival, on the idea that it had gone Hollywood.
Newsday, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press contributed to this article.