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Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Writer/Director John Waters


This is FRESH AIR. Let's continue our weeklong 30th anniversary retrospective of interviews from our first couple of years. I've interviewed filmmaker John Waters many times. In 1988, I spoke with him about writing and directing his film, "Hairspray" which had just opened. "Hairspray" is an homage to the teased hair and TV dance shows of the early 60s.


RACHEL SWEET: Hey, girl. What you doing over there?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can't you see? I'm spraying my hair.

SWEET: (Singing) Let me tell you 'bout the latest craze. Mama's hoping that it's just a phase. But I know it's gonna last forever. You gotta see the way it keeps my head together. I gave my dollar to the drugstore man. I bought that magic potion in a 12-ounce can. Now I know when I make the scene, they're gonna stop and wonder, who's that beauty queen? Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hairspray.

SWEET: (Singing) Mama told me not to use it.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hairspray.

GROSS: That's the theme from the 1988 film, "Hairspray" which John Waters wrote and directed. The movie was later adapted into a hit Broadway musical with new original songs.

Waters first became famous or infamous after making his 1972 cult classic, "Pink Flamingos," a film about two families competing for the title, "the filthiest person alive." Waters had the characters do explicit, disgusting things as they vied for the title. That's one of the films that earned Waters the title, The King of Bad Taste. In "Hairspray," he used some of his regular cast of characters, including Divine who we'll feature an interview with a little later.

"Hairspray" is set in Baltimore in 1962 at the height of the TV dance show craze. In the movie, all the kids want to dance on the "Corny Collins Show," but only white teenagers are allowed on. The black teenagers are ready to protest. In 1988, I asked Waters if the Corny Collins dance show in Hairspray was supposed to be a takeoff of "The Buddy Deane Show," the dance show he watched when he was growing up in Baltimore.


JOHN WATERS: I watched all the teen dance shows. And so it's all of them sort of put together and pushed one step a little further. But it's not that exaggerated, basically. The kids really did look like then. The hairdos, all that was part of it. It wasn't a rebel look. Your mother had that hairdo, too.

GROSS: You have every record and more that I can remember, the novelty records. You have "The Continental," "The Fly..."

WATERS: "The Bug," "The Roach..."

GROSS: "The Bug," "The Roach..."

WATERS: ....The "Shake a Tail Feather," "The Madison" - and they're all real dances.

GROSS: Well, I figured - first of all, why did you include so many of the novelty dances in the movie?

WATERS: Well, because I love them. And I wanted to bring them back. I wanted the fact that the - that that was sort of a forgotten period when every dance was a gimmick dance. So I had all those records. They were my favorite records. I used to get them out late at night...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: ...And after a few drinks and put them on...

GROSS: ...And dance (laughter).

WATERS: ...And sometimes even dance. So I picked those songs first and sort of wrote the movie around them. And I wanted to include them.

GROSS: Your movie's set in 1962.


GROSS: This is currently a period when there's actually a lot of nostalgia for 1962?

WATERS: No. There's a lot of nostalgia for the 60s. But '62 is almost the 50s. This was - there were no hippies. There were no drugs. There was - Kennedy hadn't even been shot. It was right before everything changed.

GROSS: That's why you chose that year?

WATERS: Yeah. And so when people talk about the 60s, they talk about girls dancing in cages with fringe and - or hippies or the student rebellion or all that. This was way before any of that.

GROSS: Do you hate nostalgia?

WATERS: Well, obviously I had nostalgia about this movie. This is a memory movie. I'm sick of 60s nostalgia. I've been to clubs in New York where it's just like the Fillmore East. And I thought I hated that then.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: Do I have to go through it another time? Oh, please. No (laughter). Not tie dye again.

GROSS: One of the big storylines in Hairspray is about the integration of this dance show.

WATERS: Right. Right.

GROSS: And - because it's a white-only show except they have Negro Day once a month.

WATERS: Which they did - that's not an exaggeration. The shows did do that.

GROSS: Did - was it really called that in the show you watched in Baltimore?

WATERS: Yes. Yes. Yes. And they had them on other shows, too. And basically, I felt that to ignore that fact would have been really inauthentic. I don't know if that's the correct word. But if Hollywood had made this movie, they would have had blacks on the show and just ignored the fact that none of the shows - bandstands didn't have blacks on them either. None of them did then. And basically, the problem was the - all the music was black. All the dancing came from blacks. Black singers were were on the show all the time as entertainers, but they couldn't dance. And it wasn't because the kids didn't want it; their parents didn't want it.

GROSS: One of the things I really loved in the movie is that the worst insult that one girl can say about another is, she's a whore.

WATERS: Well, they used to - didn't they - when I went to high school, they always used to say that girl's a whore.

GROSS: Except it was that girl's a whore (laughter).

WATERS: Yeah. Right. And you know, the girls that they said that about never were.

GROSS: Oh, of course. I mean, how many girls in my high school were really whores (laughter)?

WATERS: I know. I mean that were charging money. There weren't too many of that. But they never even slept with anybody. But if you got the reputation as a whore, it lasted. And they always used to say that - whisper, oh, that girl - she's a whore. You know, it was always - at least, when I went to junior high, that was a very big insult.

GROSS: Did you always want to know, like, what the real story was behind that? Like a...

WATERS: I always hung around with the ones that they thought were the whores actually.


GROSS: Everybody in your movies, as you say, is usually really - they're outcasts. And they're frequently somewhere between odd and bizarre-looking.


GROSS: Now, what was your look when you were a teenager?

WATERS: I went through different looks. At one period, I was preppy because that's how I grew up. But then I had bleached hair in the front. And I used to wear - then I wanted to be a beatnik. It was hard to be a beatnik in suburban Baltimore. But I wanted to be one. And I read all the books about them and everything and read Life magazine about beatniks. And I just really wanted to be one. That's why I have the whole scene with - the whole beatnik scene in the movie.

GROSS: Well, there's a great scene where Tracy...


GROSS: ...And her boyfriend...


GROSS: ...Go into - they're looking for a place to hide out, basically.

WATERS: Right.

GROSS: And they knock on a door. Everybody's turning them away. But these two beatniks in the door that they knock on let them in. And the beatniks are Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora.

WATERS: Right (laughter).

GROSS: And it's this great beatnik scene in their pad. The scene is a wonderful confrontation between the bouffant hairdo ethic and the the beatnik long, black, straight hair ethic.

WATERS: The ironed hair.

GROSS: The ironed hair.

WATERS: Yeah - which is not an exaggeration. Around '62 in Baltimore, all the girls had those big hairdos. And then suddenly, a few of the really hip ones started doing their hair straight. And people panicked. And it was called going Joe, meaning Joe College. And people would say, I don't know. Should I be Joe? I can't decide. I don't know what to do. It was a major thing. And what happened then is the kids that did do the ironed hair eventually became hippies. And the ones with the teased hair got married and became probably very middle class.


PIA ZADORA: (As The Beatnik Chick) You look like a hair hopper to me. I mean, your hair is really uncool.

RICKI LAKE: (As Tracy Turnblad) How do you get your hair so straight and so flat.

ZADORA: (As The Beatnik Chick) With an iron, man. I play my bongos, listen to Odetta, then I iron my hair, dig?

MICHAEL ST. GERARD: (As Lincoln "Link' Larkin) I think we better get going now. The coast looks clear.

ZADORA: (As the Beatnik Chick) Let's do some reefer. We'll get high, and I'll iron the chicks' hair.

RIC OCASEK: (As The Beatnik Cat) Reefer?

LAKE: (As Tracy Turnblad) Drugs?

ZADORA: (As the Beatnik Chick) Loco weed - when I'm high, I am Odetta.

GROSS: In the movie, you call women with really large hairdos hair hoppers.

WATERS: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Was that a Baltimore expression?

WATERS: That's a Baltimore expression.

GROSS: Yeah. I never - it's a great expression. I never heard it before.

WATERS: Yeah. Men can be hair hoppers, too.

GROSS: What kind of hair would you...

WATERS: A male hair hopper is, you know, greased back and the Continental look, it was called - with sport cuffs with a belt in the back and pointy toe shoes and that look. A hair hopper basically is someone that grew up without a lot of money, suddenly gets some, spends it wrongly, thinks they have style and don't.


Did you use real hairspray in the movie?


GROSS: In the opening scene, everybody's, like, spraying their hair, even the boys.

WATERS: It's real hairspray, yeah. We used roughly 60 cases of hairspray in the movie and - 'cause there was 1,100 extras. And when you worked on this movie, you had to go - it was like going into the fashion army. The boys had to go in one trailer get their hair cut, then go to the next thing and get their hair slicked back. The girls had to go in, get it teased. We had, like, Chris Mason who did all the hairdos but then we had backups - people that would tease it, then she'd come in and style it.

You had to go through an assembly line. So a lot of the kids that were in it finally got so sick of combing it out that they would just leave it in and they would just go out in Baltimore with those ridiculous hairdos and just figure, too bad. You know, I can't go through this hairdo torture another day. Let's just leave it in.

GROSS: How did you pitch it, the movie, to movie executives?

WATERS: I got up and did the dances in front of them, for one thing.

GROSS: Oh, you're kidding. That's great.

WATERS: And they were so startled that they realized I was serious about it. I played them the music guy. I got a development deal for it. It was done very conventionally.

GROSS: Oh, that's not conventional, going and doing the dances (laughter) to studio execs.

WATERS: You've ever been to a pitch session?

GROSS: Really?

WATERS: I don't know. You've got to sell the movie. You've got about 10 minutes.

GROSS: Did you test market the movie?


GROSS: So how did you do it?

WATERS: Well, I'd never been through this before. And actually, it's a good experience. It's like testing a Broadway show out of town. They go out and get what they call a normal audience to come in and see it. It's like being on trial. You sit there and you pray you don't have to appeal the verdict when you read them all. And luckily, what they said, parts they thought were too slow or there was too much of were the same notes we had when we finished after watching it with an audience.

So all they did was tell us what we knew already.

GROSS: Where did you go, to shopping malls to find people?

WATERS: Yeah, they do it - the people in the San Fernando Valley in LA are the most influential people in the country, more than critics, more than press or anything because that's where they test every movie when they want to know what's mid-America going to think of this?

GROSS: There are some regulars, people who've worked with you in many of your movies, who are featured in your new movie. Divine is in it.

WATERS: Right.

GROSS: Mink Stole is in it. I bet a lot of real odd characters send you resumes all the time figuring, like, well, I'm kind of freaky. Waters would really love me in his next movie.

WATERS: Yeah, but they're real wrong because the people that are freaky in real life generally make terrible actors. Good actors actually in real life are shy and very quiet people a lot of the time.

GROSS: Why do you think that's true?

WATERS: I don't know. They come alive with the camera, where people that are always on in real life, as soon as the camera comes on, tend to be very stilted sometimes.

GROSS: You cast Divine in a dual role.

WATERS: Yeah, well, Divine played a - he's played a man in my other films, too. In "Female Trouble," he was a dual role. But in this, he plays, like, I think kind of a lovable mom, Edna Turnblad. And then he also plays an evil station manager, who won't let blacks on the show. And we wanted to make him totally unrecognizable. We had new teeth made for him.

GROSS: No kidding.

WATERS: I mean, so that he even talks different - his face is shaped differently. He talks differently because all the teeth are fake. So I liked him in it. I thought he looked like sort of scary almost (laughter) as a man. That's his male impersonation.

GROSS: (Laughter) Divine makes such a sympathetic housewife.

WATERS: Yeah. And I don't think - I think it's really, so far, been very encouraging that both the Variety review and the Hollywood Reporter review have talked a lot about Divine and never mentioned that he was a man. It didn't matter anymore that Divine's a man, which I just - I think is good because he's not a transvestite. He doesn't wear those clothes when he's not making a movie.

You can't even call him a drag queen. What self-respecting drag queen would allow themselves to look as hideous as he looks (laughter) in the beginning of "Hairspray?"

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: So he's basically - he's a character actor.

GROSS: John Waters recorded in 1988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.