John Waters to play Devil's Advocate at the Calgary Underground Film Festival

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How eager is the world for a new John Waters movie?

Well, if the excitement surrounding the premature announcement that Waters would be filming an adaptation of his 2022 novel Liarmouth: A Feel Bad Romance is any indication, the world is more than ready for another outing by the transgressive auteur. It helps that it came with some tantalizing casting news, with several industry publications reporting that actress Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Recreation fame was going to be in the lead role.

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On the phone with Postmedia to promote his April 24 sold-out, spoken-word show Devil’s Advocate, as part of the Calgary Underground Film Festival, Waters seems a bit reluctant to talk about the project. He can confirm Plaza is interested in the role but, apparently, the press was a bit rash in suggesting the project is a sure thing.

“It’s not true what was in the papers that I have a green light,” says Waters. “I wrote the book, it was well-received, it was optioned, I wrote the script, I turned it in, they liked it and now we are raising the money to make it, which we do not have yet.”

It’s hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the release of his last directorial effort, Dirty Shame, a satirical sex comedy with Tracey UllmanJohnny KnoxvilleSelma Blair, and Chris Isaak. Waters hasn’t been idle, of course. He continued writing scripts and essays and eventually penned Liarmouth, an acclaimed debut that won over fans and critics alike by showcasing the same endearing deviance and energy as his best films. In a glowing review, New York Times critic Molly Young said the novel “unfurls as a tangled ribbon of manic events untouched by the logic of cause and effect.”

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Plaza is apparently in line to play the wonderfully named Marsha Sprinkle, a con artist and thief and the book’s protagonist. According to some sources, Plaza emailed Waters herself about the role. Oddly, the cover art of the novel depicts Marsha as looking quite a bit like the actress, which she pointed out to the filmmaker/novelist. When asked for details, though, Waters remains tight-lipped.

“I’m not going to talk about it yet, because it’s not signed,” Waters insists. “You don’t promote something that hasn’t happened yet. I am praying she is going to do it, she really wants to do it, the studio wants her to do it. Let’s see if somebody wants us to do it enough that they pay for it.”

If it does get made with the increasingly popular lead actress in the main role, Liarmouth would be the latest example of Waters’ strange relationship with Hollywood and his dalliances with the movie mainstream. After performing Devil’s Advocate, Waters will introduce the screening of his 1994 film Serial Mom starring Kathleen Turner, arguably his most Hollywood film to date. The filmmaker first gained notoriety in the 1970s with low-budget black comedies such as his so-called “Trash Trilogy” with Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living. By the late 1980s, he began to flirt with the mainstream, or perhaps the mainstream began to flirt with him. A trio of films: 1988’s Hairspray, 1990’s Cry-Baby with Johnny Depp and 1994’s Serial Mom suggested his films could be commercially viable. Hairspray has since been adapted for the Broadway stage, where it was a hit, and remade as a movie musical in 2007 with John Travolta in the role first played by drag queen and Waters regular Divine.

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“Hairspray was a little bit of a Hollywood movie and Cry-Baby definitely was and Serial Mom most definitely was,” he says. “Serial Mom was the most money we ever had, which was $13 million. Which, in today’s dollars, is about $26 million.”

He has fond memories of making Serial Mom, particularly working with Turner.

Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom from 1994
Kathleen Turner, actress, starring in ‘Serial Mom’ Handout. Postmedia files VANCOUVER SUN

“I’m still great friends with her, she’s a real pro,” Waters says. “People said ‘She’s so difficult, you’re going to have trouble with her.’ I didn’t have the slightest difficulty with her, I got along with her from the (first) moment. She’s a pro, she made everybody work better on the movie. She was a team player and I think she is excellent in that movie. It was not a hit when it came out but today it’s one of my most-loved movies.”

Waters first came to the Calgary Underground Film Festival in 2012 to perform his one-man show, Filthy World, where he discussed everything from current affairs and art to his opinions on filmmaking, mental health, religion, crime and the Easter bunny.

Waters updates his one-man show once or twice a year and Devil’s Advocate will again have him addressing a wide range of timely topics.

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“It’s very up to date always,” he says. “I read a hundred newspapers a day, I’m always listening and spying on people because I have to come and report to you what’s going on in the crazy world that is in my head.”

That includes discussing the new sexual revolution, which he says has “done the impossible and made both the right and the left nervous.”

“So I salute them,” he says. “I came from a generation where you had sex with somebody different every night and today you need four lawyers to ask someone on a date. It’s a very radically different time and the transgendered movement in my mind has been accepted by young people very quickly. Where it took gay-rights centuries, it felt like it took a year and I find it fascinating. I’m a leftover square from the first sexual revolution, so I’m now a middle-of-the-road maniac.”

He says he keeps up on the battle for trans rights in the U.S. and Canada by constantly reading newspapers. In 2022, he criticized Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling for what is widely perceived as her transphobic views, suggesting someone “give her some Preparation H for that transphobia.” He acknowledges that people in the trans community are still getting assaulted and killed, but he sees great progress.

“At the same time, it is amazing to me that people tell me ‘I have three kids, two of them are trans.’ They are fine with it and that’s great. I think that’s progress. But then I wonder: ‘God, am I an old lady trapped in a man’s body and I didn’t realize it? Is it too late? I’m an old otter now with a bad hairline.’”

John Waters’ April 24 performance at the Globe Cinema is sold out, as is the 30th anniversary screening of Serial Mom. For more information about the Calgary Underground Film Festival, visit calgaryundergroundfilm.org.

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