The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: August 6 - 13, 1998

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Pecker head

John Waters explains "teabagging," "pit beef," and more

by Gerald Peary

John Waters On the record a few weeks after my visit to the set, Waters and I taped a follow-up interview about Pecker at his New York apartment in the East Village.

Q: Help indie filmmakers. How did you pitch Pecker?

A: It's an R-rated rags-to-riches comedy about a goofy, cute, 18-year-old blue-collar kid who works in a Baltimore sandwich shop and takes pictures of his loving but peculiar family with an old broken-down camera he found in his mother's thrift shop. Then he's discovered by a New York art dealer and turned into an art star against his will.

Also, I gave potential backers a 10-page treatment and an ad campaign.

Q: And did you offer backers your dream casting?

A: I never do that, in case they hate my choices. That's one of two things you should never do, say who you want to be in your film. The other: if they say yes to your film, don't question it. Get out of their office quickly, before they change their minds!

Q: Did Fine Line Features, the art division of New Line Cinema, agree quickly to make Pecker?

A: Not as quickly as Savoy with Serial Mom. We left a meeting, and the Savoy executive came out, and as we pushed the elevator button, he said, "Don't fuck with us, don't go anywhere else, cancel the rest of your meetings, and yes is the answer."

Q: Was budget a factor in the Pecker financing decision?

A: No, Pecker is cheap, $6.5 million. When lately has someone made a full union movie at that price, with Teamsters, etc., and, well, all those actors? They didn't work for scale, but they didn't work for huge salaries, either. The only thing in my contract was that Fine Line had to approve of my casting of Pecker and Pecker's girlfriend. So Eddie Furlong was the first cast.

Also: A day on the set of Pecker

Q: Was there pre-production trouble with your film title?

A: I'm not that innocent not to know there's a double entendre, but it's a joke, the boy's nickname, because he picked at his food as a child. Originally the MPAA turned down the title, and we went to court about it. My lawyers had a list of titles to show them like Shaft, Free Willy, In & Out, and I gave a little speech saying, "Pecker might be vulgar, but it's not an obscene word," and, "This is a movie about someone who wants his good name back. And in this case the good name is Pecker!"

Q: That's very Frank Capra, but you're sure the word isn't obscene?

A: Try to talk dirty and say, "Suck my pecker!" People would laugh in your face. The only people who use the word are mothers to their sons, "Shake your little pecker."

Q: Meanwhile, back in court . . .

A: The MPAA turned out to be very nice. They said, "We saw your title and had to flag it," but they approved it. They weren't being fascistic, though when I first found out I had to see them, I had flashbacks of anger to the Maryland Censor Board, which I dealt with for my early movies.

Q: But what about ads in "family" newspapers? Will they print the title?

A: I think so, now that the MPAA has registered it. Also our ad copy isn't going to have anything to do with the kid's nickname. He's not going to be holding his camera as a penis or anything! What should we call the film instead? Pucker?

Q: What were your thoughts about casting Edward Furlong as Pecker?

A: The fact that he was 20, could look very innocent, very cute, and I could imagine him in Pecker's outfits, and he had the right kind of hair, which is very, very important. Also, because of a movie I saw him in with Meryl Streep called Before and After, and there aren't many kids at 20 with a body of work. That's one of my favorite things, kids with a body of work! I thought he was a very good actor, but I was worried that, though he played fucked-up insane kids so well, he had never played comedy before. So I had a meeting with him and I saw him smile. I needed to know! Meanwhile, the foreign-territories people at New Line said, "They love him in Japan." That's good: I try to make them happy.

Q: And Christina Ricci?

A: I've been a fan since she was a child, and I really loved her in The Ice Storm. I interviewed her right on that couch -- it's not a casting couch! Ricki Lake for Hairspray and she were the same. They read with no direction from me, and it was exactly the way I'd been playing the parts in my head. They just got it!

Her part, Shelley, is a laundromat workaholic who has trouble understanding anything but work. Pecker explains to her about art, and she expands in a humorous way. She does pin-up shots for Pecker in the laundromat. She's his top model, sort of his muse.

Q: And Martha Plimpton?

A: She plays Pecker's older sister, Tina, who works in a gay bar, hiring and firing the go-go boys, who are all "trade dancers," straight men who dance for the amusement of homosexuals. She's not a fag hag but a "trade hag," which is really complicated. And Pecker takes pictures where she works, at the Fudge Palace.

It's actually a real bar in Baltimore, next to the prison. When I first went there, it was the place prisoners went to get a job, so it was pretty good: nude burglars! Lots of Love and Hate tattoo'd on each finger!

Martha, who was quite at home under a wig, really warmed to her part. She's very, very funny; she reminded me in a way of my [early-repertory] Dreamland girls. She should play Cookie Mueller, if anybody ever does Cookie's story.

Q: Finally, Lili Taylor, who plays the New York art dealer who discovers Pecker when she's visiting Baltimore and gets a flyer for the show in his sandwich shop.

A: She's a really good actress who doesn't think of herself as a really good actress. Also, Lili's a serious actress who doesn't hang around the set cracking jokes. But I liked the idea of her trying to seduce Eddie, and I don't think she's ever played a part where she looks so glamorous. I also didn't want the New York art person to be a cardboard villain. She likes Pecker's art work for the right reasons, but the right reasons in New York are very different from Pecker's motives.

He's a good artist, and he takes pictures every day, though he says, "I'm amazed they turn out." But he doesn't realize that his breaking rules, not knowing any better, is on the cusp of trendy New York photography, that the pictures he takes are very "in": out-of-focus, bad framing. When he gets fame in New York, he likes it. What he doesn't like is how it soon affects his world, his family, that he can't be a street photographer any more without people knowing who he is. The bad things that happen to him don't have to do with photography but with success.

Q: A heavy question at last! Is Pecker autobiographical?

A: The character is and isn't. Some of the things that happen to Pecker happened to me, things about success, people thinking I made a billion dollars off of Pink Flamingos, and people coming to Baltimore as in the film and saying, "Show me the low life," that's definitely based on reality. Also, I did do photography the last five years, I was heavily involved in the art world, which I know something about. But when I started, I didn't live in a blue-collar neighborhood like Pecker, I was ambitious, I was "in on the joke," I wasn't naive about any of it. So I'm not Pecker. If anything, I'm Pecker's sugar-crazed little sister, Chrissy. I eat candy every day of my life.

Q: Some people have compared Pecker's family to The Beverly Hillbillies. Do you agree?

A: I don't think of this family as rednecks. I don't have them speak incorrect English, and I don't want condescension. I think they're a great family. Pecker is a movie about class, but that's not something I would say in my pitch. It doesn't sound commercial! [He laughs.] Titanic has the same message: people like to have sex with the class they're not. Everyone who comes to Baltimore always gets laid. Nobody gets laid in New York. They're too cool to get laid.

Q: In Pecker, people from New York come to Baltimore and get "teabagged." Is that a real thing?

A: It's a "term." I saw it once in that bar, when someone hits you on your forehead with their balls! All heterosexual women have been "teabagged," if they had oral sex, or, accidentally, if a guy getting out of bed in the morning has to crawl to the other side! But I exaggerate: people don't go to that bar to get "teabagged" or anything. Even gay people don't know the term. It's obscure, but I hope my movie will make "teabagging" a pastime. [He laughs again.] It's safe!

Q: In your film, it's a New York Times art critic who gets "teabagged."

A: If you read my script, it only says "the Times." Well, there's the Trenton Times.

Q: One last Baltimore element in Pecker. Pecker's grandmother runs a pit-beef stand. What is that?

A: You have a grill and you cook this horrible meat in a pit. It's not like filet mignon, believe me, these slabs of beef that you slice. In Maryland, they're really popular. They have them everywhere. I did my research and went to the biggest "real" pit-beef stand and was told that amateurs sell it on the weekends, because health inspectors work Monday to Friday. Yes, Pecker's grandmother runs a stand. They're just traditions in Baltimore and nowhere else: pit beef and "teabagging"!

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