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A Dirty Shame
A John Waters Film

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About the production


Over the course of his career, writer/director John Waters has created a body of work unrivalled in eccentric characters and deranged dilemmas. A DIRTY SHAME finds Baltimore’s favorite son more inspired than ever as he essays his first sex comedy. “I do genre satires,” Waters affirms. “I had done a true crime movie (SERIAL MOM), a musical (HAIRSPRAY), a juvenile delinquent picture (CRY-BABY), an artist biopic (PECKER), and a terrorist thriller (CECIL B. DEMENTED) ... but I’d never done a sex education movie,” Waters remarks. “What’s so funny about sex is that it can lead the most normal person into the most aberrant behavior. People can lose all sense of proportion when it comes to sex. It’s been the downfall of kings.”

The story of A DIRTY SHAME was inspired by an obscure piece of information Waters happened to read. “It was this one brief sentence - it wasn’t even an entire article. Apparently, it’s a little-known fact that a tiny minority of head injury suffers, after their concussion, have a carnal lust they cannot control,” he explains. “I believe the exact term was ‘inappropriate sexual behavior.’ I took that germ of an idea and turned it into a whole movie about sex addicts that take over a whole neighborhood.”

Waters gave each of the film’s Sex Addicts a different erotic fixation, usually related to the nature of the concussion that converted them in the first place. The charismatic leader of the Sex Addicts is Ray-Ray Perkins, a tow-truck driver and sexual healer played by Johnny Knoxville. The carnal coalition squares off against Harford Road’s “normal,” undersexed citizens, who respond with increasing hysteria to the Sex Addicts in their midst. The discovery that the local policeman is an “adult baby” is not just perplexing but downright alarming to folks like Big Ethel, played by Suzanne Shepherd. Proudly claiming the label “Neuter,” Big Ethel leads the anti-sex charge with the fervent support of like-minded citizens like Marge, played by Waters mainstay Mink Stole.

“I exaggerated the fear of sex that I think many people have,” Waters adds. “Big Ethel says, ‘My daughter is a good woman, she hates sex.’ A lot of people think that way; they do hate sex. They don’t want to have to think about it, talk about it, and the worst possible thing is to have all these people who love it moving into the neighborhood. Their paranoia about sex goes really far. Especially Mink’s character, who’s constantly uptight about pubic hair and wails that people are ‘shaving their crotches as we speak.’”

At its core, A DIRTY SHAME is a family story, albeit one with an unmistakably Waters-ian twist. “It’s a comedy based on what would happen if your mother or your aunt turned into a ’ho in your own neighborhood,” the filmmaker laughs. “When you grow up, isn’t that the worst horror kids could imagine about their relatives? If you were a kid and you had a normal mom that ran the convenience store and suddenly she turns into a sex fiend?!”

Certainly, Sylvia Stickles’ transformation from grumpy prude to wanton libertine is a shock and a puzzle to her husband Vaughn, played by Chris Isaak, and mother Big Ethel. As Vaughn and Big Ethel alternately struggle to understand Sylvia and rein her in, the film evokes an era of earnest “adult dramas” that were really sexploitation pictures. Like their cinematic forebears, Vaughn and Big Ethel consult a doctor and receive a solemn (and ludicrous) diagnosis about a woman’s proper role in sexual society. When the suddenly hypersexual Sylvia sits down for a soulful heart-to-heart with her bosomy daughter, Caprice, played by Selma Blair, it’s a quintessential “mother-daughter” scene but with a Waters twist. “I’m a cunnilingus bottom,” Sylvia confides, “and I’m your mother.” Laughs Waters, “It’s a very touching moment, finally they’ve bonded.”

The film’s dialogue and plot alike reflect the filmmakers’ research, which encompassed slang dictionaries, twelve-step literature, websites and fetish magazines. Waters was careful in choosing which sexual proclivities would be represented in the Harford Road tribe. “I picked the ones that I thought were humorous, and I didn’t pick the ones that I thought were cruel or degrading to women. Actually I think A DIRTY SHAME is a twisted feminist film - Sylvia gets empowered from her newfound sexual freedom.” Waters notes that several of the fetishes may be familiar to moviegoers who watch daytime talk shows. “Every one of those shows has done programs on these kind of fetishes - autoerotic suicide and so on - on television, for general audiences. So I thought the audience might know about some of this, and could laugh about it. Yes, now the general public understands that gay people could be in their families ... but could they understand if their son came out of the ‘second closet’ and told them he was a ‘bear’?”

The existence of gay male “bears” was news to one of Waters’ agents, who expressed bafflement upon reading the screenplay. Reports the filmmaker, “He said, ‘What is this bear thing? Is there such a thing?’ I said, ‘You’re right by your computer. Type in the word “bear.”’ I heard ckk-ckk-ckk, and then I heard him go, ‘Oh my god.’ There are a million bear websites, there’s The Bear Handbook and other books; even ‘bear’ porn magazines celebrating the heavy and hairy males in sexual pinups.”

He continues, “Everything in the film is based on some kind of truth. Even the part when Mink Stole, as Marge the Neuter, is going on about the restored virgin procedure. There really is such a thing, where you can get your hymen sewn up and then you put fake blood down there to convince your new husband you’re a virgin. I don’t know that there is a Neuter movement, I made that up - but basically there almost is, today. You feel like there could be one soon. Maybe I’m asking the question - ‘Can tolerance go too far?’”

Even the film’s decency rally was inspired by the real-life furor that erupted after Doors singer Jim Morrison allegedly exposed himself at a Miami concert in 1969. “Now, of course, I don’t believe Jim Morrison really did it because wouldn’t we have seen a photo of his penis by now?” Waters remarks. “But for a short time, in response to Jim Morrison’s supposed exhibition, actual decency rallies sprang up around the country. One was in Baltimore, but it wasn’t even over before it turned into a race riot. I guess it was a very volatile time.”

Waters pitched A DIRTY SHAME in separate visits to respected independent producers Ted Hope and Christine Vachon. Between them, Hope and Vachon are responsible for some of the most influential and acclaimed independent films of the past fifteen years, including AMERICAN SPLENDOR, THE ICE STORM and 21 GRAMS (Hope), and FAR FROM HEAVEN, BOYS DON’T CRY, and POISON (Vachon). The producers had also worked together before, most recently as producers of Todd Solondz’s STORYTELLING and HAPPINESS. They quickly decided to re-team for A DIRTY SHAME, and were delighted to find the perfect studio home for the project: Fine Line parent company New Line Cinema, which first brought John Waters to a mass audience when it released PINK FLAMINGOS - subtitled “an exercise in poor taste” - in 1972. The company also distributed Waters’ riotously rude early epics MULTIPLE MANICS (1970), FEMALE TROUBLE (1974), DESPERATE LIVING (1977), POLYESTER (1980), HAIRSPRAY (1988) and PECKER (1998). PINK FLAMINGOS was re-released in 1997 in celebration of its 25th anniversary.

Hope and Vachon knew Waters socially, and knew it would be a pleasure to work with him. And there was no disputing the filmmaker’s impact on their careers, and on film as a whole. As Hope puts it, “There’s a whole segment of independent cinema subjects that wouldn’t exist if John hadn’t come first.” Hope had worked at New Line in its early days and found Waters’ comedies, with their outrageous characters and plots, exhilarating. “I remember seeing his movies and just being so excited that somebody was saying these things and making these movies. I would borrow the 16 mm print and screen John’s films for my friends. We were thrilled that somehow these movies got made.” Adds Christine Vachon, “John’s movies are always incredibly funny. And no matter how raunchy they are, they have this sort of cheerfulness about them.”

That cheerfulness shines through the multiple concussions of A DIRTY SHAME, and an exceptional roster of actors signed on to bring Waters’ singular vision to life. Leading the cast is award-winning comedian/actress Tracey Ullman, who portrays grouch-turned-minx Sylvia Stickles. Ullman had long been a fan of Waters’ films. “I like the individuality, the energy,” she remarks. “I like the way everyone looks so real, and yet sometimes they are surreal. And I love that he’s so faithful to Baltimore.”

The bawdy, albeit fundamentally chaste, script for A DIRTY SHAME was unlike anything the actress had ever seen. As she pondered the idea of playing a heroine who’s got “the itch,” Ullman gave the screenplay to her husband to read. “He thought it was fabulous and really funny,” she recalls. “He said, ‘You’ve got to go right out there, Tracey. This is one of the last frontiers: a sexual comedy.’”

Ullman’s extraordinary talent for self-transformation - she played dozens of characters, male and female, on her acclaimed television series “The Tracey Ullman Show” and “Tracey Takes On” - was perfect for the role of Sylvia, who undergoes a rather extreme metamorphosis. In fact, Sylvia undergoes several metamorphoses, as concussions send her ricocheting from prudery to promiscuity and back again. Comments Waters, “Besides being a really good comedian, Tracey is a fearless actress. She’s a character actress, which is what I always like for my films,” he explains. “In real life, she’s quite gorgeous - but you don’t know that because you always see her playing a character role. She loves to go into character and she really went for it in this movie. She was such a team player and I think Tracey made Sylvia Stickles completely believable.”

Ullman relished the fact that she was able to portray Sylvia as the “grumpy, middle-aged housewife” described in the script. “I thought, ‘Oh good - I can look really terrible because it’s a John Waters film.’ He’s not going to say, ‘You’re a middle-aged housewife, but you still have to look glamorous.’”

Waters had always envisioned Johnny Knoxville, star of MTV’s “Jackass” and JACKASS: THE MOVIE, in the role of Ray-Ray, the sexual shaman who indoctrinates Sylvia into the erotic cult. Explains Waters, “I saw JACKASS when it came out, and saw the same kind of spirit that PINK FLAMINGOS had. I loved the anarchy in the television show. I loved the trouble it caused. Who could be a better leader of the Sex Addicts than Johnny Knoxville?”

Waters had not yet completed the script when he and Knoxville met to discuss A DIRTY SHAME at the venerable West Hollywood hamburger joint Barney’s Beanery. Reports Knoxville, “He brought all these fetish magazines like Sploshing and Bear Magazine, and he said, ‘Okay, this is what the movie is.’ I said, ‘Just write it - I’ll do it.’ Anything to work with John Waters - he’s been one of my favorite directors forever. He has a different perspective than anyone, and I just love his films.”

Another early recruit was Selma Blair, who donned enormous fake breasts to portray the Stickles’ Sex Addict daughter Caprice, also known as Ursula Udders. Blair, who has won critical praise for her turns in films as diverse as Todd Solondz’s STORYTELLING and Guillermo del Toro’s HELLBOY, had been on Waters’ radar for several years. “I’ve always been a big fan of Selma Blair’s. She’s already got a great career, and I think it will be a long lasting one - somewhat like Johnny Depp’s. Selma takes chances in her choices, which I think is really smart when you’re beautiful. She had great fun with those giant breasts - she made them her own. And when her character reverted to being a ‘Neuter,’ I love how she conveyed her fashion shame by being so self-conscious in that Laura Ashley type outfit - I actually felt for her.”

As portrayed by Blair, Caprice’s exhibitionism is exuberant, almost innocent. “Caprice is kind of a throwback to ’60s go-go girls. She just has to let it all out,” Blair comments. “I tend to do physical comedy, but Caprice is unlike any character I’ve ever done. Her physical self is as much a part of the character as anything that might come out of her mouth.”

Singer/actor Chris Isaak was cast as Vaughn Stickles, husband of Sylvia and father of Caprice. Waters was a fan of Isaak’s music, his work with David Lynch (TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME) and Bertolucci (LITTLE BUDDHA); and he was further impressed by his work on his Showtime television series, “The Chris Isaak Show.” “He’s a fine actor and a good comedian, very understated and that was perfect for Vaughn.”

Bewildered yet tolerant, Vaughn responds politely to even the most blatant come-ons from his neighbors. As Isaak notes, “Vaughn is kind of a square guy just trying to get along and be liked.”

Rounding out the principal cast is Suzanne Shepherd as Big Ethel. A respected acting teacher, Shepherd has appeared in numerous films, including REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, GOODFELLAS and MYSTIC PIZZA, but is perhaps best known for her recent recurring role on “The Sopranos.” She joined the cast just days before rehearsals were scheduled to begin in Baltimore.

Shepherd didn’t exactly know what she was getting into when she accepted the part. Says Waters, “She read the script on the train and it freaked her out. But then she met everybody and became an instant convert. She was a great joy to work with.”

Shepherd confirms that A DIRTY SHAME was her first encounter with John Waters’ work. “I’d never seen a John Waters movie, I am sorry to say, and I’d never seen John,” she says, and goes on to describe her first meeting with the director. “John walked in the door, and he kissed me and I kissed him. He said, ‘Thank you for coming’ - and I fell in love with him. I think that he is an extraordinary, unique soul. His heart is so kind and generous, and his knowledge is so extensive. If everybody could have as much fun as we had on the set every day, this would be some wonderful world.”

Shepherd describes Big Ethel as a family woman defending what she loves. “Ethel’s worked very hard in a convenience store to raise this family, make sure that they are healthy and well-fed. And she just doesn’t understand what’s going on in Harford Road, and she’s heartbroken over it. Her beautiful granddaughter has had her breasts enlarged to the size of watermelons. She feels that she is the only one who can save her family and her community.”

Fans of Waters films can look forward to seeing all their favorites faces, from every phase of his career, in A DIRTY SHAME. The film features all the available surviving members of Waters’ early “Dreamland” repertory cast, including Mink Stole, Channing Wilroy, Mary Vivian Pearce, Bob Adams, George Figgs, and - for the first time since 1981’s POLYESTER - Jean Hill, star of DESPERATE LIVING. More recent Waters rep players include Patricia Hearst (making her fifth film with Waters), and Jackie Hoffman, currently appearing in several roles in the Broadway musical of Waters’ HAIRSPRAY.

A DIRTY SHAME was shot in Baltimore in the fall of 2003. Location, of course, is critical to Waters’ work, and he always writes with particular neighborhoods in mind. In this case, it was Harford Road, a wonderful blue-collar neighborhood of the type that is becoming increasingly rare in Baltimore. The area is home to the Holiday House, a real biker bar that is Waters’ regular Baltimore watering hole. Says Waters, “Harford Road is one of these neighborhoods in Baltimore that I hadn’t celebrated. I thought it was untouched and that it would be maybe supportive of us making the film there, and that the people would be nice. And all of that, very luckily, turned out to be true.”

Cooperation was not necessarily a foregone conclusion, given the fact that Waters and his crews performed some rather drastic makeovers on residents’ properties. People aren’t the only sexual beings in A DIRTY SHAME - the whole neighborhood is filled with “landscapes of lust”: trees and foliage whose shapes not only suggest various sexual organs, but often mimic them, too. “The neighbors were understanding and supportive,” Waters enthuses. “We had penis trees on their lawns and we put anuses on their bushes and the residents were lovely. They’d come out and pose with their families, and they baked us cookies and asked nicely if they could ‘move their cars to go to work.’”

The task of designing the “landscapes of lust” fell to production designer Vincent Peranio, who has worked with on every one of Waters’ films since MULTIPLE MANIACS in 1970. Also returning to the Waters fold are casting director and associate producer Pat Moran, whose eye for personality and talent has been indispensable to the Waters’ oeuvre; and costume designer Van Smith, who has created memorably demented wardrobes for all of Waters’ films.

Making his first collaboration with Waters is director of photography Steve Gainer, whose credits include Larry Clark’s BULLY, Gregg Araki’s upcoming MYSTERIOUS SKIN, and over 200 music videos. Waters was impressed by the cinematographer’s talent and efficiency. “Steve came from low-budget filmmaking and he knows how to ‘make a dollar holler,’” the filmmaker acknowledges. “I always want the movie to look as good as we can make it, and he understood that, too. So, the film is lush, but it’s about a very modest community. We tried to make it look like real life - this could happen to you in your town.”

The visual design of A DIRTY SHAME is perhaps the most complicated of Waters’ career. There are split-screen flashbacks that recall Sex Addicts’ varied concussions, as well as animated hallucinations and text inserts that are Waters’ comic tribute to Jean-Luc Godard. With assistance from Frank Henenlotter’s “Something Weird Video,” Waters loads the concussion montage sequences with footage from vintage sexploitation films, nudist camp romps, “birth of a baby” epics, nymphomaniac “exposes,” and even a short featuring Baltimore stripper Blaze Starr. Remarks Waters, “I got to celebrate my love of these sexploitation pictures that I grew up with, and that certainly influenced my career. I got to go back and sample them on film like a rap record, basically.”

Musically, A DIRTY SHAME offers anthems for both Sex Addicts and Neuters. Music expert Larry Benicewicz helped Waters unearth a number of rockabilly treasures that mix driving rhythms with double entendres. While classic songs like “I Need Your Lovin’” by Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford and Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot” will be familiar to some moviegoers, others - like “The Pussy Cat Song” by Connie Vannett, “Eager Beaver Baby” by Johnny Burnett, and “Tony’s Got Hot Nuts” by Faye Richmonde - are more obscure. Says Waters, “These songs are kind of off-the-charts party records from the 50s and 60s. It seems really amazing when you hear them today. You’re stunned that there was such a thing.” Viewers may also be jolted to hear the sugary chestnut, “Open Up Your Heart (And Let the Sunshine In)”, performed by The Cowboy Church Sunday School, which is used as a “Neuter” rallying anthem.

To create the film’s original score, music supervisor Tracy McKnight recruited composer George S. Clinton, whose credits include the three AUSTIN POWERS movies. Waters praises Clinton for creating a score that veers from down-and-dirty to heavenly choir. “George really understood what we were trying to do, which was put together rockabilly and religious music,” Waters affirms. “He heard all the vintage music that we had bought and wrote a score that fit in seamlessly with those songs. I think he did an amazing job.”

On some level, the film’s musical mixture echoes the story of A DIRTY SHAME itself, in which the body and spirit become one by the film’s end. “People always say that God gave sex to us, but it’s bad. That’s the thing I don’t get. Why is sex bad if God gave it to us?,” Waters wonders. “Why can’t you celebrate it? If you believe in spirituality, can’t there be sex that’s so good that it causes spiritual happiness and miracles? In a way, that’s what this movie is trying to do - make sex spiritually exciting and wonderfully lurid.”

Ultimately, A DIRTY SHAME is about joy. As Waters notes, “Everybody has a happy sexual ending in this. There’s someone for everyone, no matter how esoteric or ludicrous your sexual tastes may be. I think it’s a really feel-good, functional movie for the whole perverted family. After they’ve gone through a lot of counseling.”


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