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John Waters on his 1994 cult classic “Serial Mom”

Serial Mom lands new Collector’s Edition Blu-ray from Shout! Factory

May 08, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) seems like your typical mother of two, a happy wife and community pillar in her suburban Baltimore neighborhood. Deep down, however, minor annoyances – a teacher criticizing her son, a neighbor’s unwillingness to recycle – manage to get under her skin and build up to the point where she snaps. Beverly embarks on a bloody murder spree the likes of which no one would expect from the happily married homemaker. When the police eventually do catch up with her, she becomes a media sensation. Dubbed the “Serial Mom” by excited tabloids and newscasters, her high-profile trial goes as far off the rails as the media circus that’s risen around it.

Gloriously over-the-top and perhaps more satirical now than ever, Serial Mom arrives this week in a new Collector’s Edition Blu-ray (just in time for Mother’s Day.) Following the Johnny Depp-starring Cry-Baby, it was the second (and last) studio film from independent film maverick John Waters. In spite of fun performances from Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, Matthew Lillard, and Mink Stole, it failed to capture an audience on its initial release. Over time, though, it’s gathered a big following of fans who’ve caught this dark comedy on cable or home video.

To celebrate this deluxe release, John Waters took some time out to look back with us on the making of Serial Mom.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: You’ve mentioned in the past that Serial Mom was your mother’s favorite of your movies. Do you know why she loved this one so much?

John Waters: That’s because I think it is my best movie, in a weird way. And, I guess, a little bit of her is Serial Mom. I’ve inherited some of that stuff. I hate people who chew gum – it gets on my nerves. I don’t like summer white worn after Labor Day. A lot of the things that Serial Mom disliked, I sympathize with her. The problem is that everyone has little things which get on their nerves every day that they could kill pill people for, but they don’t do it literally; they do it figuratively.

I always said she meant well, Serial Mom, she wasn’t evil. She was just misdirected. Talk about reactionary! She overreacted to small, small displeasures.

Serial Mom has cornered the market for mother’s day cable programming. Outside of your own filmography, who are some of your favorite movie mothers?

Well, I think that we might have competition with Mommie Dearest. I think we would have competition with Patty McCormack; after she made The Bad Seed she made a much better movie called Mommy. There’s a lot of evil mother movies – there’s just not that many good movies where the mother is evil. There’s Psycho! There’s millions of evil mother movies.

How did your personal interest in true crime spur the idea for Serial Mom?

I guess I read In Cold Blood, you know? I went to a lot of trials and I wrote about that in Shock Value, and I taught in prison, which I wrote about in Crackpot.

I do still have friends in prison that I visit, and I think that if you know someone in prison you should go visit them. It’s pretty important to people that are in prison. And, I get letters from prisoners a lot – I don’t answer them, but I get a lot of good ones from people that have read my books.

This was your second movie made within the Hollywood system. There are obvious benefits to that, like having more money to spend, but what did you find to be the biggest challenge you faced when not making the film independently?

Test screenings, and studio executives who basically never even read the script in the first place, even though I had a development deal. So when they’d finally saw it they’d freak out, even though it was the exact script that I’d said I was going to make. I was astonished that happened, but it did happen on Serial Mom. But, you know what? I don’t complain. I don’t name any executives, because the movie’s still out there and it’s still playing. A couple of them are dead, so they can’t defend themselves. I guess from their point of view, it didn’t make a lot of money. But, if I had done what they had wanted me to, we wouldn’t be discussing it today. It would have failed twice; it would have failed later in life when these movies do find success.

As the years go on, Serial Mom gets more and more fans, and does better and better than when it came out. Also, when it opened it had been a really long and terrible winter all over America, and it was the first nice, beautiful spring weekend all over the country. Nobody went to any movies. If you look up the weekend it opened, nobody went to see anything – not just mine.

Early into starting work on the movie, I read that you were considering other actresses such as Glenn Close, Julie Andrews, and Meryl Streep for the lead. How far did those other considerations go before ultimately you landed Kathleen Turner?

I think Roseanne [Barr] once talked about it! There were a bunch of different ones, but each time it was a different studio. It was originally developed at Columbia, and I went to a couple different places and each time it would switch executives, they would have their own ideas of who they think was going to make money, and you know they were all wrong. They all think that this person will open this movie in this country, and if that were true every movie would be a hit, wouldn’t it?

Prior to sending Kathleen the script, what were the chances you thought she’d actually go for the role?

Well, I thought it was possible because she’d taken big chances before. She had worked with Ken Russell. She’d made a lot of crazy art movies. She’d made The War of the Roses, which I had especially loved. So, I thought she might go for it, and I was right! And Kathleen still likes to take on a challenge in a movie. She doesn’t like to do things she’s already done, and she likes to take something on with some punch to it.

Once she said she was interested, you jumped right on a train to go meet with her.

I did. I went right up to her house. I remember sitting up there with her and going through the script. I would bring up right away all of the scenes that I thought she might be nervous about. I’d bring them up right away and tell her how I wanted to do them, so she would feel more calm about them.

Did it take a lot of convincing?

No, it didn’t. I think she said yes the first day I went there, and then the movie instantly happened. That’s the way it was then. You had a script, and it was a development deal, so to get greenlit you needed to have the right star. And then Sam Waterston joined up, which really made Kathleen happy and me happy. At the same time I wanted to use Mink [Stole] and a lot of the people that worked with me on my early movies. Kathleen got along with Mink, and they’re still friends.

Mink, Susan Lowe, and Mary Vivian Pearce were all in this one. I know you don’t write scripts with specific people in mind, but –

I did in the beginning, but I didn’t at this stage, no.

Do you typically know where you want to cast your regular actors when you go to bring them on?

I stopped doing that on Desperate Living, I think, because Divine was supposed to play Mole. I thought at the time to have Divine play a butch lesbian would have been anti-typecasting. But Divine was doing a play at the time and couldn’t do it, so Sue Lowe came along and did it, who was also not really a butch lesbian in real life. So then I decided you shouldn’t really write something for somebody in case they can’t do it.

Even though in Hairspray I originally wanted Divine to be like The Parent Trap and play Tracy and Edna, and New Line said no. I don’t know if any of this would have happened if I had tried to do that.

You’ve said this before, but Serial Mom did precede OJ Simpson and our sort of cultural obsession with celebrity trials. There’s also a line about Bill Cosby in the movie that’s accidentally become a lot funnier than it was when you wrote it.

Oh, the luxury of time! I could never stand Bill Cosby, even before rape, but now when she says “I just love Bill Cosby movies,” people go wild, because there was no connotation to that back then at all. It was just that he made family movies. So, yes, it’s my bonus joke I got due to other people’s misery.

Personally, do you think the movie plays differently all these years later, after headline-grabbing cases like Scott Peterson and Casey Anthony’s? Have two decades of celebrity crime coverage changed the way people watch this movie?

I think it plays better, because people have more of a reference point. When the movie came out many people believed it was true ... But, yes, I think it probably plays better because it was before Court TV, it was before any of that. And now it looks like everything people are used to seeing on the History Channel, the Discovery Channel. Every station has true crime now!

Serial Mom has that great scene in the punk club. Can you tell me about casting L7 as the band Camel Lips?

I loved them at the time, and I had just seen them. I thought they were great; they were a strong women punk group, and there weren’t that many of them then. That club, Hammerjacks, is no longer there, but it was a really great, famous Baltimore club that had mostly heavy metal and headbanging music. I thought it would be great to shoot there. And the kids in that scene actually slamdanced for the three days it basically took to shoot that scene. L7 was great. I’ve never seen them since we shot the movie. I think they broke up and got back together; I’m not sure if all of them did. Recently when I went on tour with Multiple Maniacs and my new book, Make Trouble, people were telling me they’d seen reunion tours recently of L7, which is great. I’d love to see them again.

You seem to keep in tune with what’s going on in new music. Have there been any records or bands that have entered your life in the last few years and really impressed you?

Actually, I just went to see Future Islands when they had their opening night in Baltimore for their new album. I think Sam is a great, great rock star … There are so many great ones in Baltimore. Dan Deacon – so many really, really good musicians who’ve stayed here and bought houses and continued living in Baltimore.

You said after A Dirty Shame that if you could get a movie greenlit, you’d make it tomorrow. I’m curious what your thoughts are on crowdfunding?

Oh, I would never do that. I have three homes. I’m not going to bum money from you. I’d feel a little hypocritical, don’t you think? [Laughs] But I have no desire to make an independent film for a million dollars. I could do that. But I can’t go backwards – I’m not going to be a 70-year-old underground filmmaker.

I’ve had development deals since A Dirty Shame. One for Fruitcake, with a big studio, that fell through. Another one to make a sequel to the musical of Hairspray, which never happened. One to do a TV show of Hairspray, and that never happened. And then, most recently with HBO to do a movie special sequel, but that didn’t happen. I mean, I got paid, so I’m in the movie business – you just haven’t seen them.

You’ve had time to put out a lot of books, at least.

The books have gotten made and the movies didn’t, so that’s what I’ve stayed with books.

What are you working on now?

One came out [in April] called Make Trouble, but that’s a gift book. I’ve been on tour with it. It’s an illustrated book of the commencement speech I gave that went viral, so that’s out now. And I’m writing another book now called Mr. Know-It-All that I’ve been working on it for about a year, and it’s about how to avoid respectability at 70 years old if you accidentally get it.


Serial Mom is now available in a Blu-ray Collector’s Edition from Shout! Factory.


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John Muller @ BravoCoupon
July 5th 2017

I have read your article about John Waters and Trust me it was all worth written. You have mentioned everything really well.

December 7th 2017

Love to read this post. Thanks for sharing