Running Stumbled

Format: Cinema

Release date: 27 July 2007

Distributor: Missing in Action + Self Pictures

Director: John Maringouin

USA 2006

85 mins

When American director John Maringouin was just a baby, his father, the small-time Cubist painter Johnny Roe, tried to kill both him and his mother. After twenty-nine years during which Maringouin’s only contact with his estranged father was occasional phone calls, he was told that Johnny was dying (it turned out it was a lie) and that he should go to New Orleans to see him. At the time, Maringouin was shooting his first feature, a fictional film loosely based on his life entitled Self, in which he stars as a homeless man trying to confront his sadistic father. The film was nearing completion but Maringouin was dissatisfied with the ending. So he agreed to go to New Orleans, not so much to see his father as to film him, in order to get a final scene for his movie. He spent ten days at his father’s house, recording the disastrous drug-addled existence that the latter was leading with his long-suffering partner Marie. With this material, Maringouin not only finished Self, a film he’s never shown to anyone, but also shaped the footage into Running Stumbled, a nightmarish documentary of sorts released at the ICA on July 27.

Virginie Sélavy caught up with Maringouin during his visit to London. An engaging, articulate and very funny thirty-four-year-old with a boyish crew-cut, the director told her about the paradoxes of truth and reality, reminisced about his childhood hero Evil Knievel and explained why Running Stumbled is really a stunt.

John Maringouin: I read your review. I found it interesting.

Virginie Sélavy: If you want to respond to what I wrote in the review, that would be great.

JM: I’d have to reread it. I liked it because it was challenging. You were challenging my intentions. I thought that was good. It means you thought about it.

VS: I did. I thought about it a lot because it didn’t present itself in the way those types of films usually present themselves.

JM: What do you mean?

VS: I thought there were two things that made your film different from other documentaries on dysfunctional families. One was that even though it’s about your family, about yourself and your relationship to your father, you don’t appear much in the film. So that was interesting in comparison to something like Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette’s film, which I suppose everybody mentions in relation to your film….

JM: That movie is very much about him whereas this movie is very much about a place. It’s about the environment first. Secondly it’s about a relationship. And thirdly it’s about my relationship to the space and to the people in the space.

VS: Yes, but I think that at the same time it has to be about yourself in some ways.

JM: It absolutely is. But what I wanted to do with the film was not subject anyone to whatever low-brow interpretation I could come up with, because you can only imagine how limiting and how boring it would be to have to tread through my sad, or horrific, or unbelievable life story. I can’t think of anything more self-serving and manipulative. And maybe it’s a lot harder to not make a movie like that because your hands are tied. You can’t do certain things that easily support your narrative goals, like put some voice-over to explain why this is interesting or who this person is, so you have some context. But when you allow the audience to become the filmmaker, to see what you’re seeing and how you’re affected by events and how you are affecting events, that’s a much more real, resonant experience. It leaves you a lot of questions but that’s the whole point of the reality. As the person, as the filmmaker, I was left with questions. Was this the right thing to do? Was this the wrong thing to do? Do these people deserve to live or to die? (laughs) You are left with an endless list of paradoxes. If you talk about truth you have to talk about paradox. If you’re doing anything else, you’re not talking about the truth.

VS: I thought there were two very fascinating things going on in the film, which were one, this relationship between your father and Marie, two, how you position yourself in this relationship. And it seems to me that it is at the same time about revealing things and about concealing things. You’re staging something very personal but you’re not placing yourself within that very personal family history.

JM: Yeah, there were a lot of personal things that were going on with regards to me in front of the camera. They say that the most interesting thing about acting is when people are trying to protect themselves from the material and from their own realities. To me what’s more interesting is, people in front of the camera trying to protect themselves not only from their reality, and the truth of who they are, but trying to hide it from who they know is the son behind the camera. And then you have the other side of that, which is the son, protecting himself from what he’s seeing. So you have this great, unique organism. If I hadn’t been aware of how revealing that organism was going to be, I wouldn’t have done the movie. I didn’t want to make a movie about, ‘oh I’m going to get to know my father, who I’m really afraid of, and we’re going to talk about psychology’. How boring is that! What was there was this amazing relationship that was very volatile and also very symbiotic. They would make references to the past, to things that happened thirty years ago, as if those things were right there in the room. They would do it right in front of you. They’d yell so loud you could hear them on the street. And you have to subvert your instinct to run when they start saying things that you feel you’re going to have nightmares about for the next three years and you do have nightmares about for the next three years. So you are left with: What is the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do? Am I creating art or am I destroying myself? And I think the audience feels all those things.

VS: As you’re watching the film you get the very strong sense that you are protecting yourself with the camera. Would you have gone to see your father without a camera?

JM: No. (long pause… laughs)

VS: Do you want to elaborate on that?

JM: No, absolutely not.

VS: Why not?

JM: Because I didn’t want to have a relationship with him. I didn’t want to know him. It was devastating to even acknowledge that I was from this place. This is one of the scariest places in town, not just for me, but for the town. This is a really crappy, white trash, suburban town, and these were the most fucked-up people there. When you’re trying to take yourself even the slightest bit seriously as an artist, you don’t even want to acknowledge it, much less bring yourself down to that level and allow yourself to let everything in. It’s like wearing a trench coat; you open the trench coat and let in all those demons; and then you close the trench coat and you walk away. There’s some yoga practice where instead of blowing out the evil, you inhale the evil. (laughs) You suck in all the bad energy and you hold it as long as you can, you let it absorb into you and then you let it go. It’s sort of a reverse way of thinking about it. And it’s interesting because there are all those dark energy portals – best example is reality TV (laughs) and Jerry Springer. The format of those shows is to take really wretched examples of humanity and blow them up, sensationalise them into a sound bite, so that you can project off of that thing, so you can discard that piece of human waste that you are (laughs)… that we all are (laughs)… So that’s what you’re supposed to do. But there’s a gigantic problem with it, because it’s fascistic. It’s pushing everyone into a false sense of themselves, where I am not a white trash motherfucker, I am not a junkie, I’m not a whore, I’m not all these things. But these are the same people that all the writers in history were writing about. The people in my movie are the people that Tennessee Williams was talking about fifty years ago.

VS: You got a call from your father saying that he was dying. That was the starting point of the film, right?

JM: There are so many layers to the truth. When people ask me how I ended up making the film, there’s not one reason, there’s probably about nine or ten things that suddenly coalesced and conspired to put me at that door. One of the pieces of that puzzle was a phone call that went something like, ‘your father is gonna die and you’d better go see them. They’re in really bad shape’. But of course it was coming from an unreliable source. In fact the person who was calling me was sort of like a stalker of me. (laughs) So it was a frightening phone call, because it was like, ‘how do you know this information? What are you doing calling me?’

VS: So it wasn’t someone that you actually knew?

JM: It wasn’t a friend, let’s put it that way. It was somebody who was basically a stalker. When a stalker calls you and says, ‘you need to reconnect with your father’, and then you do, there’s something almost perverse about that, and then you wonder, was that a sound choice? Did I have no ability to do anything else? I don’t know… The other side of the story is that I had been making a film about it for years. I had been making a film about a guy who has this life-threatening confrontation with his family, which he hasn’t seen in twenty years. It was a fictional film and it just started to become more and more real. I shot the ending of the film three times with actors and it never worked out. I’m sorry, wait, it wasn’t actually actors, it was Jerry Lee Lewis’ family… (laughs) the rock musician from the fifties…

VS: How did that happen?

JM: It’s a really long story…

VS: Right, so back to your film – that was Self, right, the film you were making?

JM: Yes.

VS: So that was obviously quite autobiographical and concerned with self-examination, wasn’t it?

JM: No, that’s the thing, it was intended to be ironic because it was titled Self but it wasn’t about myself.

VS: But you were in it, right?

JM: I was in it and it was very much based on what I perceived could be a mythology that I would act out. You create a myth and then you act it out to see what would happen. (laughs) It was like, OK, what if I were to be homeless? What if I created this character that was so haunted by the past that he had no choice but to go and confront something that he would so not want to confront that he would have these visceral reactions to it, he would be puking all the time just even having these thoughts. I didn’t have that in my own life but it was like exploding all this stuff that was buried.

VS: Was it like a kind of worst-case scenario of your own life?

JM: Yeah, exactly! It was a much more extreme example of what I could have been like. And it was a way of making fun of that. In my efforts to make it real and powerful and immediate it got more and more dangerous because I’d say, ‘oh you know what would really be crazy, is if I used… no, never mind, I’m not gonna do that’. And then months would go by, ‘oh well, that scene didn’t really work, you know what would really be something, is if I just walked in there… no, no, no, that’s my real father, forget that shit, that’s insane, it’s too much. I won’t do it, that’ll be a white elephant in my life.’ So it was a gradual process and all of a sudden there it was.

VS: Have you finished that film?

JM: The first scene of Running Stumbled is the last scene of Self. I finished it in a few hours of being there. It took me a few weeks to edit and then it was done. And I immediately put it away. It was like the train had left the station and another one arrived. I’ve never shown anyone that movie.

VS: Why not?

JM: I never watched it. I finished it and I put it away.

VS: And you don’t intend to release it?

JM: I don’t intend to release it.

VS: Why not?

JM: It’s a lot of reasons. I don’t know. Maybe it ended up being too personal.

VS: But it’s a fiction though, and you’ve shown everybody your real family. That’s quite a paradox, isn’t it?

JM: It is a bizarre paradox.

VS: Would you say that filming your father was more about making an interesting film than it was about your relationship to him or is it a bit of both?

JM: I wouldn’t say it’s more. I would say it’s definitely both. They’re informed by each other.

VS: The other thing that is very different from Tarnation or other documentaries about dysfunctional families is that you don’t fill in the audience with the back story. We only find out about what comes up in the conversations between the characters. It gives the film a very immediate, intense feeling but at the same time you only get teasing little bits of this amazing story and you just want to know more.

JM: I wasn’t interested in doing that at all because to me that’s boring. And to try and contextualise them would have been stupid because what they were doing was already so interesting, not only in the way that they were relating to themselves, but also relating to me as a director. The movie is a documentary but it’s also a form of improvised theatre. It’s taking a real situation, something that they’ve been acting out in private all the time for twenty years, and now someone is filming it, someone who they trust, because he’s their son. (laughs) It is an improvisational film, and improvisational acting, but it’s also real; it’s based on their actual relationship. I read a review that said, ‘Maringouin showed up and let his camera roll and was the luckiest filmmaker ever’. It’s so funny because it seems that this is what critics think, that I showed up and this just happened. It’s so far from the case. And at the same time it’s not a construction. There was one review that said, ‘Maringouin must have staged all this stuff’. Well, sort of, and then, sort of not.

VS: So your presence made things happen?

JM: My presence made certain things happen. I created certain scenes, or I suggested certain scenes that they played out. But they were always based on things that had already happened or that I remembered happening or had heard had happened. And then there were things that just happened while I was there. So it was all of those things. I think that’s what you do when you make movies. You influence things to happen. Even the driest documentaries are like that. What I don’t like is when people feel compelled to insinuate their opinions in their documentaries. They almost arrive in the middle of the documentary as critics. This format of, ‘I’m going to tell you how to think and how to feel’ is such an unsatisfying experience to me.

VS: I think that’s probably the most unsettling thing about your film, the fact that you don’t know what to think at all. They’re fascinating people to watch but the kind of lives they lead is… appalling. (laughs)

JM: When you watch a Cassavetes movie, you don’t know what to think either, but you’re settled by the fact that it was just actors playing the roles of real people. What’s unsettling is that this is real people, and were they acting or was this real. I think that’s the next thing in film, that’s where this whole thing is going… At least, that’s where I’m going! (laughs)

VS: The way you describe Johnny and Marie in your director’s statement is very striking. You say it was a ‘real-time performance’ that you were filming, which you compare to jumping the Grand Canyon. That’s a very interesting way of seeing things because even though there is an obvious element of performance there, they also don’t seem to be in control of what they show to the camera. Do you really see them solely as performers in the film?

JM: No, I mean they’re performers playing themselves in the context of their lives, which is like reality TV, except that their story is taken seriously as a piece, whereas reality TV services this surface level. It looks for story points. There’s nothing about nuances and ghosts in the past and other realities or other dimensions (laughs). That’s what reality TV lacks, the ability to transcend reality (laughs)… but while staying in reality at the same time. That’s what they’re doing. That’s why I call them performers. And I think they were influenced by my intention to do that.

VS: Why do you think they agreed to do this?

JM: Because they understood what my intention was. When you’re a down-and-dirty character like they are and your son shows up… I could have shown up with a film crew and been like, ‘you know, you guys, there’s cat shit all over the floor back there and I’m gonna have to call the social services and I really want to help you guys because I see myself as right and proper and you as not’. Of course they wouldn’t have revealed anything. But I showed up on the same level as them. I showed up in a white suit on Easter Sunday as the crazy son. (laughs) So of course they’re going to go, ‘wow, look who it is, it’s a character like us. Now you understand us so we’re gonna play this game together.’

VS: In what way was their performance in the film a stunt?

JM: Because it was dangerous. They were in danger of losing themselves, losing their soul. It’s like when Marlon Brando talks about how he’d never do Last Tango in Paris again because he’d never make himself look that vulnerable again. They made themselves completely naked but in a much more dangerous way than acting because actors can always go back to, ‘oh, you don’t really know me. Even though I gave you so much of myself you don’t really know what I do at the end of the day’. This was their house and their relationship and they were being completely naked. It’s pretty dangerous. It is a stunt.

VS: And you described your own filming of them as a stunt too.

JM: Absolutely.

VS: Because for you it was dangerous?

JM: Very dangerous, incredibly dangerous. It was, is this going to be the end of me, is my identity going to be so compromised and so tarnished by this that I won’t be able to ever come out of this, is my soul going to get stuck in this dark vortex forever. It’s like in horror movies. When you get killed it’s scary. But what’s really scary is when the killer is immortal and he’s going to eat your soul after he’s killed you. And that’s kind of what this is.

VS: Your next film is about a Slovenian swimmer, Martin Strel, who’s swum the world’s largest rivers. You filmed him as he was swimming the Amazon, is that right?

JM: I just filmed him when he’d swum the Amazon. I didn’t film him when he swam the other rivers. I just filmed a man swimming down the Amazon.

VS: That’s a stunt too, right?

JM: It is.

VS: So there seems to be a running theme there.

JM: Yeah, stunts are fun. Stunts are interesting. (laughs) Why does someone do a stunt? What’s in it for them? When I was a kid I used to love Evil Knievel. In fact, he was my hero. He was a professional daredevil. He would risk his life and survive and come out the other side. He was like Elvis and David Blaine together. He’d wear these red, white and blue suits with a cape. The stunts would get ever more spectacular. He jumped the Grand Canyon on a rocket and almost died. He almost died every time and then he would stand up and he’d go, ‘Thank you. I almost died and I’ll never do this again’. The point is, there is this great myth about the stuntman. There is a great writer, a friend of Cassavetes’ whose name I can’t remember, who wrote an essay fifteen years ago about where film was going. He said art in the twenty-first century was going to be about a dark energy stuntman. There would be a gigantic wall of information and to get noticed the artist would have to perform insane stunts that explode this dark energy. And I think that’s where it’s at. So the swimmer guy is very much a comedy, not really a documentary. It is a documentary but it operates on some kind of fantastical level.

VS: So is that going to be released?

JM: Yeah, the funny thing is that it’s actually financed by the Discovery Channel. It’s going to be the craziest thing that the Discovery Channel has ever done. (laughs) It’s a job, it’s me making money. But I’m also doing a follow-up to Running Stumbled.

VS: Along the same kind of personal lines?

JM: Yeah, it’s going to be personal. It’s going to do the same thing that Running Stumbled does, half of it real and half of it not real.

VS: At the end of Running Stumbled you’ve included some very striking scenes of a hurricane that’s destroyed part of the town. Did you edit that after Katrina?

JM: Yeah, it was after. I’m not very happy with that ending.

VS: Why not?

JM: Because it’s neat and tidy and it’s also a little bit too narrative. It’s too convenient. It leaves the audience off the hook in a way, because it says, ‘oh the hurricane came and made it all better’… (laughs) ‘Oh, the sun is shining now, and look everybody, Johnny is off drugs, he’s painting again, everything is resolved, now I don’t have to care, OK, goodbye!’ And I hate that. There’s something about it that’s unsatisfying to me. The reason that it’s there, is that I couldn’t film anymore; I felt that it was done. I might get rid of that ending. I don’t want to let Johnny off the hook, I want to nail down his coffin! (laughs) I don’t want him out there in the world, succeeding and painting again after thirty years! But the fact is that he did go through this amazing transformation so I felt I had to include it.

VS: I find the conclusion disturbing.

JM: It is disturbing.

VS: It’s like, OK, he’s better, so I guess that side of things is positive but…

JM: …look what he did to get there, look at the lives he destroyed to get there.

VS: Exactly. We don’t know what happened to Marie. The last images we see of her is when she is taken out of the house on a stretcher because she’s had an overdose and we don’t know what happens next. It’s a very sinister ending in a way, because he seems quite happy but it comes at a cost to everybody else around him. So I think you can be satisfied with your ending, it’s really quite dark. (laughs)

JM: It’s not that I wanted to be dark. It’s just that it’s unsettling to me in a way. I don’t like the aesthetic of it because it looks different from the rest of the movie. But it had to be. I wanted the film to stay in this phantasmagoric place. I didn’t want it to be like reality and that’s what it becomes at the end; it finds its way out into the world and I don’t like that very much.


Radio On

Format: Book

Date published: May 2007

Published by: BFI

Author Jason Wood

Mention the words ‘road movie’ and most people will think of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda riding down the highway to the tune of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’. Easy Rider may remain the daddy of road movies but there is more to the genre than this, as Jason Wood’s book on the subject amply demonstrates. With detailed entries on films that explore many variations on the template, 100 Road Movies is a thoroughly enjoyable read in which classics such as Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde sit next to more unexpected entries such as The Wizard of Oz and The Searchers as well as modern updates like The Motorcycle Diaries. We met up with Jason Wood, a man whose knowledge of cinema is as phenomenal as his enthusiasm and rapid-fire delivery, to talk about his book.

Virginie Sélavy: In your introduction you say that you think the book should provoke debate and discussion and it certainly has done that for me.

Jason Wood: Yeah, I’ve already had lots of people asking ‘why isn’t that in there?’ but I like that, I think a book should do that. A hundred films seems a lot to begin with but when you start scaling back, it’s not. There are ones now that I wish I’d put in there, for example I don’t have a children’s road movie. I guess The Wizard of Oz just about counts, but not really. There are lots of arguments over what should have been in there.

VS: It makes you think about what a road movie actually is, and how you define it, which is good. What made you think of writing about road movies?

JW: I got a bit of a reputation as somebody who wrote only about American independent film. The first book I did was on Steven Soderbergh. Then I did a book on Hal Hartley and another book for the BFI in the same series, 100 American Independent Films. So I didn’t want to just write about one subject. And I’ve always been interested in the way that road movies have used music, the way that sequences are often cut to particular records or songs. I’m as interested and inspired by music as I am by film. When I first started driving, I had an old car and a tape machine and one of the things I loved to do was to make tapes and just drive and listen to music.One of the things that I really like about this road movies book is actually the part of it that I didn’t write, which is the preface by one of my favourite filmmakers, Chris Petit, who made Radio On. He says something in that preface that I immediately related to, which is the intersection between the road movie and music. The other thing I like about road movies is the fact that that they teach you something about yourself. I think the whole idea of the road movie is a journey towards some sort of selfhood and self-knowledge. I think the back of the book says that road movies are a metaphor for life. You might set out in life having the intention of travelling in one direction but fate and circumstance find you moving in another direction. I like the fact that road movies don’t stick to the itinerary, they often go off road, they take different courses. I find that quite liberating because I think that life is like that.

VS: How difficult was it to select the films?

JW: It was really tough and I knew what was going to happen because I’d done this 100 American Independent Films. For that book I got two filmmakers I like very much, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who made Suture and The Deep End, to write the preface for it. And their whole preface was kind of having a go at me in mock tones for leaving out their favourite film, a film called Billy Jack. So I knew from doing that that no matter what one hundred films you select, there’s always going to be one or two that people are going to take you to task for for not including. So for the road movies book I actually cheated. In the introduction I list ten other films that I wish I could have included just to try and cover myself. What I tried to do was to select films that are important to road movies in the historical sense, films that are important in terms of key directors and films that might not necessarily have been considered previously as being road movies. I would regard a road movie as something that doesn’t necessarily have to involve a road or even a car, but as something that involves a journey. So I tried to select films that were a new way of thinking about road movies, The Wizard of Oz for instance, and The Searchers, which is a Western. The key goal for me was as broad a selection as possible. To begin with I tried to do a film for every single country but I was selecting films that maybe weren’t the best examples just because they came from a particular country and the selection was suffering because of that. So in the end I just decided to pick the hundred films that were most representative, films that meant something to me, also films that people would expect to see there, such as Thelma and Louise, which is an important film, but not one that I particularly like very much. But even doing it that way I realised that a hundred films isn’t nearly enough.

VS: When I came across the entry on The Wizard of Oz I thought, ‘What? The Wizard of Oz is a road movie?’ I have to say that for me road movies have to definitely definitely involve a car. If they don’t, how do you define a road movie?

JW: I think they certainly can include cars, and motorbikes, and so on, but my definition of a road movie would be the idea of a journey. They have to involve travel, they can’t be stationary, but the idea of them having to involve a car would for me rule out quite a lot of good road movies. The Searchers is obviously set in a period before cars were invented and I think it is a very good example because it clearly involves some kind of personal quest. It’s about the idea that the character played by John Wayne finds out something about himself that he didn’t necessarily know. So I think that to have not included that film would have been a shame. One of the sub-genres that has originated from road movies, and there are several, is the idea of the walking movie as in Beat Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro or Paris, Texas. I think that road movies don’t even have to necessarily involve a road. I mentioned right at the end of the book a film called London to Brighton, which is a train journey towards selfhood and away from a crime scene. Of course the fetishisation of the vehicles is an important factor of road movies. This book caught the attention of people who wouldn’t normally be interested in film books, a lot of car magazines, and Top Gear… I can’t believe that Jeremy Clarkson would be interested in this… So ideally the road movie would involve a car but for me the essence of the road movie is a journey, which invariably turns into some sort of personal quest.

VS: Why did you not include Paris, Texas, a work that sounds quite important to you or films such as They Live By Night, Wild At Heart and The Wild One, which you mention in your list of ten, instead of films such as Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers, which I think are rather mediocre films and which you don’t seem to like very much yourself?

JW: The only other self-imposed rule that I had was that I tried to limit the amount of films per director. So Wim Wenders for example, who is perhaps the filmmaker most commonly associated with the road movie – he even named his production company ‘Road Movies’ – made films in Germany that explored the same terrain as Paris, Texas – films such as Alice in the City, Kings of the Road and The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick. I could have had five or six films by Wenders but I wanted to limit it to just two or three, so that’s why Paris, Texas wasn’t included. I absolutely agree with you with regard to Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers, I think they’re both very mediocre films. But they emerged at quite an interesting time in filmmaking, a time when filmmakers were trying to look at the influence of the media and how events were covered, specifically the almost obsessive interest in killers and murder sprees. So Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers had to be included almost as an update of films such as Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde for the way they take on some of the ideas explored in those films. The other film that I’m not a big fan of but that I had to include was Thelma and Louise. It’s one of the few road movies which is written by a woman and has a female protagonist. I actually think that the film is completely compromised by its ending but it’s an interesting one to have in there because it has a certain amount of cachet with feminist writers. And I probably bowed to a little bit of pressure to include it because people would expect to see it there. If people are interested in Thelma and Louise they should certainly see a film called Messidor by Alain Tanner, which is included in the book. It is a very similar film but it takes the feminist perspective of Thelma and Louise that much further. It was made something like twenty years before but it’s a much more audacious film. With regard to some the other films that you mentioned, instead of They Live By Night I actually included the update, Thieves Like Us, by Robert Altman, which is a virtual remake – it’s based on the same book. They Live By Night is one of my favourite films but I realised that I already had a number of films that were covering the film noir angle. That’s one of the other ones that I regret not having. If I could go back, I probably would have included it.

VS: What about The Wild One? It seems to me that it should definitely have been in there.

JW: The Wild One is interesting. It’s one of the ten films that I say I wish I had included in the introduction. I watched all the films again and I thought that The Wild One had dated very much, which is not to detract from the film; it’s still an important film. But instead of The Wild One, I decided to include a British film called The Leather Boys because it takes many aspects of The Wild One, the idea of the teenage tearaways, the idea of counter-culture, the idea of using motor vehicles as a way to break free from the constricting norms of society, but it also had a whole homoerotic aspect between the two male leads. The other thing is that The Leather Boys perhaps isn’t a film that people would expect to see in there. One of the things I wanted to do was to get people to go away and see films that they maybe hadn’t seen. I’m sure everybody reading the book will know of or will have seen The Wild One but maybe they won’t know The Leather Boys. In the entry I wrote about The Leather Boys I make lots of references to The Wild One by way of saying, you’re probably expecting to be reading about The Wild One, but you’re not, you’re reading The Leather Boys, and this is why… I wish I could have had both.

VS: One of the things that you’ve touched on earlier is how some filmmakers construct almost all of their films as road movies of some kind. You’ve mentioned Wim Wenders; I would probably pick Jim Jarmusch as the ultimate example of that. So it must have been difficult to deal with filmmakers like that in a book like yours because so many of their films are very interesting, diverse examples of the road movie.

JW: Yes, it was kind of that three films per director rule. There’s a quote from Truffaut where he says, ‘I’ve always just remade the same film several times’. I think Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, not to say that they’re just remaking the same film, but they’ve obviously struck upon something that they feel very comfortable doing. And Jim Jarmusch is another director, who you could arguably say, has made only road movies. Dead Man is one of those interesting films, which again isn’t in there but I wish it was, because it’s a Western but it’s obviously a road movie. Both Jarmusch and Wenders – and in real life they are very close – are interested in the way that the road movie opens up the possibility to look at these kind of insular characters. Their characters are all ridden by ennui, melancholia and self-doubt and the road movie is a perfect template to explore that. I don’t think Wenders and Jarmusch are unique as directors associated with a particular genre. John Ford for example is very much associated with Westerns and he certainly didn’t only make Westerns. And you could say the same thing about directors that are associated with the horror genre. With regard to Wenders and Jarmusch this idea of a journey is something that obviously fits the characters that they like to explore. I think it also fits the way in which they like to work. When Wim Wenders made Kings of the Road, which is one of my favourite road movies, he very famously didn’t have a script. He had a very rough outline of the kind of film that he wanted to make. He went out with a very minimal crew and he would visit a location and the night before he was due to shoot he would write a few pages of dialogue. Then they would improvise as they went along. I think Jarmusch works in a similar way. He obviously has a script, a template of what he wants to do. But the idea of being out on the road gives him a certain amount of freedom. As they work with bigger stars it probably becomes more difficult for them to do that. If you look at Jarmusch’s last film, Broken Flowers, it’s obviously a road movie and does involve a journey but it’s more structured and less esoteric in its approach than Stranger than Paradise or Dead Man were.

VS: Stranger Than Paradise – that was a massive turning point in the history of the road movie and of American cinema, right?

JW: Stranger Than Paradise is such an important film for numerous reasons. There’s a book called Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, which is a history of American independent cinema from the 1980s. And the writer of the book, John Pierson, pinpoints Stranger Than Paradise as a defining moment in American independent filmmaking in that it radically altered the way that American independent films were not only made but also marketed. Stranger Than Paradise came out of the tradition of films such as John Cassavetes’ and the European filmmakers of the sixties and seventies. Jarmusch always cites Wenders as well as Ozu as an influence and Stranger Than Paradise is shot in monochrome black and white with extremely long takes and a very static camera. It has at its centre a relationship between two men and a woman, which is also linked to the key American road movies of the early seventies – themselves influenced by European filmmakers, specifically Antonioni – like Vanishing Point or Two-Lane Blacktop in that it looks at the breakdown in communication between the sexes. So Stranger Than Paradise almost encapsulates the history of American and European cinema from about the 1950s. But it does it in a very un-self-conscious way and when the film was made, it really didn’t feel like there’d been anything like it at that time. If I remember correctly the tagline for Stranger Than Paradise when it was released was ‘a new kind of American movie’. And it really did feel like that, although if you analyse it carefully it wasn’t especially that new. But it redefined the boundaries. It said films don’t have to go ABC, they can go ACB; they can do things in a different way, they don’t have to have big stars in, they don’t have to have this pay-off ending, they can leave questions unanswered. And it had great music. It was a film that felt… I hate to use the word cool… but people often compare Stranger Than Paradise to jazz and it felt like rules were being broken and all bets were off. There are other films that came out in the wake of Stranger Than Paradise that were equally influential. I talked about this book by John Pierson and it analyses the huge impetus that it gave to the career of people like John Sayles, but also Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, all these American independent directors that did things in their own way and on their own terms. And the fact that the characters in Stranger Than Paradise were on the margins of society also gave rise to movements such as the New Queer Cinema. The Living End by Gregg Araki is a film that isn’t a road movie but that I felt was very important because it takes characters on the margins of society, which road movies have always done, and it goes one step further: they’re outsiders not only because of their sexuality but also because they’re HIV positive. And they really don’t give a damn, they’re going to take what they want from life, they’re going to refuse to let society dictate to them how they’re going to live their lives, and it feels very liberating. Without Stranger Than Paradise you probably wouldn’t have had films such as The Living End.

VS: For you what is the defining road movie, the one that established the genre? I’m afraid it has to be one that includes a car… How about Easy Rider?

JW: But that’s got bikes in it.

VS: Yeah, bikes work too.

JW: Easy Rider is often called the godfather of the road movie and I think it’s certainly a key film. When we were talking about Stranger Than Paradise we talked about films that were influenced by European filmmakers from the sixties and Easy Rider is certainly one of those films. I think the film that gave birth to the whole idea of the road movie has to be John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. It deals with the American Depression and with having to go on the road for economic reasons. The Grapes of Wrath is important because it makes clear the links between technology and the development of road movies. Road movies began to come about very early on with the films of D.W. Griffith when it became clear that you could mount a camera onto a car. The Grapes of Wrath took that idea and ran with it. It established some of the iconic visual references of the road movie, the shots through windscreens, the use of wing mirrors, the idea of a car travelling on a highway and the shots of the people on the highway. Then you have the film noirs of the 40s and 50s such as They Live By Night, where you also have those iconic visuals, the looks in the wing mirrors, the tension, the kind of enclosed claustrophobia of the car. But those film noirs also took this idea of an America that was very unsure of itself, and unsure of where it was going; a kind of America that was suffering a hangover from WWII and didn’t know what its future direction was going to be; an America that started to view the open road not as something to go out on and celebrate but as something to be fearful of, with the idea that you didn’t really know where the road was going to take you. Instead of the road offering this kind of escape and adventure it began to be seen as something that was fraught with danger. So in the 40s and 50s this whole idea of paranoia crept in and it was the European filmmakers, Bergman with Wild Strawberries and Fellini with La Strada, who developed this idea that the road wasn’t going to bring happiness but misery and introspection. Because of films like that you had the birthing of films such as Easy Rider. Easy Rider is also important in terms of the way it uses music. I mentioned at the start that one of the reasons I like Chris Petit’s Radio On and Wenders’ films is this idea of music in motion, or sound and vision, to use a Bowie quote. And Easy Rider certainly did that; it cut entire sequences to pop records. It still has one of the biggest selling soundtracks in motion pictures history. But it’s also important in that at the end of the film – I won’t spoil it for anybody who hasn’t seen it – this idea of an America where possibilities are open is shown to be false. The tagline for the poster was something like ‘free men that went in search of America and couldn’t find it anywhere’. Easy Rider is very much a film about an America that has lost touch with itself. It harks back to the film noirs of the 40s and 50s but replaces WWII with Vietnam. It shows characters from all walks of life, you have a lawyer played by Jack Nicholson, a pot-head played by Dennis Hopper, and everybody is lost and everybody is looking for something. But the road doesn’t bring any easy answers, what it brings is frustration and ultimately death. I like the bleakness of road movies. There’s another quote I really like from a Hal Hartley movie called Simple Men, which I described in the book as a road movie with a flat tyre. One of the characters, who wants to leave this small town that he’s marooned in, says to someone: ‘I want adventure, I want romance’. And the other character says: ‘There’s no such thing as adventure. There’s no such thing as romance. There’s only trouble and desire.’ I think that’s very much what the road movie is about.

VS: There’s obviously a strong link between road movies and America, and most of the films we’ve talked about are American films. In the book you include films from other countries. How do you feel they compare with American films? Do you feel that the road movie remains essentially an American genre?

JW: People have described the road movie as being America’s greatest gift to contemporary culture and I think there’s a strong argument with that. The motor car was properly developed within America and the road movie is very much linked with the development of not only car technology but also the building of roads, and America was certainly at the forefront of that too. But the important thing about the book was to show that it’s not unique to America. I already mentioned Wild Strawberries and La Strada, two very important European road movies. In recent years we’ve seen a huge boom in road movies from Latin America with Y tu mamá también, Bombí³n el perro and The Motorcycle Diaries. A lot of the filmmakers working in Europe and further afield saw all those American films and said OK, this is a really interesting way of looking at not only the geography of our countries but also at how we view ourselves. Wild Strawberries did for Sweden what a lot of these road movies were doing for America. It was a way of showing to the Swedish people how their lives were changing and how their aspirations perhaps weren’t being met. But what’s interesting is that a lot of these filmmakers not only used the road movie template as a means to analyse their own social and political situations but they also began to use it as a dialogue with American culture and American imperialism. The best example of that is Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road. The whole film is about the dominance of American culture. The dialogue between the two lead characters is all about pop songs and the film travels through villages where rural cinemas are no longer able to operate because of the dominance of American movies. The film concludes in a kind of abandoned border patrol hut between East and West Germany with one of the characters saying to the other one: ‘The Yanks have even colonised our subconscious’. These filmmakers took the road movie template, held it as a mirror and turned it back on America. In turn American movies such as Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point began to be influenced by that. They took the melancholia and introspection of these European films and they injected it into their own films. If you look at a film like Familia Rodante, the Pablo Trapero film, it is a very clear influence on Little Miss Sunshine. So I don’t think that films from America have just influenced the rest of the world. I think it’s now a situation where the rest of the world is equally influential on road movies from America. I think of it as a cultural exchange.

VS: To end this interview I’d like to ask you what is probably a very difficult question: what is your favourite road movie?

JW: Can I pick two?

VS: All right then.

JW: For very personal reasons I’m a very big fan of a film called Candy Mountain. It’s directed by Robert Frank and it’s written by Rudy Wurlitzer. It opened at the ICA several years ago and I went to see it every single night for about a week. I became obsessed with it because it looks at the interaction between movies and music. The cast is made up of people like Tom Waits, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Joe Strummer, Arto Lindsay. It’s a real who’s who of musicians. The other reason I became obsessed with it is that it’s written by my favourite screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, who also wrote Two-Lane Blacktop, which is another film that would be in there if I could pick three. I became so obsessed with Candy Mountain that I named my youngest son Rudy after Rudy Wurlitzer. And one of the greatest things for me to come out of this book was that I recently had an email from Rudy Wurlitzer saying that he’d seen the book and he liked it and I emailed back saying, ‘it’s a real honour for me because I like your work so much that I named my son after you’… I love the fact that the hero of Candy Mountain, played by Kevin J. O’Connor, who’s almost like a character from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, goes on this journey and at the end of it he’s left disillusioned but still standing. It says that the road can bend you and it can break you but it can never completely destroy you, and I like that. The other film that I would pick is Radio On by Chris Petit. It’s widely considered to be the first British road movie. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s certainly the best. It’s hugely influenced by Wim Wenders; it was executively produced by Wenders, it uses Martin Schäfer, one of Wenders’ cinematographers, and it casts one of Wim Wenders’ leading ladies, Lisa Kreuzer. It’s a film that looks at Britain at a very particular time, a Britain in economic decline, a Britain that was thirsting for social and cultural change, but was really unsure of its identity and its future. It catches Britain right before the imminent upheavals of Thatcherism. It’s also a film that is about introspection, about the idea of not really knowing who you are or where you want to go in life. And it has an absolutely fantastic soundtrack. It’s very audacious and it certainly broke boundaries; if anything it was ahead of its time. When Radio On was released I think it was met with a certain amount of confusion because people hadn’t seen anything like it. Thirty years later it’s held as a classic.

John Waters: Hairhopping to Hollywood


Format: Cinema

Release date:


Director: John Waters

Cast: Divine, Ricki Lake, Deborah Harry

USA 1987

88 minutes

The Hairspray remake is released on 20 July 2007.

Distributor Entertainment

Director: Adam Shankman

Cast: John Travolta, Michele Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah

USA 2007

He is known as the Pope of Trash, peddling movies which have shocked audiences and angered the censors since the 70s. But nothing John Waters ever committed to celluloid is as shocking as his decision to allow Cheaper by the Dozen 2 director Adam Shankman, to remake his cheerful hit Hairspray.

Waters made his name with films such as Mondo Trash, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, which ooze trashiness in both style and content. The sacred 180° rule of filming is often broken, heads are cut out of the picture, and shots of anal flexing, bestiality and diseased, violating penises are held for that little bit too long. Those films were made with a total dearth of means, Waters borrowing money from his father and roping in his friends and friends’ friends to act, paint sets and primp hair.

By the time the cameras were rolling for Hairspray, however, Waters’ bank balance had grown in inverse correlation with his taste for the disgusting. Boasting a healthy budget and a Hollywood studio, Waters’ 1988 film is a far cry from his early movies. The film is about Tracey Turnblad – an overweight teen from Baltimore who dances her way onto The Corney Collins Show, managing to break down redneck segregation policies of 1960s America as she goes. With a cracking soundtrack, a polished script and the newly discovered charming teenage star Ricki Lake, Waters had himself his first mainstream hit.

Two decades later, the film has been remade with a new soundtrack, an altered script, a new undiscovered leading actress and, playing her mother, a cross-dressing John Travolta in a fat suit. Does anyone find fat suits funny? Certainly Terry Jones’ Mr Creosote character raised a few laughs in The Meaning of Life in 1983, but since then? Eddie Murphy thumped about as an overweight woman in Norbit, seeing the film belly-flop at the box office. It seems that one too many Friends re-runs has extinguished our appetite for prosthetic chins and spare tyres.

Unlike Travolta, Divine, who played Tracey’s mother Edna in Waters’ Hairspray, had no need for fake weight. A naturally hefty man, Divine only needed a stuffed bra to cut a matronesque figure. Indeed, it is his size that defined him as an iconic cinema star. Divine’s ample girth was matched by his skyscraping hair, his killer heels and his raised eyebrows – pencilled so high he had to shave back his hairline to make space. He turns a number of heads when strutting down a busy Baltimore road in Waters’ seminal work Pink Flamingos. These onlookers, as Waters revealed, were no stage-groomed extras, but genuine shoppers walking past the camera, startled to see a 20-stone transvestite made up like Elizabeth Taylor on acid. Divine looked like this on and off set. Having originally set out to subvert the transvestite scene – where Judy Garland impersonators featured heavily – Divine was nurtured by Waters into a fully-fledged actor equally as able to play a caring mother (Hairspray, Polyester) as a dog-shit-eating trashbag (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble).

But casting aside, it is Hairspray‘s newly re-styled soundtrack that commits the biggest crime. Waters’ soundtracks have always evoked the spirit of his films. Divine struts his filthy self to the tune of Little Richard’s ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ in Pink Flamingos, while Female Trouble opens to a lounge tune of the same title. Written by Waters and sung by Divine, it strikes the tragicomic chord that characterises the film. In Hairspray the soundtrack transcends this scene-setting importance. Hairspray being a film about dancing, the music comes from within the story in most scenes – from the dancehall’s stereo or straight from the bands employed to play on The Corney Collins Show. The music perfectly demonstrates the clash between black and white cultures. Well-groomed white teens shake a tail feather to black classics by The Five Du Tones and Barbara Lynn, while their black counterparts do the same thing but hidden away from both the media spotlight and the white neighbourhood. In one scene, a pushy white mother, played by Deborah Harry, urges her teenage daughter to listen to white artists such as Shelley Fabares and Connie Francis rather than the ‘coloured music’ she likes to listen to.

So if anything, it is for its great soundtrack that Hairspray is remembered. The belting numbers twist and shout throughout the film, and have been immortalised by new generations who know and love the film. So why oh why does the Hairspray remake dispose of these tunes? Instead of the original music we have a tailor-made soundtrack that is as anachronistic as it is tuneless. In its jangly Broadway harmonies it emits a rather unsubtle whiff of Disney. In fact, the new songs are so bland they make you want to eat dog shit just to reawaken your senses.

It poses the question which Waters himself asked about movie remakes. Speaking about a proposed US version of Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown, he said: ‘Why would you remake a great movie? You should remake the bad ones.’

You said it, John.

Lisa Williams