“An Evening With John Waters” will be held at USC’s Norris Cinema Theatre on Friday, and will be moderated by USC professor James Egan.
Egan, a filmmaker, producer and professor, has been friends with the iconic and iconoclastic filmmaker John Waters for almost 40 years.
In the early ’70s, Egan did Waters a favor by providing an insurance policy for the film Female Trouble with backing from Egan’s father’s company — but he didn’t ask his dad for permission. In return, Waters inspired Egan to pursue a lifetime career in the film industry.
“If it weren’t for [Waters], I would’ve never gotten into the film business,” Egan said. “The first student project I did in film school was an interview with him.”
Waters built a name on outrageous “trash films” that advanced the world’s image of the outlaw and the outsider by putting them in the foreground of many of his early films such as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living. He was attracted to the irony of ugliness, forcing the viewer to confront the obese, the snaggle-toothed and the perverse, casting actors such as Divine — perhaps the most famous transvestite of all time.
“People who first saw [Waters’] films thought these people were real,” Egan said. “It wasn’t so much the content of the films that shocked people but the possibility that these people existed and were thriving in America. He had to explain they were all fictional characters he made up in his mind. You don’t lose yourself in the characters of a Waters film — you are confronted by them.”
In addition to creating a cult following, Waters is recognized by many of modern American cinema’s most important contemporary directors, such as Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, his work having influenced their work.
“Passionate people consider him the father of modern cinema,” Egan said. “He’s going to hate that word: ‘father.’”
Egan recently edited a book with Waters of interviews, which contains 23 articles written since 1965 by writers such as Dennis Cooper, J.T. Leroy, indie film director Todd Solondz and Egan himself. The University Press of Mississippi approached Egan to edit the book after hearing of his connections with Waters through his USC faculty biography.
“[Waters] is a very private man,” Egan said. “Because we have this lifelong friendship, I had access that few other people would be given to his archives and papers.”
To work on the book, Egan visited archives in Baltimore — Waters’s hometown and the setting of many of his films — the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Juilliard School, Wesleyan University — where Waters’ archives are kept — and USC’s Doheny Cinematic Arts Library.
Egan also collaborated with associate professor and directing program head Everett Lewis, who contributed an appreciation piece to the end of the book.
“Lewis really supported me and deserves credit,” Egan said. “This wouldn’t have happened without his love for John Waters.”
The USC School of Cinematic Arts, intrigued by the collaboration, awarded Egan a grant, which enabled him to spend his time researching and preparing the book.
Egan read hundreds of interviews and eventually narrowed them down to the top 40.
“I wrote up little descriptions about why these articles were pivotal for depicting his work and career, and he and I discussed those and narrowed it down to the 23 that are in the book,” Egan said.
The rights to the interviews were not difficult to obtain, Egan said, because each of the writers asked were “honored” to be included in the book.
“The publisher said he’d never seen such incredible generosity,” Egan said. “It really reflects the love people have for [Waters].”
Egan currently teaches graduate-level screenwriting courses at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and is the founder and head of the award-winning Wild At Heart Films, a company that aims to produce movies “that make a difference.” It has produced films including the documentary Kimjongilia, which focuses on concentration camps in North Korea.
“I started out wanting to make John Waters movies and I end up making significantly important social change films,” Egan said. “But [Waters] has had an incredible impact implementing social change through humor. That definitely inspired me.”