Considering the Risks, John Waters Led a Charmed Life on His Early Films

He preferred that people just follow his orders and not ask questions that couldn’t have a cocky, outrageous answer


Up until "Hairspray," John Waters’ actors never signed releases or contracts, and no commercial entity permitted in writing its products or names to be used. I just recently read a piece by James Egan, author of "John Waters: Interviews," who first met John during "Female Trouble" after John had called his company to purchase a liability insurance policy.

It was a shock to me. I had no idea John had insurance, and even though I was production manager for the next film, "Desperate Living," John never told me he had liability insurance for it, either. I understood that there was no money for insurance, and like a band of hippies, we were on our own. I don’t know if the production was covered, or just John.

Looking back, as production manager, I could have been sued for millions of dollars if something bad happened. Fortunately, my net worth was probably less than $5,000, and at 24 years old, managing my first movie, I had no clue about liability and torts.

(Pictured: On "Desperate Living's" set with Kevin Weber, John Waters, Richard Ellsberry.)

In later movies, I made damn sure I was named as an “also insured.”

This was indicative of John’s compartmentalizing his affairs. He didn’t want people to share too many details of his business. His father owned a very successful fire extinguisher company in Baltimore, so John had an astute advisor in his business dealings — thank-you very much. He preferred that people just follow his orders and not ask questions that couldn’t have a cocky, outrageous answer.

John led a charmed life with his movie business affairs in the early days. Considering the risks taken in his films: car-driving shots, guns on the set, Divine swimming in a freezing river, the "Pink Flamingos" trailer bursting into an out-of-control inferno, nothing bad ever happened. From working on dozens of films, I know bad things happen: broken bones, electrical shocks, lawsuits from angry neighbors, car wrecks, drug busts, thefts, statutory rape, large runaway animals, disturbing the peace violations, air-space violations, child labor violations, even people dying on set.

These things happen with frightening regularity, and are why movies require tens of millions of dollars of property and liability insurance. But not with John — at least until "Hairspray," when we were insured for everything, even rainy days, and were glad we were insured on several rough occasions.

Early in the production of "Female Trouble," John signed formal agreements giving a generous-looking 25 percent of all of his films’ profits through "Pink Flamingos" to be split among the original Dreamlanders. All films after "Pink" paid a flat rate, with no ownership or royalties — backed-up by a thick contract. The hope was that if "Female Trouble" was a success, John could raise real money, and pay everyone a decent day rate — on the next one.

In the movie biz, sometimes it happens, but usually not. The royalties helped those who were nearly destitute at the time — but it wasn’t a living. The contracts pointedly did not include other income from John’s appearance fees at college screenings and film festivals, which increased steadily, and for years dwarfed what he earned from the movies.

Speaking of taking care of people down the road, when "Hairspray" the musical became a Broadway hit, and John’s celebrity and success reached a new high, New Line released a fancy boxed set of his remastered films. Though it had been more than 20 years since I had had contact with New Line, I received a copy in the mail one day, with a personal thank-you message signed by Bob Shaye.

Bob had sold New Line to Time Warner/AOL for millions of dollars where he continued as the executive producer of the hugely budgeted "Lord of the Rings" films. I would have preferred Bob’s autograph on a $10,000 check, thanking me for the thousands of hours worked on New Line’s pre-big budget movies, when we squeezed every penny until it bled.

Ah, showbiz!