May 2, 2004|Mark S. Waters looks a little like Colin Firth and hails from the banal horrors of South Bend, IN. As we chatted politely in his suite at Denver's Hotel Teatro, I noticed that his speech is halted by a little stammering now and again, which I interpreted as nerves or excitement or, perhaps, both. Mr. Waters's laughter, though, when it comes, is booming and infectious. Mainly there to ask him about his interesting debut film The House of Yes, about his treatment of Asians in his two Lindsay Lohan vehicles, and about how it was that he found himself directing a parade of 'tween flicks after so auspicious a beginning, I have to say, after a time it dawned on me that Mr. Waters was in fact desirous of a mainstream career. Call it hopelessly Pollyannaish, but it had literally never occurred to me that people who make debuts as cunning as The House of Yes would consciously move on to safe and popular films. That being said, Mr. Waters has expressed that Mean Girls will be the last flick of this sort for him, and as swan songs go, one could do worse: it's not very good, but in a culture of lowered expectations, sometimes you take what you can get.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Because your background is in avant-garde theatre, what was it drew you to the conventionally formatted The House of Yes?
MARK WATERS: Well, y'know, when I went to college, I went as pre-med and found myself sidetracked midway into avant-garde theatre. I was doing more acting than directing at first, gradually moved off-stage, made a few Super8 films and almost as a lark applied to the American Film Institute, where I got in. I realized with a shock that I'd better start taking this stuff seriously. After I graduated, I found that I was caught in this irony where my first feature would actually mark a full circle return to the theatre to adapt a play that I'd only seen in San Francisco. But as you say, it was a very straightforward play, especially in comparison to what I'd been involved in at school, five people in a room and see what would happen.
I read that Wendy MacLeod was reluctant to give up rights to her play.
Yeah, unfortunately it kind of bombed... Bombed is the wrong word--there were productions in New York and London that Wendy didn't like so when I approached her about making it into a film years later, she was really leery, really reluctant at first. I basically let her know that at least I had seen the play being performed well, that I would give her creative and script approval, and she agreed finally to give me the rights for very little money. We only met for the first time, face-to-face, at Sundance that year. She was very happy with how it turned out.
What were the topics of your Super8 films? Did they influence MacLeod in her decision?
(laughs) No, that's funny. One of them was about autoerotic asphyxiation. A wife is binging on chocolate while the husband is engaged in this autoerotic asphyxiation and the wife walks in on him but is so worried about her own chocolate addiction that she doesn't even notice what her husband's doing. The Hungarian head of the AFI thought it was brilliant. (laughs) At AFI, I made a few shorts, one of them about a child star gone to seed--but I tell you what, I'd show those Super8's in a second, but the movies I did in film school... Let me say that you kind of make your bad mistakes in film school, that's the benefit of film school--all of my bad, amateurish mistakes are in those films and a lot of times when I look at bad first-time directors' films, I can see that they haven't gone through that process yet.
You seem to be interested in the idea of imperfect protagonists trying to infiltrate perfect communities.
I've never heard it platformed that way, but I suppose [there are] certainly parallels to my own life in that I grew up in the Midwest in a lower-middle class upbringing. After my parents divorced, my brother and I slept in beds that were two feet apart from each other and now we look back and say, "Oh my God, I can't believe we used to sleep so close to each other. Gross." But the thing is just by virtue of ambition and education, we both moved into different realms--I got into an Ivy League school, this rarefied air, and my brother pioneered going to Hollywood for us. So I think there's this Midwest ambition to it, but of course I always had this feeling of being this bumpkin. This feeling that we don't belong here, that we're eternally outsiders looking in.
Does it bug you, the comparisons between Mean Girls to your brother's Heathers?
No, it's there, I mean, the numbers even work out: three Heathers to three Plastics. But Daniel read it and agreed that there was a different kind of humour and sensibility to it--he said it was Heathers just without the guns and I think that's valid, here's a situation that we try to resolve using real-life high school weaponry.
Remembering that you're in Denver and that Columbine is about thirty minutes away.
(laughs) Right, I guess I should be careful with what I describe as real-life high school weaponry. What I mean is that Mean Girls tries to deal with these issues in an emotionally violent way--if you weren't allowed to actually kill them. I was ribbing my brother that killing the jocks and the Heathers was the easy way out.
What happened after The House of Yes? Do you feel as though you were changed by your budgets?
Actually, I've never done a really big movie. Freaky Friday cost 27 million dollars, which by Hollywood standards is really pretty cheap. Of course, compared to The House of Yes--that was shot in 23 days on a budget of 1.5 million dollars... Y'know, after I got put in movie jail after Head Over Heels, I made a television movie [called Warning: Parental Advisory] that cost about 3.5 million--and at the end of the day, really, it's all the same, you're just trying to make it good. Even if you're rushed and trying to shoot six pages a day, I never felt like I was scrimping, I'd always do the extra take and go balls to the wall. I never feel like there's enough time, that if it was up to me I'd edit and fine tune it forever, even with a movie with a long post-production period. It's not so much that I was done editing as they had to pry it from my hands: it's time to release the movie, you have to stop now. That's it, I think there's not that much difference between the sprint mentality and the long-distance mentality, Brad Silberling had an editing room right next to mine, doing Lemony Snicket, which is a 125-day schedule, you just have to acquire sort of a Tai Chi mindset. But Mean Girls was just forty days--so, a difference, of course, but more just a minor adjustment of attitude. You're always trying to do your best.
Tell me more about "movie jail" and what you think happened to Head Over Heels.
(laughs) Head Over Heels was a movie that I had grand ambitions for as I started to make it, but as soon as I started to shoot it, it was clear that the producer [Robert Simonds] and I had much different ideas about what kind of film we were making. He was a lot more powerful than I was, but it was clear that I wasn't going to budge on what I wanted to do, so we ended up fighting and making a movie that neither of us liked. It also didn't help that it didn't go to the marketplace until after a string of really awful Freddie Prinze Jr. movies, so even though I don't think that Head Over Heels was necessarily as terrible as those movies, the ship had already sailed and no one wanted to see it. But whatever, I don't have much of a proprietary feeling about the movie, but I did learn that unless you want to take your name off of a movie, go the Alan Smithee route or something, you better own everything that makes it into the final cut. Luckily, since, I've been in a position where the studios were more supportive--but in the end of the day, it's you on the firing line.
And they pulled the trigger.
Yes they did. I had all sorts of projects ready to go after Head Over Heels, stuff that I'd written and been developing with studios for months and months, and then the film is released and suddenly it's like, "Yeah, we're not going to make it with you anymore." And I'm flabbergasted, right, I mean we've been working on it for ages and always with me in mind as the director, and they'd say, "We love the script and we're going to pay your option, but we can't get anyone involved with the project if we hire you as director so we have to say goodbye." I was getting dumped left and right, I had to start from scratch. I was actually almost worst off than if I'd never made a movie at all.
So after the TV movie, you get Freaky Friday--were you the first choice?
Well, I don't know about that, but I will tell you that when I went in there, learning what I'd learned from Head Over Heels, I expressed some pretty deep reservations with the screenplay that they'd given me. I had a real outsider's attitude in that I didn't care if I lost this job, I'd lost a lot of jobs, but I wasn't going to do something again where I didn't at least have a say in the screenplay and the content. The existing screenplay wasn't at all worth making and I told them so--that it needed to be updated in any number of ways. And Nina Jacobson and Andrew Gunn were right on board, extremely receptive to the changes I wanted to make, really ready to think outside the box and take it into the 21st century. So I ended up getting hired by being fatalistic about the job interview--the converse of movie jail is having a 110 million dollar hit. It's better to be on this side.
Any plans on doing another of your screenplays? So far, you've only done your House of Yes adaptation, but I've read of other projects.
I've found that there are so many better writers than me out there that it's just easier, and probably wiser, to use their stuff and work with them. On Mean Girls, [screenwriter/star] Tina Fey was just fantastic--a complete pleasure to collaborate with. It helps that the script was already great and even more so that Fey is the best punch-up writer in the biz. I'd say to her that a joke needed to be funnier and instead of giving me some sort of attitude or defensiveness about the work, she'd say, "I know, it's terrible, let me work on it," and she'd come up with six more jokes on the spot.
Any plans on working with your brother?
Yeah, yeah, there's a project for Paramount, this novel that they own called The Dice Man...
Another Daniel Waters/Andrew Dice Clay production?
(laughs) That's funny--Ford Fairlane references are always funny. No, it's a novel from the Sixties, really interesting, basically about a guy who lets the roll of the dice determine all of his life choices. It sends his life careening off on this weird adventure--we're going to modernize it. Hopefully we'll get more opportunities like that down the line.
I want to talk about your treatment of race in your films, recalling that you once wished to update Aristophanes's "Lysistrata" as a racial gang war at a high school.
Yeah, that one was really poorly timed with the Columbine tragedy--I was shopping it around during that period and people were uniformly appalled. I've been working on it for a while now, I really want to nail it, but it's elusive. The racial issues that I experienced in my high school, sort of a bussing situation, is really what I wanted to explore with that project but, again, it doesn't seem to be an idea that anyone wants to give me any money to make.
Let me focus on the treatment of Asian characters in a cursory way in Mean Girls, but more directly in Freaky Friday.
The Vietnamese girls.
Oh right, right, y'know, there was actually a bit cut out with them--one of the mathletes is actually supposed to be the brother of the girl who makes out with the coach, Tim Pak and Trang Pak. (laughs) Anyway, yeah, in Freaky Friday the Chinese characters are really treated in a cartoon fashion. There's one element in a movie that strives for reality that you're allowed, I think, to push the boundaries of reality, and for me in Freaky Friday it was the Chinese mother with the magic fortune cookies.
You didn't think that might be offensive?
No, I mean, I never looked at it that way--with everything else played straight, I just feel that you're allowed to have one thing that pushes the envelope of reality a little like that. Like What Women Want--everything's played straight but you get that one thing, y'know, that Mel can hear women's thoughts. That drives the fantasy element.
Let's switch gears a little: why so many films from a young girl's perspective?
The only thing I can say is that I find women to be more interesting than men and people will say, well, is it because you're homosexual that you're so much more in tune with women...
Are you homosexual?
(laughs) No, no--I find that if I have to go to work in the morning and have to put my camera on something, I'd rather put my camera on beautiful girls than grey, unshaven men. That's a crude way of putting it, but the truth is that I find women more fascinating because they're so inexplicable to me, and the more you try to learn about them, the more inexplicable they become. One of the reasons, too, that I made Freaky Friday was that my wife was pregnant at the time and she said that you and the baby will want to watch this movie together one day--and then with Mean Girls with my daughter a two-year-old now, there's definitely a home-life influence on these decisions as well.
Do you miss working with actors? I'm thinking of Genevieve Bujold and Parker Posey from The House of Yes.
(laughs) Well, Jamie Lee Curtis I'd put up there with those people, at least in their ballpark. But believe me, one reason I won't be doing another teen movie for a while is that I'm looking forward to working with more developed, more mature actors--it just elevates your own game. There are joys to working with younger actors, of getting in there right by the camera and walking them through a performance sometimes. But there's really something liberating about like a Genevieve where you just say a word or give a look and they'll understand instantly what you're saying and can provide for you four or five different things to choose from. Then, on the other side with them, being able to shoot a five-minute master shot without stopping is an amazing luxury as well. So, yeah, naturally, I'm looking forward to getting back to working with some folks who have a little more seasoning.