Amherst Magazine: Summer 2012

Not Just a Gross-Out Filmmaker

John Waters: Interviews, edited by James Egan ’72 (University Press of Mississippi)

By Josh Bell ’02

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[Nonfiction] In a roundabout way, James Egan owes his career in the film business to insurance. He graduated from Amherst with a degree in sociology and made plans for a career in politics, but meeting filmmaker John Waters two years later helped put his life on a very different path.

As Egan details in the introduction to John Waters: Interviews, he met Waters at a birthday party for the drag queen Divine (who starred in a number of Waters films). Shortly thereafter, Waters recruited Egan, who was working at his family’s insurance company, to secure a completion bond for his movie Female Trouble, welcoming Egan into the extended Waters family and inspiring him to pursue a completely different career.

“It was absolutely the pivotal moment,” Egan says of meeting the filmmaker. “The Waters crowd [were] just really amazing, smart, stimulating people, who were just challenging.” Already soured on politics, Egan shifted gears to film, attending UCLA’s film school and ultimately settling into a career as a screenwriting professor at the University of Southern California and a producer of films, including the award-winning documentaries Angels in the Dust and Kimjongilia.

Now Egan is returning the favor, in a way, as the editor of John Waters: Interviews, the latest in the University Press of Mississippi’s acclaimed Conversations With Filmmakers series. It was that initial insurance-related work with Waters, cited in an online biography, that led the publisher to Egan. “They called me out of the blue, and they asked me if I was interested,” Egan says. “I said, ‘You know, John is very brilliant and is very interested in preserving his legacy, and there’s nothing we can do without his full cooperation.’” Egan decided to fly to Baltimore to seek Waters’ approval in person. “I called him from Los Angeles before I got on the plane,” Egan recalls. “I said, Mississippi Press’ Conversations With Filmmakers wants to do a book on you, and they’ve asked me to be the editor.’ And by the time I landed, he had already called me back, and he said, ‘It’s about time!’”

With Waters’ help, Egan tracked down hundreds of previously published interviews, first whittling down that list to about 40 and then working with Waters to select the final 22, including a new interview, conducted by Egan, that appears for the first time in the book. Egan hopes that the book will show Waters as much more than the gross-out filmmaker behind such shock classics as Pink Flamingos and Polyester. “He’s this great raconteur who talks about politics and art and film and books, and I tried to incorporate at least a sense of that,” Egan says. “If you read this book, you’ll understand that not only is he a great filmmaker but he’s a great sociologist on American culture.”

Egan himself is busy with several new film projects, including a documentary on jazz musician Frank Morgan and another on Der Jüdische Kulturbund, a Jewish-only theater that existed in Berlin under the Nazis. He’s also working with Waters to secure financing for Waters’ next film, “a Dickens-esque Christmas movie” called Fruitcake, which already has Johnny Knoxville attached to costar. “Fruitcake is hilarious and no less outrageous than anything else [Waters has] done,” Egan says.

Being hilarious and outrageous is what Waters does best, and Interviews conveys the filmmaker’s twisted sense of humor along with his intellect. Egan is proud of the research he did for the book and the attention it brings to Waters’ body of work, but ultimately he wants people to enjoy the reading experience. “Make sure that people know that it’s an entertaining book,” he says, “not an academic one.”

Bell, the film editor for Las Vegas Weekly, is a frequent contributor to the Amherst Creates section.