What Hath John Waters Wrought? A Musical with a Cast You Wouldn't Believe

updated 09/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It is 8 A.M., and John Waters, who has already made an impressive dent in the day's first pack of cigarettes, is perched in his movie director's chair, his back as straight as the pencil-thin moustache that skates across his upper lip. Scanning a bank of video monitors in the driveway of Franklin Middle School in Reisterstown, Md., he surveys the set of Cry Baby, his latest—and at $8 million, by far most expensive—twisted satire. Just 50 feet away, Johnny (21 Jump Street) Depp is lighting matches with his teeth, getting into character for the movie's title role. Slouched with him against a dilapidated 1951 Ford is Ricki Lake, stuffed with a pregnancy pillow, and teen porn queen-turned-actress Traci Lords. Period prepster extras in saddle shoes and Barbie-doll ponytails parade across the school grounds as the cameras get ready to roll.

Cry Baby, a musical filled with obscure '50s tunes, was written and directed by Waters. It tells the tale of a tough guy with a heart of gold (Depp) who falls in love with a wealthy and oh-so-nice girl from the other side of (Amy Locane). She's sick of being good, and their attempt at romance pits a posse of squares against a gang of "drapes"—Baltimore parlance for greasers. "I wanted to do an early-'50s juvenile delinquency comedy because it's the one genre that hasn't been satirized," says Waters, 43. "The movie is about how it's healthy to rebel." And, about how society's misfits are often the cream of its crop.

Teaching the lesson is one of the most eclectic casts assembled since, well, since Waters's Hairspray, which last year featured Lake, Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono, Pia Zadora and Waters's leading man/ lady, the late ambisexual character actor, Divine. Like Hairspray, Cry Baby is likely to attract a more mainstream audience than, say, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, and its budget is bigger than all Waters's previous films combined. The infamously warped Pink Flamingos, which featured Divine eating dog doo, cost $12,000 in 1972. Cry Baby, produced by director Ron Howard's Imagine Films, ran about $70,000 a day. The bankroll enabled Waters to cull what he gleefully calls his dream cast. Says he: "I got everyone but Mother Teresa." Patty Hearst makes her screen debut joining Joey Heatherton, Troy Donahue, David Nelson, Iggy Pop, Polly Bergen and that Waters perennial actress, Mink Stole. "John just went through the tabloids," says producer Rachel Talalay. "He'd say, 'This person isn't dead yet,' or 'She looks pretty good.' "

Hearst, 35, who plays a hopelessly naive mother, was surprised by Waters's invitation to join the cast. "Then I thought, 'What the heck?' " she says. Says Waters: "She's an American legend, and I'm her fan. She was the only one I was starstruck by."

After weeks of night shooting, Cry Baby switched back to a sunshine shift on a recent summer day. The actors were deposited by bus at the Franklin school at 6:30 A.M. "It's like a traveling circus," says Waters. "We just pull up the caravans and let the lunatics out." By 7 A.M. the hag wagon (Waters's name for the hair-and-makeup trailer) is bustling: Depp's hair is being waxed and sprayed, Lake is awaiting her hairpiece, and Norman Mailer's son, Stephen, 23, who plays a quintessential dork, is crooning Mister Sandman while Polly Bergen applies her lip liner. By 8 A.M. bullhorns are demanding quiet on the set, and Waters is lighting another butt. In today's scene Cry Baby (Depp) and Allison (Locane) are exchanging shy pleasantries after school when Allison's grandmother (Bergen) pulls up in a giant yellow convertible. Four hours later, the same characters are mouthing the same lines, and it's clear that not even the wackiness of a Waters script can eclipse the tedium that defines moviemaking. Lunch—which includes the very '50s dessert options of chocolate pudding or quivering squares of cherry Jell-O—provides a respite, but in the meantime the skies darken. It is day 54 of the 59-day shoot, and there have already been 20 days of rain, 13 of them consecutive. Depp, who's having a lot more fun than he does working on his TV series, rushes off to find his aerosol can of "Magic Anti-Jinx Spray" and returns to antically mist the set. "It's a good thing we all have a sense of humor," says Bergen, 59, who plays poker with the teamsters during breaks. "Otherwise we'd kill ourselves."

In fact the Cry Baby crowd is amazingly good-natured. "The most unusual thing about this set," says Depp, "is that everyone is beside themselves with happiness." A near-reverent admiration for Waters is the tie that binds. Says Hearst: "John has a way of picking people who get along. He doesn't have time for prima donnas."

Waters chose his cast carefully. He found Depp, 26, by poring through teen magazines. "I felt like such a child molester," he chuckles. After reading the script, Depp felt "love, starbursts, the Fourth of July," he says. Lake's part as Pepper, Cry Baby's pregnant, unwed sister, was written with her in mind; Locane, who recently starred in Lost Angels, was the first actress to try out for Allison. "She has the perfect combination of innocence and wanting to go bad," says Waters. Just 17, Locane had heard of Johnny Depp but was a little fuzzy on Patty Hearst. "We talked about living in Connecticut," Locane says. "She seemed like a nice housewife."

Friendships formed fast. "The first night we all went out and got pretty twisted," says Lords. A round of birthday bashes—Depp's, Waters's and Lords's—made the bonding complete. For Traci's 21st, "We had three cakes, a case of champagne and all the weirdos of the world," she says happily. Iggy Pop, 42, had been apprehensive about spending time with "you know, actors," he says. "I'd seen a lot of them on talk shows." But when he returned to his room one day to find an anatomically correct doll with a battery operated appendage, his anxieties were dispelled. "It made me feel at home," says Pop.

Cry Baby, due out next spring, is considerably tamer than Waters's early work. Nobody eats anything untoward, and—in Waters's first movie since the death of his close friend Divine—boys exclusively play boys. "I will never have drag again," he says. "That chapter is over." Still, Waters claims, squashing another cigarette beneath his sneaker, he's courting the same skewed audience: "People with a sense of humor in every country of the world." He pauses. "Well, at least what I think of as humor."

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