Speeding through unfamiliar Los Angeles neighborhoods in somebody else’s car, I slammed down the locks so John Waters couldn’t escape out the back. In the rearview mirror I watched him fidget, glaring at me from the backseat like pus from a just-popped zit. He threw up his hands and shouted, “You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”
I was trying to make a movie. Excision is a childhood friend’s expansion of a short film he’d directed in college about a surgery-obsessed teenage girl. For the feature, my friend raised the money through former classmates and friends from home. Going the independent route allowed him to make a stranger and bloodier movie, and it also let him hire me.
I’d been a makeup test dummy, squeezing syrupy guts from painted-on wounds. I’d been ridiculed when renting equipment such as a jib, without the apparently important information of what a jib is. Partnered with a roommate, we’d zigzagged the city during grueling days of moving sets that’d been built in our garage, taking them to a dingy studio that often hosted porno shoots. On set I’d sat sweating in folding chairs, staring at trucks, to ensure that neither the trucks nor the folding chairs were stolen.
For a group of us who’d grown up together in Virginia, every day of making the movie was multiple levels of make-believe. Trying to actualize our friend’s fantastical dream for his script meant that we had to pretend that we knew what we were doing. Binging on confidence and coffee, we tried to convince ourselves, and the rest of the crew, that we could create something that wouldn’t just end up on YouTube.
To strengthen the cast, our producers had lined up a string of brief cameos from cult actors. Halfway through the thirty-day shoot, John Waters was scheduled to appear as a foppish reverend who counsels the movie’s delusional main character. The director, my friend Ricky, had rewarded me with the job of chauffeuring Waters for the day.
For a straight kid from the suburbs, I’d found Waters’ dirty, flamboyant portrayals of Baltimore oddly identifiable. I’d secretly watched his movies with my brothers in our basement, and the repulsive beauty was something my friends and I were now trying to emulate. While driving him around, I expected juicy gossip from Serial Mom and the nasty details from filming the chicken scene in Pink Flamingos. We’d be fast friends, I assumed. By the end of the day he’d probably want me to write his next movie.
Rushing to LAX, I also realized that I’d finally be doing something for the movie that I knew how to do: driving a small car and chatting with a film hero. Turns out, I overestimated myself.
With a sweat-dampened sign bearing his name, I met Mr. Waters near baggage claim. He leaned against his luggage in a large blazer with powdery hair. I offered, as instructed, to order something special for his lunch.
“Nooo,” he drawled, the way my grandmother would’ve dismissed running a marathon.
He said he’d eat whatever the crew was having. I loaded his bags into the trunk of a hippopotamus-hued Suburban, the nicest car we could muster from the crew. Relaxed by his easy-going nature, I was beginning to think John Waters would’ve happily ridden around town in my dented, fire-engine red minivan that still had my mom’s Virginia plates.
Before shooting in Santa Monica, I was supposed to take him to check in and change at the Chateau Marmont, a swanky hotel and bar off Sunset Blvd. that collects celebrities, aspiring celebrities, and the people who follow both. As we exited LAX, he began decrying in his throaty falsetto an event he’d hosted the night before in Baltimore.
Growing up, I’d only visited the city for Orioles games or their aquarium. I’d considered “Baltimore” a fairy-tale place that only consisted of baseball and spiraling shark tanks. I told Mr. Waters that his movies had prolonged—albeit warped—my playful image of Charm City.
When he asked what I’d been doing on Excision, I paused, remembering the jumbled tasks of the morning that seemed a decade ago. Waking up around 4 a.m. with two friends who’d crashed on the couch for a few hours after beers, we’d overlooked things like showers and deodorant, shoveled gas into our trucks and generator, dumped trash, lugged equipment, and helped set up the trailers at our location.
“This and that,” I replied, which felt really smooth.
Chatting with John Waters about our little movie felt about as bizarre as trying to relate to Cal Ripken by recounting the time I hit a triple in Little League. But however tenuous Excision felt, there was no obvious reason why Waters shouldn’t trust our increasingly silly belief that we could make a movie.
Then I remembered I was driving a car. For the twenty minutes that we’d been talking, I’d avoided other vehicles and made some turns, but I’d been completely indifferent to the fact that, as the driver, perhaps I should know where we were driving. Mentally I’d been in the backseat with my new best friend, observing the gymnastics of John Waters’ hand gestures.
“Do you know where we are?” he asked, eyeing the random dooughnut spots and seedy tire stores that anchor every intersection in Los Angeles.
For months I’d been doing things for the movie that I didn’t know how to do—assembling equipment, building sets, reversing elephantine trucks into tiny alleys. Optimism and confidence had occasionally bled into lying. I know exactly where we are, I assured him.
Desperate to distract him from the very non-Chateau Marmont motels surrounding us, I lobbed questions to the backseat. I assumed that if I just kept driving, I’d find a road I recognized.
Here are some things that don’t help you figure out where you are in Los Angeles:
• Asking John Waters about his episode of The Simpsons
• Squeezing the steering wheel tighter
• Telling John Waters how often you and your brother used to watch Cry-Baby
• Randomly and frequently turning left
Road closures. Waters kept shifting in his seat. Itchiness exploded across my back. Dead ends. Waters’ long face sank into a scowl. Sweat lurched from my armpits. One-way streets and constructions zones. We entered some nexus of L.A. where every street was unmarked and only two blocks long.
Finally I stumbled upon a sign for the freeway and presumed that I’d blindly navigated us to within an exit of his hotel. As the onramp curved us up, the skyscrapers of downtown L.A. unfurled through the haze.
We didn’t want to be anywhere near downtown L.A.
No stranger to the city, Waters’ suspicions were confirmed. Devoid of his playful cattiness, he shouted, “You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”
Panicked, I thought, “I do now. We’re about forty-five minutes from where we want to be. And, yes, the next exit is onto another highway going the wrong way. But once we’re headed the opposite direction, I’ll know exactly what to do.” Luckily, all I mumbled was, “No.”
One facet of the movie industry I’d quickly observed was the tendency of people to overinflate their own importance. With John Waters attacking his phone in the backseat, I was sure that he’d cancel his cameo. I’d be responsible for ruining the day, the whole movie, and a best friend’s budding career. And it no longer seemed very likely that Waters was going to ask me to write his next movie.
Being tracked on Google Maps by our production office, John Waters ordered me to forget the Chateau Marmont and drive straight to set. The tension simmered, and I was trapped in a car with the man I’d spent weeks envisioning how I’d impress. Crying seemed like a very reasonable option.
L.A.’s traffic is as reliable as it is clichéd. We crept west toward Santa Monica, and I apologized as often as I hit the brakes.
“How long have you lived here?” he asked at one standstill, hunting for an excuse for my lack of direction.
“Two years,” I confessed.
Like a stoned Santa Claus, he let loose a bassy chuckle. I didn’t even know when to lie.
Ninety minutes after picking him up, I carried his bags to the wardrobe trailer I’d helped clean that morning. Unfortunately, the church at our location didn’t have a crypt deep enough to satisfy the hole I wanted to crawl into.
I tortured myself by watching his scenes. In black vestments, Waters rollercoastered his lips in disgust at the main character’s disturbed threats, taking his signature mustache along for the ride. His every sneer and groan felt directed at me.
I was still supposed to take him to the hotel after shooting, and I memorized the simple route. I borrowed a friend’s GPS. By his trailer, I waved multiple copies of directions, white flags to surrender the task to anyone else he preferred.
“No one would mess up like that twice,” he said. Still acting, I assumed.
Rush-hour traffic was actually appreciated. I’d have the chance to show I was somewhat competent, and the slow crawl allowed me to constantly check the directions. I referenced some writers that his book Role Models had turned me on to. I mentioned a short story I’d recently published with a magazine based in Baltimore. I’m literate, I hoped to prove, as I dropped him off.
By 4:30 the next morning, I was idling on the Chateau Marmont’s sloped driveway, an hour before I was supposed to meet him. Within fifteen minutes, John Waters appeared and asked to stop at 7-Eleven.
“So,” he grinned, blowing on a cup of tea, “have you started your newest short story? ‘Lost With Waters’?”
Well, I thought, he remembered that I’m a writer, though it seemed like he also remembered that whole getting-him-lost thing. The rest of the drive, he sat in the backseat with his legs tucked underneath him. He made a tea bag joke. He recommended a particular CVS on La Cienega Blvd. that he said was one of his five favorite stores in America. He reconfirmed that I knew where I was going.
Under a gray sunrise, I lifted his bags onto the curb outside LAX and offered muddy mixtures of apologies and appreciations. He shook my hand and smirked at me the way a great white shark might look at a seal it let live for some unknown reason.
Nearing the end of the jumbled day, I crossed an empty parking lot with the movie’s costume designer, who’d noticed my lingering embarrassment.
“At least he thinks you’re cute,” he shrugged.
“In wardrobe yesterday. John Waters told us how you got him really lost. He said you were cute as hell but dumb as a bag of hammers.”
As I stacked equipment, boxed food, loaded trucks, and grinned nonstop, I envisioned the overstuffed bag—handles sticking out and metal claws poking through the stretched plastic. The quote was a personalized, kitschy commentary I could add to all his movies, books, and bizarre cameos. As the crew reloaded with coffee, people pointed out that since we skipped checking him into the Chateau in the morning, I’d actually gotten him to set earlier than expected, and in his character’s disgruntled mood. Friends from Virginia even congratulated me, suggesting that I’d provoked a provocateur.
I’d annoyed, disturbed, and exposed myself to a man who’d made a career out of doing so to his audience. But getting him lost was like the piece of shit painting produced by the child of a museumgoer who thinks his six year old could make a Pollock. I didn’t know what I was doing.
About the author: Alex Koplow is originally from Virginia and now tutors with the 826LA writing center. His writing has been published by JMWW, Monkeybicycle, MAKE magazine, decomp, and Metazen. Visit him at alexkoplow.com