Producing Female Trouble

Producing <em>Female Trouble</em>

A t Criterion, we love collaborating with filmmakers on our editions, and sometimes in the process we’re lucky enough to uncover rare material that audiences have never seen before. A particularly thrilling recent collaboration was with the Pope of Trash himself, John Waters, who has been releasing movies with us since the laserdisc era. For our new edition of Female Trouble, his gloriously grotesque 1974 spin on the Hollywood melodrama, the director worked closely with Criterion producer Susan Arosteguy and gave her access to behind-the-scenes footage and outtakes that had been lying for years in his attic, which was put to good use in the supplemental features on the release. With New York’s IFC Center hosting a weeklong run of our new 4K restoration of Female Trouble, which premiered at the Provincetown International Film Festival earlier this summer, we chatted with Arosteguy about the process of reviving this cult classic.  —Hillary Weston

We first started working with John Waters in the nineties. How did that come about, and what was the experience like?

Criterion first collaborated with him on two laserdiscs: Polyester, in 1993, and Pink Flamingos, in 1997. At that time we licensed those films from New Line Cinema and John did the commentaries. And on Polyester, we went back and found the original company in Mexico that manufactured the Odoroma cards that were given to audiences during the film’s theatrical run, and they still had the original recipes for the smells. One of the first things I did—even before I started at Criterion, when I was just visiting a friend who worked here one summer—was put stickers on all of the cards. And they all basically smelled like gasoline, which made it even more hilarious.

But it was years and years before we would get to work on another film of his. He approached us to do the theatrical release of Multiple Maniacs with Janus Films in 2016, and that’s when we started collaborating with him again, probably even more closely than we did on the laserdiscs, since we do so many more original supplements now. The film was in bad condition because it had been in John’s attic in Baltimore for a very long time. So the restoration itself was very intense. But John was excited to see it restored and cleaned up. He likes to say that it now looks like “a bad John Cassavetes film.”

What condition was Female Trouble in?

Female Trouble was a little bit different, because we licensed the film from Warner Bros., so it actually had been vaulted and cared for and was in pretty good condition. But we still did our normal dirt and scratch removal and restoration, using the original 16 mm camera negative. John encouraged us to “do what you guys do, take out the scratches, take out the dirt . . .” He came in and supervised the color correction with our restoration supervisor, Lee Kline, which was probably one of the most entertaining sessions for Lee. One of the stories John told him was that Edith Massey, who plays Aunt Ida in the film, had always complained about her iconic strappy patent-leather dress while they were shooting, but years later she made one for her punk-rock singing act!

Can you tell me about digging through John’s personal archive and what you discovered there?

John has a bunch of stuff in his attic, so he put together all these boxes, got in his Buick, and drove up from Baltimore and met us at the corner outside the office. We took it all upstairs and started going through it, but not much was labeled, or if it was, the tape was so old it fell off. We found two things. One was the original mag tracks that had never been used, and that’s what ended up becoming the soundtrack we used for the movie. It was basically a box from the lab that had never been opened, so the tracks were pristine and in great condition. It’s the best sound that had ever been heard for this movie. The rest of the stuff was mostly just loose sound and picture. Luckily we had John’s original notebook that listed what was on each reel.

We didn’t have a way to view all these reels, so we rented a Steenbeck and set it up in our library. Our postproduction coordinator, Andrew Alvarez, had some film editing skills so he sat there for weeks with me putting reels up. We would play it through until a splice came up, but the splices were so old that it would break and you’d have to take the film out, resplice it, continue watching, and resplice it every time. So it took weeks to find deleted scenes, outtakes, and anything that might be interesting. We transferred about three hours of material and that’s what we used to build some of the supplements on our disc.

Did John end up watching all of the outtakes with you?

He did. I put together a reel for him so he could go through it, and then when I was in Baltimore we sat and watched the behind-the-scenes footage so he could give commentary on it and talk about who is in it. The other source that I had for the material was a filmmaker named Steve Yeager, who’s from Baltimore and made a documentary about John called Divine Trash (1998). He was on the set of John’s films, so he had all this archival footage and interviews. Those are now on the disc and are very rare. 

So I put all of this together and showed it to John and he gave me comments, and then I edited it to music because I didn’t have sound to match up with it. It was reels and reels of footage, but watching it was so much fun it didn’t matter that it didn’t make narrative sense. From that material I also edited together the loop that plays when you put the discs in, which is all just trims and outs from that footage. There was no dirt and scratch removal on this; we did the opposite of what we did with the film. It looks like it’s been sitting in a box in a hot attic in Baltimore for forty-five years.

What was it like for John to not only revisit the film but to relive all of the stuff in the behind-the-scenes footage and outtakes?

For John, looking back on the film and all this footage was like revisiting a yearbook. There’s one particular scene that we watched, a three-minute extended scene where Divine (as Earl) throws up on Taffy (Mink Stole). Divine is trying to make himself puke, and he just couldn’t get there—even slugging down ipecac didn’t help. He was going to throw up for real, like when Divine actually eats the dog shit in Pink Flamingos. Mink Stole was in character, trying to move back and forth so as not to get totally puked on, so you can see them laughing. It goes on forever. 

I showed John this while he was sitting next to me, and he was clutching my arm and screaming, “I can’t watch this! This is the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life!” It is very tough to watch but definitely worth finding on the disc. They ended up using creamed corn.

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