The permissions problems of Serial Mom

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John Waters’ superb Serial Mom came up with some interesting problems, as it looked to present an everyday suburban scene against, er, a quite dark backdrop.

By the early 1990s, filmmaker John Waters had thoroughly earned an enviable reputation. His films, such as Pink Flamingoes, Hairspray (the pre-musical version, obviously) and Female Trouble were regarded as provocative, edgy, and thoroughly loved by those who got them. For a mainstream audience? It’d be fair to say there wasn’t much crossover. Yet nobody was doing what Waters was doing as well as him, and his work very much stands alone.

In the early 90s, then, it came as something of a surprise that he was set to do something a little more mainstream, and with a mainstream movie star too.

Columbia Pictures, to Waters’ surprise and delight, was willing to back a project he had in mind by the name of Serial Mom. And whilst by the end of the movie’s production the studio would have offloaded the project to Savoy Pictures, it still felt like something quite out there that Columbia had even been interested in the first place. Sure, Waters had pitched it as “not the usual John Waters movie”, but even so. It was still quite a John Waters movie.

Serial Mom, if you’ve not had the considerable pleasure, is a dark comedy and a half, apparently an everyday American suburban housewife (as she was described at the time), who just happens to be a serial killer. What’s more, her motives aren’t notoriety or anything grandiose. She gets irritated when people don’t do their recycling, and duly takes action.

The film featured Kathleen Turner in the lead role, and her casting was something of a coup. Whilst Waters had suggested the likes of Meryl Streep and Glenn Close for the part at one stage (and apparently, Julie Andrews was asked too!), it was always going to be a bold role for a movie star to take. A surprise, then, when Turner said yes. Granted, she came with a reputation for being tricky to work with, as Waters would recall in his book Mr Know It All, but he found her quite the opposite.

But even though he had secured a high profile star, Waters still faced a challenge in presenting the suburban backdrop he needed to make the film work. In fact, getting the necessary permissions for the movie was problematic. Heck, co-star Sam Waterston was advised not to watch Waters’ previous films by his director. And, bluntly, after reading the script to Serial Mom, requests for product placement – to add authenticity to certain scenes – were being denied.

For instance, John Waters was looking to use cleaning products that cinemagoers would recognise for the movie. The idea was that the lead character needed to be in some way relatable, and part of that cocktail was that she bought the same brands that audience members did as well. Only she didn’t. One leading American brand of cleaning product for instance is Shout, and permission was sought from its manufacturer to include it in the movie. Permission, as reported by Premiere in April 1994, was not granted.  Many other unnamed brands also refused permission.

Things got taxing too when the character of Beverly, played by Turner, sends an anonymous note to another character in the film (I’m going spoiler-light here), by way of threat. There’s no way of sugar-coating this chums, so let’s get through the next sentence together, without pissing off the Google filter: the note in question reads ‘I’ll get you pussy face’. Obviously referring to the feline of the species, if anyone overseeing Google’s filters is reading.

The note, then, appears in the film made up of cut out letters from various magazines. Your standard pre-word processing cinematic anonymous note. But the production still needed to get individual permission from one of the publications concerned, who had a letter of its masthead included in Beverly’s note. For the gag a little later is Beverly holds up a magazine, and a letter has been clearly cut out.

The letter in question was the P from the aforementioned feline word, and Waters’ choice was the P at the start of the People magazine masthead. Would, then, People give the film permission to use its P in a note being sent anonymously with discussion of household pets in it?

People would not. It was reported to have found the scene in question ‘objectionable’, as per the aforementioned report. As such, movie magazine Premiere agreed that its P could be used instead.

Then there was the matter of locations. As per normal, assorted settings were scouted, but when those concerned read the script or discovered its tone, that caused problems. In particular, perhaps for fairly obvious reasons, finding a church for one sequence in the movie was near-impossible, and the toughest location to get approval for.

There was one more major piece of permission that needed granting, meanwhile. And this time, it was over a pivotal piece of music in the film.

Again, going spoiler-light, perhaps the most memorable scene of Serial Mom features the song ‘Tomorrow’, from the classic movie Annie. In the musical, the song is sung by the young title character. In Serial Mom, it serves a very different purpose. And yet incredibly, Waters and his team were able to secure the rights to use the song in the movie.

What’s more, they were granted after the rightsholders had seen Waters’ previous films too. But they used those films as justification to jack up the price of the ‘Tomorrow’ rights. The production was said to be billed $60,000 for the use of the song, a premium over rates at the time (Waters described the price as a “fortune” in his book). Yet permission, perhaps against the odds, was given.

The resultant film ultimately didn’t make money – we’ll get into the story more in a future podcast – but it remains a real treat of a movie. Arguably the most accessible of Waters’ films, his own mother’s favourite, and one of the best performances of Kathleen Turner’s career. Do seek it out, assuming you’re over 18 in the UK. It’ll, at the very least, put a very different complexion on the movie Annie next time you watch it…

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