How John Waters Is Helping the Next Generation of Filmmakers

John Waters was a trailblazer in indie films. His early films Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble found audiences by being provocative. Waters never sold out, even when his film Hairspray became a Broadway musical and hit movie adaptation. Filmmakers today have a lot more avenues to make movies and show them without depending on movie studios and theaters, and Waters is encouraging them. He appeared in Richard Bates, Jr.’s second film, Suburban Gothic, and Bates carried Waters’ wisdom into his fourth film, Tone-Deaf.

Director John Waters attends a conversation with the public during the 72nd Locarno Film Festival | Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Tone-Deaf stars Amanda Crew as Olive, an aimless millennial who dumps her boyfriend and Airbnbs at Harvey (Robert Patrick)’s house. Harvey, it turns out, is a killer. Bates’ previous movies also combined other genres with horror. Trash Fire was a relationship drama horror, and Excision was a teen drama horror. Bates told Showbiz Cheat Sheet how John Waters inspired his latest film and ambitions for future work. Tone-Deaf is in theaters August 23.

John Waters endorsed Richard Bates’ films

Bates was in the middle of his second film when he met Waters, but Waters could already tell Bates had something to say through the medium of cinema. 

“It was probably the nicest thing anyone ever said to me was when John Waters told me, ‘You have a perspective. You have a definitive POV whether you’re thinking about it or not,’” Bates said.  

Director and writer Ricky Bates Jr. on the set of the horror / thriller TONE-DEAF | Saban Films.

Waters knows how hard it is to be an individual. He was making outrageous movies when Hollywood controlled all the exhibition. Now there are more streaming platforms, but Bates said that doesn’t mean they want distinct voices.

“For the way that I like to make movies, I don’t necessarily think it’s made it any easier,” Bates said. “I think that audiences are being inundated with more content, but certainly from taking all these meetings throughout the year and talking to producers and companies, because there’s more content, they’re not asking for different content necessarily. I’m sort of locked into trying to create these things on my own terms.”

John Waters said it’s okay if your movies aren’t hits at first

John Waters movies usually made their money back, but that was never more than a million bucks or so. Now Waters has made so many movies that John Waters DVD, Blu-ray, and even streaming collections are valuable assets.

Amanda Crew and Robert Patrick in Tone-Deaf
(L-R) Amanda Crew as Olive and Robert Patrick as Harvey in the horror / thriller TONE-DEAF. | Saban Films.

“[Waters said], ‘And it’s not going to pay off in the short term but if you can find a way to create a catalog of these things, one day, and who’s to say, one day there’s a chance that it could matter,’” Bates said. “So I lock into that and I’m sort of committed to trying to do that and who’s to say if it will matter or not, but I want to give it a shot and I want to sort of create a catalog of works that could only come from me.”

Four movies already make an incredible catalog

Each film is such a struggle to make, and such a passion project for Bates, that simply releasing his fourth film is crazy. He is going to work on a fifth movie next month.

“It’s insane,” Bates said. “When I was in my parents’ backyard with a hi-8 camera, I knew I was going to try for my whole life, but I imagined that I would get to make a movie at like 55 or 60. I never imagined. I still pinch myself. I guess my goal is to create a catalog before I die at whatever point where there’s sort of a throughline with everything.”

Amanda Crew in Tone-Deaf
Amanda Crew as Olive in the horror / thriller TONE-DEAF. | Saban Films.

If you go to an opening night showing of Tone-Deaf in L.A., you might just see Bates in the audience.

“I’m going to go to the opening night screening,” Bates said. “I’m not jaded about this at all. When I get to see one of these on the big screen, I’m still almost in tears thinking about that I get to do this. And I will. I’m sure I’ll cry on Friday, and then it’s onto the next  one. I’m in preproduction on another one and it’s just so cool to me. It’s a dream.”

‘Tone-Deaf’ summarizes the Richard Bates, Jr. catalog so far

Fans of Bates’ films will recognize a lot in Tone-Deaf. They will also be surprised to see Bates switching things up.

“The approach to this was to sort of actually step back a little bit and treat is as a cultural artifact, like something that would be very fascinating to watch in 10 years and document one person’s perspective of the generational divide,” Bates said. “Even with the close-ups, I shot them wider than any other films because we really had people’s personal possessions [in the frame]. So we tried to make every set representative of the character and really capture the vibe.”

Amanda Crew in Tone-Deaf
Amanda Crew in the horror/thriller TONE-DEAF | Saban Films

Bates sees Tone-Deaf as his first remix.

“The conceit of this was very much inspired by music, by those Girl Talk albums, the Revolution of Dance albums created by sample beats in the early 2000s,” Bates said. “So the idea was to sample my three other movies or things from them and rearrange them in order to create an altogether different movie. So the idea was to just treat the approach as if we were creating a song I guess.”