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Unabridged: An Interview with John Waters



Everyone has their first time with John Waters. For me, it was the summer of 1976, when I took off from my Grandmother’s house in Provo Utah, after a weird, lonely, freshman year at BYU (don’t ask) and hitchhiked around the West. I ended up–rather crazed after sleeping rough alongside Interstate 5–in Berkeley, crashing with hippie friends. My first night in town they took me to see a midnight showing of Pink Flamingos.

Someone who has grown up with the internet can’t know what it meant to collide head-on, with no prior knowledge, with Pink Flamingos. Divine kills cops and gnaws their bloody femurs, the Egg Lady sits in her playpen and the Singing Asshole flexes its way into infamy to the tune of “Surfin’ Bird.” It wasn’t so much that it was obscene or shocking; it was a completely different category of experience and it oddly captured the zeitgeist, at least for the freaks, losers and misfits we all imagined we were. That infamous scene at the end where Divine chomps on the dog crap and smiles that horrible, brown smile? We were all right there with her. Him. As children in the 70s, we felt like we’d been eating shit and trying to smile in spite of it our whole lives.

The films of John Waters are arresting and unique. His breakout trash trilogy of Pink Flamings, Female Trouble and Desperate Living was a counterculture litmus test; they horrified the straight citizens as much as they tickled the freaks. They celebrated the grotesque, the antisocial and the criminal, cartoonishly exaggerating the frightening spectre the media presented of hippie culture. They were garish, tasteless, mean-spirited, loud and wickedly funny.

With Polyester, Waters cut down on the gross-outs in favor of a more nuanced kind of social satire; Divine plays a repressed & depressed housewife trapped in a loveless marriage. He still worked in some deviance and filth, but there was some genuine heart to Polyester, even if it came in the form of a 300-pound man playing a housewife. The movie still ends in murder and mayhem, but it’s a happy ending, reconciling Divine with her delinquent children.

Hairspray, his next film, was a crossover hit. It even–shockingly, for Waters–garnered a PG rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The story of a “pleasingly plump” teenager (Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad) pursuing her dream to win a TV dance contest was irresistibly sweet. Divine’s transformation from hippie boogie monster to acclaimed character actor was made complete with her dual roles of Edna Turnblad and Arvin Hodgepile. Hairspray has turned into an enduring franchise, with a Tony-award-winning Broadway musical starring Harvey Fierstein and film version of the musical with John Travolta reprising Divine’s role.

Water’s has a second career as a writer, with three books to his credit. His most recent, Role Models, presents a rogue’s gallery of the diverse people who Waters finds inspiring, from Johnny Mathis to former Manson Family member and convicted murderer Leslie Van Houton. He’s even curated a unique Christmas album comprising some of the most tasteless and misbegotten holiday songs every recorded.

I spoke to Waters on the phone in mid-February and found him to be a charming and convivial interviewee.

People here are really looking forward to the show here.

I’ve been to Iowa City, actually though it’s been a long time.

Iowa City is supposed to be the third gayest city in the United States.

Who decided that? I don’t remember seeing that check box on the census form!

Actually I think it was the Advocate. I know Allen Ginsberg was very fond of coming here, he said it was the only place between the coasts he liked to visit.

You know, I bet the difference is that — and I don’t mean this at all negatively — but every-where’s the same now. Because of the Internet, because of Netflix, because of everything. And you go to Japan and it’s the same stores. So I think that’s what’s happened, is that every city, you don’t have to move from any more to go see good movies or see anything, but in a way every city’s lost a little bit of it’s individuality. I guarantee the audience that will be at my show will look exactly like the audience would be if I was doing it in Brooklyn.

I have this quote from Quentin Crisp: “In an expanding universe time is on the side of the outcast. Those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt, find that without changing their address they eventually live in the metropolis.” Do you feel like you’ve gone through progression in terms of your art?

Oh well I never say the word art, you can say it, I certainly never say ‘art,’ I hate it when people say “I’m an an artist” I would think history would be the judge of that. I think that the ultimate irony in my life is that I am an insider now, yes, and I didn’t really change that much. But I think that’s if they can’t get rid of you they learn to embrace you. But Quentin, and I knew Quentin, and at the very end of his life he was rejected again by the gay world because of his fairly insensitive comments about AIDS. So at the end Quentin was kind of back where he started. Even being rejected by the outsiders. I’ve always said that my biggest most core audience is minorities that can’t even sit in with their own minority.

It always seemed like Quentin Crisp was an incredibly gentle soul and I liked everything I read by him.

Oh I loved him to but he was … there was anger underneath it all.

Well we’re all a little angry.

Yeah I think it’s healthy, how can you be a satirist and not be angry in some way? I think that humor is based… but mean humor is funny for a short time, I think it has to be, you have to like what you’re making fun of for it to last over a long period. And Quentin, of course, was about himself and that he was his art piece. His life was a performance piece. And I went to visit him, when I first saw “The Naked Civil Servant” when it was shown on American Television. He still lived in that room in London and his name was in the phone book, and I just called him up. And I wasn’t really, people barely knew who I was then. And he told me to come over, like he did with every single person and I went up there and he talked the same to everybody, he was very complimentary in this crummy little apartment. And years later, when I knew him, and he had no recollection of it. [Laughs]

Because he did that the same, it wouldn’t matter if Queen Elizabeth called him or I called him or the bum on the corner, he treated everyone the same. He was never impressed really by anybody. But some of the things he said you can’t ever forget, like the thing — I’m probably paraphrasing it wrong, but “why do people dust? Because it doesn’t really get dirtier after the first three years.

Your public persona always seemed to have some of Vincent Price’s cheer, were you a fan of his? When I’ve seen stuff — I watched This Filthy World on Netflix last night & and you remind me, you’re not the same at all, but you remind me a little of Vincent Price.

Oh I love Vincent Price! And I’ve always been saying, I met his daughter and I told her I’ve been trying to steal her father’s career forever! And Vincent Price called me once, because there was a documentary very late in his life about him, and I was interviewed in it just saying what a childhood hero he was and everything, and he called me up and thanked me. It was really lovely! I was obsessed by Vincent Price ever since “The Tingler” when I saw it, which is one of the first movies that ever mentioned LSD — and in the 50s it mentioned it! But he was I think hilarious and great and yes I, um, he’s one of my idols.

He was also really, a little queeny at the time, and people didn’t mind it in the 50s.

Well but Vincent Price had a wife.

Well I know he was straight but he was fabulous.

Well I don’t know, if you read his daughter’s book nobody quite knew what he was. It was a different time, y’know. He could have been married his whole life and also been gay. That’s called a “White Marriage” and it happened very very much in Hollywood in the 50s. Every knew what was going on, and I don’t know, I don’t know if Vincent Price was gay. I have no idea, it wouldn’t matter one bit.

It shouldn’t to anyone, but…

No but if he wasn’t, if he was gay I wouldn’t like him more either. There’s gay jerks!

I’ve been watch your movies the last few movies to kind of be researching what’s going on-

Oh my God I haven’t seen them for a while, right?

I watched most of Mondo Trasho

Oh god! Well that was illegal ‘cause that one you’re not supposed to be able to get, it’s never been available because of the music rights. But that movie … I love how Divine looks in it. I mean, but it was, the movie was 90 minutes and should have been 10 minutes! That’s the problem.

Well you know, the thing I liked about it is the first part with Mary Vivian Pierce, and she’s so beautiful and kind of the grainy black and white shots of it, it reminded me of Jean Cocteau. And I was kind of hypnotized —

No but it’s, I like how it looks but that wasn’t on purpose it was accidental, but … and she always said “why did you wait so long so long for the bus?” well it was Sunday, they don’t run as much! But that was, she walks out the door, that was apartment, we lived together, that was where we lived. And we really got on the bus for real, that was a real bus, I’d would just go and jump on and she’d be at the next stop.

It was guerilla film-making –

Yes it certainly was, we got arrested making that movie.

Young people now, with the internet grow up with easy access to the full range of hard core pornography. Does that make job any harder?

No because I never, I don’t think many people are ever jerking watching my movies if they were they’re in deep trouble. I guess Pink Flamingo was joke when pornography finally became legal and we couldn’t make fun of what wasn’t illegal, but would horrify people. Now it is illegal today to eat dog shit in a movie. To eat shit. We hardly did it for sexual reasons, but it’s one of the few things… although I read today in California, they’re passing a law, I think they’re passing a law where every performer has to wear rubbers in porno movies. And I’m for that because in heterosexual porn movies, they’re all fucking up the ass and coming, it’s like a snuff movie!

I have a hard time watching pornography and I’ve certainly seen my healthy share, it, I kind of like it when there’s real people who actually look like they’re having a good time.

Well I like that better too. But um, y’know, to watch anal sex with no rubbers, I’m against barebacking movies no matter who’s doing it because you know half my friends died of AIDS in the 80s and I know young people who have AIDS again today, and it’s because people think it’s over. I’m on Elton John’s AIDS Foundation board. And I think it’s important people know, um they think “oh they have medicine for it” well they do, if you want to take pills that give your horrible side effects for the rest of your life, but. So I’m still pretty much a believer in safe sex.

It’s hard to argue with that, that’s not a controversial position.

No it is! You’d be surprised with young people.

Well young people smoke cigarettes, too. Young people like to smoke. And I just quit after 30 years of trying.

Well I did too! But you’d think they at least knew, we didn’t know, I mean when my mother smoked when she was pregnant it was normal in the 50s, but they at least know now, and they still do it! You’re right but you know I’m not telling them what to do I’m just saying it’s important that the word is out there a little bit. I mean smoking? That’s the only thing the government ever told you that was true, that was bad for you, everything else they told you was a lie.

With the rise to of direct to DVD and and direct to Cable, and direct to ITunes, do you think there will be a new golden age of B movies, or is that already underway.

No, because B Movies were second features to double features in movie theaters before video where a movie played a week, first it open first run downtown, then it came to your community and you could never see it again. So I believe that now B movies have been so parodied, so done with giant budgets that there really is no such think any more. I think there’s… I mean I loved Final Attraction I love … there’s some movies like that that I guess you could still call exploitation movies but they cost a lot of money, they aren’t cheap. So to me, a real B movie I can’t really think of any, because a B movie was not ironic. A B movie was not satirizing a genre. Anything today that smells of a B movie is a tribute to a B movie it isn’t a real one. Because where would a real B movie play? A B movie was the second show on a double feature, they don’t have that any more. And direct to DVD, the whole DVD business is so crummy now that all those direct to DVD things are really — a B movie could make it’s name for itself and cause a sensation. I’ve never heard of one direct to DVD movie that has ever caused a sensation except Faces of Death.

That’s not really my style. Actually I was thinking more along the lines, there is such a thing as second rate, unironic movies and they’re like, on the Lifetime Network.

Yeah that’s TV, I think TV actually these days is probably where, not so much on Lifetime, but you have the most freedom and some of the best stuff is being put on TV today.

I was going to ask about Kathleen Turner

I was with her just the other night.

I’ve always thought she was wonderful and she’s defijnitely someone who’s been through several different career stages. Were you able to see her on Californication?

I was, I saw here there, the best was when she played Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf which she got a Tony nomination for she was great. I see everything.. I’m going to see, gosh she’s got a new play open in April and I’m going to the opening of that, and I was just with her the other night when we gave out awards at the Writer’s Guild Ceremony in New York. She’s great, she’s the real thing.

Definitely! Edith Massey’s dream when she young was to be in the movies, she like moved to LA and nothing happened. But you made that dream come true. Did she ever go Hollywood on you?

She never went Hollywood but she died in LA. She at the end she moved to Los Angeles and she had a thrift shop. Edith never went Hollywood but … no she didn’t. But she was an Comedian I think was the best way to put it. I adored her, she was great, she was a lovely lady and she was a star! She was an underground movie star. Definitely.

She was also, I think, an incredibly good sport. In watching Pink Flamingos, she’s sitting in her underwear covered in a playpen, covered in fried eggs and you can see her breath steaming.

Yes I know —

Because it was so cold. And she’s so, she actually convincing, she’s convincing as a crazy woman who lives in a playpen.

Well yes she was, I admit that. She was a trouper, let’s put it that way. She had a hard time memorizing lines and she was not in real life a bohemian certainly. But she had had a very very tough life, and she did become a movie star, and loved her fans. She lived for her fans. And later she was in a punk rock band which she travelled with, so she got to travel all over. Edith was, she had a good time, she liked being on the road. She was a classy lady in a weird way.

She’s especially great in Desperate Living where she’s actually is kind of the star.

Well she loved that role because she got to wear costumes she liked. She got to be dressed up, she didn’t have to show flesh.

Yeah, and I’ve just had the phrase “Rabid Bat Pus” going through my head for days.

[laughs] That movie actually did the worst of my movies when it came out theatrically. And it’s the only movie I’ve never had a TV sale with.

Well it would be kind of tough.

Well Pink Flamingos plays on cable television, which is shocking to me.

It’s funny when you look at those movies, how much we’ve — the MPAA has not loosened up, if anything they’ve gotten tighter.

Well those movies we didn’t even deal with the MPAA

They were unrated, yeah —

When finally Pink Flamingos came out on the 25th anniversary, we had to get it rated, and we said “you don’t even have to bother watching it, we know what we’re going to get.” They said, “we have to watch it.” Which is funny, if you look it up, what they say why it got a NC-17 it’s really hilarious all the things they list as the reason for it, I forget you look it up it’s really funny. But then Female Trouble got an NC-17 which is kind of surprising to me. So I’m sure Desperate Living would have too.

Female Trouble had full frontal male nudity, which I guess —

But you can have that today, it wasn’t erect, and you can have that today in a movie and get an R Rating.

Divine’s women, were, when he played a woman, he’s obviously in drag, but there’s always an aspect of them that, I forget he’s in drag and it feels like a really sympathetic character. Even in Female Trouble.

He was playing a role that isn’t a role a drag queen would ever play. In Pink Flamingos he hate drag queens when they saw him like that. In Polyester he played an alcoholic housewife. Drag queens don’t want to look like that. And he played a blue collar hag almost in Hairspray I mean what drag queen ever allow themselves to look like that. He wasn’t a drag queen in real life, he wouldn’t walk around in drag or anything, ever. Maybe he did a a couple of times when he was 17 but no he wasn’t a transvestite or anything certainly. He was an actor and he liked playing men just as much really. What it work for, was when we’d established the image of Divine as this frightening monster, like a hippie mobster, then when he switched it all around completely and played the opposite of it and played a sad mother that’s when he got really good reviews because it was against type. But we had to make the type be the type be the type in the beginning for that to happen.

I loved him in Trouble In Mind.

Yes he was great, yeah he was.

And I think that was one of the last movies he made.

It was his last movie, I think, yeah.

What I’ve read is that you’ve had trouble gettin Fruitcake made, your new movie.

Yes I certainly have, I haven’t made it yet. So obviously, but it’s – y’know I don’t think many independent films are getting made that are budgeted at 5 Million dollars, they’re budgeted below a million or a 100 million. We’re still trying, but, the independent film business has radically, radically changed since, in the last five years. For foreign sales, for recessions, for development deals, all the things… New Line Cinema who did all my movies the New Line I knew all the people that were there are gone now. It’s a different time, you know I have a book out. I’m always trying to reinvent myself every year, so you’ve got a couple of careers to pick from.

Well you don’t need to have so many people working for you when you write a book.

It takes longer though.

Have you considered going to more guerilla film-making with cheap digital equipment?

No because I have four people that work for me, and I live in a couple [of cities]. I did that, I’m not going to backwards and have faux revolution. No I did that. It would be forced, it wouldn’t be natural which it was when those years happened.

There’s a lot of features now that are being shot on digital.

Oh I’d shoot it on digital, I’d shoot it high definition certainly but I’m just saying I’m not interested in going back and making a movie like I how I made Pink Flamingos. I did that, I’ve made 17 movies, it’s not like I haven’t made one.

You want to talk a little about This Filthy World? I watched the DVD –

Well it’s very different than the DVD, it’s different, completely updated and re-written. There might be a few things that are the same but mostly it’s completely different. It’s about my interests, it’s about my career, it’s about my obsessions, about crime, about fashion, about movies, about how to have a happy life if you can be a neurotic and still be happy. I think it’s a self help speech for lunatics.

Well, we all need all the help we can get!

That’s true!

Obviously new stuff has happened, the jokes in the film about Michael Jackson, you’d probably have to modulate some of how he’s treated.

That joke is no longer in it, because, well I did that joke for a long time. Most of the jokes get retired. When someone dies it switches. I still could joke about him, I mean I don’t understand if you want to get high why you take a medicine that they use to make you count backwards to be unconscious for an operation, that’s high? Gee I had such fun last night, I don’t remember one thing! I had no feeling! That’s not something that’d work for me.

Apparently he told the doctor it was for insomnia.

All people lie to doctors when they’re drug addicts.

That’s true –

And all doctors do anything for movie stars!

There’s a Monty Python Skit about “The Most Awful Family In Britain” — do you think that was synchronicity or do you think they stole it from you?

I don’t know, I never saw it so I don’t know. I like them, I like all their stuff, so. I’m sure it was by coincidence in some way.

It’s pretty funny, I think you can find It has a fat man on a couch covered in pork and beans yelling “More Beans!” so it does feel very John Waters.

But you know everybody’s influenced by everbody so that’s OK.

What new film directors or new movies you’ve seen that you’re really excited about?

My ten best list was in Art Forum, in the January or December Art Forum. I always like the weirdo foreign films. I liked Todd Solonz last movie. I loved Kaboom, Greg Araki’s new movie. I like’d Claire Denis’s movie “White Mischief” I liked Jackass III

Yeah you’re friends with Johnny Knoxville since he was in your last feature. I actually met him standing at the arrivals at Laguardia Arrivals and I didn’t realize until I’d bummed a cigarette off him and then made him light it who he was, and he was very nice to me.

Well he’s a very nice guy, he’d be very approachable.

Well I’m out of questions I won’t take up any more of your time! Thanks very much.

I’ll see you there!


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