Time for a trip into the underground and our interview with Director John Waters. He just wrapped up a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
It’s a far cry from the underground where he got his start shocking and horrifying movie goers with his patented home movie style films.
Actually, most of them were homemade with a low budget and a cast of friends including his old friend Divine perhaps the most famous drag queen to ever grace the silver screen.
Surely, you’d recognize her in Pink Flamingos where she ate a dog turd, a moment that many consider the most repulsive moment in cinematic history and a moment that is tied to every John Waters interview, feature, and documentary ever made – and he’s okay with that.
If a turd buffet isn’t your style, he’s also the guy behind Hairspray, a slightly more family friendly film. If by family friendly film you mean 1960’s era Baltimore race relations.
Yep, John Waters’ movies certainly get your attention. I got 15 minutes with the Pope of Trash where he discussed his films, where he wants to be buried, and he answers the most important question that no one ever asks - is John Waters single?
Jesse Regis: It’s kind of crazy out there. You had some people that couldn’t even get in and you were nice enough to go say hello to them.
John Waters: Oh, they were so great. The first person got here at 1 o’clock in the afternoon to wait to get in and they couldn’t, well maybe the first person did get in, because a few people got in, but it’s great, especially for these movies. I was just watching it projected in 16mm on the screen for the first time in maybe 25 years, easy and I have flashbacks of when I used to be in all the theaters with my projector that I’d bring and sit up in the balcony and show three reels and have to stop the reel, in between, change the reel, rewind. Oh, it gave me all the paranoia. Is it going to break down? But, if it breaks down tonight I don’t have to fix it. That’s the glamor of Lincoln Center! No, it’s thrilling to see and it’s very weird to watch those movies because a lot of people are no longer with us, but some are. And I was just thinking , “Oh My God, I thought this up?” and it was right in the middle of the hippie years, and this is Multiple Maniacs, it’s hardly a peace and love movie it’s, I guess, a punk movie before there was punk rock. I didn’t know there was punk either. It was just our bad attitude.
JR: We’re at Lincoln Center right now, which is “The Establishment.” It’s a really far cry from the underground and from the midnight movies - you so badly wanted to be a part of the New York underground – was it supposed to happen like this?
JW: Maybe it was. It was the best thing that could have happened, certainly, because if it had just started and ended in the underground I wouldn’t have had the forty years later from that. For me, it is the ultimate irony in a way because Hag in a Black Leather Jacket only played one other time once in a beatnik coffee house , and the second time it played was fifty years later here at Lincoln Center – that’s kind of funny. Maybe it means if you stick around long enough…[Laughs] No, it was a great honor for me without any irony or anything because, yes, it’s Lincoln Center but the audiences are great. They’re all young, too. They tell me there’s all these young people at Lincoln Center – a younger audience than often is here.
JR: A lot of what drove your movies back when you were just starting was the status quo – all the crap and conformity of the 50’s and the 60’s, and that’s really why you wanted to start shocking people, right?
JW: Well, I wanted to surprise people and make them laugh. I understand why you say shock because in Multiple Maniacs Divine eats a raw cow’s heart, which was training wheels for eating a turd. I was trying to make you laugh at the same time. These were movies made to shock hippies, the early ones. The audience was totally hippies and they loved being shocked and it was an odd thing to see because they were “hippily-incorrect.” Certainly, there was no such thing as “politically correct.” I actually believe I am politically correct today. Multiple Maniacs is most definitely not politically correct. But, looking at it was making fun of liberal rules and I’m a bleeding heart liberal. I’m a Democrat, I’m a total liberal. But, I make fun of the rules. I make fun of gay rules because it seems now that gay people have more rules than my parents did. It’s getting like, “Wait a minute here…”
JR: What gay rule do you hate the most?
JW: That we have to be good all the time. That gay people have to be good and perfect. I have trouble with that. It’s the same thing I’m still doing in a way – testing rules and trying to surprise myself. And by shock, I try to make people laugh and I think today if I just tried to shock I wouldn’t still be doing it. After Pink Flamingos and after the scene where Divine ate the dog turd at the end – Johnny Knoxville today would do that I think he’s the closest. I love Johnny. But, if I kept trying to top that I don’t think I would have kept going. I think it would have been over.
JR: You just mentioned Pink Flamingos. What does it mean to you, what does it say about that movie that people are still talking about it in nearly every interview that you do?
JW: And still seeing it! Young people, you know, I do my spoken word show at colleges all the time - these kids weren’t born , their parents weren’t born when I made it. It’s great, it means that something worked right. It didn’t get mellower, it doesn’t look like old hat today. It has weird stuff. They sell babies that lesbian couples have which is not shocking anymore now. Lesbians, as I’ve said have more babies than Catholics. But still, they didn’t kidnap them and impregnate them in a pit.
JR: The concept of your book Carsick fascinates me. I love meeting strangers – a lot of my show is meeting people on Craigslist and hanging out. You have a perverse sense of wanting to make strangers laugh. It’s very odd.
JW: Well, you should hitchhike then. Hitchhiking is a thing that people don’t do anymore. When I hitchhiked across the country for Carsick I only saw one other hitchhiker the whole way. There weren’t any, I never even saw one. I think it’s something that people have nostalgia for. Young people they know about it, and they’d like to do it, but they don’t do it. My age we did it, certainly when they were young. When I was in High School it wasn’t even bad to hitchhike from your parent’s viewpoint. I mean, in private school or Catholic school everybody hitchhiked home from school. It was a normal thing. Today, if you see a hitchhiker you immediately think they’re a serial killer or a hooker. If they thought I was a hooker I didn’t get any offers. Well, one trucker did say that if I did have to sleep in the woods he could make up a bunk for me.
JR: Okay! And…
JW: Well, no, I got a ride.
JW: So I didn’t have to take him up. I would’ve! I got a hitchhiker. Someone picked me up. I was in a rest area and it was getting to be dark, I was in the middle of Kansas, and there were no cars there was nobody so I was saying to this trucker – he had to wait because he was getting his new orders on where to go – and I said, “I guess I’ll just have to sleep in the woods,” and he said, “I’ll make up a bunk for you if you don’t get a ride.” I thought, “Well, I would have slept there. I don’t know what would’ve happened. It would have been good for the book, and maybe bad for real life [laughs].
JR: Or, it’s time for a sequel. Why not? Get back out there.
JW: Well, no, I don’t have to hitchhike again. I did it. I think that it would be very anti-climactic to hitchhike again, unless if I’m stuck somewhere I know I can do it. I know I can get somewhere if I have to.
JR: You told Rolling Stone recently that the independent movie world that you know is over, it’s done with.
JW: It is for now. Yeah, it is completely over. And the things that killed it, I think, you can read a book called Sleepless in Hollywood by Lynda Obst or Ted Hope’s book [Hope for Film]. Basically, when DVD ended that was the safety net that everybody made money on, then everybody stopped buying them. And foreign deals that you got for free and you make them. That’s over with now. They’re not interested in witty comedies. And even if mine aren’t – even bad witty comedies they’re not after. They’re after hundred million dollar tent pole movies, or an independent movie like when I started that somebody who is twenty years old makes. It’s a great time for young filmmakers because they are looking for the film that you make on your cell phone camera. They’re just not looking for five million dollar independent movies, which my last movies were.
JR: You worked with a lot of the same folks throughout all of your films. What does it bring to your films that you are so familiar with the cast? You mentioned Johnny Knoxville, he works with the same folks all the time. It must bring something special [to the table].
JW: I think it’s like a theater group or a repertoire group. My audience that is my age have grown old with all of the people. I was just looking at Mink and Mary Vivian Pierce in Multiple Maniacs and that was forth-something years ago and they’re still in my movies. I think my audience likes that when they see the movies. They’ve grown old with Mink Stole. Even if you’re young if you watch the movies.
JR: Your eyes light up when you talk about the people you’ve worked with in the past. You must be very fond of them.
JW: Well, I’m fond because I’m glad I’ve had friends for fifty years, a lot of people don’t. It’s really better. They last longer than family, than boyfriends and girlfriends, anything. There’s ups and downs. You have fights, you have everything if you’ve known someone for that long, but I think that’s why we all bought burial plots in the same graveyard where we’re all going to be buried and we call it Disgraceland – that’s where Divine is. All of our parent’s we thought they’d be uptight about it, but they understood. They said, “We think that’s great.” Most people never get buried with their friends.
JR: I never even considered something like that.
JW: [Laughs] It’s a great idea!
JR: Because most people get buried with their spouses…
JW: Or their families. But, my brothers and sisters were married and in different places – they’re all not in the same place – I mean my parents are. But, I went to my parent’s graveyard where they were and they tried to rip me off. They showed me these vaults. They thought I was going to spend all this money. I just felt like they saw a sucker coming, that I was going to build Valentino’s vault, or something to myself. So, then, I had been in the graveyard in Towson, where I grew up, where Divine was buried and I just liked it. It was small and they handled the funeral very well there and everything so I bought a plot, then Pat did, then Mink, we’re all going to be buried there.
JR: I never thought about being buried with your friends.
JW: Well try it! It’s a good idea. Then all your friends can come one stop grieving.
JR: You’d save on toll fare and gas.
JR: Read that you are not necessarily for marriage.
JW: I’m for everyone’s right to be married, my God. I mean my parent’s had a beautiful marriage.
JR: For gay marriage….
JW: For any marriage. It’s all the same to me. I personally don’t want to get married, but I fought, I campaigned with Governor O’Malley in Maryland to make gay marriage legal and then we won. Why anyone would be scared of two people falling in love is amazing to me. It’s hard to find anybody to fall in love with. I think if I fell in love with this table I should be able to marry it. I would choose not to, but the table would be faithful.
JR: Is John Waters single?
JW: Yes, but I have someone I see all the time. Yeah, but I’m not getting married. I have three ex’s, I’m friends with all of them.
JR: Nobody has asked you that in all of this.
JW: Oh, no, they never ask it. Still, no one knows my personal life because every boyfriend I’ve ever had has not been a public figure, and they don’t want to be. I like someone that has a completely different life. All my boyfriends are completely different from me. They have a different life, different careers. They’re not impressed by this, which I like. One of them said, “Oh, I’m not that interested in seeing those movies,” but that’s like saying, “I love you.” [Laughs] Because the last thing I want is a groupie.
JR: So, being John Waters doesn’t make it difficult?
JW: They know about it and they think it’s funny, and they like it, yeah. But, it’s not the main thing.
JR: That’s fascinating for me. What’s left to accomplish? You’ve done so many things.
JW: I’ve never wrote a novel. I’d like to do that. Even though all my films are fiction, so I’ve thought up fiction, I’ve just never did it in that sense. That’s about the only thing. I can’t sing or I would have had an album. I had two records out – The John Waters Christmas and A Date with John Waters, but that was a compilation. If I could sing, I would.
JR: Was it with the Muppets? That wasn’t with The Muppets was it?
JW: No, I didn’t do the Muppets. I was a puppeteer when I was very young though. That was my first career when I was 12 years-old with children’s birthday parties. Maybe I’ll do that again. After I retire I can do children’s birthday parties at ninety. Show up and do fucked-up kid’s birthday parties.
JR: What would be your shtick? Dress up as a clown?
JW: You don’t see the puppeteer, you’re hidden. I had hand puppets not marionettes. So, I guess I’d do maybe the Salò in puppets. Or, some hideous movie reenactment done with puppets for mature children.
JR: For people who don’t know, for people who have never seen a John Waters film, what are they missing?
JW: I don’t know, they’re missing anything, that’s up to them. I think that I did create a genre of my own which was exploitation films for art theaters. Each one of my movies is a parody of a genre of movies. I would say see Female Trouble, and Serial Mom, and then Hairspray, then you would probably understand everything that I’ve been about from the beginning.
JR: And here you are after all these years at Lincoln Center.
JW: At Lincoln Center. With my Pope of Trash crown firmly in place and my cloak checked in the coat department.
Originally aired September 2014 on BBOX Radio from Brooklyn, NY.
Interview edited for length and clarity. All rights reserved.