A Conversation With John Waters

In the strange and colourful voyage from smearing dog excrement on the face of good taste to executive-producing a hit Hollywood musical, the erstwhile Pope of Trash has become something of an avuncular pop institution — as much camp brand name as he is filth elder. But as Luke Goodsell discovered when he spoke to John at his holiday retreat in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the filmmaker’s obsessions remain as peculiar and wonderful as ever.

So John, how’s Cape Cod right now?
It’s beautiful. Well today it’s rainy. I feel like it’s one of my favourite movie titles; I always wait for it every year. I felt… [adopts ominous tone] A Cold Wind In August. That’s one of my favourite old art movies and I love saying it to people.

Whereabouts are you in Cape Cod?
I’m in Provincetown, which is at the very end. If you look at a map I’m at the very, very end — it looks like Spiral Jetty. It’s an isolated gay fishing village.

[Laughs] I can actually see it because I’m looking at Google Maps right now.
Okay, well look at it if you can Google in.  It’s… does it go to the streets even?

It zooms right down to peer into your very window!
Well go to… [John gives his address here] But please don’t tell everyone that.

Okay, got it. I’ll look into that one later tonight.
[Laughs] You won’t be able to see me, ’cause there are trees and stuff. Anyway, it’s right on the beach — it’s a great place.

Cape Cod seems like an odd place to find you. Is this your summer retreat?
This is my forty-fourth summer here. I hitch-hiked here when I was 17 years old with someone who said, “Oh, you’d like Provincetown — it’s a weird place.” And it’s a pretty famous weird place: it’s where Tennessee Williams met his boyfriend; it’s where Robert Motherwell and Norman Mailer lived. It’s an art community. It’s always been a town of lunatics. I’ve written many of my movies here and many of my books. I used to run the Provincetown bookshop when I was a kid, so it’s a place I have a lot of history in. And Divine lived here; we all lived here a lot.

Do you do a lot of good writing there?
Well I don’t know if it’s good, you can tell me that… but I do get my writing done, yes. I’m working on a couple of projects now.

What are they?
I’m writing a book called Role Models and then — this is supposed to be a secret, but Variety scooped it so I guess I might as well tell you — New Line hired me to write the treatment for the sequel to Hairspray.

I did read about that.
It was supposed to be a secret, but now the whole world knows! I thought nobody knew. So now I feel pressure — I didn’t before! I’ve gotta think the whole movie up! [Laughs]

Don’t hate me for asking this: Are you comfortable in your… middle age?
Middle age?! I’m not gonna be 124!

Well, your autumnal years.
Yeah, the autumn of my years. Yes. I have a very nice life as a single man, you know. I live in Baltimore where I have my house and my office, and I have a little apartment in New York and I have one in San Francisco and I rent this place in Provincetown in Summer — so I have a very good life as a single man.

With all that jet-setting, do you still find your inspiration in Baltimore?
Yes. I completely do. Maybe not so much the art world stuff, that’s more New York. But yes: whenever I need an idea I go home. I’m going home actually for four days tomorrow and I’m really looking forward to it.

Do you still hang out at the old haunts?
I do! Well, I don’t know about the old haunts, I have new ones maybe, but certainly. I hang usually in heterosexual blue-collar bars, which are the most fun for me. There are always one or two people that you might wanna sleep with…

The ones who wandered in by accident?
Well my type is always a minority that doesn’t fit in with their own minority — that’s what I seek. I’m not seeking someone like me — the last person I wanna go out with is someone in show-business, because then we’d have to talk about that all the time. I like the opposite to me; I like to find somebody who has a job that I know nothing about. That’s much more interesting to me.

Will you be there this week with your “coal miner’s paycheck”?
Yes, I’ll be there this Friday. I’m going to a new one I like called the Kitty Kat club. That’s sort of like a bar for older punks and ska kids that are no longer in bands but they’re still evil and angry. Then there’s a heterosexual biker bar I go to that I like a lot. And there are a lot of new cool music places in Baltimore, too.

Do Baltimore residents still have that outrageous behaviour that you’ve always drawn upon?
Yeah they do. I mean like everywhere it’s been yuppified some, but Baltimore’s still really cheap to live in compared to other places and there’s an edge there — a definite edge — that there isn’t really in New York anymore.

Any trends you’ve noticed there recently that caught your attention?
Yeah, one arm.

One arm?
[Laughs] One arm; birth defects. I’ve noticed a lot of people with one arm recently. I think it’s like machine accidents or working in factories or thalidomide or just… genes… problems with genes.

[Laughs] How does it feel when younger audiences discover your old movies, given you’re kind of a legitimate pop culture institution now?
Oh it feels great. The kids still like my stuff. I go to colleges all the time and when I do a signing the average age is 22 year olds. I’m proud to be in there. That’s where I started and it’s probably the best time ever if you’re a young person making underground movies because now all my films are readily available. And for once all the studios are actually looking for the next weirdo movie that comes from somewhere. When I started they certainly were not.

Where does “John Waters” the brand fit in with today’s pop culture? Has trash art been assimilated by the mainstream?
Completely! I think I’m an insider now, not an outsider. What we used to call “trash” is now just plain American humour. Pink Flamingos plays on basic cable television in America. Uncut. That shocks me.

Pink Flamingos is still pretty out there.
It is! The Director’s Guild called me and said they wanna blur the blowjob scene. I said, “Of course that’s okay” — but they forgot to! I mean, the singing asshole! Suppose you’re channel surfing with your family and it comes on late — many homes have that.

Is it harder for you to be shocking these days? Were you ever trying to shock?
Well I never really tried to be shocking. I mean my last movie A Dirty Shame got an NC-17 and that had huge censorship problems in America. So things aren’t that different. But I don’t ever try to be shocking. I try to be surprising and make you laugh — and I always tried to do that, even with Pink Flamingos. I understand why people say the ending of Pink Flamingos was shocking but I don’t know that it was shocking as much as it was anarchy. It confused people and it made them laugh, and there were no laws against that then. It was beyond obscenity, which was the point. I’m always trying to make you laugh. It’s easy to shock people. I never tried to top that ending of Pink Flamingos and if I did I don’t think I would still be working. I would’ve painted myself into a corner.

I remember reading a review of Disney’s musical Enchanted where they likened some of the scenes to your work.
I remember that, it was in Variety or something. I think that’s lovely — what a compliment! I heard that was a good movie. You know, Disney was a huge influence on me when I was young. I devoted my whole life to becoming a Disney villain.

And now you’re mentioned in the same breath as Disney.
I’m very flattered. I was amazed.

What do you think of films like Juno that reference Herschell Gordon Lewis, who’s one of your idols?
Oh I know Herschell was thrilled, and I was thrilled for some of the musicians in there. I’m happy when any independent film becomes a hit like that because there aren’t many these days, and all the companies have gone out of business. It’s a very, very hard time to get a movie made — the hardest of my whole career. There used to be, like, 30 people I could pitch a movie to; now there are three.

What surprises you? Is it hard for you to be surprised anymore?
Well I’m delighted when I’m surprised. Unfortunately what surprises me is stupidity — which I try to avoid. Surprising things? I think contemporary art surprises me in a great way. I think some films still do. I think fashion can in a funny way. But that’s a good way. The bad way of being surprised is politics and people’s stupidity; but even people’s stupidity can be interesting.

Can you give me an example?
Well I know people who aren’t intellectuals but they’re certainly street smart, and they say delightful surprising things. Like this guy I met in a bar. I said to him, “What do you do for a living?” He said, “Well can I be frank?” and then he said he traded deer meat for crack. And that was pretty surprising. In Provincetown this week I was in a straight bar, talking to a straight guy who was with a gay guy who had a girl who was trying to pick him up, and while he was talking to me she had her arms around him behind him. And he mouthed to me, “She just put her finger up my ass.” So people feel free to say anything to me. I can be sitting on an airplane and the most normal-looking person will turn to me mid-flight and say, “Easter morning, the entire family dressed as the Easter bunny and fucked me.”

[Laughs]
Things that ludicrous. So I accept them and talk with them about it.

Well you’ve worked your whole life to earn that kind of respect.
I guess… I wanted to just read my book, though! [laughs] But I feel that then I have to counsel.

Like you always say, people would pay you to smell a fart — sometimes it’s a need they have.
It is, and people all over the world have paid me to smell a fart. It’s a universal urge to give me money and smell a fart; in every language and every government—poor, rich, communist, socialist, capitalist—they all want to smell a fart.

It’s the great leveller, isn’t it?
I guess so! [Laughs]

Speaking of Polyester, I always loved the daughter’s great line: “I’m getting an abortion and I CAN’T WAIT!”
That just got used against me! I have this stand up act I do called This Filthy World and I went recently to do the act in Delaware, where they hired me at this arts festival. I do this all the time — it’s a routine thing, I do this 30 times a year. The town reacted so badly and wouldn’t let me come near because they thought there would be perverts, and I thought, “This is like a joke; this is like 30 years ago.” But they took that one line to the city council meeting and they said, “He’s been quoted as saying ‘I wish I was a girl so I could get an abortion’”. [Laughs] I thought that was a little out of context. That was the line. I was walking down the street one time in New York and some girl just yelled that at me, and I thought, “Why did she say that?” And then I thought, “Oh: you wrote that one!”

[Laughs]
I also walk down the street and people say “Pig fucker!” and I think again, “Why did they say that to me?” and then I go, “Oh, that’s another line you wrote”. But it’s weird when they hurl it at you out of context—meaning it nicely.

Divine’s performance in Polyester is almost… naturalistic.
Well I think that’s when Divine started getting really good reviews, because Divine had established himself as this character that we thought up that was kind of Jayne Mansfield and Godzilla — it was a character made to scare hippies. But once that character was really established he went completely against type in Polyester by playing an alcoholic housewife; and then even more so in Hairspray by playing a very frumpy, normal woman in lower-middle class America. Those were what got him great reviews — in the same way that if Dolly Parton got out of drag and played a junkie, she’d win the Oscar.

That’s something I’d love to see. Some of the scenes in Polyester when Divine’s ploughing through the booze reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor in Boom!
Well that movie is certainly in almost every movie I’ve ever made — starting with Pink Flamingos, because in Pink Flamingos Divine’s in her trailer writing her memoirs, which was very much influenced by Boom! Every day of my life is influenced by Boom! I could never get away from it. It’s the best failed art movie in the history of movies.

It’s such a strange film, isn’t it?
It’s staggering when you watch it. You know, Tennessee Williams said it was the best movie ever made of his stuff. He didn’t say it kidding.

Wasn’t he completely drunk at the time?
He was supposed to be funny. I don’t know. He loved them. He was right! It is a great movie. It’s staggering to watch because the tone is so confusing. I finally did meet Elizabeth Taylor and I told her how much I loved it and she got really mad because she thought I was making fun of it. And then I said, “No, I really like it — I tour with it at film festivals and show it!” and then she was nice about it. But at first she was insulted when I told her I liked it. She said, “That’s a TERRIBLE MOVIE!”

But she’s so magnificent in that film…
Well she’s wonderful and awful and the same time, which is something that I believe was the correct tone for how it was written. But you sometimes wonder if she knew how perfect she was — and I’ll never know the answer to that. If you read abut the making of the movie they talk about drinking Bloody Marys every morning, so I’m not sure they all weren’t drunk when they made the movie.

What about when Richard Burton’s mumbling “Boom… boom…” against the surf? He’s gotta be liquored up!
Oh it’s so great when he says that! I live in Provincetown where there are waves and when I hear waves I think that: “Boom”. I walk around and say that.

Initially when I heard you were in Cape Cod I thought you may have been dictating your memoirs over the loudspeaker.
No, I don’t use a loudspeaker. I never do that. But I do write on legal pads — I do write them by hand.

What do you think of the trend to bringing back 3-D films?
I think it’s great. Every ten years they bring it back and I think it works. I loved it when it was in porn, when they had The Stewardesses where the big breasts fell out; and then they had [3-D gay movie] Heavy Equipment. I think hard-ons are perfect for 3-D, actually. When they ejaculate it’s quite effective I think.

I’ll bet.
And then there was Comin’ At Ya! and Warhol was great, because he did it — certainly in [Flesh for] Frankenstein. So I think every ten years the next generation needs to see a 3-D movie. And they make it better and better.

Who are your favourite celebrities at the moment?
I don’t know if I have a favourite. I’m still interested of course in Michael Jackson because I wanna one day see what he looks like out of drag. He’s a 50-year-old man! No one could imagine what he would look like without the wig and the make-up. I mean: what does he look like? I would be quite curious. He could so go underground and not be recognised if he would ever go out without any make-up or wigs or anything.

I love that when he tries to go out incognito, it’s always with the most obvious disguise.
Well that just causes so much attention. Disguises never work when stars do them. You just don’t do it! You don’t go to live in LA and eat at restaurants where paparazzi hang out. It’s very easy to not get photographed, if you don’t want to.

Did you see the picture of Michael Jackson in the wheelchair?
Yes… and now he allows Blanket to be photographed. And Blanket has bleached hair with roots. He looked nothing like him.

The other kids are blonde, too.
But it’s bleached, I think. Look at it closely and you’ll see roots.

Do you think they’re white?
Oh I don’t know, maybe they are. It’s his business, you know, they’re not my children. I mean, they’re half-white — didn’t Debbie [Rowe] have them? The dental technician? [Laughs]

We’re assuming they’re his kids.
Well you’re saying, “Did he actually get an erection and have sex with her?’ I doubt it. But how would I know? It doesn’t seem plausible to me, but you never know — I’ve been with people you’d never imagine. [Laughs] You never know what people really do, so it’s unfair of me to say that.

Have you ever met him?
No, but I have a friend that knows him well. And the only thing he ever told me that was surprising is that he has a completely different voice when he does business in real life — he doesn’t talk like that all the time.

Lisa-Marie [Presley] said he cursed all the time.
He doesn’t have that voice in real life! But what is real life for him?

Who’s your least favourite celebrity then?
Oh I would never say that. I’ve learned a long time ago to only say positive things about things that other people hate. Because as soon as I say who’s my least favourite celebrity I will go to a party and look at the place card next to me and it’ll be that person — and they’ve just read it.

How do you feel about Amy Winehouse? She was wearing a Cry-Baby T-shirt there for a bit.
Was she?!

Yeah. She kinda looks like she could live in Mortville.
I love her. She reminds me a lot of Cookie Mueller, who was in a lot of my movies. I think she’s great. I think she’s a real style icon and I hope that she gets past this drug issue thing because she’s a great singer. I like the other one — Duffy — a lot. I like her singing. But I think Amy really has great fashion.

If bad taste is now mainstream, when is it still good?
It’s really good when there’s no irony involved. When you think it is good and it’s just horribly wrong — that’s when it’s brilliant. Irony has ruined everything. There really can’t even be bad taste anymore. Well in New York there can’t, because it’s all infected with irony and style. It’s always in quotation marks and everybody knows that it’s ironic. The real beauty of bad taste is people that think it looks good.

Irony’s become pretty horrible.
Well I can’t criticise it, I mean — I’m an irony dealer — but yes, it has ruined everything.

What’s the height of plain old bad taste for you at the moment?
Just being on airplanes dressed in tracksuits. I don’t like seeing people half-naked on airplanes with hideous bodies. The people who are nude in public are always the ones you don’t wanna see nude. The cute ones are never nude.

People should make more of an effort when they’re flying.
Yes! They dress hideously! You should at least wear long pants. To get on an airplane does not mean you are in your living room on a hot summer night.

What do you think the worst fashion crime in the world is — apart from tracksuits on planes?
Tracksuits on planes, pretty much. Tube tops are pretty hideous. Pleated pants I’m not a big fan of, on men — they make you look fat. I’m really not impressed by T-shirts and clothes that have any labels in big letters that you can read, or also slogans — they aren’t funny. Although, I did buy a T-shirt the other day — I’m never gonna wear it but I just know it’ll be worth money some day. It’s “Bottoms for Obama”, which is actually a group of voters I guess. [Laughs] I hope they put him over the top.

What are your pet hates right now, John?
Well I don’t have pets ’cause I’m not lonely!

No, no — I mean “pet hates”.
Oh, I thought I was meant to say “dogs, cats and birds”. [Laughs] I don’t hate anything. Hate means you loved it once. So I don’t need to waste that hatred on anything, you know.

Irritations then?
Sure: people who do their exercises at the gate in airports—that gets on my nerves. Or people who, when you go in their bathrooms, they have a big stack of magazines. You shouldn’t be reading on the toilet! You want a colostomy bag? Just get on and get off: any doctor will tell you that.

[Laughs] So you don’t encourage people to loiter in your toilet?
No! I don’t even encourage people to use my toilet! One would think an experienced guest would “eliminate” before coming to dinner.

Do you have a John Wayne Gacy picture in your toilet, too?
I don’t. I have that one painting that was given to me as a gift which is hanging in a very obscure corner of a guestroom. I have great contemporary art… I wouldn’t really put that at the top of my collection.

How’s your new movie Fruitcake progressing? Can you tell me anything about it yet?
I can tell you it’s a terribly wonderful children’s Christmas adventure. I’m hoping to shoot and I do not completely have the budget right now. We’re in the middle of trying to do that so I’m hoping it’s gonna happen.

Is it a kids movie?
Yes. Well it’s a parody of a children’s movie. I would say it’d be a very hard PG-13.

Are there any particular kids films that have inspired you?
Certainly The Little Rascals, yeah. I go to children’s films. I like Benji the dog. Alvin the Chipmunk was always my favourite because I’m sexually attracted to him. I went alone Christmas Eve to see the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie and people were really giving me dirty looks, like I was a child molester. But I loved it when all the children were yelling at Alvin. It made me crazy; it was spiritual to me.

Do you still keep in touch with Paul Reubens? How’s he doing?
I am, yeah. He seems to be fine. I talked to him actually last week.

Will there ever be a role in one of your movies for him?
Oh, who knows. He was supposed to be in another one, one time — we were making the sequel to Pink Flamingos. It’s certainly possible.

Ever struck anyone off your Christmas card list and what do they have to do to get the chop?
Yes. If I can’t remember who they are two years later. It’s not ever doing something nasty. Or if you die. That definitely gets you off the list.

August 2008

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