Interview with John Waters — Chicago Underground Film Festival

A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN WATERS
by Jay Bliznick

It’s not often that you get the privilege of talking to someone as funny and personable as John Waters. It seems anyone that is familiar with his work has a story of their first journey into one of John’s celluloid worlds. Since the time I had seen Pink Flamingos, at the impressionable age of 16, I had made it a point to be one of the first in line on the opening day of every film of his that played at the theaters since. I had some interviews with filmmakers before and in those conversations had uncovered sides of them that I never knew existed. John, I found, was John. He is exactly as you think he would be and wears no veils or masks. Fame hasn’t spoiled John Waters. Here’s why.

CUFF: Hi John. Are you ready for your interview.

John Waters: Hi. I sure am.

C: Great. First off, I saw you on POLITICALLY INCORRECT the other night.

JW: Yes. With Charlton Heston. The filthiest person alive and the cleanest together at last.

C: How did that happen?

JW: Well, he was in front of me at the Canes Film Festival this year. We posed for this picture. It was 150 people in cinema or something like that, which was really fun, and he was right in front of me. Actually, with Charlton Heston, he’s extreme and I’m extreme I think we both respected that and neither one of us hassled each other. You know, it was so strange for me to be sitting there with him on the show. I thought it was a good combination.

C: On the show it was mentioned that you are working on a new film titled “Pecker”.

JW: You know, I don’t like to talk about something before I do it so I’m going to give you the standard answer. I’ll talk about it but I’m really superstitious about it. I’m going to shoot the movie in the fall. It’s about a kid named Pecker, he picked at his food as a child, and he’s a blue-collar kid in Baltimore that works in a sandwich shop. He takes pictures of his loving but very strange family on the side with an old camera he finds in his mom’s thrift shop. Well, he gets accidentally discovered by a New York art dealer and turned into a giant art star against his will. So, it’s basically a comedy about doing the most un-American thing you can do these days which is not want fame. So, it’s certainly a rags-to-riches comedy. That’s where it is and I’m casting and doing the re-writes now.

You know, you talk about something, literally, 25 years after you make the movie. Talking about it before you do it is not a good idea.

C: In this film Pecker becomes famous but doesn’t want the fame. What’s your view on fame?

JW: Certainly it’s funny to me. People think that fame is going to solve all their problems and all fame does is make the problems different. I went into show business, like all people in entertainment with low self esteem, so the rest of the world can tell them how great they are. Fame has only brought me funny things. I don’t understand people that say they hate it. I ask “why then did you go into the movie business?”. That’s the whole point.

Now, the best things that happen from fame, you know the old story, you get a better table at a restaurant. The worst thing about fame is that you can’t have bad sex anymore. Right in the middle of it they’ll start quoting from your films and saying “Oh, I’ve got your ODORAMA card!”. It sort of takes the fun out of it. You can’t be anonymous.

C: It must be strange to hear someone call your name, turn around and not know the person who did it.

JW: It happens every day. The funniest thing that happened to me recently happened the other day. I was in Baltimore, and this is why I live there, and I’m on the phone in an airport. I see these two janitors pointing and talking about me. They waited politely until I was off the phone, about ten minutes, then came over to me and said “Hey. Is your name Barry?” They thought I was Barry Levinson, which I really loved. It brought me right down to earth.

C: It seems that in the last twenty years Hollywood has been following the trend of director-as-celebrity. It existed before but it seems common now. What do you think of this?

JW: Well, with me, in the beginning I sort of nursed that. When we made these movies, when the term “underground” was in vogue, I obviously didn’t have money for movie stars so I made my friends my movie stars. So another way, really, to market the movie was to do the same thing with me. You know, sort of like a joke on Alfred Hitchcock or any of the directors who did gimmicks or promoted their own movies. The way we always use to open the show in the old days, like when we went to colleges or, say, an event like CUFF, is I would come out and talk a while then say “…and now I would like to introduce the most beautiful woman in the world.” and Divine would come running out pushing a shopping cart and throwing dead mackerel all over the place then kill a cop on stage. We would have a fake cop come out on stage and try to arrest him, this was the 60’s of course, then Divine would strangle the cop and all the lunatic drug-addicts and hippies would scream and applaud. That was our opening. That was really the only way we could promote our movies. It was just a way to get people to come see them.

C: What do you say to the kids coming out of film school and wanting to be a director because of the celebrity?

JW: If that’s what they want then they will never have success. Anyone who wants to be in the movie business to get laid or to be famous, if that’s the main reason, I promise you, they will never have success. You have to be completely obsessed with it for real. You can’t fake obsession.

C: Do you think that the celebrity mind set is weakening the industry. Say, people like Kevin Smith…

JW: I love Kevin Smith. I really think he’s a good filmmaker. I like Todd Haynes a lot. I like Richard Kern. I like Bruce La Bruce. I like a lot of the new ones. I think it’s a really good new generation of young filmmakers. They have more outlets to show new movies. The only difference is, and it’s a bad difference for the new generation, every distributor is looking for them now. They weren’t looking for them when I made them. Now there’s no such thing as selling a movie by word of mouth. Even if the movie cost 10c you still have to spend thousands of dollars to get people aware of it. You no longer have the luxury of word of mouth. When Pink Flamingos came out it had no ads. It played once a week and had time to build and open in other theaters.

C: Then, for Pink Flamingos, there was video.

JW: Well video, in a way, has made it so my early films like Multiple Maniacs could be seen in all cities outside of New York. It’s not going to be seen in a town that has three movie theaters. In a way you can spread filth much more with video. I think video has legitimized masturbation. It has spread the worship of bad taste more than anything. Kids today know everything about exploitation movies. The same movies that I had to go drive fifty miles to see in the drive-in they can now see easily. I think that’s great. I think there’s a real healthy respect for antique bad taste. When I was young you couldn’t make those kinds of films but you certainly can today.

C: Now Pink Flamingos has a whole new life again and it’s getting great reviews. Do you think that positive feelings toward the film take the sin out of it?

JW: No. I think it’s great. It lures people in that I thought would never see the movie then they’re still really appalled by it. A good review doesn’t make a film un-appalling. I know that from when it use to get busted all the time at the MOMA. Juries didn’t care about the reviews, they still found it guilty.

C: I know in it’s first run some unusual things had happened with people puking and such. Has anything like this happened with it’s re-release?

JW: In the old days people would puke and the theaters would put down sawdust. I would take credit for that but it was really just because they were drunk. I tried to take dramatic credit. Recently, though, someone told me that they went to the Angelica in New York where it was playing. They were in the theatre that was playing Anna Karenina and there was a beautiful, quiet love scene and you could hear Divine bleed through from the theatre next door saying “Someone sent me a bowel movement!” right in the middle of the new Anna Karenina and the audience was really pissed off. Some people started laughing and it just ruined the whole film . It was like terrorism coming from another screen.

C: When I was growing up the kind of things that made me the person I am was having gotten hold of a VCR and watching films like Pink Flamingos. What sort of kid where you and what influenced you?

JW: I had my own films that influenced me. When I was 16 I would go to the drive-in every night. In Baltimore, they almost TESTED exploitation movies there. I remember going to the drive-in and being handed a vomit bag for HG Lewis’ BLOOD FEAST and seeing this movie that was a new kind of shock. No one had done gore before and everybody would just lean on their horns during the gore scenes. It was almost a new kind of spirit. I thought it was funny and outrageous. At the same time I was seeing all the real art films that we really don’t have anymore, except for CRASH. That’s the only movie that was like an art film that use to be when I was growing up. Art films today are really bad. They’re movies like Il Postino which I hated! They’re all so life affirming! In the old days foreign films had radical subject matter. They were about sex and suicide. Even Bergman, when his films first started playing in Baltimore were advertised as “sex movies” because they had nudity in them. Subtitles made nudity socially redeeming. Subtitles use to be dirty.

C: I felt the same way about the ENGLISH PATIENT.

JW: Yeah. It was like fake David Lean. The tyranny of good taste is what that movie was about. It will influence the next generation of high-brow want-to-be-directors. I can’t imagine a 20 year old kid that says “I want to make the English Patient”. To me that’s a child I would want to have arrested.

C: What about some one who says “I want to make John Waters films”?

JW: Well, I get letters like that all the time. Generally it’s at least someone that has a sense of humor. I think a 20 year old that would want to make a David Lean movie would be humor impaired. At the same time, they right me funny letter. I don’t think that I have been copied, really, I think I have had some influence. I think the new kids have seen all my movies and they respect them but they come up with their own version of what they want to do. This is important and funny. The films are always about humor and about sex and violence and new ways to present these two staple of entertainment.

C: I have heard you say on occasion that one of the films that had an impact on you was The Wizard of Oz.

JW: I liked it because of the Witch. You know, I never understood why Dorothy wanted to go home. She could hang around with gay lions and winged monkeys and wear good shoes instead of having to live on that dreary farm with smelly animals and that aunt who looked mean and stern and dressed badly. I never understood why she wanted to go home. It didn’t matter, I just didn’t like the end. I’d say “Don’t click your heals together! Stay! Stay! Don’t get in the balloon! Fuck the dog!”

C: What where your parents like?

JW: My parents were very conservative but at the same time my father paid for Pink Flamingos. Mondo Trasho cost $2500, I paid him back with interest. Then I asked to borrow twice as much to make Multiple Maniacs. I paid him back, distributed myself, went around the country with the film in the trunk of my car and got bookings. Finally, with Pink Flamingos he lent me the money. I paid him back and he said “You don’t have to pay me back. Take the money and put it into your next movie and your back in business.” Very loving and very amazing especially since these movies were against everything he taught me to believe. I didn’t realize it back then as a kid. Now I look back on it find it pretty amazing that he did it. He never saw the movie to this day. It would be torture for my father to make him watch drag-queens eating dog shit and blowing people. You know, it’s not a movie to see with your parents unless Squeaky From is your mother.

C: Sounds like a nice middle-class upbringing. Did your taste or love of bad taste come in-whole from the movies?

JW: No, my parents raised me to worship good taste so obviously that was how I rebelled. But without worshiping good taste I don’t think I could have appreciated bad taste the way I do. I think that their training and respect for refined good taste gave me the background to make fun of it. I had a shrink once that told me my parents were the fuel you run on and it’s certainly true and I think it’s true of most people.

C: What about underground films?

JW: In ’63 I would run away from high school and go to New York and to the Bridge Theatre and the Gate Theater. Every day I would read Film Culture magazine which was really like my bible. and Jonas Mekas, the critic who would write movie reviews for the Village Voice. These were the major things of underground film at the time. It all made me want to make movies. It made me realize that you could make a movie with almost no money. Certainly the Kuchar Brothers were the big influence because they showed that you could make a big melodramatic film that was sort of a joke on Hollywood. Warhol by saying that your friends can be your stars and Kenneth Anger, even though I know he hates me, made films that I loved. His ironic use of pop-music, which he originated, added with those other filmmakers influenced me greatly.

C: I picked up your Pink Flamingos soundtrack and read your liners on “trash music”. I thought the CD was great. Is this the stuff you regularly listen to?

JW: Certainly. It’s my old record collection. Sometimes it’s the B side to a record or a song that’s so schmaltzy that I could imagine really hideous imagery to go along with the sugar-coated lyrics. You know, today Patty Page has made a big comeback singing in New York night clubs. I wonder if she knows “How Much is That Doggy in the Window” has been subverted by my movie. I think it was subverted in a good way but I don’t know if she’d agree.

C: I know that I’ll never be able to listen to that song the same way again. Partly because of your film and partly because it was the soundtrack to a film I was shown of Linda Lovelace with a great dane.

JW: Oh, I never want to see that. That’s a take I think I can miss. I think that they’re going to do her movie, I hear. I loved her first book though. I don’t know what I believe and what I don’t believe in that first case of hers. The idea in the one part of her story where she could only live through blow jobs… She would go into a gas station and her husband would say “filler up” she had to blow the gas station attendant. To me that was an amazing thing. Think if you had to go through your life and every thing you buy or want you have to give oral sex, a pack of gum or cigarettes, it must have been a daunting task.

C: It must have been. It trauma of it seems to be showing now.

JW: I think in some ways it’s like doing something, not brain washing, but doing something and realizing “what was I doing?” then radically wanting to change it. You want to change how people remember you. I don’t think the right way to do it is in complete denial, I think the right way to do it is to make fun of it. That’s what Traci Lords did in Cry Baby, what Johnny Depp did when he didn’t want to be a teen idol anymore. But at the same time Linda Lovelace has children and I think she wanted to go on the record so when they grow up she can put it in denial. Like a revisionist history about something that made her very famous. For a certain period of time she seemed to enjoy it. I don’t believe that every second of it she had a gun to her head.

C: What about Patti Hearst?

JW: I knew you would go there. Patti Hearst was doing her homework and someone came in her house and kidnapped her. That’s a very different thing. Whatever decisions she made were correct because she’s alive and they’re dead. I don’t think anybody can criticize anything she did because she’s still alive. They would have killed her.

C: It seems that her celebrity came from her misfortune. Now it’s almost as if that sort of “media” celebrity is common. Let me throw out a few names and get your reaction. The first is the most obvious…

JW: I hated OJ even before the crime, running through airports and getting on my nerves. He was a sports star and I’m a notorious sports bigot. To me, what I think about OJ, I think he did it but I hated white people complaining in that first verdict. They weren’t concerned about poverty or the terrible schools in the black neighborhoods, just that first verdict. The second trial, where I feel he was tried more by his peers, I’m glad he got found guilty. You know, it’s a subject that I don’t think about anymore. I guess the only way I can relate would be if I were sitting on a jury and Liberace was accused of killing his straight boy friend and the whole time the cops were saying “fag” this and “fag” that. Would I have let him off? Maybe. I can’t say.

I believe that OJ has told the lie so many times that he could pass a lie detector test saying that he didn’t do it. It’s revisionist thinking. Divine did pass a lie detector test once when he did steal something and got caught. He had lied to his parents for so many years, he passed it and he did do it. It is still a crackpot science.

C: Timothy McVeigh?

JW: It’s so depressing that now terrorists are right-s so depressing that now terrorists are right-wing they were dressed better, they were more interesting, they did better crimes. Now they just wear camouflage and have bad haircuts and really are dreary. The militia really doesn’t interest me too much. I am very much against the death penalty but in this case… I think he had a terrible lawyer, no matter what they say. Probably because Timothy wouldn’t let them give any defence other then what they gave. I think they should have put him on the stand to let him plead his case. Even if he did it let them say why. Even if it’s the most insane reason in the world at least it makes him seem a little human. I think it’s really dumb to say to the jury “you bare responsibility for Waco!” Oh please!

C: It seems that the information age has made a lot of these people famous through, say, discussions on the internet. Have you seen any of the web sights dedicated to you?

JW: No. for the most part I’m computer illiterate. I’ve written all 14 movies and all my books with a Bic pen and a legal pad. I have a computer that my assistant uses but i’m afraid of electricity. I can’t plug anything in. I’m mechanically challenged. I don’t understand how you can have sex on computers. I mean, how do you type and jerk off.

C: So you never get curious about what’s being said about you on the internet?

JW: I never look up my name on the internet. There was one rumor about me, that horrified me, that said I was seen wearing capes and top hats. I would kill myself. I would shoot somebody if they wore a cape and a top hat. So, I could never look on the internet for fear that I would see that again. That was the most alarming lie I ever read about me.

C: One rumor I found about you was that you were planning on doing the film Glamorpuss staring Madonna.

JW: Oh, that’s total bullshit and that came from the Star. They totally made it up about Glamorpuss which was a movie that I wrote four years ago. I like Madonna though I have never met her and never tried to pitch her a movie. It came from the Star and then the E! network.

C: Had you been hit in the tabloids before? (And you know how painful that can be.-J)

JW: One said that I started a war between Martha Stewart and Kathleen Turner which was ludicrous. Yeah, some, but it’s funny. I love the tabloids and get all three of them in the mail. I had dinner with Tab Hunter last night and, back then, the gossip magazine Confidential really hurt him by saying that he beat his dog! We were talking about it last night. A neighbor saw him give his dog a little smack and it became a huge scandal and almost hurt his career. It became “DOG BEATER, TAB HUNTER”. Now imagine what they would say. Dog beating wouldn’t even get on pg.80 of the midnight.

C: What about the people who say that you have “sold out”?

JW: They said that on Female Trouble. It’s a tiny minority. I would have to disagree because I had more trouble getting Serial Mom out, more fights with the people who gave me money, than any movie I ever made. So, it is still very hard for me to make movies the way I want to make them. I didn’t change it in any way. It was the exact movie I wanted to put out. To me, selling out, and I might do this if they’re going to take my house away, is to direct a movie I didn’t write. They want me to make Pink Flamingos over and over and if I did it would be very unsuccessful. I’ll plead that I don’t have the rage that I had the age when I made Pink Flamingos and if at 51 years old, if I had that rage, I’d be a big asshole. Rage doesn’t age well.

C: I used the internet to see if I could scrape up any interesting questions for you. One of the questions was about the game “shopping for others”. What is that?

JW: Shopping for others is when you go into a supermarket and you sneak unwanted items into unsuspecting shoppers carts. Things that they would never get. For example, if they were rich you would put in CheezWiz or Spam or for vegetarians you would put in a big thing of liver when they’re not looking. Then they get to the counter and they have it rung up and say “Hey! I didn’t buy that!” It’s total anarchy in the supermarket and it’s just a fun game to play. I talked about Shopping for Others on one of those talk shows on the Serial Mom tour. Anyway, I came home to Baltimore and I was exhausted and I had to go to the supermarket to get milk and somebody did it to me. Candy corn, which I took personally.

C: Do you still play the game?

JW: Actually a friend of mine told me about the game and his chef does it, they do it together. And their new thing, which is even more rude, is great but it’ll really get you in trouble. You know how children sit in shopping carts? Well you hand them a big thing of candy when their mother isn’t looking. Then mother would see it and scream a the kid and the child will scream. That’s a more aggressive and way more dangerous way.

C: Finally, what offends you?

JW: Forrest Gump. Life affirming, bad movies are where I want to call the police but there’s no organization that I can call to get help when I see this.

C: Well I guess that’s it.

JW: Great. I really like Chicago and I’m really looking forward to it.

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