Filmdom’s titan of the unconventional is ready to expose himself to Santa Cruz audiences. We tell you why
A few weeks ago I was a John Waters virgin—pure, untouched, unscathed by the 59-year-old filmmaker. But then we met one day. In one hand I gripped a thin pencil, its eraser head erect, its lead point ready to be unleashed. In the other hand I held firmly on to a giant cup of green tea. I was nervous. I was about to be deflowered by John Waters.
I’d never imagined that sex with John Waters would be like this: Two people thrashing around on a bed, blood spewing, with a chicken between them as they—to use a Johnny vernacular—“fucked.”
Thankfully, my only interaction here was as a voyeur, a bystander watching bestiality on screen—just one sexual moment of many, featured in Waters’ controversial, groundbreaking if not highly praised and criticized 1972 film, Pink Flamingos. I figured I’d get the full service experience with Waters right off the bat. I’d start with his hardest ride.
After Pink Flamingos, I was no longer virginal. In fact, the images I saw visited me in my dreams: pictures of an anus opening and closing, a naked couple sucking each other’s toes, a castrated man, some cannibalism and, of course, the drag queen, Divine, eating dog shit. I’d been warned that my first time with Waters would be intense, but I had no idea what I was getting into.
I had to interview Waters in just a few days to discuss his upcoming holiday show on Thursday, Dec. 15, at the Rio Theatre, where the envelope-pusher is expected to delve into his Christmas obsessions. Musician Jonathan Richman, of The Modern Lovers and There’s Something About Mary fame, is slated to perform. Drag king Jack E. Strano and Babette will also be on hand. So I immersed myself in all things John Waters. I poured over interviews and discovered obscure facts. “His favorite childhood memory was seeing real blood on the seat of a wrecked car when visiting a scrap yard and fantasizing about lethal car crashes,” the movie Web site IMDB.com reports. “He is obsessed with true-crime and regularly attends gory trials all over the U.S. …” He’s also quoted as having said, “If someone threw up at one of my screenings, it would be like a standing ovation.” And, “Sometimes I wish I was a woman, just so that I could get an abortion.”
Alongside the likes of rocker Marilyn Manson and shock jock Howard Stern, Waters knows exactly what he’s doing—he loves to shock people with his art.
His movies take you captive. They either terrify you or seduce you. He can screw with your mind; warp your thoughts. But he can also enlighten, nudging people to accept the perverse, the strange, the abnormal, the uncomfortable and the rejects of our society. Sex, violence, obscenities, bizarre and unthinkable fetishes and addictions are all markers of a Waters film. Conventional he’s not.
The Steve Buscemi look-alike—dubbed the “Pope of Trash” and the “Prince of Puke”—was born April 22, 1946, in Baltimore, Md. At 16, he started making movies. Always attracted to the obscure and violent, his films quickly took on those themes. He made it big with the 1972 controversial film Pink Flamingos. Other popular films followed: Polyester, Hairspray, Cry Baby, Female Trouble, Serial Mom, Pecker, Cecil B. DeMented and his most recent 2004 release, A Dirty Shame. His movies always create a stir, but inasmuch as they are condemned they are also extolled. He often ridicules the religious right, and makes social commentary on drugs, sex, abortion, adoption and gay issues.
And while his movies mark him as being a wild child, in photos he looks more like a buttoned-up nerdy uncle, with his curious, almost kind smile and peewee mustache. And over the phone, Waters is witty, intelligent, quick and quite personable. Somewhere behind his infectious laughter, is a wicked sense of humor—and a dirty mind. Meet John Waters.
Good Times: Hi John, how are you?
John Waters: I’m peachy. Hold on one second. You’re two minutes early. I’m not quite ready. (He splits for a bit, then returns to the line.)
GT: You’re coming to Santa Cruz …
JW: I’m excited. The best Christmas present I could ever get is Jonathan Richman is coming.
GT: What’s the name of your show and can you tell me about it?
JW: “A John Waters Christmas.” I’ll read you the thing I wrote up about it, the press release. Providing caustic holiday observations in a rapid fire monologue. Covering all of his Christmas obsessions, Mr. Waters reveals his compulsive desire to give and to receive perverted gifts of religious fanaticism for Santa Claus, and … the unhealthy urge to make all of his own films into children’s classics. The pope of trash will give you a joyous Noel like no other. It’s an hour monologue about my obsession with Christmas.
GT: What’s your obsession with Christmas?
JW: It’s everything from how you should dress, what you should give, your Christmas cards, why if you’re depressed it’s still good. [It’s] about Christmas music, about Christmas movies, about what I want for Christmas, what you should want.
GT: What do you want for Christmas?
JW: I always have a list like a registry because people are scared to buy me presents so I always put different price ranges on things I want. [I want] books and CDs. I say in my lecture that if you ever go home with somebody, and they don’t have books in their house, don’t sleep with them. I think that’s very important.
GT: What inspired you to do the show?
JW: Well, it started after my book “Crackpot.” I have a chapter called “Why I Love Christmas.” That started it. And then I have a regular spoken word act called “The Filthy World,” that I do maybe 20 times a year at nightclubs across the country. It started at the Castro Theater one year. I did it there and started doing it other places.
GT: Are you touring across the county?
JW: To eight or nine cities. None in the middle [of the country].
GT: Why Santa Cruz?
JW: I’ve been there before. I like it. That roller coaster. That post card [with the roller coaster]. I sent Andy Warhol one. It was the week after there was a hideous accident on that roller coaster and we went to Santa Cruz to ride it the day they reopened it. I always go to the worst things that the Chamber of Commerce is trying to hide.
GT: I’m wondering what else you’ve been up to lately. I went online …
JW: Well, it’s always wrong online.
GT: I hear that you’re in pre-production for a remake of Hairspray?
JW: No, not correct. I will tell you everything, my product line. I just had a book come out, “Hairspray, Female Trouble, Multiple Maniacs,” which is the original shooting scripts for those three movies, which I guarantee will never play in a triple feature. It’s filled with lots of pictures that you’ve never seen. Even me, pre-mustache, which is scary to me.
GT: How long have you had that mustache?
JW: Since 1969. Then I have the John Waters Album. It came out last year, and this year A John Waters Christmas. And I have the John Waters Christmas tour. I have a show coming out on the Here! Network, which is premium cable and cable-on-demand, Feb. 3, called John Waters Presents Movies that will Corrupt. It’s filmed entirely in my house and I answer the door every week in a different outfit … and give an eight-minute monologue on the insane films that they’re allowing me to show like Irreversible and porn theater and movies you can’t imagine you’re allowed to show on television. It’s on one of the gay channels. … I just filmed the pilot for this Court TV show, which is called Till Death Do Us Part, and each week it’s based on a true crime where the bride and groom kill one another. It’s acted out. Each week starts at their wedding and I play the grim reaper, a time traveler who talks to the audience and knows they’re gonna die and I’m at their wedding. Cry Baby is coming to Broadway and Hairspray is being made. I’m not directing it. … My regular nightclub act is being filmed by another network. And I also came up with my next movie. I thought it up. That’s the hardest part. I know what it is and I have the treatment. It’s a comedy.
GT: What are the best and worst movies you’ve seen this year?
JW: I just did my 10 Best Of. Now, of course, it’s in October and I’ve not seen Bareback Mountain, or whatever it’s called. That’d be the porn title. What’s it called?
GT: Brokeback Mountain.
JW: The Christmas movies I haven’t seen. Last Days, A History of Violence, Grizzly Man, Mysterious Skin, Broken Flowers, 2046, The Aristocrats. There are many, many movies I know I’d hate that I don’t have to see. My specialty is praising what other people don’t like. As soon as I say a movie that I don’t like—I learned this early in my career—I’ll be seated next to that director at a dinner and he’ll have read it. It’s not worth it—[mentioning movies I hate].
GT: How seriously do you take your role as a founding father of modern independent cinema?
JW: I certainly am very serious about my career, but hopefully I have a sense of humor about my career. And I work hard. I still work 12-and 13-hour days. But I feel completely understood at the same time. I don’t have many gripes. I’ve never answered my critics. There’s no point in that. I have had a very nice career. I’m lucky, I’ve been able to do what I wanted since I was really 16 years old. It’s still not easy. I still don’t know who’s making my next movie. I still have to go out there and pitch it. I don’t have a deal anywhere.
GT: What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned over all these years making so many films?
JW: Well, the two things I’ve learned are to make sure you edit before you shoot it because it’s a waste of time and energy and money to pull out things you should have known you were going to cut out before you do it. In a script, you really cannot leave the main characters halfway through it for more than a couple of minutes. The back stories always get cut. I also learned the bigger the budget, the more they will market test it. The more they market test my movies the more hell I’ll have because the head of marketing said to me, “What norm do we test you against?” I firmly believe that you should have a test before, but not the cards or anything, and the focus groups should be short because they keep them there till they finally say something bad, and that’s why they call them fuckus groups. I believe you should screen a movie before. There are little things you see where something’s too slow. … But the worst words you can ever hear are that you’ve got to edit it to bring up the numbers. They all say that.
GT: Is there a separation between your public persona and the person you really are?
JW: Not too much anymore. I think in the beginning people thought I lived in a trailer and ate dog shit. They thought Divine was really a transvestite. Divine was never in drag except in the movies. I certainly never lived in a trailer and I take that as a compliment that it was so badly filmed that they thought it was a documentary. So I think that by now, people know that I couldn’t have been this character they thought I was. I’ve been doing this 40 some-odd years. I think I’m understood. I think I’m treated with respect. I’m trying to hijack Vincent Price’s career with the Court TV thing and, after all, I was in a Chucky movie. I try to have many different careers, and one thing I didn’t mention before, I have a contemporary art career with my photography, a museum show that traveled all over the world. It’s closing [at the Orange County Museum of Art called “John Waters: Change of Life.”]
GT: What do you think is gross?
JW: I think gross is humor that looks down on a subject matter, that makes fun of it in a classist way, that has no irony to it. That is bad taste. That isn’t funny. That doesn’t change anything and it’s smirking and thinking it’s superior—that the writer is superior to the subject matter.
GT: What makes you laugh?
JW: People that think they’re normal but are totally insane. That’s why I live in Baltimore. And I live in New York, where everyone thinks they’re insane but they’re totally normal. Baltimore is way more cutting edge than Manhattan as far as going out.
GT: Quick political question. What are your thoughts on George W. Bush and the war in Iraq?
JW: Well, what do you think? Obviously I never voted for Bush. I couldn’t stand him. But … we can’t just leave Iraq in one day. An odd thing happened … I got a letter from a major in Iraq about a year ago, telling me that his whole squadron were huge fans of my work and were watching my movies over there. I sent a care package. I felt like I was Bob Hope—sent all these Divine T-shirts and movies, and they wrote back and said they loved it and they were watching Female Trouble while they were being bombed. And you know that put it in a completely different way to me. It made it so human to me. I think it’s very close to Vietnam in many ways except there’s no draft. Half of them were recruited, but they chose to go. But I still care for them and don’t want bad things to happen.
I think the terrorists would kill me in a second. I’m every single thing they would like to offer up. But at the same time I don’t think we can go in. I think it was based on phony information why we went there in the first place. They picked the wrong country. Why there? Bin Laden wasn’t from there.
GT: How would you seduce a John Waters virgin, someone who’s never seen any of your movies?
JW: These days I’m always amazed that fans come up to me and say, “My parents turned me on to your movies.” Times have changed. I guess the squarer they are … I’d start them out with Hairspray. Because even though that is the most subversive movie I ever made … it touches them in a Hallmark way. If it’s a kid … well, parents bring me their fucked up kids … like an overweight girl with like 13 bolts in her face, a big scowl. And I say, “You know what, maybe she should open a tattoo shop.” Work with what you’ve got. That’s the thing. You can’t order up the version of your child that you want. I went through a lot of battles with my parents when I was young. Now I realize how incredibly supportive they were. But you don’t really realize that when you’re young. I guess I’d give that girl with the big chip on her shoulder Female Trouble. It’s about an overweight girl that, well, she got the electric chair in the end, but at least she had some fun.
GT: Let’s do some word association. I’ll give you a word. Tell me what comes to your mind. God.
JW: God. A word that is so abused today and basically what I guess brings many people comfort, which I’m all for. It generally seems to be used as an angry person that judges others, which if that’s true I don’t worship that God.
GT: Britney Spears.
JW: You know, I don’t even know who she really is.
JW: Creepy, but it surely isn’t hurting any of the stars that are one. You know, maybe it teaches you to not be gay. I don’t know.
JW: Well, it’s been my best press agent my whole life. I still fight it. The Catholic Church attacked my last movie (A Dirty Shame). The motion picture association gave it an NC-17 and caused me a lot of trouble. I thought an NC-17 couldn’t hurt me. I was wrong. Even art theater chains in some cities wouldn’t play it. You always fight it (censorship) but try to use it in your favor.
GT: Marilyn Manson.
JW: I like Marilyn Manson. He called me when he was very young and we talked. He was coming to Baltimore and I couldn’t go to his show and he said when he was young [he had watched some of my movies]. I was a good influence. I think he’s smart and funny and certainly has a great career.
GT: For all those wannabe John Waters filmmakers out there, what’s your recipe for successful independent filmmaking?
JW: If it’s your first movie, always put some sex and violence in it. But think of a new way to do it that might scandalize or laugh at the generation right before you that had success.
GT: Why do you like pushing the envelope?
JW: You know I don’t even realize that I am. To me, humor is how you change people’s opinions and if you can make somebody laugh they’ll listen, even if they hate you. So I’ve gotten through life with humor. So to me, by pushing the envelope what that generally means is, what can be funny? Almost anything can in a movie if it’s told in the right tone and coming from the weird politics of humor. Is the roller coaster open this time of year? Maybe I’ll get to go on it. John Waters performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, at the Rio Theatre. Jonathan Richman will be performing music. Also featured: Kenny Larkins, Drag king Jack E. Strano and Babette. Tickets are $25/general; $75/for the VIP meet-and-greet. Tickets can be purchased at www.TicketWeb.com.
The Essential waters A Waters fan? Then you must have the following films in your collection:
The Lowdown: Hits screens in 1972; finds drag queen Divine as the matriarch of a clan who deem themselves “the filthiest people alive.” Sex with chickens happen. Dog feces becomes a delicacy.
The Lowdown: Hits screens in 1981; finds a suburban housewife (Divine) heading toward a nervous breakdown. The reason? Pornographer hubby admits he's unfaithful, daughter gets knocked up and pregnant, and her son becomes the prime suspect of being a foot-breaking foot-fetishist. Tagline:
“Smelling is believing.”
The Lowdown: Hits screens in 1988; finds Ricki Lake as a chubby Baltimore teen who dances her way to liberation. Sonny Bono, Divine, Deborah Harry and Pia Zadora go along for the ride.
The Lowdown: Hits screens in 1990; finds Johnny Depp spoofing Elvis flicks and juvenile delinquency scare films of the ‘50s. Ricki Lake and porn star Traci Lords share screen time with the likes of Willem Dafoe, Patty Hearst, Mink Stole and Troy Donahue.
Cecil B. DeMented
The Lowdown: Hits screens in 2000; finds Melanie Griffith being kidnapped by an indie film director and a gaggle of renegade teens. Patty Hearst and Ricki Lake co-star. Greg Archer
Words & waters
Quotables from the “Pope of Trash”
… humor is how you change people’s opinions and if you can make somebody laugh they’ll listen, even if they hate you. So I’ve gotten through life with humor.
I think the terrorists would kill me in a second. I’m every single thing they would like to offer up.
I’m trying to hijack Vincent Price’s career with the Court TV thing and, after all, I was in a Chucky movie.
I think in the beginning people thought I lived in a trailer and ate dog shit. They thought Divine was really a transvestite. Divine was never in drag except in the movies. I certainly never lived in a trailer and I take that as a compliment that it was so badly filmed that they thought it was a documentary. So I think that by now people know that I couldn’t have been this character they thought I was.
Some call me director, producer, filmmaker. I prefer to call myself pube-king.
I pride myself on the fact that my work has no socially redeeming value.
I’ve signed dicks, asses, parole cards (that’s my favorite), a colostomy bag while it was still pumping. A couple of years ago, I signed a bloody Tampax. That’s one you don’t forget. I’m not asking for someone to top that! www.geraldpeary.com
Nobody thought those were real testicles in There’s Something About Mary. Nobody thought that somebody really shot semen in (Cameron Diaz’s) hair. But they all know that Divine really ate dog shit, so I’m sorry, I still feel like Muhammad Ali. www.flakmag.com
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