John Waters Interview
For decades, filmmaker John Waters has lovingly made films that make us cringe, raise an eyebrow or two and kind of throw up a little in our mouths. From sketchy bestiality scenes to characters who love to kill, he has notoriously sculpted a world where disgust is something to smile about and the underdog always wins. When it’s up to John, the chubby girl snatches the studly male dancer from the snobbish blonde bitch (Hairspray), a schoolgirl will show the world what happens when you don’t get cha-cha heels (Female Trouble), and there’s nothing wrong with selling heroin in schools and selling babies to gay couples (Pink Flamingos).
Mainstream media has been stamped with his prints several times- he has served as host of Court TV’s true-life crime series Til’ Death Do Us Part, enjoyed recent name-dropping with the success of a remake of 1988’s Hairspray and made recent appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and VH1’s I Love the 70s. Before anything else, though, John will always be the man whose cult following clamors for his special brand of bizarre cinematography and the man who truly has, as he puts it, made trash one percent more respectable.
Becky Fritter: To start, it was mentioned that you’re fan of Chuck Palahniuk’s… I speculate that’s partly because you see a little of your own style in his work.
John Waters: I don’t know if it’s a matter of style, I just like that he’s out of control and that his work has this extreme vision, which is very funny to me. A lot of people don’t find extreme taste to be funny and there’s always going to be that debate. But really, I’m just a fan that he’s a one-man genre. I’m very impressed by that. Certainly I think we’re kindred spirits; I’m happy at his success… and I love the fact that he’s a brand name, which is always the best compliment you can give someone.
BF: How do you recognize when your own brand name is imitated or used as an influence?
JW: People don’t imitate me that much, I think- it’s less direct copying and more that I’ve been referenced in movies, and I never mind, especially because it seems to always be in a good way. People have probably ripped Chuck off more than they have me. (Laughs.) I think I’ve helped to loosen boundaries in taste, but that’s a small effect. Some movies that have made millions of dollars that are much broader than mine, considered to be bad taste comedies… I’m always jealous of those movies. It’s not like my movies have ever made that much money.
BF: When you first started working on film, how would your creative process have differed had Baltimore been as yuppified as it is now?
JW: Well, it isn’t yuppified, I promise you. Not the parts I go to. Real Baltimore, which is the Baltimore I make films about, is still very much alive. Certainly there are neighborhoods that have been yuppified, but I’m not a fan of fancy Baltimore so I don’t visit those places. If I want fancy I’ll come to New York, where they can pull off fancy much better. As far as Baltimore’s concerned, we do edgy much better. In New York there’s no such thing as a real biker bar; everything’s influenced by fashion and the very fact that you move there proves that you believe in irony.
BF: You’ve got an envious connection to Baltimore.
JW: Of course, it’s what inspires me. I’ve got apartments in New York and San Francisco and I live in Provincetown sometimes in the summers, but Baltimore has always been the canvas for me. The locations and the fact that I know every neighborhood makes it home in many ways. It’s also where most of my real, close friends and family are. Maybe Philadelphia could be a place to find similar inspiration, but I’m not as familiar with the neighborhoods and it’s too close to New York. Really, I haven’t found a place that could compete. In Baltimore, no one wants to be in New York, they don’t want to be trendy, they’re not impressed and they have a good sense of humor about themselves. They like what other people hate. And you know, in any other city, when you’re asked “What school did you go to,” someone will respond with a college… except in Baltimore, where you’ll get a high school.
BF: After writing Pink Flamingos while smoking pot, did other substances contributed to your film?
JW: In the old days, I smoked pot before I wrote. Pink Flamingos was definitely a movie made by a pothead for potheads, but when it came out I stopped smoking pot and didn’t start up again until just a couple summers ago in Provincetown at the beach, and now I’ll do it occasionally. When I write now, however, I don’t smoke. Now, other substances? LSD was very important; that drug formed a lot of my earlier films, along with the way I thought and the bond I had with my characters. But we were never on drugs when we made the movies, we couldn’t have gone through those typical low budget movie days on LSD. They were twenty-hour days, it would have been impossible.
BF: Ever tapped into that past LSD use for inspiration?
JW: If you’re referring to flashbacks, then I’m afraid I don’t have them. The thought of taking LSD right now is horrifying because I have no desire to take another LSD trip in my life. Although many of the people I took LSD with went on to become drug addicts or are now dead, I don’t regret doing it. It didn’t have a negative effect on me. It did with some, and it is a dangerous thing to abuse, but there are also stories of those of us who took LSD and look back on it very fondly.
BF: A while back said your work doesn’t have much redeeming value, but wouldn’t you say tastelessness serves as a good sort of social commentary?
JW: Absolutely, and anytime you make someone laugh or satirize something, it’s political. It’s the best way to change someone’s opinion because they’re defenseless- they laugh, they listen. My films are very political because they’re asking the audience to root for someone that they probably would not root for in real life. So that’s asking for change in judgment, which is political and social commentary.
BF: If I’m not mistaken, I did hear something about some animal rights activists who were upset with Crackers and the chicken sex scene in Pink Flamingos.
JW: Really? I never heard about it. Never in my life have I had any animal rights activists say anything negative to me, although perhaps they should have. (Laughs.) In Pink Flamingos, we bought the chicken at a place that sold freshly killed chickens. It got fucked… but it was only simulated. It was simulated chicken fucking and it got killed, but we ate it afterwards. And that’s much better; since we ate it I don’t feel guilty. It got to be a movie star, and people still talk about that damn chicken.
BF: They must have been very passive activists.
JW: Yeah, they must not have been very aggressive. Animal rights activists were the least of my problems though. It was the police that I really had to watch out for! (Laughs.) I got arrested many times and any time I went to court I was found guilty. It’s insane, but funny and insane.
BF: Even if the animal rights activist thing was a myth, where do you see that outrage directed at extreme media now as opposed to then? Oversexualized teenagers are exploited on daytime talk shows and no one seems to care much about that…
JW: Maybe not in that venue, but for the most part people cry out when sex is involved. Violence has always been okay- we’re an anti-sexual, pro-violent country, which is ludicrous. I’m against real violence, I hate real violence. But I don’t mind it in movies. I love it. Would I want to go see a real life fight club? No, but I love it when it’s fake or simulated. The censors don’t go after violence in movies and I’m definitely not asking them to but the point is, they go after sex. They’re even going after smoking in movies now- it’s not more relaxed, perhaps it’s even worse. Could Last Tango in Paris be made in a studio today? I doubt it. People are equally as uptight about sex, if not more, and for a lot of reasons I can understand why. I was around when sex was out of control in the seventies, when you’d see a hooker taking a shit on 8th Avenue in the middle of the day. But I used to go to sex clubs, and that will never happen again in either of our lifetimes. Sex clubs were insane, but I’m thankful I saw it. It was sexual for a while because the freedom was so new and beautiful but God, it ended badly.
BF: Paint the picture for those of us who didn’t get to see it.
JW: Well, we used to go to a lot of clubs like The Hellfire- that one was straight and gay- you had one bathroom where you could go and pee and the other one where you had people you peed on. Take your choice. You didn’t have to participate, but it was strange to be standing there discussing literature because a dick would just pop through the glory hole and hit some society lady in a fur coat. It was a time where almost no behavior was deemed over the top, and it was funny. There was this place called Night Shift on 8th Avenue where you’d go up an elevator and if you didn’t get robbed, once you reached the top you’d see a movie set of a park, like a public park, but it was a sex club. There were a lot of bums, too, that would go in there and sleep and people would be trying to blow them. The confusion was amazing, you didn’t know who was homeless and who was there for sex, all on this movie set of a public park. So bizarre.
BF: And the bad ending?
JW: Those times will not come back, and it’s not that I liked those times anyways, because most people my age have friends who have died from AIDS. It would be very irresponsible to want those times to come back, really.
BF: In the eighties you worked at Patuxent Institution (teaching a writing/film class to convicted felons), what did you get out of it?
JW: I wrote about it Crackpot and Shock Value, and during the film course I changed many of my opinions and judgments. Although she was eventually fired and the whole program was shut down, I had a great warden who hired me and I actually took the classes very seriously. It’s very different in prisons today, where they don’t believe in education, they’re not for anything but punishment. The inmates taught me a lot, especially that we can all go bad very quickly. One of my best students got out after serving twenty-nine years and he’s doing very well. Another got out and killed two more people. Although it’s impossible to tell who’s going to behave a certain way, and I had no say in their sentences whatsoever, maybe it’s better that way, because I was certainly surprised at the one who did get out and kill more people. He was actually in Serial Mom.
JW: Yeah, and now we call him Serial Extra. Let’s just say this… he’ll never work again. (Laughs.)
BF: What was a typical day like?
JW: I would have one class about once or maybe twice a week at its peak, I can’t really remember, but I would bring my projector and my little teacher’s pet student would meet me at the gate and carry my projector to class. I tried to be a good teacher and motivate my students to write well and participate. We screened a lot of films, like Pink Flamingos. We did a lot of improv, and I feel like it was a success overall and that I was a good teacher. I still run into people in Baltimore who were in my class. One guy was a rapist, I saw him at a book signing with a girl, but I didn’t say anything to her because he seemed to be doing fine. Another has become a very successful coke dealer, which is great. He’s out of jail, and he’s found a way to work in society.
BF: So the main point of the class was to give your students means of expression.
JW: Sure, that’s the point of any writing class… along with acting and seeing how low budget films are made. I’m talking serious low budget, we shot the films in the camera with no editing. We’d do a take, and wait for a song to come on the radio to use as a soundtrack. There were no costumes, just whatever the students could grab. The bikers played the girls, the black people played the rich people and the white people played the servants. Everything was backwards.
BF: All of your characters seem to be backwards or off point in some way, they’ve had odd sexual fetishes, sold heroin to children, murdered other people… and no matter how revolting, they’re still so damn likable!
JW: Because they’re joyous about what they do! (Laughs.) I’m trying to get people to understand all types of behavior. I make the people in those worlds likable because I like them. You have to like who you’ve written a film about or else it becomes mean-spirited and something mean-spirited can be funny for twenty minutes, but I’m not so sure about ninety minutes. Underneath it all, you’ve got to care and know about your subjects and ultimately understand it partly. For example, with people on the other side of the law, like my students, you have to figure out why they’re there. That’s why there are so many true crime books- people are interested in behavior they cannot understand and cannot imagine doing themselves.
BF: In your work, it seems like you understand your characters’ behaviors very well.
JW: Not always. What’s the fair answer here, do I understand every fetish that was in A Dirty Shame? No, in some ways I think it’s crazy, but it interests me. Being intrigued by a behavior doesn’t require you to do it. You just want to understand it. And I think my films have brought me a better understanding of so-called “stranger” behaviors.
BF: You’ve asserted in a few past interviews that you don’t try to shock people, yet that’s the result of almost all your work. What was your initial intention when you started writing films all those years ago?
JW: Everything from Ingmar Bergman art films and Walt Disney to underground movies and exploitation movies like I Spit On Your Grave, they all shocked me in a good way. It’s easy to be shocking, even unintentionally, but it’s difficult to be witty and shocking. And in 1972, when I made Pink Flamingos, no one seemed to be shocked by anything. In grade-school English class, I was taught the term “shock value,” which is something you use to get people’s attention. Basically, I made it my lifestyle. Simple as it is to be shocking like every repulsive horror movie out there, you have to use surprise to make it good. Honestly, I never tried to top that last scene in Pink Flamingos (where female impersonator Divine eats a handful of dog feces). If I had tried, I would’ve never made another movie ever again. It’s hard enough to keep up with this business.
BF: So the last scene of Pink Flamingos was a very intentional attempt to shock.
JW: Yes, and that was the first idea I had for the whole movie. The thing we heard from (director) Gordon Lewis when he made Two Thousand Maniacs! and Blood Feast was that you could go as far as you could go with nudity and get away with it legally. What couldn’t you do that there wasn’t a law against yet? Gore. That’s why he made gore movies. The most shocking things are the things that aren’t illegal. That’s the trick- it’s all about whatever they can’t get you for.