John Waters Interview

EC ROCKER 12/12/07 Cover Story


John WatersJohn Waters has made a good living challenging the parameters of our social landscape. He is arguably the most controversial, provocative, entertaining, and influential filmmakers of the past half-century, running the gamut from underground cult hits shot with unknown talent and bizarre extras, distributed in guerilla style with little to no money to Hollywood niche favorites boasting star power. His most famous work, Hairspray has become a huge Broadway hit musical, followed up by a successful Hollywood movie starring John Travolta in the corpulent, cross-dressing Devine role. There is another, Cray Baby, on the horizon. But no matter the canvas, one element remains constant in a John Waters’ production, its subject matter will be anything but mainstream, and it will apply humor, irony, and subversive imagery to hammer home its theme.

This is also true of Waters’ one-man shows, which he’s been staging for thirty years, and now entering a fifth year of his critically acclaimed “A John Waters’ Christmas”, winding its way into Asbury Park this month.

We recently discussed all things filth, film, and the underground.

jc: Christmas is a perfect foil for you. Do you like to play with some of the traditions, not only religious, but exploitive traditions of Christmas in America?

Oh, sure, to make fun Christmas in a way that I like Christmas but I can make fun of its extremes and the different moods it brings on. You have to know the rules, though, the basics of what you’re satirizing. So, I do like Christmas, without irony, if you want to know the truth, but at the same time there are terrible things that happen in Christmas. I also try and look at it from every person’s viewpoint, like for instance thieves are very happy at Christmas. You have more money in your wallet. There are presents in your car they can steal. It’s a happy time for them too.

I’d like to talk about the evolution of social commentary through art and literature, specifically the use of wit and satire, which is a specialty of your work. Can you discuss what you refer to as “trash art” and your role in using it as commentary on or a rebellion against social mores?

I don’t call it trash. I call it filth now, because I think it needed a new word. Trash seems to be so embraced now. They talk about “trash tv” and that doesn’t mean the same thing to me. I always used “trash” as praise. Filth has a little more edge, is a little more punk.

But certainly “filth”, which started out as the real “trash”, the great “trash”, was not filled with irony and didn’t know that it was funny and was serious about it. And for its real audience it was sexy and scary, but then hipsters and intellectuals came in and discovered it. Some of them loved it for what it was, almost as “outsider” filmmaking, but it was mostly forgotten by my generation, but then rediscovered now by young people that hold some of those movies in great esteem. They are getting the final respect that they deserve.

You’ve talked about the importance for art to provoke or even disgust to engender a response or challenge, and your films have certainly done that. How meaningful do you think it is to create societal shifts through underground art?

“I’ve gotten through my life using humor as a weapon, as protection, and politics. I think every joke is political in a way.”

Well, you have to surprise people in order to get them to listen. People are always saying I’m trying to shock people. I don’t know. I get why they say that from Pink Flamingos, but basically I was trying to surprise you and make you laugh at things you’ve never laughed at and that way you’ll listen. You could never argue with somebody by ranting and raving. No one wants to hear that, they’ll just walk away. But if you can make someone laugh, they’ll stop for a minute and they’ll listen to you. I’ve gotten through my life using humor as a weapon, as protection, and politics. I think every joke is political in a way.

Do you think it’s harder now to shock an audience or say challenge them with irony and humor?

I don’t try to shock! I try to make people laugh. It’s easy to shock. It’s not as easy to surprise people and to make them laugh at something they’re shocked they’re laughing at.

How about compel or provoke, to use more specific terminology.

It’s odd. Even though there is more craziness on the Internet or even on television, there is always an angry backlash for real edgy, thought-provoking stuff. It’s as if we are supposed to accept shit as appeasement for this insatiable need for human nature to test boundaries. Partly, I guess. Television’s the freest it’s been. Pink Flamingos plays on color television. I’m shocked at that! You get co-opted easier. I mean, at the last Republican Convention in New York George Bush Sr. and Barbara came to see Hairspray and he was out front twisting with drag queens. You don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s very confusing.

There was always honesty in the subject matter in your films. It reminds me of early American literature’s take on taboo subjects, which were also not done ironically but with the utmost seriousness, but may have been co-opted later as a wink and a smirk at the establishment.

The first thing I ever wanted to be was a Beatnik when I was eight years old living in Lutherville, Maryland. I used to wear Levis with bleach on them and laced-up Ben Hur sandals. I really looked ridiculous. I would go to coffee houses with the bongos and meet up with the girls wearing berets and black nylons. I remember that was really a shocking thing. And I remember going to see foreign films where they served espresso coffee and you’d read. Of course! You’d read Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, along with all the Beat books. I loved that! But then they turned into hippies and they turned into punks and the punks turned into grunge, and grunge turned in gangster. All just new ways to rebel.

Do you think any of your earlier films were as far outside the Hollywood mainstream in subject matter, specifically Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, than say Hairspray or Cry Baby?

John Waters ChristmasIf I hadn’t changed, I wouldn’t be here today. You’ve got to re-invent yourself. You don’t repeat doing what you did when you first get famous or it will be over. There were no more midnight movies, video came out, so you have to keep changing with the business.

My last movie got an NC-17 rating. I had huge censorship problems: Cecil B. Demented, a movie about terrorism. And Hairspray is probably the edgiest thing I ever did, because it’s playing in every country in the world, where regular families are sitting there not realizing it’s a film encouraging their white fifteen year-old daughter to date black guys.

What about more mainstream Hollywood films that followed, like say, Porkies or on a grander scale Animal House. I’m not sure those film get made without your films displaying that it’s not only okay to dip into the tasteless or bizarre in movies but that there is a pretty wide audience for it.

I don’t have anything against those movies, I’m jealous of their grosses, but they were much broader than my films were. My films were always exploitation films for art houses, not exploitation films for real exploitation. They bombed in real exploitation theaters. And those movies were for a more male-orientated, macho audience, the same audience for Knocked Up! But I’m happy those movies are hip. It makes it easier for me with censor boards. I wish my films were that broad, but they never have been in a way because mine are somehow considered more elitist and more ironic.

In a way Hairspray is the most subversive kind of art to be able to get into larger markets and infuse the same themes you’ve hit upon from your earlier films.

Well, you just keep going and you try to figure a way to make things work. I’d been through a whole thing where I started trying to make underground movies and then it was midnight movies and then it was independent movies and then I had a Hollywood period, and then I made Hollywood independent movies, and I think now I make Hollywood underground movies.

Could a young filmmaker today make the kind of films you made in the sixties or seventies and get them to an audience? I know you also said once that it’s easier to get films made now and even distributed now, but if they bomb on the first weekend, you’re gone.

Every movie made today has a harder time staying around. Even Hollywood movies only last three weeks, and that’s considered a long run. It’s because of DVDs and videos and home theaters. None of that existed then. When I was young, films could play a year in one movie theater, but today that could never happen because in six weeks you can get it on DVD. But, however, way more people see it. Now you can live anywhere in America and you can see any movie in the world. You don’t have to worry about where you live to see great obscure art films. It’s actually much better now.

I see you’re doing your show out in Asbury Park.

It’s hard to imagine how great and scary Times Square was. You look at Dianne Arbus pictures and you look at people who photographed it lovingly and you see it was really exciting to see exploitation movies in that perfect theater.

I’ve never been there, so I’m looking forward to it. I love to come to somewhere that I’ve never been. I heard you have good hairdos there.

I’m not sure about that, but okay. At least I’ve heard the town’s having a bit of a renaissance?

Real Estate porn is everywhere. But good! I think mostly if yuppies or guppies come in and fix up places it’s good for the neighborhood. It makes it better. I have nothing against yuppie restrooms. They have great restrooms.

There is a preponderance of friends and colleagues, many of them artists or writers that are always going on about how they enjoyed New York City more when it was grungy and more dangerous. I always disagree. I grew up in New York and worked there most of my adult life on and off. I love New York. I was never thrilled about fearing it.

No, God, I remember when every night you could get mugged in New York. I can’t get mugged now. I mean, do I miss days of on Ninth Avenue when you could see a hooker in broad daylight taking a shit? No. But I do miss the sex clubs that were pretty amazing. They will never ever come back. AIDS ruined everything. Never in anyone’s lifetime that may read what you’re going to write are going to see that again. That will never come back. It’s hard to imagine how great and scary Times Square was. You look at Dianne Arbus pictures and you look at people who photographed it lovingly and you see it was really exciting to see exploitation movies in that perfect theater.

Do you think your films have captured a period of time that won’t be returning?

The next underground sensation will be on the Internet and it will surprise me! Working on anything new? I have a sinister script before the (writer’s) strike even happened, and it’s a terribly wonderful children’s Christmas adventure called Fruitcake, which I’m hoping to shoot in February.

Have you decided whose going to be in it?

Well, Johnny Knoxville is the dad, but it’s mostly all children in it and you really can’t cast that ’til the last minute because a child can grow a foot in one month.

Good point. I understand you’re touring this Christmas show with a band, right?

Oh yeah, I’m touring with a band who opens for me called Lavender Diamond with Becky Stark as the singer. I also have my Christmas album, A John Waters Christmas, and I have other records – uh, records, you can tell how old I am – musical collections that came out the past couple of years.

How did you choose the songs for these?

Oh, just songs that I figured you haven’t heard and I thought you should. It’s what I would play if you came over my house and we smoked pot or had a martini.

What about the future of filmmaking? You mentioned the Internet. And I’m referring here not to the big time film industry, but the independent stuff, the edgy stuff.

Eventually, they’re all going to be on the net, because everyone is going to have a home theater. People will still go to the movies for a shared experience, but everybody will have a little art cinema in their house eventually.

Do you think every film, or every piece of art; every creative experience should have something in it that’s provoking in some way?

No! No! You have to make a movie for the audience that’s it’s intended for. Certainly my mother doesn’t want to see any edge in movies.

Do you believe that most subculture or art movements tend to make its mark on society, even if slightly?

Well, I always joke that I think I’ve made trash one percent more respectable and maybe that is what I was put here to do.

That’s a contribution.


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