A Conversation with John Waters
Stephan Horbelt


It’s not every day that you’re able to chat with a man largely responsible for the current state of queer cinema, particularly a cinematic pioneer whose unapologetic explorations of subversive subjects and gross-out humor are known the world over. But John Waters, a longtime Frontiers subscriber, was this day’s exception. Well-known for his roster of films that date back to the 1960s, Waters has since become a Renaissance man of pop culture—filmmaker, author, spoken word performer and all-around filth connoisseur. This July, he’s in line to receive Outfest’s annual Achievement Award, a coup for L.A.’s longest-running film festival, celebrating 30 years this summer.

Recently splashed across headlines for a hitchhiking trip across the country that leaked through social media, Waters remained mum for the most part about his latest book project, Carsick—”The rides were great; the waiting was hell,” he said—but the infamous Pope of Trash had plenty to say about Outfest, his early films’ intended audience and our nation’s recent trend of cannibalism.

First off, can you tell our readers where you’re talking to me from today?
    I am talking to you from my summer rental in Provincetown, Massachusetts. This is my 48th summer here, which is really shocking.

Provincetown, also known as the most magical place on Earth.
    [Laughs] I can think of a few times when it’s not magical, but it certainly is a great place to write, and I’ve been coming here forever. I like the remote beauty of it, and if you want to be wild, you can go the three blocks into town and be wild. I ride my bike here, I go swimming, I go to the beach—but I work here, you know—I’m not on vacation.

Are you working on anything specific this summer?
    I’m writing my book, called Carsick, which is about the hitchhiking thing. That’s what I’m in the middle of doing, and that’s what I’ll do all summer. But I wrote a lot of Role Models here. I’ve written a lot of my movies here. I write wherever I live Monday to Friday, but this is a place where I very much like writing. I live right on the water, so it’s really pretty, and it’s very old-school Provincetown—it’s like a Grey Gardens house.

Outfest is giving you its 16th Annual Achievement Award in July. Congratulations!
    Thank you, I’m excited. I follow in the heels of [2010 Achievement Award-winner] Jane Lynch, right? That’s a tough queen to top!

She’s a tough broad!
    I love her. She was in Provincetown and got the award that we give out here a couple years ago. I’m a big fan of hers. So, yeah, I’m honored! You know me—I’m not ‘gayly correct’—I sometimes have just as much trouble in the gay community [laughs] because they have a lot of rules these days, too, which I don’t always follow.

Have you been able to experience Outfest in the past?
    No, I have not been. I think it’s gonna be great, though.

You’re a progenitor of queer indie film, and I think in many ways you’re responsible for a film festival like Outfest existing in the first place.
    I guess! Except my original audience was not all gay at all—it was bikers, it was people that wanted to be ‘punk rock’ before there was punk. I’ve always said it was minorities who didn’t even get along within their own minority—and I still think they’re my core people—but god yes, gay people have been there from the very beginning. But it wasn’t totally gay, because some of the gay community was offended just as much as the straight community! [My work] was supposed to question values in every kind of culture and make fun of correctness.

What were you initially hoping to achieve with your films? I know that’s kind of a loaded question.
    I tried to make you laugh at limits—what are the limits, and how far can you go? I grew up when censorship was battling the whole time. I had to go through—first you could see a woman’s ass, then her tits, then her vagina, then men’s ass, then the dick and then hardcore. That was the order of the barriers falling, so I had to look at a lot of bush before I saw a man’s ass! [Laughs]
    I saw them all fall, and so, in a way, I was making fun of that. What couldn’t you do? What was illegal? What wasn’t illegal anymore? Pink Flamingos got busted a lot of times. I never won—every time I was found guilty of obscenity. Every time. And even after the Museum of Modern Art bought a print, I thought, well, that’ll be good for the defense—they weren’t impressed. It still got found guilty. Today, I guess, technically it’s still illegal in a couple places in America. I don’t think anything would happen now, but ... and when it was re-released for the 25th anniversary, in L.A. it was in supermarkets in the checkout line, which really shocked me!

That is shocking! I didn’t know that.
    It is! When I saw it, I thought, wow, that’s a crossover. And it plays on television now—The Sundance Channel—uncut, which shocks me.
    But in that movie, was Divine gay? Not really. Part of the plot wasn’t that Divine’s character, Babs Johnson, was a man or was a drag queen—that wasn’t part of it. She was a proud, strong woman. She wasn’t a lesbian—she tried everything. So, I always tried to go beyond that even. Even that was too obvious. I had to make it more confusing, which I’ve always tried to do for humor.

You’ve already briefly mentioned who you were making films for in the beginning, but how did that change as your career progressed?
    It really does matter which years—I’ve been doing this for 40 years and it’s been different every film. When I started, it was angry hippies—that was who I was making movies for. But later, you know, I had to address wider and wider audiences, and then go through whatever limits I could find there. Then I accidentally made a family movie, which was Hairspray. But you never know, really—you just make your next movie. I never plotted to make one [film] more commercial than the other ones—they obviously sometimes were—but I don’t think I’ve changed that much. My last movie [A Dirty Shame] was NC-17 and had censorship battles, and that’s how it began, so maybe it came full-circle.

You just said that you accidentally made a family film with Hairspray?
    When I made the movie, I never—I guess it was the only thing I was ever obsessed by that didn’t have four-letter words or sex or weird stuff in it. I was shocked when it got a PG rating. But what I’m amazed by today is how it’s still going—like, it’s now at every high school—they’re doing productions of it. But the funniest thing is now—and I made the joke when it came out—finally, in the musical, the drag queen and the fat girl would get the part in schools. But that isn’t true anymore, because of political correctness. In public schools, they cannot say, a fat person gets this part, a black person, a white person. I’ve seen it with a skinny black girl playing Tracy—

    —which is really funny. Nobody complained about that. But then, in Texas—I don’t know if you saw this—there was a brouhaha because some high school did it and they had white people playing all the black parts! They said, we couldn’t find any black people, which is such a stupid thing to say. Everybody was up in arms. And in Korea at one point, they didn’t know and they had blackface, because they just said, we don’t have any black people, and people said, you can’t do that! So I think now what we should do is just have everyone play the opposite sex, the opposite race, everything, and have a post-post-modern Hairspray, and then that way it would be really confusing and even newer.
    But in Hairspray, why it’s important that Edna’s always played by a man is because it’s a secret that only the audience knows. The characters in the show don’t know. Tracy doesn’t think her mother’s a man. And in the movie, her mother isn’t a man—the character isn’t. It wasn’t like in the old kind of drag days where there was a reveal at the end, where the ‘woman’ ripped off the wig and everybody went whoa! Divine was playing a woman, and Harvey [Fierstein] was playing a woman on Broadway. But the audience knew, and it was to them something they were in on and the cast was blind to—in the logic of the story.

Are you the type of artist who’s always jotting down ideas for new projects? Does your creativity work like that?
    Yeah, I have pads in every car, every place I live—everywhere. I write it all down, and every morning I put it in a different cubbyhole for different projects. Yes, I write things down all the time.

Outfest is going to be screening Desperate Living this year as one of the festival’s special events.
    That’s funny, because that movie was originally—lesbian groups had it stopped in Boston, how dare a man make a movie about lesbians, and now—the movie was violently ‘gayly incorrect’ as received originally by certain parts of the gay community. Whereas now it’s the opposite. I find that interesting. The movie hasn’t changed. I think it’s funny that they picked that one to show. I’m happy, because it sort of vindicates the film. [Laughs]

So you weren’t involved with choosing the film?
    I don’t think so, but I always say when people ask me which one, pick one that was less popular, because everybody’s seen—there’s nobody in the audience who hasn’t probably seen some of them. Desperate Living is one of mine that did the worst commercially, it’s the only one I have never had a TV sale for—so I’m honored. I’m happy that one of my children—they always say, this one has had a tough time—so I’m glad they’re picking that one.

Well, for the record, it’s actually my favorite, so I’m excited.
    It’s the grimmest one, actually! What I say of that movie—you know all these movies that are ‘mumblecore’ now, and I’ve seen ‘gumblecore’—that’s gay mumblecore—but this is ... Mink is so loud in the movie, screaming—it does make me laugh to see it.
    And that is my parents’ house in the beginning. That’s my mother’s bedroom, and she let us break the antique lamp when that ball came through. It’s even weirder for me to see that, because that is where I grew up, in that house.

That does have to be kind of strange to watch.
    Well, it makes me think how great my parents were to allow that.

Outfest is also holding a sing-along screening of Hairspray—not your 1988 film but Adam Shankman’s 2007 version. What’s your opinion on that?
    Oh, I’m all for it. Now, I’m not gonna come and be sitting along, shouting out the lyrics—however, I’m all for it. They did it with The Sound of Music, so why not Hairspray? I like the version they did. I like Adam, I like John Travolta in the part. The reason it was successful—again—is because they changed it. Each time they reinvented it, and you have to do that to make it work. They made it a big, successful Hollywood movie, and I am proud of that. I think they did a good job.

What’s it like to see a project of yours transform from your vision to a Broadway musical and then to another film version?
    I’m thrilled, because it went so well. Are you kidding? It’s changed my life. First of all, the play—I mean, I bought my San Francisco apartment because of that. Not only was it an artistic success—I believe it won the Tony Award, so I’m not bragging—but it was a financial success, and not many of the things I do were that successful financially, so it was great. And Cry-Baby they also made into a play, and we had four Tony nominations for that too, and I loved what they did with it, but it was not a success. It recently was revived in St. Louis as kind of an off-Broadway version, and they did a good job with it, so I’m hoping one day it will come back.
    I liked both of them. I never was like, Oh my god, I hate this. I don’t know what I would have done—that would have been terrible.

Discussing the 2007 remake of Hairspray, I can’t help but ask about John Travolta, who has been in headlines quite a lot recently. Have you met Travolta?
    Of course I’ve met John Travolta! I talked to him before. I’ve stuck up for him always. You know, it’s none of my business. And I’ve always said about Scientology—and I think this was in Role Models, my book; it’s not the first time I’m saying this—but I like Scientologists. They’re really nice to me, and they claim that they don’t change gay people, but even if they do, even if that’s true—anybody who hates being gay that much, why do we want them on our team? They’d just make someone a terrible boyfriend! So go, let Scientologists have the ones who hate it. I don’t get it—why would we want ‘em?
    And I’m not saying John Travolta’s any of that. I don’t know John Travolta’s personal life. I don’t know his and he doesn’t know mine! Who knows? People have experimented. You’re allowed to come in. I don’t know, it’s just none of my business. To me, all those stories of the people who came out recently—every one of them had told that same story in the National Enquirer in the last couple years. None of it was new, so to me it just looked like they were all wanting a payday.

I think that’s well-said. The last film you made, A Dirty Shame, was released eight years ago. Do you think maybe Outfest is hinting that it’s time to make a new film?
    Well, I’ve been trying to make another one, but maybe [A Dirty Shame] is my last film. I’m writing another book, I do spoken word, so I couldn’t have more projects. I have many jobs.
    But I tried to make Fruitcake, which is a movie I’ve been trying to make for five years—it’s not new news, I’ve talked about it forever. The independent film business has very much changed. I used to make $5 million movies, and now they want me to make it for $1 million. I can’t. You know, I have four employees. I’m not complaining about it. I hope I do get to make that movie one day, but if I don’t ... I’ve made 16 movies. It’s not like my voice is unheard. [Laughs]
    But I want to make that movie, and I still have meetings about it, but I learned a long time ago that I just like to tell stories, and it doesn’t matter if I’m doing it in books. I love writing books. My last book was a best-seller—it did great. Or I have other stuff. I have art shows. I’m working on a big one that’s coming out in 2013—that’s another way to tell stories. My spoken-word act—I did it, like, 50 times last year. I have a Christmas show—I’ve already got, like, 15 dates for this December. So it’s not like I don’t have a way to get my ideas out there, because I’m a writer still.
    But the movie—I’d like to make it, surely. I’ve never made a children’s movie, and that’s what it is. A fucked-up children’s movie, though. [Laughs]

Of course!
    It’s a parody of the genre, but I never tackle a genre that I don’t like. I’d never make a science-fiction movie, because I don’t know enough about it. I don’t like it. I’m not a buff, so I could never make a science-fiction movie. I could never make a sports movie. I probably could never make a romantic comedy.

But I feel you’ve never been so removed from the romantic comedy genre.
    Well, I guess people fall in love in odd ways in my movies. But a romantic comedy is usually light touch and sentimental, and I’m not too big on that.

True, but I’d say your films probably come closer to reality than some romantic comedy starring Kate Hudson. What was the last film you saw?
    The last film I saw was Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse, which I loved. I just saw a bunch of movies in San Francisco. A movie that I really liked that I saw recently—the Provincetown Film Festival starts tomorrow, so I’ll see a lot here—I liked a movie called Compliance a lot. I liked Bobcat Goldthwait’s movie God Bless America. Those were movies I saw recently. I liked The Snowtown Murders. I liked The Kid with a Bike. The Deep Blue Sea is my favorite movie I’ve seen this year.

So you’ve seen quite a lot.
    Oh yeah, I go to movies all the time.

And you’re not really a fan of television at all.
    You know, I think there is probably better television today than there are movies, but I don’t watch it. I’m not saying it isn’t good, I’m not saying it isn’t better than most independent movies these days—it is, I think—but I read at night. I can’t read, go to movies and watch television—I can’t do all three. So I pick two—I read and I go to the movies.

What are you reading right now?
    I am reading John Irving’s novel [In One Person]. I just started it, so I’m not going to give you an opinion, but I like all of his. I just read Susan Sontag’s diaries [Laughs], which always make me howl with how furious she is. And a few books that are coming out—Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner, which was pretty shocking, and I’ve read A.M. Homes’ new one, which I liked too, called May We Be Forgiven. Those are the novels I’ve read recently.

I’m not a fan of hypothetical questions, but I’m interested in hearing what you have to say to this one: If you could only be remembered for one project—one film, one book, one art exhibit—what would it be, and why?
    You know, I think the best movie I ever made was Serial Mom. I felt like I had enough money. I had learned a lot—a little more technically than I knew when I started making underground movies—which I’m proud of. They have technical rawness, which actually just means I didn’t know what I was doing. Added to it the way they looked like documentaries.
    But you know, you could pick any one of my movies and I would be just as happy with the answer. Any one of them says who I am. None of them are that different to me. I think Hairspray and A Dirty Shame—even though one is PG and one is NC-17—it’s always about people trying to find out how to live and be proud of their neuroses, and their understanding of self-acceptance against people who judge them. So all my movies are kinda the same, and I actually believe that no one changes. You are dealt a hand, and you might be neurotic, but you have to figure out how to be happily neurotic. I think all my movies really are about that.

If the stars were somehow aligned differently and you hadn’t been given that 8mm camera when you were 16 years old, what do you think you’d be doing today besides making films and writing?
    Well I would still be writing. When I went to summer camp, I wrote a story called “Reunion” and I read it to them every week. It was a horror thing, and all the parents called the camp and complained. So I started early. If I wasn’t in show business at all, I might have been a criminal defense lawyer.

You’ve said before that you would have made a great lawyer.
    I would have. I’d be good at it, I think. I still visit prisoners. I taught in prison. I would be a good criminal attorney. I wouldn’t be a bad psychiatrist either.

I guess this isn’t too crazy a segue from criminal law, but I’m sure you’ve heard of the ‘porn star’ who recently got busted for killing someone and shipping off the body parts.
    I don’t really know anything about him, but I do know people who like him—from porn. They think he was hot, but I don’t really know anything about him. But he was just one of many! This cannibalism thing is a huge trend. It started with the guy who got eaten on the freeway, and then there was another in Baltimore—someone shot somebody and then ate his brains. Then another person stabbed himself and threw his guts at the cops—and there are a couple more! It really became trendy it seemed like to me. I guess—and I’ve said this before about Jeffrey Dahmer—isn’t being a cannibal really being the ultimate top? Basically, they [the victims] don’t leave. Talk about domination. If you eat someone, I guess that’s the ultimate top.
    The problem is that once in a while there are cases where people want that—like the famous gay case in Germany where the guy wanted to be killed and eaten. That was when the victim cooperated. I think in the eyes of the law it’s tough to convince of that. Anything you could ever really think of—somebody in the world has done it.
    You know, I feel bad for people who are that crazy. I love that his girlfriend said, it’s so unlike him. Well I hope it is! [Laughs] But I don’t know—I mean, what forces you to take off your clothes and attack someone and eat their face in the middle of the day? Luckily I’ve never felt that insane. Was it bath salts? I don’t know. Mephedrone—how embarrassing to say you’re addicted to mephedrone! [In a high-pitched, twang accent] It’s methadone, stupid! No, I want mephedrone!
    I think I’m not gonna try that drug this week.

Maybe wait until after Outfest. And what about the guy in Japan who cooked up his genitals and served them to paying customers?
    Well there’s a niche audience. I’m just glad I didn’t know him. I mean, I’m a foodie, but I have limits!

John Waters receives the 16th Annual Outfest Achievement Award at the festival’s opening night gala on July 12, which includes the L.A. premiere of Vito and a gala afterparty. His film Desperate Living will be screened on July 21 at the DGA. For more info, go to outfest.org.

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