John Waters: The Full Interview

John Waters and Gary Varro at a dinner held during Camp, Trash, Filth

Our June 8-21 issue featured a cover story on legendary American filmmaker, author, artist and provocateur John Waters. It was in advance of a June 24 appearance he made in Regina as part of Camp, Trash, Filth organized by Queer City Cinema artistic director Gary Varro.

Waters’ contract stipulated no media while he was in town. He did agree to two pre-appearance phone interviews from his home in Baltimore. I snagged one, and wrote the above mentioned cover story, along with a second story using recycled and new material for the CARFAC SASK newsletter.

Now that both articles have been published, I thought I’d stitch together a fuller picture of my 25-minute interview with John Waters.

Could you offer a snapshot of what it was like growing up in Baltimore?

Well, the ’50s were horrible. You might know them from watching television and hearing doo-wop music and seeing cool cars, but it was a time of terrible conformity. That’s why rock ’n’ roll went crazy. That’s why Elvis Pressley was a Martian who scared the whole world. Then beatniks started, and hippies, then punks, grunge, gangstas, and now hackers. So there’s my history.   

Your family may not have understood what you were doing, you’ve said, but they were still supportive. What about life outside your home in Baltimore? Did you ever feel repressed?

I felt repressed, certainly, by people I went to school with. Most of the teachers I had too, especially in high school, would never encourage what I ended up doing for a living. I didn’t care that much, though. I wasn’t bullied because the bullies thought I was crazy, so they left me alone. And I created a lot of friends in my mind and even a character for myself. And I had a career as a puppeteer when I was 12 for children’s birthday parties. I also wrote stories that would horrify people at summer camp, and the counselors would call my parents. So that was always my comfort.

Your early cultural influences really spanned the spectrum from high to low art.

I always looked for movies that caused trouble, and when I was growing up foreign films were actually the first to show nudity. Ingmar Bergmann was the first to show vomit. At the same time I was seeing exploitation movies that Baltimore had everywhere like Blood Feast and other gore movies. Underground movies started coming out when I was a teenager too. I read about them in The Village Voice, and knew about Kenneth Anger, Warhol and the Kuchar brothers. So I tried to put all three types of movies together to create a genre that was mine which was really exploitation films for art theatres.

How important was it to have the Dreamlanders as collaborators?

Nobody really called us the Dreamlanders until 10 years ago. We said Dreamland Studios. We’re not offended, but we never called ourselves that. We were just friends who made movies together. In a weird way, it turned into a Hollywood system. The ones who got the best reaction, like Mink, Divine, and sometimes Edith, went to the top and got bigger parts.

Before your Regina performance, there’s a panel on the use of filth, outrage and the abject in queer film to explore marginalized identities and taboo subjects. Did you have an aesthetic or ideology yourself?

That sounds awfully intellectual. To me, it’s a reaction against the tyranny of good taste. My early films were like terrorist acts against good taste. They were humorous, but even hippies were afraid of them. My audience, originally, was not just a gay audience. It was gay people who didn’t get along with other gay people, it was bikers who fought other bikers, and lots of blacks and whites together when those communities were against that. I’ve always thought that my core audience was minorities who couldn’t even get along in their own communities — and prisoners, too, as I show my movies in jail. They worked nicely. 

Ideas of celebrity, reality TV and the surreal seem so prevalent today. Were you maybe anticipating their emergence in your films?

It might have led to them. But I don’t like those things. I think reality TV asks you to feel superior to other people and make fun of them. Even celebrity casting — yes, I tried it in Cry-Baby. But I never picked somebody who I thought was so bad they were good. I loved David Nelson from Ozzie & Harriet. I grew up with him. I loved Traci Lords who was fresh from escaping the porn world. I felt I was giving her a chance as a refugee. Patty Hearst was so sick of being a victim in the press that she wanted to make fun of it — which she certainly did in my movies. Even Johnny Depp — he came in and made fun of being a teen idol. Instead of them being so bad they were good, I always said they were so good they were great. 

You’ve transitioned from film to being a published author with book deals—

I wrote all my movies too. I never made a movie I didn’t write.

I listened to Carsick on audio book. To me, it encapsulated what ended up happening in the election, with you hitchhiking across this great divide between blue and red states from Baltimore to San Francisco.

The people who picked me up, if I go back and imagine who they voted for, I’m sure some did vote for Trump. We’ll see later if Trump gives them what they expected. I don’t think he will. They might have been Republican, but they were way more nonjudgmental, perhaps even believing in gay rights. That was maybe because the people I met were the type who picked up hitchhikers. That is a definite breed. Most have overcome some struggle in the past, and they want to give someone else a chance.

You describe in the book the culture shock you experienced — like going to fast food restaurants, and even a Wal-Mart, for the first time.

I felt like such a snob, though. That’s what my sister said. “Oh, you’re such a snob.” I said “Well, there’s no one to wait on me. I don’t know how to do it.” The stores are huge. I don’t know where stuff is. I just want to ask someone “Where’s the bacon?” The one I was in, too, was at an army base. So it was like a foreign Wal-Mart. Everyone looked so handsome in uniform.

But I learned a long time ago that I can get along in most worlds. Hitchhiking was just proof of that. I never had a scary ride. All kinds of people picked me up. I’m still in touch with some of them. I was in the Corvette Kid’s wedding this year. I think that’s important. I’m not a separatist who just has friends who believe in everything I do.

With your new book Make Trouble, did you throw down the gauntlet for young people?

That sounds a little serious. But certainly, I believe it was good advice. It was written before Trump was president. It was a commencement speech at [Rhode Island School of Design]. I never graduated from college. They wouldn’t even let me graduate off the stage in high school. So it was funny to me that I got a doctorate and gave a speech. But it did speak to some people, so having it as an illustrated book… many people are buying it for graduation — which I find delightful.

Are you optimistic the younger generation will be up to the challenge?

I always have optimism. I’m proud of my past, but I’m not nostalgic. I think it’s a better time now. Right now, Trump is someone to fight. So they can have a little taste of revolution. 

You also mentioned in your address the idea of outsider versus insider. Sometimes, it seems like the former’s been diminished, like when Trump presents himself as an outsider.

Well, Trump was an outsider, if you ask me. He’s like no one I ever knew, certainly. It all boils down to outside of what… the realm of taste? It’s just now I think it’s more important to be a Trojan horse and sneak in like Hairspray did in America. Then change people’s values when they don’t even realize it.

So you would be in favour of people joining the Republican Party to push for their political beliefs?

Well, only if they were spies and went in to expose stuff. I want to know the porn-list of every Republican leader — what they downloaded last year. That’s what I want hackers to come up with.

You’re also a big advocate for free speech.

I think it’s crazy Berkeley didn’t allow that idiot Milo Yiannopoulos to speak. And they banned [Ann Coulter] too — although I understand. I went to a demonstration once where we stopped Spiro Agnew from speaking during Watergate. Even then, it felt kind of wrong. But I think you should let idiots speak. Then you confront them. 

Certainly, as an artist, you’ve had people try to stop you from speaking.

Yes, I went through all that. But that was what I based my career on, negative reviews. It was a different time. There was a cultural war then, there isn’t now — at least, not yet. Back then, disapproval of the establishment, you wore it proudly. Today, the established critics are all hip. They’re not dumb enough to give you the kind of bad review that helps like they used to.

With war, poverty and oppression, there’s no shortage of obscenity out there. Do you think the arts are held to an unfair standard?

Sure, and I always say it’s the context. With Pink Flamingos, I never won an obscenity case. At midnight, with friends, it’s a joyous experience. But in a courtroom at 10 a.m., it’s obscene. When the Museum of Modern Art bought a print, I thought “Well, this will save us with the jury.” But they weren’t impressed. And in Canada, I had the worst experience. It was with Multiple Maniacs, where they just burned the print when I sent it to the Ontario Censor Board. That was maybe the best blurb I ever had: “Destroyed!”

Queer City went through an experience like that in 2000 when a program on queer porn led to demands by the opposition Saskatchewan Party that funding be pulled.

And what happened?

People rallied to the cause, and they ended up looking like fools.

Yeah, that’s what I mean. The censors are often your best publicity agent.

With your visual art career, you have two major projects underway. You’re in the Venice Biennale?

Yes. It’s work I’ve done from my past. But it’s perfect for Venice. And I’m really proud it’s been included. The pavilion I’m in is Christine Macel. She curated the whole biennale, so I’m in that show. I’m not in the U.S. pavilion. That’s being presented by Chris Bedford, our new Baltimore Museum of Art director. So there’s a lot of Baltimore presence this year.

Then also the Baltimore Museum is giving me a full retrospective in 2018. It’s going to travel to other museums, but I can’t tell you where yet. That’s a part of my career I keep very separate.

From your filmmaking and writing?

Well, I’ve written about art a lot. In Role Models, I have a whole chapter about my favourite artist. But I keep them separate, because the only obscenity left in the art world is celebrity.

That’s not always true within the art world itself, though?

No, the art world hates an artist that is a celebrity who comes in from another world. They are the most despised of all. So I’m very careful to make fun of that and keep it separate.

Because there are celebrities that come up through the art world.

Even then, they’re usually despised. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be. I just try to keep as far away from it as I can.

I’ve read that when you were starting out, you used to screen your films in churches.

Yeah, we always did. Churches had things like Black Panther and anti-war meetings too. It’s hard to imagine that today. But Multiple Maniacs premiered in a Unitarian church. Mondo Trasho premiered in a Presbyterian church. That way, we could avoid the censor board because they weren’t going to bust a church.

Are you aware your Regina performance is in a church?

No, I don’t think I knew that. But that’s great. What kind of church?

United.

Oh good, I’ll try to perform a couple of miracles.

Author: Gregory Beatty

Greg Beatty is a crime-fighting shapeshifter who hatched from a mutagenic egg many decades ago. He likes sunny days, puppies and antique shoes. His favourite colour is not visible to your puny human eyes. He refuses to write a bio for this website and if that means Whitworth writes one for him, so be it.