Not long ago, John Waters
acted out an airplane crash with a room full of first graders. The kids loved
it. It was the same presentation he gives at prisons. Waters states he is proud
of the fact that his work has no redeeming social value. "Strive for art in
reverse," he once said. William S. Burroughs dubbed him "The Pope of Trash."
With his unworldly smile, coupled with a pencil-thin mustache, he looks like a
character out of film noir or the stereotype of a child molester.
Working out of his beloved
hometown of Baltimore, Waters has shocked and entertained audiences since the
'60s with films ranging from Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble to Hairspray and Serial Mom. He also
writes books, creates wonderful music compilation albums and is a sought-after
speaker. This Filthy World, his one-man show, comes to Madame Walker Theatre, Saturday at 7 p.m.
one-man show, comes to Madame Walker Theatre, Saturday at 7 p.m.Waters revises
the show on a regular basis, but it's safe to assume he will talk about his
films, his influences, his fascination with true crime and his encounters with
the famous and infamous. Expect tales of scandal and debauchery, delivered with
impeccable comic timing. There will be a Q&A session as well. You'd be
crazy not to attend.
Waters was in Baltimore for a
few days between tour dates when we talked by phone. With a career spanning
over four decades, he has encountered a stunning array of colorful characters.
Given the wide range in age and experience of NUVO readers, I was concerned
that all the names and references might be dizzying for some. Accordingly, each
time we begin talking about a new subject, I've included a paragraph
identifying the references from that part of the interview. To those of you
with enough pop culture savvy that you don't need the annotations,
congratulations — just don't start acting all hipper-than-thou about it.
PECKER AND TEABAGGING
is a 1998 Waters' comedy starring Edward Furlong. Teabagging is the slang term
for placing one's scrotum in the mouth, or on the face or head, of another
NUVO: Back in the '90s,
when I finally succumbed and bought a DVD player, the first DVD I ever bought
WATERS: Oh good! Well
that's nice and thank you. That just played on TV this week. Who would have
ever thought? It plays on TV a lot, actually. It's found a new audience. It's
kind of amazing.
NUVO: I've got fond
memories of it. And of course, there's the teabagging. You introduced that to
the world in Pecker.
WATERS: Yes. And that went
on to have its revival from the Republicans who didn't know what it meant and
they since found out, and they don't use the word teabagging anymore. They use
Teabag Party for fear of ... because they finally did figure out what it meant.
Some Democrats knew what it meant, but the Republicans didn't. Now I'm generalizing
here. But – what's her name from MSNBC? - Rachel Maddow - she showed the
entire scene from Pecker where
they explained what teabagging is and you could see the entire crew in the
background and she got criticized for that heavily. Even by Jon Stewart, I
believe. But I was honored.
NUVO: Oh yeah. There was a
week on Keith Olbermann's MSNBC show every other word became a teabagging
WATERS: It became so
popular that I got weary of it. I even stopped using the joke. I talk about in
my show about how we can go beyond teabagging into new sex acts, which I'm
going to leave for the audience. But that's my coming attractions I just gave
MOST FAMOUS FILMS
REFERENCES: Waters made a huge splash with his 1972 underground
film Pink Flamingos, which
included a scene where his friend and frequent star Divine, the iconic drag
queen, ate dog shit. Female Trouble,
also starring Divine, followed in 1974. Waters' 1988 movie Hairspray, which starred Ricki Lake as rebellious teen Tracy
Turnblad, was made into a hit Broadway musical in 2002. A film adaptation of
the musical was released in 2007. Johnny Depp starred in Waters' 1990 movie Cry-Baby. In 1981, Waters' film Polyester was presented in Odorama, which gave viewers a chance
to experience the smell of certain scenes with scratch and sniff cards. His
black comedy Serial Mom, starring
Kathleen Turner, was released in 1994. The Parent Trap is a Disney comedy involving twins.
NUVO: Pink Flamingos is your most famed film, but for a lot of people
WATERS: I disagree. I
wouldn't say that. It's my most infamous film. I think Hairspray is my most famous film.
NUVO: My entry point into
your work was Serial Mom and I
WATERS: I like that one a
lot. That's one of my favorite of all my movies. I still see Kathleen. She's my
good friend and I just saw her recently. She was in Provincetown this summer.
That was the only movie where we had enough money to make it, actually.
NUVO: If you had someone
that was a newcomer to your work, where would you start them off? What are the
essential John Waters films?
WATERS: It depends on the
type of person that they are. If they're a young person and they think they'd
see anything and they're angry, I'd show them Pink Flamingos. If it is someone who had no idea about anything, I
would play it safe and show them Hairspray or Cry-Baby. To me, Serial
Mom would be a good kind of
in-the-middle choice. Out of my Divine movies, I think Female Trouble is the best one or Polyester if you have an Odorama card, but you can easily get
one on eBay these days.
To me, they're all the
same. That's the weird thing. Since I wrote them all, to me they all have the
same message in a way. Hairspray
and Pink Flamingos are the same
except that if ever I was lucky enough or flattered enough to ever have made
anything that was subversive, it was Hairspray, not Pink Flamingos, because the most middle-American audiences embrace
that and it had the same message as Pink Flamingos. In Hairspray, they were applauding two men singing a love song to each other, they
were rooting for a white teenage girl to date black guys against racist
parents. That, to me, was more surprising. Pink Flamingos was more preaching to the converted, whereas Hairspray was more of a sneak attack. Not on purpose, but it
seemed to make all its politics invisible to people that wouldn't agree with it
and they still like it.
NUVO: When it looped
around, going to Broadway and then to film again, what was that experience like
WATERS: Well, it was a
great one. You don't get many of them in life. I was thrilled with the Broadway
musical. I was involved with it from the very beginning. I was on stage when it
won the Tony award and to be honest, I bought my San Francisco apartment with
the proceeds from it. It was the thing I made the most money from in my whole
life. The film musical they made afterwards — I thought they did a great
job. They reinvented it again, and I think that's why each one of those
succeeded, because it wasn't the same. If you stop every time it gets reinvented
— if you don't reinvent it when you do it again and you do the same
thing, it doesn't work. They made a big broad Hollywood version of it but you
know what? It was different and it worked too. You don't get many of them in
life and I've never had a bad experience from Hairspray in any way.
Now it's playing at every
school in the world. You know what's funny to me. In many public school
systems, they can't just let a fat person play a part or a black person, so
I've seen pictures of Tracy being played by a skinny black girl, which is
great. If she can pull that off, that's really good acting. It's almost
post-modern. It's almost like an art project. I have seen it with a classroom
of — what's the proper word — mentally challenged people, which was
amazing to see, and each one of them stood up and sang a song, which was
amazing. So it has crossed over. God knows, it was a long way from sitting in
my bedroom thinking that up. I guess it was a good idea — fat girl fights
for integration. There's a high concept.
NUVO: It worked so
WATERS: To me, when I wrote
that, I didn't ever think it was going to be more commercial or less commercial
and oddly, Divine was originally going to play the mother and the daughter
— like in The Parent Trap. I
wonder if all of this would have happened if I would have done that?
REFERENCES: Waters' Desperate Living, released in 1977, was a crime comedy. In 2000 he released the
Hollywood-themed black comedy Cecil B. Demented starring Melanie Griffith and Stephen Dorff.
NUVO: Did you ever go into
a film — Serial Mom for
example — did you go into that thinking that this one was going to be
WATERS: I think they're all
commercial, and in a weird way, they are. They're all still in print, they're
all still playing – except for Desperate Living, they've all been played on television. In a weird
way, they are commercial. Pink Flamingos only cost a certain amount of money, and it became a midnight hit,
where you can only make a certain amount of money. To me, I'm always mystified
about why some make money and others don't, because to me, they're all the same
in a way. I understand why Hairspray
would make more money than Cecil B. Demented but to me, I never say I'm going to write a commercial
one. In the movie business every time you start, you have to believe you're
going to make a hit and every time I do start, I do believe that. I do the best
I can to make that happen by putting movie stars in it. You know, my movies are
made fairly conventionally, and the plots in a weird way are conventional.
They're three acts, somebody has something, they lose something, they get it
back and learn something. What they learn is maybe a little more untraditional.
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL MAN
THAT EVER LIVED + ANDY WARHOL:
REFERENCES: Andy Warhol's
troupe of actors and personalities were dubbed superstars by the legendary
artist. Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro gained fame as a '60s underground film
sex symbol. He is the "Little Joe" referred to in Lou Reed's song Walk on
the Wild Side. His crotch is the
cover of The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers album and his torso is the cover of The Smiths' eponymous debut album.
Underground filmmaker Paul Morrissey is known for his association with Warhol.
His movies include Flesh and Trash. Bob Mizer was a male physique photographer whose
work predated the gay rights movement. Pink Narcissus was a 1971 arthouse film. Viva, Brigid Berlin, Ondine
and Candy Darling were all Warhol superstars operating out of Warhol's headquarters,
NUVO: You cast the
legendary Joe Dallesandro in Cry-Baby.
WATERS: I'm still a big fan
of Joe. I wrote something for French Vogue recently about what an icon he is. I
know where he is today. I still see him. He's still handsome. Without Joe, you
wouldn't have any male nude in any Hollywood movie that you see today. He paved
the way. Joe was a great star. And I had him playing against type, playing a
preacher — a homophobic preacher — in Cry-Baby, but he was a pro. We got along great and he's a good
actor. He was very brave in those days. Those scenes he did in movies like Paul
Morrissey's Flesh and Trash and all those, they were really important movies and
I think Joe should be proud. He changed film's history by being naked because
no one had male nudity really before him.
NUVO: Part of the appeal
was that maybe he was the most beautiful man who ever lived.
WATERS: He sure was to me!
Not everybody might think that, but he worked with Bob Mizer in the very
beginning, so his beauty had been recognized — I've always said that the
ultimate battle was who had a better ass — him or Bobby Kendall in Pink
Narcissus. I think in the history of
male asses in movies, that would be the ultimate battle. We could have a
telethon on TV where you vote, like Dancing with the Stars, only this would be Asses of the Stars and I don't
know who would win.
NUVO: But when it comes to
the torso, Joe's got it down.
WATERS: Yes. And he still
NUVO: Beyond his physical
appearance, there was a magnetism, a presence there. He was a movie star, too.
WATER: He was a movie star
within the studio system — the Warhol Studio System. And Paul Morrissey
told him to never smile, which was smart. And Joe was a leading man. Like all
those people didn't go to those movies — as—much as I love his
costar Viva — they went to see Joe nude (laughs). I loved Viva and Brigid
Berlin and Ondine, but Joe was a legitimate movie star for the real reasons all
movie stars are stars — because people wanted to look at him on the
screen. He was a matinée idol — but for speed freaks, not your
NUVO: Did you guys interact
WATERS: I did not. I didn't
meet Andy until after Pink Flamingos
came out and he had been shot and so the last thing he needed to do was to meet
a new group of weirdoes. But once it became a hit, they invited us to the
Factory and I met Candy Darling — that was a fairly historic night
— and got along great. Joe was not there, but Andy hid in the closet the
whole time and then when it was over came out and told me I should make the
exact movie again and then offered to pay for Female Trouble and no one was offering to pay for Female Trouble.
It was incredibly kind of him to do
that, but I'm glad I didn't because it would have been "Andy Warhol's Female
Trouble," which it should have been — it was that kind of studio. And
later he took Fellini and he told Fellini about Pink Flamingos which really made me levitate when I heard that. And
he later put Divine on the cover of Interview, so I liked Andy.
BEING JOHN WATERS
NUVO: Being John Waters ...
Every time I've heard you speak you seem so composed. Do you get verbally
WATERS: Well, maybe not.
One of the reasons is that I'm well prepared. When I do my spoken word act it
is totally written and rehearsed. I mean, I just finished rewriting part of it
this morning for this next trip I'm on. I'm always updating it and adding new
material and testing new material. And I do press — for each one I agreed
to do at least two interviews to promote it. And I don't hate it. I like the
press. I read six newspapers every morning, I get a million magazines a month,
I've written for the press, so I think if you have an interest for the press,
yeah — I'm at work now, I'm being John Waters, but I'm not that
different. The differences, when I'm in my personal life, is that I try to get
other people to talk about them. I'm the interviewer. Most of my friends, they
don't want to hear all this. They've heard it, too. Basically, I'm attracted to
people — if I date anyone, it's never because they like who I am in show
business. That's the worst turn-off ever.
NUVO: When you have a long
period between public appearances ...
WATERS: That's never, but
NUVO: Have you ever shaved
off the mustache so that you can be anonymous?
WATERS: No. The only
— I guess that would help — but no. The only time I'd ever shave
the mustache is if I got a prison term because I wouldn't have the proper
utensils to keep it. Or if I committed a crime and went underground; then I would.
I have a short-haired wig that Stephen Dorff wore in the beginning of Cecil
B. Demented. I put that on with a
baseball hat and it really makes people nervous, but it doesn't really disguise
me. But a baseball hat a little bit does, because I never wear one and I really
look stupid in a baseball hat. That's why all film directors wear baseball hats
is because when they make the EPKs — electronic press kits — they
always stand behind you to see what the director sees. That's the bald shot, so
that's why all directors wear baseball caps. That explains that.
THE SIMPSONS AND HOMER'S
REFERENCES: Homer's Phobia, the Emmy-award winning 1997 episode of The Simpsons, was built around Waters and featured a character
modeled on him. His mustache was changed from straight to wavy so it wouldn't
look like an animation error. When the character is first seen, a pink flamingo
is visible in the background.
NUVO: Tell me about the
first time you saw Homer's Phobia on
WATERS: You do all the
sound first and once they've edited the sound they do the animation —
it's reversed. I saw it when it came on TV. When you do it, it's like filming a
radio show — each person is in a booth or a studio, there's no visuals at
all. So I think I saw it the night it came on.
NUVO: What was that
WATERS: Well I had always
wanted to be a cartoon character. I look like one, so it seemed natural, let's
put it that way.
NUVO: It was one of the
greatest Simpsons episodes of all
WATERS: I think it was
great, too, and I had nothing to do with the script. TV Guide picked it as the
best Simpsons episode ever. To
this day, children come up to me and tell me that that's how they know me. They
say "You were the one in The Simpsons."
And you're only allowed to do The Simpsons once. Unless you're — I think
Elizabeth Taylor, I think she did it twice and maybe Michael Jackson. I'm
thrilled to have been on it. Are you kidding me? You make almost no money from
it, but it's certainly fame maintenance in the highest order.
WILD IN THE STREETS
REFERENCES: Wild in the Streets is a 1968 film in which teenagers take over America.
The exploitation flick was produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, a contemporary of
B-movie legend Roger Corman. Yippies is the term created by counter-culture activists
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin for members of the Youth International Party,
known for mixing activism with humor. Weathermen were members of a late '60s
extremist political group.
NUVO: I know you champion
overlooked movies. There's one that I'm crazy about. I point it out to everyone
all the time, and no one seems to respond to it nearly as positively as I do.
WATERS: What is it?
NUVO: Wild in the
WATERS: Oh of course, the
Roger Corman movie. The thing was, man, I was wild in the streets, so when we watched it ... I used
to go to riots every weekend. They were like raves. That's why when I heard
about the riots in London... I wasn't shocked when they said half the people
worked in art galleries and stuff, because riots are fun. It's good for dating.
They are fun. I knew enough not to stand in the front row where you get
arrested. But I was wild in the
streets, so when we saw that movie — that was an LA version — that
was being wild in West Hollywood, which was a lot different than being a yippie.
Cause we were yippies, so we sort of make fun of that movie, but we all saw it.
But we were wild in the street for real. That was wild in the street with
Hollywood extras instead of revolutionaries. Instead of Weathermen, they were
sitcom actors without a job (laughs).
NUVO: My parents took us to
a drive-in to see it and I was like 12. My dad and mom were laughing and I was
watching them laugh and all I was thinking was "Just you wait."
WATERS: (laughs) Like "this
is what I want to be." See, I wanted to be a beatnik. I'm older, but I
understand that feeling. When you're a kid and you're seeing for the first time
people doing what you're raised not to do and there are other people that do
it. That's what's so liberating about seeing that kind of a movie for the first
time. It's seeing some kind of revolution, or some kind of supposed rebellion
movie for the first time. It gives you hope, I think, as a kid when you're
growing up conservatively.
ON THE ROAD WITH THIS
NUVO: You said in an interview
that doing the shows and the tours is a way to travel and have it all be paid
WATERS: That's true, but I
never really get to do anything. You can't go out after the show and hang out.
People want to take you to see these weird bars and everything. I can't do
that. My flights are usually at 7 a.m. This time, when I come to your fair city — I'll be just back from Australia and New Zealand for two and a half
weeks, so I'll really be looped. So that'll be fun.
I don't really get to
prepare for a city and go and see things. When you get there, you have your
duties — you have to go out to eat with the people that brought you
there, you usually do your show — and I need to be alone for 45 minutes
before my show, then question/answers, then signing, which takes a long time
and then, sometimes a reception and by that time, it's midnight and you have to
get up at 7 a.m. and leave. So you don't really get to see each town that much.
In Australia, you get to see a little more because there are days in between. But
generally not so much. You see your audience, you get a feel of it certainly.
And the sad thing, or the good thing — depending, I guess — is that
everywhere is more and more the same because of the Internet, from the airport
into each city it's the same stores, you know — the kids, I promise you,
the kids in Indianapolis and the same kids in Sweden in the first row of my
show, they all look the same, which is good. You don't have to leave where you
grew up anymore to be culturally connected. When I was young you did. You don't
now. You can see every movie in Indianapolis that you can see in Greenwich
Village. The downside of that is that everywhere gets more the same and loses
REFERENCES: As the time for the interview drew to a close, I
decided to try to get an answering machine message from Waters for my pal Joe.
NUVO: Before you go, I want
to tell you about my friend Joe Kleemann. He was going to drive down from
Chicago to sit in on this interview and just say Hi, but couldn't get off work.
He'll be listening to this, however. I think you'd get a kick out of him. He's
a dynamic guy. He believes — he's told me many times — that me, and
all gay men, secretly are attracted to him.
WATERS: And he is straight?
NUVO: Yep, he's straight.
WATERS: Well you know what
they used to say to that one — spaghetti's straight until you get it
heated up! (laughs) How's that for a comment?