A conversation with John Waters


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.

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.



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

was Pecker.

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




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

wondered ...

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

for you?

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

more commercial?

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.




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,

The Factory.

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

looks good.

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

grandmother! (laughs)

NUVO: Did you guys interact

back then?

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.


NUVO: Being John Waters ...

Every time I've heard you speak you seem so composed. Do you get verbally

flummoxed, ever?

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

go ahead.

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.




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

The Simpsons.

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

experience like?

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.


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.



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

local color.


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?


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