(Originally printed in OC WEEKLY, Thursday, April 4, 2002)
John Waters: Are you planning to record this?
OC Weekly: No, I’ll just be taking notes.
[Grumpy] Hmm. Well, okay. Then I’ll speak slooowly.
Okay. Nowadays, with shows like Jackass and South Park and Tom Green and Jerry Springer, you can turn on TV any time and see men in diapers and poo-eaters and all kinds of gross stuff. It occurs to me that we’re kind of living in a John Waters world, and I wondered how much of a part you feel your films have played in leading pop culture where it is today.
Today? Isn’t a lot of that stuff you just mentioned kind of last year? Some of those things you mentioned I like, and some I don’t like, but of the things you mentioned, I think the one that came closest to our sensibility may have been Johnny Knoxville with Jackass, I was a fan of that.
I think everything has come full circle. Now mainstream Hollywood is making gross-out comedies, and the foreign and cutting-edge people don’t anymore. I think I’ve always made foreign movies—in America.You have to understand, I was never that interested in gross. I mean, I’ll be the first to admit that something like Pink Flamingos was gross, but . . . Well, no, I don’t think it was gross exactly; I’d say it was more surreal.
You have to remember that when it came out, it was just after Deep Throat came out and was a hit. There weren’t even any laws that said you couldn’t show somebody eating shit in a movie! There probably still aren’t because, good lord, who would want to copy us?
Things really have come full circle in all kinds of ways. I mean, in Pink Flamingos, we had the joke about selling babies to lesbian couples, and now today look at Rosie O’Donnell on the cover of all these magazines! It came true!
I was looking back at your films in preparation for this interview, and there’s a very definite change between your really extreme early stuff and the relatively wholesome tone of your work from Hairspray on. What led to the change?
I had to evolve. I couldn’t make the same film forever. In the case of Hairspray, I made a family picture by accident; it happened that one time. There are no more midnight movies anymore, so it’d be kind of dumb for me to make one.
Well, given how extreme a lot of the stuff out there is now, are you tempted to ever do anything really wild and extreme again?
Well, I think something like Cecil B. DeMented is pretty extreme—film terrorism is pretty extreme. I mean, I showed gerbils being shoved up the butts of major movie starlets! Maybe you’ve just gotten jaded; it takes a lot more to shock us today.
If something like Pink Flamingos came out now, in today’s climate, I think it would be huge.
When Pink Flamingos came out a while back, it was the No. 2 video. If I made it today, it would be released to 30 great art theaters around the country, and if it didn’t do well the first weekend, it would die. When it first came out, nobody came to see it the first weekend. It built very slowly over a year by word of mouth and wound up running for 10 years at the Nuart. Not that I think everything was so much better then. Today, the big studios are all looking for the next weird, interesting little film, but they weren’t back then.
Looking back on your films, are there any that you’re embarrassed about, any that just make you cringe?
Well, there’s that old cliché that my movies are my children, and mine are juvenile delinquents with learning disabilities. There are things in all of them that make me look back and cringe, but they were just the movies I made when I was the age that I made them. Obviously, if you look back at my first films, you can see I didn’t go to film school. Certainly, Mondo Trasho was too long, but it’s all a body of work—I’m not ashamed of any of them.
I understand you’ve recently been doing a lecture tour . . .
Well, I’ve been doing that for 30 years. It’s basically me doing my vaudeville act. I’ve spoken or taught at colleges, prisons . . .
Hang on! Prisons?!
Yeah. [Wistfully] I miss jail. I have a friend in jail, and visiting a jail is a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
The people look good, everybody has an interesting story, and even the guards, if they know you, can be very nice. Well, or they can be not nice, depending on their appreciation for your films! And there’s nothing like watching a movie in jail—in the gym. Ah, yes.
What could possibly be pleasant about that?
Well, it’s dark, it’s moody, you can have sex, it’s wonderful. At least, that’s how it used to be. Now they make you hang your head out of your cell and watch movies on video. So, no more movies in the gym.
[Still reeling from the last question] Uh. Okay. Your movies are known for their incredibly eclectic casts. Is there anybody working now or from the past that you dream of working with?
What, you mean including dead people? Well, that’s so broad; it opens up all of cinematic history. Jayne Mansfield, certainly. When I started with Divine, we said we wanted to base the persona on a cross between Jayne Mansfield and Godzilla. Who else? Anita Ekberg is pretty terrifying. She’s great. I’d love to get Meryl Streep, although we know it’s so unlikely that she’d go for it that we haven’t even offered. If you offer it to a star and they turn it down, the studio gets nervous.
Could you offer it to her privately? Mention it to a friend of hers or something?
There’s no such thing as a private offer. You have to offer it to them through their representation at their full salary. It’s very complicated.
I noticed, doing research online for this article, that there is no Johnwaters.com.
Thank God! I want it to be harder for people to reach me, not easier. Everything you find on the Internet is lies, so I hope you didn’t believe any of it.
I did discover Johnwaters.net, and the guy who runs that site said something about you hating the Internet.
See, even that is a lie! I wouldn’t say I hate the Net; I just have better ways to use my time. Although I do think the next depraved masterpiece will come from the Internet.
What’s ahead for you?
Well, I’m in the process of putting together a picture called A Dirty Shame. It’s about sex addicts, people who have had concussions and become sex addicts.
Is that a real thing?
It’s a small minority, but it is based on a real thing . . . although exaggerated, of course! It’s the Three Stooges crossed with sex education.
Sounds like a can’t-miss proposition!
Oh, and I’m hosting the Independent Spirit Awards. [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Waters was master of ceremonies for the March 23, 2002 awards presentation.]
I’ve seen the billboards for that all over LA.
I know—isn’t that wild? I’m glad that if I’m going to be that big all over town, I got to wear the sunglasses. They’re the ultimate photo retouch.
And then there’s your tribute at the Newport Beach Film Festival. Have you ever been to Orange County before?
I don’t think so, but I have a friend from Huntington Beach I was thrown out of college with. Isn’t Huntington Beach near there? He was a surfer, and if you were into that, it seemed like the best place in the world to live. Actually, most of the surfers I’ve known have been criminals. Surfers are all criminals, or at least they’d like to be.
Really? It’s not like I’ve known a lot of surfers, but the ones I’ve known haven’t struck me as criminal masterminds.
I’d say watch your wallet. Or maybe they more want to be jewel thieves. Oh, don’t print that, that I said all surfers are criminals! But it’s true, the surfers I’ve known certainly had a criminal glint in their eyes.
You have one of the most meticulous mustaches I’ve ever seen. What’s involved in the maintenance of that thing?
[A little wearily] Oh, at this point, I could pretty much do it in my sleep. You just shave it from the top down, and then you do maintenance twice a week, and if you make any mistakes, you touch it up with Maybelline. If I ever want to disappear, I can just shave the moustache, and nobody will know me. When I reach a certain age, I plan to dye it blue. I’ve experimented, and it looks good blue.
Would this be just the moustache? Or would you dye the rest of your hair blue?
Oh, no. God forbid.
And what inspired the moustache?
Well, Little Richard, of course. Store detectives in old movies. [Getting enthusiastic] Hotel security guys in ’40s pictures! Pimps!
I see. It’s all starting to add up.