John Waters can’t believe anyone would assemble a retrospective of his work, let alone New York City’s prestigious Film Society Of Lincoln Center. It’s a tribute so unimaginable to the man whose transgressive cinema shocked midnight-movie audiences in the 1970s, and continues to drop jaws today, that it makes him quiver. “It’s so respectable!” he exclaims.
Waters is easy to underappreciate. Along with his Dreamlanders, his ensemble willing and able to table dignity for whatever perverse vision came along, the writer-director crept into an underground movement with raunch on the brain. In Waters’ mind, comedy was boundless. While his early shorts and 1969 feature debut, Mondo Trasho, were inspired by Andy Warhol and Russ Meyer, they share a spirit with Buster Keaton silents, with pratfalling swapped out in favor of foot-molestation and various forms of mutilation. Should we laugh or gasp at a scene in Desperate Living where lesbian wrestler Mole McHenry unveils her enormous penis, the result of a slapdash sex-change operation? Waters’ boldness allows for both, the same way a disaster movie’s destruction can provoke terror and awe. Pink Flamingos’ infamous scene where Dreamlanders Mary Vivian Pearce and Danny Mills sandwich a real chicken as they screw—that’s downright Herzogian. Waters’ art never feels calculated. It just seeps out.
Today, John Waters is a brand. He acts, hosts TV shows, writes books, performs one-man shows, and terraforms the mainstream into a place that can stomach everything he was dishing out in the 1970s. He hasn’t made a film since 2004’s A Dirty Shame, but he’s still the man who turned Divine, a.k.a. Harris Glenn Milstead, Dreamland’s resident drag queen, into the co-star of Hairspray, a major motion picture in not-quite-progressive 1988. His humor snuck into Hollywood with movies like Serial Mom, Pecker, and Cecil B. DeMented. On paper, Waters’ filmography reads like a miracle—and it shouldn’t go unnoticed.
“50 Years Of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” is the first complete American retrospective of Waters’ work. In anticipation of its September 5-14 run, The Dissolve spoke to Waters about finding his footing as a director, cooking up some of the most deranged imagery ever committed to film, and why improvisation is killing today’s movies.
The Dissolve: I recently spoke to a colleague who works for a teen magazine. She’s aware of you only as a personality, not a filmmaker. Is that frustrating at all?
John Waters: I haven’t made a movie in 10 years, so basically people know me from the books. The films are still available, but I haven’t made a new one since they were teenagers.
The Dissolve: Have you moved on from directing? Is film still near and dear to your heart?
Waters: It is, but I just tell stories. [After] my last film, I couldn’t get the money to make a new one. The film business has changed. They want you to make it for no money. My last book was on the bestseller list, so I’m having better success there. But I’ll make another movie. I’ve made 16 movies. It’s not like I haven’t spoken. I go to where they want me to tell stories. I have a spoken-word show, I have the books, I do photo shows—I have so many careers. I’m busy for the next two years. I still have meetings about trying to make this movie, Fruitcake, which is a satire of a children’s Christmas movie, but who knows? I don’t know if it’ll get made. If it doesn’t, I have plenty of other projects. I’m fine.
“I used to joke that I was trying to sell out, and nobody would buy me.”
The Dissolve: Money wasn’t a factor in your early films.
Waters: Early in my career, it was fine to have no money. Everyone starts out without money. But I have four employees today. I have no desire to be a faux-underground filmmaker at 68 years old. I don’t have any needlepoint pillows with slogans on them, but if I did, it would be ‘Don’t Go Backward.’”
The Dissolve: How did film become your outlet? How did it allow you to say everything you wanted to say?
Waters: When I was really young, I had a job as a puppeteer for children’s birthday parties. I told stories that way. In the mid-1960s was when underground movies first came out. I read about them. Before, I would never have thought I could make a movie. The only thing I knew were Hollywood movies. But when I read Jonas Mekas’ column in the Village Voice about underground movies—which I read faithfully every week—I realized you didn’t need any money. You could use your friends. I wanted to try that. I learned from doing that. It was usually blue-collar lab people, people I’d rent equipment from.
I thought underground movies were controversial. They broke barriers. They caused trouble. They had beatniks and hippies—a world I wanted to be in.
The Dissolve: When you made your first short, “Hag In A Black Leather Jacket,” was it about getting it all on camera, or did you walk into it with a vision?
Waters: That’s about all it is. It’s barely a real movie. That was very much influenced by Theater Of The Absurd. It was filmed on 8mm black-and-white and the sound was on tape, like a reel-to-reel tape recorder. There was no lip-sync. I didn’t even know there was editing! I guess I put a few cuts in it? I had no idea what I was doing. Absolutely none. It was only shown once. Lincoln Center is the second time it’s been shown. Ever! There’s a reason for that. It’s not that great. But it has seeds of the ephemera of my filmmaking. Nobody from Dreamland is in that one, except Mary Vivian Pearce. I hadn’t really met Divine yet. Roman Candles was the first one with Dreamland people. Mary Vivian Pearce was the only person in all of them. She was in “Hag In A Black Leather Jacket” at the end doing the dirty dance of Bodie Green. For no reason. It has nothing to do with the plot.
The Dissolve: Many of your early films reject plot.
Waters: It was the Theater Of The Absurd! It was the point that it had no plot. There kind of was a plot. There was a black man and a white woman getting married on the roof of my parents’ house, where I still lived at the time, by a Ku Klux Klan guy.
The Dissolve: How did you wind up with an image like that?
Waters: I was trying to do humor. It was such a ridiculous setup, it was humor. It took the sting out of everything. Baltimore at the time was racially tense. There were riots, George Wallace was running in the primaries. It was something in the news at the time. I lived in a very white suburb. When I went to junior high, there was one black kid. Ralph Lee, I still remember him. We hung around together. It was something I always put in my movies.
The Dissolve: Did you ever consider yourself a documentarian of sorts, capturing an alternative lifestyle?
Waters: No, I wasn’t, because none of it was real. Even in Roman Candles, it was copying [Andy Warhol’s] Chelsea Girls, having random footage of people doing fucked-up things. I was in my parents’ bedroom. It was hardly the Chelsea Hotel. Andy was two decades ahead of me. But I was never a documentarian—they always had full scripts, except in The Diane Linkletter Story. And you can see it’s not that successful.
The Dissolve: Your films expose things, even as fiction. It makes sense that you worked with Johnny Knoxville for A Dirty Shame—you and the Jackass crew feel like kindred spirits.
Waters: Of course! Johnny Knoxville is closer to the spirit of Pink Flamingos than any other filmmaker ever. Knoxville is about anarchy and mixing blue-collar with gay. Male nudity for blue-collar heterosexuals. He’s an anarchist. I’m a huge fan of Johnny.
The Dissolve: Were there directors or styles of filmmaking you thought you could subvert with your humor?
Waters: I would see Ingmar Bergman movies. When they played in Baltimore, they played in the nudie theaters because they showed breasts. Bergman had vomit in every one of his films in the beginning. I would go to the drive-in and see Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast, I’d go to the Rex Theater in Baltimore and see Russ Meyer movies, nudist camp movies, and then I’d see Bergman and Fellini. I tried to take that to make the genre I did make, which was exploitation films for art theaters. I still like extreme art movies. Part of the festival I’m [programming] is “Movies I’m Jealous I Didn’t Make.” I’m showing Final Destination.
The Dissolve: If “Hag In A Black Leather Jacket” was all about capturing your comedy in any way possible, what stands out as your first directorial choice in a movie?
Waters: My first choice was always writing a concept that people would want to see, even if I didn’t sell it very well. I would say, doing things like shooting the Kennedy assassination with Divine as Jackie [in 1968’s “Eat Your Makeup”], right after it happened. They were things I knew would push buttons and be politically incorrect, but at the same time make hippies laugh. Divine was created to be a monster for hippies. I always thought she was Jayne Mansfield and Godzilla put together to scare hippies. That was my choice from the very beginning.
The Dissolve: Did your anarchical comedy still require you to direct the Dreamland actors in a traditional manner?
Waters: Completely. There was never improv. They were filmed—especially Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos—with single-system cell cameras. The sound was used for news reels, but the sound would be recorded right on the film. Twenty-four frames ahead of the picture, the film would go through the projector to read the sound. You couldn’t have cutting back and forth. It was like filming a play. So we had endless rehearsals. And I realize now how terrible it was for the actors, because they had to memorize three pages of dialogue for one cut. If they screwed up one thing, we’d have to start over. Including having sex while reciting ridiculous dialogue! It was hard for the actors. No one can call them amateurs. They were pros. The actors I work with in Hollywood could never remember three straight pages of dialogue.
The Dissolve: Edith Massey was pulled from a Baltimore day job, yet she’s ready and able for the grinder of Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living.
Waters: Sometimes she’d say the action out loud in the middle of the dialogue! She’d say what was in parenthesis in the script. Edie was an outsider actress. She liked being in movies. She liked the fame, the excitement. But she hated memorizing lines. She had trouble doing it. But God knows she’s a trouper. You see her in Pink Flamingos, she’s sitting in that playpen, and you can see her breasts. She would drive the other actors crazy, because she would flub lines. Still, Edie had a delivery and personality that no normal Hollywood actor could ever play. Edie was real. If I was a documentarian… none of that was real, she was a sweet lady who ran a thrift job, but she liked her part in Desperate Living because she got to dress like a queen. She wasn’t naked.
The Dissolve: Edith’s character in Pink Flamingos is obsessed with eggs. Is that a John Waters obsession coming through?
Waters: I like eggs, but I don’t have a fetish for them. I wanted an inanimate object that no one would be that obsessed by. We did have an egg man when I was young, but he wasn’t handsome. I didn’t have any thing for the egg man. I just thought it was weird that someone brought us eggs every day. It’s a very touching thing from the past.
The Dissolve: Pink Flamingos was a serious step up in production value from your previous films. Did that require selling your vision to an outsider?
Waters: My father loaned me the money. I paid every penny back with interest. He never saw [the film]. He was horrified by it. But they were loving. They knew I was obsessed with doing this, and they were amazed they got the money back. They did Mondo Trasho, “Makeup,” they did all of them in the beginning. And I would pay them back, and I’d ask for twice as much. With Pink Flamingos, he said, “You don’t have to pay me back on this movie. Put it in your next movie. You didn’t go to college. But don’t ask me for more money.”
The Dissolve: Sounds like he didn’t have typical producer notes.
Waters: His studio notes would have been, “Don’t make it!”
The Dissolve: Was it more difficult to be yourself when you started working with studios that weren’t your dad?
Waters: I raised the money for Desperate Living and part of Polyester. But then I was with New Line Cinema. It wasn’t completely Hollywood yet. They were supportive of me during that period. They would make Hairspray, Pecker, and A Dirty Shame. Bob Shaye at New Line was my biggest supporter in the Hollywood system. Though the only time it was really easy for me was after Hairspray came out. When I followed up with Cry-Baby, every studio wanted to make it. So I went out and pitched it, which I learned how to do from Jeff Buhai, who wrote Revenge Of The Nerds. He was my friend and he taught me how to pitch. I had an agent, a Hollywood lawyer, a team. And the [studios] all wanted to make it. It was exciting. I remember being on the set on the first day of Hairspray. We had trailers! More so on Cry-Baby, where we had cranes and giant lights. I was startled.
The Dissolve: The scale of these studio-supported pictures must have felt momentous for you and Divine.
Waters: Polyester was the first time it was amazing, when Tab Hunter showed up on set and did a scene with Divine. That was when Hollywood and my underground met for the first time. It electrified all of us.
The Dissolve: Polyester, Hairspray, and Cry-Baby steered you away from the avant-garde. Was that a choice, or a demand?
Waters: I never wrote Hairspray thinking I was making a commercial hit. I accidentally was obsessed by the subject matter of a teen dance show in Baltimore. That didn’t scare people, but I was surprised it crossed over. When I made Cry-Baby, it was a musical about the ’50s, so I knew it couldn’t be a midnight movie. It wasn’t supposed to be. It had an $11 million budget or something. I’m a realist. I know the more money people give you, the more say they’ll have, the more notes they’ll have. If you don’t want notes, go make a movie for nothing. But I had done that, and I was trying to go forward. I wanted to reach more people. But in Cry-Baby, she drinks her own tears. Hardly do I think any of the movies are sellouts. I used to joke that I was trying to sell out, and nobody would buy me.
The Dissolve: How did you turn nostalgia into functional filmmaking in something like Cry-Baby?
Waters: I think [cinematographer] David Insley did a really great job. We watched a lot of Elvis movies. Viva Las Vegas. And Bye Bye Birdie. Movies like that. It’s a parody. Johnny Depp’s screaming girl fans were confused by the movie. They knew we were making fun of something, but they didn’t realize it was them. That’s why Johnny did it. He wanted to end the teen-idol thing. He was in on it. The audience of teenage girls was confused, because they didn’t know an Elvis movie. They smelled a rat, but they couldn’t figure out what the rat was. The rat was me.
The Dissolve: Was Johnny Depp a big fan of your work?
Waters: He loved Pink Flamingos. He did that to cause trouble. He made a wise decision. It did end his teen-idolness. Then Tim Burton came in, looked at dailies from Cry-Baby, and put him in Edward Scissorhands.
The Dissolve: Serial Mom is one of your odder films, which is saying something. It has that conventional veneer, but it’s sadistic—
Waters: I think it’s my best movie. Maybe. Not because of the stars in it. It’s the only movie where I had enough money and I had learned by then how to make a movie. Divine isn’t in that. Maybe the best Divine movie is Female Trouble, because it’s the only movie I wrote for someone as a vehicle. The old-fashioned way they made Susan Hayward movies, or Joan Crawford movies.
The Dissolve: Was getting Kathleen Turner, or any seasoned actor, on your page a challenge? The Dreamland players took to your style, but they started in the trenches with you.
Waters: No, she was no problem. Her and [Dreamlander] Mink Stole are great in the movie. Perfect example. They played off each other. Mink and Kathleen are still friends. When I meet with stars before, I can weed out the ones without a sense of humor. It’s the ones who talk about their “journey” and their “craft.” As soon as you say those two words, I know you’re not going to get along in Baltimore with us.
The Dissolve: Are your movies born from other movies?
Waters: Every one of my movies are satirizing a genre. Pecker was a movie about an artist. Dirty Shame was a sexploitation movie. Serial Mom was true crime. That’s what I always think of first.
The Dissolve: Does prioritizing genre mean there’s less to consider when it comes to visual direction? Do you channel style?
Waters: I want it to look good, as good as I can make it, but I agree with Cecil B. DeMented: “Technique is nothing more than failed style.” If that’s all you have, it’s an unmemorable movie. If you come out of a movie and the first thing you say is, “Wow, the cinematography is great,” I think it’s a bad movie. That’s a science project.
The Dissolve: Is the core of a great movie concept?
Waters: It’s the writing. I hate improvisation. Every director now allows too much of it.
The Dissolve: If I may force you to throw modesty to the wind: Is there a moment in any of your films where you see your writing transcending lofty goals?
Waters: There’s a line in Female Trouble that is so ridiculous, and people constantly quote it to me. It worked. “I wouldn’t suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!” Some of the dialogue, the way it’s said, the way it’s acted—it came across exactly the way I wanted it. I don’t sit around and watch my movies, but people quote them to me.