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INTERVIEW: John Waters

Desperate holiday living


The two may seem incongruous, but John Waters and Christmas are actually a perfect match. It's the time of year where children are encouraged to sit on the laps of portly, oddly dressed strangers. Anyone who has seen "Pink Flamingos" can guess that Edith Massey's character would likely be a big fan of eggnog. And that old seasonal chestnut was obviously written about Waters' late, luminous star. "O night Divine"? A fitting tribute to Glenn Milstead.

The man who brought you a drag queen eating actual dog feces, Kathleen Turner bludgeoning a woman to death with a leg of lamb, and other warm-and-fuzzy cinematic moments is coming to town this week to offer his unique take on how adults can survive the stressful holiday season. Pro tip: before heading off to grandma's house, make sure to pack your verbal-abuse whistle along with your hip flask. And also your back-up hip flask.

ImageOut, Rochester's LGBT Film & Video Festival, is bringing in the one-man show starring the cult-film icon, best-selling author, and overall provocateur. Waters recently did a phone interviewed with City and shared some of his thoughts on Christmas, the state of the independent film industry, and whether we're now living in a John Waters world. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

CITY: You are an unabashed fan of Christmas. What about the holiday appeals to a man who has previously been referred to as "the Pope of trash"?

John Waters: Well, I'm the pope, aren't I? That implies some sort of tradition. That implies some sort of religious fervor. I guess I like Christmas because it can be such an emotional rollercoaster. I try to talk about in my show about how you can't avoid it — it is impossible to avoid it. No matter what religion you are, what sexual preference, rich, poor, Democrat, Republican, you can't avoid it. So I'm trying to tell you how to get through it, how to deal with it. How to deal with your family, whether they're the most loving family in the world or the worst.

There is such a thing as a verbal-abuse whistle that I say you should bring to Christmas. You have to make a deal: you can get on my nerves, I can get on yours, so think before you speak. As soon as someone doesn't, you blow that whistle.

Do you actually enjoy the holidays on a personal level?

I do! Yes, to be honest, now I can really pay for my party — I'm doing 16 shows! I'm like a drag queen on Halloween at Christmas time. If it's the holidays, I'm working.

What kind of an audience did you have in mind when you were writing this show? Who do you think will most appreciate John Waters' take on Christmas?

My audience has always been the same for 40 years. It's people who are smart, who are funny, who have a healthy skepticism about authority, and at the same time maybe don't fit in their own minority. But they've always felt like being outsiders. I'm trying to tell them to be outlaws and insiders. Who wants to be an outsider anymore? Everybody wants to be.

You've been reportedly working on a children's Christmas film, called "Fruitcake," for years...

Well, I haven't been working on it, that's the issue. I've been trying to get it made. So instead what I've been working on is a book, since I've had a lot more success in that world. "Role Models," my last book, was a best seller. So I'm writing a book now about how I hitchhiked across America by myself in May. But yes, the children's Christmas movie I'm still trying to get made. Who knows if I ever will? I mean, I've made 16 movies. It's not like I haven't spoken.

On that note, you've spoken about how American independent cinema is in a really difficult position right now. Do you think that will change or improve any time soon?

It's not in a bad state if you're a young person starting out in cinema. It's in a much better state for you, because they're looking now for the next kid who will make a movie for $50,000. They weren't when I was doing it, but now they are. The problem with me is I have routinely made independent movies that cost $5 million, which used to be thought of as a moderate price for an independent movie, a union movie with movie stars. I don't want to go backward, I did that. I'm not going to be a faux revolutionary.

But they're looking. If you're a young person, it is the very best time ever to get your movie made, because the equipment — everybody could make a movie on their cell phone and it could end up playing in a movie theater. So, that's good! I'm not complaining. Because if they said to me now, "You could make 'Fruitcake,'" I don't know what I'd do. I'm booked for the next year and a half. I hope I'll make it, but who knows if I will.

Switching gears, you've always had an interest in documenting extreme human behavior and the fringes of human society. Given that shows like "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" are cultural touchstones, and that Kim Kardashian became a pop-culture icon largely because of a sex tape, are we now living in a John Waters world?

Here's the thing: I refuse to know who the Kardashians are. Every time I get to an article about them, I turn the page. I do know who Honey Boo Boo is, although I've never seen the show. I'm against reality television. Not that you shouldn't watch it; I don't care if you watch it. I have no interest because it seems mean spirited. It's asking you to look down on your subject matter. And really, who is the fool? They're making money and you're wasting your time.

My movies, even if you hate them, I don't think you can say that I asked you to look down on my characters. I asked you to look up. And that's the big difference. I don't believe that reality-show fame is real fame. I know that many people love reality TV. But I find something about it is distasteful in a bad way. It's bad bad taste. It's asking the audience to feel superior. I never feel superior to my subject matter.

You spent a portion of your summer hitchhiking across America. Why did you do it?

It was 11 days in May. It was an adventure! I used to hitchhike a lot when I was young. I wanted to give up control. I wanted to see, How far does fame go? I wanted to write another book, and the first two parts of the book are little novels of me imagining in my fantasy the very best that could happen between rides, and the very worst that could happen. And then I did it for real.

Did you enjoy the experience?

Yes, but you'll have to read the book to get the details. That was the coming attractions, in case you didn't know. And I hope it's better than that, because now when I go to the movies, the trailers aren't coming attractions. They're warnings not to see the films.

Looking back on all your projects, stretching back to even before "Pink Flamingos," do you think those works still stand up? Would you remake any of them if you could?

I wouldn't remake any of them, no. Well, I guess it would be funny to see "Pink Flamingos" remade a children's animated movie. Without the sex it would work. For a while there all the children's best-seller lists were gross — you know, "snot this" and gross-out battles. And that's what "Pink Flamingos" is. Divine was a clown. Divine was a "Jackass" boy before Johnny Knoxville. So, I think those movies were kind of innocent, if you took the sex stuff out. And believe me, nobody was masturbating watching them. So you could take the sex out without any trouble.

You mention that Divine was kind of a "Jackass" boy before there was "Jackass." That ties back to my earlier question. Do you think that our society now has caught up to what you were doing back then? What was cutting edge has now became mainstream?

Bad taste has become American humor, in a way. I think a lot of times, though, Hollywood makes bad-taste movies that are not funny. They just try to be gross too hard. It's easy to be gross. I was trying to be funny, I was trying to be witty. I was trying to change how you think about something by making you laugh.

I'm for some of those. I like "The Hangover," I like "Bridesmaids." But a lot of times I think they're not so funny. But I don't begrudge them. I wish my movies made that much money. But my movies, embarrassingly, only really played in wealthy, intelligent neighborhoods. I always wanted them to play in grindhouses and drive-ins, but they flopped there, because there was irony. People didn't go see exploitation movies because they thought they were so bad they were good, they went to see them because they thought they were sexy. They weren't looking at the outfits in "Faster Pussycat," they were masturbating. There's a big difference.

What inspires John Waters now?

I read seven newspapers a day. I'm always interested in people's behaviors, and the behavior of people who think they're normal but act the most insane is what draws me the most. Those are the characters I've made movies about.

You're an indie icon, but you've experienced some significant mainstream success. As you go forward as an artist, where do you see yourself fitting in in that spectrum?

I'm just trying to keep going and make the next thing. I never think this one's going to be more commercial or less commercial, or this one's going to be mainstream. I never plan that. I just make the next thing I'm obsessed by. And I'm thankful that I've been able to have this career for 40 years. People say that art is what you get away with, and I've been getting away with it for a long time.