To your mom, John Waters is the man we have to thank for Hairspray; to you, he'll always be the genius who got Divine to eat dog shit on camera. The 60-year-old filmmaker has attained an almost unique longevity by being all things to all maniacs. Or, to put it in the criminal-justice terms he so favors, he has a rap sheet longer than your arm.
OW: Is it harder to be John Waters, now that trash and true crime have gone mainstream?
Waters: I'm so proud to finally be an insider. After so many decades of that overused word, "outsider" I think that word is so used up, it's almost like "trash." I mean, what is trashy anymore? Nothing, really. When I first used that term, I used it kind of joyously, as a sense of humor about glorifying everything we were ashamed of. Is anybody ashamed of anything anymore?
I think the golden age of trash ended quite a while ago. With Pecker (1998), I tried to make a movie about ending irony, which was what came after trash. And now, all those things are mainstream. So at the same time, I try to make humor about that that we're in control. What used to be the outsiders, and the rebels and everything, now are in control and make the rules. And how even more bizarre and delightful that is.
OW: Isn't there a danger in that, though? Back in the '70s, a lot of us initially found it kind of transgressive that, say, Alice Cooper was golfing with Gerald Ford. And after a while, it was like, "Alice Cooper might as well be Gerald Ford."
Waters: I just did a television show in London with Alice Cooper this week, it's funny you say that. And he was still performing, you know? And performing to big audiences. I guess I've tried to reinvent myself every decade. In a way I had to, because how many directors who started in the '60s are working today? You have to keep up. I went through so many different things I went through midnight movies, and then video came out which changed everything, and then DVDs made everybody rebuy the movies they already had. Which was great for me, because I had a lot of them! And then independent films were kind of co-opted by studio films. So I went that route.
My last movie, A Dirty Shame, got an NC-17, so I felt like I was back in the old days and fighting censorship. That movie, I think, was a Hollywood underground movie. So I think in a way, I've tried to put all my experiences in every form of the business into this. I mean, who ever thought that one of my movies would become a Broadway play that won the Tony? And now they're making a movie of it, and John Travolta is playing the Divine role.
OW: Isn't that one of the signs of the apocalypse?
Waters: Oh, no! I think it's a good thing. I think John Travolta will be great in it! I mean, imagine him as an overweight woman that can't dance and then all of a sudden can. The audiences should go crazy. John Travolta can really dance and sing.
Nothing surprises me. That's why I'm such a proud American, even though I've never believed in much of what the government says. Except the only thing they ever told me that was true was smoking was bad for you. That's the only thing they ever told that was true. But still, I love America, for the reason that anything can happen here. And really, anything can more than any other country. Anything good or bad, which makes for good show business.
OW: In retrospect, do you consider censorship to be your friend or your enemy?
Waters: It's your friend when you're young and it's an enemy when you're older. Because in the beginning … well, when I made those early movies, there was a cultural war going on. It was us versus them. No critics were hip; now they're all hip. All critics feel they're on the right side. There isn't a critical war going on. It's not as exciting as when it was cinematically tense. Theaters would get raided and the police would take the whole audience away at Jack Smith's movies! That couldn't happen anymore. But you can't imagine how exciting it was to go to the movies and sometimes you had to leave in a paddy wagon.
OW: Do you miss that?
Waters: I don't miss anything. I went through it. I always think tomorrow is going to be better than yesterday. That's why I'm still working, I think. If I only thought the old days were better that's usually the people that stay home. I have youth spies everywhere. I listen to rap music. But I also listen to Peggy Lee. I listen to all kinds of things and I like to mix it together. The same way I guess I've done in all my movies.
OW: When it comes to rap, do you prefer the more caricaturish stuff?
Waters: No, I don't, actually. I just finished the biography of Stepin Fetchit, which is a very well-written book. And at the end, it talks about how, in a weird way, is`n't` it going backwards that "Hard To Be a 'Ho" or a pimp wins the Oscar song? Isn't that, in a way, that same kind of caricatures that made Superfly and those kind of things seem dated? I'm all for blaxploitation movies. And I love rap music. But the gangsta rap is not my favorite kind. Some of it I like. I like Snoop Dogg because he's stoned and he's funny. Angry but funny. And I love angry and funny. Angry and bitter gets old soon.
OW: I hadn't known until recently that Stepin Fetchit was planning a re-emergence on The Flip Wilson Show, and Bill Cosby appeared on a rival network and cut him off at the knees.
Waters: And the black community really turned against him. They were mortified. `And` rightfully so. It's like, can I be homophobic? I don't know. When Divine met Richard Simmons, he was uptight.
OW: Why's that?
Waters (laughing): Because we all have limits!
OW: We were mentioning indies before, and how they've been swallowed up by the studios. At the same time, there's more product announcing itself as indie than ever. How do you think it would have affected your career if you had come up in an environment like that?
Waters: Pink Flamingoes would have been picked up, and it would have opened in 20 Landmark theaters the first weekend. And if it would have been a hit, it would have been a hit, and if not, it would have never had the luxury of word of mouth. Which is what happened with midnight movies. Today, if it's not filled the first weekend, it's gone the second weekend.
So the downside would be that, and the good side would be that all distributors are looking for weird little movies. And none of them were except New Line when I started. New Line certainly has been a company I've been with forever and ever. When I first went there, it was five people on University Place in New York. And now it's a giant Hollywood company owned by Time-Warner that's still run by the same people.
OW: Are there any young filmmakers who you're particularly impressed by?
Waters: Oh, sure. I'm a big fan of Gus Van Sant. I'm a big fan of Todd Solondz, Todd Haynes, Bruce LaBruce, François Ozon. I mean, all the young, witty, good filmmakers. You know, I have a television show now on the Here Network called John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You. I'm trying to show movies that are really kind of amazing and startling. I think there are great movies being made today by young people. I'm all for it. They continue to surprise me, which is why I go to the movies.
OW: I saw you're showing `Michael Cuesta's` L.I.E.
Waters: It's a good movie. You know, it's gaily incorrect. It's a movie about a nice pedophile.
OW: Did you say "gaily incorrect"?
Waters: Yeah, my whole series is. I am. I don't fit in my own minority. That's the kind of people I like. Any minority that doesn't fit in their own minority.
OW: Is there a recent scandal that you particularly enjoyed? Or one that you found really overblown?
Waters: I don't know if I enjoyed it, `but` I followed heavily the Michael Jackson case. I'm still fascinated that he came out of the courtroom and got off and didn't even give a speech and left the country and never even talked to his parents again. And I don't think is ever coming back! So I find that case bizarre and fascinating because Michael Jackson is not young, he's 40-something. Imagine what he looks like out of drag! He would be unrecognizable. If he really wants to go underground and get a playdate which must be tough, even in the Mideast these days just take the wig and all the makeup and the outfits off. No one would recognize him! He could sneak out of any country out of drag.
OW: Do you still get to go to many trials?
Waters: Never. Because they recognize me now, and I think the jury will take it out on the defendant. I would have liked to go to Johnny Walker Lindh's trial a lot. You can't believe anything else they told you about Iraq, why do you believe that? I think he got a raw deal. He was well-traveled, God knows. For that age, to learn Arabic … I don't know that he really did much, actually. I think they used him as a big scapegoat. That was a fascinating case, `but` I think that would have been very suspicious; I was afraid to go to it.
I guess the terrorist cases are the ones right now the one where the guy screams things, "God bless bin Laden" and stands up … that would be an electrifying case to be at, I think. But it would be hard for me, because the press sees me now it looks like I'm trying to get publicity, they think I'm making a movie of it. I can't sneak in like I used to. When I used to go to those famous trials people really didn't know who I was. Or if they did, they didn't care. There were other lunatics that went to trials.
OW: There was a news report that Saddam is a little less animated in his trial now, and is just trying to say, "I take responsibility for this, don't blame the other defendants." And a commentator actually said that this is the sort of trajectory it tends to follow in these despot trials, where first they're hysterically defensive, and then …
Waters: … they say, "I killed that 300 people; I didn't do that one!" There's a book I have out on my coffee table I got it for a present it's so hilarious. It's called Dictators' Homes. A big, hard book. Hilarious. Idi Amin's house and everything. It's an interiors book, only it's all these dictators' houses. It's a good gift.
OW: What's Idi Amin's house like?
Waters: What would you expect? A lot of cheetah prints. Believe me, you wouldn't confuse it with a Swiss rich person's.
OW: You wrote a chapter in your book Crackpot about how you've lectured in prisons, and you had really strong pro-rehabilitation …
Waters: I still do. I still have friends in prison. Some of the people that I taught have been freed; one of them is doing very well up to 24 years `later`; another one got out and killed two more people. He's in Serial Mom, too: We call him "Serial Extra." But I basically am serious about it. I do believe in it. I miss teaching in prison, actually. It's not a good time for education in prison. They got rid of all those kind of schools. But I am a believer in it. I still believe that some people can get better.
If somebody killed your mother, you're not going to believe that. But if you had a child that is a murderer, you're going to be more liberal on it. There's no fair answer. And the success rate the hope for success is tiny. You can only hope for very, very small progress.
Basically, if I wasn't a filmmaker, I would be a lawyer for the damned. I would be the last resort, the one `used by` clients that did it, were unrepentant, lied and would do it again … that would be my client. When everybody else said, "I can't take that case," that would be the ones I would kind of want to do.
OW: Like the one you wrote about who said something like, "If I see a sexy young boy walking home from school, I guarantee he'll never make it home alive"?
Waters: Oh, yeah, that's horrible. Did Arthur Freddy Goode say that? That one in Florida? I came down and interviewed him in Huntsville … no, what's your jail there that has the electric chair?
Waters: Yes. I went there and interviewed Arthur Freddy Goode and took pictures of him. And my pictures didn't turn out, and the next day they electrocuted him. Too bad! No reshoots!
OW: You once received a letter from a kid who said he hoped to one day "inherit your pukedom."
Waters: And guess who he is? Freddy Armisen from Saturday Night Live, and `who` is now living with Martha Plimpton. He turned into a big success. He's the one who wrote me and said, "Why do you get sent to Cannes and I get sent to the school psychiatrist?"
OW: Wow! Now that living wills are such a big deal thanks to Terri Schiavo, have you made arrangements with him for some kind of ultimate transfer?
Waters: No, but he's coming to my 60th birthday this week. He's got his own successful fiefdom of pukedom now. He found his own firstname.lastname@example.org