Long ago, in that distant universe that was the 1960s, John Waters, now seventy-five, burst onto the underground film scene amid a blaze of bad taste and fun. His early movies had provocative titles like Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Mondo Trasho, and Multiple Maniacs. In an era that celebrated subversion and irreverence, Waters soon gained a reputation as an offbeat auteur.
In 1972, he released Pink Flamingos, a transgressive comedy starring the drag queen Divine. Violating virtually every taboo imaginable, it included scenes of sodomy, masturbation, and a finale in which a character ate dog feces while the soundtrack played the 1950s pop tune “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” Waters’s profane sense of humor was lost on Variety, which declared the film “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made.”
Already with a loyal following among the downtown crowd, Waters went on to write and directed ten more features, several of which scored with mainstream audiences. Hairspray, his 1988 comedy about a chubby Baltimore teen who finds salvation and a gorgeous boyfriend through rock and roll and the civil rights movement, also became a Tony-winning Broadway musical.
For his 1994 suburban farce Serial Mom, Kathleen Turner played a homicidal housewife who kills people offending her sense of order and propriety. Under Waters’s direction, she delivered what may well be her best screen performance.
Over the decades, Waters himself acted in numerous roles—in movies like Seed of Chucky and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, and TV shows like 21 Jump Street and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. On top of which, he has gained growing recognition as a visual artist—two years ago, the Baltimore Museum of Art mounted a show of his work—and as an author of memoir and cultural critique. His most recent book, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, appeared in 2019.
He spoke to me via Zoom and telephone from his home in Baltimore; an edited and condensed version of our conversations follows.
Claudia Dreifus: How have you been getting through the pandemic?
John Waters: Doing what I always do: I write every morning Monday through Friday.
It’s a sad time. Everyone misses their life.
Honestly, my life is just like everybody else’s. I cook more than ever. I’m sick of looking at computers. I’m sick of watching stuff on television. I’m getting through it, though.
Have you been reading much?
I knew you were going to ask that, so I looked at my table. Where are my glasses? Okay. The last books I’ve read include Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi, by Sandra Niemi, and Rachel Cusk’s new book, Second Place. I really liked it. She made me laugh.
I’ve just read The Babysitter: My Summers with a Serial Killer, about the famous Provincetown serial killer. Also, Edmund White’s A Saint from Texas. I thought it was his best book.
Earlier, I read Julian Barnes’s The Man in the Red Coat, which was full of details I didn’t know—during the days of Oscar Wilde, people said you could tell if someone was a gay man because gay men can’t whistle. That’s hysterical.
I’ve asked every gay man I know, and none of them can whistle. So maybe it’s true.
And what are you writing?
A novel, called Liarmouth. It’s bad luck to talk about something before you finish it, but I will tell you that it’s a novel about a very unpleasant woman who steals suitcases at airports. It’s a feel-bad romance.
When your last book, Mr. Know-It-All, was published, the New York Times reviewer declared that “John Waters is a national treasure.” In the 1960s, when you were making scandalous movies, could you have imagined anyone describing you in such terms?
No. But I didn’t not think that was possible, either. I was an ambitious kid.
What was your ambition?
I wanted to be the filthiest person alive.
Yet you grew up in a conservative middle-class household in Baltimore…
I was lucky enough to know what I wanted to do early in life. By the time I was twelve, I had a career: I was a puppeteer at children’s birthday parties.
Many film directors were once puppeteers. That’s why actors say, “We’re not your puppets.” And we think to ourselves, “Oh yes, you are.”
At that same age, I went to summer camp where I wrote a horror story called “Reunion.” I read from it each night at the campfire like a serial. The kids went crazy and had terrible dreams.
Their parents called the camp and everything. I realized, “Wow, all I did was write this story, and it got such a great reaction.”
How did your parents react to having this baby Bram Stoker in the house?
They were appalled, but they supported me—because they knew that I knew what I wanted to do. And if I couldn’t, they were afraid I’d end up in prison.
In fact, in 1966, I got thrown out of NYU for marijuana. It was a big scandal; my mother told me that her so-called friends would send her clippings and unsigned letters, evil things like that. Ten years later, those same people called her when their own children got into drugs. She became the local authority on how to deal with problem children.
Where did you go to school?
I went to a very good private grade school, Calvert. I went to a public junior high and then a Catholic high school.
After the sixth grade, I should have quit. I didn’t learn anything there except how cheap girls dressed and how bad boys looked cute.
Mostly, I learned by reading and being inquisitive. Life magazine was the ultimate bad influence. There, I read about beatniks and drugs and gay people and everything. As soon as I could, I set out to find them.
My parents respected my drive, but they hated the destination. They were horrified when the movies came out because nobody said they were any good.
My mother asked about a film, “What’s this one is about?” I said, “Sex addicts.” She said, “Oh God, maybe we’ll die first.” My father saw Dirty Shame, and afterward said to me the best line: “It was very funny, but I don’t have to see it again.”
I think they were happiest the night the musical version of Hairspray opened on Broadway. Finally, they could say they loved something of mine without their noses growing.
I have to tell you no parent would have been proud of a child who’d made Pink Flamingos. I got arrested for making movies. I got banned. I got hideous reviews. Nobody was saying I was good, except the audiences. I always had an audience.
Books really matter in your life. It’s said you have eight thousand in your home library. You’ve also said, “If you go home with someone and they don’t have any books in their house, don’t fuck them.” Why?
Well, if they’re cute enough, you can violate that rule.
Do you consider yourself a Sixties person?
Well, I was there. And making movies. All that left-wing stuff and everything, I was part of. I loved the Yippies. Using humor as comic terrorism really works. I think we need that again.
Kids today are having just as much fun as we ever did. Back then, the Yippies brought dollar bills onto the stock market floor and tossed them at the traders. Just the other week, kids on Reddit were screwing up the stock market with this GameStop caper. Same thing, more than forty years later.
Do you think someone like John Waters could get a foothold in the movies today?
There’s always room for some smart-ass kid with no money to cause trouble. And today, I would have made the films on my phone.
I think one difference between then and now has to do with distribution. If I made Pink Flamingos today, it might open in the Landmark chain for a week. If it didn’t do well, it would be gone forever. In the 1970s, we went to one city at a time and nursed it there. Pink Flamingos opened in Baltimore in 1972. It didn’t open in New York till much later.
Another thing that’s different: there’s no midnight movie scene anymore. Pink Flamingos developed a following by playing at midnight at the Elgin, now the Joyce Theatre, on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. The community in the theater was part of it.
Could someone like your Pink Flamingos lead, Harris Glenn Milstead—Divine—become a star today?
Absolutely. When we were coming up, drag queens were so square! They all wanted to be Miss America. They didn’t want to scare people. Divine was the first who did. Divine wanted to be a monster. He wanted to be Godzilla.
Every drag queen today has some anger, even RuPaul; they all have some edge to their act.
Right before he died, Divine was supposed to star on Married…with Children, playing the gay male uncle. That would have been one of the first gay characters on a big hit TV sitcom, and I think it would have worked.
I’m still shocked that he’s dead. I go to his grave every Christmas.
Matter of fact, I’m being buried in the same graveyard. Five of my friends, we bought plots there. We call it “Disgraceland.”
Your books and movies have a consistent theme: a hatred for bourgeois conformity. Do I read you right?
I hate people who aren’t curious. I hate people who judge others without knowing the full story.
In my films, I only made fun of the things I loved. I was never mean-spirited. I tried to flip everything: what used to be the villain was the hero in my movies.
How did you persuade Patty Hearst to appear in Serial Mom?
I’m an obsessive fan of hers. I went to her trial. When I met her later and told her that, she was appalled: “I went to jail because of people like you!” But we met again at the Cannes Festival and I asked her to be in my movie. She came in and read for the part. She wasn’t great at first, but we worked with her. She turned out to be a terrific comedienne.
Your work is also about the pleasures of bad taste. Right now, with hundreds of thousands dying from Covid-19 in the US, can bad taste still be funny?
The pandemic has certainly made irony less appealing. Humor is harder now. You can’t make a joke if someone in the audience has just buried their mother. In the 1950s, people said, “Oh, it’s as funny as an iron lung.” Maybe now we’ll say, “It’s as funny as a Covid test!”
Before the pandemic, I used to go on the road with two different one-man shows: “This Filthy World” and “A John Waters Christmas.” Once the pandemic ends, I’ll have to completely rewrite them both because every single thing is different now.
You lived through the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Does this moment remind you of that terrible time?
It is different because everyone in the world has this virus problem. With AIDS, it was not the whole world. It targeted certain segments. Mostly, in the US, it was gay people and heroin users.
About half my friends died. No one can imagine how horrible and frightening it was unless they were there.
AIDS changed everything, especially sex. I’m lucky because I don’t think anybody in this century will ever experience a time when people had sex with a different person every night. In the 1970s, it was normal to do that. I did it, everyone I knew of a certain age did it.
Well, now you need twelve lawyers to ask someone on a date. Back then, it was just the opposite. People would just be walking down the street and have sex, and then just keep going. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I’m not sorry that I saw what it was like.
You came of age before Stonewall. Most of the literature and films of that period, if they dealt with gay life at all, were, for want of a better word, “self-hating.” But not in your movies.
I don’t hold with that: Jean Genet, William Burroughs, they weren’t self-hating to me. It’s much better today, but there was a certain excitement to going to a gay bar that got raided because it was illegal. You were an outlaw.
I was thinking about a drama like The Boys in the Band.
Those were the gay people I was rebelling against—because they were so square. I never was a separatist in any way: I didn’t care what people’s sexuality was. And these days, kids don’t either. Maybe they’re straight one day and gay the other. It depends how cute the people they meet are and how smart they are. They change their route.
About getting older: the year you qualified for Medicare, you decided to hitchhike across the country. What were you thinking?
That was a literary stunt. I was working on a book, Carsick. But I used to hitchhike when I was young, so I always wondered what that would be like today.
The first day, I was standing on the corner and my neighbor drove by—and I thought, “Am I really doing this?” In hindsight, it didn’t seem that hard. But while you’re standing for ten hours in Kansas and it’s getting dark and nobody picks you up, it can be nerve-wracking. I would have gotten into Ted Bundy’s car. I was that eager for a ride.
But I never had a scary ride. I think the people who pick you up hitchhiking are genuinely good people who have been through something in their own life. They want to help.
Are you frequently recognized?
Only by the people I want to recognize me. When I’m on the subway, children recognize me from Seed of Chucky, and when I’m in airports, they recognize me for being in the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie.
With that movie, they changed the dialogue we shot. When I went to see it [in a theater], I heard my line, “Don’t judge me,” and then I heard Alvin say, “I saw Pink Flamingos,” which they had dubbed in later. It’s so amazing they put that into a children’s movie!
Now that you’ve been anointed as a “national treasure,” do you think there might ever be a Kennedy Center tribute to you?
Who knows? A lot of surprising things have happened. I got a French medal for promoting French movies. So who knows? The most surprising thing: Multiple Maniacs is on HBO Max. How could that be?