John Waters Still Shocking And Fun After All These Years
Pop icon has new book about hitchhiking across America
John Waters has been called The Sultan of Sleaze, The Prince of Puke and The King of Schlock – all titles he wears proudly. He shocked audiences in 1972 with “Pink Flamingos,” a no-budget independent film set in his hometown of Baltimore and starring his beloved Divine, a 300 pound transvestite who plays notorious beauty Babs. In the film, Babs is fighting to maintain her title of the filthiest person alive.
With “Pink Flamingos,” Waters made an audacious bid for attention and got it. But the film was more than just an attempt to shock. It was an all out satiric assault on the middle class values he saw as oppressive and hypocritical. The film lobbed a bomb in the cultural war of the early seventies but what made Waters unique was the joyous quality of his work, the wicked delight he took in trashy obscenity.
Of course not everyone appreciated that. He brags that his favorite review for the film described it as: “Like a septic tank explosion, it has to be seen to be believed.” He also boasts that in regards to his film “Desperate Living,” an official censor in London wrote, “We do not know how to deal with the subject of intentional bad taste.” And that’s precisely what Waters banks on. No one in the history of American cinema has done more for bad taste than him and his cinematic legacy may be that he brought trash to the level of art.
Although he dealt with topics like incest, exhibitionism, and singing anuses, his approach to filmmaking relied on a Hollywood tradition of straightforward narrative plots, entertainment over enlightenment, and a stable of stars. By embracing these Hollywood trappings, he eventually found mainstream success with “Hairspray,” “Cry Baby” and “Serial Mom.” That’s an irony he savors.
With his pencil thin mustache and skinny suits, Waters is a pop culture icon as famous as his films. But at the moment, he’s not finding the financial backing to make another movie so he has simply focused his creativity elsewhere. He has been touring with a live show and recently wrote a new book, “Carsick” about hitchhiking across the U.S. It is written in three parts, the first two are fictional imagining the best rides and then the worst and then the final part is what really happened. Which gives me an idea...
Part One: John Waters The Best Interview (Fiction)
I am eagerly awaiting my phone call with John Waters. I place the call and the line is crystal clear – there is nothing impeding his wit and charm. We begin the interview. Waters is in a great mood and very chatty. He keeps saying how much he appreciates my questions and says he’s never heard such great questions before. My allotted 19 minutes are up but Waters is having such a great time that he says not to worry about his following interview, we can continue talking. Wow! What fun. I tell him that Comic-Con is interested in having him be a judge for their International Film Festival next summer and that FilmOut will be screening Polyester. He’s thrilled and agrees to come to San Diego for both events. While we are talking, a tour of KPBS donors come through just as we are discussing the fact that he can’t get the $6 million he needs to do his new film. One of the donors hears this and smiles. She pokes her head in the studio and says, “I’ll kick in the money.” Waters is delighted. He offers to take me and the donor out to dinner and drinks when he comes to San Diego for his “A John Waters Christmas” show. This is the best interview ever.
Part Two: John Waters The Worst Interview (Fiction)
I receive very precise and slightly intimidating instructions from John Waters’ publicist/assistant regarding the interview. He states: “You will have a fifteen-minute interview with John. John is a stickler for punctuality, so please call at the exact scheduled EASTERN time. You will receive a text on your cellphone 90-seconds before the interview’s end, alerting you to ask the final question. Please do respect this time-limit.”
Yikes! I am panic stricken. I call exactly at the appointed time but the phone line is horrible. We ask to call him back to see if it improves. We try again. I see the minutes of my interview ticking away and not a question has been asked. We cannot get better audio quality so start. At my first question, Waters grumbles that it’s dumb and that everyone asks the same thing. He points out that at 68 he’s still fresh and energetic, why can’t the people interviewing him be the same. I ask another question and he dismisses it without answering an says to move on. When he finally gets to a question he approves of, he sprinkles the answers with obscenities making the comment unusable on the radio. Damn. Ten minutes into my designated 15 minute interview and so far nothing usable! I ask him abut his show “A John Waters Christmas” that he is coming to San Diego for, and he suddenly snaps, “You know what, I don’t think I will be coming to San Diego after all.” And he abruptly hangs up. Worst interview ever.
Part Three: John Waters The Real Interview (non-fiction)
I call Waters one minute before our scheduled interview. He answers, and is concerned that we have 19 minutes scheduled when I had requested 20. I say I don’t know what happened to that missing minute but I will take what I can get. The phone line is not great but this is John Waters and I have only 19 minutes… I decide to go with the connection we have. Waters is a complete delight. Charming, funny, smart, and still flaunting his irreverence. The time flies and we get to discuss his book, his show, and his continual battle with censors.
But at the moment, he’s not finding the financial backing to make another movie so he has simply focused his creativity elsewhere. He has been touring with a live show and recently wrote a new book, "Carsick," about hitchhiking across the U.S. I spoke with him by phone last month. Here’s the real interview. Enjoy. I sure did!
Carsick is about you hitchhiking across the U.S. It is written in three parts, the first two are fictional, imagining the best rides and then the worst…
WATERS: Oh, I imagined the very best it could be and the worst before I left, because people were so concerned about it. Then I did it for real. But I wrote my fantasies about it before I left. I never could have written those if I had already done the trip.
So you had always envisioned it as being this kind of three-part fiction and reality…
WATERS: Yes, because hitchhiking invites danger, sexual fantasies. No one when they hitchhike, gets in a car — even no matter how old you are — doesn’t consider the idea of sex and the person who picks you up the same. Even though you would never talk about it, never do it. I mean I had rides with preacher’s wives and cops, and believe me they weren’t thinking about that but still it’s a fear. And it’s such a fantasy in every soft core film or every horror movie you’ve ever seen. You can’t escape it.
Do you have a favorite road picture? A film about hitting the road?
WATERS: Hmm, the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre." I always think that hitchhiker with the birthmark on his face. People always say what’s your type. I say him. So you can see why, I’m pretty liberal. That movie had the most scariest hitchhiker. And even in my own movies I have hitchhikers. Always terrible things happen to them. Is there that many great (hitchhiking movies)? Even in "On the Road," they don’t hitchhike that much, they’re in the car, their own cars.
You include a playlist. Did you write the fictional parts and then come up with the music that fit or did you come up with the playlist first and then write to each song?
WATERS: Well, some of them I knew. As I wrote each chapter, I did research and found different songs. I listened to a million songs and really there’s very few songs of hitchhiking that aren’t country, except the most famous one by Marvin Gaye. But they are mostly country songs, and I love country, especially country novelty I really love. Many of them had instruments that sounded like car horns, or there were Johnny Cash lookalikes, or about runaway trucks. I’ve never heard so many songs that have speed in it, talking about pills, because in the old days truck drivers were always on diet pills.
So did those songs influence what you decided for the good rides and bad rides?
WATERS: Well, when I had bad rides I would sometimes think of the most hideous songs about hitchhiking. Oddly enough, in the real chapter, not one person had the radio on. When you pick up a hitchhiker, the first thing you do is turn the radio off because it’s about talking. So we never listened to music ever with a real person who picked me up hitchhiking, except the band Here We Go Magic, that were lovely and wonderful because I gave them my playlist to play and they couldn’t believe (it). They go: What hitchhiker travels with his own playlist?
Who is your favorite good ride that you imagined?
WATERS: My favorite good ride? Well, I don’t know. They were all kind of fun, I guess, where I have sex in a car in a demolition derby, which was based sort of on the truth. I was in a car in a demolition derby once, covering the demolition derby for NPR. We certainly didn’t have sex. Just because I imagined something as a fantasy in a book doesn’t mean that I actually expect that to happen or would want that to happen. But would I do that? Yes, but there were some things in the book, even in the best parts, that I don’t think I would really do. I wouldn’t be in a car inhaling helium with the driver, but I was trying to imagine what it would be like for a real adventure when you should do everything that happens.
And then what would be your favorite bad ride?
WATERS: Well, it was really more fun to think of the worst that can happen to you, and think of it when you are hitchhiking. What are the two worst things: diarrhea and being murdered. So I guess I had the most fun writing my own death, and thinking up a serial killer who only killed cult film directors, and he had just killed the entire cast of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" in Salt Lake City, where he picked me up.
You do take the bad rides to the absolute extreme…
WATERS: Yes, well worst and best are extremes, aren’t they?
Yes, but it could have been bad and not take you all the way to hell.
WATERS: Well, that is the worst that can happen, that everything they told me I didn’t believe was true and that Anita Bryant was in heaven and I was in hell. Watching "It’s a Wonderful Life" for the rest of my life. Yeah, it was fun to imagine heaven and hell, too.
Was it fun to put yourself through the fictional hell?
WATERS: I think the hell, the worst was a little bit more fun to write, but they both were. Each one of those — there’s 30 of them, 15 good ones and 15 bad ones — are like 30 little movies to me. Each one of those characters could have stepped right out of my movies easily.
I love that no matter how bad it gets, you still seem to have compassion for just about everyone. You don’t judge.
WATERS: In the fictional part, in real life nobody did anything horrible.
Yes, in the fictional part, but you don’t seem to judge people.
WATERS: Well, I try not to, but I think I judge the sports fanatic that gets me busted and trapped in a bathroom. And I maybe judge in Kansas, where actually sodomy is still illegal for men, women, straight or gay, so it’s always based on truth. My assistant, Trish, did a lot of research. In the fictional parts, when I get a ride, I could have gotten there in that day. That town was like what could have happened. And we did research on the town, and there is a little jail in Bunker, Kansas. It was all kind of (what) could be true. What amazes me is the people that read it and don’t read the introduction that sets it up very, very plainly. That the first two parts are my imagination, and then they say: Did that really happen? And I go: You read all that and thought that was true? That’s really amazing.
So you did research about the places where these fictional rides took place. Did you also draw on real people you knew to create the characters for the drivers?
WATERS: No, I don’t think so. I guess maybe there’s a little bit of truth in everything you write, but I don’t think so. No, I didn’t. Although I guess I am the librarian, I do collect uncollectible books, so maybe that’s a little bit of me. But I haven’t given up my whole life. I mean, I don’t drive around. There’s a tiny bit of truth that’s exaggerated into fiction, which is how a lot of fiction can be. But no, there’s not one person it’s based on ever. No.
From the real part of you hitchhiking, did you have a favorite ride?
WATERS: I’d have to say the Corvette Kid, because he came back and drove 80 mph for 48 hours straight to catch up with me. And in his parents’ car. And they were freaking out, really, that they googled me. And it’s not really a good thing for a parent. And he had never heard of me and had no idea who I was even after I told him. He was a Republican, 20-year-old elected official, and so he had never seen any of my movies or anything, but it was just this adventure. He picked me up in the pouring rain on his way to get lunch at the Subway. I think we should do the commercials for the Subways: “See what happens when you go to eat at Subway.” He never got there though.
So what did you end up learning on this trip across America?
WATERS: That mid-Americans are the opposite of what the cliché is. They are not judgmental, they were not predictable, either. But this may be, I must admit, mid-Americans who pick up hitchhikers, which are a special breed of lovely people.
Yes, that seems like a smaller cross section.
Did you enjoy doing the audio book version of "Carsick"?
WATERS: Yes, I did. I did the audio version of "Carsick." I did the whole thing. That’s when you realize you’ve written some really strange parts and you look over and see the horrified expressions of the technicians, and you also realize that you’ve written a lot of words you can’t pronounce. I did all my books. It’s tedious in a way. It’s like three days ... and you always find a typo. That’s the one thing you do, and luckily we had enough time to correct them. But that’s when you read it aloud, it is different. When I write movies, I do read them into a tape recorder and play every part. And no one has ever heard those tapes because I erase them (and) because I’m listening to the dialogue. But in a book, I don’t really do that. But both my assistants are such good copy editors that by the time I turn in the book, it’s like my 15th draft or something. It’s hardly like seeing a first draft.
You love reading. You even note how horrible it is to be in a hotel that has bad lighting. Where do you get that passion? Did you have it all your life?
WATERS: No! When I was young, I never read till I was a teenager because I hated the books we had to read in grade school and they made us do those horrible book reports, which I hated. I didn’t like the life of Benjamin Franklin. I wanted Grove Press, which had "Lady Chatterly’s Lover." Really, Grove Press is what got me reading when they did Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett and theater of the absurd, and John Rechy’s "City of Night." I did not read a lot as a child.
So it came to you much later in life?
WATERS: It came when I discovered my own books. When they force fed me these dreary books, it made me rebel against reading actually.
It’s nice that in your book you sprinkle throughout titles of books, movies, songs — reading your book you can really get a sense of what you love. And if people wanted, they can go and seek these things out.
WATERS: I do the same thing in my stand-up act. (To) some people, I’m the only person that can do a Cy Twombly joke same time as an Alvin and the Chipmunks. I assume my audience is smart, and I think they are. And if they don’t know what it is, they look it up. I don’t explain.
No you don’t. And some references to films you mention a line of dialogue or a character.
WATERS: If you get it, you get it. And that’s like with my spoken word shows, sometimes three people laugh really hard. And that’s fine with me, because they got the literary reference. But I don’t feel bad. And when I hear someone talk about someone and I don’t know who they are, I look them up. It’s fine. I’m not gonna assume that everyone isn’t intelligent. And it isn’t intelligent, I’m old. So basically I have a lot more references than a 20-year-old.
You are 68 now, correct?
I find it impressive that your work still feels so fresh and energetic. Do you think that’s because you keep looking for adventures, like going on this hitchhiking across America trip?
WATERS: First, thank you, and secondly, yeah, I get older. My audience gets younger because I don’t think we had more fun than they did. I’m always looking for what comes tomorrow. I have youth spies. They come and tell me new groups and I like to hear what’s going on. I still go out. People said: Aren’t you afraid to hitchhike across America? No I would be afraid to stay home and never go out.
Do you think also the fact that you continue to question authority and challenge the establishment keeps you young?
WATERS: I think it keeps me young, but at the same time I am authority [laughs]. Which is the ultimate irony.
I was curious, too, you were raised Catholic…
WATERS: Half Catholic. My mother was Catholic, my father was not.
I just notice that there are a lot of great horror directors that were raised Catholic and a lot display a particular kind of rebellion. How do you think being raised Catholic colored your perspective?
WATERS: Oh, I’ve always said that sex will always be better because it’s always dirty. That Catholics, oh, there were so many things you couldn’t do, that of course you wanted to do it. My mother told me that the first thing she ever saw me rebel about was when in church when we stood up, and I was maybe 9 years old. And they made you take the Legion of Decency pledge, which was you would not see the condemned movies, and I refused to do it. And she looked at me in shock that I wouldn’t do it, and later when I had to go to Sunday school, cause they didn’t send me to Catholic school, they read the list of condemned movies to us and that’s how I got my start. I wrote them down.
That was your watching and reading list?
WATERS: Yeah, I clipped the ads and pretended I owned a dirty movie theater.
I was reading some of the comments on NPR about your recent interview and your show, and people are calling you a national treasure and how much they love you and did you ever think you’d go from being this Pope of Trash and King of Puke…
WATERS: Pop of Trash was positive. ... Before that, I didn’t get a good review for 10 years. I really didn’t. The very first person that ever gave me a good review was Fran Lebowitz in Interview magazine. But we used all negative reviews to build a career. That would be impossible to do today. But at the time, it was. And we would have all bad reviews like, “It’s like a septic tank explosion. It must be seen to be believed.” What is better than that? What? “A masterpiece." Are you kidding? The septic tank explosion makes way more people want to go see it.
I was curious if you had ever anticipated being so beloved.
WATERS: You know that is a very kind of great feeling and an astonishing feeling because I don’t think I’ve changed that much. My last movie ("A Dirty Shame") was NC-17. It was about sex addicts, and the first one was about an interracial couple being married by a KKK guy on the roof of my parents’ house. That’s not so different from what I always did. But people today are much more willing to laugh at things that trouble them, and I think that’s because people tell their secrets more. They have less secrets and they’re more apt to to laugh at what they can’t make better or what they can’t control or what every family has problems, and so I think people realize that and they are a little more unjudgmental.
Do you still face problems with censorship?
WATERS: Oh, yes, I think my last movie, the MPAA is the worst kind of censorship, they’re liberal censors. The hardest to fight. I had stupid ones when I was young. They’re easy to fight. Liberal ones are the worst.
I thought it was interesting that with "A Dirty Shame" it was language that they objected to.
WATERS: Well, because you didn’t see anything, hardly anyone even has sex in the movie. And if they do, it’s not orgasmic sex. It’s like ridiculous sex. I don’t know. I appealed and everything. It just didn’t work. They don’t like sex. To be honest, I believe that the people who run the MPAA have been there too long. There’s no election. They can’t get voted out. No one has to say they are doing a good job. They’ve been there too long.
It just fascinates me that with just words you can offend them.
WATERS: I always said that the best film ever will be when a young kid makes an NC-17 movie that has no sex or violence in it. That’s a movie I wanna see. It’s that threatening just by what though, by what? That’s what will be so interesting.
You do films and write books and do live performances. What are the different creative challenges and satisfactions you get from each of them?
WATERS: I’m telling a story, just call me Uncle Remus. It’s the same satisfaction. It’s making people laugh.
So in one of your best rides, actually your first best ride, you meet someone who’s willing to give you $5 million to make your movie. So that didn’t happen in your real rides. But what does the future look like for your next film?
WATERS: I need $6 million actually. Who knows? It doesn’t look good. I’m still pitching. I have a TV pitch. Who knows what’s gonna happen? I still haven’t given up, but I also have a long time ago learned to have many, many careers. So "Carsick" was on the New York Times bestseller list for seven weeks, so I’ll probably write a book next. Who knows?
Since we’re in the midst of the holiday season, I wanted to ask you: Can you list three films that you are most thankful for?
WATERS: Certainly "The Wizard of Oz," because the witch gave me a lifestyle to believe in. Ingmar Bergman, because he had vomit in the film first. And Andy Warhol, because he finally put homosexuality and drugs together on the screen where they belong.
All right. I want to thank you very much for spending some time with me.
WATERS: Thank you. I look forward to coming to San Diego.
John Waters appears tonight at the North Park Theatre, but the show is sold out. His new book "Carsick" is available in print and as an audio book that Waters himself reads.