Thursday, August 11, 2011
Some 40 years ago, a slender young filmmaker with a pencil-thin moustache and a crude sense of humor borrowed $10,000 from his parents – his grandmother gave him his first 8-millimeter camera when he turned 16 – to make a little film called Pink Flamingos.
The movie features hermaphrodites, rape, murder, bestiality, a talking sphincter, a 300-pound woman in a playpen eating eggs, and the infamous kicker: An overweight drag queen named Divine munching on dog feces.
On paper, the whole thing sounds like a horrible disaster, but it turned into quite the opposite. Though Waters says he still won’t let his folks see it, Pink Flamingos was viewed by millions worldwide, launching the outsider artist into perpetual cult stardom and, eventually, into the mainstream.
By now he has penned and directed 16 feature films, written six books, acted in more than 10 films, compiled a CD of Christmas songs, and adapted his 1988 film Hairspray so adeptly for Broadway that it swept the Tony Awards in 2003 (while earning more than $200 million worldwide) and returned to film – featuring John Travolta in drag – in 2007.
Additionally, three art catalogs have been published on Waters’ photographs. He has a retrospective exhibition at The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, which has traveled to the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland, the Orange County Museum of Art and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. His upcoming children’s Christmas film, Fruitcake, has been in the works for three years and reportedly stars Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey. Since the brilliant perversion that is Pink Flamingos hit theaters, meanwhile, it’s earned more than $10 million, further proof that stuff like drag queens and lesbians adopting babies has always been okay. Waters was just aware before the rest of the world.
“Secretly, I think that all my films are politically correct, though they appear not to be,” Waters says in the documentary Divine Trash. “That’s because they’re made with a sense of joy.”
The Weekly tracked him down at his Baltimore home a little more than a week before his trip across the country to Henry Miller Library’s annual fundraiser in Big Sur, where he’ll share his one-man show featuring riffs on current affairs, politics and the hilarious perils of making movies on a shoestring budget.
I understand you’re interested in and somewhat inspired by criminal law.
If you read my new book, Role Models, I have a 40,000-word, very serious argument that Leslie Van Houten of the Manson Family, after 40 years, should be freed. I don’t treat [crime] with humor and I apologize in that chapter for maybe doing so a long time ago. The Manson case was a huge influence on me and that sort of led to Pink Flamingos and it led to, much later in my life, teaching in prison and working with prisoners.
Did I follow Casey [Anthony]’s trial every day? No I didn’t, but I did follow it when the verdict happened, and to be honest, I think the appalling lynch mob attitude of the TV people was as terrible as her [alleged] crime, in a way.
I don’t know if she did it or not, but when they’re talking about the death penalty for a woman? I’m very against the death penalty so I was really shocked. Do I think she did it? I think she had something to do with it. It was mind-boggling to me that, even on stations I respect, opinions were already formed – what happened to Walter Cronkite? When I grew up, you didn’t know how the newscasters felt.
One trial I went to, there was a woman who worked in an old-age home, and I think she put turds in a [client’s] mouth. It was a really horrible case. I think that’s when I stopped going to trials; it was so mortifying because I was the only one in the courtroom. The prosecutor said, “Oh my God, he’s here again?”
I still believe a big high-profile crime is like theater. And the lawyers take advantage of that. I always said that if I wasn’t a filmmaker I would have been a criminal defense lawyer, and I think I would have been pretty good.
“I WAS THE ONLY PERSON THAT USED TO SEE INGMAR BERGMAN MOVIES ON LSD.”
How did it feel to become the toast of Broadway?
I think I’m now the toast of high school productions. It’s so amazing because now [high schools] can’t have any discrimination in any way so there’s a version of [Hairspray] in Baltimore right now where Tracy [Turnblad] is skinny. There’s even a version where a skinny black girl plays Tracy.
I am so for that. Talk about crossing over. This summer Hollywood Bowl was doing Hairspray for the first time and a lot of the main cast, including Harvey Fierstein, came back to play the parts. At the same time in high school, black skinny girls are playing Tracy. It’s almost post-modern and it still works. It must be really surreal when Tracy says that we have to let black people into the show and she’s really black. I never expected it would cross over that much but I think it’s great. If you’re a skinny black girl playing Tracy and you could make the audience forget that you’re not fat and you’re not white, that’s really good acting. That’s better than the Tony Awards.
What’s your favorite memory of making Pink Flamingos?
Looking back on all my films, they weren’t fun. They were really hard to make. I’m proud of my work but I remember the hardness of it: when the trailer fell over; when hunters came and discovered the trailer and shot rifles at it when nobody was on set, which ruined the continuity, and we had to repair it ourselves.
Those are the kinds of things you remember: The 20-hour days when the camera would freeze and you get the film back and it didn’t turn out and you have to shoot it all over again. Making that movie was very hard. You look back on it and remember that you feel satisfied with your work, but it wasn’t fun.
Fun is when you’re off work. Being a director is never fun. Too many people are asking questions. There are too many shots you have to get in a day. The money people are looking down your neck. It’s not a way to relax.
What projects are you currently working on?
I just finished a [Role Models] book tour. I was a judge at the Venice Biennale. I curated a huge art show at the Walker Art Center. Then, I played the Bonnaroo Rock Festival. I was a speaker for the National Convention of Mayors, which was really bizarre. I’m always writing stuff. I have many ways to tell stories.
I’ve been trying to make a movie called Fruitcake for a while. I have a meeting about it tomorrow, so one day it will get made. I’ve satirized every genre except a children’s movie, and I really want to make a John Waters children’s movie.
What’s one question you wish someone would ask you that no one’s ever asked?
I don’t know that there is one. I’ve been doing this for 40 years. The questions have changed over the years, which is good. And I try to think up new answers because talking to journalists is part of how I make my living.
Have you ever been to Big Sur?
I was there in 1970 when I drove across the country to California for the first time. We drove through [Big Sur] after leaving L.A., where we had the premiere of Multiple Maniacs. I’m excited to come back 40 years later.
As the king of shock value, what’s something that shocks you these days?
The only thing that shocks me is really stupid romantic comedies. And sometimes things try too hard to be shocking. Shocking without being funny or without wit or anything, doesn’t work.
But what shocks me? Nancy Grace’s appalling behavior. There are a lot of things that shock me, but not in a good way. In a good way, shock gets your attention and makes you at least listen to someone else’s opinion because they shock you with wit and you can convince someone to look at something in a different way.
There are movies that I think are shocking that are really good, like Irreversible and Anti-Christ. There are directors that really use shock to grab you. I never understood why people say, “I just want to feel good at the movies.” I already feel good, why does a movie have to make me feel good? Go to a psychiatrist if you want to feel better, not the movies. Sometimes a feel-bad movie puts me in a great mood. I like depressing movies. I was the only person that used to see Ingmar Bergman movies on LSD.
What’s a good Ingmar Bergman movie to see on LSD?
I took Divine once to see Hour of the Wolf, and when the woman ripped her face off Divine said, “No, no! Can’t we see an Elizabeth Taylor movie? I want to see movies with rich people.”
“I’M SURE RUPERT MURDOCH WAS HAPPY THIS TERRORISM THING HAPPENED AND GOT HIM OFF THE HOOK IN THE PAPERS FOR A DAY OR TWO.”
What advice would you give to someone pursuing a career in film in this day and age?
Now is a good time for kids to make movies. Every studio is looking for the next kid who makes a movie for $20,000 with a cell phone in his backyard.
They weren’t looking when I was doing that. The problem is that everyone with a camera is trying to make a movie, so there are more bad ones to look at before they find the good ones. The business right now is looking for a crazy movie that some kid makes in Big Sur or in the backyard.
One thing to know: Always pay for your music rights. I didn’t, and I learned my lesson when it cost $500,000 to buy the rights to the music in Pink Flamingos, a movie that cost $12,000. When you make a movie and you put music in it and it’s at some festival and some distribution company wants to buy it and they find out you didn’t pay for the music, the whole deal will fall apart.
How would you pitch a movie likeDesperate Livingto a Hollywood producer?
I’d say it is a lesbian fairytale about political corruption. At the time when it came out, it was censored by lesbian groups who would say, “How dare a man make a movie about lesbians.” Now, lesbian groups bring the movie to their colleges. So things have really changed.
What’s the last book you read?
I just finished Why Do We Kill? A Pathology of Murder in Baltimore by Kelvin Sewell, who’s a former homicide detective, and Stephen Janis. It’s really a good book about Baltimore and weirdly it makes me homesick, even though it’s about how horrible crime is here.
I think The Wire is a very truthful show that addresses all the issues. Baltimore has problems with guns and kids. I also love Baltimore. It’s my favorite city; it’s where I live, but it has its problems.
Are you a fan of pit beef [the ubiquitous charred beef sandwiches found everywhere in Baltimore]?
I am not. It makes me laugh. I had a pit beef stand in Pecker. Once I went out with a guy who was a pit beef guy and I loved having him tell stories about the Pit Beef King. I like rare meat, and pit beef always seems like it’s cooked to death. Scrapple’s another Baltimore dish that I’ve had in my movies, and I don’t like that either. It’s basically fried mystery meat.
What’s one movie you’re embarrassed to admit you liked?
I’m never embarrassed to admit I like anything. I’m not embarrassed, but some people wouldn’t admit it: the Justin Bieber documentary in 3D. I’m a fan of Justin’s, and I met him, and I talk about him in my show. It showed him when he was 12 years old playing Aretha Franklin on pots and pans. He was a child prodigy and I think really good people surround him. When he leaned his head into the audience and shook his hair, I levitated. I think he’s talented and I’m a believer.
“LOOKING BACK ON ALL MY FILMS, THEY WEREN’T FUN.”
As a news junkie, what are some of the headlines you’ve been following?
The Murdoch case is really interesting to me because it really reminds me of the Watergate hearings. The terrible thing that happened in Norway is almost like Friday the 13th. It’s so horrible that you can visualize it as a horror movie. I’ve been following the reaction to the Casey trial and what’s going on with the budget. In some ways, I’m sure Murdoch was happy this terrorism thing happened and got him off the hook in the papers for a day or two.
Are you a fan of Henry Miller?
Let’s put it this way: He’s a little too hetero for me, but I’m happy to be [coming to the Henry Miller Library] because Grove Press – which published Sexus, Plexus and Nexus in America, first – really saved my life.
I remember those were the only books my mother threw out and lied and said she didn’t. Now, I have the hardback box set of Sexus, Plexus and Nexus. I’m honored to come to a theater named after someone that caused so much trouble.
If you had the chance to ask him one question, what would you ask?
What’s the one sex act he drew the line at.
John Waters’ One-Man Show happens 8pm Saturday, Aug. 13, at Henry Miller Library, a quarter mile south of Nepenthe Restaurant on Highway 1, Big Sur. $75 plus fees (meet and greet $125.00; 6:45-7:45pm). 667-2574.