Does the People’s Pervert really need another intro?
I don’t know about you, but I just want John Waters to start talking. The legendary Baltimore filmmaker and author also known as the Pope of Trash has long since become synonymous with camp and trash cinema in America.
Talking with this stylish 69-year-old remains a singular joy. It's clear that he has the same devilish glee and love of life’s absurdities that he did as a young renegade filmmaker — though he’d probably rather hear that he looks good. From his classic films such as “Pink Flamingos,” “Hairspray” and “Serial Mom,” to New York Times bestselling books, musicals, art shows and television appearances, Waters has become a cult of personality unto himself. A glorious institution of sleaze.
Style caught up with him by phone before his one-man show at the Byrd Theatre, which also features a midnight screening of his 1990 rockabilly musical, “Cry-Baby,” the debut leading role for future A-lister, Johnny Depp. I break the ice by telling Waters that one of his Baltimore buddies advised me to resist being a fan boy, though it's something I can't really hide: I wish every town had an Anal Ambassador making hilariously offensive cult films.
“Hey, you can be a fan boy, you can be anything you like,” Waters tells me, with a cooing hint of danger like a Tijuana crowd rustler with a crayon sign that reads, “Mule Shows Daily.”
“That’s the point of all my movies isn’t it?”
Style: So congrats on your Rhode Island School of Design commencement speech becoming a book. My favorite part is when you say you feel rich because you’ve figured out “how to live a life without assholes” — then suddenly there’s this lone, wild lemur scream in the audience.
Waters: [Laughs] Well my thing was, when I was giving the speech, all the sudden I got all this applause from one section. I realized it was the parents. When I said, “Stop blaming your parents, entitled little bastards, do you think they’re made of money?” I got a lot of applause from parents. They never get addressed at these things. But what do I know? I couldn’t even go to my own commencement.
Right, you were thrown off campus in the nation’s first big college pot bust. I guess campuses are even more PC and controlled today.
I know. In my speech I begin with a trigger warning and talk about the most ludicrous things. To me, it’s hilarious: I thought the reason you go to college is to have your values challenged. They don’t even have trigger warnings in poor-kid schools. It’s a class issue now.
Well now everything is tailored to reinforce your own beliefs, pretty much anywhere. I guess it makes things easier to sell.
Yeah well, I think I’m kind of politically correct now. But I like the term trigger warning, whoever thought it up. I like the fact that if you don’t give one and you upset someone they can go to the school and complain. Whatever happened to sitting in the corner with a dunce cap and going through the paddle wheel?
Excuse me, did you just say you were politically correct?
Yeah! I actually think I am, oddly. Because I’m not mean-spirited. I try to listen to everyone’s viewpoint. I am a radical feminist. I love women that hate men, but I hate men that hate women.
And you defend the rich in your speech, too, which is the utmost in correct political behavior.
I do, I do. I know asshole poor people. I know asshole rich people. We need rich people, though. Who’s going to back my movies? Who’s going to buy art? Who’s going to give you a job?
But you’ve got what all the Instagram kids want, a brand name. Why don’t you just start a line of official John Waters bathroom products for Target?
Ohhh, that’s cool. Come to me with an idea, maybe I’ll do it.
In your recent Harper’s Bazaar piece, you suggest that directors dress as their most hated critics on Halloween.
Well, why not? I know you’re never supposed to answer your critics, but you can costume-wise.
Yeah, you didn’t say who you’d go as.
You never answer your critics, no. First off, a) Some of the people never saw the first negative thing they wrote. And then b) They get to answer you and say it again. They get the last word, so it never works. You read good reviews twice, bad ones once. Then put ’em all away and never look at ’em again.
Also you advise trick-or-treaters to find “real scary places” on Halloween.
Caucasian crack houses, right [chuckles]. Or any Donald Trump meeting place. He’s not even extreme enough to be interesting. Ugh, I can’t even hate him he’s so boring.
Well, there is this intersection not far from the Byrd where we’ve got one street corner with pro-lifers waving those peanut fetuses and nasty signs —
First of all, when I see a male picketing an abortion clinic, it makes me scream, “I wish I was a girl, so I could get an abortion!” I become a terrible reactionary. That’s OK though, they want you to scream at ’em because they think, “Well, Jesus got that too!” Wait, isn’t it next year, the pope has a yearlong thing coming up where you maybe are forgiven for abortion or divorce? But it’s only a year! What is that, like a plenary indulgence going back before the Reformation? Anyway, don’t even get me started! What’s on the other corner?
Oh, it’s a ghetto of stupidity. I’m glad they’re in one place: It’s one-stop avoidance.
Yeah, but then you miss our largest fine arts museum. I wonder if you had been raised in Richmond what your films would’ve been about?
Wherever I had been brought up, I would’ve made a movie that glorified whatever that city tried to hide.
So, lawn jockeys and city government finances?
[Laughs] In “Cry-Baby” the whole stage curtain was a Confederate flag and even then it was controversial. If you were a rockabilly band in the ’50s, it was realistic at the time. Now the Motion Picture Association wants to make it an R if you’ve got smoking in a movie? There are World War II movies they make now where there’s no smoking! Every person smoked in World War II [laughs].
- The rockabilly musical “Cry-Baby” was actor Johnny Depp’s first shot as a leading man on the big screen. Here Depp caresses the belly of Ricki Lake as former porn star Traci Lords, at right, looks on; to the left are Darren Burrows and Kim McGuire as Mona “Hatchet-Face” Malnorowski.
You probably would’ve ended up in Gwar if you were from here.
Oh, yes. Definitely. Are they from there? That’s good. See, you have your traditions. Every time I’ve ever done anything with Richmond, Dirt Woman’s name has come up. Every time, like forever. She really is your ambassador [laughs]. I’m looking for that new thing that is exciting in Richmond. How about the inaugural Swamp Fest? Were you there? I heard good things about that. I hosted Burger Boogalo in Oakland this year, it was like 50-year-olds slam-dancing. I like noise stuff. Hardcore. Where people scream, I’m all for that.
I love your music compilations. Are you doing any more?
No, because there’s no music business. The music business was the worst experience of my life putting out those two albums with the companies involved, to be honest. I really wanted to do “Breaking Up with John Waters” next — I wanted to do the best break-up-suicide songs, like the worst ones. But I doubt it’s going to happen.
Speaking of “Cry-Baby,” I meant to ask: What made you name the preppie dick character Baldwin? Also how was working with Iggy [Pop]?
Ha. I’m trying to think why I did. Probably because I go through my yearbooks and there were people in grade school named that. And they weren’t especially dicks. I used high-school yearbooks but I mix the names up. Because lawyers go through the phone book wherever you make the movie and if anyone has that name, you can’t use it. Actually who played that character was Stephen Mailer, Norman Mailer’s son. I just saw him at Provincetown, he looked great. Exactly the same . . . .
Rock stars always know how to act. Iggy was great in the movie, he was sober; but he had to do every scene next to Susan Tyrrell, who by all accounts, even her own, was an alcoholic. She’s no longer with us. … I’m excited to be doing a Halloween radio show with Iggy [on Pop’s BBC Radio 6 show].
Ever considered remaking “The Bad Seed” movie?
No, no, you never remake the good ones. You should remake the bad ones. I wanna do “Ice Castles,” I wanna do “Mahogany.” If you remake the bad ones, they’re always better. I just love that: “Ice Castles.” It’s on skates or something? I forget. I just like the title. No, but I loved “Bad Seed” the way it was. I’m even mad they did a gay, campy drag queen version of it. I’m against that even.
So you must’ve skipped Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” then?
Now that’s the only one I’m for. He did the exact remake which was really an art project. The idea of it is so great. He told me if it had been a success he was going to do “Black Psycho,” “Mexican Psycho,” “Lesbian Psycho,” “Old Age Psycho” — which would’ve been great. But it wasn’t [laughs]. I paid to see that opening day in Baltimore at the first matinee. There were like, two people there … and they never even knew there was a first one [laughs].
Regarding your filmmaking, what was more important to developing your aesthetic: LSD or the wrestler Gorgeous George?
Hmmmm. They were both important. Probably LSD, because if I never met George there would’ve been Liberace or other types. But there was no other drug that compared to LSD.
You’ve been such a loyal friend to many people — single-handedly keeping Divine’s memory alive, and your friendship with [Manson Family killer] Leslie Van Houton is touching to read about. You were at the original trial.
Thank you. I just saw her recently. She’s doing fine considering they gave her five years till her next parole hearing, worst results she’s had in years — for absolutely no reason. They said things like, “How many of your supporters are black people?” Which does not seem like a fair question to me. I didn’t criticize the parole board in the book, because I thought they were fair, but not any more.
I think they really can’t think of a good reason legally to keep her in. She doesn’t have life without parole. She has life. She has a really good prison record. She’s helped people. She’s become a good person, she takes the blame on herself, doesn’t just blame it on drugs, on Manson. She’s sorrier than any person could be. To me those are all the factors in what parole is about. Nobody can make the crime go away. Nobody paroled has ever done that.
But it’s these boogie man [television] shows. Even this show that came out this year, “Aquarius.” That even libeled Manson! I thought that was impossible [snickers]. It’s a tough battle, but she never gives up. She’s a positive person and continues to do a lot of good work in prison while she’s there.
I read that Manson was housed near here as a juvenile in Petersburg in 1952. They had to transfer him because he was too dangerous.
Well, he was a pimp, you know? Most of the girls in the Family were young naive hippie girls from middle class America. They don’t know how pimps operate. It was too late. Once they became violent and did his bidding, they weren’t in their right minds. Took them a long time to be deprogrammed from that. Once they did it must’ve been the most horrible realization: “Oh my god, what did I do with this asshole?” You know? But he did ’em all, I’ll give him that.
I love that your favorite movie, “Boom!” has 8 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Ha. That is soooo wrong. Tennessee Williams said it was the best movie ever made from any of his work. And only two people in the world believe that: Him and me.
It’s a failed art film. It’s not just bad. It’s terrible and perfect at the same time.
My favorite thing about “Boom!” is right before they put it out, they knew they had a bomb, so they just added an exclamation point. In London, it’s just called “Boom.” So I yell it, whenever I talk about it. … I finally met Elizabeth Taylor in her house, and I mentioned it to her and she got mad. She said it was terrible and she thought I was making fun of her. And I said, “No! It’s my favorite movie,” and she lightened up.
But I think they were all drunk when they made it. Because I read that after it was done, she tried to buy the house. And they were like, “That’s not a house, there’s no roof! It’s a set.” So she forgot that [laughs].
I haven’t been to a live show at the Byrd since Crispin Glover’s slideshow. You and he seem like a natural fit.
Oh yeah, I was with him in Baltimore [when his show played there]. I took him around and we had fun. We’ve never worked together but I’m a fan of his. I like him. He’s a Kroger Babb — who did “Mom and Dad” and who goes around with his fake nurse or doctor and sold literature. [Crispin] really is an old school vaudevillian. I really approve of how he shows his movies, how dedicated he is. He does complete events at each city.
So when are we getting your Christmas movie, “Fruitcake”?
Well, it just never got made. So basically I’m still pregnant. It’s the only time I’m pro-life. I don’t want an abortion. Oh, I’ll give birth to it anyway. A caesarean, that’s a TV movie. Anal birth, that’s straight to video. … No, I just need to tell stories. Sure I wanna make a film. But I like my books, my [live] shows, my art shows — I’m fine. I don’t miss test screenings or raising money. And I’m hardly going to do Kickstarter when I own three homes. That’s a little hypocritical isn’t it?
I guess. I stayed away from fruitcake at Christmas.
Of course, everyone did! Nobody’s ever eaten one. No one has ever, really, eaten a fruitcake. They’re good for weapons.
John Waters performs “This Filthy World” at the Byrd Theatre on Friday, Oct. 16 at 9:30 p.m. The film “Cry-Baby” will be shown at midnight. Tickets are sold out. The event is presented by Chop Suey Books, Video Fan and Bandito's with proceeds going to the Byrd and WRIR-FM 97.3 Richmond Independent Radio.
Editor's note: The original version of this piece said Waters was with Crispin Glover after his Richmond appearance; his office clarified that happened in Baltimore after Glover's appearance there.