“It was like The Little Rascals, only we were on LSD,” John Waters says of the early Baltimore days that began his career exactly 50 years ago this month. And as the reigning King of smutty brilliance for half a century now, the thinly-mustachioed notorious director, comedian, visual artist, author, and actor has become one of the most beloved, iconic, and wonderfully subversive American filmmakers, shining a light on the underground and taking a sharp bite out of Hollywood’s shiny veneer while perverting our screens in the most necessary and wonderful way.
From his first features Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs to his now-legendary 1970s films such as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, to his most recent work with A Dirty Shame, the deliciously chaotic John Waters stamp radiates through everything he touches. And this month, thanks to the great people at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, we’ll be able to explore his scintillating body of work, from the humorously high-camp shockers and the fetish-filled trash to the grotesquely operatic and the psychologically tickling.
So in anticipation of the series 50 Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?, beginning tomorrow, I chatted with Waters about becoming a condemned movie maker, the opening of his cinematic world, and his jealousy of Woody Allen.
I’d love to hear about your early relationship to film and what triggered your obsession with cinema?
I saw a movie called Lili with Leslie Caron that had a puppeteer in it, so I became a puppeteer for children’s birthday parties. I had a real career from when I was maybe ten to fourteen, but then at the end I started getting bored and started putting fake blood in it and things from William Castle movies, so finally the parents go nervous and stopped hiring me. But then I turned that into a career, making parents nervous, and I have that career until present day! I was lucky that underground film was a new phenomena at the time in the 1960s, and I love the idea that sometimes a whole audience would be arrested for going to see an underground movie. Imagine that today, if you went to a movie and the entire audience was taken away? Now that’s love.
So I wanted to make movies in that direction and I wanted to make movies that caused trouble. I was raised where we were told we’d go hell for seeing movies in the Catholic church that were condemned by the Legion of Decency, and I wanted to be a condemned movie maker more than anything. But I could have never done it until I learned about underground movies, because underground movies meant that it didn’t cost any money and you made them with your friends. You broke rules and it wasn’t about having money to make movies.
New York was the place for underground film at that time, but you found your own inspiration in Baltimore.
New York was the last place my films became successful really. The New York underground scene was very New York. I always went there to see underground movies. But my movies, I made them just with my friends, the way every kid today makes a movie with your cellphone. I just started out doing it and they were basically made to startle people with their own values. People who thought they were open minded, I wanted to make fun of their limits and play with the boundaries of whatever was correct at the time. We were always making fun of the peace and love movement—and even though I certainly looked like a a hippie, I was more of a yippie. I would go to riots, but not so much for the political thing, I would go to get laid. Riots were a great place to make a date, you could always find people at riots. So it was always great cruising at riots. I tried to take that the spirit and make fun of it and make fun of myself by calling my films trash. Critics couldn’t say they were trash because I already said it.
Were you concerned about negative reviews from critics at that time or was that your fuel?
I made a career, in the early days, of negative reviews. I put them all in the adds, because at that time the critics were square. FIlm critics now would never rise to the kind of reviews that we had, and in those days the critics hated underground movies. They hated the excess of it, they didn’t get it. Those negative reviews were a great help to me at the time. If it was the right kind of negative review I was thrilled—things like, “It’s like septic tank explosion—must be seen to be believed.” You can’t make up quotes that good! Yes, but some of them could hurt. I remember one in Variety that was a very dismissive, short review for Desperate Living that just said, “Amateur night at the psycho ward.” And today that doesn’t bother me because I don’t think the actors were amateur, they had to work hard! They didn’t even have a dressing room! There was no food! That’s not amateur, that’s a dedication to cinema.
Thinking about your early films and low-budget cinema, how do you view the world of independent film today?
Well, I tried to make underground movies and then midnight movies and then independent movies and then Hollywood movies and then Hollywood underground movies—that’s what I did in that order. The difference today is that is that if Pink Flamingos came out today it would play in 20 cities, it would open on a Friday night, and if nobody came it would be gone Monday. But when Pink Flamingos came out it took us three years to open it around America. We’d go to each city and start at one night at midnight and then two nights and then three nights and then word of mouth. There’s no such thing as world of mouth anymore. People forget about it before they get out of a theater.
So the business has changed and it has to be a hit right away. Now there is no independent film business anymore, television’s better. You have more chances, many more people see it. I’m not complaining, the movie business always changes and goes through cycles and everything, but I would say, since I started 50 years ago, it’s the worst for someone like me. It’s the best for young person because the Hollywood studios are looking for the next weird little movie that some kid made on his cellphone, but they’re not looking for an independent movie that I make now that has no movie stars in it, because they always want movie stars no matter what. Movie stars used to work for studios and make weird little movies for their street cred and then go and make millions of dollars on Hollywood movie, but the problem today is that movie stars don’t get paid the millions of dollars anymore because there’s special effects! It’s a science project. So they’re not going to go make independent movies for no money because they’re not making that much in Hollywood anymore.
Are there certain films of yours that you were surprised turned into hits, whereas others fell off the radar?
I’m always amazed that any of them were hits, but at the same time I’m always amazed that all of them weren’t, because I always tried to make commercial movies. If you look back on my early stuff, you can see I was making films when I lived at my parent’s house. It was no studio, it was my bedroom. It was like The Little Rascals, only we were on LSD. Kids do that today too, that’s not surprising. I go around the country and kids give me their movies they’ve made. So it’s always been the same, I’m just lucky that I continue to be able to do it and that I did find an audience, even if I did not find critical support in the beginning, the audiences always came.
You’ve lent your talents to many other artistic mediums outside of filmmaking, so is always continuing to evolve as an artist something that’s important to you?
If I was only doing films they’d be taking my house away. My book is best seller! My last movie wasn’t, but I’m proud of A Dirty Shame. I made an NC-17 movie….I’m going back to my roots, that’s nothing new! As long as I have a way to tell stories. But all those movies I made are out there, they don’t go away. I go to colleges all the time and it’s all young people seeing them, so they’re still being seen. So I’m fortunate and I’m happy that doesn’t just end at a certain age.
In terms of cinema, what does it take to shock you?
I’m shocked by bad romantic comedies or something that’s so manipulative or obvious. But that’s not in a good way. I think of when you’re young and you first saw Fireworks by Kenneth Anger or Chelsea Girls or even a Cocteau movie or Bergman’s—which were the first movies, to me, that were so raw about psychological problems and everything—or movies that you think oh my god, there is a different world out here, there is a different kind of movie. You know, movies about divorce, mental illness, drug addiction, these were movies that attracted me, adult subject matter. That’s why it drives me crazy now when the MPAA says “Rated R for Language” they mean bad language. Language is any word, so they can’t even do that properly.
And for a lot of people your films were the ones they saw that made them realize that oh my god, there is a different world out here. You’ve always had a super dedicated and obsessive fan base.
The fans are great. A guy once waited in line nude at a book signing; I was kind of shocked. I talk about how I think, why do women always show their tits, but why don’t men show their balls? Three times someone took out a ring and proposed in front of me. Why! Men have asked me to sign their vasectomy scars, and lots of people have tattoos of me or things from the movies which is amazing to me. But they’re so great—I mean are you kidding, they bought me this apartment I’m in, why would I not be crazy about the fans? They’ve been great to me.
Who is a current Hollywood figure that fascinates you?
I’m the most jealous of Woody Allen, who has the best career of any American director because he continues to make whatever movie he wants and he just makes one after another. But I think the best filmmaker in the world is probably Pedro Almodovar who never disappoints. He loves women more than any other director and continually surprises people.
Thinking back on making your first films at your parent’s house, did you ever fantasize about where you’d be today?
From that rooftop in a black leather jacket to Lincoln Center…I’m amazed that I’ve never had to get a real job. I work longer hours than most people that have regular jobs, but at the same time, I had success—which I’ve always said is when you can buy any book you want without looking at the price and you never have to be around assholes, and I have reached those two goals.
Do you find that people have their own strange perceptions of your life based on your work?
In the early days yes, people thought I lived in a trailer and ate dog shit and probably drove a pink Cadillac, but I don’t live like that. I live very nicely. I’m a loyal friend and it has nothing to do with whether you’re famous or not, a lot of my friends aren’t even in show business at all. I’ve never been attracted in a relationship to anybody that’s in show business and none of my boyfriends would really want to be known in the press. People think they know everything about my personal life, but they probably know nothing, which is something that I’m fine with, because if you share everything of your personal life then you don’t have one. The thing is, you can’t name any of my boyfriends and I’m friendly with all my exes. I think that’s a big feat I’ve been able to pull off. If you share everything you don’t have a life!
For the “Movies I’m Jealous I Didn’t Make” portion of the series, is there one film you’re particularly excited to show?
It must have been much harder to get those movies made than any of mine. I always like extreme movies. I’m showing Of Unknown Origin, an obscure movie about rats that I really like, and I’m proud that I can get that movie shown in Lincoln Center. It is the best rat movie ever and I think it’s important to see that in a dignified place. Also, Before I Forget is the best feel-bad movie you might have ever seen, so I’m excited to show that. I finally got to meet the director Jacques Nolot last year in Switzerland. I’m happy I can bring that movie to a crowd that never saw it. Daniel Craig is so hot and so good in it.
As someone who sees a lot of new movies, what are you most looking forward to coming up?
They have the new movie about Pasolini playing at the New York Film Festival. I’m dying to see, that must be great! I think Willem as Pasolini is something I’m really looking forward to.