- Text by Cian Traynor
John Waters has built a career on bad reviews. Much of it has been spent on the fringes, making transgressive movies for a cult following that no one else seemed to understand.
But in the 15 years since releasing his last film, something odd has happened: John Waters has not only become accepted, but celebrated.
The 73-year-old still isn’t quite sure how this happened. He’s arguably best known for making an actor eat dog poo on screen; six people on his contact list have been sentenced to life in prison.
And yet… he has published two New York Times bestsellers. His art exhibits in museums. His movies – whether it’s the gloriously vulgar Pink Flamingos or hit musical Hairspray – have seen him canonised as the Pope of Trash. He has three homes – New York, San Francisco and Baltimore, where he’s from – all of which are filled with thousands of books as well as art by the likes of Andy Warhol and Karen Kilimnik.
In fact, for someone renowned for bad taste, Waters radiates an air of refinement. He dresses sharp, his signature moustache pencilled on with eye-liner, and comes across as unfailingly polite. Every weekday, he gets up at 6am to write for hours at a time – and that energy comes through in conversation, too. His laughter is infectious, his rapid-fire wit bolstered by a stream of exclamations.
Water’s latest book of essays, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, is a collection of hilariously frank insights from a hustler with a gift for turning setbacks into success. Part of the charm is his fastidiousness. This guy has been keeping score at every twist and turn: filing away reviews, savouring gossip, paying close attention to the careers of his cast members.
When he picks up the phone at his summer rental in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, Waters is everything you’d hope he be. “I don’t think there are any misconceptions about me,” he says with a mischievous giggle. “I think people see me exactly as I am.”
What was it like being considered weird, growing up?
I kinda liked it. I always wanted to be weird. I used to write creepy stories; I would look up things in the encyclopedia that I shouldn’t have; I always rooted for the villains in movies. I’m not saying I never got hassled in school or anything, but I wasn’t upset when they called me weird. I wanted to be weird-er. I wanted that to become my identity. So that’s why all my role models were people like Tennessee Williams, Little Richard and Elvis Presley – they all represented things that my parents were against, but I thought were so original and unlike everybody else. They were all weird too, in a way, even though they were incredibly popular.
Does being accepted and celebrated now genuinely bother you?
No! Are you kidding? I don’t have to wait for my funeral to hear all the nice stuff that people might say about me. When I got that medal from the French government, I couldn’t believe it. When I got that Writers Guild of America lifetime achievement award, I was so proud that David Simon gave it to me. I thought, ‘How did I get here from Lutherville, Maryland?’
And I never changed, really. I learned how to play the game, how to negotiate, how to weave in and out of different careers. I also learned early on that nothing lasts. You always need backup plans. And, from my father, I learned a little bit about the business of every artistic field I ever tried to fuck with.
Are you saying that all your years of making films never changed you?
Uh… not really! My last film [A Dirty Shame] got an NC 17 rating, which meant censorship problems. It was about head-injury sufferers who turn into sex addicts; the final shot was a cumshot all over the screen. I don’t think that’s so different from me starting out making an underground movie on the roof of my parents’ house called Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. It featured a Klu Klux Klan member marrying a white girl and a black guy.
All those kinds of subject matters can be on television today in America. That suggests I didn’t change so much, it’s just that everybody else did! And I’m certainly not an angry young man anymore. I can’t be an anarchist with three homes. But my values stayed the same. I always stuck up for people who didn’t fit in. I was fascinated by behaviour that I could never understand. And I never judge people unless I know the whole story, which is almost impossible.
What does it feel like to see taboos become normal, knowing the difficulties they caused you a long time ago?
I think it’s delightful! Just look at the hair colour that David Lochary and Mink Stole had in Pink Flamingos. We had to strip their hair out of all colour, then dye it with India ink and red ink. Now your parents can colour their hair that way just by going to the drugstore. So I find it humorous, in a good way.
Anyway, all the stuff that you struggled with makes who you are today. That’s why I’m against homeschooling. I don’t believe in keeping anybody away from trouble because you have to learn how to negotiate. That’s the whole thing in life.
If you were starting out as a filmmaker today, there’s less censorship to deal with but there are also fewer film companies to fund work. How do you think you’d get on?
I think the difference today is that Hollywood studios are actively looking for the next kid who would make a shocking little movie on their cell phone. They were not looking for it then. Another difference is that when I was young, the censors were dumb. That was easy to deal with. We would get busted and turn that into an advantage by putting it in the ads. It helped us. Today the censors are liberal – and the smart ones are snakes. That makes things much harder.
I would argue that I am politically correct on almost everything. But, at the same time, I understand that the extremes of political correctness are only celebrated by the rich. So it’s a class issue now. Believe me, in the parts of Baltimore where people are struggling, they’re not worried about pronouns for people’s sex; they’re not worried about political correctness. And I’m not saying they shouldn’t be, but they’ve got bigger fish to fry.
I don’t know how familiar you are with cancel culture, but do you think people may revisit movies like Pink Flamingos, hold them up to the values of today and consider them problematic?
Well, certainly that is happening. Picasso would not have fared well with the #metoo movement. But I think that mine really do hold up, in a weird way. They keep playing and they keep getting re-released… yet Pink Flamingos didn’t get any nicer.
I think there are movies coming out today – by directors like Gasper Noe, Todd Solondz, Bruno Dumont – that are just amazing and shocking. I don’t think they’re like my movies, but I react to them in the same way: they’re extreme, hard to like and make you feel bad. That’s all the kind of movies I like… although, technically, I think mine are feel-good movies – except for Desperate Living, which is definitely a feel-bad movie.
Did you ever learn anything useful from reading your own reviews?
I read the good ones twice, the bad ones once, and then put them all away. But, you know, the bad ones are right a little bit. You can learn something from them. They’re not always completely wrong. But you never answer your reviewers – that’s a sign of a true amateur.
You’re quite magnanimous about your experiences in Hollywood. I wanted to ask you about what it feels like to put so much effort into making a movie only to see someone else have control over the finished product, even though your name is on it –
– But I did have control! I learned how to do it. I never released a movie in a cut that I didn’t want.
What about the ‘bastardised’ version of A Dirty Shame? That sounded like a disaster.
It was hard to figure out how to get through that, yes. I’m saying: the more money they give you, the more hassle they’re going to give you. Their job is to make sure the movie makes money. If it doesn’t, they’re fired. Their advice when it doesn’t test well is always to cut out the parts that the audience that does like the movie enjoys. And then no one will like it!
But I think I was treated fair in Hollywood. Some of those movies didn’t make money and I still got a big salary. So, I don’t know, maybe [the studio executives] were right from their point of view. But if I had done some of the things they wanted, those movies wouldn’t be playing at all today.
Right. But if their decisions make a film worse to the point that it’s considered a failure, that could be really hard for someone to come back from in terms of getting another opportunity to make a movie.
Oh, it’s very hard. And that’s why I say that I’ve failed upwards. What happens now is that a young kid will come out with their first art movie and it’s a giant hit. Then Hollywood will offer them a huge salary to make a superhero movie. Of course they go make it! Who wouldn’t? Then it fails and their career is over. That’s what can happen.
That didn’t happen to me, ever. My whole career was like a slow stock-market growth. It just went up and down, up and down, up and down. Finally, it went down and it was kind of over because the independent film world that I know is kind of over now, too.
I don’t have any complaints about how Hollywood has treated me, but I had to learn how to operate there, what the reasonable expectations are and whether the deal you make with the devil is worth it or not. I always got the movie made the way I wanted it, and I got paid, do I didn’t really lose. I lost a lot of hair from worry, though. That’s why film directors are bald.
When David Lynch made Elephant Man, he got offers that were more mainstream – like making a Star Wars movie, for example. Were you ever approached to make more convention material?
No. They all know that I would never make a movie I didn’t write. My agents always tried to get me to read scripts and say, ‘We can get you a lot of money.’ I would never do it. I wouldn’t even know how to do it! And I would never write a Star Wars film because I wouldn’t know where to begin with science-fiction. [laughs] I’m Mr. Know-It-All about everything except sports and science-fiction.
So if you were approached to make a remake, you wouldn’t be interested, on principle?
I’d make a remake if I wrote it, maybe. Certainly, I was paid to write sequels to Hairspray that never got made. So if I was going to remake a movie, I would pick one that’s failed. Why do they remake the successful movies and not remake the failed ones to make them work?
You’ve said that a lot of people naturally confide in you from the start. Do people ever ask you for advice? And if so, what kind of things would you tell them?
People do ask and I think I give good advice, although that probably won’t happen anymore because I give advice on everything in the book. As an ordained minister, I’ve married about 19 couples and I think only two have gotten divorced, so I have a pretty good record. Obviously, I counsel those people beforehand. It depends on their situation and what problems they may face; for example, it might be about parents or family. Now, my advice may not be what most pastors would give. [laughs] But if I’m gonna do it, I want to keep my record up.
You write about how show business is full of people with insecurities, which is natural for any creative field. Imposter syndrome is a pretty common part of that. Have you ever felt like a fraud in your career?
No… because a fraud would be doing something for money. Don’t get me wrong: I always wanted to sell out. I always wanted my films to become commercially successful. And I’ve done things for money, certainly – but they were also things that I thought were funny to do. I was thrilled to be in the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie! I was in the Chucky movie [Seed of Chucky] and proud of that! I was in The Simpsons! I might be in something you wouldn’t expect me to be in, but I enjoy doing it for that exact reason.
But when you started branching into art, did you have any insecurities?
I still have insecurities! I think the art world is probably the hardest thing ever to cross over to, especially if you’re coming from another world. They’re very suspicious. The only obscenity left in the art world is celebrity, which I understand, so I try to make fun of my own celebrity in the pieces that I do. But I think as you get older, you have more fears of not being accepted. When you’re young, you’re just glad somebody noticed.
In the book, you recall overhearing your mom describe you as ‘an odd duck’. In their later years, did you ever get to ask your parents what it was like for them raising such an unconventional child?
To a point, yes. Early in my career, when I was getting arrested for making movies and thrown out of school for pot, I put them through a lot. Someone used to send my mother negative clippings about my movies and how obscene they were. They were mailed to her without an address, like: ‘From Mr. X.’ What kind of friend would do that? But then, 10 years later, when all her friends’ children started having issues with drugs, they called my mother for advice, which was major.
My mother and Jeff Koons’ aunt were both in the same retirement community. They used to sit around and compare horror stories. ‘Oh my god, I had to go to the opening of Female Trouble.’ ‘Well, I had to see the portrait he did of a weener.’ They could laugh about how we all turned out okay.
And were your parents open about how they felt emotionally?
Ahhhh… ummm…. My mother wished she was Queen Elizabeth, so basically they were not huggy, kissy, touchy people. But my parents made me feel safe and I knew they loved me. They had a really good, functional marriage for 70 years; both of them lived to be 90. Any complaints I have about my parents would be very, very minor considering what I put them through and how understanding they were about movies that no parent would have been happy about at the time.
Do you think that people grow more conservative as they get older?
A tiny bit; not that much. I mean, I’m mad that kids aren’t rioting in the streets because of Trump. What’s the matter with college students today? You’re sitting at home studying when this shit’s going on? But as much as I can roll my eyes, I do think they’re having just as much fun being hackers as we had being potheads.
I have young people who work for me and I’m always picking their brains, looking for recommendations. I try to listen to young people all the time because I want to know what’s going on. You have to stay in touch. As soon as you don’t believe that, it means you’re an old fart and nothing you say matters anymore.
What would be your idea of utopia?
Utopia would be a place where nobody judged each other, where people would mind their own business and they could live to be whatever age they choose without getting sick first. Then they’d just drop dead.
What made you stop taking acid in the ’70s?
You know, it’s funny: as soon as I had any success, I stopped taking drugs. Usually, it’s the other way around. I tried every drug I could and never had a bad experience. I took acid probably every weekend for two years. Nothing bad happened to me. Then I just didn’t need it anymore. Even today, I have pot in my apartment for guests. But it doesn’t relax me, so I almost never smoke it.
I hadn’t done LSD in 50 years and I thought taking it again would be a stunt for the book – the same way I hitchhiked across America by myself at 66 years old. I did it with Mink Stole, my oldest friend, which I think made for the most sentimental chapter. It’s a very different canvas at my age but if you haven’t taken drugs for 50 years, I think you should try it again. I’m not talking about these pussy microdoses that young people do. If I’m going to do it, I want to do it properly.
So you originally stopped because you thought it might get in the way of your work?
No, it just… didn’t seem exciting anymore. When cocaine came out, I tried that but it lasted 10 minutes and it took a week to recover. And when I really stopped [taking drugs] was when ecstasy arrived. Sitting around in a cuddle-pile wearing pajamas was definitely not my style!
I remember when the band Here We Go Magic picked you up hitchhiking. The reporting opened with a quote from you saying that it was a great way to have sex – which, to me, made it sound like that’s why you were out there in the first place. [He was actually developing a book called Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America.]
No, there was nothing sexual ever about that. No one came on to me when I was hitchhiking and I was mad about that. When I was 20, every single person tried to fuck ya. At 66, no one tried to fuck me and no gay people even stopped to pick me up either, that I know of.
Here We Go Magic were wonderful – and they were cute, too! I bonded with them heavily because I’d been waiting a long time when they picked me up, so it was a godsend. But I don’t think there was anything to imply we were in group sex. [laughs] I wouldn’t have minded! That’s the kind of fake news I would have liked.
You can appreciate a good bit of gossip. Why do you think it’s so intoxicating? Because it makes us feel a little bit better about ourselves?
The head of the National Enquirer, which is the biggest trashy tabloid in America, said something recently that I loved. He was asked: ‘Why do you always write about stars when they’re failing?’ And he replied: ‘Because my readers are failing.’ [laughs] I thought that was such a good answer.
Mr. Know-It-All is published by Corsair.
Follow Cian Traynor on Twitter.