EXCLUSIVE! John Waters: Separating man from mythTop Highlights, Entertainment Feature Wednesday, November 26th, 2014
He’s known as the “Baron of Bad Taste” and the “Sultan of Sleaze”. His early films are cult classics and introduced the world to Divine’s outrageous character portrayals – who can forget the dog-feces-eating scene in Pink Flamingos? Of course, I’m talking about the legendary director, actor, screenwriter, stand-up comedian and author, John Waters. My artistic friends and I found affirmation and inspiration in his scandalous, larger-than-life living-on-the-edge dramatis personæ. We were his core fans, those who Waters describes as being “minorities within a minority”. So imagine the thrill I felt when my editor landed an exclusive interview! Sadly, I only had fifteen minutes to query my idol, the notoriously over-scheduled Mr. Waters.
I dialed John’s office in Baltimore at the appointed hour and the friendly aide connected my call. I introduced myself and asked John how he was feeling. He admitted he had an ear infection, but assured me he was fine. “I’ll survive,” he said. I thanked him for his time and this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I then told him we had a lot of ground to cover and asked if we should get started. “Yup”, he replied.
Lance Ryder: As a gay man, I grew up watching your films and am a huge fan of your work. Your “Trash Trilogy” [Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living] pushed the boundaries of decency and are considered “trail blazing”. Who today is pushing boundaries and blazing trails?
John Waters: Well, for me, the trailblazers are all foreign directors. Because they can get away with it. They make people nervous and come up with new ways to surprise you. That’s why I go to movies, and foreign films are my favorite genre.
You had a hand in Johnny Depp’s career. He portrayed Ed Wood, “The Worst Director of all Time”, in Tim Burton’s 1994 Academy Award winning film. Which actor alive or dead would portray you in your biopic, and which director living or deceased would you like to see behind the camera?
Well, to play me, I think would be Steve Buscemi [Fargo, Boardwalk Empire]. Director? That’s a good one. (pauses) I don’t know. There are so many good directors today. It wouldn’t be me. That’s one movie I would hate to direct. (pauses) Maybe Tim Burton? I’ll have to give that some thought.
I liked your latest book, Carsick. Combining fact and fiction in one convenient package, and using a hitchhiking backstory as a literary vehicle to convey your memoir, provides an enjoyable ride. The fiction part, the imaginary best rides possible portion, reads like scenes from a film directed by you and based loosely on your life – drugs, sex, resurrecting Edith Massey which, I thought, was a very touching chapter.
Thanks. That was my sentimental moment.
The heartache of missing a friend really came through. My point is the fictional part of your story struck me as “The Myth” of John Waters.
The myth? No. To me they were just characters from my movies. Every one of those characters could have jumped from one of my movies. One chapter, where I run away with the carnival, was actually a movie idea. I had the most fun writing the worst rides imaginable portion, because the worst thing that can happen is always much more entertaining than the best.
At age 68, you decided to hitchhike from Baltimore to San Francisco. What surprised you the most about your cross-country experience? What truths were discovered on the road?
What surprised me most was not something I imagined even when writing the worst rides imaginable part. The long long waits for the next ride were incredibly tedious. Standing there for 10 hours and nobody picking you up. The truths just reinforced what I’ve always believed about the basic goodness of people, and the people who pick up hitchhikers are a special brand of good people. People thought I was a homeless man and they’d try to give me money. They’d pull off on interstate entrance ramps to make sure I had the best place to hitchhike. They’d make sure I got a hotel. They’d drive further than they were going just to make sure I got dropped off at a safe place. They went out of their way to help me. So to me the real people, those called the “middle Americans”, were opposite of the cliché of being close-minded and predictable.
There’s a symbiotic relationship between San Diego and Broadway. I saw Hairspray when it previewed at the La Jolla Playhouse. What did you take away from your experience on Broadway? What lessons were learned from Cry Baby and Hairspray?
Well, sorry to tell you – Cry Baby, I really liked Cry Baby*. We had four Tony Award nominations including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Music. I think the lesson I learned is you can’t have nudity in a musical intended for the whole family. The other thing I learned is that a play is one long medium shot, like a Woody Allen movie. A movie is typically about 2,000 different shots strung together, but a play is the exact opposite. That single medium shot is endlessly tinkered with. I would see [Director] Jack O’Brien make the most minor change, like a second of delay in delivery, and we’d get a huge laugh where before the line didn’t get a response, so I could see how theater was all about timing.
What will be your epitaph? If there’s an afterlife, what will heaven look like, and which band will be the house band?
Well, the epitaph would just be the dates I was born and died. I’m going to keep my headstone very minimalist, because then there’s more room for other people to write stuff on. (laughs). I wrote about hell in Carsick where I get murdered by a serial killer who only kills cult-film directors, and [in hell] they show It’s a Wonderful Life over and over. Certainly, if there’s a band in heaven it would be the Velvet Underground because I never get sick of them.
With Nico, of course.
Oh, absolutely! (both laugh)
Let’s pretend I’m Mr. Bigg from “Big Bigg Motion Pictures,” a wealthy producer with $5 million for your next film.
Make it six.
No problem. Give me the pitch for Fruitcake. What’s it about?
It’s a wonderful Christmas adventure centered on the title character, a boy named after his favorite dessert. He runs away from home during the holidays after he and his parents are caught stealing meat. I’ve never done a children’s movie, so I think to parody one would be great fun, to work with an all children cast. There are some adults but mostly all the main parts are children.
Sounds like fun. I hope it gets made.
LGBT Americans have made tremendous strides toward gaining their civil rights in recent years. What do you feel has been your contribution to the advancement of civil rights for LGBT Americans?
Well, gay people still can’t get married in a number of states, but Charles Manson can. I did help Gov. O’Malley campaign in Maryland to get gay marriage passed on the ballot. I think mostly though I poke fun at gays so we don’t feel too safe. Because progress is made when we’re self-critical. I think I’ve always poked fun at gay political correctness, I think that helps young people get more involved. I also think we should never use our minority position as an excuse for anything. You know I was a yippie** when I was young so I was always looking for riots. I think ACTUP [AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power] was the greatest faction the gay rights movement ever had. That’s why I’m against this new Pope because he’s just giving us a pat on the back and not changing anything. The people who helped gay rights the most were Anita Bryant, Ronald Reagan, all the public figures who enraged gay people and got them to go out there and riot and protest and not be passive about it.
Some artists consider their work “finished” but not “complete”, meaning the work is ready for consumption, but the artist is not completely satisfied with the final product. Do you consider your work “finished” or “complete”?
Oh, it’s finished. I mean, when you look back at your old movies, you think, God, I should have cut that scene, and there were some mistakes. But they’re “frozen”. That’s what they say on Broadway, when the show is frozen and the director’s job is over. I think you have to freeze something and then move on to the next thing. I don’t hang my own photographs in my house. I don’t have anything about my career in my house anymore. I did when I was young, but when you get older you want to keep that somewhere else.
Well as we age, John, I think there’s a tendency to down-size.
Oh no, I didn’t downsize. (laughs)
What can your fans expect when they spend an evening with John Waters at the North Park Theater*** Dec. 1?
Well, they’re going to have “Christmas Mania”, a “Christmas Massacre”. If you love Christmas, if you hate it, if you’re scared of it, if it makes you cry, if it makes you happy, if you’ve been decorating your tree since Labor Day … I will address those issues. No matter how you feel about Christmas, I think I can help you get you through it.
FInal question: is this the year I get my cha-cha heels for Christmas?
(laughs) Well, you know what they are because most people have the wrong idea. Cha-cha heels are not a spiked heel. Cha-chas are a short squat heel, and drag queens have cha-cha heel contests but they never have the right shoe. So you’re getting a cha-cha heel education for Christmas.
Thanks again for your time, John, and I look forward to seeing you in San Diego. Feel better soon.
Thank you. Bye bye.
* Cry Baby closed after only 45 previews and 68 performances.
** Yippies, or Youth International Party, was a countercultural revolutionary offshoot of the 1960s free speech and anti-war movements.
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