If H.L. Mencken was the "Sage of Baltimore," then John Waters is its court jester, rabble-rouser and camp-shock guru. The paradox is that a filmmaker who has built a decades-long career on the offensive and the obsessive is also so widely beloved, as an artist and an inimitable character.
The writer and director of classics such as Hairspray and Cry-Baby, Waters grew from cult to mainstream icon without sacrificing a jot of grotesquerie or underdog sympathy. Now he graces the Carolina Theatre with his long-running, but always evolving, one-man show, "This Filthy World," in which he discusses his life, his work and his perennial fixations on the marginalized, the obscene and the bizarre.
We recently reached Waters by phone, and learned why Pecker is his "sweetest" film, why racists should be forced to travel, why books are dangerous, and whether he thinks he's really as weird as people expect him to be.
INDY: We're excited to have you visiting Durham.
JOHN WATERS: That was the one city I remember where everyone could smoke everywhere. Am I right?
No, not anymore. Every building here has "American Tobacco" in its name, but you can't smoke in any of them. It sounds like you've visited North Carolina before?
I've been doing this for 40 years, so it all blends. But yes, I've definitely been before. When I do these tours, I'm in a city at night and often leaving at 5 in the morning. I get to meet my fans in each place, because there's usually a signing or something afterward. I get to see local color that way, but I don't go out to bars. I can't do that anymore, especially when I'm on tour.
If they were to let anybody smoke in the Carolina Theatre, I bet it would be you.
Well, I don't smoke anymore. It's the only thing the government ever told you that was true—it does kill you. [Chuckles]
Do you enjoy telling stories as a solo act and meeting your fans, which is quite different from telling stories in films with your regular cast of Dreamlanders?
I tell stories in my books, in my stand-up show, in my movies, in my art shows—because I have to think them up before, they're kind of written left to right—so I think I'm always telling stories. What I do most and have always done is be a writer and a storyteller. I would never make a film I didn't write or do a show I didn't write.
What can you tell us about the motivation and development of "This Filthy World," your talk at the Carolina?
I've been doing it for so long—it was originally developed when Divine and I were sent to colleges and nobody knew who we were, so we had to do something. It's very much like Female Trouble. I wrote this act where Divine would come out and rip phone books in half, and I'd talk about Buddhist camp movies, and then a fake cop would pretend to arrest us and Divine would strangle him.
Now it's a 70-minute, totally written monologue that I update with new stuff all the time, completely different from the one released on DVD. It's an act that I've always rewritten and changed, but it's still about my obsessions: It's about crime and fashion and music and art and films and the people that are in my films, and how you can have a happy life if you decide you want to be a happy neurotic.
Do you find inspiration in how a show like this takes you places you wouldn't otherwise go?
Well, I wouldn't say I wouldn't go to those places—I always want to go everywhere. I've always traveled, and I think it's amazing how far film has taken me around the world. This way I get paid to go to other places. And you do find out what people are thinking. I always said they should send racists to travel instead of jail, because you can't be a racist if you're a world traveler. You'd just be an idiot. Racists are just people that are too stupid to travel.
What kinds of "negative influences" do you discuss in this show?
Well, they might have been negative influences but I like to turn them into good ones. It's amazing to me that I'm still doing the same thing I've always done, but now parents bring me their bad children in a last-ditch effort to bond with them—by seeing me? When I was young, parents would have called the police.
I don't want to piss people off, I want to make people laugh and be surprised, which I think I've had some success at doing. But nobody gets mad at what I'm doing anymore, and I still say the same kind of stuff. I think if people come to see me, they expect me to take them into a zone of a little discomfort, but with me as a guide, they feel comfortable. I hope they do, anyway.
People in my office were excited to hear I was talking to you, but from Hairspray to Pink Flamingos to Pecker, everyone had a different favorite John Waters movie.
At least no one said "I hate all of them," though there are people that do. I think Pecker is my nicest movie, probably nicer than Hairspray, which underneath is about an ugly subject, racism. I think the message of Pecker was sweet: that irony is elitist, which, even though I am a major irony-dealer, it is. It is snobbism. People were probably a little surprised at that. But at the same time, my favorite review of it was from Japan, where the movie was a big hit, which said it was a "Disney film for perverts," which made me laugh out loud. That's the kind of review they don't write anymore.
Do you ever think about what kind of filmmaker you'd be if you'd grown up somewhere other than Baltimore—say, New York, or somewhere rural?
I think I would have done the exact same thing: exaggerated and praised whatever the community I grew up in tried to hide, and to turn away from that kind of inferiority complex. I think Baltimore was a perfect mix for me because it was very diverse, racially: All the white kids listened to black radio, even though it was a town that was racist in many ways. All the weird taste and bad taste, I think it always went a little more extreme and crazy [in Baltimore]. But if I had been brought up somewhere else, I think I would have taken whatever community I was based in and done the same thing.
You also talk in "This Filthy World" about "making books cool again." As someone who's written quite a few, have you felt their coolness decline?
I was a speaker at the National Library Convention a couple of times, and librarians are the opposite of what people say. They're pretty wild and crazy and believe in anti-censorship. I had a friend who read all the time, and her mother would say, "Stop reading those books," and she was right! Reading is dangerous. You get bad ideas, you break out of your community and find out about things that your parents never told you about. But you should always encourage your kids to be dangerous as long as thinking is involved.
Do you find that people you meet have certain expectations of what you'll be like, and do you feel pressure to live up to them?
I don't think I do anymore—now, I am what people expect. I think that in the beginning, when we first came out and had made Pink Flamingos, people were afraid of us and thought we really lived a life like that. I was a little bit like that—my job was to think up weird things—but I probably lived a little more conventionally than people imagined.
Now, I think people know from all the interviews I've done, from me being on television and from all my books, that it's fiction. I'm not every one of the characters in my movies. But everything I write comes from something that happened in my life in some weird, tiny way.
Is there anything you miss about those pre-Hairspray days, before the Hollywood budgets and expectations?
No, I don't miss that. I was young. I don't want to be a faux-revolutionary filmmaker at 68. Nothing's more pitiful. [Laughs] I'm proud of those films, but I don't think kids are having any less fun today than I did. When you're sitting in your parents' bedroom shutting down the governments of other countries on your computer, it's just as exciting as going to a riot.
With all the new platforms available, do you think these are good days for independent filmmakers?
I think it's a terrible time for independent filmmakers, but a great time to be on TV. It's good for independent film if you're a kid, just starting out, making a movie on your cell phone. That's exactly what they're looking for. But the movies I've made in the last 20 years—mid-level independent movies for $6 to $8 million dollars—there's no such thing as that anymore. It's probably the worst time for that kind of movie; in fact I know it is.
But at the same time, on television, way more people see it, and you have less censorship in a weird way, on cable. As long as people get to see my films, I don't really care how they're shown. I still go and pay to see movies but I understand that young people mostly don't, and when I go to art films, all I see is gray hair. As long as you watch movies I don't care how you see them; my early movies look better small anyway. [Laughs]
Speaking of TV, I'm curious what you think of American Horror Story.
Of course, I love Kathy Bates with a Baltimore accent, and there certainly have been tributes to Cry-Baby and a lot of my stuff in there, so I was very proud of that.This article appeared in print with the headline "Filthy Talk."