Big Think Interview with John Waters
John Waters is an American filmmaker, writer, and artist who rose to fame in the early 1970s for his transgressive cult films, which have earned him the titles "pope of filth" and "prince of puke." Waters's 1970s and early '80s trash films feature his regular troupe of actors known as Dreamlanders, most famous among them being the drag queen Divine. In 1988, Waters had his biggest mainstream hit with "Hairspray," which was turned into Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in 2003 and then remade as a movie musical in 2007. In 2010, Waters published the unorthodox memoir "Role Models," in which Waters interviews and writes about his influences as a means of telling his own life story.
John Waters: I’m John Waters and hopefully I can be your filth elder.
Question: What makes art successful?
John Waters: Well in art certainly, contemporary art’s job is to wreck whatever came before it. And from the very beginning after the Old Masters, from then on, each generation wrecked that. That something that’s pretty and beautiful is probably the worst thing that you could say today in contemporary art about something, unless it’s so pretty it’s nauseating.
So, and people that... most people have great contempt about contemporary art and I find that hilarious because I did a piece, it said "contemporary art hates you." And it does hate them because you can’t see it. You don’t know the magic trick; you haven’t learned the vocabulary, you haven’t learned the special way of seeing something that changes it. And that is like joining a biker gang; that is. But you do have to be able to appreciate all kinds of taste. And the contemporary art that I like best is the kind that initially angers you. And say, “Oh now, this is..." but now that’s so great.
I saw a painting last night that was so... that I really want to buy, but it’s a dilemma. It’s by Karen Sander, an artist I like and collect, but this painting; she just took a blank canvas and left it outside until it got mold and everything, and it’s really ugly. But I thought she had struggled... she didn’t do one thing. But the problem with buying it is, is that the mold will spread in your house, and it’s toxic. So this to me is the best art piece I’ve seen all year. I’m still trying to figure out how I can own it without poisoning myself.
Question: Does your art seek to make people angry?
John Waters: I always wanted to make people angry and make them laugh though, to be surprised. I mean, my early movies were made for a hippie audience. That’s who went to midnight movies. But I was a.. look I guess like I had been... I had long hair. I thought the revolution was coming, but I was a Yippie you know, and so I made fun of Hippies by making violent movies, like “Multiple Maniacs” and “Pink Flamingos,” but the Hippies always liked it. The same way today.
In my book, "Role Models," I have chapters that are fairly rude about outsider pornographers and men that go down in outhouses and shit on them, but no one seems to object. It was on the Best Seller List in the Midwest, I think. Isn’t that amazing that’s in libraries... And I wrote a very impassioned piece about trying to free one of the Manson women, which not anybody got that controversial about that. The only thing I’ve said on the book tour that were the cause of people going crazy was, in San Francisco, I said I thought they had good public transportation. And then there were all these blogs that said, “Has John Waters lost his mind?” So I thought that was the only controversial thing I said. So things are... it’s odd, people I guess if they buy my book, they expect to be a little bit surprised. That’s what they’re paying the money for. They’d be disappointed if they weren’t.
Question: Is your work anti-ironic?
John Waters: I think there’s not an ironic sentence in "Role Models." I don’t write about anybody that’s so bad they’re good. And even in my movies, in Baltimore and all that kind of thing. I’m looking up to those people. I’m asking you to come into their world and marvel. I’m never asking you like reality television, to look down on them and make fun of them and feel superior. I think that’s a big, big difference. I don’t think, even my most extreme films were every mean spirited, really. I mean, in “Pink Flamingos,” Divine was minding her own business, writing her memoirs. In “The Woodsman” she was challenged by a jealous pervert. I think my movies are politically correct in a weird way and moral.
Question: How are your films moral?
John Waters: Well the morality of my movies is: "Mind your own business!" You don’t know what caused people to act the way they do and so until you know all that and you’ve heard all the evidence, it’s none of your business. I couldn’t believe that everybody went crazy about Tiger Woods. Well, he didn’t run for Pope. I don’t care who he slept with. He shouldn’t care who I sleep with. They all said he was great, too. That’s the thing, what’s he upset about. Every person said he was the best fuck ever.
Question: Next month in Canada you are presenting Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film “Salo,” which is considered one of the filthiest films ever made. What makes it great?
John Waters: “Salo” is a beautiful movie though. I mean, “Salo”, that last shot of the two soldiers dancing in that beautiful set. I mean, Pasolini, I mean, he’s a Catholic saint to me, I mean. I want my gravestone to look like his. I pray to Pasolini. I mean, so I think that movie is a beautiful movie, a beautiful movie. And unfortunately, you know, he was murdered by a hustler almost right after he made that movie. So, he died for our sins.
Question: Why should filmmakers make obscene films like “Salo”?
John Waters: Well, to me Pasolini is not... I don’t think “Salo” is obscene. I think it can use obscenity in a way to make a point about fascism, I mean about fantasies, about power, that’s a movie about the pornography of power really. So I think it uses the very extreme sexual subject matter in a very intellectual way.
But I think even the worst porn, which is usually heterosexual because it’s very anti-woman. I read somewhere, somebody said, "They don’t make love in those movies, they make hate.” And that is true. But I think for the freedom of the press, we have to put up the worst of pornography because though, artists when they’re young don’t have the money to fight the law, but pornographers' mafia lawyers do. So they fight the law and change it so artists can use the same subject matter. I think we have to put up with the limits of freedom. I mean, burning... you know, the Bible, the Koran, everything. I think you should be able to burn anything you want actually. I actually think you should be able to yell, “Fire” in a crowded theater.
You know, these people that do it are just publicity hounds. It’s like Fred Phelps, that group you know, that god hates fags and then he goes to Marine’s funerals that aren’t gay, which I understand the rage of those parents. However, he came to Provincetown, a very gay place, and just had signs “God hates fags” and not one person, just everyone passed him and no one said one thing and he left. No one complained, no one did anything, no one reacted. He’s there for you to react to. The same way these people, these tiny little crackpot evangelists like Elmer Gantry types that go and do this, they want you... that’s the only way they get noticed. So you’re rising to the bait if you flip out about it.
Question: What are the most “obscene” films ever made?
John Waters: Certainly, probably “Salo,” probably either an early Kenneth Anger movie or an early Jean Genet movie, “Fireworks” or Chant d’amour those movies which were so beautiful, they were like poetry and illegal and so great. I guess you know, the early porn that changed everything, like “Mona,” which was a heterosexual movie that... just the title makes me laugh. It was the first movie that legally showed penetration in New York City that wasn’t in a documentary. The law was changed by a movie called “Pornography in Denmark,” that was a documentary. So things had to be, at the time, socially redeeming. So that was the ludicrousness of it, that’s why even Warhol did "Nude Restaurant" where everybody sat around nude and talked about Vietnam, which was very funny.
I don’t know, I don’t think any of those movies are really obscene, but certainly there’s a movie, “Salo” some people would certainly think, there’s this other one about... what is it called, oh I’m just forgetting... but there was this kid that fantasized about his torture in the concentration camps... what’s that one called? That’s a shocker. There are shockers, certainly, I think “Irreversible,” I think is a great, great shocker. That’s a great movie. I’d put that at the top of my list.
Question: Do celebrities deserve privacy?
John Waters: To me, it isn’t my business of who a celebrity sleeps with. Who David Letterman slept with, or his marriage—unless he uses a moral stance to put down other people, then it is very much my business to do that, I think. People that come out against gay rights that are blowing people in bathrooms. You know, I’m happy they’re blowing people in bathrooms. I mean, I don’t care if they do that. I almost have nostalgia for that. I never go in a bathroom anywhere where I see perverts anymore. It’s been cleaned up. It’s online now. So I miss perverts in the real world. I miss seeing them.
However, if you are into that scene, I mean I could have – who was the guy in the airport? Larry Craig. I could have told him how you do that. You stand and you... one guy sits on the toilet... blowing and the other guy stands up with both legs in a shopping bag, in separate shopping bags, so when you’re outside the booth it only looks like there’s one person in there. I mean, it’s easy to get away with that stuff if you want to do it. But you just have to plan. You can’t be an amateur at it like he was.
Question: What was it like growing up as John Waters in suburban Baltimore?
John Waters: As a child—I wrote a lot in "Role Models" about my childhood—is that I was lucky enough that my parents made me feel safe. They were horrified by my interests. I was born six weeks early, right from the beginning there was trouble. So, but yet, my mother dropped me off at a bar downtown because she thought maybe I could find bohemia because she couldn’t think of anything else. She was so terrified because I was a pretty insane kid. But I had a career in show business really early, as a puppeteer for children's birthday parties. So I know what I wanted. I always said I should have quit school in sixth grade once I learned to read and write because... you go to school to figure out what you want to do. I knew what I wanted to do.
So... and I think that any kid that rebels, you should be glad if he’s your kid because he’ll succeed later. The kids that reach their peak in high school, it’s downhill. Completely. I never go to my high school reunions. As I said in the book, I don’t want see – the only thing you want to see are the people you wanted to have sex with then and I’ve already driven by their house and stalked them. I know what they look like. And the problem is, you realize it’s their children that looks like them and then that could really be touchy. And, grandchildren today.
But I have someone that went to the reunion and he read me the little thing about the guy that was the biggest star and the jock and everything. And they said, “What are your interests?” And all he could think of was "doing things around the house." That is the most pitiful, pathetic thing, chores. A reason to live.
Question: Have you mellowed with age?
John Waters: Well mellow, what did Woody Allen say? Mellow, that means you rot. I don’t have certainly the anger I had at 20. I’ve said it a million times, but it’s really one of the most truthful things I ever said, a 20-year-old that’s angry is sexy, a 64-year-old man that’s angry is an asshole. If you haven’t gotten over some things, you can blame your parents 'til you’re 30, but after 40, forget whining about anything. Everybody’s dealt a hand, everybody has ups, downs, you can’t order up your kids, you can’t order up your parents, you just popped here. And you’re cast, what’s ever in you and you’ll have to make the best you can with that character.
So, yes, I’m not... I’ve had a good life, you know. I have.. I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do. So what do I have to be bitter about really, I mean.
Question: You must know some great offbeat bars around the country. What are they like?
John Waters: I do, but I don’t know that there are any left in New York, really. There’s places I go, but they’re all filled with irony. They’re all faux-something. The fact that you move to New York makes you faux-something. There’s bars in Baltimore that I take New York friends to that are really alarmed by them. They can’t believe they’re out... that would be impossible to have in New York because they’re blue collar bars. They’re like, they don’t have that here. Maybe they have it in Queens, but they’re not going to have it in Manhattan. You can’t even have hipster bars here. You have to live in Brooklyn because it’s too expensive to live in Manhattan.
So, I’m just saying, I do know there’s bars in Baltimore. I know a few in San Francisco where I live. I know really none in Manhattan. I mean, there’s places I go that I like, but I can’t say that I know a real dive bar that is filled with characters that are New York characters. There probably is, I don’t know it.
Question: What makes a bar great?
John Waters: For me, undiscovered... Blue-collar definitely. A certain tension from the type of people that go there, and rap music. I always love to have rap music. It keeps away a lot of people I don’t like. I especially love gay bars that have rap music. That really works. There’s only, I’ve only been to about two in my whole life... And not a totally black one either. Just like where it plays. Because rap music, for some reason, really alienates gay people, which makes me laugh.
Question: What else makes John Waters laugh?
John Waters: Wit makes me laugh, not jokes. I hate when people say, I have a joke to tell you. I go, "ah, la, la, la, please." I hate it when somebody tells me a joke because they’re never funny. But I like people’s wit, I like to be surprised. Or I like somebody that is totally clueless that says something that takes my breath away, just overheard dialogue, like the guy I asked in the bar, “What do you do for a living?” And he said, “I trade deer meat for crack.” He was serious. He wasn’t telling me this... but what dialogue. I could inspire an entire movie from that one line because there’s a lot of backup questions there. But unfortunately, he was at my house and my friends said, “I’ll get rid of him because there were a bunch of people that came over after a bar... not for anything as exciting as you might imagine.
Question: How did you come out?
John Waters: Coming out! It’s just so square to me. I mean, I always was gay. I knew I was gay the moment I saw Elvis Presley, when I was probably about 10 years old. I thought, what the hell is that? But I know it’s important to some people, but I just... no one, I never just came out and made it a ceremony or an announcement. Like when people say, “Are you a bottom or a top?” What is it, a political party? It depends. It’s amazing to me the seriousness with these questions we’re asked about. To me, most of the gay people I know sort of just always were, but they didn’t only hang around with gay people, they hung around with straight people that... I’m for mix. I’m against separatism of any kind. I don’t like men that call women fish and I hate that. I hate separate lesbians that hate men. I like them better though. But I know it’s important to people. No one ever asked me if I was gay because they thought something was worse than that. They were afraid to hear the answer. I was on the cover of the Advocate and it said, “The World’s Most Out Director,” but they never asked me if I was gay. They never asked me a gay question. I was waiting.
And my father once said, "Do you have to say it in USA Today?" so I didn’t. I thought that was fair, you know. He doesn’t care if I’m on the cover of Out because his friends don’t see that. So I thought it was a funny question. I honored that, sure. USA Today would never ask you that question anyway.
So I’m for it, but I kind of just always felt like I always was. I mean, I was on the cover of a gay magazine in like 1972, something called Gay Times and it wasn’t because I was brave, just nobody else wanted to put me on the cover. Really. So, and my films have... I've always said that my audiences, even gay people that don’t get along with other gay people, black people that don’t get along with other black people. Minorities that can’t stand even the rules of their own minority. And I’m one of them. Too much gaily correctness makes me crazy too. You now, that GlAAD came out against this tranny movie? Oh please, we have more enemies than that. It was like, what, are gay people losing their sense of humor they have to be perfect now? I’m for gay villains. I think it’s healthy to admit there’s bad gay movies. Gay’s not enough, it’s a good start.
Question: As gay culture has entered the mainstream has it become more homogenous?
John Waters: I think, yeah. I don’t understand what gay people want to be like everybody else. To me, we were outlaws, we used our wit for fighting words, you know, act up, act bad I wanted. But I understand that people... straight, gay, people want to get married, they want to have children. I’m for that, I’m all for that. I’m for like, why would anyone be against gay adoption? I can’t understand it, or when celebrities get babies. Madonna’s child won the lottery, if you ask me. The one she just got in Africa. I’m for anybody getting any kid, if they can love it. And I’m for abortion. If you can’t love your kid, don’t have it because it will grow up and kill us.
Question: Do you think Sarah Palin is a fan of your work?
John Waters: I don’t. But I don’t even care about her. I care deeply about Little Levi. And he... I think he’s cute and I love how he tortures her. I think he’s going to age really badly. You can tell he already has a receding hairline. He’s going to be fat and bald soon. So he better show us his asshole soon. Because he said he was going to show us his penis, he never did, so that will be any minute. But I’m waiting for the day that once little Levi shows the world his asshole, then I’m ready to meet him.
Question: Do you vote?
John Waters: Sure, I mean I sometimes vote a couple of times in elections. I haven’t done that in a while, but I have done it. For Shirley Chisholm I did it a couple of times in California a long time ago, before picture ID ruined everything.
Question: What inspires you to vote multiple times?
John Waters: Well a passion for a character. Shirley Chisholm was a great black woman that wore crazy hats and I just loved her campaign. It was just her picture and it just said, “Outrageous.” This was in like, the 1970’s or something, a really long time ago. So I just borrowed everybody’s ID that said they weren’t going to vote that sort of looked like me because they didn’t have picture then, and you just go to their polling place. I figure if you care that much, it makes up for the apathy of some of your neighbors. I don’t think it’s so wrong, really.
Question: What’s wrong with politics in this country?
John Waters: Well, it’s funny because right now, it’s 50/50. The people... people hate Obama as much as we hated Bush. It’s just switched, and it might go back, unfortunately. It’s just going to be back and forth like that that forever. It’s right down the middle, it’s half-and-half. I think Obama’s doing a good job, you know, he inherited the exact opposite and hadn’t had that much time.
But I was just at hateful about Bush as people are about him. So I... and they at least the Republicans rioted, which I gave them respect for when they passed the... but because they passed a health law, that was the oddest ting to riot about. That poor people could have health care, that made people break windows? It seems to me... but I’m happy they broke windows. Why didn’t we do that when Bush was President? Why didn’t we riot? So, I think you can learn from Republicans.
I’m friends with Republicans. One of my assistants is a Republican. Liberals can get on my nerves a little bit when they never imagine that anyone they ever meet could be a Republican. I don’t talk about politics a lot with my assistant, 'cause we’re not going to argue about it. She has every right to be a Republican. But at the same time, there are some liberals that never imagine anyone else could not think like them. And I don’t like to watch TV where the commentators are completely on my side or completely against. And I can’t find a show where they are... they’re just regular because I don’t know how they feel anymore. I don’t read opinion pieces. I have faith in my own opinion. I know I’m right. I don’t want to read what someone else ahs to say. Although I do read the really well-written think pieces in the Wall Street Journal, even though they are usually the exact opposite of how I feel, but I think that’s the smartest thing is to find out how people who don’t believe in anything you believe in, the smart ones, how they write because then you can learn how to fight that.
Recorded September 10, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
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