Exploitation Retrospect | The Journal of Junk Culture and Fringe Media

From Prince to Pope: An Interview with John Waters

John Waters on The SimpsonsWhen it came time to put together the debut issue of ER, there was only one person I wanted to interview... director/author John Waters. I was already a huge fan of his infamous films like PINK FLAMINGOS and POLYESTER, and the world of video was making his other works much more accessible. As the publication of Crackpot (his second collection of articles) approached, I had the opportunity to chat with the amiable Prince of Puke about his past, present, future, and dream projects.

In the days since this interview was published in October 1986, Waters has directed such films as CRY-BABY and SERIAL MOM, as well as publishing the book Trash Trio, which collects the screenplays for PINK FLAMINGOS, DESPERATE LIVING, and the never-produced sequel, FLAMINGOS FOREVER (Waters discusses the aborted latter project below). In 1998 Waters flew to the Sundance Film Festival for a 25th Anniversary screening of FLAMINGOS, and appeared as "John," a gay antiques dealer on 'The Simpsons'.

Thanks again to Waters and Martha Clark at Macmillan Publishing, who originally arranged the following interview.

First off, what's your new book Crackpot about?
Alright, Crackpot, well it's subtitled "The Obsessions of John Waters," and basically it's just about all the things that interest me. You know, before I was paid to be a writer, people thought I was crazy to just go on these little missions of things that would interest me. But now that I get paid to do it, people say, "Oh how interesting." So, I think that's really the difference between being a writer and a crackpot. I think some of the subjects in it are, William Castle, Lana Turner's Hairdresser, Charo's Plumber, Pia Zadora, "How to Have a Sense of Humor if You Have a Life Sentence in Jail," The Lecture Circuit, The National Enquirer, Art Movies I Like, Why I Love Christmas, HAIL MARY...lots of different, many varied subjects. Hopefully it's a humorous book.

Did you come up with the ad line, "Lowbrow fixations elevated shamelessly to a highly original comic manifesto"?
Yeah, I'm good at ad copy.

That's right up there with THE MUTILATOR with "Bye pick, by hook, by axe, bye bye."
(laughs) Right.

So, when's the book going to be coming out?
The book comes out, well the publication date is the middle of October, but it will actually be in the major cities at the beginning of September. It takes six weeks to release a book all over the country, so by October 15 it should be everywhere. It will actually be in New York by September 10.

Great. Are you working on a new film right now?
Well, I have a script, it's finished, I have a producer and we're going to start shooting it in the spring. Actually, I'm doing a rewrite on it right now. I had a development deal on this project. The producer is an unnamed investment banker in New York. And it's, I'm so superstitious to talk about it. I can say that its certainly a comedy, the budget is over a million dollars -- which for me is a lot, but for a movie is very little. And I certainly would like Divine and Pia Zadora to star in it.

Did you see the article in SPIN where Joey Ramone asks Pia about you?
Yeah. Well, I know Pia sort of. I mean, I wrote the article about her and it's in my book, and we keep in touch and I've seen her show a few different places. I think she's really the ideal movie star.

Well, THE LONELY LADY is certainly a classic.
Well, I think BUTTERFLY was better. (laughs)

That's true. Isn't Orson Welles in that?
Yes. She has a scene with him where he says, "Let me see your breasts" and she goes (begins moaning), and I couldn't believe that Orson...also, Ed McMahon is in it.

Ed McMahon?
In a wonderful supporting role.

A real star vehicle I guess.

Whatever happened to ROTTEN APPLES?
What that ended up being was a videotape that my prison class, I teach in prison, a movie that we made in prison. I mean, it wasn't even a movie -- it was filmed on video. The class and myself wrote it together and they acted in it and we shot it on video. But part of the rules of teaching at this prison was that the film would never leave the jail. And I think the prisoners wanted that also. Because what they would do with me in a classroom was not for other prisoners to see and hassle them for and all that kind of thing. It was very technically like my very first films because all we had was a video camera and sound. I mean, no editing. I'm sorry, it had to be edited in the camera as we shot it. But the biggest biker in the class played April, "the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who had to claw her way to the top!"

You certainly have a thing about casting large people.
He's just so "not the type," and I had to call the guards and ask them if they could bring down bathrobes and some mops for wigs. You know, I actually had to write drag memos to the guards so they could bring it down. And they didn't know. They would just look at me and roll their eyes...they just couldn't believe it.

How did your first book, Shock Value, come about? Were you approached to write it?
Yeah, I was approached. I had told these stories so many times that I figured I might as well put them in a book. How a lot of my books come about is when a movie project I have falls through and I know I'm going to have to wait another year. I really like writing books because it's myself, a pad, and a Bic pen. I don't have to, you know...with movies, the producers always say, "Well, will it play in Peoria?" They never say that with books, because a book is a smaller audience and you can be a little crazier, I think. You know, I like writing books as much as making movies. Really, I'd like to go back and forth. That way you can have two careers. You know, I always think you should have many careers in case you're having problems with one you can do the other.

Trash TrioAre you in danger of becoming a writer who used to make movies?
Well, I am going to make a movie this year. No, I never wanted to stop making movies. What happened was that we were going to make a sequel to PINK FLAMINGOS and that was probably a mistake. I spent three years from the time that I wrote it to getting money and nobody would really give us the money. They all said it was too crazy, then Edie died and I thought, "Well, you can't really make a sequel to PINK FLAMINGOS without Edie." Unless I could get Ann Southern So actually, it was very ludicrous because about two weeks ago some producers in Hollywood called that I had been dealing with years ago and said, "OH! We can get the money to make this movie!" I thought, "Now you tell me!" (laughs) [Ed. The screenplay for FLAMINGOS FOREVER can be found in the book Trash Trio.]

Sure, it's too late now.
I doubt it will ever be a movie now. You can never tell...after I do this one, who knows. I never like to say "I won't" do anything, because you can never tell what will happen.

Why do you think such diverse publications print your articles?
Well, you know Vogue called me and I'm writing for them now, which I find is the ULTIMATEShock Value irony! I want to get a press card from Vogue so that if there's a car accident I can run over and say, "What did they have ON?!" I really don't know why [such diverse magazines publish my articles]. I think that after people saw my other articles...you know, it's like anything else you're trying to do. Once you get something in print and people see it and like it, they call and ask you to write for them also. I think that the first thing I ever wrote was for Oui magazine, years ago when it was owned by Playboy and it was a lot better than it is now. And I wrote an article on "Why I Love Violence"...no, I think the first one I wrote was "All My Trials." Anyway, both these chapters are in Shock Value. And, so I like doing it and I like getting paid to go on these ludicrous missions, you know, like that article I wrote about trying to find "Frances the Talking Mule"'s grave. Things like that. In real life people just think you're nuts!! So, why the different magazines?

I don't know, They ARE different types, but I think that depending on the subject I can write about it and I like writing for a specific audience, for that particular magazine.

Okay, now let's talk about your movies. Is Todd's drive-in from POLYESTER your idea of the ultimate drive-in?
Yes. Well, no. I think my idea of the ULTIMATE drive-in would be on that's very, very expensive, showed obscure art films, and only had room for three cars. So it was very hard to get in.

How did Stiv Bators (late singer of the Dead Boys and Lords of the New Church) come to play Bo-Bo in POLYESTER?
Stiv? I met him on a talk show which he did in Baltimore with somebody I knew and I just me him. And I liked the idea that he was a lunatic, but in real life isn't one. Which Stiv isn't. He probably hates me for saying that. And I like working with people that can play crazy people and in real life aren't. I don't like to work with people that are really crazy, because it's just too complicated. And I liked his whole image. I think at that time he was ripping his flesh with microphones and stuff which I thought was certainly up our alley.

Was Odor-A-Ma in POLYESTER your attempt to bring gimmicks back to the movies?Polyester Cards
Sure. I have a whole chapter about gimmicks in my book. I love the idea of the whole thing. I knew about Smell-O-Vision which they had had, and I saw these greeting cards they had for kids where you scratch and sniff them. So I found out that this company had a library of smells. So, yeah, it was just another joke with the movie basically.

Some of the theme songs that you've written for your movies, FEMALE TROUBLE, POLYESTER...
No, I didn't write the POLYESTER theme.

You didn't? I must have read the credits wrong.
No. I only wrote the lyrics to FEMALE TROUBLE Actually, Debbie Harry wrote the lyrics to the POLYESTER theme.

Anyway, have you ever thought about putting out an album with the themes, and Divine and Edie's songs?
That's a whole different thing. Divine DOES have an album out of all his songs. He has a couple of albums out, but they're all in Europe, they're not here. We tried to get the POLYESTER soundtrack out and (laughs) nobody would go for it. Maybe Rhino Records one day will revive it. Well, Divine has all these hit records in Europe. I mean, he's mostly in Europe now. He's a disco star in Europe!!

Which is a scary thought!

How's Divine doing?
He's doing great. I think right now he's in New York filming 'Tales From the Darkside'.

Oh really?

Oh my God!
(laughs) I want him to be on 'The Golden Girls' or one of them. I've never seen it, but I think he'd be a good one. (laughs)

He could play a long lost child.

Speaking of Divine, did you see that he and Tab Hunter were nominated as "Oddest Romantic Pairing in Film History"?
What was that in?

Son of the Golden Turkey Awards.
Oh, I read that book. Yeah, there's a lot of awards he got like that. I think they're a perfect couple. They were made for each other!

I thought Tab was great in POLYESTER.
He was a good sport.

Very good at poking fun...
At his own image. Which most stars have trouble with.

True. Were you asked to direct LUST IN THE DUST, the other movie that Tab and Divine were in together?
Yeah. But I don't want to direct anything that I didn't write. A Confederacy of Dunces is the only one ever that I wanted to do that I hadn't written. But this one, I just thought that it was Tab's baby...the whole movie. He thought it up, he did it, and I just thought that I would be wrong for it.

Have you seen any movies this year that you've really liked or really hated?
I've seen lots I've really hated. But what have I really like this year? I think SALVADOR has been my favorite movie of the year. I think James Woods was very great in it. What have I seen that I really like? (pauses) SALVADOR is the only one that I can think of because I've seen so many terrible ones. I saw a cassette of this Fassbinder film called MARTA which I'd never seen that I liked, but that's being a little obscure. I liked Woody Allen's movie, I liked...let me think. (pause) The only one that I can think of which I really loved was SALVADOR. Some that I really hated would be LEGAL EAGLES...

What about SPACE CAMP?
No, you see some of them...I'm too old and life's too short. PRETTY IN PINK I wasn't too crazy about. TWICE IN A LIFETIME, that's one I really HATED! Off the top of my head that's all I can come up with. Some of them I know better. I know that I would be insane from them if I didn't go.

Do you see any very good directors coming up through the ranks who might be able to save movies?
A lot of my favorite directors, well Fassbinder I really like and he isn't with us any longer. (pause) I haven't seen the new one by the guy that made STRANGERS IN PARADISE, but I like that one. I liked this movie A QUESTION OF SILENCE a great deal, that's by a Dutch director and I'd like to see her next film. The people that made BLOOD SIMPLE, I'm certainly looking forward to their next film. I always hope and try to fantasize that somewhere in East Bumfuck America somebody is making a great movie that's going to some out of nowhere and just knock people off their...rockers.

How do you feel about the passing of the drive-in?
Well, we still have drive-ins here.

It just seems that they're dropping like flies.
Yeah, they are. I miss them, but the problem now is that the drive-ins that are open just show the regular crap! What made drive-ins so great is that there were films made only for drive-ins. They don't make those films anymore. They just show "normal" movies. So, unfortunately I think that "The Golden Age of Trash" is over. I think hardcore (porn) ruined it, and I think Hollywood co-opting violence ruined it. Because those were the two things that you really couldn't have, and what was the staple of all drive-in movies was sex and violence. Now Hollywood makes them, so there's no rules left to be broken. Also, for some reason, drive-ins start before it gets dark. That's what I really hate about them now! So you go and you end up in complete light and you just pray that there's not a night scene or you're in REAL TROUBLE!!

Have you ever thought about teaching in film school?
Well, I teach in prison...no, I would have no desire to teach normal people, but I like having murderers as students very much. They're my best audience.

How do people react, the prisoners for example, when they find out you're THAT John Waters?
Well, they know before they sign up for my course pretty much. Or, some of them have no idea who I am even if they know I'm John Waters. But, then I show them all of my films so they get an idea. I think their reaction is one of hope, because they feel that if I can make a living doing this, there's hope for ANYONE! I show them all kinds of movies. I showed them THE EVIL DEAD, FAT CITY, WISEBLOOD, I showed them FREAKS, even DWARVES STARTED SMALL. That was a really strange one because it's about midgets taking over a mental institution and they just say, "Where do you get these?!"

Did you attend the Ramona Africa/MOVE trial in Philly a few months ago?
No, I didn't go to this one. I wanted to very much, but at the time I was under a deadline for, I forget, the book or the movie. I do have all the clippings, though. A very faithful friend sent me every clipping. So, I wanted to go very much. That is the one trial that I missed. I regret missing that one.

Have there been any good trials recently?
No, the last big one I went to was Hinckley. I don't think I've been to a major one since then. Did you go to the MOVE trial?

No, I had classes, and by the time I got there it was a pain to get in.
It didn't last that long, either. Only a couple weeks. She really didn't get that bad a sentence. Well, there's still MOVE houses aren't there?

Oh yeah.
I mean, I really don't think you've heard the last of them.

No, they'll probably wait a few years and then they'll do something.
Do something...have a rap festival!!

Where's the best place you find to get ideas for your films?
Just walking around Baltimore. Just little things that you pick up. I have a friend who told me this story the other day. It probably won't even work if I tell you this, but he was walking up the street and he passed this little hillbilly girl who looked up at him and said, "I just killed a worm!" Just something like that I could make a whole scene out of. So he just said, "Oh, her first kill. She was SO EXCITED!" But, I mean little things like that can certainly give me ideas.

How do you feel about Media Entertainment backing out of the videocassette deal?
Fine, because we got more money from the new people.

Continental gave you more money?

Is DESPERATE LIVING out on video?
Yeah, DESPERATE LIVING is out. MULTIPLE MANIACS and MONDO TRASHO are both coming from Continental sometime this year.

Great. What's your favorite of your own films?

Do you have any fantasy projects in the works?
Oh, I have so many! I wanted to have Divine with Frances the Talking Mule. I wanted to do a testimonial banquet where all the Manson Family is put together again, even the ones that are Jesus Freaks, the ones that are totally rehabilitated, the ones that are still into it and everything. And just have a true documentary of what would happen when they were all together again in some tacky LA banquet hall, and call it THE BIG KILL. I think that would really be a high concept movie. I'd like to do the final installment of the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, when Jason goes and we have all cameo victims like Esther Williams with a hatchet. You know, each different old movie star getting murdered by Jason.

Have you see FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 6: JASON LIVES yet?
I've seen every one and I HATE all of them! There's something in the ads. I go the opening day to every one of them, I never like them, and I've seen every one of them. I mean, I like the idea of it. I like the idea that they just make the same movie over and over and over and the same people go and it makes lots of money. I think it's really a magic formula. (laughs) Especially when the people don't like them. That's what I don't understand.

They'll say, "This is pathetic," but when Part 7 opens they'll be there opening night.
Exactly. I like the whole pattern of the movies.

It can't be too bad when you make the same movie six times and make millions of dollars.
Each time!

I read that you made your acting debut in the new Jonathan Demme film.
Oh yeah, it'll probably be cut out...who knows. I sell a used car to Melanie Griffith in [his] new movie called SOMETHING WILD. I have no idea if I'll end up in it or not. I did it because I like Jonathan and I know him and he had a lot of cameos. He had all different people, John Sayles played a cop and there were lots of tiny roles like that.

Similar to what John Landis did in INTO THE NIGHT?
I didn't see that, but yes it was that kind of thing. And it was fun because it was the first time I could be on a movie set and I didn't have to worry about anything. It was the same atmosphere. It was just like being on the set of one of my movies except the panic wasn't there. That's the difference between a big budget and a low budget.

What do you see as the appeal of your movies to normal, middle-class people?
The same appeal that draws people to horror movies, or [why] they'll stop and gawk at an accident. Because maybe they can tell their friends, "Boy! You won't believe what I just saw!" Or, imagine what their parents would think if they saw it.

This is from a videocassette catalog and I just want to read it to you. "Known to many as 'The Prince of Puke,' John Waters (born 1946) has for over 15 years created some of the sickest, most distasteful and funniest films ever from his hometown of Baltimore. His forte is sharply satiric and gross looks at suburban life, and Waters regulars like Divine and the late, great Edith Massey have become cult figures." Is this how you want your obituary to read? When it comes right down to it, is this how John Waters wants to be remembered?
Why not? It's better than, "He worked for his father's company." (laughs)

Isn't that what your father wanted? I hope your brother doesn't read this!
(laughs) There's nothing wrong with working for my father, it's just that it sounds a little more interesting.

True, "sickest and funniest films from Baltimore" does have a certain joie de vivre.
Well, they call me "The Prince of Puke," but William Burroughs gave me a quote for the new book where he calls me "The Pope of Bad Taste!" So, I guess that's a kind of advancement...from Prince to Pope.

I think that's a leap nobody else has ever made.

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