One on One with John Waters

Photo by Dokument Films

Baltimore is known for three things: crabcakes, The Wire and John Waters – the indie filmmaking legend who carved a niche for himself telling depraved, campy stories of loveable losers. We recently had a chance to talk to the man William Burroughs dubbed “the pope of trash” about his films, his fashion sense and his one-man show.

What does the city of Baltimore mean to you and what sets it apart from the rest of the country?

The city of Baltimore is home to me. I’ve always made movies about what the Chamber of Commerce tried to hide and I always joke that they should put out a bumper sticker saying, “Come to Baltimore and be shocked” and they did about five years ago. I guess they’ve given up and realized that we have to celebrate the weirdness of the city.

And it still is weird because people don’t want to leave, they don’t understand why you’d want to go to New York and they have a good sense of humor about things like when Travel and Leisure magazine picks us as the ugliest people in America – although I saw the other day though that Philadelphia won it this year, so I’m jealous.

Do you think the ugly people of Baltimore are migrating to Philadelphia?

I don’t know. I don’t think that people are ugly in Baltimore; I think they look the cutest. But people just don’t understand extreme fashion – extreme gene pools.

Hairspray and Pink Flamingos are perhaps your most loved films, but what do you think is your most underrated film? Is there a particular movie of yours that you feel never got the recognition it deserved?

I think that all of my movies are the same. I think that each one of them basically, you could pick them out from Hairspray to Desperate Living to Cecil B. Demented and they all say the same thing, that I’m celebrating people that don’t win in real life and I’m celebrating in a weird way part of my life and characters that remind me of different things that have happened in my life. But I know the cliche is always to say, “My films are like children. It’s like Sophie’s Choice, don’t make me pick one.” And I always say that my films are not only like my children, but they are retarded and have learning disabilities and are in homes for wayward children or halfway houses, so I have to be kinder and not pick one.

Gus Van Sant told me that we always would answer this question by picking the ones that probably didn’t do the best at the box office. Some of my early films, I would say Desperate Living did, by far, the worst. And, later in life, Ceci B. Demented, even though when I go to colleges, all the young filmmakers like that one of the best these days. But maybe that’s one I’m very fond of.

Your one-man show, This Filthy World, is being released on DVD. What can fans who pick up the DVD expect to see?

Well, they can expect to see an act really I’ve been doing for over 30 years, developing to this point. Certainly I go through all my movies, I talk about crime, fashion, movie stars, criminals, my parents, Catholicism, religion, everything. It’s my viewpoint, it’s my position paper, and it’s my sermon. If I was an Evangelical minister, I’d pass the collection box.

The film was directed by Jeff Garlin from Curb Your Enthusiasm. How did that come about and what was it like working with him?

He was put with me with my agent and certainly Netflix liked the idea. I hadn’t met Jeff, but I knew him from Curb Your Enthusiasm and liked it. And then I found out that he had directed a lot of other one-man shows. He did a Dennis Leary one and a couple others. He seemed perfect. He came to see me do it at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and it worked. He really directed the way I liked, which was not calling a lot of attention to the direction, not opening it up – having enough faith in the material that it was funny the way it had been working for many years.

In your films and in This Filthy World, you cover many perverted, taboo subjects. At this point, is there anything left that shocks you?

I’m always trying to make you laugh and I’m trying to surprise you. I think after the end of Pink Flamingos, I never tried to top that. I never tried to shock people again really and in a way, if I had been, I wouldn’t be sitting here today; I wouldn’t have all these movies out because you have to keep reinventing yourself each decade to get young people to come see you. The reinvention that keeps your career coming is that you don’t just write for your generation.

You were a professor of Cinema and Subcultural Studies at the European Graduate School. What was that experience like for you?

I did teach a couple of semesters and it was fine, it was good. It was a graduate school you do online a lot and I would go to Switzerland every year, but I haven’t done that for about 10 years and I don’t do it anymore, but it’s something that I enjoyed.

You’ve always been a very fashionable guy. If you leave your house to go to the grocery store or to the post office, do you still get dressed up or will you ever venture outside in jeans and a t-shirt?

I’m dressed as John Waters when you see me, which means I’m dressed as John Waters today. But, if I’m home, I probably put on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Sometimes it might be a Comme des Garçons t-shirt, but you wouldn’t know. But I know, and it makes me so happy. Certainly when I was young, I never paid more than a dollar for anything I bought. I found everything in thrift shops.

I think if you’re under 30, you’re insane if you spend a lot of money on clothes. Over 40, we need all the help we can get. And I spend a lot of money to look like a disaster in a dry cleaner. I pay money for clothes that are ripped and torn and you can’t get the wrinkles out and even bikers have said to me in Baltimore, “That’s a shame about that coat.” Somehow it cost $2,000. I shop in reverse – I spend a lot to look crummy. A lot of press would say, “Mr. Waters, who was in his thrift shop finest …” I thought, “Thrift shop?” I love that, it makes me laugh. My father always said, “You bought that? They saw you coming, boy.”

Photo by Dokument Films

How often do you get recognized out in public and what sort of people approach you?

Constantly. Every day, anywhere, pretty much. But, you know, its fine – I’m not complaining about it.

What do you do to unwind?

Poppers. (Laughs.)

What would you do for a living if you never got into filmmaking?

I would be a criminal defense lawyer for criminals that did the worst things, lied about it, would do it again and are not sorry. If you’ve seen this film that’s out now that’s called Terror Advocate, I’d be him. He’s a French defense lawyer for the worst of the worst – “the damned, the despised and the depraved,” as Jessie Jackson so brilliantly called his constituency.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.

Is there anything most people don’t know about me after doing interviews for 30 years? Yeah, actually you don’t have any idea of my private life. You don’t know the name of one person that I’ve ever slept with.

Interviewed by Joel Murphy, October 2007. This Filthy World will be released on DVD on October 30.

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