John Waters' influence on modern culture is incalculable. The Baltimore, Md.-based filmmaker has written and directed 16 feature-length films, including cult classics Polyester, Desperate Living, Pink Flamingos, Pecker, Multiple Maniacs, and Hairspray. His humorous, postmodern photographic works have been shown in galleries across the globe. As an actor, he has appeared in My Name Is Earl, Homicide: Life on the Streets, and Feud: Bette and Joan. And his four essay collections chronicle obsessions with once-obscure cultural figures, as well as his continued penchant for hitchhiking.
Metro Times spoke with the quick-witted, soon-to-be-71 year-old artist in preparation for his birthday stand-up appearances at El Club this weekend.
Metro Times: Thanks in advance for returning to Detroit. What can people expect from this show?
John Waters: I guess I'll be a year older, so I'll be more immature in my jokes. What they can expect is always an updated self-help lecture for crazy people about how they can get through anything, and how you can use crime, and fashion, and movies, and art, and everything for radical politics. And how we need a new definite kind of civil disobedience brought by new young people that reflects my nostalgia for these people who used humor for terrorism to embarrass the enemy. And God knows we have a president that would fall for it. He's a hair-hopper president; we finally have one.
MT: You've lived through other culture wars and you've had films get banned from the beginning of your career. What do you think you've learned from that?
Waters: The early days, when you could build on negative publicity would be impossible today. There was a cultural war going on when I started, and there very well may be one again now. But that doesn't mean the critics are divided. All film critics think they're hip now; there are no square film critics. I mean, there are, but I think Rex Reed's out of a job now. You couldn't really use negative publicity to build a career now.
When I started out, there were so many taboos left. Now Hollywood makes $100 million bad-taste movies that aren't funny. So that's why I took my film Pink Flamingos and as an art project re-shot it as what we called Kiddie Flamingos — where I re-wrote the script for children and had them read it, when they had no knowledge of the original movie. You have to sometimes go backward to be transgressive or startle people.
But I'll be 71 years old. I don't really think that my position is to be a radical anarchist filmmaker. I mean, when Occupy Baltimore wanted me to come, I was sincerely flattered and wanted to come. But I own three homes and, you know, it's a little hypocritical. People say "Why don't you go on Kickstarter?" Well, you know, I'm not broke! So I'm on both sides; I didn't vote for Bernie because I thought even Cuba doesn't want to be socialist.
MT: You hint at where you're at financially, personally. Could you today make a mid-level studio art film like Pecker in this climate?
Waters: No! Well, I can. I've had three development deals since I made A Dirty Shame from big Hollywood studios. One was to make the sequel to Hairspray with HBO, another one was to make Fruitcake when New Line was still there, and the other one was to do Hairspray as a television show. And I don't have any complaints, because they paid me, but none of them happened.
The independent film world that I knew no longer exists. I could make a movie tomorrow if, say, I can do it for $1 million. But I can't because they want all movie stars, and they want a union — which I agree with. They want a music writer, too, which costs a lot of money. I don't want to pretend to go backward, but the last three or four movies I made all cost 5, 6, 7 million dollars. That's almost impossible today to get that; it's the hardest number to get. They want $1 million or $100 million. And I don't need $100 million and I can't do it for one. And I'm fine! You know, I write books, I have a job till the day I die; I'm booked, I think. [Laughs]
MT: I apologize in advance, as at this point everyone asks you hitchhiking questions. But I'm curious if you and the writer Cookie Mueller [star of early films] ever hitchhiked together?
Waters: Cookie wrote about her hitchhiking experiences in one of her books, but on that trip she was with Mink Stole and Susan Lowe. Did I ever hitchhike with Cookie? I'm sure I did in Provincetown, because we both lived there in the summer, so yes I'm sure I did. I used to always hitchhike in Provincetown in the summer; I'd hitchhike to the beach and stuff. I never went on a long-distance hitchhiking trip with Cookie that I can remember.
MT: She's one of my favorite writers.
Waters: You read the biography of her, Edgewise? Chloé Griffin did a great job. Since she died, Cookie's career has gone way up. She should've spent her whole life being a writer instead of being an actress. She was great in movies, but she was a really good writer.
MT: Her voice sounds like it's a lawnmower just starting up.
Waters: Especially in Multiple Maniacs, which is before she moved to New York, pre-Nan Goldin days, when she had pimples and a Baltimore accent. You can hear it when she says, "You've driven me from my own home!" I think that's the quote. But I love how Cookie looks in Multiple Maniacs, and we really did need her because she'd won the door prize at [a screening of] Mondo Trasho, the dinner at the little tavern, which was the worst place in town. And she'd been released from a mental institution not too long before that. That sounds like a fake story by some publicist but it is really true. And then she played Divine's daughter in Multiple Maniacs and they got along great; Divine and Cookie always got along great.
MT: When did you last hitch a ride?
Waters: I went to see Rachel Cusk, the writer — who I like very much — do a reading in San Francisco last week. It was in an out-of-the-way neighborhood and I'd take the bus there, but I didn't even know where the bus stop was. And a woman that was there says, "Do you want a ride?" So that technically was hitchhiking, and she even took me all the way to my house. That was last week. But now it's kind of embarrassing, it looks to people like if I hitchhike, I'm just trying to make a personal appearance or something. But I would do it if I was in a pinch, definitely.
MT: Do you still consider yourself a filmmaker, in terms of your daily life? Are you working on films?
Waters: I consider myself a writer mostly, because I'm getting the lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild. Most of the reason I'm in the Writers Guild is because of all the movies I wrote. But I wrote every movie I ever made, I wrote every book, I wrote my stand-up shows. Everything I do, I write. But like I said, I've had three development deals, and I still have meetings about movies, plus my old movies are a business in themselves. So yes I'm in the movie business still. I vote for the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, the Oscars, the Razzies, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the SAG awards.
MT: You've had these one-person art shows. It's been a minute since you've had one, right?
Waters: Well I'm having a giant one in the Baltimore museum that travels other places, but I'm not allowed to say where it's traveling to yet, with a book and everything. The art world I have kept very separate from all my other careers, very separate. But I've been doing that since 1992.
MT: And then you've compiled records of Christmas music. Is there any sort of thing you haven't done that you'd like to?
Waters: I did sign a two-book deal with my publisher FSG, and one of them is a novel. And I've never done that, so that's something I'm nervous about doing. But I figure I thought up all the movies, and they're fiction. I'm going to attempt that once I've finished the book of essays I'm in the middle of working on now.
MT: You're often quoted saying to not sleep with anyone who doesn't own books...
Waters: I'm lying! I think Lady Bunny said to me, "I thought you liked scary guys, bad guys?" Well, I don't really, but you're right; if they're cute enough, who's looking at their library? But yes, basically I believe in that concept, whether I always practice it, it's like what parents say to their kids, "Do as I say, not as I do." I generally believe that. Every person has to have one book in their house, even if it's a porno book.
MT: What films do you find offensive yourself?
Waters: Ones that are Oscar-bait, and I vote for the Oscars. Ones that are too long, and ones that take themselves so seriously. First of all, they're all too long. A comedy should never be longer than 90 minutes. Of course, I know there's a German one that's 3 hours, but that's defying the rule so I respect that. None of the Oscar movies really offend me. What really offends me are movies that are made just for a holiday weekend; I'm not going to say which holiday, because it might be the title of one of the movies. Films that are written by 5,000 people so that they hit every note to be commercial, so that everyone hates them. And then I find that delightful.
John Waters performs at El Club this Friday, April 21; Doors at 8 p.m.; 4114 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; elclubdetroit.com; Various pricing tiers from $40 for the show plus a general admission ticket to a midnight John Waters film presented at the Red Bull House of Art, to $200 for a dinner date with John Waters, an autographed copy of his latest book, and the other stuff. That show is sold out, but at press time, tickets remain for the matinee show on Saturday, April 22, at 1 p.m.; $40 general admission ticket, $75 for Meet & Greet and autograph, and $200 (very limited) for breakfast and a show ticket. (Whew, see you there.)