Beach House is a really great band and everything, but Baltimore’s finest export is without a doubt John Waters. The pioneering trash cinema auteur of cult flicks Pink Flamingos (1972) and Hairspray (1988) – who is also an actor, writer, journalist, comedian and visual artist – is bound for Australia in October for John Waters Selects Double Features from Hell at the Sydney Opera House, a self-curated film festival featuring his favourite “feel bad” movies, as well as performing his one-man show “This Filthy World” at venues around the country.
He has been pushing the boundaries and fucking with the rules of taste, tolerance and normalcy since 1967 when he made his first 16-mm film Eat Your Makeup.
The problem that comes with doing interviews with people like John Waters over the phone is that you lose the extremely appealing and hilarious rapidfire verbal delivery in the transcription process. The only solution to this problem is something you – the reader – must do, which is to watch as many YouTube videos of John Waters as you have to until his voice is so deeply entrenched into your head that his voice becomes your inner voice, and when you think to yourself: “I’m going to grab a sandwich” it sounds like [insert John Waters voice here] “I’m going to grab a sandwich“. So go do that first, then read this…
No Smoking Please
PEDESTRIAN: Where do I find you today? JOHN WATERS: Today I’m in Baltimore and I leave to go to Spain and London tomorrow.
Are you touring or are you having some down time? I’m doing my show in Spain and then I’m going to London for a vacation which I do every September. It’s the only week I take off of work so I go to art galleries, I go to the movies, walk around London, it’s so a great – a foreign country where they speak English just like in Australia and New Zealand!
Why London, John? I just think it’s a great city and I don’t know that many people and people don’t know me, so it’s perfect.
Have you found it uncomfortable, being a recognizable person? No, I have little patience for those people who are movie directors who bitch about being recognized. I mean technology has made it so no one has privacy, even if you’re not famous. I mean everyone works for the paparazzi now. No, I find that people are my customers and they’re generally nice to me. It’s not like anyone hassles me and I can go out, but when I go out people do recognize me, usually no matter where I am, but they’re nice about it. The people who hate my work never tell me! [Laughs hysterically] It’s generally nice stuff that people say to me so there’s nothing to complain about really.
Sounds like you get a pretty good deal. When you’re out you’re at work, but people do talk like you’re invisible. It makes me feel like I’m a ghost or something [Laughs hysterically]. I always wave, but they keep talking like I can’t hear them – like I’m not real. It’s quite funny really. I can hear them say [affects a loud yelling voice]: “that’s John Waters!” “isn’t that John Waters?”. It’s hysterical.
What are you working on at the moment? I’ve just finished writing my whole tour so I did that, I finished writing a big art catalogue, I’m going to write a new book, I’ve just written a new movie… I’m always working on a project. As my friends say I’ve always got many projects in development.
Tell me about your tour. What’s “This Filthy World” about? My show is a celebration of what most people would hide and it’s my advice for all kinds of people to be happy in the world. You do through life where no one changes, no one gets better. No one is better! Better than what?! I’m a happy person, but some people would think oh I’m a single man or I celebrate what some people would call ‘filth’ and I use that word in a great celebration of questionable taste. I’m fascinated by human behavior and I want you, after you’ve seen my show, to be less judgmental about yourself and even more so about other people and try to understand any human behaviors – because it’s all interesting.
Human behaviour: Divine shits in the park in “Pink Flamingos”
What I’ve always found inspiring about you is that you don’t follow rules and this is reflected in your work. You don’t follow the rules about what people should do or what the right or wrong way is to live. I think as long as you don’t hurt people then it’s fine to like all different types of stuff. I like people mixed together, I like straight, gay, every race. I think it’s much more interesting that people will only hang around certain people like themselves because then all the stories they hear – say, about the worst night of each other’s lives – are the same. I want to hear a different ‘worst night of my life’ story to mine! [Cackles gleefully]. I think how you survive is by having a sense of humor then you can get through life. I’m interested in meeting all kinds of people, I don’t just like to hang out in one world. I do pretty well in high culture and pretty well in low culture and not very well at all in middle culture. Yet in Hairspray all things middle were celebrated and it kind of amazed me as I think that’s probably the only subversive thing I’ve ever done.
Hairspray starring Ricki Lake: “heartthrobs and hefty girls!”
Perhaps it was that everyone could relate to that one character, the character of Tracey. A fat girl. Ask a fat person and they’ll tell you. I think that they used to have the worst combination of anyone. What they said to me was that when you walk down the street if you’re obese no one makes eye contact with you. So that is different to racial hatred and it’s different to homophobic people. Fat people had it the worst. But now I think fat people – I call them ample people or “biggin’s” – feel great about themselves. They dancing wildly and I’m like [affects voice of hushed reverence] gosh that’s a good look for a biggin’ girl. And same with punk and all these rebellious fashions – which were saviors for people who weren’t traditionally beautiful, and by mocking Dee Dee they have their own style.
It’s interesting that ‘ample’ people, like you put it, and punk culture is considered pretty sexy and fashionable – it’s really celebrated – right now. Well America is the only country in the world where the poor are fat and the rich are skinny. Everywhere else it’s the opposite, right? I don’t see that many fat punk rockers still… It’s hard to pull the look off but gosh the Betty Paige look is great for bigger girls. I think the best look for a big girl is the burlesque look cause you can wear the cinched waist and push those tits up and look great! Be Betty Paige goes to Burlesque – but NOT for sexist men or hipsters!
Was the character of Tracey based on anyone in particular? Me! I think in a way all the characters in my movies are me. But it was a character – the outsider, for every kid that didn’t fit in. The real people that were on the Buddy Dean Show (which was the name of the show I loosely based Hairspray on), they all said to me after the movie that a black kid could’ve gotten on the show easier than a fat girl. There was never a fat girl that was the star of the show, that was completely fictitious. Everything else was loosely based on my exaggerations of fantasies that happened on that show including the ending that the real show never had – it was taken off the air because it wasn’t integrated. But there was never a fat girl that was the star and I think that’s interesting that a fat girl at that time was never ever considered for the star of the show.
The Buddy Dean Show:
Tell me about the movie that you’re writing. Well I’ve already written it, it’s called Fruitcake. And I’m writing another one. Fruitcake was a children’s Christmas adventure and I had a development deal and I sold it and then the independent film world seemed to fall apart so I’m still trying to make it. I’m dong another movie called Wiremouth too, which is about a woman that steals suitcases at airports. Somebody I actually know, his girlfriend, when they broke up and she moved out he found out that his attic was full of empty suitcases. Everyday she went to the airport and she stole them off the belts! Watch your suitcases! It made me really paranoid! My friend thought she was just going to work everyday – and I suppose she was, just not to the job he thought! People’s lives are amazing to me… People who go through a huge amount of trouble to have a secret life and to pull it off.
I’m quite fascinated with hoarders myself. Well I’m not one, except I’m hardly a minimalist. One of the places I live in is pretty full, but a hoarder doesn’t discriminate and I do highly discriminate against what I keep, but I do keep a lot.
What IS your home environment like? I live in a house in Baltimore that was built in 1927, it’s four stories, but also it is my offices. My three assistants work there in different rooms. My offices are all on different floors and we talk all day through intercoms, except for meetings. I have another studio in Baltimore where I do my photo work. I have an apartment in New York, an apartment in San Francisco and a summer rental in Province Town so I’m a man of airports. And I have 27 speaking engagements this fall so I’m REALLY a man of airports!
Do you enjoy coming here to Australia? Oh I do. You know I sing for my supper! I get to go all over the world to talk, I meet the fans, I see the people. Yes, I like Australia; it’s kind of like Baltimore in a way. Everybody has a self-critical sense of humor. Everyone’s a little ‘rednecky’ in the best sense of the word. You have your own culture, you’re not easily impressed by trends – at least from what I saw – so all those things are good things to me and that’s what I feel Baltimore is like too. This year I’m doing something completely different at the Sydney Opera House. I’m having a weekend of Double Features From Hell! I’m showing all types of movies which are fairly alarming to the general public and we’re going to talk about them so it’s going to be the festival from Hell.
What are the movies? Did you curate the selection yourself? Oh yeah, completely I’ve picked them. Things like Irreversible and Anti-Christ together at last on a double feature which would make anyone have a heart attack! I think all the films are really good films – they’re amazing films but they are also extreme.
Anyone for a relaxing evening with Lars Von Trier’s Anti-Christ:
Do you think a lot of the time films get under appreciated if they are incredibly shocking? All these Hollywood movies today, these frat-boy comedies try to be shocking. But it’s harder to be surprising with wit and to do something that’s never been done before and maybe horrify. But I already feel good in real life, I don’t expect a movie to make me feel good. I never understand why people want movies to makes them feel good – well go have a DRINK if you wanna feel good! Why do you expect a movie to make you happy? It’s not the job of a film director to make you happy! It’s to challenge you, to give you an experience, to take you out of your life into another life. Even one you may never want to live in.
Have you seen any good movies lately? I saw a movie called Attack The Block which is hilarious. It’s about a black gang that is attacked by aliens. I saw Beats, Rhymes And Life about A Tribe Called Quest – a great documentary. I even liked Tree of Life, a movie I thought I would hate, but I do think it’s the best Christian, heterosexual New Age movie of the year. I thought Brad Pitt was great in it. I go to the movies all the time. I liked this movie called Leap Year. Was that an Australian director? It was incredibly depressing and good. I’m all for extreme art movies – that’s what I like.
Leap Year (not the one with Amy Adams)
You were telling me before about your movie Fruitcake. What’s it about? There’s a little boy named Fruitcake and he’s in a very functional family of meat thieves. We have them here in Baltimore. They knock on your door and say “Meat Man!”, you then go downstairs and say you want a ham, two pork chops and some ground veal and they’ll shoplift it and you pay half of what’s on the label. And this is a Christmas movie so Fruitcake was filling all the orders for Christmas eve – turkey and what not – and he hooks up with a little black girl named Tweesy who has bad gay white parents who make her have gay Kwanzaa, and the two of ’em hook up together and run away and then they team up with some other orphans to steal the meat to bring home for the happy poor people in their neighborhood on Christmas eve.. It sounds commercial, right?
Yes, very Chrismassy. It also sounds extremely romantic. Well I think it actually is! It’s about a very functional family who happen to live in a world that many people may think is criminal, but it’s also functional.
It sounds like you live in your work almost. You’ve got your office at home… Yes I can go to work in my underpants, which is very important. Every morning I have to think up something to write so I go into my writing room (which is not the same room where I’m calling you from, I’m in my business room where I sell things at the moment).
How does a one-man powerhouse such as yourself organise your time? I’m very organised. I don’t have a spontaneous moment in my life. I even schedule my hangovers! I had one not long ago, but it had been scheduled for three weeks. Monday to Friday I write 8am to 12 each morning and in the afternoon I sell it. I don’t usually work on weekends, sometimes I do when I’m on a tour, but I’m not a workaholic cause that would be seven days a week. I also have a good social life, I have dinner parties, but very much during the week I count it as a school night meaning I get up at 6am each morning. If I could write in the middle of the night I would stay up all night but I can’t. It doesn’t matter when you write as long as you keep regular hours and I think that’s very important for me. People say “oh you’re so anal, so self disciplined” but if I wasn’t I’d have to go work for somebody else!
John Waters tells Conan O’Brien about his life schedule:
Any last words John? Just remember if you’re a young person making movies that ‘No’ is free. Ask anybody for what you want if you really think you can pay them back, but don’t be discouraged when people say no. ‘Cause people said no to me so many times during the first 15 years and no one said my movies were good after I made them so don’t worry, just keep going – you can make it happen.
JOHN WATERS “THIS FILTHY WORLD” TOUR DATES:
Wed 19 Oct Perth Concert Hall WA
Tue 25 Oct Canberra Theatre ACT
Wed 26 Oct Brisbane Powerhouse QLD
Thu 27 Oct Her Majesty’s Theatre (Adelaide Festival Centre) SA
Sat 29 Oct Melbourne Recital Centre – Elisabeth Murdoch Hall VIC
John Waters Presents: Double Features from Hell
Friday 21 – Sunday 23 October at Sydney Opera House
One more clip, this time of John Waters’ guest role on The Simpsons.