Chop­py Wa­ters

John Wa­ters has sho­we­red right-thin­king Ame­ri­ca and the ear­ly-to-bed bri­gade with a se­ries of un­man­ner­ly films since the late 1960s. Nu­mé­ro Homme rea­ched the cult di­rec­tor in his ho­me­town of Bal­ti­more to dis­cuss ju­ry du­ty, adult mo­vie theatres, ma­ri­jua­na,

Numéro Homme - - English Text - In­ter­view by Olivier Joyard, por­trait by So­fia San­chez and Mau­ro Mon­giel­lo

John Wa­ters has sho­we­red right-thin­king Ame­ri­ca and the ear­ly-to-bed bri­gade with a se­ries of un­man­ner­ly films since the late 1960s. Nu­mé­ro Homme rea­ched the cult di­rec­tor in his ho­me­town of Bal­ti­more to dis­cuss ju­ry du­ty, adult mo­vie theatres, ma­ri­jua­na, hit­ch­hi­king and his li­fe­long quest to be­come the most re­vi­led man on the face of the earth. In­ter­view by Olivier Joyard, por­trait by So­fia San­chez and Mau­ro Mon­giel­lo

Nu­mé­ro Homme: Hel­lo?

John Wa­ters:

Hel­lo! Are you in Cannes?

Yes. We miss you. It’s pret­ty bleak out here wi­thout you.

It’s al­ways great to be at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, al­though I on­ly ever go when I’ve got a film to show or when I’m part of the ju­ry – which hap­pe­ned in 1995 with Jeanne Moreau. It was one of the grea­test ex­pe­riences of my life. Clim­bing those steps real­ly meant so­me­thing to a lit­tle boy from Ma­ry­land like me. I’d hate to just turn up and mope around – I’d feel like a grou­pie. I don’t like to ar­rive unan­noun­ced. That’s why I ne­ver vi­sit other di­rec­tors’ sets.

The wea­ther’s ter­rible this year.

That’s why they or­ga­nise fes­ti­vals off-sea­son. Other­wise no one would go. In Cannes, come rain or shine, there’s al­ways a gaggle of past-their-prime wo­men jan­gling up and down the Croi­sette in leo­pard-print tanks and gau­dy je­wels. [Laughs.]

Why do you have such fond me­mo­ries of being part of the ju­ry?

It en­abled me to see films from all over the world, which is one of the things I love most. I re­mem­ber being sum­mo­ned for ju­ry du­ty at the Cir­cuit Court in Bal­ti­more, which wasn’t near­ly as gla­mo­rous. I dod­ged it by tel­ling them that I was an ex-con whose best friend was on death row. Need­less to say, they let me go home. [ Wa­ters taught film classes to in­mates and be­frien­ded Les­lie Van Hou­ten, who was sen­ten­ced to death for a mur­der lin­ked to the Charles Man­son killing spree. The sen­tence was la­ter com­mu­ted to life im­pri­son­ment.]

Are you cal­ling from Bal­ti­more?

Yes. I try to spend as much time here as pos­sible.

You’re cer­tain­ly one of Bal­ti­more’s fi­ner ex­ports. With the The Wire, that is.

I love that show! I’ve seen eve­ry epi­sode! I was or­dai­ned on the In­ter­net to conduct [the show’s crea­tor] David Simon’s wed­ding ce­re­mo­ny!

Why have you al­ways cho­sen to live in Bal­ti­more?

I left Bal­ti­more to stu­dy film in New York, which was fair­ly point­less be­cause I was ex­pel­led from school no soo­ner had I ar­ri­ved. I still oc­ca­sio­nal­ly vi­sit New York, where I own an apart­ment, to catch up on the art scene. But I’d much ra­ther be in Bal­ti­more. The boys are so much cu­ter here, and the people on the streets are much fun­nier. I’m real­ly not in­ter­es­ted in the rich and fa­mous. My films have more to do with in­di­vi­duals who think they’re nor­mal, but who are to­tal­ly cra­zy in rea­li­ty. In New York, it’s the com­plete op­po­site: people like to think they’re ed­gy, when in fact they’re bo­ring as bat­shit.

How did you start di­rec­ting films?

I learnt my craft on the job. Which is why my first at­tempts are so ama­teu­rish. Mon­do Tra­sho and Mul­tiple Ma­niacs [1970] ser­ved as my uni­ver­si­ty of life. Pink Fla­min­gos [1972] was the first film to get a bit of at­ten­tion, in the ear­ly 1970s. I’ve des­cri­bed it as a po­li­ti­cal ma­ni­fes­to against the ty­ran­ny of good taste, but to be per­fect­ly ho­nest, I just wan­ted to make a film. Gro­wing up, I was in­fluen­ced by the ex­ploi­ta­tion films I’d watch at the drive-in. I al­so used to haunt adult mo­vie theatres where they’d show Russ Meyer and soft porn. I then mo­ved on to art-house films. I wan­ted to mix it all up and invent a genre that no one had ever dreamt of. And up un­til now, no one has ever da­red to co­py me.

You’re the on­ly di­rec­tor I can talk to about 1930s Hol­ly­wood, the

un­der­ground di­rec­tor Jack Smith or Ita­lian ci­ne­ma of the 1960s.

I hate to di­sap­point, but I’m not that well-ver­sed in the Gol­den Age of Hol­ly­wood, apart from the odd Bus­by Ber­ke­ley mu­si­cal. It does prick my cu­rio­si­ty, al­though I’m much more in­ter­es­ted in con­tem­po­ra­ry ci­ne­ma. Eve­ry year I pu­blish a list of my ten fa­vou­rite films in Artforum. In 2012, I gave the top spot to The Deep Blue

Sea by Te­rence Da­vies. I al­so have a soft spot for the pro­vo­ca­tive work of the Aus­trian di­rec­tor Ul­rich Seidl – Pa­ra­dise: Love, for example – as well as the films of Bru­no Du­mont, Fran­çois Ozon, Todd So­londz and Cris­tian Mun­giu, the Ro­ma­nian di­rec­tor who di­rec­ted 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. And then there’s Al­modó­var, of course. He ne­ver ceases to amaze. In my book, he ranks as the world’s grea­test li­ving di­rec­tor.

To the un­trai­ned eye, your mo­vies so­me­times come across as obs­cure

art-house flicks. But ha­ven’t you made all kinds of films?

Se­rial Mom [1994] was a huge Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tion.

Pink Fla­min­gos was shown in Cannes, as were Hairspray and Cry- Ba­by [1990]. Po­ly­es­ter, meanw­hile, was pre­sen­ted at the Mar­ché du Film. Which just goes to show that I’m not quite the cli­ché of the doo­med, des­pe­rate ar­tist.

And yet you ha­ven’t made a film in years...

And I’ve writ­ten two books in the mean­time. It’s not like I’ve been twidd­ling my thumbs and wai­ting for things to hap­pen. Last year I hit­ch­hi­ked across Ame­ri­ca and wrote a no­vel about the ex­pe­rience, which I’ve just fi­ni­shed. It’s cal­led Car­sick.

How was the trip?

You’ll have to read the book to find out! [Laughs.] The first part of the book takes place be­fore I leave. I ima­gine the 15 best and 15 worst things that could ever hap­pen to me in terms of sex and ad­ven­ture – in­clu­ding my own death. Du­ring the trip I spent nine days in cars – 21 dri­vers suc­ces­si­ve­ly gave me a lift from my doors­tep in Bal­ti­more to my apart­ment in San Fran­cis­co.

Did any of them re­co­gnise you?

Most of them thought I was ho­me­less. It was a true ad­ven­ture. You should try it one day. It’s the kind of thing you don’t think twice about when you’re 16, but when you’re 66, be­lieve me, it’s quite a stretch.

Let’s get back to New York: why were you ex­pel­led from film school?

I was caught smo­king pot. In any case, they would ne­ver have al­lo­wed me to make Pink Fla­min­gos there, whe­reas to­day you can show a snuff mo­vie and gra­duate with ho­nours. I al­ways saw school as a waste of time. You go there to find out what you want to do in life, gran­ted. But as far as I was concer­ned, I knew exact­ly what I wan­ted from the ear­liest age: to be­come the most re­vi­led per­son on the face of the earth. Need­less to say, that wasn’t on the cur­ri­cu­lum. My first big break in show­biz was when I was 12, and I be­came a pup­pe­teer. And by the time I was 16, I’d di­rec­ted my first film. Not that it was any good.

When did you first rea­lise that you wan­ted to di­rect?

The nuns at Ca­tho­lic school war­ned us of the films we were for­bid­den from wat­ching if we didn’t want to rot in hell. That’s when it daw­ned on me that I wan­ted to make mo­vies.

And where did your own inimitable style spring from?

I was in­fluen­ced by the Ku­char bro­thers, Russ Meyer, and Ing­mar Berg­man – be­cause there was al­ways a vo­mi­ting scene in his films – but I de­ve­lo­ped my own vo­ca­bu­la­ry my­self. Like Ce­cil B. DeMille, I’ve al­ways thought that a po­li­shed tech­nique be­trayed a lack of style. If you leave the mo­vie theatre mar­vel­ling at the ca­me­ra­work, there’s a pro­blem. There was ab­so­lu­te­ly no tech­nique in my first pro­jects. People thought I li­ved with Di­vine in a trai­ler be­cause the ligh­ting was so harsh. Those who li­ked my work des­cri­bed it as “pri­mal,” and those who didn’t cal­led me inept. Ha­ving said that, I’ve al­ways had a nose for mar­ke­ting and I knew that even if eve­ryone ha­ted the film, at least they were tal­king about it. It was like an act of co­mic ter­ro­rism.

Let’s talk about clothes. You cer­tain­ly cut a fine fi­gure.

Thank you. Style has a lot to do with self-confi­dence. Look at me: I’m not ar­ro­gant, but I have a good idea of what suits me. I’ve been buying ex­pen­sive de­si­gner gear of late, but that’s on­ly be­cause I’m old and I need all the help I can get. When you’re 15, you can slip in­to any old rag and call it a trend.

You’ve nur­tu­red ma­ny young ups­tarts who have since be­come hou­se­hold

names: John­ny Depp, for ins­tance. Can you tell us about your re­la­tion­ship

with your ac­tors?

John­ny was al­rea­dy fa­mous when I cast him in Cry- Ba­by. He’d al­rea­dy star­red in the TV show 21 Jump Street.

But you’re the one who gave him his cre­di­bi­li­ty.

Maybe. Cas­ting has al­ways been im­por­tant to me. Di­vine was a great ac­tor. If you don’t be­lieve me, you can see it for your­self in Jef­frey Sch­warz’s do­cu­men­ta­ry

I Am Di­vine.

Were Di­vine and you child­hood friends?

We met when we were in our teens. He and his fa­mi­ly mo­ved to my neigh­bou­rhood when I was 16. Sad­ly he died too young, at the age of 42.

Was he the An­toine Doi­nel to your Fran­çois Truf­faut?

We were more like Dean Mar­tin and Jer­ry Le­wis. He star­ted out as a cross bet­ween Jayne Mans­field and God­zilla, and then he blos­so­med in­to a brilliant ac­tor and played the fe­male lead in all my mo­vies. Some of my films, like Fe­male Trouble [1984], were writ­ten for him. Throu­ghout my ca­reer, I’ve wor­ked with Hol­ly­wood stars such as Son­ny Bo­no, Ch­ris­ti­na Ricci, Deb­bie Har­ry, Kath­leen Tur­ner, Me­la­nie Grif­fith, Ste­phen Dorff and Tra­cey Ull­man. But I al­ways en­joy mixing them with les­ser-known names. Mo­vie stars can’t be left alone on set with a di­rec­tor who’s sca­red shit­less of them.

Do you al­ways know how to get what you want on set?

So­me­times when I’m wat­ching a film, it sud­den­ly strikes me that the di­rec­tor didn’t have the balls to keep his ac­tors in check. I’ve al­ways sus­tai­ned a good rap­port with them.

They’ll al­ways want to add their per­so­nal touch, which is fine by me – up to a point, be­cause I’ve ne­ver been a great one for im­pro­vi­sa­tion. Let’s face it: im­pro­vi­sa­tion on­ly ever wor­ked for An­dy Wa­rhol and Paul Mor­ris­sey.

Why are you not ma­king mo­vies at the mo­ment?

It’s in­crea­sin­gly dif­fi­cult in Hol­ly­wood to se­cure fi­nan­cing for pro­jects that aren’t boi­ler­plate block­bus­ters. They’ll give you a bud­get of $1 mil­lion or $100 mil­lion, but there’s no room for any­thing in bet­ween. For me, it’s im­pos­sible. I’ve been wor­king on a pro­ject for years. The film’s cal­led Fruit­cake, it’s a Ch­rist­mas tale that’s both tra­gic and mar­vel­lous about a fa­mi­ly of Bal­ti­more meat stea­lers. I si­gned a de­ve­lop­ment contract and pro­duc­tion was about to be­gin, but then the re­ces­sion hit.

Are you in­ter­es­ted in po­li­tics?

I’m a com­plete news jun­kie; I read eight news­pa­pers a day. Right now I’m ob­ses­sed with the Bos­ton Marathon bom­bings. Cer­tain de­tails of the tra­ge­dy are par­ti­cu­lar­ly com­pel­ling. The wife of one of the bom­bers was wor­king 20 hours a day while he stayed at home doing no­thing. That sounds like one of my films. Ter­ro­rism is abo­mi­nable, but when so­me­thing like that hap­pens, I’m hoo­ked. What is it that makes people who seem like per­fect­ly nor­mal uni­ver­si­ty kids com­mit such an atro­ci­ty? And then leave so ma­ny clues? Are they just plain stu­pid? All hu­man be­ha­viour in­ter­ests me.

Did you fol­low the gay mar­riage de­bacle in France?

Of course. It was big news in the US, too. I spoke to the go­ver­nor of Ma­ry­land about al­lo­wing mar­riage bet­ween people of the same sex, and Ma­ry­land was one of the first states to le­ga­lise it. I was com­ple­te­ly sho­cked by the se­ve­ri­ty of the op­po­si­tion in France. In the US, we’d al­ways had this vi­sion of France as being such a li­be­ral coun­try, what with Pa­ris being the ci­ty of love and all that… Per­so­nal­ly, I’m in no rush to tie the knot, but “nor­mal” gays should cer­tain­ly have the right to. Why should it scare anyone? Eve­ryone knows how hard it is to find love. Even when I try playing the de­vil’s ad­vo­cate, I still can’t fi­gure it out.

You’ve al­ways been a staunch de­fen­der of op­pres­sed mi­no­ri­ties.

There’s one mi­no­ri­ty that no one’s tal­king about at the mo­ment that I find in­tri­guing: straight couples who are able yet un­willing to have kids. And then there’s ano­ther more outs­po­ken group I wor­ship: the “au­to­sexuals.” They pre­fer mas­tur­ba­tion over other forms of sexual ac­ti­vi­ty. The first time I heard of them I thought: “But isn’t eve­ryone like that?” Psy­chia­trists say that au­to­sexuals are un­der the im­pres­sion that they’re being un­fai­th­ful to them­selves when they sleep with so­meone else. They’re my new fa­vou­rite mi­no­ri­ty. What does the Ca­tho­lic Church have to say about the au­to­sexual re­vo­lu­tion? [Laughs.]

What do the words “camp” and “un­der­ground” mean to you, as so­meone

with whom they’ve of­ten been as­so­cia­ted?

“Camp” is the co­de­name they use in Hol­ly­wood for a pro­ject they think is too gay. Per­so­nal­ly, I’ve ne­ver used the word. Nor have any of my friends. It’s the kind of thing an old queen might say while dis­cus­sing Ri­ta Hay­worth un­der a Tif­fa­ny lamp in the 1960s. As for the word “un­der­ground,” one could use it to­day to des­cribe a film shot by some guy on his smartphone. In the end, it could make him mil­lions. To tell you the truth, I’m not real­ly sure that the un­der­ground exists any­more.

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