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,
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?
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  served as my university of life. Pink Flamingos  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  was a huge Hollywood production.
Pink Flamingos was shown in Cannes, as were Hairspray and Cry- Baby . 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 , 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.