It’s remarkable how, nearly fifty years after developing his own brand of rude and twisted comedy, John Waters still manages to shock. Even as his spiritual progenies—Jackass and Sacha Baron Cohen, for example—have escalated his censor-testing gags involving bodily fluids, offbeat fetishes, and verbal vulgarity, one can pick up Pink Flamingos and still wince and turn away while laughing hysterically. Though it became trickier to talk producers into funding his jolly perversions, the writer/director/editor/author/actor can be most fittingly described as the best kind of huckster. Even at seventy years old, Waters’ charm and passion for storytelling resonates as loudly as his outfits or pencilled mustache. In person, his energy never wanes.
That energy is present in Multiple Maniacs, his 1970 feature that never received a proper release. It not only cements his free-spirited raunch, but also introduces drag icon Divine in a performance that helps you forgive the film’s messiness. Thanks to Janus Films and Criterion Collection, the film will not only get a proper home video release (complete with the earlier Mondo Trasho), but will receive a limited run at IFC Center beginning on August 5th, with Waters himself introducing and answering questions on opening day. In the meantime, please enjoy our brief conversation with the Pope of Trash himself.
You must be excited by this new restoration. (laughs) I’m startled by it! I find it incredibly wonderfully ironic that Janus Films is releasing it with Criterion, two of the classiest art distributors that I grew up with. Yes, it’s exciting to see something you did so long ago come out again and still not look really old school. I think it still has a punch. I saw it with an audience at the Provincetown Film Festival and it seemed to work better than it did back then!
It screened a couple years ago at Lincoln Center, right? Yes, but that was before it was restored. That was the last 16mm print and it was full of splices and rips and it barely made it through the projector. This looks completely different. It’s 1:66 ratio and the dirt and splice marks are gone. You can hear it! I could hear and see things I didn’t remember, like from Paul Swift who really does mumble part, because he was so stoned and couldn’t remember his lines. Divine’s apartment in the movie was my house. I could now look at the film and say, “Ooh! I still have that, I still have that.” I have recurring dreams that I still live in that apartment. It still looks exactly the same from outside. It’s a rooming house now. I never wanted it to look bad, I just didn’t know any better. If we’re gonna re-release it, why not make it look as new as you can. I still think parts of it are long, but I didn’t change the content of it in any way.
There are even still the little pregnant pauses at the beginning of some shots. It is filmed with single-system magnetic film, which was what the news used before video cameras. The sound is recorded right on the film as you shoot, but the sound frame is 24 frames ahead of the picture, and there’s no negative, so every time you cut you have to overlap one second of the scene before.
How long did shooting last? I don’t know, because we never shot it all in a row. It was shot whenever I could get the money. It may have taken nine days, ten days. There were whole days shot on my silent camera that you had to wind up, when we were outside, when we shot the rosary job, the Stations of the Cross. That’s what we shot Mondo Trasho with. This was the first movie where we could talk, because the movies before were all just music.
You made good use of limited locations. Like the giant lobster scene, where was that? That was my apartment! Pete’s Bar, that was the actual bar where Edith [Massey] worked, and the church exterior was different from where the inside was, and I’ve never told where it was. The end, where everyone’s running, was in Fells Point. We didn’t ask, we just pulled over on a Sunday morning, people joined in. You can see every time we come around there’s new people. They came out of their house and started running. Every time they’d come around the corner the blind man got back in the shot. It was such bad continuity that it become sort of a running joke. I figured use what you got. Get a laugh when you don’t expect it.
It’s a great scene. It’s a cross between A Hard Day’s Night, The Battle of Algiers and Godzilla. Despite the fact that everyone should be scared, everyone really looks happy to be in that scene. (laughs) Right. Well, they should’ve been! There was no safety people there. Everyone kept falling down. We were always afraid to get busted, because on Mondo Trasho we were arrested for conspiracy to commit indecent exposure. I was always looking over my shoulder to see when cops might show up.
I noticed a postcard on the wall in your apartment with a lobster on it, so it gives a little foreshadowing to the giant lobster later on. Is there? I’ll have to remember that. I think it was because we would go to Provincetown in the summer and take LSD a lot, and there was always these postcards of lobsters in the sky, and that’s where it came from. Hallucinations on vacation and lobster dinners, that's where it came from.
What did you take into making that movie from Mondo Trasho, and what did you take into your next film? I never went to film school. What I learned was from the film lab guys and the teenster types that i would rent the cameras from that probably took them illegally out of the TV station where they worked. With Mondo Trasho, I think it was a ninety minutes that should’ve been forty. In Multiple Maniacs, I learned what worked and what didn’t in humor. There were certainly scenes that were wrong in there, but you have to remember—these was in the years of Warhol movies and L’Avventura. Slowness was in style. At the same time, I got my lessons from Herschell Gordon Lewis. Multiple Maniacs was a ripoff of Two Thousand Maniacs!, and I interviewed him in my book Shock Value.
I was learning about what you can put in the movie that isn’t illegal. The rosary job outraged the censors, but they couldn’t cut it! That led to Pink Flamingos and eating dog shit for the exact same reasons, that it was ridiculous, who would ever copy it? At the same time, it was transgressive, a political act against the tyranny of good taste that I was raised with. But I’m glad I was, because I would’ve never known what rules to break. I wasn’t in total rebellion; I’m a weird gay version of my father. I believe in those rules! I don’t believe you should wear white after Labor Day, I do believe that you deserve to die.
How’d this partnership with Janus begin? I think Kim from Criterion, if I’m correct, came to the screening at Lincoln Center, so the very fact that anyone was even talking about it again was enough. She called me and I let her knew all the issues and we made it happen. I was in high school going to see at Goucher College near where I lived, they had a Bergman retrospective. People ask me today what my influences were—Bergman was my influence! When he was shown in Baltimore movie theaters, they cut off a lot of the dialogue and just left the tits in, so they’d play at the nudist camp theaters. Monika was renamed Monika’s Hot Summer. The other movies that made me crazy were Brink of Life and all the early Bergmans because they had puke scenes in them! I’d never seen puke in a movie! He’s the real King of Puke, not me! I even have a headline when I went to Sweden for a film festival, and I said that. When I came home, the newspaper headlines, all blown up said, “I’m not the King of Puke! Bergman is!” And I still have that on my bulletin board in Baltimore.
That’s a keeper! Janus’s rerelease of Multiple Maniacs seems in line with the latest wave of companies putting out old porn on Blu-Ray. To me, the old porn and exploitation is the only outlaw cinema left! I guess you can say Spring Breakers kinda was, I think Tangerine was, but there are so few movies that are made to be that anymore. I’m familiar with the old movies that you’re talking about. I paid to see them. You had to! First you saw women’s asses, then tits, then vaginas, then men’s asses, then dicks, then fucking, and cunnilingus and fellatio. That was the order of the legal battles and how they fell. So I had to sit through endless volleyball games just to see a male ass for years! All that is important, and I think Something Weird Video has been doing that forever, and i think it is a very important genre, because it led me to believe that I could make exploitation movies for art theatres. To this day, we’ve always done the best with my worst taste in educated, rich neighborhoods. I tried drive-ins and grindhouses, but it does not work.
The content—did that come out of what you thought was missing in other movies? I always have narrative in all my movies, and that was a lot of dialogue they had to remember! The freak show came from my love for freak shows as a kid, and certainly the movie Freaks, and how the word “freak,” in the sixties, was used as a compliment. I was a yippie, I was making a movie to outrage hippies and make them laugh. It was the same thing as if you were today to make fun of politically-correct values. I believe that my films have always been politically correct, except with some animal things. It became a punk movie, but punk hadn’t happened yet.
If there was any overt political message, it’s that the lust for violence comes from both those perpetrating it and those trying to defend it. In that period, it was when political groups were turning violent, when peace and love wasn’t really working. Even today, unfortunately, violence does work in politics sometimes and if you have the least power, that’s the only way you can fight. Believe me, I was not that intellectual while making the film.
Because now the means are getting easier to come by, I hope people can take from this movie is that they can go out and do it themselves. They make them on their cell phones! It’s no different. I made it on a camera that is a fucking lot heavier. It’s a lot easier and I think kids still do. Making Multiple Maniacs was no different than a kid going out today making a film with their friends. They were all my friends. They were especially a little more extreme, but they weren’t like that in real life. Everybody’s playing a part. We just went for it. We were an insane group of people that just did political actions.