This week, the Film Society at Lincoln Center will kick off ten days of screenings dedicated to John Waters, the beautifully twisted filmmaker responsible for 50 years of trash masterpieces like Pink Flamingos and Hairspray. We sat down with Waters to discuss the upcoming retrospective, as well as the Pope of Trash's musings on filmmakers, hipsters and the notorious Justin Bieber.
We’re really looking forward to your retrospective!
Me too. God. It’s just like I’m dead.
No, don’t say that! Not yet.
No, I think it’s great to have these things before you are. People don’t usually get to go to their own things. So I’m excited about it.
Which of your films are you most excited to unleash upon the unsuspecting public?
In a way, it’s the complete body of work: to see the early 8mm home movie I made—which was the most amateur little home movie I made about a pothead on the roof of my parent’s house—to the last movie I made, which was sort of the same, another lunatic movie about sex addicts. I guess it proves that all the body of work I have...I learned how to do it a little better, but it started like every kid, with his friends, making a movie. Today they make them on cell phones; I made them on 8mm. This was before Super 8 even. I’m going to show one of my very last prints of Mondo Trasho. They might burn up in the projector, but that would be okay because even if they ever even come out again, they’ll never be made on 16mm prints. That’s a thing of the past.
I rewatched Pink Flamingos in Spanish last night because I couldn’t find it online in English.
Yeah, it didn’t get nicer but it still works. I still think it has its punch. I don’t think Pink Flamingos is my best movie by far but I certainly am proud of it. I’m proud of my whole body of work, that I somehow got away with doing this for fifty years.
I know [children's Christmas movie] “Fruitcake” fell through, but do you plan on doing more film work in the future?
I don’t know, my last book was a bestseller, my last movie wasn’t. You go where they want you. I certainly still have meetings about making Fruitcake and the only genre I never satirized was a children’s movie, so I think it would work, and as a Christmas movie, I think it could play for Christmas.
But if I never make another movie again, it’s not like I haven’t spoken. My films are not hard to find, they’re in box sets, they play all over the world. Polyester is playing again with Odorama Cards across America. It’s not exactly like young people don’t know what they are; it’s been great, I keep getting older and my audience keeps getting younger. So that’s exciting to me. But yes, I want to make another movie, but I’m scheduled for the next year and a half already. I don’t know when I would.
I just read your hitchhiking book, Carsick. And you mention you’d get in a car and tell the driver who you are, and somebody would be like, “Oh, Hairspray,” or they would have no idea who you were.
Yeah. If I go out in America anywhere in public, I do get recognized, but not by people you’d expect. Not in an obnoxious way. But I certainly don’t wear a disguise—well, the only disguise I realized that worked for me the other day, I met a friend who came to visit me in San Francisco, I went to pick him up at the airport, and it’s usually always the other way around, someone picks me up with a sign. So as a joke I had a sign with his name on it and I stood with the chauffeurs for about twenty minutes because his plane was a little late. And so many people walked past, but not one person knew it was me. They looked away when they saw their name wasn’t on it. So if I ever want to go in disguise, that’s what I’m going to be, a chauffeur at the airport. Because it totally worked. Not one person asked for a cell phone picture.
Do you have a lot of younger fans?
Absolutely. And a “selfie” is the most unflattering angle except for, oh, what’s the thing you do on the computer that’s the ugliest…Skype! Skype is the ugliest possible angle. Why anyone would do home porno with Skype, think again, you look ugly on Skype.
You have a full section in the retrospective screening films you wish you’d made. I really like that Final Destination was included. What are some other films you've liked recently?
I put my 10 Best list in Artforum every year, so it’s easy to find what my favorites are. They’re usually depressing French movies. What have I seen recently? Into the Storm, which I think was made by some people that had something to do with some of the “Final Destination” movies. So that was the last movie I saw.
Do you think it’s still possible to gross out moviegoers now, with the Internet and things like 2 Girls, 1 Cup?
I never saw that. I have no desire to see that. Because I don’t want to be just grossed out, I never made a movie just to gross you out. I made a movie to make you laugh. I didn’t laugh watching that. I’m a feminist. I don’t want to see some girl humiliate herself in front of me. I think being gross is easy. Being funny is hard. I think—I hope—and I know what you mean, eating shit…it was gross. It was anarchy, basically. It was hippie anarchy to do that at the time. I’ve always said, the person that comes closest to what I want to do is Johnny Knoxville, he made the Jackass movies.
Is there any future heir to the Pope of Trash title?
I’m not saying that anybody’s copying me, and I’m not home so I don’t have my movie diary with me, of all the movies I’ve liked recently, but I like Gaspar Noé, I like Bruno Dumont, I like Ulrich Seidl. They’re not my heirs, they’re my age, but they certainly make movies that startle and horrify me. I don’t think they’re the heirs to me, but I don’t think anybody needs to be the heirs to me. I’ve always made trash a little bit more respectable and the fact that they’re having this at Lincoln Center Film Society—I said in the press release as a joke, I’m finally filthy and respectable. Things change over the years. I don’t think I have, really.
Oddly enough, I think the public has grown more to my side of humor. When I was a kid I used to get all those paperback books that were called “Sick Sick Sick Sick Jokes.” I loved what they called sick humor in the fifties. Really, MAD Magazine was the first thing that every kid I knew that rebelled from anything read. MAD Magazine was incredibly important to every filmmaker that causes trouble. And I don’t think there is an equivalent today. Certainly the Internet and Youtube and finding things on there is some equivalent, but there’s not one single thing like MAD Magazine was at the time.
You also had the Dreamlanders troupe to help you make all these films. Do you see a team of directors and actors working to try to produce these films, similar to yours?
Every single person’s first movie is that. They made a movie with their friends. Every student film ever made is that. Problem was, we were thrown out of school. They were student films, but we were expelled!
I think every young person does it the same we did. I might have had more extreme friends who were willing to go further. I think every kid today who makes a horror film or anything is doing the same thing I did. The difference is, studios are looking for that person today, whereas they were not when I was [making films]. The only thing I was trying to do was get into underground movies, which at the time was very New York snobby. If you weren’t from New York—when they heard I was from Baltimore, they didn’t even want to look at [my films]. And New York was actually the last place my films caught on, after Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore and Provincetown.
I used to live in Baltimore and it had a great music and arts scene. It was much smaller and friendlier. And New York seems like this huge monster that's guzzling up all these artists. Do you think it would have been more difficult to make the films you had been making if you'd made them in New York?
In some ways it would have been easier, to get people to look at them, certainly, or to take them seriously. But at the same time, if I had grown up in New York, what would I have made movies about? Probably Queens or somewhere that was the underside, that people were not bragging about.
I never made movies about Bohemia. I always made movies about people in real life, in blue collar Baltimore. Even Pink Flamingos—Babs Johnson was retired, writing her memoirs. She was leading a peaceful life at the time. I never made a movie that took place, except for Pecker, in the art world in New York.
[In New York] I probably would have, of course, made movies, but they wouldn't have been about beatniks or hippies. I made movies for hippies, to horrify them, in a way. Even though I was a hippie. I was a Yippie, more than a hippie. The audience base that I had, I've said it, was minorities that didn't even fit in with their own minorities.
Now, nobody gets mad at anything I do. When I started, I didn't get a good review for ten years. People hated—the audiences didn't—but critics, the critics were against this whole movement. They thought it was disgraceful. But we knew that, that's what we were trying to do. That's what everybody in the underground was trying to do. Rock what was successful.
Not the you were ever so mainstream, but when Hairspray came out, and Cry-Baby, and you were casting Johnny Depp, do you think it was your films that changed, or just general perception of the trash genre?
Well I think they changed. But Dirty Shame was about sex addicts, and I had an NC-17 rating and had to battle censorship again. I always wanted my films to be commercially successful. I never was embarrassed to have a hit. I always wanted them to make money, so I could make the next one. That's all. The reason I can't get one made now, is that the last one didn't make money. That's the only reason. If it had made money, I'd make another movie. That's they way the movie business works. So I always figure out how to publicize the movies.
I could never afford movie stars, so I made my friends movie stars. And it worked! But then, once I got bigger budgets, I loved mixing my movie stars with Hollywood movie stars. The Hollywood stars liked it and so did my stars. They loved to work with bigger actors. It all seems to work out fine.
John Waters and Isabelle Huppert in July. (Courtesy Film Society at Lincoln Center)
I was at the [Film Society's] Isabelle Huppert screening a couple of weeks ago and you spoke about how you really want to work with her. What are some other celebrity stars you would like to work with if you had the opportunity?
Meryl Streep, because she's the Isabelle Huppert of America, isn't she? And there are all these new ones, that I don't know. But I have gotten to work with practically everyone. Very few people said no to me.
Justin Bieber, I want to do a reboot on him. I'm still a fan of his, and I'll be his last fan. I do want to do Justin when he wants to reinvent himself a little. Which he doesn't need to now. But he might at some point. Even if he's as successful as he's always been, you still need to reinvent yourself every once and awhile.
Why in particular are you a fan of Justin Bieber?
Because he is really talented. I mean, if you see that first documentary, when they show him playing pots and pans and doing R.E.S.P.E.C.T. when he's seven years old... I'm all for him. I'm all for hysteria of teen idolness. And I've said this before, what did he do that was that bad? Egg somebody's house? And paid an $80,000 fine? Go 60 mph in a Ferrari, or whatever that car was, a Maserati... something that stalls going that slow.
He's a brat. But when I met him when we did the Grand Prix, he was lovely and funny. He was like Shirley Temple! You know, and I want him to be blacker. I want him to just be a rap star. He said he was going to change his name to "Bizzle." I love that. I'm going to be the only Bizzle fan in America.
How do you feel about Miley Cyrus?
Not the same. Nothing against her, but I'm more interested in her father. I like Justin Bieber's father too.
How do you feel about hipsters?
I like hipsters. I may be the last person to like hipsters. I love hipster boys. They're always hetero-flexible. They're always funny.
Have there been any social scenes that you have been really into, like the biker scene, that have died down recently?
Well the biker scene... I still go to a real, heterosexual, biker bar in Baltimore. The one I put in Dirty Shame called the Holiday House. But it has faded out. Because no young, bad boys want to be bikers. It's like a Halloween costume. They want to be rappers, they want to be gangsters. And it's funny because bikers and S&M queens dress in the same outfit.
S&M is dying too. There are very few leather bars left in the country. Gay bars are disappearing. It's getting uncomfortable. It's like having "black bars." They just hang out with everybody. Which I'm for. My message is that I've always been very against separatism. To me, I still like the biker culture, but all bikers are old now. And many of them are fat.
It's not a sexy scene.
And if they are young, and dressing in leather, you'd think they're gay. They look sort of like the Eagles. But I guess that people tell me that the new, young S&M boys dress like fake skinheads. Non-racist skin heads. That's the look. I guess, I don't see it that much. But I don't go to the bars that much. I live at the beach, and S&M really looks stupid at the beach.
I imagine that leather is not comfortable there.
Well, at the beach it would be ridiculous. Come on, it's hot out. I don't think you should ever wear leather pants if you're over 20 years old. Unless you're a Nazi. Or Jim Morrison. I really think you should never, ever wear leather pants.
Where do you hang out when you come to New York?
I wish I knew... the last great bar that I loved in New York is a long, long, time ago. And that was Squeezebox. And nothing ever took the place of Squeezebox for me. I do know great bars I could take you to in Baltimore and San Francisco. Manhattan, I do not.
When you're here, do you ever go out into the boroughs, into Queens or Brooklyn?
Not that much. You know, if I'm going to go to Queens, I'll just go to Baltimore. There's neighborhoods in Baltimore that are like Queens in a way. No, if I'm in New York, I want to be in Manhattan. But I like Brooklyn, but I'm too old to go to Brooklyn. It takes too long to get home.
I think Queens is where the hipsters that I like would live now. Long Island City. Or the scary parts of Brooklyn where the subway doesn't go.
"50 Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?" starts screening on Friday as part of The Film Society at Lincoln Center. More details and tickets here.