Last Friday night, legendary film director John Waters sat down with L.A. Weekly for a friendly, often times hilarious, chat, promoting a new book that features his media interviews over the past 46 years: John Waters: Interviews. University of Southern California film professor and filmmaker James Egan, a friend of Waters, edited the insightful look at the director's provocative career.
Inside the Steven Spielberg Building at USC, we talked with both men in a nondescript conference room, which Waters said smelled like a new car, before a private reception for the director…
L.A. Weekly: Is there something that you were blamed for but didn't do? And what did you learn from it?
John Waters: No, I was always guilty. Did I ever get blamed for someone's crime? No. I usually always did it. I usually was always guilty. Or usually never got caught. I never got caught for shoplifting, and I did that for a decade. I mean not now — now I could, really.
LAW: James, how did you select the interviews for the book?
James Egan: There are hundreds and hundreds of interviews that were made available to us. The series usually tries to focus on interviews that people might not have access to or interviews that had disappeared because some go back to 1965.
So what I hoped to do is bring to light some of John's career that didn't have a perspective. Like that article about Female Trouble. Those guys had started a magazine that was in Baltimore that has completely disappeared from history, but those magazines were important for independent film in those days.
They talked to John about horror films and (director) William Castle, and they understand John from the point of horror films. It was the first article that I read where they understood the influence of these horror film directors on John's work and were able to articulate those influences.
JW: Terry Castle just put out her father's book, From the Grave: The Prayer, and you have to sign a life insurance policy when you sign the book. It is so great — it just came out.
LAW: Do you look back at these interviews and think, Who is this guy?
JW: No. I say the same stuff now. To me, the difference is that I really didn't have to change that much. Certainly I probably wasn't as angry as I was when I made Pink Flamingos because now to be angry is to be an asshole.
When you're young and you make films, you have to be angry to get them made in a way. If you're making black comedies or horror, you have to have a certain amount of edge to it and irony to it.
I think that the difference is that I feel that I'm lucky to still be doing this and I see the very beginning. And people say to me, “Well, did you ever imagine?” Like I was an idiot. Well, it's like, did you think I was Forrest Gump? I think I should be offended by that.
I got Variety when I was 12 years old. I am not saying that I thought I was going to have any success, but I knew what I wanted to do. It's not like I was Pecker. I wasn't an outsider artist that they came and noted. I wanted New York to come down, but they just wouldn't.
So I look at it and think it's great that I still get to do this. I'm always amazed when you think, Wow, some of this stuff happened. But I'm not mortified by any of it. Sometimes people bring up quotes you said that will never go away.
Like if someone vomits during one of my films when there is a standing ovation. I'm a little weary of that still, but to be honest, like at a book signing, I'm not hoping someone will puke, and it really hasn't happened in quite some time. And to be honest, in my film career, (the audience members) were drunk! But I took credit!
And sometimes in the William Castle spirit they would put sawdust in the lobby because it was easier to clean up puke. So we would put that down to get people talking the same way that William Castle had a nurse in the lobby.
LAW: You've had all these nicknames over the years…
JW: Titles. The Baltimore Museum gave me a retrospective of all my movies, but it only went up to Desperate Living. So these were never thought of as films that regular people would want to watch and taxpayer's money was paying for this so people were pissed off. So the Baltimore Sun ran an editorial in support of it and called me the Prince of Puke. That's where that came from, it was a pro-me editorial in the Baltimore Sun.
LAW: Which title fits you now?
JW: I don't know if any of them fit me now, but William Burroughs called me the “Pope of Trash,” so I will exploit that one. I knew him and we did spoken word acts together. He gave me that quote one time in a book. I've had all different ones, but the Prince of Puke and Pope of Trash are all said in good spirits, and they all are — no one is trying to be mean. I think they are all funny and nice.
LAW: What do you think about Amanda Knox? (Knox's conviction for murdering her roommate was recently overturned by an Italian court.)
JW: Well, I was happy when Casey Anthony got off because I thought Nancy Grace's head would explode. And I think that what Nancy Grace did was made it worse — to form a mob and burn a witch.
Amanda Knox? I didn't follow it that much. I don't think she did it. They certainly didn't prove it. And I heard that Nancy Grace came out against her, too.
Those cases, to me, aren't going to go down in history. I'm much more interested in the Underpants Bomber or the horrible case in Connecticut where they both got the death penalty.
I'm so violently against the death penalty, but that case, if anyone is pro-death penalty, because it's hard not to think that these people really deserve it. I'm still against the death penalty, but I can understand the family of those people wanting it.
LAW: You read a lot of books and have lots of interests. What's the stuff that has your attention now?
JW: This week? The Underpants Bomber. He pleaded guilty, and he was his own attorney. I'm interested in those kinds of trials. But I don't go to trials anymore because people recognize me and it looks like I'm making a personal appearance, you know. I can't do that anymore.
And in (the book) Role Models I wrote all about that and I even kind of apologized in a way of the early behavior of glamorizing that and making it a punk rock thing because real people died.
I still follow it. A great trial is like a great play, and it's dramatic. I would have been a good lawyer. I probably would have been a criminal lawyer if I didn't do what I did. For those who did it — who lied and say they didn't, the worst. But someone in our system has to speak for them. I'm amazed when some lawyers quit — it doesn't matter if you agree with them. But I'm intrigued with people who take the cases of the most hated people.
LAW: Is that what made you come up with the character Beverly Sutphin for your film Serial Mom?
JW: Beverly Sutphin came in a way — that was before OJ — but it did come true, that movie, in a way. There is a trial in almost every movie of mine, but Beverly Sutphin was somebody who if you had a mother who was so politically correct that she just went overboard and just killed people — she was such a good liberal.
You wished your mother did that sometimes, if your teacher gave you shit, you'd just kill them. You know? Of course, that really wouldn't happen, but having the idea of a mother that would come to your rescue too much. And my mother wasn't offended. She said, 'Yeah, I am Serial Mom.'
My mother would say even when someone was in an airplane crash, “Oh, look at her hair.” I think Kathleen Turner (as Beverly Sutphin) says that. My mom said that recently. I think to the coal miners she said that. And she doesn't get it, but my mother is not mean spirited.
James Egan: If you look at the first article in the book, his mother is in it, and it's so definitely her. She is asked why John stopped doing his puppet shows and she says, “It got inappropriate.”
JW: What she meant is that she wanted me to be a cool kid and I couldn't be doing that! She's good with comments. I did get my humor from her and from my father.
And my father used to get obscene phone calls in the middle of the night. He's John Waters — that's why you never name your son junior. And I'm unlisted, but he isn't. So he would get the phone calls in the middle of the night, but I wouldn't.
LAW: What's a myth about you that you would like to correct?
JW: They're all true. I mean, maybe with Pink Flamingos when it first came out and I would go to colleges they'd have all these drugs for me or thought that I lived in a trailer.
They thought that movie was real, but because it looks so bad like a documentary. I don't think there are myths. I am who I am and I'm not lying. When I'm off work, I guess, I probably don't have this jacket on. I work in my house. I guess sometimes when people come to my house they expect me to have a pink Cadillac and modern furniture and stuff, and I don't. I have oriental rugs, contemporary art, and books.
JE: He got this beautiful apartment in San Francisco, and I get off the elevator and it looks like Temple Gardens. They all look the same. He always has the most exquisite libraries. Here's a myth: you actually cook!
JW: That's not a myth — I do cook! I didn't used to cook when I smoked five packs of cigarettes. I'm not a cook. I don't make up recipes — I follow recipes.
LAW: What's a question that no one has ever asked you?
JW: Well, sometimes I say to the reporter that you need to ask the questions or else I get a part of your paycheck. If I have to ask the questions, then I get a kick-back.
There's nothing I haven't been asked. There's nothing I'm burning to talk about. I think I'm smart not to talk about my personal life, even though you think you know it. The people I'm involved with aren't in show business and don't want to be. You have to keep something to yourself.
LAW: Your striped socks — when did this start?
JW: As you get older, you have the mustache and the socks so they don't look at the middle!
LAW: Do you stick with a designer?
JW: I like Paul Smith — he makes the best socks, I think, and Comme des Garcons does as well. Those two.
JE: In San Francisco, he was wearing Wicked Witch of the West socks. They were exquisite.
JW: Paul Smith is now making socks that are mismatched but the same pair, which I think is great. That's my newest trend that I approve of.
LAW: What is crossing the line for you?
JW: I don't think it's ever too much, but it's that I don't think it's funny. I don't think there are things that are too shocking anymore. I just try to make you laugh and surprise you.
I think there are things that are impossible to make funny. I'm tempted to at times, but I could never say the 'N' word. I could never make a joke about that. Even though there are funny things that I could do, but it's not worth it. But I can make fag jokes! Because I am one. That's the difference. And I love to be gay incorrect all the time. It's boring to be good. And people have to be good now and it's appalling.
LAW: Do you have a favorite gay joke?
JW: My favorite is one that these queens in Baltimore used to say. Someone would say, “Well, I'm straight!” And they'd say, “Well, so is spaghetti until you get it heated up!” That's a good line!
–with a contribution from Reilly T. Bates.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at email@example.com.
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