The best thing about John Waters is not the Baltimore native's films, books, moustache or penchant for Rei Kawakubo's designs. It's not his stories of sneaking into the seediest bars in Maryland as a kid (much to the chagrin of his church-going parents) or his genuine love of Justin Bieber. It's that, at 67 years old, he knows exactly how cool he still is. There is no room for faux-modesty where Waters is concerned, but really, why should there be? When you've made more than a dozen seminal underground films, and something as simple as a pencil moustache drawn on each morning with eyeliner has become synonymous with your entire persona, you can't exactly act like you're no big thing. Waters has a lot to say and knows you're going to listen to every single word, because there's no-one else who sees the world quite like he does. Every story he tells only serves to further cement his position as everyone's sweet and slightly demented uncle.
When I spoke to John on the morning of my 24th birthday last week, he sang Tony Christie's 'Happy Birthday, Baby'
to me, before getting stuck into early childhood brushes with camp, how he writes, his thoughts on the latest Bieber news and how he feels about 'The Pope of Trash' - the title William S. Burroughs coined for him.Brodie Lancaster:
What were you doing when you were 24?John Waters:
[After some quick maths] In 1970 I was making Multiple Maniacs
. I was probably sneaking into that church to film the 'rosary job' and having my friends talk to a priest about the Black Panthers and ending the Vietnam War, so he wouldn't look and see what we were shooting. That was probably one of my most insane years.
You've got to remember the '60s had just ended - I don't think we had more fun than you're having today, believe me - but 1969 was maybe the most insane year of the entire century. If you think of all the things that happened then - Woodstock, Altamont, Manson - a lot of crazy stuff happened in America at that time. And people actually believed the revolution was happening, which you can't imagine today. Even The Cockettes - the bearded drags queens - used to be sitting there reading Lenin! Which was so bizarre! People went to riots - I went to riots! A lot! But it was to take drugs and have sex and meet other kids and get in trouble. The same as the Occupy movement is today. And the Occupy movement in Baltimore asked me to come down and I said, "I can't come! I own three homes! How can I be that hypocritical? I get what you're doin' and I'd be there too - if I was 20, but I'm not 20. So, you have my support and I bet you're having fun!" BL:
It doesn't sound like it was as much fun as what you were doing!JW:
Sure it was! Because whatever you do first, the first way you ever rebel is always the most fun and you will always have nostalgia for that, and you'll look back on it. What I always find fascinating is when people have kids and they keep all that a secret from their kids. And you shouldn't, really! I'm not criticising anybody's parenthood; I don't have kids I'd be a terrible father; a great uncle, but a terrible father. BL:
That idea of keeping your kids from something reminds me of the first time I ever saw one of your films. I was about five or six and Serial Mom
had just come out here and my mother rented it, not realising what it was about -JW:
Oh, but that one wasn't SO bad! I mean, it's better than watching Pink Flamingos
when you were six. I showed Pink Flamingos
at my friend's, like, 6-year-old daughter's birthday party and they were all screaming and running through the house. What was I thinking? She turned out fine - she runs her own television show now - but what was I thinking to show Pink Flamingos at a children's birthday party? BL:
I was about the same age when I first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show
and I don't think you're old enough at the time to have any questions about it, you just kind of stare at what's going on in front of you.JW:
Did you see it with a show audience? BL:
No, I saw it at home with my family.JW:
That's a different kind of horror show. I saw it the first time in Germany with no audience and subtitles and complete silence. It was very weird. BL:
I saw the documentary I Am Divine
last year, and I was wondering how you feel about his legacy that's left behind, in large part, because of you?JW:
I'm happy for Divine! [The film] shows him as he really was; he was a real actor, he didn't walk around in drag ever, really. He didn't want to be a woman, he played men too - nothing against that, though. Divine was an actor; he was playing men as much as women. And as he got older and heavier he hated getting in drag because it was so hot and he'd sweat all the time and his make-up would run off. I think [I Am Divine
] showed what a hard worker he was and what a kind man he was in real life. BL:
I remember reading in [your interview for Rookie mag
] how much you love Justin Bieber -JW:
- Oh, I like him even better now! And I talk about him in my show, so you'll hear all my up-to-the-date opinions. He wasn't drag racing!
He was going 20 miles an hour, he didn't have liquor in him and his father had closed the street. I think they're making a big stink out of nothin'. It's not like he's some ghost-rider going 100 miles an hour the wrong way down the German speedway. I think they made a big deal out of something that was not very true. I went alone to see his new movie documentary Christmas Eve day. BL:
Happy Holidays! JW:
I know! I was there, screaming like a girl!
BL: How was it? I remember watching the trailer where Usher warns him not to fuck it all up.
JW: No, it was good! I think he is talented. This little kid, he's like Shirley Temple doing this whole act in Madison Square Garden where he's flying everywhere! I'm all for Justin. You know, [I met him on The Graham Norton Show
] - I'm sure you can go online and find the picture of him when he drew on my moustache.BL:
How was he when you met him?JW:
Great! He kept staring at me and he said, "Your 'stache is the jam," and I have a picture of him right here on my bulletin board. It's so perverse-looking, me standing there with him. I'm all for Justin - to hell with One Direction! BL:
This is kind of a big question, but I'm really interested in what happens when you're sitting down to write a book, or a show, or a film. What is your process? Do you need certain things around you, do you listen to music?JW:
I don't listen to music. I go in one room and I start right at eight o'clock in the morning every day; not 7:59, not 8:01. The very first thing I think about if it's a movie is: What genre am I satisfying or trying to satirise? Then I think up the characters and I keep pages of notes on the characters and the most important thing - before I think of the plot - is where do they live?
And if it's a movie, I drive around Baltimore - if they've seen me scribbling notes out front of their house people think I'm an insurance inspector or something, but I'm actually just imagining all sorts of horrible things happening in their house.
After I mill out the characters and name them - it's very important to name them - then I do the plot, which is the hardest thing, but the plot is what makes it a hit. I always think in three acts from my 16mm days: beginning, middle and end. Always 30 minutes [each], I don't think any comedy should be longer than 90 minutes, I hate long - humour is brevity. And I write every day!
A first draft is the hardest to do, but you just keep going, you just keep going, you just keep going. And then, at the end, you read it and you go, "Oh my god!" But then, you rewrite. I just turned in my new book and I'm sure I did 15 drafts of it before they saw it. But still, rewriting is writing. Getting the first draft is the main thing.
And you just have to do it everyday, even if you don't feel like it. You never feel like it. It's best to end when you're writing, when you know exactly what's gonna happen the next morning; so you're right in the middle of it and you know where you're gonna start. When you're in the middle of writing, you dream about it and you dream plot. You go, "Ooh, that's good!" and wake up and write it down and the next day it makes no sense. So you become obsessed by it, but in a good way, because you're living it. And no-one knows what it is yet, it's only in your head. It's your secret, it's like a friend. BL:
Is there someone you show your work to, before anyone else sees it?JW:
Well my assistants, because they type it. I write everything with a big pen on a certain kind of legal pad and I Scotch-tape it and move it around. But when I have a first draft, my two assistants type it and put it in the computer and print it out. Then I cut out and half-hand write it. So they're the first people that read it. BL:
Is that book you mentioned Carsick
Yes, it comes out in June.BL:
And what's that about?JW:
It's about me, when I hitch-hiked across the country by myself. Before I left, I imagined a little novella about what the best and the worst drives I could get would be. You know: sex, adventure and insane characters I'd meet along the road. And then I did it for real: 21 rides in nine days. And you'll have to read the book to find out what happened! It was an optimistic experience, even though there were days when I stood there for 10 hours and nobody picked me up. Most people thought I was a homeless man and I kind of was. BL:
I remember reading about another one of your projects, the film Fruitcake
, which you've been trying to finance for a few years. Have you found it more difficult now to get a film made than it was in the past?JW:
Completely, the film business is no longer a business that I know. It has completely changed. They want movies that can play in China; tentpole movies that cost 100 million dollars with no subtitles and special effects. And no comedies. It's hard, but I'm not complaining; I still think I can get it made, but it's not the business that I know. It's a changed landscape. BL:
How do you feel about people going against the new system with crowd funding sites like Kickstarter?JW:
Well, I'm too rich to go on Kickstarter! I'm not that
rich, but I'm certainly not public begging. I couldn't finance a 5-million-dollar movie on my own, but I feel that it would be like begging. I used to raise all the money from my friends to make movies, I don't want to do that again. I don't want to be a faux-underground filmmaker at 67-years-old. I've made 16 movies, you can get 'em easily; it's not like I haven't spoken. BL:
Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask how you feel about always being called 'The Pope of Trash'? A friend was driving Patti Smith around when she came to Melbourne a few years ago, and Patti predicted everything written about her trip would call her the 'godmother of punk', because it's in the second line of her Wikipedia profile -JW:
- That's not so bad to be called that. I mean, William Burroughs called me that! Can I complain about that? I've been trying to live up to that title. I mean, does it really trouble her? BL:
I don't think it was so much troubling as the pressure to meet those expectations from audiences who have a different image of punk nowadays.JW:
I get it. It's also like, come up with something new, right? I guess… we get these titles and we're lucky we got 'em, I feel, because most people don't have a title in life. I've been called 'the Duke of Dirt', 'the Ayatollah of Assholes', 'The Anal Ambassador', 'the Prince of Puke' - I have many
And they're all great.JW:
Well, they're all said with the proper devotion. John Waters is appearing at Adelaide Festival with his This Filthy World Vol. 2 show. He'll also be heading to Sydney and Melbourne.
JOHN WATERS: THIS FILTHY WORLD VOL. 2 TOUR Thursday 6 March - Adelaide Festival, Elder Hall, AdelaideSunday 9 March - Opera House, SydneyMonday 10 March - Hamer Hall, MelbourneWORDS: