Waters' Sports: Excercises in Poor TasteInterview by Derek de Koff from Next magazine, April 11, 1997.
John Waters' films have been called "monstrous;" "vile, stupid and repulsive;" and even provoked Rex Reed to whine, "Where do these people come from? Where do they go when the sun goes down? Isn't there a law or something?" Now, he's launching upon a new, unprepared generation the 25th Anniversary re-release of Pink Flamingos, the film known as "the granddaddy of midnight movies." This week, I had the chance to talk with John for half an hour in his New York apartment.
You subtitled Pink Flamingos "an exercise in poor taste." When the film originally opened, who ended up offended by the excersie?
Oddly enough, it offended nobody in the audience - because the audience that came was the target audience: my friends, hippies that were sick of being hippies, gay people, and bikers - really a lot of straight bikers, for reasons I'm still not sure of to this day. The people that wanted to see it wanted to be offended in a good way. I donÍt think anybody that would truly hate Pink Flamingos ever saw the movie.
At the Bicentennial Salute to American Film Comedy at the Museum of Modern Art, curators Larry Kardish and Adrienne Mancia called the film "truly subversive." Would you go so far as to say that yourself?
No, I would never. It's too good a compliment to ever say it yourself. I'm more humble. To me, it's the ultimate compliment, of course. For a movie from that time period to be suversive is great - because there were so many subversive activities going on. The scariest thing about the film to me is how people still call it "subversive," because as the decades go by, there's less and less subject matter that can actually be considered "taboo." So to still have the film even reaise an eeybrow is a compliment. Personally, when I look at the film, it's like looking at my high school yearbook. It was so long ago. It was half my life ago, literally.
Do you think a film like this could ever be made in the nineties?
Well, while I was making the film, nobody ever said, "You can't have her eating shit. You have to change this. You can't show the leading lady blowing somebody." Which I still think is the most shocking part of the film today. You never see that in a movie now: three-quarters of the way thorugh, the "female" lead just blows somebody... you never see that. And it's even more shocking now. Expecially when they're screaming out pages of dialogue. I didn't want to put them through a lot of takes or anything. They were just friends.
Were they nervous doing the scene?
No, I was. Because I knew them both. Now, it makes me uptight to watch the scene, but I can't cut it, because people will think it's censored. It isn't somthing that would work if the film were filmed today. All the jokes were about porno chic, which had just become legal. You could show penetration. Real sex. And once that happened, there was no such thing as exploitation movies. It was over. So I wanted to do something worse: to have a film that's not a porno movie, but have a pornographic scene in it.
You've called the film "a littler terrorist bomb." What exactly did you mean by that?
In a way, I was very much into all the Yippie radicalism of the time. Yet, I went to the demonstrations against the Vietnam war because the boys were cute. Not so much for the war. I mean, I was against the war, but I must admit I liked the boys throwing the tear gas [laughs]. That was my type. If there ever was my type, that was it. Now my type is, like, old liberals who watch Day Care Centers...[laughs].
I saw a fashion spread recently that borrowed images from several of your films. They marketed the featured clothing as "white trash couture." How do you feel about that term?
I would never say it. I think "white trash" is the last racist term. "Trailer trash." I would never say that. That offends me, actually. Because it's an LA word. I think it's condescending. Granted, I don't think Divine was anything but trash in the movie - but she was the creme de la creme of trash.
Divine, Edith Massey, Mink Stole, and Mary Vivian Pearce appeared in almost all of your early films. Why did you like working with the same group of friends in all your films?
Because I believe in the old Hollywood star system. That's what it was. Divine certainly didn't have first billing in his first movie. And Mary Vivian Pearce always says she started at the top and clawed her way to the bottom. They were my friends, but yet, that system did happen, and they would argue over billing. Of course, I still use many of the same people over and over again - because I like to. I know what they're like. It's why I use the same crew, too. Pat Moran, the associate producer of Pink Flamingos, has worked on all my films, and Vincent Peranio has designed the sets for every one of them. As far as they go, I hardly even have to talk anymore. They know what I want.
In the days of Pink Flamingos, the titles we had were ridiculous. We didn't know what any of that meant. Associate producer, director... we didn't know what any of it was. We just go together with friends and made movies. There's almost no other way to make your first movie unless it's with your friends, especially with that cheap a budget.
Edith Massey is my favorite of the Dreamlanders. What was she like as a person?
Edie was so, so sweet. When we made Pink Flamingos, she was a trouper. You can see her breath all the way through the entire movie. As soon as we'd say "Cut!," people would rush over, wrap her in Army blankets, and she'd say, "Somebody rub my feet!" And everybody would say, "Oh no, please... does it have to be me?" But in the end, they'd all rub her feet. And to get her to the trailer, it was about a half a mile walk up in the woods through mud. It took her forever to get up there. And there was no bathroom. It was really primitive. I don't remember how we dealt with that. I've never even thought about that until this moment.
I remember once she came to the premiere of Desperate Living in New York. She came up in a thrift-shop dress, and then went into the bathroom of the train station to get dressed, and came out in a tiara and an evening gown. When all the parites were over, she went back to the train station. She hadn't even asked anybody for a place to stay. She sat on the bench until the train came the next morning and all her fans stayed with her. She just stayed up and talked to them all night. I thought she was staying with Cookie. But she didn't mind. "Oh, that's all right, honey," she'd say.
This was my favorite thing. I'd take her out to lunch, and she'd yell really loudly, "TEN DOLLARS FOR A HAMBURGER?" And every head in the restaurant would turn. I'd say "That's all right, Edie."
She was an anti-star in the best way, and a lovely, sweet lady who I miss very much. She died a natural death in her late sixties, surrounded by fans in the hospital.
What's your working process like?
Very stringent. I get up at seven o'clock and read six newspapers, and then I write from eight until noon. I do the rest of my business in the afternoon. When I'm working on a movie, I have no life. It's a twelve-hour day or longer. I watch the dailies and on Saturday I go to the editing room. I take Sundays off.
I'm incredibly organized, to the point that I can really drive people crazy. But I realized a long time ago I had the choice of being a workaholic, an alcoholic, or a drug addict, and that it's much better to be a workaholic. I think two are self-destructive, and one actually isnÍt. Because I'm not completely a workaholic. I do have weekends off. I don't work seven days a week and I do have a life. But work to me - it's hard for me not to work. That's why I drink one night a week so I can't work the seventh day. But I'm so organized, if I'm going to have a hangover, it'll be on my calendar.
When I was young, I wasn't that way. When you're young, you can go out every night and still work. I smoked pot every day of my life for ten years. Now pot just makes me nervous. But I'm certainly not against it, God knows.
Were every single on of your films scripted, or did improvisation ever play any influence?
They were all scripted, except for Diane Linkletter. That was improvised the day Diane Linkletter jumped out the window. We read the paper and did it that day. All the others were completely written out. Mondo Trasho wasn't exactly written because there was no dialogue. But I wrote it as I went along, like a soap opera, basically. Even in Pink Flamingos, I knew what was going to happen, but I didn't give anybody the full script the first day of shooting.
Now when I think up a movie, I write out an entire treatment and an ad campaign that I show them in my pitch. And if you've ever seen Robert Altman's The Player... believe me, that's exactly what it's like. I spend three to four months thinking up a movie, and then if I get the deal, I have three months to write it.
Why do you continue working with the major studios when you have such difficulty with them?
These days, independent budgets and Hollywood budgets are the same for me now. It's gotten to the point where they both do all the testing. So the line between the two is almost nonexistent these days. In the old days, I just borrowed money and I owed people money. If the movie was a flop, I had to pay them back. I'm sorry. That's too scary. But even working with the major studios, I've never put out a film that I didn't want to put out. Cry-Baby was the only movie where it said in my contract: "This has to be PG-13." I'll never do that again. I think I'm much better in R-rated territory, where I belong.
Did you try for a PG rating with Hairspray?
No, I was completely shocked when it got a PG, although it should've gotten one - it was an accident. You know, people play that movie at children's birthday parties. Little children run up to me in restaurants and say, "You played the doctor in Hairspray! We saw it at my sister's birthday party!" Of course, they don't know Divine's a man.
So what about your upcoming project?
I'll just say it's called Pecker, because I'm really superstitious about talking about my projects. I talked about Cecil B. Demented and it didn't happen. But the script is done and ready. It's going to be low budget compared to Serial Mom but not to Hairspray. I think it's a very sweet movie with a hard edge, if you can imagine that. I know the two don't usually go hand in hand.
Which of your movies are you most proud of?
Female Trouble is my favorite of the old movies. Hairspray, I think, is the best one to lure unsuspecting people into my career. And Serial Mom I'm very, very proud of. But I like them all for different reasons. They just showed Cry-Baby at the LA County Museum, and I really like it. I like them all, or I wouldn't have made them. To be honest, though, all I see when I watch them is the stuff I wish I could change. But I think every director is like that. Except Barbra Streisand. She's never had a bad take.