John Waters
Photo by Greg Gorman

John Waters: “Stop blaming your parents”

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Short Profile

Name: John Samuel Waters, Jr.
DOB: 22 April 1946
Place of birth: Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Occupation: Director

Mr. Waters, have you ever thought about shaving off your mustache?

Only if I had murdered somebody and had to go underground.

Do you think that would be enough of a disguise, like Clark Kent’s glasses?

I could hide that way, definitely. If I ever got sentenced to prison I would have to because I wouldn’t have the proper tools to keep it. I don’t think they sell Maybelline eye line pencil in the prison commissary. I’d have to be like grinding down ashes and stuff from illegal cigarettes. I don’t think I’d go that far.

Have you been to jail?

Of course, for a night or something. I was never sentenced or anything, but I’ve been arrested. I don’t trust anyone that hasn’t been to jail at least once in their life. You should have been or something’s the matter with you.

You seem attracted by outcasts and criminals. Patty Hearst, who was convicted of bank robbery and later pardoned, appeared in your film Cry-Baby and you are friends with Leslie van Houten, who is still in prison today for her involvement in the Charles Manson murders. What is it about these people that you are drawn to?

They survived incredibly extreme situations. Way more than I ever have. That’s what Role Models was about, my book, just about people that have survived. Patty Hearst was great. Whatever she did, she did to stay alive. Even though she got life in prison, Leslie van Houten still tries to make herself a better person than she would have been if she hadn’t done that crime, which is all you really can do when you’ve done something that bad. Which is, to me, admirable and amazing. I don’t know if I’d be that brave.

“I don’t trust anyone that hasn’t been to jail at least once in their life.”

Some people say that the bad guys are really the good guys in your films.

They are! The good guys in my movies mind their own business and they don’t judge other people. And the bad guys are jealous, they judge other people without knowing the whole story, they want all the attention and they’re mean spirited. So yes, I think my films are politically correct in a weird way.

Could you even say that your films are driven by a sense of social justice?

Yes. I think social justice is important. I think it’s not fair. Life is a rotten lottery. I’ve had a pretty amazing life, a good life, and God knows I’m thankful, but I do believe that after 30, stop whining! Everybody’s dealt a hand, and it’s not fair what you get. But you’ve got to deal with it. Stop blaming your parents. If you’re really angry at 60 years old, you’re an idiot! You’ve got to work some of it out. You can be angry at social issues. But the only way I’ve learned to change anyone’s mind politically is to make them laugh. My whole career has been about that.

Your films aren’t just funny, they are also really weird. Whenever I watch your films I feel like I’m being a bit naughty.

Aw, that’s okay! That’s good! I think I invite you to come into a world that you might be uncomfortable with but if I’m your guide, then you feel safe. That’s all right. I’m a filth elder, I’m a good uncle. I’ll get you an abortion, take you to rehab. I think that I’m a good family member.

My brother wouldn’t let me watch Pink Flamingos growing up because of the scene where Divine eats dog shit.

Oh, but it was okay to watch artificial insemination? Or blow jobs between mother and son? Or chicken fucking? Your brother said that was the only scene? There was worse stuff! (Laughs)

The aforementioned scene from John Waters' film Pink Flamingos (1972).

A lot of your films have included similarly revolting scenes. Was it important for you to be subversive or transgressive with your work?

Transgressive was too highfalutin a word, really. But certainly I’m flattered when… At first, when I was young, I was called pernicious. I didn’t know what that meant, so I looked it up and you can never be called anything as scary as that! So, everything afterwards was a let down after I was called pernicious.

Your dad loaned you money to help finance your early films, but is it true that he never saw them?

Of course he didn’t. Why would I make my father watch Multiple Maniacs? Those movies were made to horrify parents. My parents knew what they were, they read about them in the paper and stuff. My mother came to Mondo Trasho and she said, “You’re going to die, end up in a mental institution, commit suicide, or OD,” and I said, “Oh, you liked it?” (Laughs) But they grew to understand it. What parent would be happy – like Divine’s mother – what mother would be happy that their son is in drag eating dog shit? Really, no parent’s that liberal.

But that style is what made you into a cult filmmaker.

Well cult is a word you would never say in Hollywood. Cult means that it lost money and three smart people liked it. In any film business, if you’re trying to get your next film made, you would never say, “Oh, my last film was a cult film.” I’d say, “Oh great, well I hope this one isn’t!” I always say to Johnny Knoxville, “How do you do it? You sort of do the same thing we did, except you made millions and I made hundreds.” (Laughs) Johnny Knoxville would eat dog shit. If we hadn’t done it, he would’ve done it.

It’s all about timing.

I remember watching the first Jackass movie in a very blue-collar neighborhood in Baltimore and there were these blue-collar fathers and their butch, heterosexual sons watching and enjoying men putting toy cars up their asses – and they’re bonding over this. And I thought, “That’s great.” He has a gift, you see, that he can do this. He just sent me a good present in the mail last week, a real product called anal bleach. I wanted to take it to California to show it to a friend this Thursday, but I can’t because if they find that in my luggage at the security, I’ll be so embarrassed! Nobody would believe me that it was a joke. I don’t want to go through the airport and explain what my anal bleach is.

You don’t mind explaining all the weird stuff in your films?

That’s in my movies! This is in my real life.

Is it easier to talk about your movies than your real life?

Well, I have to talk about my movies. I have to give interviews to promote what I’m doing. But no one really knows my personal life. And if you don’t have a personal life I feel bad for you. That’s the reason why if I go out for dinner with you and it’s not tax deductible it’s a compliment really. Not every meal is about business. I definitely have a great personal life, actually. I always feel bad when I meet celebrities and I can just tell every single thing about their personal life, I just say, “Well, they don’t have friends. Or a therapist.” Once you have both, you don’t have to share everything with people, because then you don’t have a private life, and then you’re, I guess, a workaholic.