The Pope of Trash on 50 years of Pink Flamingos and waking up each morning and trying to be nuts in new and exciting ways.
Many have tried to censor John Waters. Many have tried to silence John Waters. Many have tried to, if you will, “cancel” John Waters. For every person who is aghast at his brand of art, there is another trying desperately to get him to join their cause (some more hateful than others). For every controversial statement he makes, another exists that makes him all the more endearing. Half a century into his career, it’s clear that John Waters is a man who will continue to say and create whatever he damn well pleases, with no boundary other than the limitations of his own imagination.
This ceaseless drive to entertain and share his opinions and experiences–be it by directing films, writing memoirs, making cameos in small films, touring all over the world, donating his art collection, ranking his favourite films of any given year–is one of the things that has kept Waters as something of a cultural centrepiece even nearly two decades since his last feature. But what really shines about the artist, having been clear since Pink Flamingos (which now marks its fiftieth anniversary with a fresh Criterion restoration) and still obvious in his first novel Liarmouth, is how much love he has for the ever fucked-up human race.
In celebration of Pink Flamingos finally making it to the United Kingdom in its complete uncut form after decades of battles with censors, Little White Lies sat down to talk to John Waters about why exactly he still bothers with trying to make us all laugh and scream as hard as he does.
LWLies: With your new novel ‘Liarmouth’, a spoken word tour comeback, and the restoration of Pink Flamingos coming out into the world, this year feels like a big return to the world for you since the pandemic shut things down. How does it feel to be back?
Waters: Well, it feels weird because I actually did a Christmas tour this year and the one before, and the new strain happened right on the last two days. The whole thing could have been cancelled, but I did do 18 cities, so otherwise I was back and writing the book the whole time. I write every day anyway in my house, so it didn’t make it easier or harder for me; it was kind of always the same.
Being back now, I’m out full-tilt really. I did five spoken word shows, did eight cities on the book tour, and now I’m going to Europe. I’m on the road again and it feels so good. I am happy to be in touch with my audience and actually see them, but Covid has changed everything, so it’s still scary. I think audiences are thinking too: this might be the last night I ever go out. When they come to readings, I joke, “this might be the last book you ever read” and they all freeze, but then laugh. That’s kind of what the book does to you too, and hopefully all my work is like that.
Absolutely. If Pink Flamingos was the last movie I saw in theaters, I wouldn’t be too sad about it.
And you’re going to see it legally in the UK for the first time!
Which is so shocking!
The BBFC has this amazing article about all the different times where they could have put in different scenes, but never all of them, for different reasons and societal change. So this is the first time that they have put every cut scene back in, restored for your viewing pleasure. Finally the UK is mature enough to be able to see Pink Flamingos without being rushed to mental institutions.
While watching the new restoration with a friend, he noted, “It’d be wild to see this in a screening with people in this day and age because you’d have to give everyone the world’s longest list of trigger warnings possible.”
It’s true and the audience that comes to see it would laugh even more because of that. Desperate Living is the film I’ve done that will probably be the last Criterion ever does if they do them all, which would be my ultimate reason to be on Earth, but when they showed that [ed: which features Edith Massey ordering guards to gang rape Mary Vivian Pearce] in Australia, the whole audience yelled, “Seize her and fuck her!” before it started.
I think everybody’s in on the joke. I always made fun of the rules of the society I lived in that was supposedly “outsider”. I made fun of hippie rules in Multiple Maniacs. I made fun of gay and trans rules in Desperate Living. And I make fun of hippies, drag, taste and everything in Pink Flamingos. It is my war film. I didn’t go to Vietnam, but I had that.
It is politically charged, even though presented jokingly. “What are your politics?” “Kill everyone now.”
But that’s not real politics. Divine was living innocently in her trailer, writing her memoirs, just like Elizabeth Taylor was in Boom! Then she was challenged by people that were jealous, were second-rate to her, and were bitter. She became violent because she was attacked, but Divine let everybody live on their own. She was nice, unless she was attacked and those people had to pay.
I feel like that very much stands to today’s politics of how everyone’s rights are constantly being attacked and what we, maybe, should do.
I think the first thing we have to be able to do is laugh at ourselves. It gives you the freedom to do so many things in humour that you don’t get to do if you’re lecturing somebody. I think if you’re lecturing, making people have no fun and feel bad, they go to the other side. It works sort of in reverse.
All your films have this sensibility and, now with four releases by Criterion, they’re more accessible than ever. What’s the restoration process like for you? It’s wild how clean everything looks without ever sacrificing its original quality.
That’s right – but I didn’t have those scratches there on purpose. I would have taken them out then if I could have. What is the point of restoring a movie? Yes, you have to keep the original feeling of the movie, which I think they have, but there’s no way to clean up the script. Let’s make it look as good as we can, so more people can see it.
It still has the feeling of the movie; it was so quickly shot on such cheap equipment and at a time when I didn’t know what I was doing yet. That’s still there. You can’t suddenly make it look like a movie that everybody’s going to walk out of saying, “Boy, the cinematography was good.” I always think that’s the first thing people say if the movie is bad though.
Would you say it was sort of haphazardly put together?
It’s not haphazard. The film was completely written and rehearsed, actors had to memorise pages of dialogue for each take, and it was shot as best I could. To me, Pink Flamingos looks brilliant technically compared to Multiple Maniacs. It was the first colour movie I ever made, it was shot on magnetic sound, and we were learning as we went along. There wasn’t a big crew or anything, I just rented the equipment from this guy that illegally got it from a television station.
“My audience is old and dying, you know, so you have to replace them and get new ones. ”
There’s something really admirable about how much of it pops because of its scrappy nature. Even something as simple as you holding the camera on a trailer as it burns down.
You could look at it two ways: it’s either bad editing – yes, it’s too long – or pyromania. We went through all that trouble, so I wanted you to see every frame of it. At the same time, you start laughing because I’m clearly waiting for the trailer to fall over, and I should have cut out some middle shots, but then the continuity would have been bad.
There’s even a moment where Mink’s coat almost catches on fire.
She almost catches on fire, yes. My family’s business was fire protection equipment, and the only safety we had there was my poor brother – who later took over my father’s company and his daughter runs it now – with one fire extinguisher in the middle of the woods with thousands of dead trees and leaves everywhere. The whole thing could have been worse than Bambi if we had run in the wrong direction.
Nothing happened, but we didn’t warn the neighbours or anything, so they panicked. Having heard that some hippies were up in the woods making a movie, they left us alone. When the fire happened, we just said sorry and the fire engines never came or anything, but you could see it was a big fire.
It genuinely looks very dangerous on screen, especially because of the documentary-like quality the whole thing has.
Yeah, it does look like a documentary and that’s why people thought it was real. People later used to say, “Do you still live in the trailer?” Didn’t they see it burn? They thought it was real that Divine lived in that trailer and ate dog shit. Yes, it was twenty hour shooting days, but no, none of it was real.
So what led to its birth originally?
What led to its birth was after having Divine eating a cow’s heart in Multiple Maniacs, that was training wheels to eating shit. What led to it was I had just been to the Manson trial, and they actually were the filthiest people alive. It was overly theatrical and crazy and scared people. Then Deep Throat had become illegal, so there was nothing left that you couldn’t do. So we tried to say: well, what can you do that will make people crazy that isn’t even illegal yet?
That ties into something I noticed revisiting all of your work. There’s a certain sense of escalation and challenge to everything: how far can I go?
Yeah, but it was all about how far Divine could go. How far you go is how all comedy, even today, is made, and there’s very much an edge that you have to balance on. That made my whole career. But I think, since I always make fun of things I really like, that’s why I’ve lasted this long, even if you hate me.
It even shows up in ‘Liarmouth’ a lot, which I tore through. It’s like reading an endless roller coaster of absurdity, without ever losing the element of surprise.
I hope that’s because I’m trying to surprise myself. In writing, I’m the first audience I have. I’m trying to make myself laugh and surprise myself. If I can surprise me, then the audience that comes along for the ride – that orders a book in advance, doesn’t wait to see if it’s well received, and believes in it – they’re the ones I want to make laugh first. It’s always a pleasant surprise when that laughter trickles over and I can go further and further.
Even though it’s crazy, I tried to write it like it’s very serious, like everything can possibly happen. The characters believe in their insane missions, no matter what they are. I never tried to wink at you. When you buy the book, you already knew I winked by calling it a “feel-bad romance”, so I’m just asking you to laugh and keep turning those pages.
All of your work has this balance of making characters who are sort of insane but also very real and relatable people in many years.
It’s all possible. There definitely are people that are obsessed with trampolining and I believe that dog facelifts are not that far away in our future. It could all happen, but sometimes it’s pushed to one level too much.
It’s always been there for you too. Jumping between filth, from chicken fucking and forced impregnation to murder and singing assholes, to sweetness, like Edie and the Egg Man, which is truly romantic.
It is romantic and, in the new version, there’s a whole scene that got cut where the Egg Man asks for Edie’s hand in marriage to Divine and Cotton. He talks about why he’s gonna love her, keep her safe and always bring her eggs. I like my characters and I want them to be happy. Even the villains, whoever they are, and I don’t usually think anybody really is the villain. Well, in Pink Flamingos the Marbles are definitely the villain.
You say you love your characters and I think it shows. Do you always have a certain level of empathy for them?
I wouldn’t ask you to spend time with somebody I hated. Society might hate Masha Sprinkle [the protagonist of ‘Liarmouth’], and you might hate her if you knew her or were one of her victims, but at the same time, you’re rooting for her and how terrible she is. And she does actually have a reason to be that terrible when she finally confesses her sexual background. It’s a ridiculous and ludicrous memory, but there is a reason why she acts like that.
It’s the whole concept of “trauma in art” taken to the most ridiculous level. She just got a rimjob.
On her wedding. She thought that’s what romance was.
Which is so absurd and hilarious to laugh at.
And you’re laughing with me who is telling the story.
Laughing with each other seems key to your work and I’d love to know about sort of existing with all the Dreamland actors and having this weird little family that you made movies with.
They were just my friends. It was like a repertory group in a theatre. So Pink Flamingos was just the next movie we were going to make. People say “it only cost $10,000”, and actually it cost $12,000, but that was a fortune to us. That was a huge budget compared to Multiple Maniacs’ $5,000. It felt like we were working in the big time and had rehearsals for weeks beforehand. Like Mink [Stole] says, “We went for it. That’s what all people do. You go for it.” You group together and you’re all running. Even Danny [Mills], who played Cracker, was almost the real character. He said, “Should I bleach my hair?” and I told him no, y’know? We were all into it. It wasn’t like a political call to action to go make this movie to confront the world. It was just us joyously making the next movie.
There’s something kind of radical about just being queer and making art.
Nobody was queer except me, Divine, and David. Mink wasn’t, Mary Vivian Pierce wasn’t, and Danny definitely was not. When we had the whole scene where Divine blew him, they kept wanting to laugh because they were friends and Danny wasn’t one bit gay.
It’s like this perfect bundling together of different identities in a familial sense.
Danny was arrested for the world’s largest LSD ring with his girlfriend later and they asked me to be a character witness. I said, “If I’m your character witness, you’re going to jail.” I wanted him to be Gater in Female Trouble and he wouldn’t because he was a draft dodger and was scared the attention would get him arrested. He was just in love with Mary Vivian Pierce when we made the movie. I think it was about all of us hanging around together.
That’s what our life was like. We didn’t always hang around with all gay people, all straight, but we hung around with every kind of person that didn’t fit in. We created our own minority. Still, to this day, I never understand things like bear week because it’s so bizarre. Why does everybody just want to have friends or have sex with people that look exactly like them? Twinks? There are hundreds of them. It’s like a boy band convention. I guess they all just like mirror images, which I never did or else I would be married to Steve Buscemi.
I would watch that queer romcom though.
Steve is my friend and we joke about it all the time. He is sick of it and told me people think he’s Don Knotts. And I think Don Knotts looks like Mick Jagger, who I think looks great.
So how does it feel to know that the things you created have had such longevity and impact in so many different ways?
Well, it’s incredibly flattering and gratifying and I’m really proud of it. I thank audiences every time I’m in a space for allowing me to get away with this; allowing me to put out another book that’s totally crazy, to put out movies, and to keep having them come back. Without their support, it would have never happened, because in the beginning, no critics liked them, so it was really the audience that made them be remembered. And now there’s new audiences! Half of them weren’t even born when I made Pink Flamingos.
Including me. I think my first encounter with you was probably The Simpsons’ “Homer’s Phobia”, which I still cherish deeply to this day. I can’t help but think about how many only discovered you through Drag Race or the Hairspray musical.
There are some who only know me from Seed of Chucky or the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie or an Yves Saint Laurent ad. I mean, on this book tour, they’re younger than they’ve ever been and I think that is the ultimate compliment. If you can get new young people that don’t say, “Oh, this is old hat. I’ve seen this before,” to me, that is amazing and really gratifying. My audience is old and dying, you know, so you have to replace them and get new ones.
That’s a testament to how fresh you keep everything.
You’re right. I just wake up every day and try to be freshly nuts.
Published 29 Jul 2022