John Waters – A Q&A

John Waters is the author/director of some of the funniest, most transgressive films ever to make it to the big screen. On the even of his appearances in Wellington and Auckland, Witchdoctor had a chat with the great subversive.

Witchdoctor – One of your actors, [former porn queen] Traci Lords, made a bad Stephen King adaptation down here once.
Waters – Yeah I just saw Traci, I just did a movie with her, she’s doing very well, she has a new record coming out, she has a lovely husband and a lovely child, she’s doing very well.
Witchdoctor – What kind of audience are you expecting to discover down under?
Waters – Well that’s very interesting to me. In some ways my audience all over the world is kind of the same, my core audience is minorities that can’t even sit in their own minority. My audience is really mixed, and with the internet today… everybody in the world kind of is the same in some ways. In America, if I’m in the East Village in New York or in Iowa, the kids look the same now, the hip kids. That’s one of the reasons I’m coming there, to see is it all the same and what the differences are.
Witchdoctor – When you perform This Filthy World, do you perform any of the material on the DVD?
Waters – No, it’s completely rewritten. That was the version of it then [2007], but it is not the same version.
Witchdoctor – Do you have a question and answer session?
Waters – Oh yeah, always. I speak for 70 minutes and then we have questions and answers.
Witchdoctor – I had all the movies on video in the ‘80s but they’re mouldering now, and what amazed me was that when I went to get the DVDs here, I couldn’t get them at all.
Waters – Pink Flamingos on is available in America, in a box set. The early ones, Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, there’s a lot of music issues with that, we’re trying to work those out so it can be released again, but Mondo Trasho will probably never come out. It was a 90-minute movie with music that today would cost a million dollars for a movie that cost two thousand. You know when I was young I’m not sure I even knew you had to pay for the music. They’re all very easily available, even on television, which is something I never imagined would happen. Uncut. Pink Flamingos was shown uncut on the Sundance channel, which is still cable, but many homes get it. And I always was amazed because the Director’s Guild called up and said they wanted to cut the fellatio scene and the chicken scene and I said ‘fine’, but they forgot to! I’m just trying to picture some family channel surfing!
Witchdoctor – I had to import the box set to be able to see them all again, and I have to say that Pink Flamingos is just as shocking now as it was then, for some reason.
Waters – It is. My audience gets younger as I get older. It’s amazing. I go to these places and these kids, some of them weren’t born when I made that movie. Some of them weren’t born when I made my last movie!
Witchdoctor – There is a darkness to those films though, don’t you think?
Waters – There’s a darkness, but also a loving joyness. There is a darkness, of course, they appeal to angry kids, but at the same time I don’t think Pink Flamingos is mean spirited.
Witchdoctor – Any sign of Cry Baby getting the Broadway treatment that Hairspray got?
Waters – It did and it failed. It opened on Broadway and it got four Tony nominations including best musical and best score, and it did not do well and closed. So that ends my Broadway career. If Cry Baby had been a hit I think I would have moved on to Serial Mom, but since it’s not I think that’s probably it.
Witchdoctor – Speaking of the criminal fraternity – obviously there’s a thread running through some of the movies about capital punishment and you’ve spoken about attending trials and visiting Manson and so forth.
Waters – I didn’t visit Manson at all. In my new book I have a very serious and passionate plea for the release of one of the Manson women who has been in jail for 40 years and looks back on it with great remorse and horror.
Witchdoctor – Should Manson himself get out?
Waters – No, of course not. He never will. He’s just now someone you’d move away from in a bar, but he plays insane so he keeps getting publicity. No, Manson will never get out. He doesn’t even want to get out. But he was a pimp that found these kids who were looking for something in the most extreme year of our century, 1969, they were on LSD, and really turned them into killers, and any of the ones that are alive today that are in prison mostly look back on it now that they’re un-brainwashed, with great sorrow and remorse and horror for what they did.
Witchdoctor – Do you, in the redistribution of the movies… do the deals that you cut at the time mean you still get the money that accrues from that work?
Waters – The money that I should be getting. But the answer is yes, I own all my movies, or the people that I raised the money with in limited partnerships, I own up to Female Trouble, and then Desperate Living and Polyester were made with other business, and then New Line owns Hairspray on. But they didn’t do all of them. Cry Baby was Universal, and Serial Mom was another company. I’m in the Director’s Guild and the Writer’s Guild and all that, so I do get accounting for it. Some are more profitable than others, and some are not at all. The thing that made the most money in my life was the musical of Hairspray on Broadway.
Witchdoctor – How much has changed?
Waters – My last film in America, A Dirty Shame had an NC-17 rating and I had lots of censorship problems, a lot of hassle, so not much has changed. I don’t think I have changed that much. I think society has certainly changed more than I have. I’m lucky it went in my direction.
Witchdoctor – To an outsider perspective America still seems like a very conservative place at its core but at the same time you can watch more disgusting stuff on TV and whatever.
Waters – Well TV probably has more freedom than movies today. Yes, America, we distribute bad taste. That’s what American humour has become, almost. Things are a lot freer than when we were young, but in some ways things haven’t changed at all, and in some ways they have, but there will always be battles and that’s up to each generation to fight.
Witchdoctor – You don’t seem to have a shy bone in your body.
Waters – I’m not for blowhards. I think that if you believe in something that you should go for it. A ‘no’ is free. At the same time nobody’s going to knock on your door offering you your dreams. You have to go get it. I’ve been lucky, my dreams have come true. I said this to somebody the other day and they nearly gagged, but it’s true, they have! When I was 16, everything I wanted to do, I’ve gotten to do.
Witchdoctor – Have you always been that way, or have you conquered any reticence of shyness you’ve had over the years.
Waters – I don’t know that I’ve conquered that but I certainly was ambitious, and I always was lucky I knew what I wanted to do. That’s when you get into trouble, when you don’t know what to do. Then someone else tells you, or someone says ‘how can you be so disciplined’ – well otherwise I have to go get a job with someone else. I’m my own boss, to me that’s easier, but for some people it’s harder. I got it from my father I think. A lot of stuff we didn’t get on when I was young, but I realised at the end that I’m very much like him in some ways.
Witchdoctor – You seem to have gotten along well with your parents.
Waters – Yes they’ve been very supportive.
Witchdoctor – I loved seeing those little home movies on the DVD scrapbook.
Waters – Yeah right. Well my father, when he saw the last movie said, ‘It was funny. I hope I never see it again.’ That kind of sums it up.

John Waters does his stand-up routine in Wellington, Monday October 31 and Auckland, Wednesday November 2.

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