John Waters


Leading me into the garden of his Baltimore home, John Waters could for a moment be any average American citizen, the proud host giving his guest a tour of the grounds.

“It looks like the grounds of a small mental institution,” he observes looking down the compact, slightly overgrown, garden.
“I can just picture a nurse walking down that path when I’m old and demented.”

Maybe it’s a premonition I suggest, rather undiplomatically.
“I know , “ he smiles slyly. “It was the first thing I thought when I came here.”

His mother would probably concur, perhaps even taking some slight satisfaction from the fact that – all those years ago – she had told him so. Although he has taken precautions to protect her from some of his work, most notably at least one of the art pieces in his new book, Director’s Cut (“it’s not fair to make my mother look at an asshole”), John Waters’s mother has seen all of his movies except the most famous/infamous, ‘Pink Flamingos’.

“I remember when she saw Mondo Trasho, she was crying,” Waters says, with a surprising trace of dejection and actual embarrassment. “Afterwards, she said, ‘you’re gonna O.D. from drugs, have a nervous breakdown, and die in a mental hospital. She was crying,” he says again.

Mondo Trasho being one of his earlier, more obscure movies (16mm, black & white, no dialogue) I have to ask what happens in it to have led her to such a (comprehensive) prediction.
“In that one ?” Waters sighs airily. “Oh, nothing.”

This strikes me as fairly unlikely.
“Well… at the end, Divine crawls through pig shit and the Virgin Mary appears to her. Maybe that upset her. At least nowadays she knows somebody likes them. Then, it was very early on.”

This, I can’t help saying, was probably not the trouble. John Waters considers this for a second before any fleeting concern he might have visibly passes.
“Well,” he breezily concedes, “she was worried about me anyway.”

And no wonder.

IT IS a wet Wednesday in Baltimore and John Waters is adamant he will not be venturing out, even though Director’s Cut (compiled during a 4-year lull between movies) has been completed and plans for his next film, Pecker, are finally in place.

Miss Bonnie’s Elvis Bar and the male strip bar out near the prison will have to wait.
“It was the first place the cons reached where they could get a job,” he laughs. “So it was like: NUDE BURGLARS TONITE.”

He has tired of dragging journalists round the bars of Baltimore (“hairdo capital of the world”) looking for women with beehives, “screaming THERE’S ONE !”

And anyway, Monday to Thursdays he never goes out unless it’s to a restaurant or a movie.
“I read every night for four hours,” he says, indicating a rack containing the 95 magazines he gets every month – everything from Hello and The Face to Modern Painters and the London Review of Books.

On Fridays though, he goes out.
“I’m so anal,” he laughs, “even my hangovers are planned. I go out, get high, stay up til five in the morning, go berserk. Like a coalminer.”

This, you have to say, is where the comparison ends.

Now 51, Waters has always lived in Baltimore, and to some people’s surprise, happily remains here.

Everything I had heard about Baltimore was grim. Grim and violent. And certainly the portents were bad: Nina Simone wrote a (suitably miserable) album dedicated to it and the best programme on British television, set in Baltimore, is not called Homicide for nothing.

Still, Waters seems to have an enduring love of the place and the people, even though he regards as it “the original garbage city”.

He has set and shot all his movies here, describing them as being about “alarming white people. Baltimore is the capital of that. It’s very blue collar town. 70% black. Good sense of humour, angry, and not impressed by anything. They don’t give a shit,” he purrs, confirming you that, in his eyes at least, nothing could top this.

Walking down to his house, tucked away in the affluent University area though, life seems as if it couldn’t be more peachy and all-American. The paths are littered with skipping squirrels and copies of the Baltimore Messenger that have failed to reach the front porch. Old folk tending their gardens salute you with a flick of the hand to their forehead and a kindly “how you doin’ ?”

I can’t help wondering if the Waters residence – a dark, “tan”, slightly spooky-looking, house lurking rather gloomily in the corner of two leafy streets – is the place the neighbours tell their kids to stay away from.

The word about Waters, the man William Burroughs dubbed ‘The Pope of Bad Taste’, has surely got round. Even if he wasn’t the man who made Pink Flamingos (in which, to the strains of How Much Is That Doggy In The Window, the colourful transvestite Divine wins the title of Filthiest Person In The World by eating, on camera, freshly-laid dog shit, thus defeating a White Trash couple who breed babies to sell to lesbian couples and invest in their porn and heroin business), any of the neighbours who have had the tour of the house will have surely have spread the word.

Although the rooms are exquisitely furnished, showcasing his immaculately presented collections of books, modern art and fabulous foreign posters for his movies, as you tour the four storeys, the presence of other, more bizarre, items tells you unmistakably whose home you are in.

The electric chair, used to electrocute Divine in Female Trouble is by the front door and one bathroom has a lovingly-displayed shrine to terrorist/film-star Patti Hearst (including “the actual glasses she was wearing when she was arrested.”)

His collection of true crime hardbacks and serial killer-related memorabilia is extensive and probably unique.

A store-room, bearing all the mad memorabilia ‘fans’ have sent him over the years, is packed, full of things such as a piece of serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s front lawn, the roadsign from Salo, a Charles Manson doll (“I have never ever seen it anywhere else”), some Charles Manson hair in the shape of a swastika (“what other sign would you have it in ?”) and a painting of Manson family member, Susan Atkens, painted in the style of an old master.

“It’s actually pretty good !” he exclaims with some pride.

One picture bears the legend “Thay You Love Thaytan” – a reference to a notorious satanist serial-killer with a lisp who used to make his victims say they loved Satan.

Another original (terrible) painting by serial-killer John Wayne Gacy, he points out, is in the guest room at the top of the house, where he puts people he doesn’t want to stay too long.

“John Wayne Gacy was the biggest closet queen, a bad painter and, most importantly, the worst dressed mass murderer we’ve ever had,” he declares. “I’m against capital punishment but I really don’t think anyone misses him.”

The delight he gets from the simple shock value of his signed limited edition Damien Hirst being number 666 is like a little boy’s.

After several years’ interest, he has, he says, stopped attending murder trials but his enthusiasm for the subject knows no bounds. He asks me if I’ve read the book about the British serial killer who ate undigested cereal from the throats of the children he had murdered with an eagerness that is almost alarming.

Looking round the store-room, his eyes alight on a brightly-coloured child’s bicycle, which, he admits with some embarassment, he knows looks really perverse and has presented him with a dilemma.

“It looks really perverse. I really don’t want to keep it,” he smiles, “but it looks so bad, I’m afraid to throw it out, because of what people might think.”

Where John Waters is concerned, this is not something which has happened very often.

IF the neighbours are worried, John Waters’ appearance offers little reassurance – in fact he remains quite happy to play the part of the oddball/spiv/perv, greeting me in his trademark white linen suit, scary bottletop glasses, and his pencil-thin Addams Family moustache glistening, anxious for news about Myra Hindley, the question, “how does she wear her hair now ?” being the issue uppermost on his mind.

“That picture could not have been styled better by the world’s top movie stylist,” he enthuses. “She will serve ten years more than any other criminal because she did not do her roots that day.”

His first task is taking a polaroid for his collection of every visitor that has ever been to the house, all neatly labelled and filed by date.

A character worthy of Capote at his finest, Waters is, as he always seems to be, entertaining, enthusiastic and thoroughly charming company. As anyone who has witnessed his college lectures or TV appearances or read his excellent essays in books like ‘Crackpot’ or ‘Shock Value’ will know, Waters is, like Gore Vidal or Quentin Crisp, a brilliantly effortless, astute raconteur, who only occasionally makes his selection of anecdotes and epigrams seem like a recital. At times, his eyes gleam with the kind of sly sense of amusement you find only in those people whose wit is such they are more than happy to amuse themselves.

“Right-wing terrorists are no fun,” he declares apropos Timothy McVeigh. “Left-wing terrorists dress better and have much more style.”

He has a reliable stock of great one-liners (“everyone looks sexier under arrest”) but is funniest when the blood begins to boil.

“Why do cab-drivers ask me, ‘how do you like those Baltimore Orioles ?” he bridles, sneering at the slightest mention of anything to do with sport. “I don’t ask them, ‘how do you like those early Fassbinder films ?”

Given the peculiarity and perversity of his films, and some of the more bizarre nature of the furnishings, it’s strange to hear John Waters insist that he considers himself to be politically correct.

He objects to jokes about subjects such as AIDS, unless they are told by people who have AIDS (“You can’t make fun of somebody else. It’s not as funny”) and certainly in his last film, 1994’s Serial Mom, the crime of Kathleen Turner’s killing spree was put in the shade by those neighbours who failed to wear safety belts or re-cycle their garbage.

But it’s hard to forget that this is the man who in Crackpot, writes about relishing the reaction he gets from being the only unaccompanied adult at The Care-Bears Movie or recommends being on Hollywood Boulevard at 6 in the morning as the street-cleaners go by to see Natalie Wood’s footprints poignantly filling with water.

Sure enough, although John Waters is obviously an extreme liberal, the PC veneer doesn’t last long,

“I’m not an animal lover, no. I’m not for cruelty to animals but as far as the subject of animal testing for make-up is concerned, if one bunny has to die for my moustache, so be it.”

He is, without a doubt, pretty curious character. As one confused young fan who wrote to him, wondered, “I’m at High School and I make films like you do. How come I get sent to the school psychiatrist and you get sent to Europe ?”

John Waters has spent most of his life making bizarre, but surprisingly entertaining and endearing, low budget movies about the ultimate outsiders of society – fat drag freaks, mentally deficient mothers, low trash criminals, jealous junkies, delinquents and deviants (not to mention all-American high school kids).

Given that his more obscure, underground movies, were if anything more extreme versions of films like Pink Flamingos, and thus widely regarded as acts of rebellion and rage, it comes as some surprise to learn that they were financed by his parents.

Raised Catholic by middle-class parents and the eldest of four children, Waters once quipped that they paid for his films so that they wouldn’t have to watch them.

His father had a fire protection equipment business.
“I worked there one day – in the warehouse. At 2 o’clock, I just went home. My younger brother runs the company now, so it turned out fine. I paid my father back the money. It was very loving, something that took me many years to get.”

Besides his parents, John Waters has the nuns to thank for his obsession with movies. Each week at school, they would read out a list of titles would impart damnation, films like The Bad Seed, The Naked Night and the 1947 sex picture Mom & Dad.

“I used to get a thrill hearing a nun say “Love Is My Profession’,” Waters sighs, with a frisson even now. He had seen Jayne Mansfield’s scandalous Baby Doll (“the one they made the biggest stink of”) by the time he was ten.

His developed his appetite for trash/exploitation movies by the likes of William Castle, George Kuchar and Russ Meyer and progressed to taking the bus to New York to see work by Warhol and Kenneth Anger, Bergman and Fellini. (Foreign art-movies, he says, are his pornography.)

He made his first black and white, 8mm, film, Hag In A Black Leather Jacket in 1964 (“it was terrible”) when he was still at High School using a camera donated by his grandmother and using film stock stolen from the camera shop where his female lead worked.

The prophetic Eat Your Make-up (“about a deranged governess who kidnaps models and makes them model themselves to death” ), Mondo Trasho, and Multiple Maniacs, all starred the friend who would become his muse/voice, fellow tortured outcast, one Harris Glenn Milstead (aka. Divine), who lived a few doors down from him.

Female Trouble (in which eye-liner is taken internally “to heighten one’s beauty awareness”), Desperate Living (about a lesbian-led town so dreadful criminals could serve their time there in preference to prison) and 1981’s Polyester (filmed in Odorama with hideous scratch and sniff cards) launched the duo’s partnership on to a global stage.

1988’s Hairspray (“Their Hair Was Perfect But The World Was A Mess”) and Cry Baby (his most mainstream offering, named after the first record he ever bought) were steeped in his 50s youth.

All of which leaves Pink Flamingos, made in 1972 for $12, 000 and branded by Variety as “surely the most vile, stupid, repulsive film ever made”. But its popularity has endured, so much so that, earlier this year, it was restored and re-issued by New Line as a special 25th Anniversary edition.

Watching Pink Flamingos on video now, at first it’s hard to see why people make so much fuss about Pink Flamingos, even though it’s a pretty strange spectacle. But that’s because in this country, it is, to this day, still heavily censored.

“I know !” Waters cries, outraged. “They cut out the same things for the re-released version as they cut 25 years ago ! It’s an antique !”

Reading the list of cuts made by the Censors board, it becomes easier to understand why, when he screened the film to an audience of rapists and murderers in a Baltimore jail, they said ‘you are really sick’. (Probably his dream review.)

“Reduce sexual attack with chickens,” reads the first instruction on the sheet, “as well as prolonged indication that woman is being sexually abused, cutting away as soon as sex is established and chicken is moved towards woman’s crotch…”

“Reduce scenes of man injecting semen into unconscious woman’s vagina” says another. “When fat woman (Divine) fellates her grown son as he sits on sofa, remove all sight of actual oral-genital contact.”

Whilst the UK version of the video ends with a freeze-frame just as the offending excrement enters Divine’s mouth, the rest of the world has not been so fortunate.

“Yes, yes,” Waters laughs. “It’s shocked and offended three generations. Do you have any idea how difficult that is ? I’m a very caring director. We only did one take.”

As for the chicken, Waters confirms with a smirk that not only is the chicken involved in the sex, it is killed on camera (“today that’s definitely a no-no”).

“The son is fucking Cookie, the chicken’s in the middle, and he takes a knife out and cuts the chicken’s head off. There’s blood and he shoves it in to his crotch.”

He has always defended the scene on the ground that “it was going to be killed anyway. We got it from a farmer. It got to be in a movie. It got fucked and we ate it. That’s more than most chickens achieve in their lifetimes.”

Better yet, he trills, “It’s still being talked about 25 years later.”

IN fact the shit-eating scene from Pink Flamingos has become a rather token John Waters symbol and over-clouded some other remarkable Waters images.

“Eating shit will live in cinema infamy, certainly,” he considers, matter-of-factly, as reflecting on what are the finest battle-scenes in movie history.

He agrees that it’s not even the most obscene shot in the movie.

“The most obscene is the artificial insemination close-up of semen in a needle and shoving it into a vagina. In Female Trouble, the best shock scene is when Divine has the baby and bites the umbilical chord and spits it on the floor. In Desperate Living, when the second woman gets a sex change into a man and then cuts her dick off and throws it out the front door, the dog eats it. The dog ate it on the second take too, God bless him.”

But the winner in John Waters’ eyes lies in Multiple Maniacs.
“The rosary job !!! (which I will leave to your imaginations) I defy you to show me a more blasphemous scene in any movie made to this day.”

Why do you think you’ve had all these images ? I ask him, rather bluntly.

“That was my job,” he shrugs. “I enjoyed them. I was a puppeteer when I was young – at people’s birthday parties. I was obsessed with movies. So images were just always what I played with, as a child. I designed a dirty movie theatre when I was a kid. That’s what I thought I wanted to do when I grew up. Have a theatre to play movies that were condemned by the Catholic Church.”

Of course, seeing some of the images in John Waters’ films, it’s not unusual for people to conclude that they are the reason he is considered something of a weirdo, one of America’s outsiders.
But in fact, images like these are a result of his feeling like that in the first place.

His characters – out on the far-out fringes of society – are, he says, “the people I’m rooting for. They feel the way I do. They have to use something special to win because they’re not equipped with the normal things that most assholes have to get by every day.”

His fascination and empathy for fat characters, for example, comes from the fact they are “the last target. Unlike every kind of race, colour and sexuality in society, it’s still OK to laugh at them. Fat stands for every minority.”

The principal, almost primal, drive behind John Waters’ films, has always been anger, a hatred of conventional society, a rage he articulated through Divine.

“In the beginning the movies were made as terrorism. They were more like political acts, influenced by people like The Yippies and The Weathermen in the 60s.”

Ask him where the rage came from and he complains, “No-one ever encouraged my interests,” even now showing the spite and pain he must have felt as a little boy.

Of his family, he admits, “I don’t have alot to be angry about. My parents have been very supportive.”

But that doesn’t always make any difference.
“Sure I was angry, that’s cos I was 20. If you’re not angry when you’re young, you must be a really boring person,” deflecting the conversation to the safer territory of the quote-worthy epigram. “It’s your duty to be angry at that age.”

The rage though obviously lies deep.
As a child, he would play with toy cars like any other boy, but smash them into each other or set about them with a hammer, crying ‘there’s been a terrible accident’.” As he grew older, he would have his mother take him to the city junk yards to see real wreckages.

There’s a terrible pathos to the image of him as a boy creating ‘monster kids’ to play with – drawings of juvenile delinquents on bits of paper and “making a list of all their problems on the back.”

“Even before I was 9 or 10, I always knew there was something the matter with me mentally,” he laughs lightly. “But I yearned for something odd physically, like a brace. The dentist wouldn’t give me one, so I improvised with paper clips.”

The school, inevitably, told his mother he needed “extensive psychiatric treatment.” (He eventually saw one in his mid-20s and though he only saw one for two years, proclaims himself “all in favour of it.”)

The rage, by now, has abated somewhat (just read the hilarious essay in Crackpot, 101 Things I Hate, to see how much) though he says “I’m still angry about some things. Anger is what I base all humour on certainly.”

But his sense of rebellion and alienation from society still leads to a need to encourage acts of subversion of almost any kind. In Holland, on the way to a film festival, when he was spat at by some punks (because of the limousine) he says, “I thought, ‘you’re so right’.”

He is horrified that, for college-kids in America nowadays “it is not cool to be poor anymore. They all want to make money.”

Female Trouble has a typically cute touch of role reversal, with Divine appalled when her daughter becomes a Hare Krishna (“How could you ?!”) later sighing, “I worry that you will work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of heterosexuals is a sick and boring life.”

At High School, unlike Divine, he had no problem with being bullied (“they thought I was too crazy”) for either his weird ways or his sexuality. He even had a few friends.
“I just didn’t go to school with them. My real friends were all the people I made my first movie with – beatniks, gay people, drug-users… We made our own family…a real outsider world I liked much better.”

He has mellowed but defended his sense of outsider-ness: “You’re looking at a gay man who has never been to the gym,” he snipes. “I hate sports and I hate disco. The first time I went into a gay bar, I thought, ‘I might be queer but I ain’t this. ”

He has said that when he sees drag queens doing Judy Garland, he feels “like a black man from the South watching the black ‘n’ white minstrels.”

In fact, the only time he truly seems to have found anyone to empathise with, other than Divine, has been in prison. As he writes in Crackpot, “I just can’t help it. I enjoy the company of murderers, rapists and child molesters.”

Although he usually explains his interest in serial-killers and criminals as being about the limits of human behaviour and how they can live with what they’ve done, he seems drawn to them in a more powerful, more personal way than mere intellectual curiosity.

In the early 1980s, for three years he even taught a class at the Paxutent Institute, between Baltimore and Washington, officially titled Art but regarded by Waters as being about How To Laugh At A Life Sentence. The class was 90% murderers and sex offenders, all under psychiatric treatment, serving sentences with an average of 30 years.

Although he was obviously serious enough to dedicate so much time to this, in interviews he tends to accentuate the more flippant aspects – such as the screening of Pink Flamingos and the time one of the (by now rehabilitated) prisoners came to see him on the outside and being disappointed to find “he was much more interesting when he was a killer.”

Still, it’s hard not to conclude that in some way his interest and empathy for the “rapists, murderers and sex offenders” comes from their status as the ultimate pariahs of society. There is something desperately lonely about that.

JOHN Waters has now compiled Director’s Cut, a collection of 5 or 6 years’ worth of work he has exhibited in New York’s art galleries, but which began as a purely private response to his own personal obsessiveness.

He describes the pictures as “little movies” – more about editing and juxtaposition than photography. Their effect and resonance comes almost entirely from the relevance to him – “like photographing a favourite movie the way I wanted to remember it.”

His selections are made from favourite stills from his early movies, obscure film credits, forgotten art films, and shock images from his youth, such as the illegitimate baby catching on fire in Susan Slade (“an illegitimate baby on fire is rare .”)

The first picture he ever did (‘Divine In Ecstacy’) stemmed from his frustration at not being able to see a still of the frame that captured Divine’s expression in the one moment in Mondo Trasho between Divine being raped and seeing the Virgin Mary, taking “hundreds of shot off the TV” before capturing it.

They are almost all the product of some obsession or another. It’s certainly hard to think of how many other film directors of his status would spend so much time hunting down images from obscure porn videos or old religious movies.

He has spent the past week working on his next piece, on “vomiting in Swedish movies”.
“Vomiting is very hard to photograph,” he says, breezing past the question of the time he devotes to it, “because people are always moving.”

Watching him, eagerly spreading out the pages from the book over the living room floorboards to show me, talking fervently about the images and his intentions and when he first saw them, he could for all the world be a kid showing someone his collection of 50s cigarette cards or autographed movie pictures.

He has spent three years trying to follow-up Serial Mom and although he did the book because he wasn’t filming, insists, “I never took one day off.”

He still hopes his long-awaited project, Cecil B.Demented, will come to fruition eventually but is now about to start shooting Pecker, an R-rated rags-to-riches $ 6m comedy, featuring Edward Furlong and Ricki Lake among others.

“It has the heart of Hairspray and the edge of my early movies – something I’ve never tried. It’s about the most un-American thing you can want to do,” he says with some pride, “which is NOT want to be famous.”

He still has to fight for money and control, despite the fact that nearly all of his movies have made money. The week we met, Pink Flamingos was the number two-selling video on the Billboard charts – behind Jerry McGuire !

“I had to fight for Serial Mom more than any other movie I’ve ever made. When I showed it to the studio for the first time, they acted as if they’d seen a snuff movie ! They wanted to take two of the murders out and have her convicted at the end. And I was shocked because it was so mild and the exact script. Not one word altered.”

John Waters’ films will leave behind a strange legacy – having given the world not only Divine but Ricki Lake, ostensibly polar extremes of American culture.

“Divine taught her how to walk on heels,” he beams. “I remember the day. Ricki had never had a pair of high heels in her life. The week before we cast her for Hairspray, she got turned down for a job in The Gap. I always tell Ricki how shocked I am by her show.”

Otherwise, John Waters will be remembered as someone who created his own genre (no mean feat) and has, he says, “made trash 1% more respectable.”

In his essay, How To Become Famous, he sympathises with Jayne Mansfield who, having failed to plan her funeral, ended up buried in Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania, rather than Hollywood.

I ask him if he’s taken any steps to avoid repeating her mistake. Sure enough, he knows where he will be buried.
“I’ve seen it,” he gushes sounding utterly unconcerned by the subject. “That’s why I hate to go and visit my grandmother’s grave, cos I’m right next to it. I have to actually SEE the pit.”

How does that make you feel ? I ask.
“It makes me feel nervous ,” he laughs. “That’s it baby. Your last condo.”

And maybe this will be his real epitaph – that, after all those years of rage and pain, after so many strange expressions of alienation, this is where John Waters, like so many outsiders, shall rest. With his family.