On 18 September 2015, the exceptional John Waters will be in London to conduct an on-stage interview as part of the BFI’s two-month season celebrating his 50-year film career. Pamela Jahn caught up with the director ahead of his visit to talk about his work, breaking taboos now and then, turning Pink Flamingos into a kid’s movie and feeling good watching French feel-bad movies.
Pamela Jahn: You’ve just had your first UK art show at the Sprüth Magers Gallery in London, now you are honoured with an extensive film season at the BFI – it seems that the thin line between dark comedy, bad taste and high camp that you’ve been walking for decades has manifested into a runway for success on all fronts
John Waters: Well, it’s true that nobody really gets mad at much about anything I do anymore, but I haven’t changed anything. I mean, the very first thing I ever did was a film called Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. I still lived with my parents, it was filmed on the roof of my house with my high school friends, and it was a white woman marrying a black guy and the wedding ceremony was performed by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. But is it that so different from my last movie, which was about a middle-class neighbourhood that is taken over by sex addicts? I don’t know. But I’m certainly proud to be having a 50-year retrospective at the BFI now – and my mum would really be proud because she was such an anglophile.
The season at the BFI includes not only your features but also your early short films from the 60s, which you just mentioned. What do they mean to you today?
The early films are not really movies, and that’s why they are shown for free. They were never distributed or anything, they’re kind of like my home movies that I made with my friends. Still, I look back at them all with fondness, although I never sit around and watch my own movies. I also don’t think I had more fun then, I always think tomorrow is going to be more fun than yesterday. But then again, I was trying to make an underground movie and I had no idea how to do it. I didn’t go to film school, so I learned just from experimenting, and those really early films are what that is. It just so happened that my friends happened to be Divine and people who, I guess, seemed like normal people to me at the time, but I guess they were a little more extreme than other people’s friends.
According to your mother, one of the most important influences on your filmmaking must have been Charles Walters’s Lili (1953), and from there you went on to organise your own puppet shows as a kid. Did you sort of know back then where you wanted to go with it, that you wanted to make films one day?
David Lochary, when he used to get mad at me, used to say, ‘We are not your puppets, you know!’ And I said, ‘Well, maybe you are!’ Because do you know how many film directors, if you asked them, were puppeteers when they were kids? They all had puppets, because they are control freaks and the puppets could create their own world. For me, when I then went on to do those puppet shows as a kid, I would break the fourth wall of puppetry at the end and come out with a dragon puppet and say, ‘So, all brave kids stick out your hands and the one kid that gets bitten by the dragon will have good luck forever.’ At that point, some of the kids would start crying and the brave ones would stick their hands out, and I always thought the ones who started crying ended up being losers in life.
How difficult was it to be a control freak given the low budget and pretty chaotic circumstances that you shot your early films in? You still always managed to have a script and stick with it, and you’ve always had a very clear idea of what you wanted.
That’s my work ethic. Obviously, I was on pot when I wrote the movies, but I was never on pot or any drugs when we made the movies. I don’t think anybody was, it was too hard to work. I mean they were made for an audience that was completely on marijuana, but when we made the movies, we had like 20-hour shooting days or something, with no food. If you were stoned you couldn’t have gone through it really. Okay, the cast might have smoked pot behind my back somewhere, but not that much. I think afterwards, yeah, but during the actual shooting day Mink Stone always used to say, when someone called them amateur actors, she said, ‘Amateur? We had to remember five pages of dialogue and get it right in one take – that isn’t amateur.’ And even today, I still don’t like improvisation. But I know all actors want to improvise today and you can see it in movies, there is too much of it. I’m in the Writers Guild – save the script!
Shooting those films with your friends required a lot of trust from both sides, I imagine
I didn’t make them do anything, it was all in the script and I asked them to do it. There is a movie that I presented at a festival recently, it’s called Killer Joe, it’s a pretty shocking movie and there is a scene where Gina Gershon does this hideous sex act with a chicken, it’s really hilarious. And Mink said to me afterwards, ‘See, they’re just like us. We didn’t talk about it, we just went for it. We just did it.’ And that’s right, it was a group effort, it was a group madness in away, and I didn’t really do anything that was bad for them… I mean, we all survived. I wasn’t a sadist. And the eat shit scene, we just did it once, it was one take, I didn’t say, ‘Oh, let’s try that again!’ I think, they’re my friends and we all did this together, more as almost like a political action. I think Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass movies are the closest in spirit to my early movies and also in terms of the camaraderie those films were made in.
About Pink Flamingos, you used to say it’s like a kindergarten movie – it’s grown-up people doing babyish things. Was that your inspiration for Kiddie Flamingos, the video that was part of your recent art show in London?
Exactly! I basically just rewrote it and took out all the dirty parts and just made it PG-rated with the same story. But I don’t see it as my next film, I do see it as a video-art piece, because it’s the same thing, whether you poke your head in and watch five or ten minutes of it, or you watch the whole thing. It’s not a feature film, it’s a concept video piece. But with Pink Flamingos, yeah, I think you’re dead right, I think no one over 18 should be allowed to see it, it’s so juvenile.
Yeah, and you know why? Because video had just come out, so midnight movies were over. Before you always had to go to a movie theatre to see a film. It’s hard to imagine these days, but nobody could watch a movie twice. That’s why midnight movies were so popular, because people would come and see them every week, but once video came out, the mystery was gone. So, Polyester was the first movie I did that was made to be R-rated, it was the first one to play not at midnight.
And it was the first one that really put the melodrama at the forefront. Was that part of the plan, to become more commercial in a way?
Yes, I was certainly influenced by Douglas Sirk. But there was never a time when I tried to be uncommercial. I always wanted people to come and see my movies. The ending of Pink Flamingos was commercial, when you think about it. In the beginning I made exploitation films for art theatres at midnight, but I always had an audience and I knew that I was trying to get people. I wasn’t purposely trying to not make people to come.
You originally screened the film in ‘Odorama’. How did you come up with the idea?
I always remembered that in the late 50s or early 60s there was a film that I have never seen, because it didn’t play long enough when I was a child. It was called Scent of Mystery, and the system that they used to show it with was called ‘Smell-O-Vision’, it was basically a big machine that came to the theatres and pumped out the smell, but it didn’t really work. And I always loved William Castle, who had all those gimmicks in his movies, so it was made kind of as a homage to him.
How did people react when you first screened the film back in 1981?
The very first time we showed the film was in Cannes. There was such a mob of people who came to see it, that they broke the glass door to get in, so the ‘Odorama’ was definitely a success. But I think it was coupled with the fact that Tab Hunter, who was a real movie star, was part of the cast. He was in the movie with Divine, kissing, which – I know it’s hard to imagine today – was surprising to people, but it was. And I think Tap was also a huge part of why that movie was so successful.
You mentioned in the beginning that people don’t get mad anymore about the things you did in your movies. Do you also feel that today there are fewer taboos that you can actually break?
No, there are more taboos. Everybody is so politically correct. That’s why there’s this thing in America that they call a ‘trigger warning’, where, in college, the teachers have to say, ‘This is a trigger warning’, in case they are going to talk about anything controversial that might make people question their values, which is so ludicrous. I always thought that’s why you went to college in the first place, to question your values. So, no, I think today they are more taboos – but are they interesting? Maybe not. Maybe Hollywood now makes big 100-million-dollar gross sell-out comedies that are funny. So maybe that’s where I’ve been a bad influence.
In your latest book Carsick you almost reveal yourself as being a sentimentalist after all, in particular in the chapter where you imagine reuniting with Edith Massey.
Yes, I believe the chapter with Edith you could call sentimental, certainly. I don’t think it’s pushed too far. I look back at the past with a certain fondness and my memories of Edith are touching to me is that the same as sentimental? I guess so, so I plead guilty there.
Do you have a personal shock limit? Are you genuinely shocked by anything you watch these days?
Well, I’ll always try to surprise people, but sure, I’m shocked by bad romantic comedies, I am shocked by movies that are exactly the same as a science project. I’m shocked but not in a good way. I like to be surprised, certainly, and Gaspar Noé surprises me. I think Bruno Dumont surprises me usually they are French feel-bad movies that make me feel good.
Looking back at your own filmography, is there a movie that you personally would like to remake today?
Well, I always used to joke and say I’d make Pink Flamingos a children’s movie, but I already did that. Maybe I will do Female Trouble set in an old-age home next. At one point I was trying to make Flamingos Forever, the sequel to Pink Flamingos, but today that would never get made because it would get an N-17 rating and it would cost a lot and we’d have to have movie stars in it, so I’d rather not go there. I’ll prefer doing something new a new surprise!
Interview by Pamela Jahn