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John Waters Looks Back: ‘I Was Worse Than Ed Wood’

The ‘Pink Flamingos’ director’s new retrospective prompts the Pope of Trash to reconsider his past

“In the early days, people seemed to believe that we were the people in Pink Flamingos, that we lived in a trailer and ate dog shit,” John Waters says. “And we really weren’t, obviously. We’d be in prison if we were. But it was a good reaction. It meant the movie worked.”

For the past half a century, the Baltimore-born filmmaker and his pencil mustache have gleefully stood at the vanguard of vulgarity in cinema. Movies like his 1970 freak show Multiple Maniacs and his 1972 offering Pink Flamingos nauseated audiences when a lobster violated his frequent collaborator — an obese  transvestite named Divine – in the former and when his star actually gobbled up real canine crap on camera in the latter. Even his most commercial film, 1988’s Hairspray, cavorted with kitsch with its star, Ricki Lake, wearing a cockroach gown, among other themes.

The cultural impact and iconoclasm of the man whom William S. Burroughs once anointed “the Pope of Trash” has stretched far and wide, echoing in films like Spring Breakers and The Human Centipede, the cutesy gross-out jokes of Sarah Silverman and in music acts ranging from gritty rockers like the Melvins to the psychedelic nudism of Miley Cyrus. Somehow in recent years, Waters, now 68, has become almost (gasp!) the establishment.

Nothing illustrates Waters’ ascendance to supreme bad-tastemaker more than the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s current retrospective, provocatively titled Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take? Through September 14th, the New York institution is screening everything from Waters’ first creation, 1964’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, through his most recent (and possibly final) film, 2004’s A Dirty Shame. Waters has brought some of his rarely screened films, like his ’69 filth fete Mondo Trasho, he brought back “Odorama” for Polyester and he has selected eight pictures he’s jealous he did not make, like David Cronenberg’s 1996 dystychiphilia flick Crash and what he calls “the Citizen Kane of rat movies,” Of Unknown Origin from 1983. It all adds up to an odyssey into oddities.

Rolling Stone caught up with Waters, who was at his summer home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, shortly before the Lincoln Center engagement to find out just what his trash empire means to him. “I’m finally filthy and respectable,” Waters says with an impish laugh.

So what’s changed in the world that you’re getting this retrospective?
I think if you stick around long enough… [laughs]. I saw so many movies that really influenced me at [Lincoln Center’s] New York Film Festival. Jonas Mekas, Film Culture magazine, the New York underground – all that stuff is what I wanted to be in the beginning, but they would never let me, because the New York underground scene was incredibly closed-minded if you didn’t come from New York. Believe me, I never thought Hag in a Black Leather Jacket would be shown there. It only played once, at a beatnik coffeehouse in Baltimore and we passed the hat. And I don’t recall many people putting much in.

Well, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, which was your first movie, cost $30 to make, so you must have broken even.
Well, it didn’t really because we stole the film. We knew somebody that worked in a camera shop and she stole the film. So it actually cost minus money [laughs] because I didn’t use all of the money. I was worse than Ed Wood.

It’s been 50 years since that film. Did you foresee a career from making trash movies at that point?
In the beginning, I just wanted to make an underground movie. And then I wanted to make a midnight movie. I didn’t really expect it to go further than that, but once it did, I was an ambitious kid. I knew how to promote a movie at the same time. With Mondo Trasho, it was, “At last, a gutter film!” And Multiple Maniacs, “A celluloid atrocity!” I always had fun with the promotion of it, because I knew, how else would I get anybody to see it?

What was Divine like early on?
He was not like Divine in the movies; he was the opposite of that in real life. He didn’t walk around looking like that, except when I made him. I did actually make him get dressed as Babs Johnson in Pink Flamingos and ride the subway, giving out fliers. Today, he would be arrested. Well, maybe not. I probably would have had him eat shit on the subway, or maybe fake shit.

Fake shit?
It’s not fake in the movie, but for a promotion it would have been. But I think Johnny Knoxville would have done that today.

Divine ate real shit in Pink Flamingos. What happened after you stopped rolling?
He said, “Now I know I’m insane.” Everybody laughed. I left, and they all went and smoked pot. Then he started getting nervous that he would get sick from it. So he called the hospital and pretended he was a woman and said his child ate dog doo, and they said he might get the “white worm.” And the Divine actually said that out loud, and the whole group of people that were with him went into hysterical laughing, including Divine. He didn’t get the white worm.

Was it hard to cajole him into eating shit?
No. It was the first thing I asked. But he later got sick of it. I always said, “I could never live up to it and he could never live it down,” which is true. People could never get over it.

But it wasn’t hard to get him to do it, because it was a pothead idea, and Divine was a pothead. I was a pothead when I thought it up. The audiences that made it a hit were on pot as they watched it. We were not on pot when we made it; it was the only time we weren’t.

Did sobriety make it harder to shoot?
We saved it for the very last day of shooting. You know how you are on the last day of shooting: Just let’s get it over with. We just didn’t expect that it would take so long for the dog to cooperate, because we had it locked up for two days. We thought it would be ready to go. We fed it and stuff. It wouldn’t perform on duty.

Your retrospective is subtitled “How much can you take?”
That was my idea.

Well how much can you take of your early movies. Do you cringe?
All my movies make me cringe in a way, because you want to improve the. Technically, the early films are amateurish. They’re home movies, basically. But they’re good ephemera. You’ll see Divine when Divine was a teenager. My “Dreamland Studios” was my parents’ bedroom. You will see the germs of the ideas that we went on, especially in Eat Your Makeup, which has the Kennedy assassination in it with Divine as Jackie. It has its moments. But do I cringe? Yeah, they all should be shorter.

What was your mindset in the beginning?
I was totally into Warhol, Jack Smith, Kuchar brothers, Kenneth Anger, but all from Lutherville, Maryland, not the real heart-aorta of bohemia, believe me.

So how does an idea like having models “model themselves to death” in Eat Your Makeup come about?
Pot. I had the Kennedy assassination and models eating themselves and eating their makeup. So I think it was influenced heavily by Theater of the Ridiculous, which people have forgotten. That was really the big influence on me at the time.

You’ve said this could be the last time you show Mondo Trasho and some other movies. Why?
It will be the last time on 16-millimeter prints, because nobody makes them anymore. It’s my old prints. They have splices and scratches; they could freeze in the projector and burn up, which would be exciting. Lincoln Center could burn down because of it.

By Mondo Trasho, you were in your early 20s. Did your influences evolve?
No, my influences always were exploitation films and art films together. And I don’t think that many people put them together at the time. I was seeing Russ Meyer movies and Bergman movies, and I was on acid watching these movies. Fellini was a huge influence on all of us. But then I would go see all the bad Elizabeth Taylor–Richard Burton movies. I would see everything. I would go to exploitation theaters. I would go to grindhouses. But then I’d still see the artiest stuff, which I still like the best.

After everything you’ve done, what’s the final frontier for trash cinema at this point?
Pretty soon, a major star will have real sex in a movie. They sort of have, but now they have to wear fake vaginas while someone performs cunnilingus on a fake vagina, like in Blue Is the Warmest Color, so they aren’t doing porn. I love that. That’s even more perverse to me.

Yeah, that’s pretty weird.
Well it is weird. Because then they can keep their dignity [laughs].

Which of your films holds up the best?
I think Serial Mom is technically my best movie. Having Kathleen Turner and Mink Stole together. It’s Hollywood and Dreamland and everything together. And I think it foretold the O.J. trial; it was made before O.J., but a lot of it is eerily like what happened with O.J.

What about the Divine movies?
I would definitely pick Female Trouble. But everyone screamed throughout that whole movie. That’s why I want it to be rereleased in Sensurround.

You picked David Cronenberg’s Crash as a movie you’re jealous you didn’t make.
Oh, I jerk off to that movie [laughs].

With a premise about people having sex after car crashes, it is definitely a movie you could have made.
I just love the conceit. In Female Trouble, [actress Mink Stole’s character] Taffy plays “car accident,” so it’s similar. I used to play “car accident” as a child. It’s a very erotic movie. Reenacting celebrity car accidents for sexual reasons, oh, it’s perfect.

What music have you been listening to lately?
I’m an old person. I still buy CDs. Recently I got Virgins by Tim Hecker and Ultraviolence, Lana Del Rey. She had the best celebrity quote ever when she said, “I wish I was dead already.” I just love that quote. So great.

What is it you like about Lana Del Rey?
She’s very David Lynch to me. Everyone makes fun of her, but that first album [Born to Die] was on the Billboard chart for three years, longer than a Kid Rock album. She infuriates people, but I think she’s in on it. I really want her to hook up with David Lynch, because he produces great albums these days.

Have you ever thought about wanting to do your own music?
No, my favorite group in the world is the Chipmunks. I have every one of their albums and I’m really mad there wasn’t a Chipmunks movie last year, and I’m not sure there’s one this year, but I would like to do a Chipmunks album, yes. And the Nutty Squirrels. They were before the Chipmunks and they were the jazzy version. I would like to do the Nutty Squirrels scatting with Ella [Fitzgerald] from beyond the grave [laughs].

The last movie you put out was in A Dirty Shame in 2004. Do you have any others on the horizon?
My last book was a bestseller. My last movie was unsuccessful. I go where they like me [laughs]. So I’ll probably do a book next. I’ve been trying to get a movie made, but the independent movie world that I knew is now over.

Finally, you’ve been doing some voiceover work lately, including an appearance in a Mickey Mouse cartoon. You don’t normally think of “John Waters” and “Disney” in the same sentence.
Oh yeah, in one of them I played the richest fish stick in the ocean. I’ve always wanted to be a Disney villain. Are you kidding? I still dress like one.