John Waters: the filth and the funny

‘I started Catholic and went backwards’ - cult film-maker John Waters unpacks his transgressive-laden career ahead of his appearance at Belfast’s Queer Arts Festival

The multiverse theory implies that somewhere out there, there exists a universe that has not been gladdened by the work of John Waters. What a dreary kip that must be.

For almost half a century the Pope of Trash – as William Burroughs dubbed the US auteur – has enlivened our cultural landscape with tales of extreme foot fetishes (Mondo Trasho, 1969 and Polyester, 1981), giant lobster rape (Multiple Maniacs, 1970), impromptu penis removal (Desperate Living, 1977), and sploshing (A Dirty Shame, 2004).

“We were pushing humour for whatever the intended audience was,” says the artist. “We wanted to make them nervous, to see how far we could go. And audiences seemed to like that. They liked to be challenged about what is funny and what isn’t. I actually think my films are politically correct in a weird way.”

Waters first gained international prominence with Pink Flamingos (1972), a midnight movie favourite, featuring a battle between two deviant Baltimore families, each vying for the title "Filthiest Person Alive". That rivalry sparks, murder, cannibalism, bestiality, castration, incest, and a coda in which the late and iconic drag queen Divine proves she is the filthiest of them all by eating dog poo from the street. The take is so long and the budget so low, there is no doubting the authenticity of the substance.


"Divine wasn't anything like Divine," says Waters of his famous, late muse. "He didn't want to be a woman, he wanted to be a monster. He wanted to be Godzilla, not Miss America."

Youthful transgression
Perhaps unsurprisingly, John Samuel Waters was born into an upper-class Roman Catholic family, and grew up in the leafy Lutherville suburb of Baltimore. From an early age, he was drawn toward transgression: aged 12, a screening on the properly bizarre Leslie Caron film Lili (1953), inspired him to create comically violent puppet shows. At school when his teachers encouraged him to read (rather than opine), he opted for Jean Gene. In his teens, he began watching adult drive-in films through binoculars, supplemented by the works of Rainer Fassbinder and Ingmar Bergman.

He formed his own alternative Holy Trinity: Captain Hook, The Bad Seed, and the Wicked Witch of the West: “I started Catholic and went backwards. Whatever I watched, I waited for the villain. I can’t forgive the musical Wicked for making my childhood heroine pretty. What a terrible thing to do. Growing up, I wanted green skin to be just like the Wicked Witch. And, as I always say, as I get older, I’m getting closer.”

Aged 16, Waters shot his first film Hag in a Black Leather Jacket – featuring an interracial wedding officiated by a Ku Klux Klansman – with $30 and an 8mm camera he received as a birthday present. He enrolled at NYU to study filmmaking but was quickly expelled for smoking weed on campus. So he returned to Baltimore to found Dreamland Studios.

“It was a room in my parents’ house,” he laughs. “I was like most kids making their first movie. You make it with your friends in the town where you live. That’s what we did. My friends were maybe a little more alarming.”

Divine – or Harris Glenn Milstead, as it read on his birth certificate – soon became the most recognisable of Waters' Dreamland players, a group that included Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey, and David Lochary. The studio ethos was simple: make ". . . the trashiest motion pictures in cinema history".

Like-minded folk
As Waters' celebrity grew, the Dreamlanders were joined by other like-minded folk: Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, Pia Zadora, Patti Hearst, Ricki Lake, Johnny Depp, and Johnny Knoxville.

"I think the only person working today who matches the Pink Flamingos' sensibility is Johnny Knoxville and the Jackass movies," says Waters of his Dirty Shame lead. "We were never just trying to shock. We were trying to be funny. That's why these gross-out comedies that Hollywood spends $100 million making aren't funny. There's no love in there. Just mean-spiritedness."

In this spirit, he laments the recent passing of two titans of exploitation cinema: Ted V Mikels and Herschell Gordon Lewis.

“I had dinner with Herschell in Florida just last year,” says Waters. “The exploitation sector is gone. It’s hard to think of any exploitation films in recent years. Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers the only thing that comes close. Maybe Piranha 3DD. Great exploitation movies don’t come out any more because Hollywood movies now have all the things exploitation movies used to have.”

Time to dust off the exploitation classics. A restored version of Multiple Maniacs was released in the US in August and will shortly take its Irish bow at Belfast's Outburst Queer Arts festival. The years have not diminished its strikingly innovative uses for rosary beads. "The lobster scene still startles," promises the recent New York Times review. The lobster, as the director notes, is "the least of it". You should see the Stations of the Cross.

"The tagline is 'Restored! Reviled! Revolting!' Which I think it is," says Waters. "You don't think that a movie you made in 1969 for $5,000 is going to be revived. But I looked at the calendar in the background. And it says November 1969. Almost like a hostage video. I heard dialogue that I've never even heard before because the sound was so bad. There are phrases like 'kill the pigs' that you would never be able to say today, even among the most radical groups. But that was a normal thing that people yelled at political rallies back then. I saw things I never saw before. Did I really have that ashtray? When it premiered at the Provincetown Film Festival somebody yelled at me: 'Boy, the acid must have been pretty good back then'. That's a fair thing to say. And it was."

Respectability achieved
Waters has never deliberately sought out respectability. But these days, he is doctor of fine arts whose playful, conceptual work hangs in art galleries. Children recognise him from his appearance on The Simpsons or from last year's Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip.

"If any person likes me for anything I've done, I'm okay. I'm always trying to get people from all walks of life interested in my work. That's why I was in Alvin and the Chipmunks. Because I didn't have any wicked children in my fan base and I thought I better get started immediately."

He has two projects in development – one at HBO – but hasn't made a movie since A Dirty Shame (2004), a riotous satire in which Johnny Knoxville is an evangelist for "sexing". It is the only film in which you will see Chris Isaak become a sex addict after he is struck in the head by David Hasselhoff's poo.

Does Waters ever miss the cut and thrust of film-making?

“I don’t know. It’s not like I never did it. Do I miss sitting in a trailer for hours? Do I miss the mornings when people asked me five hundred questions at once? As long as I can continue to tell stories, it doesn’t matter if I’m writing a book or doing spoken word. My last few books did really well. They did better than my last movie. I’d be happy if it happened again. But it’s not like I’m not busy. If someone offered me the money to make a movie tomorrow, I’m not sure when I’d get the time to make it.”

Obama had yet to take office when Waters last touched down in Ireland, an occasion when “. . . a female reporter was being really mean to me. And I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realised she had me confused with the other John Waters. The Sinead O’Connor one.”

And now he's back for more. Waters spoken-word tour, This Filthy World, a delicious monologue offering insights into his "early negative artistic influences", true-life crime, exploitation flicks, fashion, contemporary art and not Donald Trump.
"I'm so glad I'm not in Belfast until after the elections," he says. "No more Trump jokes. What a relief. I can't listen to those liberals who say 'If he wins, I'm going to leave the country'. Oh, who cares!"

So he’s not impressed with the Twinks for Trump movement.

“Have they read the Republican platform? It’s worse than ever toward gays. They’re traitors. This is why we need to be more selective. Forget about coming out, we should start coming in. We have enough gay people. I’m for quality rather than quantity. I think you should audition to be gay today. Like with the Academy: you should need to be nominated to get membership.

"So nomination, audition, and then an expert team of perverts should decide whether you get in or not."

- This Filthy World is at the Outburst Queer Arts Festival, Belfast, on November 19th; Multiple Maniacs is at the QFT on November 18th