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September 2015

Talking With John Waters: Influences


Talking with John Waters: Endlessly funny, erudite, charming and so well-read, just try to keep up (he reads two books a week). So I was thrilled to interview him for Sight & Sound's September issue. I won't publish the entire, long and entertaining interview here, this is just a teaser. You'll need to go out and buy the magazine, beautifully laid -- out to get all of it -- and there's a lot. But, to whet your appetite, here are excerpts. Enjoy. And let's all try Bergman on acid! 

Kim Morgan: I know this question is asked of a lot of filmmakers, but it’s interesting, especially when it comes to you, because you have so many interests and influences and innovations of your own. So, what did make you pick up a camera to shoot film?

John Waters: I’ll tell you my influences. I was a puppeteer for children’s birthday parties, and so William Castle was an influence. I’d try to throw all of those gimmicks in there. Somehow I got my hand on the Village Voice and started reading Jonas Mekas’s column and that opened up the world of underground movies that I knew nothing about.


I read about Warhol and Paul Morrissey and Kenneth Anger and, more than anybody, the Kuchar brothers. I used to run away to New York all the time, on the greyhound bus, and make up lies that I was going to a fraternity weekend or something and then go see these movies. I wanted to be an underground filmmaker. 

But at the same time, during my teenage years, we went to the drive-in almost every night, and in Baltimore they tested every kind of ‘-ploitation’: ‘hicksploitation’, ‘blacksploitation’, ‘goresploitation’, I mean amazing stuff.

I also used to go to the Rex Theatre in Baltimore. They were fighting with the censor board all the time, and they had both nudist camp movies, and Ingmar Bergman! They’d show Monica’s Hot Summer [Summer with Monika] Then they would cut out most of the dialogue and just leave the bare tits scenes in, so, those movies I was seeing too. All of those exploitation movies and Bergman.


I love Bergman. I still love Bergman. I still just think of Brink of Life [1957], my favorite Bergman: three pregnant women in a maternity ward. I used to go to this college nearby, Delta College, and they showed every Bergman movie. I’d steal books and watch Bergman. I used to take Divine on acid and make him go to Bergman movies. And he would get so mad. I always remember, The Hour of the Wolf [1968], where she rips her face off and Divine was like, “That’s it. I’m not lookin’ at these movies ever again! I want to see movies about rich people!”


KM: It seems your audience is a great equalizer; it’s always been all types, and still is.

JW: Yes. And they’re all ages too. I was at this punk rock show, presenting at this show, and there was a punk rock group who were especially sleazy and hilarious and after they went off, I thought, “Boy I wish I had a teenager daughter. She could date one of these guys.” I do bring out in people behaviour that you might not expect, but that’s just humor. I don’t think I’m ever mean, even Pink Flamingos, as shocking as it is. There are parts of it I look at it now and think, “Oh my god… no wonder…” but I’m proud of it. It didn’t mellow. It isn’t old hat. It still works.

KM: And it would still shock [former head of the Maryland State Board of Censors] Mary Avara. I saw an interview with her from the 1990s, it was when Pecker came out and she was still mad at you.


JW: Well, the most she was mad, when we were making Polyester [1981], Multiple Maniacs finally got shown in a real theatre, so she had to see it. When she saw the rosary job in that – it’s when you put a rosary up someone’s ass – she went so insane and banned the whole thing and went to court. The judge, he said his eyes had been insulted for 90 minutes but, still, it was not illegal. And she went insane from it. Because there was no law against rosary jobs. Because there is no such thing. [Laughs]

KM: Yes, I read a quote from her where she said, in her 80s: “I wanted to throw him out of window!”

JW: I know. She would go berserk. But I hated her with equal hatred… because she would make me cut a brand new print I had spent my last penny on. She would stay things like, “Don’t tell me about sex. I was married to an Italian!” Now, I used that line in A Dirty Shame, so I got material from her. I’ve always said, dumb censors are your press agents. You should pay them. She really helped my career. But smart liberal censors, like the MPAA, they are the scary ones. You lose when you fight them.

Multiple maniacs

KM: In Multiple Maniacs, back to that rosary job, which is funny, but shot so beautifully and artfully, cross cut with the crucifixion…And Divine says, “It’s like fucking Jesus himself!”

JW: [Laughs] I forgot that line…

KM: I thought of those crazy saints, like there’s one I love, 14th century Julian of Norwich, an anchoress, who wrote Revelations of Divine Love. The book is beautifully written, but it really sounds like she wants to have sex with Jesus page after page in her exaltations…

JW: All those crazy religious people are having sex with Jesus, aren’t they?

KM: Yes. You wrote about Saint Catherine of Siena in Role Models

JW: Oh, I looove her. She’s my favorite. She’s the only one I pray to. And Pasolini. I pray to Pasolini…

KM: But did you think about those crazy religious people when you created that rosary scene in Multiple Maniacs? And filmmakers, like maybe Buñuel or Pasolini? There’s a lot going on, and it reminded me so much of these holy women’s relationships with Jesus…


JW: I did read those books. I read [Rudolph M. Bell’s] Holy Anorexia [1985]. That is a great, great book. I read that later than Multiple Maniacs, but it’s a book I’ve written and talked about: it’s all the story of those saints and nuns. They were so out of their minds. They were like S&M, anorexic lunatics. And these people were prayed to. I love extreme Catholic behaviour before the Reformation. The Reformation ruined everything.


KM: You’ve discussed before about nuns and their movie censoring, how they were an influence on your cinema watching, movies they were declaring not to watch, like, say, Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll [1956]…

JW: I went to private grade school and my mother was Catholic and my father wasn’t, so when you didn’t go to Catholic school, you had to go to Sunday school. But the nuns knew that these were the parents of the kids who didn’t send their kids to Catholic school, so they hated your parents and they were very cruel to the children. My mother said, “When I was young, I loved the nuns.” And I said, “Well something happened because these nuns were sadists.” It made me rebel really early. All they did was tell you everything you’d go to hell for doing, constantly.


We got the Catholic Review at home, and my mother told me it was the first she ever saw me rebel, when I was really young, when we had to stand up in church and take the Legion of Decency Pledge, which they did once a year. And I refused to do it. I would cut out the ads for [the condemned movies] and I would memorize them. Other kids memorize multiplication tables; I would remember And God Created… Woman [1956], Baby Doll. I would remember them in alphabetical order. Of course, I would never have heard of these movies if not for the nuns. Naked in the Night [1958], Looove Is My Profession [1958], that was my favorite, to hear the nuns say that one.

Love is my profession

My secret little life was that I pretended I had a dirty movie theatre; that’s how I played as a child. All the movies that you go to hell for seeing. And I would redesign the ad campaigns… this was creative play to me. I always think later in life, all I really wanted as a child was the wrath of the Pope himself. (Laughs).

KM: Your movies tweak genres and conventions and even labels. What do you think of certain labels? Like camp? Or melodrama?

JW: Well, melodrama, I like. Camp, I’ve said a million times: “No one says that word anymore do they?” Even kitsch. That’s like old queens talking about Rita Hayworth. And there’s nothing the matter with old queens talking about Rita Hayworth, I’d probably like to hear that. I haven’t heard that in a while. But I don’t even say trash anymore. The punk movement never died… a lot of the punk world was gay. It was a great look for gay disguise. And it was a great look for really unattractive people. And goth.


So I always loved that style, because if you were not a traditional beauty, or even if, by society’s standards, you were ugly or had a body type that wasn’t thought of as sexy, you could work it in the punk world and come across with a great look and be a star. So, I always felt comfortable in that world.


KM: It makes me think of how you view your characters and shoot them – like Edith Massey, an, unusual, interesting looking woman and, so, photographs wonderfully. Who were the photographers who inspired you?

JW: Oh, Diane Arbus. The hugest influence on me, way before Pecker. If you look at that one shot, the woman who looks like Divine in Female Trouble, she’s holding a child and the other child is drooling, we looked at that picture. That was a direct quote, basically. Diane Arbus was a huge, huge, huge influence.


When I would sneak away and go to New York, I would sit in Washington Square, that’s where the beatniks went, that’s where the oddball gay people went and the drag queens, and that’s where Arbus took all those pictures. As a kid, I thought, “Wow. This is dangerous here. This is beyond Life magazine.” But I was corrupted by Life magazine too, because they brought Jackson Pollock, homosexuality, beatniks, all things into my house that I was so relieved to know about.

KM: Tennessee Williams, who we brought up before, was also an influence…


JW: Oh, he saved me. Because when I first read him, I realized there was bohemia. Nobody had ever told me what that was and that’s what I always wanted, and still want. That was the world I was trying to find.

KM: And Williams didn’t define himself as one thing. One thing that might become problematic is when things are labeled too easily…

JW: I agree. I’m against separatism. That’s what I said in my commencement speech. Separatism is defeat.

Divine-and-John-WatersKM: The term political correctness is over-used, to the point where it starts to lose meaning, especially among liberals; it’s either a pejorative or not a pejorative. You’ve seen people rebelling on all sides of the spectrum, and when the term didn’t exist…

JW: I am politically correct. I am completely politically correct.

KM: Yes. But there’s got to be something beyond, perhaps? Like in your recent commencement speech you said, “Being gay is not enough anymore.”

JW: It’s not. In rich kid schools? Being straight… they’re the ones who should be marching. As a gay man in the arts, do I ever feel prejudice? No. But, if I was gay maybe in a poor neighborhood in a poor kids’ school? Yes, then it can be a problem. It’s a class issue now. What’s happening now, with rich kids, they pretend they’re gay when they’re not. But then you have to do it. So, I don’t care. I mean, “Eatin' pussy for politics.” You still have to do it.


KM: You’ve always used music brilliantly, and introducing older music, with great taste and some shocking surprises. Like, in A Dirty Shame, you had Slim Harpo’s ‘Baby Scratch My Back’, but then Johnny Burnett’s ‘Eager Beaver Baby’ and Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts’ ‘Baby Let me Bang your Box’ and more… And in Mondo Trasho [1969] you’ve got that whole collage of music. You use music, not just as a soundtrack, but you overlap and songs run into each other to create this unique effect. And this before a lot of filmmakers were doing that. You had The Chordettes, the Del-Vikings, Little Richard, Link Wray…

JW: And that’s why Mondo Trasho will never be released. It just makes the movie more and more likely never to come out hundreds from years from now. I didn’t know then, that you were supposed to buy music rights. But it was a silent movie. You know how silent movies had music to tell the story? That’s what I was going on for. I think the first person to really do it was Kenneth Anger with Scorpio Rising [1964], he was the first one to use pop music in that brilliant way. And, [with Mondo Trasho] it’s all because of the novelty hit ‘Flying Saucer’. That was the first song that took lyrics, sampled them and told a story. A flying saucer has landed. And we cut to John Cameron Swayze… (singing) “Come on baby, let’s go downtown!” Meanwhile, the space ship is over here… It told a story by sampling lyrics from songs. That is where that came from.


KM: I love the scene where Divine is shoplifting to Ike and Tina’s ‘Finger Poppin’’.

JW: Oh, well, Ike and Tina. We were listening to them when we were shoplifting. Divine and I used to go a place and see them in high school.

KM: Oh my god. That must have been fantastic.

JW: Oh my god, yes! The Ike and Tina Turner Revue. I don’t care what anyone says, she was better when she was with him. I mean, I don’t blame her for leaving him, good for her, but… We would see them at Unity Hall, it was a kind of working class, blue-collar Union Hall. And they would come in a broken-down green school bus with ‘Ike and Tina Turner Revue’ painted on the side, like, hand-painted. And she looked like she did on the cover of ‘Dynamite’: she had on a ratty wig, a mink coat, a moustache, springalators, she did have a moustache. She was un-believe-ably great. And when they would sing, they would almost do rap songs, ‘Letter to Ikey’ and that. And the Ikettes behind them were so great. It was a huge influence on both Divine and I, Tina Turner. And I still love her…. God knows, they could sing.


They were unbelievable together. I saw them a couple times. And they’d sing ‘Don’t Play Me Cheap’. Oh my god… she was an influence. More than anybody. I had an album A Date With John Waters and I have that song, ‘All I Can Do Is Cry’, that long one where Ike’s getting married to somebody else. I wish I could have done that video with her. They didn’t have videos then but imagine that video with her. “I took a seat in the BACK of the church!” Ohhhh

KM: When thinking of Female Trouble [in which Divine’s character is disfigured in an acid attack and then taken to a local beauty salon where the owners find her new look inspired], I think of today, when so many people change their faces through extreme measures, and tabloid culture, how we follow celebrity crime…

JW: Nobody’s shot up liquid eyeliner yet!

KM: It’s on its way! But, this idea in Female Trouble that crime and beauty are the same seems so relevant to me, especially now…

Female_TroubleJW: That was all Genet. That was what I read in high school, he was a big influence on me. And I always say, “Everybody looks better under arrest.” I still visit people in prison, I taught in prison. In my book Role Models [2010] I wrote a pretty serious thing about parole regarding one of the Manson women [Leslie Van Houten], who looks back in horror about it. So, I’ve always been interested in extreme behaviour. I would follow the Boston Bomber case mostly because I wanted to know what happened to the ex-wife of the one that died? She then remarried, supposedly, and has a child! I always say, “God. She has a boyfriend? Where did she find a new boyfriend? Where did she date?”

KM: In terms of your Dreamlanders actors, was everyone game all of the time? You had some actors do some pretty extreme stuff…

: Yes! Everyone was game. Recently I presented the [William Friedkin] film Killer Joe… that scene with the chicken. And Mink [Stole] said afterwards, “They were just like us. They went for it! If you’re gonna do it, go for it!” And she was right. It was never anyone saying, “Should we do this?” It was just like group madness. We all were on the same page; all doing it as a group effort and it was almost like a political act in a weird way. It was exciting. We were young and everyone was bonded together. We were… what’s that psychosocial term when you’re crazy all together?

KM: Amour fou?

JW: Yes. That’s what we were. And proud to be so.

Read the entire interview at Sight & Sound, in which he discusses more about Female Trouble, Divine's dislike of hot wigs, Tab Hunter's bravery, Johnny Depp, Patty Hearst, Hairspray, Serial Mom (and more movies), how he learned filmmaking from teamsters, the movie industry today, his love of Freddie Francis's Trog, Derek Jarman's Blue and Joseph Losey's Boom!, among other British films he programmed along with his own BFI retrospective which is showing all of his films (every damn one), and how his next project will probably be for TV -- even though he never watches TV. Well, except for The Wire, he watched that religiously. Pick up the September issue now. You can order it online here

 For now, here's some Ike & Tina, "Finger Poppin'..."