John Waters may not have written or directed a new film in 15 years, but the multi-faceted artist and queer icon – crowned “The Pope of Trash” for his transgressive cult movies like Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974) and Polyester (1981) – is always up to something.
A retrospective of his visual arts career, titled Indecent Exposure, was exhibited in his native Baltimore in 2018. He’s also a prolific writer, with his fourth book in the last decade, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, released in the UK this September.
In your published memoirs, there’s a lot of advice for aspiring artists. What do you think makes your advice, in particular, so interesting for people?
Somehow, I’ve gotten away with this for 50 years. With Role Models (2010), I wrote a book about all the people that made me believe I could do this, even though everybody told me I couldn’t; that there was no such thing as what I wanted to be. So, I thought that I could pass along how I’ve gotten to here.
I failed upwards in Hollywood. I got paid the most money for the movies that did the worst, which is so bizarre when you think about it. At the same time, I ended up not ever really having to change that much with what I wanted to do.
How do you feel about receiving career achievement prizes?
Oh, I’m thrilled, are you kidding? It’s something you usually only get to hear at your funeral where you can’t hear it. I’m happy to get all of these. I got a French medal, that’s hilarious. I love getting all that. That stuff was without irony, I was honoured. David Simon, who did The Wire, presented me with a Writers Guild award, who’s the other person from Baltimore I know.
Particularly after Pink Flamingos, how did you deal with labels like “trash” and “camp”?
They didn’t call it camp then, they called it pornography. I never won any case in court for obscenity. The Museum of Modern Art bought a print when it came out and I thought, well, this will save us in the courtroom. It didn’t. If you watch Pink Flamingos at ten in the morning after you were sworn in for jury duty with strangers, it is obscene. If you see it at midnight with a good audience, it’s not at all obscene. It just depends on the context. So, they didn’t call it camp or anything then. It got all bad reviews pretty much. And we built a career on bad reviews. The bad reviews for Pink Flamingos were on the poster. It’s a different time now, that wouldn’t work today. The critics are too hip to give you a review you can use like that if they don’t like the movie.
Have you ever questioned what you chose to show on screen?
Looking back, I think Desperate Living (1977) did the worst of all my movies. It’s the least joyous of them all and it’s the only one today that probably is really politically incorrect with the trans movement. (Desperate Living features a trans man as a main character, played by a cis woman, who undergoes bottom surgery in the film.)
However, when that movie came out, lesbians stopped it from showing, saying: “How dare a man make a comedy movie about lesbians?” And now lesbian groups bring it to colleges to raise money. You never know what’s going to happen.
Now that you can get almost anything, legally or illegally, through some form of streaming media, is it still possible to achieve something powerful with art?
Probably more powerful, although I don’t know of anybody that’s got a movie career from YouTube. You get picked to run an advertising agency if you have something viral on YouTube. Singing, yes. Justin Bieber and others started on YouTube for that. There is certainly a way but it’s a little quicker now, that’s the thing.
Do you think another John Waters-like transgressive filmmaker of note could emerge now in the context of America’s current political climate?
When I go to colleges, I say, why are you studying? Why aren’t you rioting? Why aren’t you doing what they’re doing in Hong Kong? Why aren’t you doing what they did in France? No matter what cause, I don’t get why you’re not pissed off. But yet, I think putting politics in a movie right now dates it. I see art now that has Trump in it and I think that’s never going to last because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t want to date it, you want it to be able to play forever, hopefully.
But could there be somebody today, sure there could. More people care. Political correctness today is more rules to break than I ever had. When I was young, you had sex with ten people every night. Now you need to have a lawyer to ask someone for a date. So, it’s gone full circle on both ends. I’ve experienced both. Both are extreme and I would have made fun of both. No matter what world I was in, if I was a kid starting out today making a movie, I would probably use those politics and be on the right side but still make fun of it, which is tricky.
Are instilled societal values necessary for great art to emerge?
I thank my parents at the end of my book, Mr. Know-It-All, for drilling in all those rules of good taste. If I didn’t know those rules, I wouldn’t have been able to have fun breaking them. I’m not even against many of the values my parents thought. I think that you end up like a weird version of your parents anyway, no matter what. So, you take the good things they did and then try to reject a few that you don’t think were right. But you need those values. You need rules, just like kids do need to be told what to do. They want boundaries, they want something. And if you don’t have them, how do you break them? How do you know how to have fun breaking them?
I generally believe that all the rules of political correctness today are correct. But there are some that are so extreme that they’re ridiculous and that’s why Trump’s going to win, because it makes other people feel stupid. And you can’t make people feel stupid when you want them to change their mind.
Could you have similar fun now in depicting the same sorts of people you focused on back in the day?
Yeah. I think Pink Flamingos is politically correct. I didn’t make fun of fat people. No fat people ever bitched about Hairspray (1988) or Pink Flamingos. They win, it’s the first time they win! They get the guy! And Hairspray, no matter what you think, did make fat girls feel good. I know because I hug them everywhere in the country whenever I appear. I don’t think anybody ever got pissed about that.
Is it still possible to laugh with certain topics now?
It depends how you do it. I have never been hassled by political correctness, really, because I think [my films] are politically correct in the long run. That’s why I make fun of things I like, that’s why I get away with it, I think. It’s easy to be mean, but mean can be funny for ten minutes, not 90.
What’s the happiest accident you’ve had in making a film?
I get some free jokes. Like right now in Serial Mom (1994), when the woman that gets killed says: “I love Bill Cosby movies.” That hadn’t happened yet, the Bill Cosby case. So now when you show it, people howl because now it’s like a double edge. That was a lucky joke because then he was the most loved man in America.
Does “camp” still mean anything today?
I don’t know anyone today who would still say that word. Even old queens talking about Rita Hayworth in an antique shop wouldn’t say camp. It just seems to me like no one says that anymore. Maybe they do, I don’t know. Camp was a secret word that gay people knew that straight people didn’t, that meant something was so bad it was great but they didn’t know it. Showgirls would be camp because no matter what [Paul Verhoeven] says today – that he meant for it to be funny – he’s lying.
But if you know, if you’re in on it, it can’t be camp. It has to be something innocent that tried to be good, that was so bad, like the movie Boom! (1968). That’s the true meaning of the word. If you’re trying, like the Met Gala where everybody gets dressed up and spends a fortune, that’s not camp. That’s couture. It’s very different.