Legendary filmmaker John Waters will deliver the keynote speech at the Schwartz Center’s Resoundingly Queer Conference on Saturday. Waters is famous for such films as Cry Baby and Hairspray, both of which were adapted into Broadway hits, and infamous for the perverse cult classic Pink Flamingos, starring drag queen Divine. The Sun chatted via phone with Waters on Tuesday for his take on the shifting landscapes of film, politics and sex.
The Sun: I want to start with your impact on independent film. You were sort of the John Cassavetes of Crass. What motivated you to make films, and through such an unorthodox approach for the time?
John Waters: It wasn’t called independent film when I started. I was lucky enough that, around that time, underground film had just started. I wanted to be a beatnik: I read The Village Voice, I read Variety. I was just encouraged by all types of movies, never just one — certainly by Warhol and all the underground movies — but at the same time the films that broke the censorship laws were the foreign movies, from Ingmar Bergman to Fellini. I also went to see the exploitation films at that time that no one besides Variety ever wrote about; they were unmentionable, and I embraced them, too. So, I embraced all these kinds of movies and tried to put them together.
Sun: Did you ever imagine that Pink Flamingos would transcend its obscene subject matter to become a symbol of lowbrow art, 40 years later?
J.W.: No, I did not! It’s on television now, that shocks me. When I was making that movie, I was hoping to make a hit midnight movie. When I started out it was underground movies, then it was midnight movies, then it was independent movies, then it was Hollywood movies, then it was Hollywood-independents, then I guess I went back to NC-17 exploitation [laughs]. I think I have made every genre of movie there is in a way — every business plan of a movie, every kind.
Sun: Would you say political correctness is overrated?
J.W.: I think all my films actually are politically correct.
J.W.: Yeah, because the right person wins morally. Women are strong … usually the rich people are punished — although there are some good rich people. I think the one-percent isn’t all bad for they buy art and back movies. [laughs] I know that sounds ridiculous, but I think that is part of why [my films] have lasted, because they actually are weirdly politically correct. They aren’t ever condescending, they never look down or make the viewer feel superior to the subject matter as reality TV does, for instance. I think they ask you to come into a world and not judge it, and observe and try to understand why people have all kinds of behavior. So, that is politically correct.
Sun: I stand corrected. If you started your career today, how do you think you would do?
J.W.: I think I would do the same thing. I think I would be making it on my cellphone. The main difference would be that it is all through streaming video and computers now, and when I got to start making movies, you only got to see them once. You did not get to rewind, you never got to see Divine eating shit in slow-motion. You had to go to a theater, sometimes every week, and you got high to go. That ritual is now very rare. I’d say The Human Centipede repeated that. But in those days, we let [Pink Flamingos] build through word of mouth. Today, word of mouth is one second, like Twitter. Bad exploitation films used to survive the weekend because no one heard it was bad until Monday. They know its bad by the next feature time now, the same day.
Sun: Well, Jackass has thrived in this environment. You directed Johnny Knoxville in A Dirty Shame. Are the folks from Jackass contemporaries to your style?
J.W.: I love Jackass. I think not only are they my “type,” — they have the spirit of Pink Flamingos more than anybody that has ever been since then. They also know how to make money from that spirit. Good for them. I think that Johnny Knoxville deserves every bit of success he has. It was an incredibly original idea; it was anarchy and it spoke to blue-collar families in middle America. So yeah, I think that if Divine had not eaten dog shit, Johnny Knoxville would have.
Sun: Hairspray was arguably the biggest Broadway hit of the last decade. Was theater ever a field you expected to conquer?
J.W.: The moment I heard the very first notes of the [Hairspray] music, I knew it would be giant hit — I didn’t say it aloud, I didn’t want to curse it, but everybody felt that way. It has continued to be wonderful throughout my life. Hairspray bought me my San Francisco apartment. Hairspray has now reached a new level because it is playing in every public school. You know, they can’t cast by race or color, and recently a production got a lot of heat because a cast had all white people playing the black roles because they couldn’t find any — which is ludicrous, by the way — and what is equally as bad was that they had a skinny girl in a fat suit. It was racist and fatist. But then, I did see a version of it where a skinny black girl played Tracy and no one ever complained. So, I am for all of it, just change all of the races and sexes and we will have the most politically correct Hairspray ever and it will still work.
Sun: With the successful 2007 Hairspray movie adaptation, basically everyone knows your work. You are a behind-the-scenes guy, yet you were featured in The Lonely Island’s “The Creep.”
J.W.: Yeah I do all those kind of things. I continue to try to reach all audiences in different ways.
Sun: How has this exposure to a young audience been?
J.W.: I go to colleges — I went to six last week — and my audience gets younger each year, not older, which is great, for that is something you can’t buy.
Sun: You are speaking at the Resoundingly Queer Conference on Saturday. What message do you have for the LGBT community during this exciting time?
J.W.: Well, certainly that gay is not enough anymore, but it is a good start. I am going to talk about the progress of being gay, like why is it fine at rich kid schools and at poor schools, it’s not? We don’t need everyone to be gay, like women who pretend to be lesbians to turn on straight men. I think those men should be forced to give blowjobs if the women have to do it. I am for equal opportunity of all minorities. I am completely against separatism. I think one day there won’t be gay bars, and maybe there shouldn’t be, because if it is no big deal then why doesn’t everyone hang around together? Most young people I know do hang around with straight people and gay people and every other kind of people. To me, that is the society that is way more important to me.
Sun: On a diverse campus like Cornell, you see that.
J.W.: It’s a class issue. Of course, I am pro-gay movement, I have been forever. But I never made a big deal about coming out or anything. I am a filmmaker who is gay and I don’t really care if I go to see a movie where the filmmaker is gay or straight. I think progress is saying that there are bad gay movies. I say that in a humorous way, in that gay is not enough anymore. For many people, it is hard to imagine what the problems are. Everyone should be able to get married; what is the sanctity of straight marriage when Britney Spears can get married one night and divorced the next? What is the sanctity of Larry King’s marriages? I am for heterosexual divorce to be illegal, I have always said that. That would make everyone shut up. It is hard enough to find anyone to fall in love with; I think I should be able to marry myself if I want to. I am amazed that people feel it is a kind of attack on their own marriage if other people are allowed to. That is unbelievably baffling to me.But, do I believe it is the most important issue? If it was between peace in Iraq and gay marriage, I’d take peace in Iraq. That is why I believe in this election that Obama may not be able to do that until he wins. People need to realize this is politics, about winning.
Sun: [Obama] made a video for Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project, [where celebrities post videos reassuring bullied LGBT youth that their lives will get better]. I can picture few others doing the same. I’m surprised you have not contributed a video yourself, yet.
J.W.: Well I think that I have already said that, always, and I am also doing an anti-bullying campaign for this Divine organization. I think I do speak out on that. But then I think: Why do people ask me what gay people should do? I am mentally ill, I am crazy! Why ask me?
Sun: You could film a video for this campaign in the vein of your famous “Don’t smoke” PSA back in the 80s.
J.W.: [laughs] I already did [the Think Big campaign] like that, you can find it online. They asked me all about gay rights, and I am all for it. Parents give me their kids nowadays and ask me what to do with them, which is amazing to me. I think I do counsel well to young people, but nobody gets better. There is no better. There is learning to understand who you are and deal with your neuroses in the proper way — and everyone has neuroses. Freud said that psychotherapy is turning “your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” What a brilliant line.
Sun: Your work is so notoriously transgressive; do you think it contributed to the increasing visibility of the gay community over the years?
J.W.: I guess. I never want to brag. They used to put me on the covers of gay magazines and didn’t even ask me if I was gay because they were afraid it was something worse. [laughs] If you enter the world of my films, I guess being gay is easy compared to the other problems I honor, like being electrocuted. But I am for anyone who is happy with him or herself. I like straight people too; I sometimes think straight people have it hard too — try to be in Provincetown for the summer and be straight.
Sun: Did you ever think that, after closing your most infamous movie, Pink Flamingos, with Divine eating dog feces, you would end up being one of the most respected voices in your field?
J.W.: Respected, with a little bit of irony — I’m now an elder. I do feel respected, I feel that the public has been incredibly understanding of my career and I am incredibly thankful for that. Even in the beginning, the people that came to see my work were minorities that didn’t even get along within their own minority. I am still a little like that — any rules for any society rub me the wrong way, and I kind of want to violate them. I always joke that I am “gaily incorrect.” Each issue is different on each different person. I am sometimes not swallowing party lines, but at the same time I think all politics needs to be made fun of, including gay politics and straight politics. If you can never laugh at yourself, you’ll never convince anyone you’re right.