Launched in February 2016, DMovies is now one-year old! And what better way to celebrate the occasion than a dirty talk with the filthiest filmmaker of all times? So our editor Victor Fraga got on the phone with the director on the other side of the Atlantic, as the UK braces for the theatrical and the Blu-ray release of the restored 1970 classic Multiple Maniacs.
The transgressive 70-year-old director from Baltimore (which is also where all of his films were made) is also a screenwriter, author, actor, stand-up comedian, journalist, visual artist and art collector. He rose to fame in the early 1970s for deeply subversive movies such as Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Pink Flamingos (1972), also catapulting his childhood friend Divine (whose real name was Harris Glenn Milstead) to stardom. Despite the fact that Divine passed away nearly three decades ago and he hasn’t made a film in 10 years, the director reveals that he is very busy with “plenty of homework”.
We talked to him about the modern significance of Multiple Maniacs, what Divine would be like if she was British, censors on both sides of the Atlantic, the bourgeiosation of gay culture, European cinema, Donald Trump, the cultural backlash against reactionary forces and much more. It’s time to smear yourself with twisted politics, sexual perversions and copious amounts of filth!
Multiple Maniacs is now “restored, reviled and revolting”, and it will be out in UK cinemas on February 17th. Stay tuned for our exclusive review of the film in the next few days, as well as details about the theatrical release and the Blu-ray!
Victor Fraga – All of your films, including Multiple Maniacs, were set in Baltimore. How different would it be if they were set in London, or another city in the UK? Would that work? Would Divine be as psychotic?
John Waters – I don’t think it would’ve been that different because I would have glorified whatever everybody thought was wrong at the time, at whatever neighbourhood I lived in. It was made in 1969, the end of the hippie years, and that was the same in London and pretty much everywhere. So it would have had the same kind of violent, ludicrous pre-punk feel. Not that I knew what a punk was, because it hadn’t happened yet. It would’ve been the same, except that you would’ve had an English accent rather than Baltimore accent.
VF – Would Divine be as psychotic. Do you think that the American obsessions with religion and violence would translate as neatly into the UK?
JW – The censors in America were always against sex, while the censors in the UK were always against violence. In America they never object to violence. So we had a harder time in the UK. I know the film was cut there when it came out in video and so on. Every time I submitted it they cut less and less, until they realised the whole thing was parody and just let it go. I think the cannibalism was the bit that got me into trouble in London.
Back then there was no such thing at the Motion Picture Association of America yet. I never showed it to the censors for a long time because it played in underground places that were out of reach, such as churches and underground colleges. When it finally played in at the Charles Theatre in 1980 – an art cinema in Baltimore -, people went crazy, and many became insulted. This Catholic woman who ran the Theatre started crying. I had plenty of problems previously with Pink Flamingos (1972), but Multiple Maniacs was much earlier, and didn’t have enough distribution to get to their attention back then.
But they couldn’t really ban it, but that was the whole joke. There was no law against it, because why would there be? There were no laws against eating shit, rosary job and being raped by a lobster. How could you say that in court without laughing? And that’s the difference!
If you showed Multiple Maniacs at midnight to an audience stoned in Marijuana it would be a good happy thing. If you saw Multiple Maniacs in a courtroom at 8:00 am it would be obscene, and I never won a case neither for Pink Flamingos nor Multiple Maniacs. I was always found guilty.
VF – Were you ever found guilty in the UK or anywhere else in Europe?
JW – I was never found guilty because I was never charged there. But certainly when the whole thing called video nasties came up, they banned both Pink Flamingos and Multiple Maniacs. And it took them 10 years little by little for them to allow these films to be released. You don’t have the censor board now, do you?
VF – Yes, we do have the BBFC, our equivalent of the Motion Picture Association of America. Have you encountered any problems with them now that your film is getting theatrical distribution?
JW – No, I haven’t. A censor once told me: we don’t know how to deal with intentional bad taste. But now they know how to deal with it, and they finally accepted it as comedy. It was made a long time ago, and it’s in a historical context now, which it wasn’t back then! So it will be left alone, as it should!
VF – In a recent interview with DMovies, your Canadian filmmaker friend Bruce LaBruce talked about bourgeoisation of gay culture “I sense a certain moralism in the gay world, too. That’s because of the assimilation movement: gay marriage, kids, the military, even transsexuals colluding with the medical establishment.” – do you think gay people would have a more moralistic reaction to Multiple Maniacs if it was made now?
JW – Gay people are in some ways square, but that’s what comes with being accepted. I saw my movie [Multiple Maniacs] in Provincetown, which is this very gay summer resort with an audience which, believe me, reacted very shocked to all the craziness. Which I understand. Because according to today’s values, it’s far more shocking than it was back then, more alarming in a way. Even I was shocked when I watched it.
If you wipe away all the progress we made legally, gay people will certainly turn into outlaws again.
VF – Let’s hope that doesn’t happen!
JW – Why? Sometimes people that come against you make you stronger. Sometimes you need people that are against you in order to awake the fight. Otherwise it’s just a pat in the back that holds you back.
VF – You have a fat, grotesque, sexually deviant, psychotic and extremely dangerous American running your country right now, and sadly it’s not Divine. Do you feel that Multiple Maniacs was very prescient of Donald Trump?
JW – Divine threatens Ronald Reagan’s life, which did shock me, I had forgotten that. And he wasn’t even president then. So I’m sure that if we ever remade Multiple Maniacs I would get Donald Trump to play Lady Divine.
VF – And who would play the rest of the troupe: Melania, Pence and so on?
JW – I’m gonna save that for my book. I have my enemy list, but I’m afraid I’m not going to share that right now! In today’s climate maybe we need to copy something from Nixon and start an enemy’s list.
VF – Trumpism, Brexit and neofascism represent a return to a more conservative age, but it’s often under such conditions that the most provocative art flourishes. Multiple Maniacs was made under Nixon, during the the time of the anti-pornography movement. Do you expect an explosive backlash against Trump? Do you expect another maniac to come up?
JW – I think that there will be a backlash, but I don’t think it will be in cinema though. In America, TV is better than independent film. Way more people see it, you make more money and you have just as much freedom. Will that crossover into movies? That’s a good question that I do not know. Because today you still have to make money. An independent movie should cost just a fifth of what it used to cost, but they still want big stars, music rights and so on, making it almost impossible to do.
I don’t know whether cinema will be able to parody Trump, when he’s already a parody, he’s already a bad reality show. It’s like a stale joke. Maybe we could do an all-transgered version of the Trump family inauguration. But to be honest I don’t know whether the rebellion will come from cinema. I hope the explosion comes from everywhere.
I bet Trump likes porn though.
VF – Do you have any evidence of that?
JW – I bet he even pays for it. I hope hackers reveal the titles that he downloads.
VF – What kind of fetishes would he have?
JW – He would probably want to be dominated. Most powerful men like to be dominated.
VF – Is Donald Trump the filthiest person alive? Did he claim the title from Divine?
JW – I’m sure there’s people worse than him. There’s this guy who wants capital punishment for gay people!
VF – Do you think that TV has overtaken cinema in terms of subversion?
JW – I think Brian Murphy’s TV shows always seemed to push the button. To me, you can be an insider and be edgy and crazy. Why would you want to be an outsider these days? An outsider has no power and can’t get things done. You need to warm your way to the inside and infiltrate in order to make things work today. There are many people on TV who have made things that were untouchable as I was growing up acceptable now. I think television is the way to introduce ideas into Middle America. I think TV is more responsible for changing public opinion than independent movies are.
VF – You recently said that you “feel pessimistic about American independent films, not European ones.” Can you tell us a little bit about your favourite dirty European artists.
You can look every year at my list of 10 favourite movies and tell exactly what they are. The major difference is that in Europe the government pays for these movies, as they should. That’s something that’s completely impossible to imagine in America, government paying for a Todd Solondz movie, or Harmony Korine one. That is a giant difference.
I’m huge fan of Gaspar Noe, Bruno Dumond and this new film called Krisha. And who’s the one in Vienna?
VF – Ulrich Seidl, Michael Haneke?
JW – Yes, Ulrich Seidl, that’s him! I present this kind of movies around America in film festivals and so on. My top 10 list has never been nominated for the Oscars, even though I vote for the Oscars.
VF – You haven’t made a film in 10 years, but you have written two bestsellers. Can you tell us what’s next?
So many things! I have two book deals with my publisher, I have something called Make Trouble coming up, which is a gift book for graduates. There’s an illustrated book, spoken word tours, a big retrospective opening in 2018 at the Baltimore museum. I have so many homework assignments!