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Conversations with John Waters: the heart of the matter

DMovies' editor Victor Fraga interviewed the iconic John Waters for a special tribute, in partnership with Doesn't Exist magazine. They talked about his extensive career, writing your own materials, insulting animals, coprophagia, Ken Loach, Pier Paolo Pasolini and much more!

In February 2022, I interviewed the Pope of Trash John Waters for the second time. The interview was conducted was in partnership with Doesn’t Exist magazine, a gorgeous boutique magazine blending fashion and cinema. The action took place via videoconferencing (two stills from the conversation illustrate this article), as pandemic restrictions were still in place, preventing Doesn’t Exist’s editor Alex Babboni from travelling to Baltimore in order to talk to the man in person (he generously offered literally to open the doors of his house to use).

Here are the highlights from the conversation, which last roughly 90 minutes. In order to read the full interview, you can purchase the online or the hard-cover print version of Doesn’t Exist on their website.

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Part 1: cinema

Victor Fraga – When we interviewed Peter Greenaway for our penultimate issue, he said “If I was beginning to make films now, I would concentrate on my first ambition, which was to be a painter.” You haven’t made films in a very long time. Do you agree with Greenaway? If you were to start making films nowadays, would you do something else instead?

John Waters – I already have started doing something else instead! Really, I’m a writer: that’s what I do. I’ve written every movie, every spoken word show, all my books. What I do is write: it doesn’t matter to me in which area I do it, because they’re all the same to me. I’m just telling stories. I have got movie deals that didn’t happen since ‘A Dirty Shame’[2004]. I was paid three times to write different sequels to ‘Hairspray’ [1988]: the musical, the TV show, everything. And I’ve also had other projects that were developed but didn’t happen. So, I’m still participating in that system but the books do really great. My new book comes out in May, the first novel I’ve ever written. I have to write something every day. I have to think up something. It doesn’t matter which genre. And I’m glad that Peter Greenaway… because I love his movies. And I love his soundtracks too: they’re really haunting and scary and drive people away. You can put some of them on if you want guests to leave [laughs]. That and the soundtrack to ‘Irreversible’ [2002] by Gaspar Noé. Put that soundtrack on and you have people running out of the house. [laughs]

VF – If you were to remake Pink Flamingos (1972) nowadays, how would it be different?

JW – Oh, I wouldn’t remake it. I would’ve done the sequel ‘Flamingos Forever’: it came out as a book, it never did get made as a movie. That’s what I would do. It would be even harder today to make because it would definitely be NC-17 – what used to be an X-rate – which nobody wants anymore. ‘Pink Flamingos’ just got named for the National Film Registry as one of the greatest American films in America, I don’t know if you saw that, which is hilarious to me, hilarious! It’s probably even worse now than it ever was because of the so-called political correctness. You’re not even allowed to call someone ‘fat’ now. And in ‘Pink Flamingos’… in all my movies people say horrible stuff to each other. They’re the villains! I think they should be allowed to say horrible stuff. They get punished in my films. They always lose in my films. The right people win in my films. So I think even ‘Pink Flamingos’ is politically correct. I would never kill an animal in a movie like we did in that movie, but we bought a chicken at a place where people killed it to eat it and we did eat it and fuck it. And made it famous. Well, is that morally wrong? I don’t know. Maybe now, I wouldn’t do it today, but I’ll stick up for that scene. Danny Mills, who played Crackers, ate that chicken. So, the cycle was complete. As long as you’re not in PETA and don’t eat meat at all.

VF – Fair enough.

JW – I actually think Peta is right. Even though I eat all… I have no food issues, I eat steak tartar, I eat foie gras! But at the same time it is barbaric to eat animals. I think eventually, one day, people won’t, when they get more sophisticated. But then Peta goes crazy – it makes me laugh. This year they said that the word ‘pet’ is derogatory to your animal, the same way that ‘chick’ is to women. [laughs] You can’t call your dog a pet: that’s politically incorrect. Now that, to me, is hilarious but I like the extremes they go to. Except Ricki Lake once was a Peta member and she was picketing a Karl Lagerfeld shop because of fur and they arrested her with her boyfriend and Peta got her out but left the boyfriend in jail because he wasn’t famous. [laughs]

VF – You just said it’s barbaric eating animals. Is it barbaric eating animals’ faeces?

JW – No, because that’s recycling, isn’t it? [laughs]

VF – If you were doing Pink Flamingos, who would you cast as Babs?

JW – Johnny Knoxville.

VF – I thought you were going to say Donald Trump.

JW – No, I would never put him in anything. I would never even make fun of him in a movie because it dates it. It completely dates the movie. ‘Pink Flamingos’ is difficult to place fifty years later. There’s one Nixon shot in there as a joke that still works. But if you use current-day politics in any movie, you date it. You make it harder for it to be timeless – even in a bad way.

VF – If you were to make a movie in Europe, which place has most affinity with Baltimore? Does Baltimore have a twin city in Europe?

JW – After Covid, they all look a little like Baltimore [laughs] but I would say it’d be easier in London – at least they speak English: that would help. England has the same sense of humour, it has rockabilly, it has that 50s kind of thing. So, I would think London would probably be the closest to Baltimore – although I don’t know other places well enough to know that. I know Baltimore so well. I love Italy and I’m sure there are places in Rome that are like Baltimore but I don’t know them. I don’t know the right places: so, it was just easier because in Baltimore I know where everything was. I know all the locations.

VF – Baltimore is a character in your movies. How would you describe that character? Is it a villain or a hero?

JW – Baltimore is a hero. Everyone knows my films are made in Baltimore. And audiences that are my age and have grown up with my films, they’ve grown up with Baltimore the same way they’ve wanted it in all my movies. They’ve grown up with her, they’ve gotten older with her on screen. Baltimore is just a giving kind, that I would feel disloyal if I made a movie somewhere else, I would feel like I was cheating, really, on a lover.

VF – Do you think there’s a correlation between money and subversiveness? That the most subversive films are the ones made on a small budget?

JW- No, I thought Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) was subversive. I think you can be subversive and make money. The Human Centipede (Tom Six, 2009) didn’t cost nothing. I think Salò (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975) didn’t cost nothing. No, I don’t think it has anything to do with money. It has to do with nerve and just the urge to startle in an original way.

VF – Did you meet Pasolini?

JW – I never met him, no. I did meet Fellini but not Pasolini.

VF – On March 5th it’s Pasolini’s 100th birthday. Let’s imagine he was still alive. Don’t tell me he wouldn’t be working, because we have Manoel de Oliveira, a Portuguese filmmaker, working well past his 100th birthday. If Pasolini was still alive, what type of films do you wish he would be making?

JW – That’s a tough one. I wish he would go get all the young beauties. You know, Pasolini loved boys with pimples. I did an art piece about that. All his boyfriends that he liked had pimples. So, maybe he would make a movie called “Pimples” that would be about the cutest young men that have pimples, alive today, having an orgy and reliving their times. I read recently interviews with some of the kids [and they were kids, they were under 18] in Salò naked, eating shit which – unlike Pink Flamingos – it was chocolate. They talk about what a great time they had, how Pasolini was so nice to them. And they’d say “Cut!” and everybody would start laughing. They had such a great time making Salò. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful movie to fictionalise, the making of Salò, like you were there? Can you imagine that happening today? My god, you can’t kiss somebody in a movie today without coaches there, making sure you are comfortable. So, it would be a very different time but Pasolini was so handsome, he would’ve aged incredibly well. And I wonder: is Froggy alive? The house servant that killed him? [Giuseppe “Frog” Pelosi, 1928 – 2017]

VF – Town & Country magazine interviewed you for their 175th anniversary issue. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

JW – Town & Country is one of the most old-school, old-money fashion magazines. It was so ludicrous that I was on the cover of that: it was like a joke, it looked like a parody. Town & Country is famous for old money and good taste. And to be on the cover of that would’ve made my mother extremely happy because I was raised to try to be that. And that was everything I rejected, but I had to learn those rules to understand how to make fun of good taste.

VF – Your movies have more to do with the redneck culture.

JW – Well, certainly I celebrated redneck culture more than I did Town & Country culture. If anybody was like Town & Country in my movies, they were always the villains. Mink Stole in “Desperate Living”, basically, was kind of that in the beginning and then she decides to run away to Mortville, the worst place where she could possibly live. I think that the redneck culture was pretty much always glorified and turned into high fashion in my movies, definitely. The pink flamingo was a thing that a lot of rednecks do have on their front lawn. But I didn’t think Divine acted like a redneck at all. Divine’s character was… confident – that’s what I would say. Confident and happy with their choices, which is all my heroes have, even if those choices are very wrong. In “Pink Flamingos” they weren’t rednecks, they were upper lower class. [laughs] They didn’t care about money, they cared about filth. They were middle-class filth whereas Divine was high-class filth.

VF – Do you like any British filmmakers?

JW – Oh, let me think… You know, I just love all the ‘kitchen-sink dramas’. I just love the name of that: ‘kitchen-sink drama’. I love the Ken Loach films. There’s lots of English ones that I like. I’m a fan of Terence Davies: I like his movies very much.

VF – Gay cinema and gay culture have changed enormously in the past 50 years with the assimilation movement: gay marriage, kids, the military and so on. Is that a good thing or has it made being gay and gay cinema more boring?

JW – I would say gay is not enough. It’s a good start but it’s not enough. There are bad gay movies: and that’s progress, to admit that. I do a whole thing in my spoken word show about this – that I think it’s time we should be dangerous again. I think gay men should start fucking lesbians and we should really freak out straight people, if we did that. [laughs] And go to new limits. Because I’m very pro-lesbian: they’re the ones that helped to start ACT UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power]. They’re the ones that weren’t dying of Aids, and put up everything to fight so that the medicine could come through. I’m a ‘les-bro’ as they call it: that’s a ‘fag hag in reverse’.

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Part Two: fashion

Alex Babboni – Fashion plays an important part in your films, both in the costumes and in the characters’ lines. You have written amazing lines in ‘Serial Mom’ [1994] about the white shoes after Labour Day.

John Waters – Well, certainly I owe it to Van Smith, who did the costumes for all my movies right up to the very end. He died right after we made A Dirty Shame (2004). That was the only movie that he was sober. He drank in all the other ones. Van was a visionary. When he died he got these amazing obituaries: Women’s Wear Daily and The New York Times. His family didn’t even know what he did. It was amazing: I wish he’d seen this. Because he was a huge influence but he never worked for anybody else, really. He never did any other movie. He worked in the fashion industry before. He did fashion designs and something, when he had a normal job. But his vision was it. And we had the short hand: he knew what I liked. Like with Divine, I said “do something weird with the hairline.” Then he cut the hair back like that. And he just knew what he was doing right from the beginning, and I really trusted him. I think he never got as much notice as he really should have. But the costumes were incredibly important in my films. And even actors always say: I remember Martha Plimpton said, “until I have the hair, I don’t know the character.” And it’s true! Once they have the costumes on. Now, some of the actors hated the costumes: in Hairspray (1988) I remember Ruth Brown arriving and seeing her outfits and bursting into tears. But eventually she said in an interview that it was the right thing for the movie. Van didn’t always make you look good: he made you look memorable. That red fishtail gown similar to the one that Divine wore in Pink Flamingos this year was on the cover of Vanity Fair. It was Balenciaga’s main dress. Isabelle Huppert wore it to the Met Ball. And it wasn’t a coincidence because on TV they played the theme song [‘The Swag’] by Link Wray that I used in Pink Flamingos. It’s the same music, so it was definitely an homage to it. The influence of his in fashion went pretty far, I think, and pretty amazingly so.

AB – Tell us about your relationship with fashion brands and campaigns where you’ve been a model.

JW – I’ve had other fashion lines that I’ve made deals with to use things from in the movies. There’s one, Loewe, which says “who’s the filthiest person alive on this dress?” Fashion has always been important to me, I mean, I got the Nike ad. Me! Someone who has never caught a ball in their entire life, really. No one has even thrown a ball to me. And I was the Nike ad [2019]. I was in the Yves Saint-Laurent campaign [A/W 2020]: one of many faces. But that was beautiful: I had a great time in Paris shooting that. It was very exciting. I felt like Mahogany (Berry Gordy, 1975) – now there’s a camp movie! Have you ever seen that? It’s Diana Ross playing Mahogany, this top fashion model with Anthony Perkins. It’s pretty hilarious and it wasn’t meant to be funny. Watch Mahogany: that’s one of the greatest camp fashion movies ever! [laughs]

AB – What does fashion mean to you?

JW – Fashion is important to me and I still like it. I always wear Comme des Garçons. I was in Rei Kawakubo’s fashion show in Paris. I accepted her Lifetime Achievement Award at the big Fashion Award in New York [2012]. I’m still a follower of different designers: I like Walter Van Beirendonck a lot today. I’m really sad that it seems like Issey Miyake doesn’t make menswear anymore. Yohji Yamamoto is very hard: there’s nowhere in America that really carries his clothes. I like the extreme ones: I think they’re good and I do follow it. It’s just another way. It’s ‘armour-fashion’: it’s how you get through life. When you’re young, you should never spend more than a nickel: you should go to the worst thrift shops and buy the things that no one bought – even when it was free! – and wear them. And you’ll start a new style. Don’t spend money on clothes when you’re young: you need it when you’re older, not when you’re young.

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Read the full interview on Doesn’t Exist magazine.


By Victor Fraga - 08-11-2022

By Victor Fraga - 08-11-2022

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 15 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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