John Waters Wows The Festival Crowds On New Tour

Photo: BEImages/Gregory Pace.
A filmmaker by trade, John Waters belongs to that rarest class of American entertainers. More than his beloved cult movies — Pink Flamingos, Cry-Baby, and the subversive hit Hairspray, among others — his personality is his art, and like Mike Tyson and Henry Rollins, he gets paid to stand in front of audiences, tell stories, and basically be himself. Waters has been doing it for years with This Filthy World, a hilarious one-man show he brings to the comedy stage of Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest on Friday, Nov. 7. In advance of his appearance, Waters chatted with Refinery 29 about metal musicians, terrorists, Ebola, and something truly terrifying: high school. Read on let the master of trash culture dazzle you with his being.
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Have you spoken at many of these rock festivals?
“I’ve played Coachella, Bonnaroo, Bumbershoot. I’ve played lots of them. I’ve played all of them — except Woodstock! I would’ve liked to play Altamont, not Woodstock. I think I would have been better suited. I always think I’m going to be the oldest performer, and then Sly Stone was at Coachella. But, then he didn’t go onstage, so maybe I still won.”
Do you change up your show for the festival crowds?
“I do music jokes, yeah. I do This Filthy World, but it’s geared toward music and rock ‘n’ roll and the situation I’m in, being at a rock festival. It’s fun for me because I’ve gotten to meet lots of rock stars. Usually, they have a VIP area where you get to meet all the other talent.”
You’re on the same bill as Judas Priest!
“Yeah, that’ll be good. I played in Las Vegas on Halloween at the Heavy Metal something-or-other...I can’t remember what it was called. It was a bunch of metal bands and me, which was hilarious.”
Have you met Rob Halford?
“I don’t think I have. I remember when the Dirty Projectors and Beth Ditto were my next-door neighbors at Bonnaroo. We bonded. It’s usually who’s in the dressing room next door.”
Music has always been a big part of your movies…
“Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry...Chris Isaak was in my last movie. I use music in my movies as a narrator to really tell the story. A lot of my soundtracks, I may have stolen those records when I was 15. But, I paid $30,000 to put them in my movies later, so they got their money back.”
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Have you ever thought of starting a band or making a record?
“If I could sing, I would have exploited that. I’ve always wanted to cover the barking-dogs version of ‘Jingle Bells.’ I always wanted to get Edith Massey to do that. Both Edith Massey and Divine had singing careers. And, Mink Stole does now. She can really sing. You should listen to her new album. It’s really good. It’s called Do Re MiNK.
“Music has always been really important to me. Hairspray was really a dance movie. Cry-Baby was my real musical that had original music in it and everything. But, of course, Hairspray became a big Broadway musical. Cry-Baby did, too, but Hairspray won the Tony and was successful. Cry-Baby was nominated for a Tony and failed. I hope to bring Cry-Baby back. The problem was that it had a lot of nudity, and it was for the whole family.”
So, music wasn’t your thing, but did you ever think of getting into standup. Doing This Filthy World, you’ve certainly got the stage thing down.
“I didn’t have any choice. When we were young, and I distributed the movies myself, nobody had heard of us. So, I had to think of ways to promote it for free. I didn’t have any money for advertising. Divine and I would appear at colleges, and I would come out dressed like a hippy pimp and talk about nudist-camp movies and things nobody else praised at the time. And, Divine would come out very much like in Female Trouble and rip telephone books in half like a muscle man. If we were in a town where I had a little money, I’d hire a friend. We had a stolen cop uniform and a short wig, and they’d pretend to come onstage and arrest us. And, then Divine would strangle the cop and the movie would begin.”
Photo: Universal Pictures.
Do you think kids still have their lives saved by movies, like you did?
“Oh, sure. A lot of kids come up to me and tell me I saved their lives in high school. A lot of fat girls especially say, ‘Thanks. I didn’t have any role models until Hairspray.’ Now, it’s very touching. I have parents with fucked-up kids taking them to see my show as a last-ditch bonding effort. I always wonder if it works. I applaud those parents. I put my parents through hell. If you have a kid that’s a rebel in high school, you should be happy, because they might end up in the arts. If they wind up in the arts, they did rebel somehow. They weren’t the football star or the prom queen — whose lives ended the day high school was over, basically. You should suffer a little in high school. I think that’s part of it. It makes you tougher.”
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It just seems like nowadays, movies are one of the million forms of entertainment available to kids. Do they still have the same power?
“I think they do have the same power, but they want to watch them on their phones. But, I don’t care. Things change. My movies look better small. I’m probably the only director who likes when they’re small. You can’t see all the mistakes. It’s different, but it’s never going to go back. I still go see movies, but when I go see art movies, everyone in the audience is over 50 years old. I don’t care about going to some mall and sitting in stadium seating. When I was young, people went to the movies and the police raided it, and the audience got arrested. That’s excitement! To me, that’s going to the movies. Now, it’s very different, but I don’t think it’s going back. A good movie still gets to the kids.
“I have a good friend, Peaches Christ, in San Francisco, and he does a very successful midnight-movie series — one of the most successful in the country. He says he had to figure out what the kids from the ‘80s and ‘90s like, because a lot of the ones we like, they don’t care about. They want John Hughes movies, or different movies we don’t even realize are cult movies. And, he was very smart to develop that. Kids that are just 13 now, what are going to be their cult movies? People don’t know that yet.”
You’ve talked about the difficulties of getting a film made nowadays, which is why you haven’t made a feature in a decade. Would you ever consider doing TV? Everyone says this is a golden age.
“I’ve been very much talking about a TV show, but I can’t get into it, because it’s bad luck to talk about something that’s pending. But, yeah, I think TV now is better than independent movies. Way more people see it. I’m not a snob about it. I’d to a TV show in a minute.”
What shows in the last five years have you gotten into?
“That’s where you catch me. I’m kind of TV illiterate. American Horror Story — I love it, because they have great references to my films in it. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was the last show I watched regularly. Howdy Doody and The Wire were the best TV shows ever on — ever. But, I read every night. I’ll be honest. I’m not being snobby. I don’t think that’s better than watching television. I think what’s on the television is better than it’s ever been. But, I can’t do both. Watching television doesn’t relax me, and reading books does.”
What’s the last great book you read?
My Struggle, the seven-volume Norwegian one. If you look it up, it got a huge amount of good reviews. They’ve only translated three of them. I breezed through them. I like books that cause trouble. I like hard books. I don’t like books that are easy reads. I like books that make me think, and that I can lose myself in. I never fall asleep reading. I don’t understand how people do that. They must be bad books. If I like a book, I stay up until 3 in the morning reading, and then I wake up and start reading. That’s the best feeling.”
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There’s a great part in This Filthy World where you say were should make movies about current events. The morning news should be a film by dinner. What kind of movie would you make about Ebola?
“They’re already filming a TV show about it! Isn’t that amazing? It’s not kids doing it. Hollywood started doing it. It would be too late. That’s why when Newsweek magazine came back — and I’m glad it came back — but Newsweek? It’s Newssecond — that’s what they should call it. It’d be too late if I wanted to do an Ebola movie. It’s in production.”
Are there any stories that are still ripe for the movie treatment?
“If you read the New York Post every single day, you’d come up with a great exercise for film school — to do those stories every day, with those titles. And, the best title ever, and it’s music-related, was when Ike Turner died. It said: ‘Ike Beats Tina to Death.’”
In hitchhiking across the country for Carsick, you seem to have discovered that most Americans are pretty decent. If the terrorists in the Middle East could meet Joe Six-Pack Americans, would it change their opinion of us?
“Unfortunately, the terrorists are Joe Six-Packs that are lured and radicalized online. I don’t know that the next terrorists won’t be American. Certainly, we had terrorism in Boston; they were living in America. No, I don’t think so, because they’re already brainwashed. It’s like my friend Leslie [Van Houten] I wrote about in my last book that was in the Manson Family. She’s a lovely woman who today looks back in horror and disbelief and sorrow and guilt for what she did. You’re out of your mind when you’re like that. You’ve been brainwashed into believing something. There’s nothing worse than converts. Even in religion, converts are always more radical. I don’t know there’s a way out unless they chicken out at the last minute. They believe the same way all cults make you believe. They make you think they know something we don’t know. It’s hard to argue with a cult. Madness brings happiness, and I think most religions…I’m not against people being religious; just don’t make me do it. But, they all do want to make you do it. It’s fine if it brings you peace, but don’t make me do it.”
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