Just about anyone who digs outsider moviemaking has drunk from the deliriously demented well of Baltimore filmmaker John Waters.Dubbed the Pope of Trash by William S. Burroughs, Waters helped pioneer the midnight movie genre in the '70s with twisted classics like Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living, and spawned the celebrity of lovable drag queen/best friend Divine, a.k.a. Harris Milstead, who starred in most of Waters' early movies, including Polyester (1981) which also offered the noxiously '50s-cinemahouse-inspired Odorama feature that allowed patrons to smell odors while they occurred in the film.
After his '70s-early-'80s underground reign, Waters began to make commercially successful kitsch-fests like Cry-Baby and Hairspray that have been adapted to Broadway, swerving from major-release comedy to freakazoid territory with hits like Serial Mom, Pecker, Cecil B. Demented and A Dirty Shame.
Waters has endeared fans not only for his delight in deviant humor and sexual mischief and catchy one liners about "cha-cha heels" and other middle-class perversions but also because he always manages to come across as a gracious and charming gent with a silver tongue and equally snazzy fashion sense. Not only does he sport that trademark-thin mustache, Waters has an uncanny knack for human understanding especially for society's misfits and disenfranchised. He consistently rises above his shock value as both an underground icon and bona fide superstar, giving good interview wherever he goes and detailing his observations in books like Directors Cut (1997), John Waters: Change of Life (2004), Unwatchable (2006), Shock Value (rereleased 2005), Crackpot (rereleased 2003) and most recently Role Models (2010).
Waters visits USF's Theatre 1 for a free one-man show on Thurs., Jan. 27. Lucky for Creative Loafing, Waters is a fan and reads our paper during his frequent visits to the Tampa Bay area he said so himself during a recent phone interview.
Here's what else he had to say during a fun and enlightening Q&A, which touches on dive bars, the Tucson tragedy, the Manson Family's Leslie Van Houten and pop star Justin Bieber.
How were your holidays? Did you have a good start to 2011?
"Yeah, I did! I have a John Waters Christmas show thats very different from the show Im doing there. I toured in December for that and was in London before that for the release of my book Role Models. Then I came home and had my annual big Christmas party that I have in Baltimore every year and spent Christmas with my mom and my sisters and then I flew to San Francisco where I have an apartment and where I am now."
I envy your living arrangement, getting to live in your hometown of Baltimore and two of my favorite cities San Francisco and New York plus Provincetown.
"I know its my favorite I have four sets of boxer shorts! Its easy for me to live in four places. Every morning I just have to think of something weird to do to fill up the rest of my day!"
You've visited Tampa Bay often. Two years ago you appeared at the Dalí Museum. Do you have a lot of connections here?
"I have been there lots of times, yeah. I have a few people I know but I dont have a lot of friends there, no."
Do you think Tampa Bay, with its strip bars and seedy underbelly, is at all like Baltimore?
"Is that where Roofies were invented? (Laughs) I think there is a certain similarity maybe some people from Baltimore ran away and landed there and vice versa. I think they cross state lines to go to the same exact types of places."
Yeah, maybe they landed at the Port of Tampa. There's a bar there called Stoney's I know you'd love.
"So the seaport there is not fixed up? It hasnt been yuppified? See in Baltimore by the harbor, it has. It used to be all rats and lesbian bars and sailor bars. They were great. Now its been very much yuppified, but other parts havent yet."
Do you make it your business to seek out the working-class dives in the out-of-the-way places of Baltimore?
"Certainly. I wrote a book, as you recall, called Role Models, where I talk about all those bars. As a matter of fact, I have a friend I always go with back home who just e-mailed me about two bars to try when I get home. One is in a hardware store. I love that idea. Its a bar in a hardware store. I feel like Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble not the needle-nosed pliers, baby!"
How often are you touring these days?
"Its how I make a living! I do it all the time. Im always on the road. sometimes I do one a week, sometimes three. I do around 30 shows a year. Im always rewriting it, always changing it weekly. Its This Filthy World but a completely different show now than the one on DVD."
Have any ideas what new topics you'll be discussing during your Tampa appearance?
"Well see. Thats two weeks away. Some of it might be fast-breaking new stories. I'm always rewriting it, making changes. Actually, I was rewriting it today because right after I go to you, I do This Filthy World Goes to Hollywood for Oscar Week at UCLA, so Ill probably be trying out some of my new showbiz material on you to see what works and what doesnt!"
Speaking of celebrities, do you have a wish list of celebrities you'd like to star in your films?
"No, because I actually have worked with most of them or I have met them. You know, Im not going to tell you who because theyre going to be who I ask next time. I guess the only one Id put on a wish list that I doubt will ever happen is Meryl Streep. Shes never said, Why dont we work together! But she never turned me down either. Shes been making some ballsy choices and God knows she could do a Baltimore accent, but then again, I hate it when actors do Baltimore accents."
Would you ever consider collaborating with Amy Sedaris? You two seem like kindred spirits.
"Ive only met her once. I love her new craft book and Im a big fan. Were certainly kindred spirits but I dont see us working in a collaboration were both too bossy!"
You have a way with people and seem to take on a parental role. You helped out your Dreamlanders stars (Waters film regulars Divine, Edith Massey, Mink Stole, et al.) and seem to have a natural empathy about you ...
"Sometimes I think if I werent a filmmaker, Id be a lawyer or psychiatrist. Im not bad at counseling people. It doesnt mean Im any healthier than they are or Id follow my advice, but people seem to be comfortable telling me the most alarming secrets about their life. Sometimes I wish they wouldnt Im just on an airplane and dont feel like counseling, Im off work! I guess they feel Ill understand and I do understand and the cases where I dont understand, those are probably the cases I am always fascinated by."
Speaking of helping out friends, you've befriended Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten (involved in the LoBianco murders) whom you've written about in Role Models and voiced your support of her parole. What's going on with that?
"She was turned down again. Shes up for the next one in two years. She never gives up and thats why she is a role model to me. She doesnt despair and she immediately talked about getting her next degree, which she set up at a college on the outside. She doesnt think she shouldnt have gone to jail. Forty years is a very, very long time its an appropriate time Im not saying its too long but I think shes done her time now. Shes served longer than many Nazi leaders, certainly way longer than the any members of the Bader-Meinhof gang, who were alive when they were sentenced. I think that she met a madman when she was 17. But she doesnt even blame him. She said, It was my fault for making him my leader, for taking the drugs and he couldnt be a cult leader if he didnt have followers."
This week, we're dealing with the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy. Do you find any similarities between accused murderer Jared Loughner and Van Houten?
"That case is interesting to me because its the ultimate test of the insanity law. In Female Trouble, the attorney says and I probably took it from the Manson trial If he isnt insane, who is? ... And I think its despicable; I think its terrible what he did, but he has a great lawyer (Judy Clarke) who really wins if you dont get the death penalty, and she had the Unabomber and shes had terrorists, and I respect her as a lawyer, and itll be interesting legally to see what she can do with a case thats incredibly difficult and incredibly tragic. Its sad. Its like being hit by a car. Its like if I walked outside today and a plane crashes into me. You cant stop that type of thing. You cant guard against it if youre in the public life. If youre a politician, if youre a movie star, a crazy person can stalk you and think youre a tree talking to them. I guess Im fascinated with (Loughners) parents imagine the hell thats going on inside that house right now. Its a tragedy for them, too. ...
"I am kind of obsessed by it. I think Obamas speech was good. Ive been watching all of it. What makes this type of case bigger is that usually the people who are nuts usually kill themselves, and its over, but for some reason, I cant remember his name yet. Its not sinking in. I know its Jared I dont know the last name because you just said it, which is maybe good because he doesnt deserve to be famous, or infamous. He is infamous, but thats the scary thing in America the two blend together."
Onto more pleasant topics, do you demur when people give you compliments?
"Im very grateful you kidding!"
Online reviewer Mike Adams captured what I think is at the heart of your appeal. He said, Waters balances his oddball humor with an urbane, witty and very compassionate sensibility." How does it make you feel to hear something like that?
"Thats a great compliment. Wit is maybe how you change peoples opinions. Wit is how you communicate your politics in a weird way, if you want someone to listen. Its no soapboxing here. They dont have to agree. Thats why Im against all the TV (news) stations where the viewers have to agree with their politics. I dont ever usually agree with the Wall Street Journals opinion pieces but I read them because theyre by people I dont agree with but think are smart. I do think you can give people enough rope to hang themselves. Like Sarah Palin I think she blundered big time when everyone was trying to come together after the tragedy in Tucson. I dont know if that term she used (blood libel) is offensive to Jewish people. Im not Jewish, so I dont know, but does she even know what it meant? The inner anarchist in me wonders if she were president, how insane that would be, but I certainly hope it never happens."
You've said in the past that you don't watch TV? Are you watching more TV now?
"When something big happens, yes but otherwise I never watch TV. To turn on the TV is traumatic for me because in each apartment where I live, the remotes are different and I practically cry that I get so frustrated and think, I fucking cant turn on my TV! And Im not a Luddite. I have Blackberries and computers. Its like, arent I successful enough that I can hire someone to travel with me to turn on my TV twice a year? Am I that pathetic?"
So you don't watch reality TV?
"No, I don't watch reality TV."
You've also said that you're fascinated with people who've "exhausted the concept of fame."
"Ha, thats different thats Justin Bieber, whom Ive just met, and he drew on my mustache! Did you see all that? Just Google our names together and youll see it. Its almost scary like why are we together?! I was just on the Graham Norton show with him in London. I think that anyone who makes fun of him is jealous. Im for that to be 16 and so famous you never have to leave the house. I think its great. I even bought the pimple medicine hes endorsing in case I ever get a pimple at age 65 Im putting on Justins medicine! Im for him. Im a Belieber, as they say. He said after the show, Your stache is the jam, which made me almost levitate."
What do you think of other stars like Snooki, who wear out their celebrity status just being who they are?
"I learned a long time ago to never say something negative in the press because then you sit next to them to dinner or youre on a talk show together, and its mortifying. So I just say good things about people that others dont love. Thats my politics."
As far as others go, you champion the "minorities who don't fit into their own minorities." Who are those people nowadays?
"The new people I want to march for are the people who are asexual, who hate sex and the heterosexual couples who have chosen not to have babies. Thats the most hated minority. Im for them. I think theyre brave.