Getting paid to interview John Waters every few years is a tough job, but somebody has to do it.
The fun starts almost from the moment you begin arranging to chat with the iconic film director, artist, author, and actor known by many seedy nicknames – perhaps most famously “the Pope of Trash,” which William Burroughs called him.
First, there’s a game of email tag with Barbara, who runs her own agency. She’s sending questions but doesn’t seem to receive your answers, so you decide to call her. She immediately picks up, almost before you finish dialing. Barbara gets right to business and has an awesome Baltimore accent that you can barely make out over a gaggle of yapping dogs. “Okay, I’ll tack to Jawn,” she says.
A few days later, she emails the PDF version you requested of Waters’ soon-to-be-released novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance.” It’s a filthy, often funny tale of “sex, crime, and family dysfunction” featuring Marsha Sprinkle, a master of disguise and suitcase thief at airports. “Dogs and children hate her. Her own family wants her dead,” a blurb reads. Barbara compliments you on “doin’ yah homewack.”
The plan is to read the book quickly, but your inaugural colonoscopy check-up throws the week off, screwing up your internal clock after introducing it to the joy of guzzling a lemon-fizz Suprep bowel prep kit at 4 a.m. (Who said aging isn’t fun?) Halfway into the book, you feel like a gurgling, human water balloon and pass out in the vicinity of a toilet. Somehow this seems entirely appropriate, as if the stomach noises came from reading the John Waters novel, not the laxative. After all, this is the director who once used Odorama, a scratch-and-sniff card gimmick, for his film “Polyester,” with the audience scratching at designated moments to smell flowers, pizza, glue, gas, grass, and feces.
Now it’s Monday morning, bright and early, and you’re knocking back that new Rwandan coffee from Rostov’s to kickstart your brain. You search through old emails for Waters’ number before realizing it’s still saved in your phone from the last time, under “J Waters.” Make a mental note to delete it when this is done, so you don’t accidentally butt-dial the cult director who made “Cry-Baby,” “Serial Mom” and “Hairspray,” at some ungodly hour of the night. Like Jesus, he’s an early riser.
After topping off and nuking your coffee, you call him. Another friendly personal assistant answers with no accent, but a detectable curiosity. “Hmm, ok. Hang on … We’ve got you down for tomorrow. Right time, wrong day!” Not for a second do you consider blaming Baltimore accents, loud little dogs, or the powerful osmotic laxative for your scheduling lapse. On Tuesday morning, the same woman answers, this time with a little good-natured ribbing before patching you through to her boss, a.k.a. the People’s Pervert, who is turning 76 this Friday, April 22. “Right day! Good job!” she teases, before whispering, “He knows nothing.”
The following is an edited Q&A we did in preview of his upcoming spoken word performance of “False Negative: An Evening with John Waters” at the Byrd Theatre on Sunday, May 1. The show is a benefit for the Byrd Theatre and the Virginia Children’s Book Festival. Tickets are still available at makeoutcreek.com.
Style Weekly: Hi John, happy birthday week!
John Waters: How are you? Oh God, I know. I’m working on my birthday. I’m always working on whatever holiday it is. Like a drag queen on Halloween.
So you don’t have any big plans?
Well, I’m playing my show in New York, then the next night in Atlantic City.
You know, Shannon and the Clams are playing here on your birthday. I was going to tell you to grab your poppers and come do the twist.
Ohhh, give them my love. They’re gonna be at the Mosswood Meltdown, the punk rock festival I host this summer, too. You’re really my first stop on the book tour. Richmond is the first place where the book is available [pre-signed copies].
I’m enjoying it so far; it’s fairly insane. I’m visualizing the whole thing as if it were one of your movies.
Well, it could be. The problem is it would probably go beyond the rating system these days. I can’t help but think visually, but it’s very different from a script. When you write a novel, you can describe every second of how they’re thinking. In a script, you have to show it or say it. Here you can write about the most particular moments and go into ludicrous detail, which I do. I make fun of narrative, alliteration, sex writing, tried to parody hard-boiled writing, every type of writing. Just like I do in my movies.
I was picturing Toni Collette or Parker Posey as Marsha Sprinkle.
Well, I don’t know, I’m not going to get into casting yet [laughs]. Somebody has to buy the movie rights from me … I think Marsha Sprinkle, she’s not a neuter. Well she is, kinda, but she hates sex. She’s militant about it because she thinks nobody is worth touching her. Or dating even.
I was also thinking while reading, it’s probably been a long time since John had to run a scam. How do you keep up on all the tricks of the trade?
I’m in an airport almost every day of my life it feels like. When I was writing this book, it was easy to observe and plot how easy it would be to steal from people on planes. I did know somebody who had a girlfriend who stole suitcases from airports. And I know somebody else who told me her friend used to always steal from the [plane] storage bin, right when you enter [laughs].
I guess you could learn some theft tricks from this book. But I wouldn’t do it these days. They take a very dim view of anti-social behavior in airports. Ahhh, the good old days, when you could steal a bag … Actually, it’s easier now because they don’t check those little tickets, which they always used to.
Did you see recently, somebody brought a bunch of live crabs back in a Styrofoam cooler, and they all got out on the carousel and were crawling like crazy through everyone’s luggage.
[Laughs] No, I didn’t. The stuff they find in people’s luggage is so amazing. If you steal luggage in airports, basically it’s like buying boxes from estates at a flea market – sometimes you get lucky.
Just when I thought you had run out of nicknames, they’re calling you “the Queer Confucius” now in France?
[Laughs] Yeah, oh I loved it, the French press. [My book] “Mr. Know-It-All,” for reasons I’m not quite sure, was a big hit in France and got great reviews. That was one of the good reviews that really made me laugh. I thought, “Oh, I needed a new title.” That was a good one.
But wasn’t Confucius a big moralizer, though?
Yeah, but he said things that people remembered [laughs]. Or maybe they were forced to remember. That’s what I’ll have to start doing.
I was also excited to see that Criterion is reissuing a classic of yours, “Pink Flamingos” [June 28].
Yeah, me too. Especially after it got picked by the National [Film] Registry as a historic American film. Now that’s pretty funny.
This morning, someone in my Facebook feed posted that she had recently screened “Pink Flamingos” in her backyard on a projector and was now having to go apologize to all her neighbors [laughs].
Well, that’s why it never played in drive-ins. They tried it a few times, but people would complain and cars would go off the road and everything.
Oddly enough, “Pink Flamingos” worked the very best in the richest, fanciest neighborhoods and did the worst in exploitation theaters. Because we were parodying exploitation, that’s why. In the heyday of exploitation films, nobody went to those movies because they were funny. They went because they thought they were sexy or scary.
I remember the first time I saw it with a crowd, at the Pageant Theater in Chico, Ca. in the ‘90s. It was right before they changed the reel over, when the audience would take a short break outside. And here comes the infamous Surfin’ Bird scene [A man uses his butthole to sing along to the Trashmen classic: “Bah-boppa umma mow mow, boppa umow, u-mow”] The entire theater fell into complete pandemonium, howling.
Aw, David Gluck. Finally, his widow said I could reveal his name.
Does that scene get the special, hi-def Criterion treatment and scholarly discussion?
[Laughs] No, but we did a lot of good extras where we went to locations to see the people who live in the same houses and everything, and whether they knew about the movie or not. It came out pretty great. [The movie] looks amazing, it’s amazing what they can do now. There are new scenes, new footage, stuff that even I didn’t remember. I haven’t seen it in 50 years.
Next, they should recognize the comedic genius of “Cecil B. Demented,” one of your most underrated movies, I think.
Now that’s one of my favorites. I always have a soft spot for the ones that didn’t do as well at the box office. People still walk by me in airports and someone will say, “Demented Forever!” That always catches me off guard and makes me laugh. I try to imagine in my [current] show, what would the Sprocket Holes be doing today if there was cinema terrorism?
I watched it again the other night. If I was into a cemetery burial, I think it would be pretty funny to have a tombstone that reads: “He’s gone off the deep-end of the Clairol color chart.”
Ha, that’s true … I thought Trump always went off the deep end of the Just For Men chart. Worst hair dye ever. If a man dyes his own hair, you can always tell. And it always makes you look like a fool. Unless you’re a punk and dying it on purpose to look crazy.
Look at Giuliani. He had those turd skidmarks down his face.
[Laughs] Oh, I know, I know. You can always tell.
In our first interview years ago, I asked whether LSD or the wrestler Gorgeous George had the biggest impact on your aesthetic. You said LSD, because if there hadn’t been George, there would’ve been Liberace or-
Or Little Richard or someone. Wait, who came first? I don’t know.
I’m not sure either. But it made me wonder if you could recount your most meaningful psychedelic experience?
Well, in my last book, I took LSD again at 70 years old, with Mink Stole. There’s a whole chapter about it. It was the strongest acid I ever took and it was amazing.
I don’t need to ever do it again. It was the longest [laughter], it was great .. I had the same music I used to play [Dionne Warwick]. We hallucinated, we did it in Provincetown and it was a great bonding experience that I never have to do again.
I’m not telling young people to take drugs. I’m telling old people to take ‘em. If they did LSD fifty years ago, had good experiences, and want a spring-cleaning in their mind, it was wonderful. But I wouldn’t tell young people that. Because now they do microdots, those pussies!
Years ago, I feel like I read somewhere that you and Divine used to go see Ingmar Bergman films on acid.
Oh yeah! And in “The Hour of the Wolf” when the woman rips her face off, Divine said, “Can’t we just see Elizabeth Taylor movies, puhlease!?” [Laughs]. I mean, who goes to see Ingmar Bergman movies on acid? I don’t know. We did.
When we first got LSD, it was stolen from Sheppard Pratt hospital in 1964, that’s when I first did it. And it was used to treat alcoholism, which it still is sometimes. For me, I think LSD was really a good influence. But some people I know went crazy. It just depends on the person. Today even pot makes me worry about things. It’s so strong now, it doesn’t relax me. But still it should be legal … LSD was liberating. It made me think I could do what I wanted to do.
You know, Diane Linkletter was not on LSD when she jumped out of that window. But Nixon and her father, Art Linkletter, framed [Timothy] Leary to blame psychedelics for her death.
I guess the reason I think about it with you is that, whether in your movies, or reading your new book, you’re exceptional at adding that one, vivid, over-the-top detail. A lady in a wheelchair vomits, then her attendant vomits on her; a rat scuttles by with a fudgesicle in its mouth; there’s a “Junky Barry Manilow” driving the cab.
[Laughs] Yeah, well … I hate it when people say, oh that was surreal. That’s a word that gets on my nerves today as much as ‘journey’ and [tumult?]. I think that surrealism, after LSD, looks kind of normal.
You’ve been on the road awhile, how has this False Positive material evolved?
False Negative! [Laughs] … Yeah it’s completely different. Once I went back on the road before Christmas, it’s been completely rewritten since This Filthy World, before COVID. The world has changed. This Filthy World is even filthier.
I feel like some people may be ashamed to admit they’ve enjoyed the pandemic on some level. For a while there was less traffic, less people, and you could get stuff done; working from home has proven to make people more productive.
See I always worked from home, so it made no real difference for me. But many writers I know said the pandemic was terrible for them. They couldn’t write because they had no excuse any more. They had to be home, so why didn’t they write anything?
Societies typically change in major ways after plagues or pandemics, any thoughts on this?
I talk about it a lot in the show. I think people are grumpier. They want their old life back and it’s never going to come back. I’m just glad I’m not young. I don’t want to be horny and isolated, quarantined and alone. It must be terrible when you’re young and horny. Exposed and aroused, what a terrible thing to be.
Any truly horny people I know are going out anyway.
They are. But you know, I talk a lot about how the government changed its attitude about what was safe sex for [COVID] versus what was safe sex for AIDS. The government actually recommended oral sex! I have proof.
I must’ve missed that Fauci speech. Somewhere you recently noted that if you had censors today, they would likely come from the left.
Yeah, but I haven’t really had any yet. With this book, I’m walking a thin line because it certainly makes fun of political correctness. I’m politically correct in a weird, fucked up way, but I’m not self-righteous. That’s what I’m against …
I believe in the freedom of speech, sometimes they don’t. I think anyone should be able to speak on campus. If you don’t like it, just don’t go. That’s what freedom of speech is about.
That’s the words are equal to violence thing. Is it any wonder why Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on national TV? It was telling that some folks seemed to have less of a problem with actual physical violence than with words.
Hey, I’m just glad that he didn’t punch Liza [Minnelli]!
[Laughs]Oh god. Watching that stuff live, it was entirely predictable that America would be the land of hot takes for a week straight.
In a way, the Academy is so upset about it; and I’m a member of the Academy. If they ask me, more people are talking about the Oscars than they have in 20 years! So I don’t know, maybe it was good for next year’s ratings?
Some thought it was staged because of that. But as a film fan, I think they should try to make it more about the art. Stop going for lame stand-up comedy, variety show, or whatever it is. It kind of bothered me when they took away the technical categories, too.
Well, I don’t get why I’m even allowed to vote for sound editing. How do I know what they had to work with? Really the best sound editor would be the one who had the lowest budget [laughs], so you don’t notice the sound editing, you know?
I don’t mind that [the Academy Awards show] is always long. I think they should have one host, it adds continuity through the whole thing. The only idea I didn’t care for this year was singing and dancing during the obituaries [laughs]. Or if you’re going to do it, have movie stars in “Dawn of the Dead” outfits. Or impersonators of the people who died, maybe, dancing. See if I was producing the show, I would go to a different extreme.
Yeah, I just can’t. It’s so formulaic.
But it’s always formulaic, that’s the Oscars. Cliches to remain popular have to stick to those clichés in a way. The difference is that when the Oscars were young, everybody saw the same movies. Now it’s like the Billboard Top 10 list, ten different genres … I work to watch all the movies. I’m fair. I do watch them all even though there are ones I know I’m going to hate. I know they’re Oscar bait. And I pick my ten best list in Art Forum every year; usually none of them are Oscar contenders.
I love reading your favorite movie list. Read it every year and usually discover something. Back to a previous question, I was trying to think who’s the last group it’s ok to openly make fun of without fearing cancellation. All I could come up with were Boomers and redheads.
[Laughs] In my show, I go into who I want to cancel. I’m joking about that in a way. Just because I don’t like something, doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be able to see it or watch it or anything. That’s freedom of speech. We have to put up with the worst obscenity. I always say you should be able to yell fire in a crowded theater. I know that’s ludicrous. But I believe the extremes of free speech are what keep us free. Even though extremes on both ends are probably fairly hideous.
That’s why Noam Chomsky used to testify on behalf of Holocaust deniers, and he’s Jewish.
Exactly. And so did the ACLU at one point, they argued for Nazis to march. I don’t think they would today. But they did.
I can remember being a child and seeing that book “Truly Tasteless Jokes”  at school. That was a hugely popular New York Times bestseller and it has some really horrible, repugnant stuff in there.
Yeah. The one I remember before that, because I’m old, was “Sick Jokes.” And then there was “Sick, Sick, Sick Jokes.” That’s about as funny as an iron lung, that kind of stuff. That was a huge influence on me. And Mad magazine, which had some of that too. “Tasteless Jokes” came later, but it’s the same genre.
I looked to see if that book was banned now; apparently the “Truly Tasteless” author has become an activist against ageism.
Hey, I’m against ageism too. Old chickens make great soup, I’ve always said.
Which artists do you think will carry the filth torch forward?
I don’t know if anyone needs to. I think mostly Europeans. Gaspar Noé, Lars von Trier might be one. “Climax” is great, it’s like “The Red Shoes” on acid. I love that movie.
I promised myself I’d try to avoid this, because you once told me every time you’ve ever talked to anyone in Richmond, they mention Dirt Woman. But it seems appropriate to ask if you ever got to see the documentary, “Spider Mites of Jesus”?
Yes, I did see it, and it was kind of amazing. She’s not real likable in parts. They reveal stuff about her that would make people less likely to fondly remember her. So I did like it because it was warts and all. They did a good job.
When we were teenagers, it was common to run into Donnie on the streets and he would usually say something like, “I’ll suck yo d–k for a dolla.” To all of us.
Well now, who is going to carry Dirt Woman’s torch?
Nobody. I don’t think Richmond is originally weird like that anymore. VCU has taken over, there are chain restaurants. That area around there is totally different from when you first brought your movies to the Biograph.
Well, we’ll see. I’m going to have relatives there listening to me talk about filthy things, which will be odd. Richmond was always a supportive audience for my films from the beginning. So I thank them for letting me get away with this for 50 years.
“False Negative: An Evening with John Waters” takes place at the Byrd Theatre on Sunday, May 1. Doors are at 7 p.m. There will not be signing at this event. All books and posters will be pre-signed by Waters. The show is a benefit for the Byrd Theatre and the Virginia Children’s Book Festival. Visit makeoutcreek.com for tickets.