The anti-arthouse maverick has spent a career elevating bad taste to high art. At his insane Baltimore home, the Pope Of Trash lets loose on hitchhiking, mugshots and adult babies
Taken from the winter 2014 issue of Dazed:
Would you pick up the Pope of Trash? In his hitchhiking odyssey Carsick, the legendary film provocateur John Waters turns away from the chicken-fucking, egg-sucking and shit-eating of his movies to something even weirder: the general public. “Hitchhiking is never a good experience in movies,” the Hairspray (1988) and Pink Flamingos (1972) director says of his epic journey from Baltimore to San Francisco, documented in the disgustingly funny memoir. “But I learned that I could take a challenge and create my own adventure.” In a long career spent elevating bad taste to high art, it’s one of his wildest rides to date.
Why did you want to revive the lost art of hitchhiking?
John Waters: Well, I never forgot hitchhiking. I used to hitchhike home from school when I was young with my parents’ approval – oddly enough it wasn’t a bad thing to do if you were in Catholic or private school.
Before you get to what really happened in the book, you imagine the best and worst possible scenarios...
John Waters: That I would have sex in a demolition derby car, and fall in love with a knife salesman! Actually, I did have a boyfriend once that was a knife salesman, but he was an unsuccessful one. Who could be a successful door-to-door knife salesman today? I mean, can you imagine if a stranger rings at your door and says, “Yes, I’m selling butcher knives,” and comes in like the Egg Man (a character from Pink Flammingos) and opens a case. What person is going to let you in the house to do that?
Who’s been your favourite celebrity of recent years?
John Waters: Well, I’m obsessed by Katherine Russell, the wife of the Boston Marathon bomber, who died. She’s already remarried and had a child! I know people that say, “God, she has a boyfriend and I can’t find one! How’d she get one?”
It was insane how the bomber (Tamerlan Tsarnaev) became a pin-up as well.
John Waters: Well, that happens in America a lot. I think the press made some of that up, because he was on the cover of Rolling Stone, and there was the mugshot that he looked handsome in. His mugshot makes him look kind of innocent and sweet. Kind of. But, I mean, look at Myra Hindley’s mugshot! That should be the ad for every beauty product, because if she’d got her roots done she wouldn’t have gotten as big and notorious as she did. That picture – and what she did – kept her in jail till she died.
Have you ever had your mugshot taken in real life?
John Waters: I was arrested in a drive-in movie once for underage drinking, but this was in 1969 so it may be that they didn’t keep it on file. But there was a fake one of me that I did for a Christmas card one year with a Santa hat on. I went down to the police department and asked if they would do it and they said, “Yeah, except we don’t do it that way anymore, we do it on the computer.” So they got out the old machine, the kind where you actually take a real photo, and did it that way for me so I had a vintage card.
When you started making your early movies like Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964), did you think of them as a political statement?
John Waters: Well that film was a Ku Klux Klan guy marrying a white girl and a black guy, so I guess that’s a political statement, sure. All humour is political. But the morals are correct in my movies. Divine was just living with her outsider family in peace (in Pink Flamingos) until she was challenged by somebody that was jealous of her. What we were doing was making fun of liberal and hippy humour – even though I’m a bleeding heart liberal and the people in my audience were hippies.
If you were making a satire about liberals today in America, what would you send up?
John Waters: Well, I certainly did in A Dirty Shame (2004) – basically, how far is too far when accepting every possible sexual minority? I might draw the line at adult babies – I think they’re disgusting. Lock those fuckers up! But then people say, “Well, wasn’t that what Edith Massey was in Pink Flamingos, or Carroll Baker in Baby Doll (1956)?” Well yeah, they were. But it didn’t lead to a 300lb man in diapers with a baby bottle and a hard-on! Have I ever gone home with somebody who’s in a diaper? No, thank god – I’m not a “mommy”. That’s what they call faghags of the baby movement – and in the bear movement they’re called “Goldilocks”.
In Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters (1986, republished in 2003), you list 118 magazines you subscribe to. Is that still the case?
John Waters: No, they all went out of business! I used to have a subscription to Jet – it was an upper-lower class black magazine, but I followed it to see Aretha Franklin’s outfits. They had a picture of her every week, and the dresses she designed make Mahogany look like Chanel. (laughs)
Which websites do you like to check?
John Waters: I like Chaturbate. It’s people jerking off on camera – but you can see they’re in their parents’ bedrooms and stuff! The other one is Lurid Digs – that one is funny, it’s mean reviews of interiors in gay pornos. And there’s a Warhol website that’s just a 24-hour video stream of his grave.
Oh, really? So it’s like Empire.
John Waters: Yeah. It’s the best Warhol movie ever.
Do you use the internet for dating?
John Waters: Are you kidding? No, I can’t do that. But I always see things that say, “Come on over, we’ll watch some John Waters movies.” What would they do if I said, “OK, I got them all! I’ll be right over”? (laughs)
“How far is too far when accepting every possible sexual minority? I might draw the line at adult babies – I think they’re disgusting. Lock those fuckers up!” – John Waters
Which of your movies do you think is the best to watch on a romantic night?
John Waters: That’s a good one. Maybe none of them. A lot of people tell me they met on their first date with Pink Flamingos, and these are people that have been married and have tattoos of it and everything. It’s the worst or the best possible date movie possible – it either totally works or they never speak to you again. I guess I’d say go for broke, try that! You might as well not pussy around.
It’s quite something to watch before you’ve even got to first base.
John Waters: Although first base now, from what I read, in heterosexual junior high, is a blowjob – which I find so bizarre. And they never say whether you swallow or not, which I think makes a big difference on safety. But does the guy eat out the girl? They never say they do that. All straight men in junior high are “trade” now for girls. Well when I was young, a blowjob was after a home run – that was like fifth base.
Have you thought about where you’d like your grave?
John Waters: I’ve already bought it, yeah. It’s where Divine is – me and Mink (Stole) are also getting buried there. I’ve got a double plot in case I find somebody else who I want to be buried with, or I want to steal Pasolini’s body or something.
If you were ever to do a biopic of the original Dreamlanders – Divine, Mink Stole, Edith Massey – who would you want to play them?
John Waters: Oh, that’s not so far off base. I’ve had people who are interested in doing that now. Matthew Gray Gubler could play me. Steve Buscemi could certainly play me if he was my age now. Who would play Divine? It would probably be a straight, fat male actor and they would say how brave he was to play that part. I wouldn’t like it, but that’s the way Hollywood works today.
You’re renowned as a party host. What are your tips for throwing a great one?
John Waters: Well, I have a big Christmas party and I throw a birthday party every ten years. If I’m going to do it, I’ll do a good one. It’s all about guest list, it’s the only thing that matters. It should be completely mixed with every type of person, all sexualities and all races and everything so there’s something for everybody. Even if it’s just to flirt.
When you leave, do you favour a French exit or do you say goodbye?
John Waters: Oh no; I move very, very properly. I find the host and say goodbye, and I usually send a handwritten thank you note through the mail. I think email thank you notes are kind of low-class. The one thing that I find really rude is sympathy notes on an email – if someone dies, you cannot do that.
What are your ambitions for 2015?
John Waters: I don’t have any ambitions, all of my dreams came true ten or 20 years ago. My ambition is to keep leading a life where I can tell stories everyday, for my job, and have a good personal life with friends who I’ve had forever. I think, in my career, I’ve been understood. Nobody liked my movies for ten years (after their initial release) but people still came.
Are you done with movies at this point?
John Waters: Who knows? I mean, if I am (done), they’re all out there and you can easily find them. But I had a meeting about a movie on Friday, so who knows? Whether I’ll make one again I don’t know. But I’ll definitely write another book. I’ll do something again. It doesn’t matter to me which one. They’re all the same to me, whether making a book or making a movie, so whichever one happens next will be it.
Do you ever get tired of the Pope of Trash nickname?
John Waters: No, because William Burroughs gave it to me! And I’ve got so many other ones that I can fall back on – The Duke of Dirt, The Prince of Puke. But I don’t walk around my house dressed like the Pope of Trash – I’m not sitting here dressed up with an ermine cloak and a crown on that says ‘P’. Maybe I will be when I get to my 70s.
Carsick is out now
In cover image John wears linen caban jacket by Burberry Prorsum; cotton trousers by Comme des Garçons; sunglasses by Beausoleil; scarf his own