(photo credit: R. Teri Memolo)
John Waters began his film career in the 60s while making underground movies with his friends in Baltimore, Maryland. Many in his core group of pranksters (known as The Dreamlanders) found mainstream success; Emmy-award-winning casting agent Pat Moran, production designer/art director Vincent Peranio, actress Mink Stole, actress-turned talk show host Ricki Lake, and the disturbing drag queen Divine were all nurtured by the grit of Baltimore and grime of Waters’ imagination. And while the talent of his friends comes as no surprise to Waters, his own success may seem unlikely to some. Consider the International Movie Database plot summaries alone: “Dawn Davenport goes from loving schoolgirl to crazed mass murderer” (Female Trouble), “sandwich shop employee becomes overnight sensation in the art world” (Pecker), “a family of rednecks and family of swingers battle for the title of ‘Filthiest People Alive’ (Pink Flamingos), “an uptight, middle-aged woman turns into a sex addict after getting hit in the head” (A Dirty Shame).
The artist who was once dubbed “the Pope of Trash” by author William S. Burroughs is also the mastermind behind Hairspray, a musical about overweight teenager Tracy Turnblad, who dances her way to celebrity and causes quite a commotion by attempting to racially integrate an American Bandstand-type of tv show in early 60s-era Baltimore. The original 1988 cinematic release was reincarnated as a play in 2002, almost instantly moving to Broadway, touring the United States, and winning twelve Tony Awards in 2003, including ‘Best Musical.’ The film’s 2007 remake became a blockbuster hit featuring John Travolta, Queen Latifah, Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken, among others.
The theatrical version of his film Cry-Baby was nominated for four Tony Awards in 2008, and will tour nationally in Fall of 2009. Waters will appear at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival on March 14th and at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival on May 1st. He is also currently writing a book entitled, “Role Models.” The following interview was done with him at his home in Baltimore.
SK: It must have been so much fun back in the day running around Baltimore making films guerrilla-style with your friends.
JW: You never think of making movies as fun—it was work—it was hard—I didn’t know how to do it…things wouldn’t turn out technically and such. It’s fun in hindsight. And while we were doing it in those early days it was way more like committing a political action in the 60s than it was making a movie. There were no agents, no headshots. But it was my friends. It was almost like a theater or repertory group. It worked like the Hollywood system—the ones the audience liked the best got into it for real, got bigger parts. Some decided they didn’t want to do it. Some hated the fame from it. And some moved on to other things in their lives, and others went into show business.
SK: Did you ever have a plan to “get to Hollywood”/go big-time?
JW: It was impossible to ‘go Hollywood’ then. I read Variety. The first time I ever went to LA, Multiple Maniacs premiered and the Manson trial, all the same day. I got a jaywalking ticket at Hollywood and Vine. I always thought that was a joke.
I followed the business always, but until Hairspray was a hit I never even thought about making a Hollywood movie. I didn’t know what ‘pitching’ was. But I had raised the money originally from my father. I paid him back by getting distribution deals somehow, by going around the country myself with the prints in the trunk of my car, and I paid him back. Then I went to New Line very early, when they had about five people, and wnet with them for pink Flamingos. Then I’d still borrow the money—even part of the Polyester money I raised myself. Desperate Living I did completely. Everybody got their money back for every movie I’ve ever made. But I didn’t know any rich people then. Now I know lots of them—thank god I don’t have to ask them for money. Now you go to a studio and at least you don’t feel you owe any money. They’ve never called me and asked for it back.
SK: Did you know things were going to stay “Baltimore-centric?”
JW: When you’re twenty-something, you don’t think you’re gonna be doing what you’re doing when you’re 60, I don’t think. But I was lucky enough. I had no education. I mean, I got thrown out of school—my parents had wanted me to go—but I was too angry and nuts then, really, to do that. But I did make the movies. I somehow pulled that off. I don’t know how I did either, but somehow I did. So it wasn’t like I was an idiot savant in Baltimore, which I think some people believe. I certainly read Variety when I was making Mondo. I knew about the underground film business, which was the only thing I was trying to get in at the time. Then I learned about midnight movies, then video came out, which changed everything. But I ran around the country to film festivals. So I always tried to make them work because I wanted to make the next one. BUT, at the same time, did I think Hairspray would get the Tony? No. But I didn’t NOT think it would—I didn’t think it would be impossible. It had been optioned twice before.
SK: What did your parents do for a living?
JW: My father started a company himself called the Fire Alarm Corporation, which my brother runs now. They sell fire protection equipment. When I was younger we would always go to fires. That’s when I was close with my father—watching peoples’ houses burn. He wasn’t a pyromaniac. That is how we bonded, because when he took me to fishing or sporting events, we were in trouble. But fires was another thing. We’d be sitting at the dinner table and hear sirens and we’d all run to the window, and me and my father would get in the car & chase fire engines. One of the Pink Flamingo reviews said obviously I was a pyromaniac because of how I lingered on the trailer burning—but I just didn’t know enough to cut it. I really should have made it shorter. It wasn’t pyromania and I wasn’t jerking off watching it. Maybe somebody was.
SK: Were they supportive?
JW: They were scared and supportive. And looking back on it, they were certainly way more supportive than I ever realized. They were completely humiliated by the neighbors and the press—I mean, my parents are not bohemian—but yes, they were very very supportive. They gave me money—I think I was so shocked that they let me borrow money for Mondo. For Pink Flamingos he did give me $10,000, which back then was a lot of money, and I paid five back with Multiple Maniacs—I started to pay him back—and then he said ‘you don’t have to pay me back, this is your college education, and don’t ask again.’ Which is pretty great. Especially for this movie that they’ve never seen to this day. Why make them see it? It’s so mean. They never wanted to know. I joke that we have this family ring and it’s the “D of Denial” and we wear it proudly.
SK: Would you ever leave Baltimore?
JW: I live in airports. This is where my residence is, where my business is, where I come to get ideas, it’s what inspires me, but if I had to live anywhere all the time I’d go crazy. My idea of a really great vacation is just to come home. I have to work—I’m a carney. I have to do that the rest of my life. No matter how successful you are, you have to tour the rest of your life.
SK: Had you met Warhol?
JW: I didn’t know him, but yes. I didn’t meet him ’til after Pink Flamingos. I knew all the other people, but he had stopped going to Max’s by the time I got there. I met Andy the first time he decided to have my crowd up to The Factory. So we went, about 10 of us—but he hid in the closet the whole time. I think he was really scared to meet more freaks. Then he watched the movie and took me in the back and said he really really liked it. And that he would pay for Female Trouble. I said no—I didn’t say anything, I don’t know why—I didn’t know who was gonna pay for it—but then it would have been I guess Andy Warhol’s Female Trouble. He was very nice. And then he took Fellini. He was very helpful. He always wanted to gossip. He’d be like “did you have sex with Tabb Hunter?’ I’d be like “No, Andy, and if I did I wouldn’t tell you!” He was just strange. I mean, you didn’t know him, like Bridgit and all the people that really knew him. Bridgit knew him the best, I think. So when he died I put Bridgit in one of my movies as an homage to his factory system of movie stars.
SK: But he was an influence?
JW: Sure. If you’ve seen the new Jack Smith movie, you’ll see Andy got half his ideas from Jack Smith. Kenneth Anger. Underground movies were the thing I wanted to do. That came out when I was about 18, and was for a short time very big. So I would run to New York and go to The Bridge and The Gate [film culture]. Hollywood would have never even…it took a long time for that to change, and really Blair Witch is what changed it, because then every studio in the world was looking for someone making a movie in the middle of nowhere. The next sensation will be a kid who makes a movie that makes some money on the internet somehow.
SK: Do you watch YouTube?
JW: Sometimes. If people send me something from it I’ll watch it, or if I read about it I’ll look. The one I hate is MySpace—there’s people who say ‘thank you so much for writing me on MySpace’ and I never wrote you on MySpace! It’s a fake person that says they’re me. I’ve never once even looked at MySpace. It’s not me! So don’t think any of the celebrities are on there. They’re not real. There’s no way I’m doing that. And I don’t ever answer mail if it comes to my house. Most of my fan stuff comes through Atomic Books, and I love that they do that. I do answer it if I like some of that.
SK: Do people bother you in Baltimore, or ask you to put them in movies?
JW: It’s not bothering me, if they like what I’m doing and want to tell me. Not so much wanting me to put them in movies that much. More like those fucking cellphone pictures. That’s the bane of your existence. A lot of good it did Mel Gibson.
Now because of ‘Til Death do Us Part, I have a new audience—people who have no idea and only know me from that and Chucky. The salt of the earth.
SD: How involved were you with the Hairspray remake?
JW: Involved enough that they asked me to write John Travolta a letter to talk him into it, which I did. I was on the set, I played the flasher. Adam Schadler I took to Baltimore and showed him around the town. A lot of people who worked on it came to Baltimore. I know the producers at New Line. I didn’t want to direct—I read the script, I like the script. I talked to the writers. I have seen the whole movie and think it’s really good.
SD: Have you been surprised at the remake or how it came about?
JW: I was surprised when I went to Toronto, pulled up to the set, and there was a 75 million dollar version of Baltimore. It looked like Baltimore. There’s a neighborhood there called the Hammer. And I shot a tv show and thought “this looks like Baltimore” and later saw an ad for Hairspray the movie, which they’re shooting there so it was really confusing. The whole thing is surprising that there is a new version of it, but it’s reinvented again, which is good. If they just shot the play, it would die, and then the movie would just die. Every time it’s just going to something new.
SD: How do you feel about being called an icon?
JW: It’s very flattering. But maybe that means old. Can you be a young icon? I’m 61. I don’t mind. I don’t mind being old, even. I get great respect, and I think I’ve done it by not changing much. I think I’ve sort of done what I did from the very first day I picked up a camera. You have to always reinvent it-I always keep up with the times. I never look back, I look forward. I have young friends. I listen to young music. I go to movies—I see everything in the theater, I don’t rent DVDs or videos. So I’m still interested. I never think “my time was a better time.” I’m glad I saw the lunacy of the 60s, because you’ll never see that—in our lifetime, none of us will ever have sex like that—there was only about five years of that, and that’ll never come back while you’re alive or your children are alive, because of AIDS, really. Well in the old days, in the 30s people died of Syphilis. There’s always some new thing, just when you beat one. Someone else said this, but basically the day you’re born, nature is conspiring to kill you. So, I’m glad I saw those radical times. But I don’t think it’s better. Some of the kids have just as much fun now. I always thought raves were like riots. We used to go a different city every weekend to go to riots, and they go to different cities every weekend to trip. We’d trip at the riots! Then you’re supposed to alarm everybody and you have run and fight with cops.
SD: Do you have icons of your own?
JW: Sure. They’re usually writers: Tennessee Williams—I recently wrote the introduction to his memoirs, Jeanet, Kitty Carlisle, Elvis—when he first came out, he was scary to people. The twitching alien—nobody had ever seen anything like that. Tina Turner with Ike, Jane Mansfield. Mostly I’d say writers (James Curdy) and artists. Warhol.
SK: I see you as a very ‘punk rock’ filmmaker.
JW: Yeah, I love punk! You know Pink Flamingos was a punk movie before I knew there was such a thing. In the very beginning of punk in England they used that image of Divine with a Mohawk and they didn’t know what the movie was—it was on a Vivienne Westwood t-shirt with Sex Pistols on it. I just did Steve Jones’ radio show and he was really funny and laid back and really has the best attitude about the whole thing, I think. I’ve seen Johnny Rotten and he looks just great—I think he ages alarmingly well, as he should—he’s like the Phantom of the Opera. I always liked punk rock—I still do. I feel way more comfortable at a punk rock bar than a gay bar.
I listen to Fungus on FM in the car all the time.
SK: What do you put on your ‘stache?
JW: Maybelline Velvet Black. The cheapest kind of make-up you can ever buy.
SK: Do you want to talk a little about Fruitcake?
JW: I don’t talk much about things I haven’t done yet, but it’s a terribly wonderful children’s Christmas adventure. And it is a children’s movie, but a John Waters Christmas movie, kind of the one I wish I’d seen when I was 14. It is mostly all children in it. It’s for everybody. It’s a satire of a children’s movie. It’s in Baltimore. The script is totally done and we’re raising the money. It’s a development deal—I wrote it, I have my whole soundtrack ready, and now we’ll see…I have to raise the money to do it.
SK: I wanted to ask you a little about growing up gay in Baltimore in the 50s & 60s.
JW: I don’t know if I was gay in the 50s…I guess I always was, but I never got along with gay people in the first place—I still don’t. I like minorities that don’t like their own minorities. ‘I can’t even get along with them!’ The first time I went to a gay bar in Washington called The Hut, or The Chicken Hut, and there were telephones on every table and people called and go “hi, I’m at table three.” And I thought ‘I may be queer but I ain’t this.’ And I still feel that sometimes. They’re so straight, some gay people—straighter than my parents. I mean, not a lot, and young ones aren’t so much. I like a mixed crowd. Certainly some of my best friends in the world are gay, and many aren’t though. Half my friends are straight, too. I like it mixed. I hate separatism—I really do—no matter what.
Shawna Kenney is the author of Imposters (Mark Batty Publisher) and the award-winning memoir I Was a Teenage Dominatrix (Last Gasp). Her work has been published in Alternative Press, the LA Weekly, Swindle Magazine, Juxtapoz, and the Florida Review, among others. Her essays appear in My First Time: A Collection of First Punk Show Stories (AK Press), Pills, Thrills, Chills, and Heartache: Adventures in the First Person (Alyson Books), and Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class (Seal Press), among others.
Rosina Photography is owned and operated by R. Teri Memolo, a photographer in Washington, DC. Teri serves as a photographic archaeologist of street and music culture in books such as Streetworld and Swindle and Urb magazines. Currently, Teri is working on several projects. She is photographing and teaching photography to young people and she is working on several upcoming exhibitions of her work.