March 21, 2011
William S. Burroughs has led me many places, including to John Waters.
And when Yony Leyser, director of the excellent documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, suggested I invite John Waters to Lake Forest College, my first thought was, why hadn’t I come up with that?
Not only is Waters a fearless director whose work continues to push against the conventions of the film industry and the values of middle-class America, but his films have also proved a touchstone for viewers who delight in the aerosol theatrics of Hairspray (1988) only to be retroactively unnerved by the shock tactics of the trash-cult classic Pink Flamingos (1972).
My first solid memory of Waters as pop-culture figure was his character on a 1997 episode of “The Simpsons,” where he plays an openly gay collectible shop owner who befriends the typically clueless Homer. This is my first solid memory.
Really, my first encounter with Waters’ particular brand of American cynicism was when he briefly took over the ancient amusement park in my sort-of hometown of Allentown, PA: Dorney Park. I was too young to recall anything other than that some older friends showed up in hopes of playing extras in a film called Hairspray. I did not see the movie upon its release, and forgot about the filming.
Years later, I would spend a summer working the Tilt-A-Whirl and Enterprise rides (both spinning monstrosities) at Dorney Park, sweating in blue-and-red polyester, and spending most of those long days pouring cat litter on vomit. My boss had a glass eye. I watched people scratch their private parts in the sticky heat. I lived, for a short summer, in Waters’ version of an amusement park, the more aptly Titled Acres.
Sometimes, I’m not sure I ever left.
In advance of Waters’ visit to Lake Forest College as the keynote speaker for our 7th Annual Lake Forest Literary Festival, he was kind enough to discuss many things with me for this Nervous Breakdown interview.
Davis: You are visiting Lake Forest College on March 24 for a full-house engagement of your traveling one-man show, “This Filthy World.” How excited are you? You probably know that we have a course called “John Waters and American Culture” (taught by Liz Benacka).
John: Which I think is great. When I went to school, they would call the police if you had my films. So things have radically changed, believe me. I got thrown out of every school I ever went to, practically, and now they have schools exactly for kids like me. Things have really gotten a lot better.
Davis: I think there’s something interesting about that. Your assistant told me that she would have earned a Ph.D in “John Waters’ Studies” by now.
John: Yes, she could be the one to grade the papers.
Davis: Maybe Liz will send them to her. Can these college tours become a bit repetitive? Do you ever feel like, Oh my God, where am I? I’ve done this a thousand times already.
John: No, because every time I do it, I rewrite it. I always upgrade it, I always change it, and, it’s never the same. I mean, when I do a show seven nights in a row, sometimes [the performance] is like being in a play. I don’t use any notes, yet every word is completely written. After you do it five or six nights in a row, you can almost catch yourself doing the show like you are another person…you’re thinking about your laundry or you’re thinking about something personal and then you snap back in, because if you don’t really concentrate you’ll lose your place. I call these my “John Waters impersonation tours,” but it’s also my anti Alzheimer’s exercise.
Davis: I’m Jewish, and often think of that bit by Moses Maimonides, something akin to, “every Jew is an actor playing a Jew.”
John: I have to tell you my only Jewish thing is that whenever I write an email on my Blackberry I and sign it, “Best ‘JW,’” it corrects to “JEW” in all capital letters, which is really embarrassing. Sometimes, I’m writing an agent and saying “thank you so much for your offer, and ‘Best JEW.’” Thank God I catch it every time. My other friend is named “Rach” and she always signs “RX” and it auto corrects to “Sex.”
Davis: Maybe if you could combine the two, best “JEW Sex,” you’d be right in there.
John: Yeah, that would be true, yeah.
Davis: In the past few months, I’ve seen you on “Saturday Night Live” introducing the sketch “The Creep” by The Lonely Island (Andy Samberg and company).
John: It has 13.5 million hits, and that was a couple of days ago.
Davis: You remind me of Vincent Price, in the whole demeanor of “The Creep” introduction.
John: I met him. There was a documentary…I can’t remember if it was VH1 or what it was on. They interviewed me and I said how much I liked Price and all great stuff and he called me. I was so shocked to hear Vincent Price on the phone. And then, after he died, I met his daughter. I liked the book that she wrote about him very much. I told her that I was trying to steal his career. She laughed.
Davis: Maybe you are on your way. I also recently saw you on Craig Ferguson, as did my father, who never watches that show. I recall your Justin Bieber anecdote about your appearing with him on “The Graham Norton Show.” Do you think that there’s a segment of the population that thinks of you as a pop-culture figure, rather than as a filmmaker or writer or visual artist?
John: I think most people know I make movies, but there are people…children come up to me and they only know me from “The Simpsons.” When I ride the subway in New York, people might only know me from being in the Chucky movie (Seed of Chucky ) and my show on Court TV called “Til Death Do Us Part” (2007). If I’m in a museum, they maybe only know me because of my Art Forum work. I don’t care. I cover all bases.
Davis: So you’re a Renaissance Man. A man of letters.
John: Well I didn’t say that. I mean that’s very nice you said that, but I think as long as all the different types of people in America know me for at least one thing, then I will always have a job.
Davis: I think you’re right about that. You are an excellent writer, as more than evident from your most recent book Role Models (2010). Ever think about writing a novel? Any fiction?
John: I haven’t. I think that’s probably the hardest thing to write. Every time I think up a fictitious story, it becomes a movie script. I know that they are very different, and God knows, plot is the hardest thing to write…but I read novels all the time.
Davis: How well read you are comes across in all of your essays, but certainly in Role Models. In the “Bookworm” chapter, you offer analyses of “John Waters Five Books You Should Read to Live a Happy Life If Something is Basically The Matter With You”—an all-fiction list. You are one of the few people I know who has read In Youth is Pleasure (1944) by Denton Welch. Did you come to that through knowing William S. Burroughs?
John: I know he was a fan.
Davis: He was a huge fan.
John: I found out later that Burroughs liked him. Maybe the first time Welch’s books were released in America, I read about him and I read his book, and I became obsessed by him and read the diaries and called his biographer and bought his self-portrait. The other one is in the National Portrait Gallery. I didn’t have that much money and it wasn’t cheap. He was really just an obsession from the moment I read him. I identified with him and thought what a great child he must have been and what a terrible thing that this accident happened (note: a fractured spine from bicycle accident, when Welch was 20), but what an amazing writer. Later, when I found out that William Burroughs liked him so much, it wouldn’t be the obvious writer you would pick for William Burroughs to love, actually.
Davis: Definitely not.
John: It startled me. You’d be surprised. Very few people know who Welch is, but the people who do are great people.
Davis: I’ll take that as a compliment. Burroughs wrote in his introduction to Queer (1985) that he felt possessed by Welch when working on The Place of Dead Roads (1983), the second book is his late-career Red Night Trilogy.
John: When I knew William, I don’t think we ever talked about that, that I can remember.
Davis: Do you re-read your favorite books or do you watch the same movie over and over again?
John: Rarely, but when I wrote Role Models, I certainly did read all five of those books again to make sure that I was right and that the books held up. And, they were even better than I imagined. I still cannot read Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies (1943) without laughing out loud. I’ve read that book many, many times. For movies, the ones I really love I like to watch with other people. You can’t do that with a book. I’m not going to read The Man who Loved Children (1940) to a date… I don’t usually have literary dates.
Davis: Imagine the setup for that. That would be a good movie scene.
John: I’ve done it with movies. I used the movie Boom (1968), that very failed Joseph Losey art film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (note: an adaption of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here). I’ve used that as a test on the first date, and if they don’t like it, it would be impossible.
Davis: I imagine most people who are dating you probably already know a little bit about your tastes.
John: As Tennessee Williams said, and this is the best line ever: “My type doesn’t know who I am.” If they are dating me for who I am, this is the very, very first thing I am suspicious about. I never date actors. I’ve never had a boyfriend who is in show business. I doubt I ever will.
Davis: Is this the appeal of remaining close to Baltimore, aside from all the weirdness of Baltimore, in the fact that you’re not surrounded by stars? You’re treated like a regular person. You can go to these bars that you write about in Role Models.
John: I know people who are tow truck drivers. I know people who work in funeral parlors. I know people who have different jobs. And they know what I do, and they are flattered that I’m interested in them maybe, but they don’t ask about it. They don’t really care. That’s just my job. Since my work is about observing people’s behavior, that is harder to do around famous people, especially around people in the movie business. I know how they act. That’s no mystery to me.
Davis: You wrote so eloquently in Role Models about your favorite books, I wonder if there are any books that you think are particularly bad? I ask only because I’m in the beginning of a project on “bad books.” You wrote about books you love, what’s something you don’t like?
John: I don’t read bad books. I’m sure there are millions of them. I think that I know enough about a book before I buy it that it would never be bad. I almost really like every book I read, because I know what the book will be. I know the writer, I know the subject matter I’m interested in, so I don’t think I could read one single book that’s bad. And I learned a long time ago: my place is to praise things that other people don’t like. As soon as I say something bad about somebody, I’ll be seated next to him or her at a dinner, and they will have read what I wrote.
Davis: You often cite the Burroughs’ quotation that you are the “Pope of Trash.” Burroughs’ books often use a blurb from Norman Mailer, “the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius.”Have you ever offered a blurb to someone that has been used over and over again?
John: I rarely give blurbs, but I do give them. I get asked so much that I’ve kind of stopped. Oh yes, Russ Meyer, for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), I said: “not the best movie ever made, but the best movie that ever will be made!” He used that over and over, even after he insulted me and made me his enemy. He still used it, which was really balls.
Davis: I think that fits with Meyer’s character. There’s something interesting about the type of film-making you and Meyer have in common. We’ve been screening your work at Lake Forest, and my favorite of your later movies is Cecil B. Demented (2000). I just love it. I think it’s fantastic.
John: I like it too. I think Steven’s Dorff is really good in it. I give Melanie Griffith great credit because it’s not easy to play a bad actress and do it well, and I think Melanie is a good actress. And she was a great sport making that movie. Look who’s in it. We have people that no one had heard of then: Mike Shannon, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Adrian Grenier. The supporting cast in that movie turned out to be really great.
Davis: In Pecker (1998) we have this naive hero who is taken into the world of high art, and in Cecil you have this maybe the too-smart-for-his-own-good hero who’s trying to storm into of high art. I see a dichotomy there.
John: Neither is me. I wasn’t naive ever. I got Variety when I was twelve. I wanted New York to come discover me, and with Cecil, I was an underground filmmaker who was obsessed, but Cecil has no sense of humor about himself at all. He was a Fascist. I guess I was a little bit of a Fascist, but hopefully a humorous one. So, neither Pecker nor Cecil is me, but certainly both of them are based on some things that happened to my life.
Davis: I’ve had students in the past who can come across as mini Cecils. They’ve read everything; they’ve seen every movie; they have these ideas on art that they think are more sophisticated than their peers. Do you think there are a lot of Peckers out there? Are there people in the art world or the movie business who just get sucked in, maybe not quite as wide-eyed as Pecker, but who really come from a place of innocence?
John: Well with Pecker…I believe there is, but only in the outsider art movement. Pecker actually was an outsider artist, even though I know that in real life the world of the outsider artist and the world of the contemporary artist are completely different. They do not intermix, so I didn’t want to make Pecker an outsider artist, because that’s a world I don’t participate in. Generally, there are very few real naive artists today that get celebrated in the contemporary art world.
Davis: It would be hard to be that person.
Davis: Cecil tells Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) to say the lines as he wrote them. Is this your practice as well? Was there any collaborative quality to the Dreamlander family, maybe in the early films?
John: There was collaboration but not on the dialogue. When we made Cecil, Steven Dorff said to me, “usually I want the director to let me change the dialogue, but this works because it’s so you.” Now I read recently that Ryan Gosling said that he loves a director who tells him to pay no attention to the script. Well, I felt like calling the Writers Guild and putting him on a hit list. I like him as an actor, but we wouldn’t work together well.
If I change anything, it’s during rehearsal. I always have a week of rehearsal (and some actors don’t like to rehearse), because that’s how I can work out the dialogue, to see if it’s going to change or if it doesn’t work. Generally, I do want the words to be said how I wrote them. Yes.
I remember the one point where Steven did this—and without my direction—but it really made me laugh because I think I do it too. When Cecil was shooting he was moving his lips along with the dialogue while his actors were speaking. I know I’ve done that. We didn’t even discuss that. He did it on his own and it was perfect.
Davis: So, the collaborative aspects of the films, maybe particularly in the early days, came from the set design, the makeup, and the “look” of the films?
John: The look, and the fact that these were brave actors who couldn’t go out in real life when we made these movies. They couldn’t exist looking like that. Divine with his hair shaved, with no eyebrows. Mink (Stole’s) hair dyed that color. Even when we made Hairspray, those hairdos were real. Ricki Lake just walked around with that giant beehive every day. These people were brave. They gave up their lives to make these movies. These movies were done like a political action, almost like a cell who made an action against taste.
Nobody sent me a resume. I didn’t get head shots. I didn’t deal with agents when we made Pink Flamingos. It was what used to be called an “action.” Even though when I look at that in hindsight, we never said any of those words when we were doing it. It was kind of group madness, and it was exciting and I look back on it with great thanks for the people that were brave enough to join me.
Davis: This leads to one of my questions about Role Models, particularly the chapter on former Manson Family member, Leslie Van Houten. This is a wonderfully written section of the book. You advocate, with compassion for the victims of the Manson murders, for Van Houten’s parole. Still, I admit to being surprised when I saw you write that you regretted, to some extent, having Divine take credit for the Manson murders in Multiple Maniacs (1969).
John: I regret that I showed absolutely no sympathy or respect to the victims’ families. Yes, I do regret that, and [I regret] that Manson is now a Halloween costume. I understand the outrage, I understand the LaBiancas when they say, “we had a good name, our family, we did not want to be notorious, we never wanted…” and I understand that now. I didn’t then, because I was so swept away by the case. I went to the trial. I was there when it all happened. To me, the theatrics of it overplayed the reality of the truth of the situation. So, I regret that I treated it in a punk rock way when there wasn’t even punk rock yet. And so, yes, I realize today that to dedicate those movies to Charles “Tex” Watson-who was totally out of his mind at the time-was irresponsible. Many people when they do their first works are irresponsible. Looking back on it, I cringe a little. Not at the movies themselves. Not at the movies themselves.
Davis: Yes, just at those elements. What do you think changed your mind? Getting older, knowing Leslie?
John: The main thing was teaching in prisons, because then I saw the reality of it. I met the parents of the people. I met the parents of the victims. I learned that this was real. This is not a drama on TV. This is not a true crime book. This is the truth, and once you’ve done something so terrible, how do you ever pay for it? And how about the people who were murdered? How can you ever expect them to understand forgiveness?
Davis: You’ve written that it would be hard to be shocking today. Have you ever considered doing so ironically, by making an earnest romantic comedy or making another low-budget DIY film?
John: Romantic comedies are the one genre I really hate. I’ve seen a few I like. There’s one called Love Songs (2007). It’s a French movie. Heartbeats (2010) I like, kind of. That’s a new one that’s out now. Even Kaboom (2010), in a way, is a romantic comedy. At the same time, I didn’t say that I’m trying to be shocking now. I think that’s the problem, because now people try too hard and it’s strained. There are still people that shock me, certainly Gaspar Noé’s movies shock me in a great way.
Davis: So it’s still possible for shock to happen, but maybe the problem is artists trying to deliberately shock, perhaps using tactics that are no longer shocking, without realizing the difference?
John: I always tried to use shock as a way to get you to see something different. In the same way that I hate jokes, but I like wit. I’m trying to use shock in a way to hopefully stop you in your tracks and make you laugh and then look at something differently.
Davis: I ask also because my recent novel Drain (2010) contains “aggressive” material that some have placed in the tradition of Burroughs and Kathy Acker. Thus, a few readers have told me it’s too aggressive, too overwhelming.
John: Well, no matter what, the sign of an amateur is to answer your critics. Don’t ever write a letter to a bad review because then, first of all, people didn’t even know about it the first time, maybe, and then the critic gets to answer you and put you down again. I learned a long time ago, only an amateur answers his critics. Read the bad reviews once, the good one’s twice, and put them all away and never look at them again. The only time a bad review works is when you think “that could be true a little bit,” and then you learn, and then you debate it next time. I do read reviews. I don’t believe people who say they don’t.
Davis: Did you ever, in your early days—your amateur days—answer a bad review?
John: We used them. Yes, we answered them by using them in the ads. Are you kidding? I built my early career on bad reviews. Those kind of bad reviews would not happen today, because all film critics are hip.
Davis: Maybe too hip?
John: Yeah, they are not going to rise up and say a film should be censored.
Davis: You’ve had frustration getting your movie Fruitcake made? Is this still a “live” project or have you moved on?
John: Well, I have a phone meeting tomorrow about it. You see? I’m still trying!
This interview would not have been possible without the incomparable hustle of Allie Early, my research assistant at Lake Forest College.