From cultural disruptor to revered novelist, John Waters has gone from a pop trash cinema icon to a well respected orator and whip smart raconteur, amassing dozens of awards and accolades along the way. We care what he has to say and, arguably, there isn’t a single person who wouldn’t benefit from the life advice that Waters, luckily, is happy to share with us on the page or on the stage.
The latest honor bestowed on Waters comes in the form of a 20th Anniversary celebration of his ode to indie movie terrorists everywhere, Cecil B. Demented, at the 2020 virtual edition of the Salem Horror Fest. In one of his longest interviews in some time, we spoke about the lasting impact of that film, what John Waters movie to show your kids, the Godfather of Gore H.G. Lewis and his influence on Spielberg, Huey Newton and even the Teamsters. (And if you make it to the end, you’ll be rewarded with Waters revealing what movie he’d like to finally get made.)
Read on Dreamlanders!
Dread Central: I imagine you picking up a golden phone and sitting on a throne but I think I might be picturing your book cover from Mr. Know It All.
John Waters: I have, actually, a landline but it’s got many extensions. I have a cell phone but when I’m at my desk and I’m workin’ I like a landline better because the cell phone sometimes, I’m in an old house, so it’s not as good. It’s not gold, I promise you. When I was a teenager I had a red phone I thought that was pretty hot.
DC: I’m in San Francisco right now and you have a history here.
JW: I was there, too, recently. I have an apartment there.
DC: I know you were always doing the Burger Boogaloo.
JW: Oh yes, I always did this. I had 32 speaking engagements I lost this year, so far.
DC: Are you trying to do anything virtually?
JW: No, I don’t because then all you have to do is push send and it’s over. People have it for free forever.
DC: That’s a good point. Are you missing being out on the stage?
JW: Well, I’m still writing all the time. I’m writing my next book, I’m doing what I always do. I do have some gigs like that and they are virtual but they’re more discussions and meet and greets and that kind of stuff. My whole new show, no. That’s going to be rewritten once it begins again. Everything has to be rewritten because of what’s happened.
DC: When do you think you’re too young to watch a John Waters movie and are you ever too old?
JW: I look back and one time my friend Pat [Moran], we had a birth party for her young daughter and showed Pink Flamingos. We’d be in prison today for that. The kids, they were screamin’ and laughing. In a way, it is a movie for babies, like eating shit, that’s what babies do! And Divine was like a clown to them, they weren’t frightened by Divine. I look back and I think, ‘What were we thinking?’ It very much depends on the child and how they were brought up. I certainly would not push Pink Flamingos first on a child definitely. I’m not a sadist. I think Hairspray and Cry-Baby are fine for any age. I think Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble and Multiple Maniacs, I’d probably hold off until they were…depending on what they were like! If they’re easily bruised mentally then, no, but if they’re wild cool kids then, fine. Depends how they’ve been raised.
DC: I guess it’s up to the parents to find that gateway John Waters movie but it’s nice to at least have some recommendations from the man himself.
JW: Usually, that would be Hairspray. For many of them, it’s Cry-Baby and this one girl told me recently she got punished because, and this surprised me, her mother found her and her friend, they did save their tears in a jar and drank them. And their mother was, maybe correctly, alarmed.
DC: That’s kind of weirdly sweet though.
JW: Yeah, so that was a scene in the movie, one of the only scenes that Universal really wanted me to cut but they let me keep it. It is creepy to cry and save your tears and drink them.
DC: What was the first thing you remember photographing or filming? Was it more avant-gard? Was it more filthy?
JW: I don’t really use the word avant-gard, to me, that always meant boring. And pretentious. The first film I ever shot was Hag in a Black Leather Jacket and I was in high school and it was an underground movie that I’d read about from Jonas Mekas’ column in the Village Voice and it was a film about an 8mm movie camera. I didn’t know there was editing. I just thought you shot in order and did the shots, which I did. I didn’t realize how Lars Von Trier I was way ahead of my time. It was Dogma 95 almost. That’s probably the first thing. I’d never had a camera before that. I never had a still camera, it seems like nobody did then.
DC: You said you’re writing right now. You could write a self help book about the art of the hustle.
JW: My last book Mr. Know It All is a self help book. It is advice on how to negotiate your way through the movie world, the art world, everything.
DC: Do you care more about film critics or book critics?
JW: To me, I’ve built a career on bad reviews with films but you couldn’t do that anymore. I don’t think you could ever build a [career] on bad book reviews. Well, no, Jackie Suzanne, it didn’t help her. Scandalized reviews in the old days but all the critics are too smart to give you that these days, you know what I mean? Even if they hate it. I think a mean book review would hurt more.
DC: I can see why. It’s more personal. If we could talk about your acting a little, I loved seeing you as William Castle in Feud.
JW: It was fun even though I’m not heavy but they said it didn’t matter. I was really happy that William Castle’s daughter wrote me and told me how proud she was I played her Dad. That made me feel good.
DC: Yeah, I referred to him once as ‘Hollywood’s sneaky uncle’ and his daughter Terry reached out to me because she was touched by the article.
JW: Yeah, and she remade all his movies.
DC: Yeah right, Thirteen Ghosts was one of the first ones.
JW: Yeah, and House On Haunted Hill and they were hits, too!
DC: It’s cool that Fidget in Cecil B. Demented has the William Castle tattoo.
JW: Yes, exactly, right. Yes, thank you. If everyone had a tattoo it would make dating easier. You wouldn’t need all these apps, you’d just show your tattoo on your arm of your favorite director and that’ll get you through the first three dates.
DC: Very true. Did you and the crew get any tattoos for Demented or on any film? Do you have tattoos?
JW: I have no tattoos, I’m proudly tattooless. If I ever was going to get one it’d be like Popeye’s anchor, the most cliché pitiful tattoo ever.
DC: Now the branding in Cecil B. Demented almost has a little more play now because of that HBO series The Vow.
JW: Yeah, I know! (laughs) The branding thing. It’s true. A lot of things in that movie don’t look so far fetched these days. I can almost imagine the “Sprocketholes” being out and raiding theaters. Of course not now because there are no theaters open to raid. But the more that the 100 million dollar big budget movies made for China take over, the more it’s going to lead to that. Only now, I don’t know if there’ll be enough followers or any of the theaters are going to reopen to go harass them.
DC: It also makes me think about drive-ins right now…and that makes me thing of H.G. Lewis. I know that you worked with him on Blood Feast 2.
JW: When Herschel came to Baltimore to the Maryland Film Festival, he spoke at the drive-in here. I recently, this year, did two events at the drive-in. I did one at the Provincetown Film Festival where I presented Night of the Lepus and Kitten With A Whip and then for the New York Film Festival I presented Art Hell Night at the Drive-In and I showed Salo and Gaspar Noe’s Climax which was really bizarre to see at a drive-in. I sounded very much like Cecil B. Demented speaking from a projection booth.
DC: You didn’t have a megaphone though?
JW: No, I didn’t. I never had one of them ever in my life! And I never made that cliché thing where you hold your fingers up and look. I think lightening would strike, you know, where you hold your thumbs to make the frame that you look through.
DC: Did you first meet H.G. Lewis at that Baltimore showing?
JW: No, the first time I met him was when I interviewed him for Shock Value. Later, we stayed friends. I had lunch with Herschell in the last half-year before he died in Florida. We were kindred spirits in a way. We just talked about censorship and exhibition and how he always had to fight to get paid. He was great company. If it hadn’t been for Herschell Gordon Lewis we wouldn’t have had Spielberg’s opening of Saving Ryan…I always say Saving Ryan’s Privates the porn title, but what was it called? Saving Private Ryan!
DC: Getting back to Cecil B. Demented, since you’re doing the 20th anniversary for Salem Horror Fest, does it feel historically epic to you at all to have a film of yours in the year 2000? There aren’t a lot of filmmakers that have a turn of the century credit.
JW: Yeah, I forgot that that was even the year it came out. I enjoyed watching it because, for one thing, it shows every theater in Baltimore that’s no longer there. So, historically, I love seeing that and the inside of the different theaters that we’ll never see again. All those theaters are closed or gone or turned into churches. Bengies Drive-In is probably the only one that’s still open and very successful actually. But after spending a week there all night every night to shoot I don’t think I’ve ever been back there.
DC: Do you have any memorabilia from the film? I remember you having a pubic hair cross and all of this strange stuff. I was just wondering what’s the craziest thing you have in your collection?
JW: You know, everything of that…is all in my film archive at Wesleyan University so everything’s there. The only stuff I have here is posters and magnets and all the stuff that was sort of based on different radical memorabilia from the sixties. I was on the cover of that magazine Mean and sitting in that Huey Newton chair. But props from the movie, I’m trying to think…if I do there at Wesleyan.
DC: I read that you thought that Cecil B. Demented was your most underrated film. It must be especially rewarding for it to be getting the anniversary treatment.
JW: Will it is and just like all of them now. They keep coming back and they keep getting re-released and young people discover them again. The one thing with ’em, even if they did poorly or well when they first came out, is really no guarantee of how they’re going to be remembered in 15 or 20 years. Or, most importantly, if they’re remembered at all because movies aren’t remembered at all.
DC: The Teamsters scene where they’re playing cards during the shoot for Gump Again, that really resonated with me. I’ve been on some New York film sets before. What’s your experience with unions on film sets?
JW: Once I used them, they were great to me. Even the Teamsters that we had in Baltimore, we had special ones that always did my movies, I guess the crazy Teamsters? The head of the Teamsters in Baltimore for movies, his wife was my first and, not last but almost, girlfriend in sixth grade! I know, it was really bizarre that that happened. The Writer’s Guild gave me a Lifetime Achievement Award and I have a great pension from them and the Director’s Guild, too. I have no complaints whatsoever about unions. I was terrified of them when I started because I don’t think when I started they even had these low budget deals or anything.
DC: You always had a lot of the same crew on your films.
JW: Yes, very much. Dave Insley shot lots of them, remember. Vincent Peranio did, from Multiple Maniacs on, did all the production design. Yes, I did have a lot of the same people.
DC: With the 20th anniversary of Demented, has that made anyone from the film reach out to you?
JW: I always talk to Stephen [Dorff] on his birthday. I haven’t seen Melanie [Griffith] in a while, usually I do. I run into Michael Shannon every once in a while and Adrian Grenier, Patricia Hearst and I are still friends. Yes, I’m still in touch with them. Has anybody because of the 20th anniversary resurfaced? No, because we haven’t had a public event yet because of all this virus ruined everything.
DC: Do you think it’s the best cast you’ve ever had? It’s such a good mix of the A-list and then the Dreamlanders.
JW: Serial Mom is pretty good, too. I always got along with all my cast, even the stars I worked with always got along with the Dreamland people. There was never any weirdness about that. I think I ran fairly happy sets.
DC: You’ve had a legendary career.
JW: Well, I don’t know about that.
DC: Are there any ideas you wanted to get made into a movie that never wound up happening?
JW: Oh sure! I’ve got Fruitcake and I’m still working on that might happen. So, I would say that would be the biggest one that I’m still going to get made, hopefully.