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An Interview with Mr. John Waters

Mr. John Waters is not your usual, family friendly director.  On the contrary, Mr. Waters has decidedly earned nicknames such as the ‘Pope of Trash’ and the ‘Prince of Puke’.  For the past couple of decades, he has produced numerous and diverse films ranging from his infamous ‘Pink Flamingos’ to the decidedly more mainstream ‘Hairspray’.  And along the way he has infuriated, disgusted and intrigued global audiences.  Given his extensive and influential career, the British Film Institute will honour Mr. Waters with a 50-year retrospective this coming September.  Entitled ‘It isn’t Very Pretty… The Complete Films of John Waters (Every Goddam One of Them…)’, the retrospective will feature Mr. Waters’ earliest films (such as ‘Hag in a Black Leather Jacket’) that are not currently commercially distributed.  Furthermore, he will simultaneously present his favourite British films in an exhibit called ‘Teabaggin’ in the Kitchen Sink: My Favourite British Films’.  The Hippo Collective recently had the pleasure and honour of speaking with Mr. Waters about the BFI retrospective, Donald Trump and ‘the underground’.  Enjoy!

THC: My first question regards the BFI retrospective that will be held for you in London this coming September.  What is the personal significance of this honor?

JW: Are you kidding? It’s like my British funeral in the best sense of the word.  I get to hear people saying nice stuff about my movies and still be alive. So I am thrilled you know?  I am also getting to curate a show on the side of my favorite British movies.  So I am really honored!  It is about the closest I’ll get to really- you know I don’t get honored a lot! I don’t get a lot of prizes, so this is a great thrill.

THC: I’m glad to hear that.  So does this mean that you have finally become an ‘insider’?

JW: Yeah, I think I have been an insider for a while.  Last year I also had a retrospective at Lincoln Center with the Film Society of New York.  The ultimate irony is that I am finally an insider.  I want to be that now because everybody wants to be an ‘outsider’.  When I was young, the word ‘outsider’ was an insult.  Now everybody thinks they’re an ‘outsider’.  They take pride in being different when everybody is the same.  So I want to be an insider!

THC: I assume you find great personal satisfaction in knowing that audiences will witness your debauchery.  For example, the scene in which Divine eats animal feces on camera.

JW: Well, you know that’s a scene that no matter what I think- I don’t think that ‘Pink Flamingos’ was my best movie- I realize that it will be in the first paragraph of obituary. No matter what I do for the rest of my life.

I am proud of the fact that it continues to startle a new generation every year.  Pretty soon, in a couple of years, I’m going to be able to say that my most recent audience wasn’t even born when I made my last movie.  So I’ve been doing this for a long time.  It is exciting to see that it is not getting to be old hat.  That new generations of kids see it and still it speaks to the inner rebel in them all. 

THC: I wanted to ask you why you think that audience members are interested in seeing Divine perform such acts.

JW: Well I think because it startles them.  It’s a pothead job basically.  I think in the same way that they like Johnny Knoxville’s ‘Jackass’, it was stunt but at the same time people can’t believe that it’s real!  When it is real, there are no cuts or anything.  But I think it’s anarchy.  It’s the appeal of anarchy because it’s Divine, he is someone who weighs a lot, that you don’t see in a skintight dress, it’s somebody that’s doing drag before any political correctness of transgender.  Divine had absolutely no desire to be a woman.  He called them ‘work clothes’ and he never dressed in drag in his regular life.  I would say he didn’t want to pass as a woman, he wanted to pass as a monster.

John Waters

Photo: Greg Gorman

THC: Speaking of all the filth and depravity, you had an interview in 2011 with a website called ‘Big Think’.  You were asked to speak on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Salὸ’ and Kenneth Anger’s ‘Fireworks’ and to list some movies you considered to be obscene.  Could you come up with a couple of movies in recent history that have managed to express the same moral degradation and obscenity in such a powerful manner?

JW: Well, I think ‘Irreversible’ by Gasper Noé is a movie that will continue to startle.  I think it’s a beautifully made movie, a really good movie.  I mean it’s a shocker!  I think ‘Antichrist’ by Lars von Trier is definitely a shocker.  I’m a big fan of all of Lars von Trier’s movies.  I think Ulrich Seidl can make some really shocking movies.  But then at the same time I recently thought Bruce LaBruce’s ‘Gerontophilia’ which was a touching, really love story which is the only romantic comedy I’ve ever liked.

THC: Do you think that when artists try to interpret the themes of filth or depravity and they do not have much to say, they fall into a trap and shock just to shock?

JW:  Well if you think someone’s trying too hard, that’s the worst thing they can do.  To me, it’s just desperate, never funny and never witty.  It’s kind of really old hat because just being shocking isn’t enough.  It has to change how you think about something.  It has to startle you.  It has to make you look at something and reconsider whether you’re right.  That’s the whole point.  I mean, I wrote a book called ‘Shock Value’ but I remember when I was in grade school and in composition class, the teacher taught us that word.  He said ‘it’s where you just say one outrageous thing to capture people’s attention’ and that’s politics, isn’t it?  That how you change peoples’ opinions.  I guess I paid attention too much to that one particular lesson. 

THC:  Speaking of politics, do you think that Donald Trump embodies the idea of shock value?

JW: No, to me Donald Trump- I won’t even rise to the bait.  He doesn’t even piss me off.  It’s just too easy, nothing about it is interesting.  Even the stupidest things he says [aren’t interesting].  The fact that he’s now leading, well that just goes to show!  I hope [the Republicans] pick him because then the Democrats will win.  I just don’t care about him.  I just feel like he’s not even evil enough to be fun. 

THC: Just a talking head?

JW: He’s just stupid.  To me, stupid is never that entertaining.  You can be stupid and sexy, stupid and funny but he’s just plain stupid.  That is not remarkable, that’s what I mean.  I’m surely not going to vote for him.  But am I pissed off about him, no!  I don’t think he’s smart enough to get me pissed off.  Or dangerous enough.  I don’t think he’s dangerous.  If he was, he’d be interesting.

THC: I was recently reading your book ‘Role Models’ and one of the features that caught my attention was your list: ‘John Water’s Five Books You Should Read to Live a Happy Life if Something is Basically the Matter with You.’  Would you mind providing an abridged version with a few new titles?

JW: Some updated ones?  Let me think.  I’m a big, big fan of Elena Ferrante, the Italian writer.  I think she is great.  I’m a fan of David Gates.  I’m reading right now a great novel called ‘The Son’ [by Philipp Meyer] about Texas and it’s shocking and beautifully written.  There are three right there that I really like!  I’m also a fan of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle’.  I can’t wait for the translators to finish up the latest copy.  Those lazy translators!

THC: We spoke about the retrospective that examines your past, what are your upcoming plans or projects?

JW: You know I have an art show [at the Sprüth Mager’s gallery] that is going on in London right now.  There might be television project and if that doesn’t happen I’ll write my next book.  Then there’s the ‘John Waters’ Christmas Tour’.  I have twenty cities coming up in December.  I’m coming to London for the British Film Institute and then I’m going to Switzerland where I’m having a museum show after that.  So I’m busy!

THC: Through your books, it appears that you are a big art collector.  Tell us about that interest.

JW: Well, I’m a modest art collector.  I’m not out buying $40 million paintings that you read about in the papers but yes, I am an art collector.  I bought a Pasolini drawing that I’ve been searching for forever.  That was really exciting. 

THC: Is this art path more your ‘thing’ now?

JW: No, nothing’s more my thing.  I think that there are different ways I tell stories.  The art thing is something I’ve been doing since the early nineties really.  So I’ve [been collecting and curating] for a long time.  There are about three art books of mine out about my work.  I’ve been an art collector since the sixties.  So none of it’s new, the only thing new is that I haven’t changed and nobody gets mad.  Which is good, they shouldn’t get mad cause I was never mean.

THC: How would you describe ‘good’ art?

JW: I think if you look back, Andy Warhol put abstract expressionists out of business over night.  There was a perfect example. 

[Art] has to at first get you. You think ‘oh wait a minute here!’ and then you realize ‘oh this is great and so smart!’ That’s the thing, it’s a double edged [question].  You have to push somebody over a limit to something they haven’t accepted before and I think that’s what the artist’s job is. 

THC:  Do you think that is an internal or non-objective process or can you build guidelines or rules on how to determine which art is ‘good’ or not? 

JW:  I don’t think you can plan it.  The work just has to come naturally; it has to be what you’re interested in. 

THC:  What advice would you offer to other artists who are just starting out? 

If you want to be an artist, go to every art gallery, if you want to be in movies, see movies!

JW:  If you want to be an artist, go to every art gallery, if you want to be in movies, see movies! You have to participate in whichever world you’re trying to enter!  You have to know what’s going on.  You can be the best artist in the world but if you don’t know one thing about which gallery to go to, you’re never going to get it shown in the right place.  Learn a little bit about the business of whichever art you’re trying to get into.  Without it, you will be lost. 

THC:  You just spoke about Warhol and you’ve said that he has had a great influence on your work.  Earlier in the interview you spoke about being labeled as an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’.  Now that so many modern artists seek to be labeled as ‘underground’ because it’s hip, do you think this process detracts meaning and importance from those artists whom are truly ‘underground’? 

JW:  No, not really.  If you think about it, when Andy died his career was at the lowest it had ever been.  He was out of favor critically and the stuff wasn’t selling.  But today Andy would be very thrilled to see this.  For me, I think that if you’re just going in it to make money, it’s never going to work.  If you just buy art and sell it, it’s never going to work.  It’s about a passion that you have to have.  It’s almost like being a junkie, you have to ‘have to buy art’.  You have to do it! 

So to make movies, if you’re first goal is to make money, well you can!  Make a tent-pole movie that China wants.  But that’s not the kind of thing that’s really going to get your remembered.  You’re not going to change anything with that.  You might become rich from it!  [One of] the saddest things that happens is that a filmmaker will make one movie and it’s pretty good. [The movie] becomes an art hit and then Hollywood will come and offer him like $50 million.  He’ll go make a terrible, big budget film which they control and then your whole career is over.  That’s what you have to avoid. 

THC: Well, that is our time for today.  Personally and on behalf of The Hippo Collective, I would like to thank you and wish you a pleasant evening.  Best of luck with the upcoming show!

JW: Bye bye.

The Hippo Collective would like to thank Mr. John Waters for his time and participation.  If you are down in London this fall (and if not be there), stop by to see his retrospective.  ‘It isn’t Very Pretty…The Complete Films of John Waters (Every Goddam One of Them…)’ runs at BFI Southbank from 1 September until 6 October.  Further information is available on the British Film Institute’s website: www.bfi.org.uk/whatson.  In preparation, check out Mr. Waters’ films and books (I recommend reading ‘Role Models’).  We hope that you have enjoyed this interview as much as we have!  Thank you for reading.

Featured Image: Michael Ginsburg

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