John Waters talks (and talks) about his subversive career

[8 November 2007]

By Colin Covert

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Known at the beginning of his career as “The King of Sleaze,” “The Prince of Puke” and “The Pope of Trash,” provocative indie filmmaker John Waters has wormed his way into America’s heart. His film “Hairspray” was reworked as a Broadway hit and this summer was adapted into a popular mainstream musical starring John Travolta in drag. His ode to juvenile delinquency, “Cry-Baby,” is about to open in tryouts.

Waters recently talked about his career and obsessions, answering questions that could be gotten in edgewise.

It’s been your job for about the last 40 years to think up shocking ideas, and _
No, no, no, I’ll stop you on that one. I don’t agree with shocking. If I was just trying to be shocking my career would have stopped in 1972. I never tried to top it. I tried to surprise you and make you laugh at things that aren’t safe to laugh at. It’s easy to shock. It’s harder to surprise people and make `em laugh.

Is transgressive a better _
That’s a little highfalutin’. I like surprise better than shock because I never really just tried to do that. That’s easy. If I was trying to do that, I would have made “Faces of Death.” I was trying to surprise you with what can be funny and what humor is, and startle you and make fun of what you hold dear, especially liberals, because I am one. And that was my audience. I’ve never really been attacked by the right wing. They gave up on me a long time ago.

Anyway, surprising ideas. The question then is, does it get harder _
No, every day I’m inspired by things. I live in Baltimore, that always inspires me. I don’t find it hard. If you’re struggling to find something then it’s never going to be funny. Things happen to me in my daily life that’s funny every day. I was in a bar in Baltimore and I asked a guy what he did for a living. He said, `Can I be frank? I trade deer meat for crack.’ I can’t think that up. I could think of three movies about him. I mean, does he wait at a deer crossing sign and gun it when he needed a fix? It takes a while to get deer meat so you have to plan ahead, which isn’t what most junkies do. Little things like that, anything can inspire me. I base everything on regular people who think they’re completely normal and their behavior seems entirely insane to me.

A couple weeks ago we had a case of somebody seeming normal but behaving oddly _
Oh, at the airport! I hear that airport is becoming a big tourist attraction. I want to make a movie about it. “The Last Stall on the Left.” Sex in a public bathroom? How could you? In every airport bathroom it’s very crowded. Sex makes noise. How would you? The cop was cute, though. I’ll give him that. That little entrapper. Tell him to call me off hours. It’s in the main airport, eh? I have to go there. Do they sell post cards or T-shirts or anything? Which stall was it, do you know?

I wish I had that information. You used to go to criminal trials. Do you still _
No. I can’t. Court TV has made it so common. And now they recognize me. And if they don’t like me, they’ll give the defendant 10 more years. I feel bad. I can’t go unnoticed anymore. And then the press thinks I’m going to make a movie about it. No, it doesn’t work. If I had been invisible, I would have gone to the (American Taliban) Johnny Walker Lindh trial, I would have gone to probably Phil Spector. But I didn’t.

I guess that’s the downside of fame, then?
Yes. You can’t have bad sex in public and you can’t go to murder trials. That’s what you’ve gotta give up.

You’re becoming more respectable than _

A Oh sure! “Lowdown Dirty Shame” got an NC-17, I had huge censorship problems. That’s mainstream?

But what about “Hair _
That’s the most devious thing I ever did. Middle American families are going to “Hairspray” and seeing two men singing a love song. They’re clapping and encouraging their 15-year-olds to date black guys. If I ever did anything perverse, that’s it.

But it’s been very well receiv _
Of course it has, that’s what’s subversive about it! They don’t see. I’m an insider now. I’m the establishment. Isn’t that hilarious? I’ve always wanted to sell out. Nobody would buy me.

And now a “Cry-Baby” musical is going to Broad _
Oh, I’ve seen the whole thing, it’s fabulous! It’s going from Broadway to San Diego. I’m really excited. I’m going there for it. People ask me, “Can lightning strike twice?” I say sure, it hits the Empire State Building once a week. Whether they’re going to make a movie of it, that I don’t know. Why not?

Did you work very closely with “Hairspray’s” director (Adam Shankman)?
I gave him the tour of Baltimore, I wrote a letter to John Travolta to try to talk him into it, so yeah, I was involved from the very beginning. It was certainly their movie and I was very happy with how much respect they paid me with this version. They kept my voice in it and my tone, but they had to reinvent it for it to work. As soon as you stop turning it into something new each time, it dies.

Whose idea was it to have you cameo as a flasher?
Theirs, and they were smart because they asked me right at the beginning. In the first five minutes they said “There he is and he approves,” and I did it before I knew that I did. I got to be the only dirty thing in a PG movie.

What do you think of the current trend of celebrities becoming criminals?
They’re not criminals, they’re just substance abusers. I’m not that interested. I think Lindsay Lohan is a really good actress. Britney Spears? I think they’re being too mean to her. What, they take your kids away because you can’t lip-synch? And then she got new lips, did you see that the other day? She’s so stupid. I mean she went in when the paparazzi were chasing her and came out with those new bee-sting lips. And then the other one, Paris, I’ve never really seen her do anything. Edie Sedgwick I liked best of all and she did nothing. She didn’t even speak in Warhol’s movies. Paris is no Edie Sedgwick. I don’t trust anybody who hasn’t been arrested once. It’s good for growing up.

You’re at work on a children’s film?
I’m hoping to make it. We’ll see if anybody gives me the green light. I’m in the middle of it. It’s a terribly wonderful children’s Christmas adventure called “Fruitcake.” That’s about all I say about it because after you do something you have to talk about it the rest of your life. Before you do it, it’s like a girl saying “I’m almost pregnant.” There’s no such thing.

What was your favorite movie as a kid?
Always “The Wizard of Oz,” because I wanted to be the witch. In “Cinderella” I rooted for the stepmother. I thought she shoulda been home cleanin’. I rooted for the queen in “Snow White,” I rooted for Capt. Hook. Always I was on the wrong side. Which continues.

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