From the January, 1987 issue of High Times comes John Howell’s interview with the duke of depravity, John Waters. In honor of the pope of perversity’s 75th birthday on April 22, we’re republishing it below.
John Waters: The Duke of Depravity and the Baron of Bad Taste
“I’ve always wanted to sell out. The problem is no one wanted to buy me.”
“I can’t help it, I enjoy the company of murderers, rapists, and child molesters.”
These and many more provocative opinions are tossed off by cult film director John Waters in his new book, Crackpot, a collection of essays on Waters’ favorite pleasures and pet hates. Like its author, the book is bound to be controversial. Like Pia Zadora, about whom Waters writes, “indifference is hard to imagine,” you’ll either love it or hate it. But strong feelings are always applause to Waters’ ears; he enjoys outraging middle-class moralists as much as (or even more) than praise for his wicked humor.
Some call John Waters’ movies camp fun. Others dismiss them as disgusting filth. Many claim that they are the most brilliant social satires ever put on film. But all film fanatics would agree that his works demand a strong reaction. Since the ’60s, the author/director/producer has turned out a series of startling features which have redefined the term “bizarre” in film: Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, Polyester, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living.
Working with a group of offbeat performers in his hometown of Baltimore (“Bouffant hair-do capital of the world”), Waters’ cheaply made flicks have included scenes of twisted sex, weird acts, and wacked-out plots, all shot through with the savage humor with which Waters parodies the “normal” world. In a finale that took exploitation movies beyond the valley of any kind of taste, the star of Pink Flamingos, a hefty transvestite named Divine, chowed down on some doggie doo, setting a new standard for “shock value,” one of Waters’ most cherished principles and the title of his first book.
Now John Waters has committed a second book, a series of hilarious forays into the underbelly of American culture on subjects like Los Angeles, Joey Heatherton, the National Enquirer, and Christmas—all of which Waters loves. Crackpot is written in a precise prose that oozes with sarcastic venom, and which is occasionally, unexpectedly, touching.
The perpetrator of these celluloid and literary “crimes” arrived at the High Times offices wearing a crew neck sweater and jeans, and asking for a cup of hot tea. He looked and acted not at all like the John Waters of his book jacket photograph, a mock George Hurrell portrait in noirish black and white in which he adopts a Truman Capote-cum-Peter Lorre dressed-to-kill pose.
But this mild-mannered disguise is a convenient cover from which Waters wages war on middle-class mores, talking about the typical Waters subjects explored in Crackpot: drugs, Hollywood, repression, murderers, Catholic sex.
High Times: So here you are with a new book called Crackpot—is it all about the two drugs? [laughter]
John Waters: I hadn’t thought about that connection. I’m afraid people are going to think that this book is about me saying no to drugs when it’s really about me saying yes to lunacy. Crack is the first drug that I haven’t tried— and I don’t want to. I’m really down on all drugs. I don’t think people who smoke pot should be arrested, but I think pot makes you satisfied with less in life. I smoked pot every day for years, then got tired of it.
HT: Ken Kesey talked about not having to keep taking acid any more after certain changes had taken place in the mind.
JW: I can’t imagine taking LSD now. I may sound like some old hippie, but I think the big difference is that when we took drugs in the ’60s, the spirit was to learn and think more. Now, it’s to think less, to just blot yourself out. Then, it was political, something was changing because of it. Now, nothing changes. Then, it was an adventure. But I don’t need any more inner journeys at 40. I know myself well enough.
HT: Did you ever have a bad experience with acid?
JW: Never. But I know people who are dead from drugs. Yet I did acid for many years, and I can remember very good things happening. I used to take acid and think, “These movies could really work.” It made me ambitious at the time.
HT: And now you’re a success. There’s even been an official John Waters Day in your home town, Baltimore. How do you feel about being recognized by the general public, about the times catching up with you?
JW: Crackpot is even an alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club! It’s very ironic. I think it would be very hard if I was 40 and still being hassled all the time. But I don’t think I’ve changed. I think the sense of humor in Crackpot is the same as it is in the earliest movies. It’s changed a little—I hope it’s more subtle because I don’t think there’s anything more ridiculous than a 40 year old rebel. But the recognition feels good.
HT: We haven’t seen a Waters film since Polyester around 1981. Why?
JW: Well, I’ve been trying. I tried to make the sequel to Pink Flamingoes, but no one would give me any money. They all said it was too extreme.
HT: You’ve also been trying to get backing for a film of The Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy O’Toole’s comic novel.
JW: That is the only book I ever read that I wanted to film. What happened, which is in Crackpot, was the most disastrous Hollywood meeting ever. I left the producer, who was very nice, a copy of my first book, Shock Value, and in it is a picture of myself and a murderer. I found out later that the producer was the lawyer for the best friend of the person murdered by this guy. So it wasn’t the best resume to leave.
HT: Are you planning a new film?
JW: It’s a musical, something I’ve never done before, about white trash kids, their hillbilly parents, and their quest together for mental health. For a cast, I want Divine, Pia Zadora, and Joey Heatherton—if she calms down. We’ll shoot this spring.
HT: Do you think ’50s style taboos and conformity are back?
JW: When I go to college campuses, it’s a lot like the ’50s. But I do best in repression. When anybody tries to stop you, it helps. Look at Playboy, they finally made it controversial.
HT: Do you think Crackpot is shocking?
JW: I don’t think I’m supposed to shock. I think I make people laugh at things that aren’t funny in real life but can be funny in a movie or a book as long as they don’t happen to you. I don’t think people keep expecting me to top eating shit. My goal is to slip my most pernicious ideas into the most mainstream products. In Crackpot, the editors encouraged me to be as berserk as I wanted.
HT: Do the same things still obsess you? How have your obsessions changed? For example, in Shock Value, you wrote about attending murder trials. In Crackpot, you describe teaching film courses in prison.
JW: It’s progressed even further now, to try and get some prisoners out. I’m not so much interested any more about the crime, I’ve gone beyond that. I’m interested in people ten, twenty years after they’ve done something really hideous, when they’re better, because it’s a very difficult position to be in. That’s what fascinates me. I’m not interested in career criminals, but in crime that involves something psychological that I can’t imagine.
HT: You’ve also written scripts and done improvisation sessions with inmates.
JW: We’ve even made a video called Rotten Apples which the prisoners and I wrote together. They have some good ideas. This prison really works—it has the lowest recividism rate in the country.
HT: When you write about the scandal and Catholic condemnation of Jean Luc Godard’s Hail Mary movie, you mention that you wish an intelligent Catholic like Flannery O’Connor were around to explain the whole thing. Are you surprised that blasphemy still riles people up today?
JW: I think intelligent Catholics, and I certainly believe there are some, are embarrassed by this kind of behavior. Sacrilege may be the only way left to get a reaction out of people. Sex and violence are old hat and besides, Hollywood does them. I did the rosary job in Multiple Maniacs years ago and people went insane. But I thought, “I’m a Catholic, I can make jokes about it.” I’m not sorry I was raised Catholic because sex will always be better because it’s dirtier.