Classic Interview: John Waters

John Waters

John Waters is at the Royal Festival Hall on November 11, 2014. Details hereThe “Pope of Trash” talks about his life, films and philosophy in this interview, first published in The Times in 2008. 

John Waters is the ultimate cult film director. The “Pope of Trash” made his name with the shoestring exploitation shockers Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, starring his late muse, drag performer Divine. His movie Hairspray was turned into a screen and stage musical. Waters is now touring with a new solo show, the sequel to This Filthy World, which he was touring when I interviewed him in 2008.


Do you feel you have played a large part in bringing camp in from the cold, moving it to the mainstream with hits such as Hairspray?

Firstly, let me be precise. Please don’t say camp culture. That sounds like a 90-year-old man working in an antique shop talking about Rita Hayworth in 1968. Don’t even say trash. Filth is the only word that has an edge any more. I don’t think I’ve changed though. Hairspray was a family film by accident. My last film, A Dirty Shame, was about sex addicts. If I ever did anything subversive it was not Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, it was Hairspray. I’ve been to see it onstage and I’ve been sitting there between two families watching two men kissing each other and nobody seems to object. It’s my most political work. A fat girl stands for every kind of outsider there is. And straight people are suddenly rooting for the people that don’t fit in.


Did you always feel like an outsider?

For me to be embraced by the mainstream is the ultimate ridi-culousness. Everyone thinks they are an outsider now; I’m proud to be an insider. I still live in Baltimore, but I have apartments in New York, San Francisco and Provincetown, so my filth empire has expanded.

In the beginning, my audience was all the minorities that didn’t fit in with their own minorities. I like to remember when gay people were outlaws. I remember when we went to riots like kids today go to raves. Nothing makes me angry any more, but that’s a good thing. There’s nothing more depressing than a 62-year-old angry man. If you haven’t worked out your anger by over 30 you start to turn to bitterness.


You sound as though you didn’t have much in common with straight or gay culture?

I do better in a straight bar because there are always one or two lunatic gay people in a straight bar and they’re the type I like. I’m the only gay man you’ll ever meet who never went to the gym or the baths. And not for moral reasons. To be honest, me in a towel is not how I get laid.


Which film-makers do you admire?

I loved Derek Jarman. Tilda Swinton was his Divine. Tilda did the most radical fashion thing in the history of Hollywood, accepting her Oscar for Michael Clayton wearing no make-up. That was what I call terrorism. It even shocked me.


Looking at the work of, say, the Farrelly brothers, you’ve clearly had a big influence on film-makers.

Middle-class rich kids have always stolen ideas. I’m proud to be a filth elder. Although what’s frightening is signing autographs for eight-year-olds. When I was young the parents used to punish their kids for liking my movies, but those parents are all dead.


You are making a children’s Christmas movie called Fruitcake. This sounds like the weirdest Waters idea yet.

I’ve never made a children’s movie - unless they all are in a way. I’m not trying to shock people, I’m trying to make them laugh.


You created Warhol-type stars with characters such as Divine. How do you feel about the cult of celebrity?

I don’t watch television but I get 160 magazines a month so I know what’s going on.

I don’t know David Beckham but I know who he is through his Armani ads. His wife always looks like she’s just smelt something. I guess I’m more interested in him than her. He looks great naked. Anybody would think he’s cute. Straight men look at him and think “Christ, if I had to do it I guess it would be with him.” You know what? Everybody’s heteroflexible these days.


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