By Tom Reardon, July 2019 Issue.
John Waters is constantly moving.
After reading his latest book, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) and speaking to him over the phone as he relaxed in his Provincetown, Massachusetts, summer home, it becomes clear that this man doesn’t stop moving for long.
And thank the supreme filth elder for that because this world needs John Waters in all his glory.
Waters, now 73, is a “national treasure,” to quote the amazing Alan Cumming from his recent New York Times Book Review of Mr. Know-It-All, and Cumming is completely on point. Waters’ films, which he is best known for, have pushed every possible button of American culture and are admittedly not for everyone. If you are over 25, though, you have probably seen at least one of his movies and once you’re a fan, you’re hooked for life.
Waters tackles everyday life in movies, spoken word performances, and books with a zest for finding the humor in even the worst (and often absurd) situations. A tall, thin man with a mustache drawn on by his beloved black eye-liner, one has to wonder at this point if he looks like a lecherous man or if Waters has just been a champion for lecherous men (and women) for so long that lecherous types just naturally start to look like him. As a “Filth Elder,” Waters has long provided a brand of humor that often pushes the boundaries well past polite society and we love him for it.
His best-known work, Hairspray, turned 31 this year and has seen two different theatrical versions as well as being made into a Broadway play. The film is set in his native Baltimore, Maryland, as are the majority of his films. In fact, in Hairspray (1988), Cry Baby (1990), Serial Mom (1994), and Pecker (1998) you could easily say that Baltimore is almost a character in the films, as well, which brings up a very fun “What if” idea. If Waters had been born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, what would his films have been like?
Unfortunately we’ll probably never know how Waters would have depicted Phoenix on film as he doesn’t seem to be leaning towards writing and directing a movie any time soon, but at least we have his stand up performances and books to lean into when we need a dose of his wry wit and unabashed view of the importance of having fun.
With Mr. Know-It-All, Waters gives the reader his take on a self-help book using stories from his career as well as observational essays on some of the more important aspects of living, dare I say it, a “good” life.
The man is a joy to talk to and those fortunate enough to be at Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix on June 30 are in for a real treat. During the course of our conversation a few weeks back, we touched on many subjects. Here is a portion of that conversation.
Echo: So, you’re back in Provincetown. After reading the delightful chapter in Mr. Know-It-All about Provincetown, I can understand why you are happy to be there.
Waters: This is my 55th summer here, which is shocking when I say that out loud, but yes, it is good. I got here … what is today? Today’s Tuesday. I got here Sunday night and I was in so many cities for different things. It was great to finally land in one place.
Echo: Do you get to spend a little bit of time before you must leave again?
Waters: Well, I live here all summer. I’m going to host this big punk rock festival in Oakland (California) that I do every year called Burger Boogaloo around July 4th then I’m going to the Locarno Film Festival (in Locarno, Switzerland) where I’m getting honored in August and then I go to San Francisco for a bit in my apartment. But yes, I’m based here for the summer and I’m all set up. I got right back to writing today, so I’m back in my “no vacation.”
Echo: Yeah, I appreciated your thoughts in your book on not taking a vacation.
Waters: Well, I mean, I do go to the beach every day. It’ll be probably empty this year because there are so many shark warnings at all the beaches here. (laughs) But I figured, “Oh God, if I can get through this far in life, I’m not worried about just getting bit by a shark.” The odds are pretty slim, but what a way to go?
Echo: Wouldn’t it be, though? Have you ever had any kind of near shark experiences?
Waters: No, but where I swim, seals come up right next to you. So that’s enough to give some people pause because sharks eat seals, but sharks don’t … I mean, humans are the last thing they want to eat. There is not enough meat on us, you know? And even though Cooking Light magazine has gone out of business, my favorite, I’m not that fat yet.
Echo: Yeah. I remember that part of the book as well, where you wrote about how much you enjoyed all the recipes from Cooking Light. It’s like a self-help book, Mr. Know-It-All. What made you want to write a book like this?
Waters: It is because I wrote another book called Role Models, which was about all the people that helped me by giving an example to make me believe that I can become what I want it to be. So, after 50 years of doing this, I thought, “Well, I’ve learned something too that I’d like to pass on.”
And it’s a humorous book, too, but I believe in everything that I recommend you do. Uh, (pauses) but at the same time it, I used a self-help book to satirize that genre to be able to tell all my stories that I wanted to tell. I don’t know that I have a story left after this. Well, I do … This Filthy World (Waters’ stand up show) is all different and contains stories that aren’t in the book.
Echo: I would be surprised if you don’t have stories left to tell.
Waters: Oh, I do, I do. I’m writing a novel now so that’s a whole different story. But, yes, I, but I did tell a lot of stories in this book. There’s a lot of information in this book.
Echo: It is chock full of information. I have two pages of notes of things I wanted to talk to you about and that’s with small scribbled writing.
Waters: Tiny, stop me before I kill again writing?
Echo: Yes. Stop me before I kill again. I don’t want you to be nervous, but I think we’re going to put you on the cover.
Waters: Why would that make me nervous? (Laughs)
Echo: I’m pretty sure you’ve been on the cover of magazine covers before.
Waters: It’s always funny when you’re (pauses), the only time that it really surprised me and I felt like Diana Ross in Mahogany, there is a great scene in that movie where she’s just walking down the street and she says (doing an impersonation of Diana Ross that only Waters could do), “Oh, I’m on the cover of vogue,” like she didn’t know that was going to happen, which always really makes me laugh.
Echo: There are so many things in the book that explain so much, at least for me as a fan of yours, where some of your influences came from.
Waters: It does tell lots in there. I mean, it’s a pretty honest book. I think I talk about a lot of personal stuff and also, you know, Shock Value (Waters book from 1981) went up to the making of (1981 Waters film) Polyester, so I wanted to continue and do chapters on the movies, but more in hindsight about what I learned about failure and success in Hollywood and independent films and how to negotiate your way through it all.
Echo: There’s a part — I think it’s the beginning of the second chapter — where you talk about being mildly annoyed when people would ask you if you ever thought you would make Hollywood films. Did you ever think you’d be making them?
Waters: Always. I always wanted to be making them. The thing was, did I think when I first made Hag In A Black Leather Jacket (1964) was I thinking about making Hollywood movies. No, but I didn’t think I couldn’t, or I didn’t ever think I wouldn’t. I mean, I read Variety (magazine) when I was really young, so I knew about the business end of it, too. And I used to pretend I owned a sexploitation theater as a kid and had scrapbooks of all the ads that I wanted to run and everything. So, I was lucky I knew what I wanted to do really, really early and my parents hated what I wanted to do, but they also respected that I was doing it already and figured, I think, what else was I going to do. I think they felt they better encourage the one interest I had.
Echo: Were you ever concerned about where the audience would come from?
Waters: Yeah, sure I worried about my career. When Desperate Living (1977) came out, it really failed. Video had just come out, so I knew that there weren’t really midnight movies or anything anymore. So, I was always worried about my career, yeah, but there was always an audience. What is kind of amazing about my films is that there continues to be one of all young people that weren’t even born, pretty soon, when I made my last movie, much less my first one. They keep getting rereleased on Criterion. They play on television, they play all over the world, so they keep coming back like the living dead. So, I’m proud of that. But some of them, Female Trouble (1974) was not at all a hit when it came out and today it’s probably the most liked of all the Divine movies.
Serial Mom was not a hit when it came out, and I think it’s my best movie, and today it plays with much more enthusiasm to audiences and shows on television every Mother’s Day. It’s always playing on Mother’s Day. So, I think in hindsight, you know, I had dinner with Kathleen Turner last night, she was in Provincetown, and we had a great time, but that movie, people now think of it as a success, but it was not a financial success when it came out. I think over the years it’s done all right, but initially they always tried to go too wide, try to make it too commercial or not commercial enough and who knows?
And I went through all that and that’s why I don’t say anything really bad about the studio executives when they gave me trouble because I signed the check. That’s what comes with it when they pay you a lot of money in Hollywood. A lot of people have stuff to say and they didn’t make money. So, their viewpoint, they were right. The only difference is what they wanted me to do with never worked and would have made the people that liked it dislike it, too.
Echo: Sure. So, I was so happy to read the chapter about Serial Mom because that’s my favorite of yours and my mother’s, too, we went to see it twice in the theater because we were laughing so hard the first time we went.
Waters: Oh, that’s great. Thank you. I’m happy for that. I think everybody’s good in it. It’s the only movie we had enough money, basically, we had $13 million to make that movie. So, it is my best movie. I think, to me. they’re all the same, you know? I mean, I like them all because I wrote them. I made them up, you know, and I’m always kind of amazed that one does way better than the other ones. To me they seem like they should all do the same.
Echo: I felt like some of the chapters were you telling me about a movie you’d like to make.
Waters: Well some of them I do describe the movies I wanted to make. The ones that never got made, you know? But yes, certainly the chapters about the dream brutalist house and Gristle the restaurant … all those are character studies, certainly. I’m just trying to get my enthusiasm over to you, so you also can see foodie restaurants in a different way or brutalism, which was once so hated and despised and is now liked by the very cool, which distresses me because I wanted to be the only person to like it.
Echo: How did you get involved with Burger Boogaloo (music festival in Oakland in July)?
Waters: I have an agent who is in the music business. I mean I played Coachella, Bonnaroo, Fun Fun Fun … I’ve played a lot of festivals. I think it probably came from that. Also, I’ve always liked the punk community. I talk about it in the book. It was always a good look for nontraditional women and down low gay boys. I think I always kind of just liked that world. So, I did it the first year and it went over well and, this is my fifth year, I think. I don’t remember. I have to write all the instructions for all the acts as they come out and, I say, “I’m Bob Hope on dope.”
They are my people. I feel when I’m there I’m with my people, my tribe. I’m always trying to do a stunt for my street cred. I hitchhiked across America when I was 66 and for this book, I took LSD.
Echo: That brings me to another note that I have written down here. There are parts of the book where I felt like you were writing, you know, about how to have fun, as well as writing, almost to yourself, how to remind you to be you.
Waters: Well you do. You have to, every once in a while, take a chance. I always say that if anybody ever says, “Oh, my generation had more fun than we’re having now” that just means you’re an old fart. They’re having just as much fun as you are in a different way with a different kind of rebellion and that’s something you always have to realize and investigate.
Visit echomag.com/john-waters-2019 for an extended version of the interview.